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2005 Doomsday Clock is at Seven Minutes to Midnight; Successful Trinity Bomb Test, July, 1945.

How Frivolity Replaced Fear of 'the Bomb'

With the incredible and well-documented lethality of nuclear weapons, this op-ed piece from German newspaper Die Zeit asks, "Why doesn't anyone seem concerned?" Part of the answer lies in how the bomb was marketed in popular American culture.

By Thomas Macho

Translated By Hartmut Lau

August 8, 2005

Original Article (German)    

Hardly anyone perceived the unique globally historical significance of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki more quickly and more accurately than Guenther Anders, a student of Husserl and Heidegger (and Hannah Arendt’s first husband). Since the late 1950s, this philosopher almost incessantly repeated, “The era in which we live, even if it lasts forever, is definitively mankind’s last era.”  

Guenther Anders, 1902-1992

Why? Because, “The era that began in 1945 is our last. We will either live in it forever or we will not live at all.” Tertium non datur [Latin for: Either a statement or its negation is true, with no third possibility]. In the meantime, however, it appears that the era Anders swore by did indeed come to an end – with the 1970 atomic test on the Mururoa Atoll [The first French nuclear bomb test].

[Editor’s Note: Guenther Anders was a Jewish journalist and intellectual who fled Nazi Germany with his wife Hannah Arendt in 1933. Anders returned to Europe in 1950 to become one of the founders of the anti-nuclear movement there, and was a philosopher that concerned himself with the nuclear age and its ramifications].

But the middle [the next era] has since appeared. Since 1989 new eras are steadily being proclaimed: a liberal, democratic end of history (Francis Fukuyama), an era of wars between civilizations (Samuel Huntington) and an era of “new wars” (Mary Kaldor), which began on Sept. 11, 2001.  But atomic bombs have been mentioned only at the periphery, for example when they were not found in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s missing nuclear weapons could almost be praised as a symbol of the cultural forgetfulness that has degraded nuclear weapons to phantom status.

A nuclear war is just as plausible today as it was 20 years ago.

Must the list of 25 “Antiquities” that Günther Anders presented in the second volume of his study “Humanities Antiquities” consequently be brought up to date by adding another antiquity, namely nuclear weapons? The question seems vaguely obscene, but it emphasizes that, basically, nothing has changed. Nuclear arsenals were not significantly reduced even after the collapse of the Soviet block and, in addition to the two main protagonists of the Cold War, a number of other countries have produced nuclear weapons: Great Britain, France, China, Pakistan and India. In the U.S. government’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review not only Iraq but also Iran, North Korea and Syria were ranked as potential nuclear powers.

By contrast, Brazil, Argentina, Libya and Switzerland gave up - and South Africa destroyed - their nuclear weapons shortly before the end of apartheid. At the same time the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons has been drastically reduced by the development of smaller nuclear weapons, so-called tactical nuclear weapons or “mini-nukes.” Furthermore, the scenarios that might lead to a nuclear exchange, for example in the Middle East, are no less plausible and frightening than they were during the most dangerous phases of the Cold War. Nevertheless, these scenarios don’t generate intense fear – we don’t lose any sleep over them.

That is remarkable, because the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ famous Doomsday Clock points to seven minutes before midnight, just as it did in the years 1947, 1960, 1968 and 1980.  Apparently calmer times, such as seventeen minutes to midnight (1991) or at least fourteen (1995) have been corrected downward. But cultural perceptions obviously follow a different pattern than do the history of power politics or weapons technology. In their first phase of influencing the popular imagination - during the 1950s - nuclear weapons were, on the one hand belittled, while on the other they were idolized, made into the ultimate symbols of power and technical progress.

Making light of Serious Matters?

Marylin Monroe - the Real Bomb

After the first atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll (June 30, 1946) a cake with frosting shaped like a mushroom cloud was served in the officer’s club.  The cake was soon followed by tasty uraniumburgersTravel agencies in New York sold cruises to the central Pacific to observe nuclear testing using the slogan “Watching the Bombs Go Off, and after Louis Réard had decided in 1946 to name his two-part bathing suits for the Bikini Atoll, [German magazine] Der Stern presented the Italian actress Silvana Mangano as “Italy’s Super Atomic Bomb” on March 12, 1950.  Four years later, Marilyn Monroe’s appearance before GIs in Korea earned the headline “Atomic Bomb on Korea.”

