atomic weapons

“What would you say in your last few moments?” Listening to Cold War Anxiety in 2018

Nuclear War. Nuclear Weapons.

They are in the news everywhere at the moment. How does this change how we can understand nuclear anxiety as a historical emotion? How can we understand and untangle an emotional response which isn’t just experienced in the past, within the context of the Cold War? When an emotion transcends time, should we treat it differently? How can we unpick the emotions which were felt in the past and are also being felt right now in the present?

Arguably, nuclear anxiety isn’t just an Cold War experience. It has become something we experience now, in the present. How can we understand something that is not only remembered in the past, but experienced in the present?

Just as it was during the Cold War, nuclear anxieties and fears have once again appeared in popular culture, and public news and concern. The popular press, across the world is reporting speculations about nuclear war, how to cope and survive nuclear war, even using 1980’s British government advice from Protect and Survive. The BBC even published a game for children in 2016 titled how to survive a nuclear bomb. Just as it was in the 1980s, we are once again seeing ‘World War Three’ pasted across headlines of newspapers across the world. I mean just look at these headlines from the last two years:

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So could we argue that we are seeing a ‘second wave’ of nuclear culture? Perhaps. In the past 5 years or so, nuclear weapons have not only appeared in our news, but in our culture in new and invasive ways that simply didn’t exist in the Cold War. Film are using nuclear technology as plot devices, such as the horror movie Chernobyl Diaries. Or the 2018 action film, Mission Impossible: Fallout. The recent fame and popularity of Marvel movies have also brought nuclear and radiation themes back into public culture, you know like nuclear weapon themes in Captain America, Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk through radiation. I know these things have been around for years, but the sheer popularity and success of the Marvel Cinematic universe have brought this back into public discourse. Even one of their more recent films, Black Panther – and this isn’t a spoiler if you haven’t seen it yet, but in the beginning of the film they tell a story about the chaos of mankind, and there is the image of a mushroom cloud as these words are said. It is also interesting to note the framing of the mushroom cloud. The camera first looks towards a slave ship and then turns to a battle, showing tanks and warfare. In the background, the mushroom cloud appears, framing the overlooking the scene of battle.

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Gaming is another modern media in which nuclear weapons are appearing in public discourses, games like Fallout 4 ,Wolfenstein, and FarCry 5 use nuclear weapons and their destructive power as key plot points. And just to really stress exactly how many more people are becoming worried about nuclear weapons, here we can see a graph for ‘hits’ on a website called NUKEMAP. So NUKEMAP is a website which lets you ‘drop bombs’ on places and see what would happen. The creator Alex Wellerstein tweeted that he usually sees spikes in people using the site, but last year, people were consistently using it. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people were clicking on it every day.

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Twitter is of course another platform that simply didn’t exist in the Cold War that exists now and is used to express and also causes nuclear anxiety. So, as I’m sure most of you know, the President of America likes to tweet, and he often tweets about nuclear war, and America’s nuclear capability. In 2018, instead of talking about a ‘nuclear button’ we now talk about a ‘nuclear tweet’ which will result in World War Three.

Another way in which nuclear anxiety is expressed in 2018 which didn’t exist in the Cold War, are memes. So, for those of you who don’t know, memes are images usually with text which tell a joke, usually satire and these go vital and appear all over the internet and social media. Here we see people dealing with anxiety using humour. Or at the very least people are using the internet to communicate emotional responses to nuclear weapons.

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But why does this matter to researchers?

Well, oral histories try as they might don’t just research the memories and the pasts of people, they also gain an insight into the present self of that particular person. Our memories, stories, and pasts are forged by the people we are today, and of course also influenced by what we see in the news, popular culture, and online. With hindsight, we are able to look back upon our memories and reconstruct them within what we are currently feeling. Thus, when we research nuclear anxiety, an emotion that was experienced and is being experienced, we are not only looking at the past, but also the past-in-the-present, within the present self.

We need to consider these cultural shifts that are happening, as this may alter the ways in which people talk about and remember the Cold War as they use their present self to frame and construct their past self.

