Who knew we'd be this bad at facing the end of the world?
Most baby boomers remember the national emergency warning system known as Conelrad. The name stands for "Control of Electromagnetic Radiation"—an aspirational goal if there ever was one. Although it was used for other kinds of emergencies, Conelrad's purpose was unambiguous: to warn Americans of a nuclear attack.
"In the event of an actual emergency, an even worse emergency … well, let's face it: we're screwed."
When the system was being tested, radio and television stations would briefly go silent. A tone would sound for 15 seconds. Then, an announcer would come on the air to say something like this (from a 1961 Conelrad script for the state of California):
"Your attention, please. This is a Conelrad drill, a test of your emergency broadcasting system …. Should this country be attacked, regular stations would go off the air and Conelrad might well be your only source of reliable information … This is only a test, but an important test."
After a long, propagandistic pitch for the virtues of "civil defense," the announcer typically concluded by saying something like: "This has been a test of the Conelrad system. In the event of an actual emergency, you would be directed to …"
A nuclear holocaust is the ultimate human horror, made even worse by the long minutes of the missiles' arc—minutes for people to consider the impending incineration, burns, vaporizations, and slow deaths from radiation and starvation. Adding to the tension, schoolchildren were routinely taken through "air raid drills" where they were told to move away from glass windows and curl up under our desks to wait for the explosion—as if that would have made a difference.
These exercises served a clear propaganda purpose: to make it seem as if civilization could survive a nuclear attack. "If there are enough shovels to go around," said one official, "everybody’s going to make it." Had people known the truth, really known it, they might have stopped the nuclear arms race before it gained momentum.
People have tried to tell us. This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Some of its survivors, like Setsuko Thurlow, have spent three-quarters of a century trying to warn the rest of us of the fate that could be ours. My own mother visited the ruins of Nagasaki two months after its destruction. What haunted her, she said, was the nothingness—the absence of any signs that a city had ever been there. In its place was only scattered rubble, piles of burned rock that reminded her of stucco.
That could be true of our cities someday, too.
How did we, through the nuclear arms race, become the potential co-authors of Armageddon? As late as the 1930s, Americans—and the entire world—were appalled at the thought of targeting a civilian population. When the Nazis bombed the noncombatant city of Guernica, Spain, the world was horrified. Less than decade later, it had become standard American policy to bomb civilian targets—and to plan for mass destruction on a scale previously unimagined.
At the start of World War II, the United States had a policy of "precision bombing" to minimize civilian deaths. But that changed, as expediency dictated a change: civilian casualties were soon considered an appropriate way to hurt "morale." At the war's end, the U.S. chose two nuclear targets in Japan, not for military value, but because the committee who picked them had decided that "psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance."
The "psychological factors" the planners cared about most were in the minds of Soviet leaders they wanted to intimidate. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and maimed to make a statement.
The fall of the Soviet Union should have led to nuclear disarmament, but didn't. Today, Democrats eager to score points against Trump for his alleged Russian connection are re-heating Cold War. They are also working with Republican colleagues to inflame tensions with China, a nuclear power, by passing bipartisan military spending bills that include billions of dollars for direct provocations in the South China sea. At the same time, the White House is escalating tensions with sanctions and the closing of the Houston consulate.
"If we do learn something, all the death and suffering won't have been in vain."
An exchange of tactical nukes could quickly escalate to full scale war. Faulty equipment, which nearly caused a nuclear war in 1983, still could today.
And we're learning that apocalypse can take many forms. Covid-19, as destructive and lethal as it is, is by no means the deadliest pandemic we could face. As civilization destroys more animal habitats, more creatures will move into human spaces and new diseases will cross over.
This pandemic is a test of our medical emergency response system. Like the nuclear arms race, it's a rehearsal for apocalypse. It turns out we're even worse at it than we could have imagined. It's not just Trump's venality and incompetence, which has cost countless lives. Republicans in Congress have pushed for massive giveaways to corporations, while depriving working people (front-line and otherwise) of basic necessities. Democrats had a chance to show that they understand the suffering of working people. But their "aspirational" bills have coddled insurance companies, shortchanged workers, and failed to meet the needs of the moment.
This has also been a test of our emergency response system. In the event of an actual emergency, an even worse emergency … well, let's face it: we're screwed. But we still have a chance to learn from these deaths and failures. We can learn how to manage (or avoid) the next pandemic. We can learn to provide healthcare for everyone. And we can realize—really realize, deep in our gut—something most Americans have always denied: apocalypses happen. If we understand that, maybe we'll even do something about the arms race.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Never Miss a Beat.
Get our best delivered to your inbox.
If we do learn something, all the death and suffering won't have been in vain. We will have at long last honored the memory of so many we have lost: from the victims of Hiroshima and the wars that have followed (including Yemen), to all the people who have lost their lives to starvation, lack of medical care, and negligence—in this country and everywhere.