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Here is an essay I wrote for an English homework not too long ago. Despite its informal tone, I was surprised to find that I was given the equivalent of a GCSE "B" grade. I even made an E2 reference - look at footnote 5.

Node your homework.

26/05/2002

Fear of Nuclear War

Nuclear weapons were originally developed by the USA and the USSR during World War II, driven by the fear that the Germans (who had already come up with some very powerful weapons like the V1 and V2 rockets) would create something even more destructive. In 1939 nuclear fission had been discovered, and was one of the scientific hot topics of the day.1 After the development of the atomic ‘pile’2 in 1942 by Fermi, it was only a matter of time before it was discovered that the tremendous energy created could be used to create an explosion. The Americans realised the importance of this development, and detonated one of the first three atomic bombs in the early morning of July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo in New Mexico. Though they had been built too late to finish the war in Europe, there was still time to use these new ‘atom bombs’ against North America’s Japanese enemy, and were – to devastating effect.

This new item of warfare could completely obliterate the core (and much else) of an enemy city, make it completely uninhabitable for weeks, even months afterward, disfigure and maim most survivors, and then cause those survivors to give birth to mutated offspring. On the 6th of August the same year, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and two days later a second was exploded above Nagasaki. Upon seeing the destructive power of the weapons, Japan surrendered, ending World War II.

After the discovery of nuclear fusion, which created even more energy and that very high temperatures and pressures could cause a fusion reaction, American scientists surrounded some hydrogen with a fission bomb and the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb (or H-bomb) was born. The first one to be exploded was exploded by the US in 1952. Soon after the USSR and Britain exploded theirs.3

Now that World War II was over and the USSR and US no longer needed each other’s help, they considered themselves rivals, probably due to the fact that they had two conflicting systems of government4 and were the two biggest countries in the world, the two superpowers, East and West. When one considers the fact that both superpowers had thermonuclear weapons, you can understand why there was soon a good deal of tension between them. If either tried to start a war against the other, an all out nuclear war could commence, and both sides had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other (and everyone else) many times over.5 That is why there was a constant mistrust and fear spanning four decades until the breaking apart of the Soviet Union in 1991. There was such a fear of nuclear weapons that a fairly intensive movement against nuclear weapons began, in the form of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND.

Fearing the destruction of everyone on their island, the British government produced a pamphlet entitled ‘Protect and Survive’, outlining the government’s advice on how to survive a nuclear bomb explosion. Protect and Survive leaflets were handed out to households throughout Britain in 1980, allegedly to prepare the public in case of a full scale ‘nuclear conflict’.

The Protect and Survive leaflet informed the public that because ‘the safest room in your house is not safe enough’ you must take doors and furnishings from around your home, pile them up against an inner wall, paint your windows white, get several gallons of water and tinned food in closed containers, then hide under your pile of doors, surrounded by tables, chairs and supplies while the bombs come raining down. You must then stay under this pile of doors for two weeks without coming out from under it, eating food from tins, drinking water from jars, then putting your sanitary waste in them and bagging them up. The booklet included a checklist to make sure you had the right supplies, and told one a little (though not too much) about the possible effects of a nuclear bomb exploding several miles away.

After reading the P&S booklet, I felt that much of the advice within it was next to useless, even though it sounds right and makes sense. I was afraid, because the booklet really helped me to experience the fear which the public must have felt throughout the eighties, knowing that at any moment air raid sirens could sound and they would all have to hide before being blown to pieces. I was also afraid because it confirmed my belief that the government would lie to people just because it was more convenient for them. Rather than tell everyone that there was no way they could survive a direct nuclear attack, they chose to delude us into thinking that maybe if we did do everything that our leaders told us to do, we would be able to survive it all, and defeat our enemies. This was convenient for everyone, because those in charge would stop people from panicking by convincing them that a nuclear explosion was easily survived, and because the people could convince themselves that a nuclear explosion was easily survived, thus avoiding the fear of it.

The style of the P&S text is stern, authoritative and tries (but not too hard) to be reassuring, though its subject matter (whether or not you will survive an A-bomb landing in your back garden) is very uncertain. The way in which it iterates itself is irritating and patronising; those who have written it know that their target audience is very ignorant and would have no idea what to do in terms of apocalyptic survivalism. The text is not user friendly - in fact, it is hardly at all friendly, and contradicts itself frequently. For example, if the ‘safest room in your house is not safe enough’, then why shelter inside it? If the fallout comes back down from the air very quickly and is very dangerous, why do we have to ‘go outside, putting out any fires and closing doors’ after the bomb has detonated?