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Research “In-tents”

Often, our research takes us across the country, and sometimes across the world. But if we are travelling so much, how can we save costs and ensure an efficient and productive trip, particularly if we have to do it frequently. These were the questions and dilemmas that faced me as I confronted the sheer amount of time and money my project would soak up. My project takes me all around the UK, looking at five cities, their local histories, museums, archives, and of course, the people within them.

So, my solution was to abandon home comforts, pack my tent, and camp while I undertook my archival research in the city of Cardiff, in Wales. Financially, it cost about two thirds of the price of staying in a hotel for the same amount of time! I stayed at a council-owned campsite in the centre of Cardiff, a surprisingly peaceful and quite beautiful stretch of green space in the centre of a fairly large city. Although the tent was not always comfortable (or dry), the walk to and from the Local Histories Library was breathtaking. As it was mid-October, the sun rose as I walked into the city, and set on my walk back, and it was pleasant and rewarding after a long day staring at screens and old newspapers.

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Living in a tent while working in a library 8-6, however was not always comfortable. Using inflatable mattresses, roll mats, and plenty of blankets, the tent was usually warm  and dry. Also, despite being a three man tent, I missed having a larger bedroom space (and being able to walk around). Cooking was also difficult at times, particularly when it rained in the evenings. However, this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. Camping made my research feel more of an adventure, I felt more focused on my work, and actually got a good’s night sleep every night without television or the internet to distract me. However, I don’t think I could have camped any more than four nights. By the last day, my back hurt and my need for home comforts began to outweigh my enjoyment of the great outdoors. Anyone who is a keen adventurer and experienced in camping, I would highly recommend camping for those PhD students who have to make numerous research trips during the course of their research.

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In terms of the content found, Cardiff was extremely rewarding. The Local Histories Library (Cathay Library) was extremely helpful in helping me find what I needed and ensuring I could have almost constant use of the microfilm machines. The microfilm machines themselves were modern, using a computer to read the films rather then projecting them (a welcome and much needed change in my opinion). The Library would close for an hour over lunch, which was always bittersweet, tearing me away from my work, but also forcing me to have a much needed break and reflect on what I had uncovered.

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I spent the majority of my time at the library looking at the South Wales Echo from 1952-1954, trying to understand Cardiff’s relationship to nuclear weapons during the 1950s. Cardiff seemed conflicted over the emerging appearance of nuclear power in the 1950s, an understanding response considering South Wales high coal worker population. Within the South Wales Echo there appeared to be an apparent ‘normalisation’ of the bomb, with articles talking about using ‘atom rays to grow crops’, powering televisions and aeroplanes with ‘atoms’ and numerous articles on the ‘peaceful’ use of atomic weapons. All this ran alongside Cardiff building numerous nuclear bunkers across and nearby the city and frequent reports on the importance of Civil Defence in the city. In fact, the South Wales Echo reported a large amount of outraged articles when a nearby county decided to not fund Civil Defence anymore, shortly after the first American H-bomb test. What did this mean? Did Cardiff (and South Wales) publicly report on a  peaceful bomb, while taking measures to protect itself? Was there an underlying, embedded fear in the city? Why was Civil Defence reported about so frequently? How did these nuclear experiences and responses in 1950s Cardiff relate to it’s WWII experience? I hope to enlighten the answers to these questions in my next research trip (hopefully in a bigger tent!).

Anxiously understanding ‘Nuclear Anxiety’

“I once asked a class what the word ‘radiation’ evoked for them.
Familiar worried looks emerged from the sea of faces. The responses –
‘cancer’, ‘death’, and ‘bomb’ – were all reasonable. But as I pointed out,
‘bananas’, ‘life-saving’, and ‘human’ would have been equally appropriate.”
– E. Williams, ‘Beyond the Bomb’’

Both ‘anxiety’ and nuclear weapons have become synonymous with everyday modern existence. Despite the Cold War ending, we still live under the threat of atomic war, with hundreds of active nuclear warheads circulating the globe (around 225 warheads in the UK). In 2017, nuclear anxiety seems to be rapidly increasing internationally, with newly elected US President Donald Trump advocating nuclear arms build-up, increased atomictweet.png tensions between the US and Russia, North Korean atomic testing, and the uncertainty surrounding Trident in the wake of Brexit. Furthermore, in January 2017, the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists moved the ‘Doomsday clock’ to 2.5 minutes to midnight, the closest we have been to nuclear war since 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, the need to understand the ways in which ‘nuclear anxiety’ affects our daily lives, in the present and the past, is ever more urgent. ‘Nuclear anxiety’ has been a problematic term in historiography but little theoretical or methodological structure has been generated for its practice. A universal definition of ‘nuclear anxiety’ is virtually non-existent as the term has come to cover all manner of nuclear ‘terror’, ‘fear’, ‘stress’, and ‘worries’. What exactly is ‘nuclear anxiety?’