Associated with “sex bombs,” new weapons were simultaneously rendered less fearsome and more noteworthy. They were to fascinate, not instill fear. Thus they were belittled in public education, such as in Anthony Rizzo’s 1951 short film, in which Bert the Turtle demonstrates what to do in the event of enemy attack with nuclear weapons - duck and cover [Watch the movie Duck and Cover at bottom of the page].  At the same time the bombs were deified. Legend soon had it that [lead scientist] Robert J. Oppenheimer, at the first atomic test in the Sierra Nevada, had thought of several lines from the Indian Bhagavadgita, in which not only “the light of a thousand suns” but also “the “destroyer of worlds” is praised.

Trinity - July 16, 1945

Indian mythology is certainly in stark contrast to the Christian name chosen for the test, “Trinity.” In some reports on the Bikini testing barely a year later, it was noted that the tests reminded one of the beginning of the end of the world, that is to say, of God’s power to create or destroy the world.  An indicator of the success of such theological evaluations can also be seen in the prevalence of the bomb in the singular.  Even critics such as Günther Anders spoke of “the bomb,” an ontological singularity, even while the United States and the Soviet Union were increasing their inventories of nuclear weapons at an accelerated rate.

From a distance of 60 years, we can see the fascination and frivolity with which atomic bombs were perceived only months after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was as if the news about split-second mass death (not to mention the suffering and dying that lasted generations) has never registered. The pacifist protests began over ten years after the first bombs were dropped. The first “Easter March” by the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - with 10,000 participants - took place in 1958. In 1960, just under than 1,000 members of the new peace movement demonstrated in northern Germany.

In conjunction with the student revolt and the protests against the Vietnam War, the number of “Easter Marchers” didn’t grow to 300,000 people until the late 1960s. And after 1968, under the influence of the Warsaw Pact’s military intervention in Prague and the German emergency laws, the crowds shrunk considerably.

Petter Sellers as Dr. Stranglelove

The second phase of cultural perception of nuclear weapons was marked by debates on the dangers of a nuclear war, which had been declared “feasible” and “winnable” by interim Pentagon advisor and futurologist Herman Kahn, who was allegedly the model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

A third cultural perception of nuclear weapons began with NATO’s December 12, 1979 dual-track decision and almost simultaneous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the time, NATO tied its demand for a mutual limit on mid-range missiles to the threat of stationing in Europe, and especially Germany, new mid-range missiles. The so-called modernization decision not only mobilized the peace movement but also provoked numerous apocalyptic fantasies about the coming nuclear war in central Europe.

Films such as Nicholas Meyers’ 1983 The Day After gave these widespread fears a frightening concrete expression. U.S. propaganda films from the early 1950s were made fun of using black humor in 1982’s The Atomic Café.  In 1983 in “Meditations on the Bomb” Peter Sloterdijk wrote an essay on “A Critique of Cynical Reason” in which he called the atomic bomb “the West’s real Buddha and posited that it must be recognized as a ”medium for self recognition.”

So what has happened since? Why do these topics appear, even if one has every sympathy for the authors, so strange? How could nuclear weapons - after the phases of sexualized fascination, of pacifist protest, and of the apocalypse - have been pushed off the stage of cultural awareness even though (according to conservative estimates) there are still approximately 2,000 nuclear weapons in the stockpiles? Why do we need a day of remembrance to remind us of the current threat of endless overkill capacities? Why have nuclear weapons, unlike gene- and bio-technology, lost their ability to inspire the cultural imagination? No paintings, no movies, no texts.

The end of the Cold War or the beginning of the “new wars” - from the Balkans to terrorist attacks of 9/11 - are obviously insufficient as reasons because they are only rarely associated with the risk of nuclear escalation. After all, Günther Anders could point out that he had analyzed mankind’s “apocalyptic blindness” as early as 1956. That is the situation. It is frightening. But where is our fear? I cannot find any. Not even a medium sized fear. How is this possible? To date, the answer to that question is among the missing.

Thomas Macho is a professor of cultural history at Berlin's Humboldt-University


Bert the Turtle

— MOVIE [Watch Now]: Duck and Cover, Civil Defense film for children in which Bert the Turtle shows what to do in case of atomic attack, 1951, 00:09:15
— Download Movie [172 MB]
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