Admittedly, however, the leaflet is very easy to understand. It tends to use words with only one and two syllables which have simple meanings (‘in case of an attack, you must be prepared’), with the only exceptions being the terminology (‘fallout’, ‘radioactive’ and ‘nuclear’ being examples), which is itself not very difficult to understand. It is obvious that in addition to knowing little about the nature of nuclear warfare, the target audience would probably be very trusting of the advice in the booklet and try to follow it through.

The booklet would probably have had two effects on different demographic groups, these being either a determination to follow the advice in the booklet to the letter in order to stay alive, or to think that the advice in the booklet was nonsensical propaganda. Those most likely to think the former were gullible or uninformed people whose only source of information was the government. Those most likely to think the latter were well informed people or those who mistrusted the government.

It would’ve been perfectly understandable to mistrust the advice of the booklet, since it is very unhelpful, although in theory it does make sense. The booklet basically orders one to collect some supplies immediately after an explosion, then retreat to a small shelter for two weeks, thus exposing one (at least in theory) to only the “prompt radiation6 of the nuclear bomb, the worst of which will not even escape from the epicentre of the blast.

This in itself does make sense, but the simple fact is that this ‘practical’ advice is not in the least bit practical. It suggests taking a large number of bulky items (tables, doors, chairs, cushions) from around the house and bundling them in a large pile against a wall. It also recommends whitewashing all of your windows and covering them with thick, nonflammable curtains. Few people would actually have the time to bother going through all of this due to the inconvenience, and as such the advice is impractical.

At one point the P&S booklet tells us to stay within the ‘inner refuge’ (your makeshift shelter) for 14 days without venturing outside of it, and to keep all supplies and sanitary equipment within the inner refuge. This is physically impossible, considering that the inner refuge could not be any more than a few cubic metres big. It is difficult enough to fit a family inside the inner refuge, let alone two dozen litres of water, a potty, bags and a dustbin, and as such it is not possible to follow all of the advice.

In addition to this, the chances are that the advice will not save you from a nuclear explosion. If an explosion is close enough, you will be instantly vaporised. Even if you are not blown to bits, then your house will probably be at least partly demolished and you will be exposed to the radioactive fallout. To remain safe from the fallout would require you to stay under at least a yard of wood, or about five inches of solid steel, with absolutely no openings anywhere. As such, your house will not provide protection, especially if you remove many of the doors from the doorways, leave any windows open, or have any holes in your roof. This means that it is ridiculous to shelter inside your home, especially if your shelter has a large hole in it for you to enter, since the radioactivity will merely permeate throughout your entire house, and then into your shelter.

Many people criticised the P&S booklet for creating unnecessary panic and worry among the populace, though originally the government published it to avoid creating unnecessary panic and worry about the fact that we could do nothing to survive a nuclear attack.

Nonetheless, to counteract these accusations of scaremongering, the Government produced a booklet entitled “Civil Defence” explaining to the public why it was necessary to be prepared for a nuclear blitz. Apparently, Britain needed civil defence for the same reason we need seatbelts; as a preventative measure – even though we hope that we will never be in a car crash, it is always best to be prepared for one. It also tackled the concern that being partially prepared for a nuclear war will make it more likely since complacency may occur. The British government used its convenient seatbelt analogy to show why not; though we have seatbelts in our cars, they do not increase the likelihood that car crashes will occur.

For the most part, the fears of the public were allayed, except for those who happened to have a GCE7 in Physics or who were Ukrainian immigrants, despite the patronising tone of the Civil Defence booklet.8 The effect on myself was not great, the biggest effect being the development of the opinion that whoever had written the Civil Defence booklet was greatly lacking in perception for believing that the British would actually think that this was true. However, the public, not knowing better, did apparently think that it was true, at least for the most part.

Raymond Scott was not one of these people. He produced a children’s book, ‘When The Wind Blows’ about an old couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, who live peacefully out in a village in the country. One bright morning a panicky announcement on Radio 4 informs that bombs are about to land, and the pair follow the advice in the Protect and Survive booklet. They hurriedly squeeze themselves into their crudely constructed ‘inner refuge’, and the bombs hit. Surprisingly the Bloggs' house survives, though the wallpaper has disappeared, and the walls and furniture have turned black. The Bloggs also survive, and seem to be fine, though they do get annoyed when they find that the utilities have stopped working. After venturing outside into a very dark and very quiet morning, they walk around for a while, and decide that it won’t be too long before everything is rebuilt. After they feel ill a few days later, Jim tells his wife that it won’t be long before they can go the chemist, and that the ‘powers that be’ will soon come with emergency services to help them. However, nothing arrives, and the two mooch around unhappily in the house, getting progressively sicker, until they get into large sacks and die of radiation poisoning, alone.9 The book is a very depressing read, and some time after it was published, it was made into a 50-minute animated film with the same title.