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‘We’re on the Brink of Nuclear War’, Daily Mirror, 2017

First coined by Freud, anxiety is usually defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with uncertainty. Freud first referred to the feeling of anxiety as:

The organism would attempt to remove the ‘excitement’ in order to avoid unpleasant consequences of acting upon it. However, in avoiding the unpleasant consequences, the organism was actually taking the frustrated excitement into itself.

Thus, anxiety has a real, physical energy, within the psychic dynamics of a person, as they take a worry ‘within themselves’ to manifest, and it is subsequently expressed as affective anxiety. The development of anxiety within an organism must thus be seen as both psychic and from within and as physical, unconscious meaning from an outside ‘fear’ or ‘potential death’ Anxiety thus stems from both the psychological body experiencing and interpreting the affect, and from the outside world affecting the being.

Paul Tillich marries y both external and internal anxieties by arguing that the “underlying ambiguities and uncertainties of finite life produce a basic kind of anxiety which is common to all people”. He claims that the threat to all human existence is the threat of being to non-being and this feeling is a constant, everyday occurrence in the human experience. Anxiety thus becomes both conscious and unconscious, internal and external, ordinary and extraordinary; a fluid, variable affect informed from both within and outside the body. Rollo May suggests that it is the awareness of a threat which results in anxiety. He claims that anxiety is characterised by:

physiological (faster heart rate, paling of the face), physically affective (sense of panic, perceptions are blurred) and cosmic (invades the ‘core of being’) attributes.  

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‘The Drive for Mass Shelters’, LIFE Magazine, 1962 

Anxiety can be expressed three states: (physiological, affective, and cosmic) with different ‘combinations’ per the individual and the stimuli (a person may tremble, or turn pale, they may show ‘obvious’ anxiety – or not -, they may express anxiety – or not).

Atomic weapons have a physical, potential and cosmic presence, entering a being’s potential time, space and consciousness. A person may ‘tremble’ when talking about nuclear weapons (physiological), they may express ‘worry’, ‘unease’, or ‘dread’ (affective), and they may unconsciously deny, oppress or ‘be anxious’ about the potential and uncertain death caused by nuclear weapons (cosmic).

Robert Lifton suggests that all ‘nuclear anxiety’ is ‘denied’ and oppressed within ourselves. This is known as ‘psychic numbing’: the “loss of feeling in order to escape the impact of unacceptable images. He proposed that individuals experienced anxiety by engaging with unconscious psychological defence mechanisms such as denial. Everyone experiences ‘nuclear anxiety’ but do not always take action against it or obviously express worries.

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If ‘nuclear anxiety’ is truly an internal phenomenon, informed externally, but is not expressed but oppressed, how can we deal positively and actively with it to ensure healthy attitudes towards atomic weapons? How can nuclear anxiety be measured if it is a ‘hidden’ affective state? If nuclear anxiety is an invasive, internal emotion, how does it affect the rest of our lives and social attitudes towards nuclear weapons/power? These are the questions I hope to answer and uncover in order to better understand our mindsets in the Cold War onwards. As my project advances I hope to continue to reflect on the ‘definition’ of ‘nuclear anxiety’ and provide a new understanding of a relatively new and under-researched phenomenon.

 

 

References

Freud, S. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Translated by A. Strachey (Eastford: Martino Fine Books, 2013).
Hogg, J. British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the Long Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
Lifton, R. J. Connection: On death and the Continuity of Life (New York: Touchstone Books, 1979)
May, R. The Discovery of Being (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994)
Tillich, P. The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957)
Weart, S. The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012)
Williams, E. ‘Beyond the Bomb: Seeing through the Nuclear Fear’, AQ Australian Quarterly, 84.2 (April – June 2013), pp. 25-32.