What's scary about all this blustering about nuclear war between North Korea and the United States is that it is accepted so cavalierly — like, ho-hum, lobbing nukes at each other across the Pacific is just another day at the office.
Is a new generation of Americans oblivious to the impact that nuclear explosions, even "just" a few of today's bombs — which make the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like babies — would have on the planet and tens of millions of the people who live on it?
It was only a little more than 30 years ago when scientists led by the legendary Carl Sagan built computer models that predicted how the fallout from exploding nukes would not only poison millions of people with radiation, but send plumes of soot and debris into the atmosphere that would effectively block out the sun, plunging much of Earth into what was called "nuclear winter."
The folly of nuclear conflict had been underscored 20 years before in Stanley Kubrick's classic film "Dr. Strangelove," which was all about the "nuclear missile gap" between the U.S. and Russia. The 1964 movie exposed the idiocy of nuclear war in a scene in which Dr. Strangelove, while an American bomb is on its way to Russia, counsels the U.S. president to quickly equip mineshafts where model citizens can wait out the devastation for decades. That leads a U.S. general to fear the Russians would stock such mineshafts, too, and unless we were careful we could be facing a "mineshaft gap" while the world above smoldered.
Yet for the next 20 years we, the Russians and several other countries — despite the efforts of anti-nuclear groups and citizen protesters — continued building more nukes until finally in the 1980s Sagan and other scientists began demonstrating just how crazy we all were to even contemplate using nukes against one another.
Another film, this one produced as an hour-long documentary for the British Broadcasting Co., visually demonstrated the aftermath of a handful of nuclear explosions. It was a riveting video that graphically showed how nuclear winter would disrupt the climate and cause millions, if not billions, of deaths. The then-fledgling Turner Broadcasting Co. showed the video to a huge national audience in January 1985.
There were skeptics, of course, who insisted that there was no way the scientists behind "On the Eighth Day" could prove that the envisioned "nuclear winter" would actually occur. But mainstream scientists from around the world, including Sagan, vouched for its authenticity. Still others, including those who had spent careers studying the demise of the dinosaurs and other species throughout early history, blamed intense volcanic activity for creating the dust and clouds of soot that shut out the sun for as long as years.
Nuclear explosions would mimic that kind of atmospheric disruption, they wrote.
At any rate, the world seemed to sober up. Most of us had never considered how devastating a nuclear war's aftermath might be. With the urging of scientists and citizen activists, the U.S. and Russia came together in nuclear arms treaties with a goal of someday eliminating the weapons altogether. When the Cold War essentially ended in the late '80s, many breathed a sigh of relief. The so-called nuclear "Doomsday Clock" even backed up a few minutes.
But as appears to be the wont of humanity, it didn't last long. A handful of other nations joined the "nuclear club" and then came North Korea. Iran wants to join, too, but has so far been slowed down by a U.S. treaty that the current president doesn't like.
So where once we were convinced that it would be mutual suicide to participate in a nuclear war, we're back to those "Dr. Strangelove" days of having to worry about spending most of our lives in a mineshaft. Donald Trump brags that his button is bigger than North Korea's and basically dares dictator Kim Jong-un to press his.
Meanwhile, there's little alarm from the rest of the country, as though dropping a few nukes on each other will be the equivalent of one of those IEDs in the Mideast.
Let's just hope we don't have to be reminded some day of what idiots we were.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. Zweifel is the co-author, along with John Nichols, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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