Somehow, some way, nuclear war is once again a live possibility. The most startling incident came earlier this month when a state employee accidentally clicked the wrong choice in a piece of emergency-alert software, sending a notice of imminent destruction to everyone with a phone in Hawaii. But what’s striking is that people believed the message. For much of the past 30 years, it would have been implausible enough to be received as a likely mistake. But 2018 has already seen President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trade barbs about their nuclear buttons. People are buying potassium iodide pills again. The December 2017 issue of Harper’s magazine featured seven writers “taking stock of our nuclear present.” Atomic weapons—and their horrifying effects—are back in the national consciousness.
Of course, they never really went away. But a combination of peace activism’s successes, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the other threats that have been lumped together in the war on terror simply pushed the prospect of nuclear war out of sight and mostly out of mind.
It has been possible to consider the government planning reports of the Cold War with historical detachment or even bemusement. For example, the U.S. Post Office once printed 60 million change-of-address cards and sent them to regional offices, just in case of a major nuclear exchange that created tens of millions of refugees. The Federal Civil Defense Administration created cartoons showing kids how to duck and cover, which would not have been of much use in a nuclear exchange that killed hundreds of millions of people. There were detailed, practiced plans of possible governmental succession based on endless reports. Looking back in 2003, Slate declared “it’s hard today to do anything but laugh at these Cold War inanities.” Even just last April, The Washington Post reviewed a book on the American government’s Cold War plans and found the details ridiculous.“For all the ominous directives and war scenarios, there is something random and even comical about planning for Armageddon,” wrote Carlos Lozada. “How many Export-Import Bank staffers rate rescuing? How many from the Department of Agriculture?”