The Nukes Never Went Away

We just forgot to fear them.

An illustration showing stencils of bombs and missiles revealing an anxious face behind.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks about using nuclear weapons against Ukraine, adding, “This is not a bluff.” President Joe Biden warns Americans of possible Armageddon. Experts discuss the nuances of so-called tactical nuclear weapons.

And news outlets are full of stories that give some version of The threat of nuclear war is back. But they are wrong: The threat never went away. Only the fear did.

In 1984, when I was in my last year of college, I sat down on a railway track near Vancouver, Washington. I was one of dozens of protesters who blocked the track to stop a train that was carrying nuclear warheads to the Trident submarine base in Puget Sound. The shipment’s special armored railcars carrying the warheads were painted white, so it became known as the “white train.” The Burlington Northern engine locomotive pulling the freight seemed very big as it crept forward at low speed and stopped a few feet from where I sat, looking up at it, on the gravel and ties of the roadbed. Police officers warned us to leave, and when we didn’t, they arrested us.

Similar protests had in the past resulted in the equivalent of traffic tickets or in dismissed charges. This time, someone in authority decided to make an example of us, and we were charged with the crime of “willfully obstructing” a train. The law had been on the books for close to a century, since the days when Washington farmers had rebelled against the railroad monopolies that charged them high prices to move their crops to market.

That fall, we went on trial in the Clark County courthouse, in Vancouver. It was a raucous hearing. There were 30 defendants, most of us acting as our own lawyers. I was a young hothead and kept mouthing off to the judge (and later, to the jail guards). We were all found guilty, and the leaders of the group (or the loudest, like me) were handed short jail sentences. In all, I spent about a week in the Clark County jail. The first night, as a reward for my back talk, I was placed in a bare cell with a man who was raving with delirium tremens, whom the guards had chained to a metal ring on the concrete floor.

For many of my generation, the possibility of nuclear war loomed over our lives like that train bearing down the track. We believed that a full-scale nuclear exchange between the two Cold War superpowers would make the planet uninhabitable, and we felt a moral urgency compelling us to act. Nuclear disarmament became the center of our political activism.

I was born in February 1961, two weeks after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. In between those two events, a B-52 bomber broke up midair over North Carolina, and two hydrogen bombs it was carrying fell to Earth. Back then, the incident received just a four-paragraph blurb in The New York Times, but recently declassified records show that one of the weapons came close to detonating, with a potential force 260 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima—a disaster that was prevented only by one simple switch, which was found on other occasions to be liable to fail.

A few months later, the Soviet Union conducted a test detonation of what has been called the Tsar Bomba, a colossal hydrogen bomb some 3,300 times more powerful than the Hiroshima device; this test remains the biggest man-made explosion ever carried out. The following year, the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is perhaps the closest the world has come to nuclear annihilation; that was 60 years ago last month.

I grew up, and as a nerdy and politically aware teenager in the 1970s, I subscribed to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. On its cover, the magazine featured the Doomsday Clock, with its hands poised just minutes before midnight to symbolize how close humanity was to nuclear destruction.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan became president. He escalated the Cold War, nearly doubling the defense budget in his first term, expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal, denouncing the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” and promoting a Star Wars system of satellite weaponry intended to knock intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying Soviet nuclear warheads out of the sky. Nuclear war seemed a very real, almost imminent threat—more so, perhaps, than at any other time since 1962.

In 1982, hundreds of thousands of people attended a nuclear-disarmament rally in New York’s Central Park. In November 1983, Americans had the bejesus scared out of them by The Day After, a television movie about the aftermath of an all-out nuclear conflict; the Sunday prime-time broadcast was watched by an estimated 100 million viewers, more than half the adults in the country.

In January 1984, a few months before I sat down on the train tracks, the atomic scientists advanced their clock to just three minutes to midnight, writing, “As we enter the new year, hope is eclipsed by foreboding. The accelerating nuclear arms race and the almost complete breakdown of communication between the superpowers have combined to create a situation of extreme and immediate danger.” And in 1986 came a reminder to the world of what a nuclear catastrophe could mean: A meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine (then still part of the U.S.S.R.) led to the release of a cloud of deadly radioactive material that blew across Northern Europe and beyond.

