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How We Gained the Ability to Create Our Own End Times

Here was the oddest thing: within weeks of the United States dropping an atomic bomb on a second Japanese city on August 9, 1945, and so obliterating it, Americans were already immersed in new scenarios of nuclear destruction.  As the late Paul Boyer so vividly described in his classic book By the Bomb’s Early Light, it took no time at all -- at a moment when no other nation had such potentially Earth-destroying weaponry -- for an America triumphant to begin to imagine itself in ruins, and for its newspapers and magazines to start drawing concentric circles of death and destruction around American cities while consigning their future country to the stewardship of the roaches. 

As early as October 1945, the military editor of Reader’s Digest would declare the first atomic bomb “dated,” and write, “It is now in the power of the atom-smashers to blot out New York with a single bomb... Such a bomb can burn up in an instant every creature, can fuse the steel buildings and smash the concrete into flying shrapnel.” 

By 1947, in “Mist of Death Over New York,” that staid magazine would have a description in “realistic detail” of an atomic explosion in New York harbor.  (“Within six weeks, 389,101 New Yorkers were dead or missing.”) In November 1945, in the “36-Hour War,” Life would feature a mushroom cloud rising over Washington in a surprise attack slaughtering 10 million Americans.  That December, the Wall Street Journal would run a feature article imagining “an attack by planes and missiles that could wipe out 98% of the population of the United States.”

Radio quickly followed with its own nightmarish nuclear scenarios of all-American disaster as, within years, would TV, while post-nuclear landscapes of horror were a dime a dozen in the world of pulp fiction.  In the movies, mutant and irradiated creatures of every sort -- from previously somnolent giant reptiles to monstrous ants -- ran wild on screen. 

Everything, in a sense, became radioactive.  There were even, as Boyer wrote, “fashion tips for the apocalypse,” as in a government-sponsored pamphlet with an illustration of a man in a fedora, its brim tipped down, captioned, “If you are caught outdoors in a sudden attack, a hat will give you at least some protection from the ‘heat flash.’” This was the “duck and cover” world I grew up in (“you and I don't have shells to crawl into, like Bert the Turtle, so we have to cover up in our own way...”), one in which, though few spoke of it, everyone sensed that some “red line” had been crossed in the New Mexican desert and then at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It was a world in which, for the first time, not God but human beings could create their own end times. 

We still haven’t taken it all in, but 50 years ago, there was a moment when it looked like all the futuristic fiction might indeed turn into reality, when (at least if you lived on the East Coast of the U.S.) it seemed as if events were drawing a concentric circle around you.  That was, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and anybody my age undoubtedly remembers with particular specificity the night of October 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy went on TV and the radio to tell us that we were all potentially toast. 

"We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth," he said grimly, "but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced." At 18, with most of my life still theoretically ahead of me, I believed him.

Fifty years later, in “The Week the World Stood Still,” Noam Chomsky reminded us this week of just how close we truly got to a self-induced apocalypse and why it came to that.  It’s a chilling tale about the imperial urge to control the world, one that still couldn’t be more relevant.

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