100 Seconds to Midnight
This week: a conversation with Daniel Immerwahr, Nina Tannenwald, and Alex Wellerstein about nuclear forgetting. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.
A third of Americans, according to a Pew poll, favor military confrontation with Russia “even if it risks a nuclear conflict.” This week’s show looks into such attitudes about nuclear destruction. The historian Daniel Immerwahr joins us and says, on the loss of nuclear memory:
We’re kind of in the position where we are with polio. There hasn’t been a lot of rampant diseases hitting the richest parts of the world before COVID. And as a result, we saw that people started getting lax and you start seeing people rejecting vaccines for their children. Understandably so. They hadn’t seen the kinds of diseases that vaccines prevent. And I am very worried that we are in a similar sort of place with nuclear war. One way to think about that is: this is the first decade of our history where not a single head of a nuclear state can remember Hiroshima.
International relations professor Nina Tannenwald says this week, of nuclear tensions now:
I think this is the most serious nuclear crisis we’ve had in my professional lifetime and certainly since the early 1980s. The Able Archer scare, and if you don’t think that was a real nuclear crisis, we can go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. So this is the first time in my entire professional career of teaching about nuclear weapons that I have really worried that we could see a use of nuclear weapons. So I agree with Daniel. I think there has been what I would call nuclear forgetting.
The end of the Cold War came along and people thought, oh, we can put nuclear weapons on the back burner. Yes, they still exist, but they don’t matter as much anymore. They’re not central. Now that the Cold War is over, that kind of Cold War tension is gone. So we don’t have to think about them as much anymore. And I think the current generation, you’re right, does not remember that period of duck and cover and real nuclear war scares.
And now this is coming back. And the younger generation is not familiar with this. But I have to say, there are also members of the older generation who are familiar with this and in my view, who are a little bit cavalier about the risks that we are facing right now in the Ukraine crisis.
Alex Wellerstein, historian and creator of the famous and fascinating NUKEMAP website, tells us how he’s worked to restore understanding of nuclear weapons and their threat. Cultural work can help, too, as it did in the past with films like The Day After and Dr. Strangelove. Wellerstein says:
The Day After came out in 1983—made for television film, immensely widely viewed: 100 million people, that’s something like a third of the United States at the time, which is incredible—was seen at the time as being potentially even a traumatic experience. I mean, there were messages at the beginning and the end of the movie for hotlines you could call if you were, you know, overly depressed by this film, which is kind of amazing. And we know that Reagan wrote in his diary about having seen it and how depressed he was by it. So that’s an unusual level of traceable impact among human beings and presidents.
I will say in terms of bringing it back today: one of the difficulties in showing new audiences these older products is that our perception of them is partially linked to other cultural expectations. And I mentioned earlier that my students don’t find Strangelove funny. They don’t laugh. I think of it as being the sort of 1960s educated liberal humor, which is very wry and very witty. But isn’t the same kind of humor they have today, which can be quite different and sometimes absurdist in interesting ways, but not the ways that you would see Strangelove have.
Hear: The Pulitzer-Winner in the Cosmic Library
Joshua Cohen, no stranger to Open Source listeners, just won the Pulitzer Prize for The Netanyahus. Listen to Josh across two seasons of Adam Colman’s Cosmic Library podcast with Lit Hub. They talk about Finnegans Wake (season one) and the Hebrew Bible—the Bible season, which is season three, completed just this week, and is now fully available for binging.
Watch: US-China Coexistence at the Quincy Institute
This week at Open Source is our latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Stop by QuincyInst.org, where you’ll find things like this conversation with former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd about relations between the US and China.
Read: About Hate
In light of the connection between white nationalist racism and yesterday’s mass shooting, read this morning reflection on the fact that the white nationalism associated with hate sites—and, in national politics, figures such as Pat Buchanan and Stephen Miller—is also now broadcast from the most watched show on cable news.
Listen: Nuclear Music
Find a playlist of music about nuclear war in the comments section from this week’s show (thanks, Pete Crangle!). Notice, for instance, Mingus’s “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”:
This week’s ephemeral library
Andrew Leland in The New Yorker: Are Deafblind Communities Creating a New Language of Touch? Maggie Doherty on fame and Edna St. Vincent Millay. How “a book-banning Republican senator got a major publishing award.”