Three provocative new books by Eric Schlosser, Rudolph Herzog and Patrick Marnham seek to rouse us from our post-Cold War slumbersby Thomas Meaney / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
Have we finally learned to stop worrying about the bomb? In the west, at least, it would appear so. The rituals and artefacts of the nuclear age have never seemed more distant. Black and yellow nuclear fallout signs that once adorned public buildings are now collector’s items. People store wine in what were once atomic shelters. The bunker under the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, where the US Senate was once designated to spend the nuclear winter, is now part of the guest tour. Ambitious young cadets at the military academies prefer to go into counterinsurgency or cyber warfare—anything to avoid the tedium of sitting in a room with the button. Hollywood has known the well went dry years ago: natural disasters and terrorism draw more of an audience than mushroom clouds.
In a world where the bomb is no longer a nightmare, it is easy to forget how profoundly nuclear weapons and nuclear power have shaped our culture and politics. Throughout the 20th century, many leading thinkers recalibrated their political bearings when confronted with the reality of the bomb. In the 1980s, EP Thompson, perhaps the fiercest left-wing critic of nuclear weapons in Britain, turned from writing history to writing science fiction about nuclear war, and from socialism to what he called “human-beingism.” The socialist revolution, he believed, would have to be deferred until the threat of nuclear winter was averted. Nuclear weapons and nuclear power have also affected our political structures. Just as coal power is more conducive to populist politics, with miners able to strike or sabotage trains carrying product, and oil seems to require some form of global oversight to guarantee its extraction, trade, and shipment from politically volatile regions, so nuclear power, in all its forms, lends itself to technocracy and centralised control. In the US, the Cold War concentrated political power in the executive branch, at least in part because of the President’s sole command over nuclear weapons. It is hardly feasible to put a motion to the floor of Congress when there are just 10 minutes to decide whether a nuclear counter-strike is warranted.
Three provocative new books on the history of nuclear weapons seek to rouse us from our post-Cold War slumbers. The authors want us to worry about the bomb all over again, but in new ways. In Command and Control, the…