When watching the film myself, I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer naivety of Jim and his unwavering belief that the Prime Minister and his cohorts will salvage the situation, ‘no matter how bleak it looks at the moment’. It was also very disturbing to see him refuse to acknowledge the insurmountable carnage and destruction surrounding his home, and worrying to watch him tell his wife Hilda that everything is all right, and to reply to her every uncertain query with something like “Don’t worry, the powers that be know what to do for us, and will take care of us.”.10 Perhaps the high point of Jim’s distressing denial is when he quotes the Tennyson poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ in response to Hilda’s doubts about the efficacy of the Protect and Survive advice, saying “Ours is not to reason why, dear...now what was the next line?”.

The next line of the poem is “Ours is but to do or die”.

I think my reaction is probably what the makers of the film were intending. While watching the film, you get the distinct impression that the filmmakers wanted to make you think about whether the government is really acting in the electorate’s best interests. Whether or not Jim and Hilda survive is not the issue. The issue is whether or not the government were actually thinking about the safety of Jim and Hilda and whether or not they were telling the truth rather than pumping propaganda through the media and then leaving the unfortunates to die. They want the viewer to worry and feel frightened about this, because it is only then will people actually choose to do something about the problem, even if only to stop feeling anxious.

Nowadays there is a lot less unease concerning the threat of nuclear war than there was a generation previously. This is probably because it is now widely acknowledged by almost all that nuclear war is an immensely stupid and irrational thing to initiate, and that trying to prepare for it and survive it is impossible. Not only that, but because of the USSR’s dissolution in September 1991 the US was left as the major superpower, leaving it with less tangible and more distant adversaries, such as Iraq. Public pressure would cause any administration which used nuclear weapons to be vilified.

I feel that the public is right to no longer feel terribly fearful of a particular nuclear threat any more. I think that it is counterproductive and causes more harm than it gets rid of in the long term. Since nuclear war is now a lot less likely, it would be more sensible to be alert rather than panicking about the likelihood of nuclear aggression, because panicking about a problem generally makes any attempt to solve it haphazard or unstable. Being alert about the problem makes it easier to react to new developments, such as the fact that it is no longer superpowers but smaller countries with grudges that we should be taking notice of. It would be hard not to notice that in recent weeks India and Pakistan have both made each other perfectly aware that they have nuclear weapons and are prepared for war, with Pakistan even testing short range ballistic missiles. It is possible that they could declare war on each other, and that such a war could escalate into a nuclear war.

However, if either were stupid enough to allow such a war does occur, then it is perfectly possible that it would not become a world war on the scale of the pair in the past, since such a conflict would probably only take place between the two aggressors, and the rest of the world could ignore them, leaving them to destroy each other or come to a peace agreement. And that is why I feel that, at least for now, the nuclear menace has been diminished.

Footnotes
1 Had the public been made aware of it, it would probably be as well known (and cause as much controversy) as genetic engineering was 60 years later.
2 So called because Enrico Fermi’s original reactor had been a pile of uranium and uranium oxide bricks and graphite and cadmium moderator rods.
3 Curiously, France and China had still not exploded a thermonuclear bomb a decade and a half later.
4 The USSR had a corrupt communist government, and the US a somewhat less corrupt democratic government.
5 It was once joked that the game Global Thermonuclear War consists of the United States launching a large number of fusion warheads at the Russians and the Russians launching large numbers of fusion warheads at the United States. Everyone then dies.
6 Prompt radiation is the radiation generated by the actual atomic blast, as opposed to the radiation caused by fallout. Prompt radiation normally ceases after several minutes.
7 To the best of my knowledge, there was no such thing as a General Certificate of Secondary Education in the 1980s.
8 Scott Adams once wrote that if a group of people doesn’t understand what you say, you should repeat it, only much slower and more loudly, as if they are stupid.
9 Or you could use the more succinct description of the book – “Isn’t that the one where the old couple gets nuked, and then they die of radiation poisoning?”, attributable to Someone I Talked To In The Lunch Queue.
10 Jim Bloggs sounds like someone who thought that the NHS would take care of him from cradle to grave.


The contents of this writeup are in the public domain.