cultural history

Telling Stories: Some reflections on story-telling and ‘nuclear anxiety’

Throughout my PhD, I have heard stories almost everywhere recalling the past, and present, fears of nuclear weaponry. It seems that nuclear anxiety isn’t just an emotional response, it has become deeply embedded in memory.

When I first undertook my History PhD research on nuclear anxiety in Britain, I was instantly surprised by how much people wanted to tell me their ‘nuclear stories’. It appeared to me that the legacies of Cold War nuclear anxieties ran much deeper than I had originally believed. Almost always, as soon as I would discuss my research, people wished to tell me their Cold War memories and, more often than not, continued “nightmares” regarding nuclear war.

My research hopes to develop a better understanding of the emotional history of nuclear weapons in Britain, using an oral history approach to engage with the everyday experiences, emotions, and feelings surrounding the atomic bomb in the 1950s and 1980s. A few months in, it seemed that almost everyone I told about my research had a story they wanted to tell me. Nuclear anxieties then exist not only as an emotional response, but as a story, a fable, that individuals wished to share with me. Often they recalled memories about themselves, and their pasts, or other times people liked to tell me about how other members of their family or their friends had experienced some form of “nuclear fear”. Before long, I felt responsible to protect and record these stories so they would not be lost. The very fact that individuals recalled their stories and memories to me, without prompt, reinforced that my goal of preserving the emotions and memories of the Cold War and atomic weapons was one that needed to be done.

On another occasion, while attending a short course, the participants and I were asked to introduce our research. After presenting myself and my work, the course leader hastily responded: “How interesting, I remember being worried during that time […] I still am.” By the end of the course, a fellow attendee told me how he remembered feeling like he would never complete his university degree due to nuclear war, following with a joke about how he had since obtained three degrees but “it could still happen”. A few weeks later, a lady told me stories of the paranoia her father had experienced during the war, reminiscing almost joyfully at the stories he had once told her. Another happily told me how she believed that Britain would sink underwater if it was attacked by nuclear weapons, remarking that we were “too small of an island” to stand up against such nuclear forces.

While attending a conference, a fellow attendee who knew of my research approached me, and told me about how their parent, a survivor of the atomic attack on Hiroshima, was given a piano by an American sailor. It was a wonderful story, one that I hope won’t fade from our collective memory.

Through the act of story-telling, nuclear anxiety roots itself in both the past and the present. This made me realise that my research was not just a history of the past, but the past-in-the-present. Through this act of story-telling, the story-teller attaches meaning, emotions and rationality to the nuclear bomb, weaving their nuclear fears into their everyday lives, family and habitual spaces. The nuclear bomb was not just a “thing”, physically and metaphorically. Through people’s experiences, emotions and story-telling, it became fluid, a presence, a trope of the story. Often the villain of the narrative, if you will.

Are these stories tales of warning? Of hope? Of fear? Have they become embodiments of emotional responses experienced during the Cold War? Exactly how and why have these meanings become attached to a military weapon? Perhaps talking about nuclear war like a ‘happy story’, or a fable, provides people with the escapism, or hope, they need to overcome and distance the experience of nuclear anxiety? Perhaps, just the simple act of talking about atomic weapons can resolve feelings of anxiety – by transforming them into a story, and narrating it, perhaps it seems no longer real.

Regardless, each of these stories has reminded me that not all history is completely rooted in the past, instead becoming deeply embedded within our own personal, present identities.

All stories and quotes taken from individuals have been used with their permission.

This Post is an extended version of the original posted here:



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.


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.


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?’


‘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.  


‘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.


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.




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.