Memory

“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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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: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/history/blog/2017/nuclear-stories/

 

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!).