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The Nuclear Age: A New Documentary

People often say we live in the “nuclear age,” but what that means is never entirely clear. A new documentary produced by a former ABC newsman captures the spirit, or rather spirits, of that era – from its beginnings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and up to the present.

Inspired by the late Cold War, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan initiated a process of disarmament in Iceland in 1986, the producer hopes to make viewers believe that eliminating nuclear weapons can happen – despite the growing fatalism and relative inattention to the problem in the post-Cold War era. What seemed like a great opportunity for disarmament – the end of the Cold War – ushered in a new era of proliferation (North Korea and Pakistan ). Yet even as the real threat had arguably grown, the perception of that threat since the early 1990s has paradoxically diminished. My own in-class surveys bear this out: I begin my classes by asking students how many fear the possibility of nuclear annihilation. In contrast to my own student experience in the early 1980s, when most of us periodically imagined the terrifying prospect of the mushroom cloud, few hands go up.

If the documentary aims to make viewers just say no to nukes, it actually suggests the difficulty of putting the proverbial genie of nuclear weapons back in the bottle. Lack of public concern is only one of the many challenges. States who lack nuclear weapons feel compelled, for reasons of national prestige and military strategy, to pursue nuclear technology. They have little sympathy with the nuclear-weapon states who tell them, frequently and hypocritically, that developing a bomb is a bad thing.

The documentary notes how relieved the Soviets were when they tested their first bomb in 1949: now, at last, they would not have to be terrified by the possibility of American attack. It was nuclear weapons, certainly more than economic achievement, that made the Soviet Union a superpower. That same logic – to protect oneself from attack and to gain a voice in the crowded international arena – has compelled other states such as North Korea to pursue military nuclear capabilities (including, one might add, Iran). The example of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is a case in point: if he had had weapons of mass destruction he probably would not have been invaded. Meanwhile, nations may have learned the lesson of the Soviet Union and of Great Britain (which first tested a bomb in 1952) – that despite their economic difficulties they could maintain at least some semblance of world power by having a nuclear arsenal. France, in defiance of UN condemnation, tested its own bomb in 1960, thus overcoming the humiliation, or so it thought, of defeat in World War II. And then China followed suit in 1964, India in 1974, Israel (possibly in 1979), Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea in 2006.

The problem of non-proliferation is complicated by another factor: developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes provides much of the technological capability for developing a nuclear bomb. Those who promote the civilian use of nuclear power – which includes all the states who preach nuclear non-proliferation — thus contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation. The documentary provides little sense of how nuclear power might be expanded without also increasing the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities – especially given the aggressive marketing efforts of nuclear industry officials at places like Rosatom (, the state-funded promoter of the Russian nuclear industry. Since first becoming president, President Putin has made the export of nuclear power production a key component of Russia’s future economy. That effort has included helping the Russian atomshchiki regain something of their glory years after the industry’s post-Chernobyl malaise through the 1990s. As Putin noted in 2008 on the Rosenergoatom web site, linking the sacred realm of religion to the techno-political world: “Russian Orthodoxy and the nuclear industry are two themes closely related to each other because the traditional religion of the Russian Federation and the nuclear shield of Russia are those constituent components which strengthen the Russian state, creating the necessary conditions for guaranteeing foreign and domestic security. We can therefore conclude from this how the state in the future must relate to both.”

The film, meanwhile, contains excellent footage and photographs as well as excerpts from U.S. Department of Defense propaganda clips. One problem is the predominance of the US perspective and sources in the documentary. More attention to other perspectives – for example, the Russian, French, Israeli or Indian one – would have provided an even richer sense of the challenges and conundrums of the nuclear age. At times the documentary is heavy on melodrama and pathos but light on analysis. The emphasis on bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as decisively marking a new nuclear era, is a bit overdone. The first atomic bombs were in some ways unprecedented but they also grew out of the ever more lethal “conventional” bombing campaigns of the war – in Dresden, Tokyo and elsewhere. Those campaigns, orchestrated by Colonel “Bombs Away” Curtis LeMay, were every bit as deadly, if not more so, than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only later, with the development of the far more powerful hydrogen bombs in the early and mid-1950s, did the fundamentally different nature of nuclear weapons become apparent (the “Tsar Bomba,” for example, that the Soviets detonated in Novaia Zemlia in October 1961; the biggest bomb ever exploded, it had 1,400 times the explosive power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Leaders such as Eisenhower, Kennedy and the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev began to search for ways to prevent the technology from ever being used, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those efforts ultimately gave rise to the present regime of nuclear test bans and force reductions, beginning with the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963 and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of 1968 (which the newer nuclear bomb powers after 1968 have logically refused to join).

The documentary also makes a number of other interesting points. For example, it notes that the nuclear era was also the beginning of the national security state – and the creation of a vast infrastructure in the United States funded by the taxpayer but developed completely in secret and outside of public control. Among other things, the United States, fearing that sensitive information would fall into Soviet hands, suppressed information about treating radiation exposure that would have saved thousands who suffered from radiation sickness in Japan. The topic of democracy imperiled by a nuclear-military-industrial complex deserves its own documentary, one that would examine the corrosive impact of national security imperatives on transparency, democracy, and openness wherever nuclear weapons have been (and are being) developed.

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