Perfect American Nuclear Horror

We love nuclear horror stories in America. We love them whether they’re somber like the film On The Beach, soapy-dramatic like the cult show Jericho, or retro-future like the Fallout series of video games. We laugh at the lunatic optimism of duck and cover, and marvel at the strangeness of the (perhaps exaggerated) all-encompassing fear of The Bomb.

The Cold War was a treasure trove of fascinating bits of culture. And sometimes that culture had real world consequences. On November 20, 1983, one hundred million people tuned into ABC to watch the nuclear apocalypse-themed TV movie The Day After. Famously, President Ronald Reagan was troubled by this film after watching it privately at the White House six weeks before it even aired. He wrote as much in his diary. Some credit Reagan’s anti-nuke feelings at least in part to that silly movie. Watching it now, The Day After is cheesy, as any 1980s TV movie that starred John Lithgow and Steve Guttenberg must be. It is also also a hideously grim slog of a movie. No wonder that during its airing ABC set up a hotline for fearful people to call into. But that graphic quality – the lack of artfulness in The Day After may have been its genius. It’s not moody, eerie, or pleasant in any way. It is simply a pain in the stomach to watch. (The similar Threads was the British showing that they’re always willing to get realer than America.)

Not all nuclear fiction is like The Day After. Even the end of the world has many moods and faces. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was creepy shlock Panic in Year Zero and This Is Not a Test. Them! and other monster films gave us the lighter side of nukes. The literary beauty of On The Beach and A Canticle For Leibowitz showed people that the whole planet might go up in nuclear armageddon – perhaps twice.. And for the most common man, but classy man, The Twilight Zone showed people the dangers of falling for paranoia and inhumanity in the face of such horrors.

I’ve lately made a project of watching and reading these Cold War relicts. I have got through many of the most famous titles. But the movie that sprouted up a whole different interpretation of the fallout shelter clichés was Testament, which you might consider the third branch of the ‘80s TV movie trifecta of gloom.

While Threads and The Day After scream in your face about the savagery in all of us, Testament whispers about the sadness of one life, or a family’s, or a town’s end. There is nothing graphic here, save a brief scene of radiation sickness suffered by a child. The bombs aren’t even seen except for a flash of light. This is just Jane Alexander’s character watching her children fade away. The late Roger Ebert called Testament "a tragedy about manners" and this rings true. This is not a new stone age of brutality, this is just a terribly, terribly sad story in which there is no hope for a woman who continues to try her best until the very end.

As I watched it and cried – as Ebert cried – something occurred to me. Cold war films, television, books, and popular impressions of that era are stuck firmly in the category of "never let this happen." And it hasn’t. Confirmed total doom as in On The Beach or Canticle for Leibowitz have not yet happened. But tiny, slow deaths have happened alongside shadows melted onto sidewalks and buildings. Mothers must have watched their children slowly die. Almost 70 years ago, the US dropped nuclear Armageddon on the people of two different cities. Before we began the genre of imagined atomic destruction, some 225,000 casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki got the message much clearer.

You might psychoanalyze the nation and say the fact of Fat Man and Little Boy cannot be divorced from these later nightmares put on screen and page. But even if the fact of those bombs was in the background, it stayed there. America’s home front Cold War paranoia was self-centered. This is understandable to a point. No one person invented the fear that the US and the USSR would destroy each other and perhaps the whole world. Still, the relief of escaping the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust should come with a bigger footnote.

Every time I try to think that at least nobody would ever use a nuclear weapon on human beings, I hit that asterisk. "We" – the "good guys" – already did this to people. It was a popular choice at the time. And though Gallup presumably hadn’t asked about the bombings lately, anecdotally – and based on many a Twitter spat I’ve had – it seems people generally still support it. (Trustworthy, non-hippie men like Dwight Eisenhower disputing the decision’s necessity are neatly tucked aside to this day.)

An optimistic reading suggests that this downplaying is essential. Soldiers with PTSD suggest that war is bad for humanity. Perhaps not wanting to look at what your country’s bombs do is a logical, albeit unacceptable response from people.

People’s inherent skittishness about horror was not enough for America, however. For 25 years, the (color) footage of Hiroshima’s aftermath shot by military cameramen was unseen. A Japanese newsreel team was stopped by the US military, and their footage seized. The military man in charge of keeping that footage told Nation writer Greg Mitchell that the reason for hiding the film away was shame and regret. After all, this was not soldiers injured, this was women and children who suffered from the bombs. On the other hand, Mitchell wrote that the man’s assistant "struggled for years to get some of the American footage aired on national TV, taking his request as high as President Truman, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward R. Murrow, to no avail." It seems nobody wanted to look. And they still don’t.

Besides, there may be nothing on that film strong enough to knock down the people clinging to arguments like "there’s no moral responsibility for America here" and "we know the US invasion would have cost more lives, so…." (more on these ideas next week). Still, for all of the art the US produced during the Cold War, for the sadness of films like Testament and the gut-punch of ones like The Day After, reality is something else. All these films say "don’t let this happen." But it already did, and nobody dared watch.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

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Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.