But then, miraculously, the world changed. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and two years after that, the Soviet Union was no more. All of a sudden, there was only one superpower, and the threat of “mutual assured destruction”—MAD, for short—between two menacing nuclear-armed adversaries seemed to recede.

My father was born in Germany, fled the Nazis with his family, came to the U.S., eventually enlisted in the Army, and, near the end of the war, returned to Europe as a soldier. Later in life, he rarely talked about his military experience. From his silence, even more than his words, I understood that there was no glory in war, only destruction.

My father believed that politicians who had been to war were less likely to get the nation into another one, because they had seen the horror firsthand. That hasn’t always been borne out, but it did prove a crucial element of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, had both seen the devastation of World War II and, with the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh, they avoided a headlong rush to catastrophe. As different in ideology and temperament as Kennedy and Khrushchev were, the historian Serhii Plokhy has written, “they had one thing in common that proved decisive—fear of nuclear war.”

When I was in high school, we read Hiroshima, by the journalist John Hersey, in class. The book, based on interviews that Hersey conducted in the months after the bombing, tells the stories of six people who survived the world’s first nuclear strike. I still have clear memories of Hersey’s account—in particular, his descriptions of people who were horribly burned by the blast or by radiation. “He reached down and took a woman by the hands,” Hersey wrote of a survivor who sought to help other victims, “but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces.”

I asked my son, who is 24, if the book had been assigned while he was in high school. No, he said, but he thought he remembered having seen the cover: “A big orange circle?” I looked it up online. Sure enough, the cover of the paperback, still in print today, is oddly ambiguous: a drawing of a big orange sun, either rising or setting, behind a vaguely oriental bridge. When I read the book, its cover image was a black-and-white photograph of a towering mushroom cloud. There was no mistaking its subject.

For my son’s generation, climate change is now the existential threat that makes people lose sleep. A 30-year-old friend told me that climate disaster is what the people in his circle who are starting families worry about most when they contemplate their children’s future. I asked whether he’d spent much time thinking about the threat of nuclear weapons. “Minimally,” he said. “Even now the drumbeat of nuclear war seems to be a distant thing. It’s not top of mind for most people of my generation. It seems a relic of history.”

I wondered whether Putin’s threats had penetrated this unconcern. “It seems as if the deterrence has been established sufficiently that he wouldn’t engage,” my friend said. “And so when he talks about it, I think most people of my generation think he’s posturing and trying to use it as leverage rather than a genuine threat.”

New generation, new horrors.

We all see storms growing more violent, hurricanes increasing in power, record flooding. In the face of these immediacies, the specter of nuclear war may seem an abstraction. Like radiation, it is invisible. We don’t see the bombs in their silos or the bombers and the submarines. We find it easy to think: Nuclear war is too risky; no one would dare try it. Deterrence has worked for more than seven decades, so it will continue working.

I recall a vigorous debate in the 1980s about whether the world would be safer without nuclear weapons or with them and the deterrence they provided. Those of us who dreamed of a nuclear-free future believed that deterrence must inevitably fail. As long as nations had nuclear arsenals, the risk—certainty, even—was that someday they would use them.

Now the predicament of Ukraine shows the limits of deterrence. It functioned between nuclear-armed states that could destroy each other; it falters, or perhaps never applied, in the case of a nonnuclear nation threatened by a nuclear power.

Putin, a dictator who traffics in terror, wants us to think that he has lost the fear that held Khrushchev and Kennedy back from disaster during the Cuban crisis. He talks about using nuclear weapons, some analysts tell us, because he wants to normalize the idea that they can be used in war, so that when he orders a strike, people will say, Well, I don’t like it, but that’s just how things are.

That desensitizing process, the erosion of shock value, has already begun. Other horrors have intervened. The nuclear dread has faded.

My hope is that Putin’s nuclear bravado will backfire, just as his invasion has gone against plan. In trying to make nukes seem normal, just another weapon to deploy on the battlefield, Putin may inadvertently accomplish the opposite. Why did we sit on the train tracks all those years ago? We were in favor of disarmament, yes, but our more immediate goal was to make the weapons visible. We wanted people to see them. We wanted to shake people up, shock them, and make them aware of the threat we all faced. The need for that work never ended. People just got used to looking away.