“As an expert, I say, no, not quite,” she said. “We could really walk back on these words and develop de-escalation mechanisms. It’s horrible [Trump and Kim Jong Un] are talking this way, but it’s not the end of the world yet.”
“But then, as an anthropologist, I want to say: Yes, you should be concerned! You should always be concerned. And that you have to ask an expert that question—what does it say about your literacy of [nuclear] issues?” she said.
Kristyn Karl, a professor of political science at Stevens Institute of Technology, agreed that the public’s interest in nuclear weapons was way up—even if their understanding wasn’t. “The public is currently more aware of nuclear threats than they have been since the end of the Cold War,” she told me in an email.
That doesn’t mean they know much about them.
Americans flunk questions about basic nuclear security, Karl said, “such as identifying nuclear states, the scale of nuclear arsenals, etc.” Younger Americans also have little experience with nuclear weapons, especially compared with Baby Boomers.
Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear weapons, also at the Stevens Institute, agreed that people seem more interested now. But he worries that they won’t stay that way once this crisis passes.
“It’s clear there is a sharp uptick of interest on nuclear questions,” he said in an email. “The question is, what kind of interest is it? Is it the kind of interest that will lead to a more sustained public interest on these topics? Or is it an ephemeral fear of the sort that comes and goes in a crisis?”
“American nuclear anxiety seems almost totally focused on foreign policy issues from small states—specifically Iran and North Korea. In that sense it is somewhat different than the period of the Cold War when the threat was much larger,” he said:
What I fear is that Americans will erroneously think that a war with either Iran or North Korea would be “no big deal” whereas we are (and were) much more aware that a war with Russia was totally unthinkable. War with Iran should be considered unthinkable (one need only look at what our war with Iraq has cost us, what monsters it created), and war with North Korea would come at a dearer cost than I think most people appreciate.
But when it comes to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, what is unthinkable and what isn’t? Americans are finding themselves back in the uneasy practice of imagining not the end of the world, but all the intermediate steps between now and then—the first warnings on the news, the orange streaks in the sky, the agony of waiting for ignition.
Writing three decades ago, the essayist and physician Lewis Thomas imagined a war with Russia and fell into despair. “My mind swarms with images of a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode, in New York and San Francisco, in Moscow and Leningrad, in Paris, in Paris, in Paris. In Oxford and Cambridge, in Edinburgh,” he wrote:
This is a bad enough thing for the people in my generation. We can put up with it, I suppose, since we must.
What I cannot imagine, what I cannot put up with ... is what it would be like to be young. How do the young stand it? How can they keep their sanity? If I were very young, 16 or 17 years old, I think I would begin, perhaps very slowly and imperceptibly, to go crazy.
For today’s young people, looking to an uncertain future, at least there are German bonds to buy.