How Fiction saved the world

Almost seventy years ago the first atomic bomb tests were conducted in New Mexico and, to the surprise of all, there still hasn’t been a nuclear war!  What saved us from a nuclear holocaust?   Was it our wise leaders?  Was it our basic instinct to survive?  Did angels intervene?  

Or was it something much simpler that saved us from nuclear war?

War Room from Dr. Strangelove

Option 1: Wisdom of our leaders.   Currently eight countries have nuclear weapons.  United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea.  All have violent histories, and several have instigated or participated in atrocities such as slavery, genocide, and the mass bombing of civilian targets.   The odds that the leaders of all of these countries (and possibly more) have the wisdom needed to prevent nuclear war are slim.

Option 2: Our basic instinct to survive. Since July, 1945, there have been more wars on this planet than I can count.  Brutal genocides haunt almost every continent: The Holocaust in Europe, the Killing Fields in Asia, and the Rwandan Genocide in Africa.  Humans beings show no hesitancy in their rush to kill human beings, so it’s unlikely that either morality or instinct prevented nuclear war.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Option 3: Angelic intervention.  Since angels are unverifiable, let’s put this option aside for now.

None of these three options adequately explain why all eight countries refrained from using the bomb.   None adequately explain why no world leader ever gave the order or pressed the button.  What if something else saved humanity from a nuclear holocaust?  Something so simple that Robert Oppenheimer and the other scientists involved in the 1945 tests would have thought impossible.

Option 4: Popular Fiction saved us!

Yes!   Books and movies about nuclear war and its aftermath saved our planet from “the radiance of a thousand suns” as Oppenheimer called the first atomic blasts, quoting The Bhagavad-Gita.

From Godzilla, King of the Monsters to the original Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston to Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, books and movies have graphically portrayed the wretched horror of a post-apocalyptical world caused by nuclear war.

 Fear of ridicule is greater than fear of death.

Final scene in original Planet of the Apes

Moreover, books and movies illuminate the type of leader who might instigate a nuclear war.  Men like Greg Stillson, the psychotic Bible salesman who rises to the presidency in Stephen King’s THE DEAD ZONE .  Men like Jack D. Ripper, the idiotic general who wants to destroy the earth in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Fear of being labeled psychotic or idiotic not only by history, but also by friends and family undoubtedly had as much to do with why neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy hit the red button as did their leadership.  Maybe even more!  No one wants to go down in history as a President Stillson or General Ripper!

In conclusion, popular fiction alerted the public of the dangers of nuclear war and nudged the human consciousness away from thinking of nuclear weapons as a viable method of subduing an enemy.  Now, almost seventy years later, the threats facing the planet have changed.  Both politics and science have failed to convince the general population of the dangers of climate change.  Our leaders have done nothing to lessen the world’s addiction to carbon based fuels.  Quite the opposite, many actually encourage it.   Perhaps if books and movies turned a critical eye towards the causes of climate change, the world would follow and disaster could be averted once more.

Final scene in Dr. Strangelove

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