Accidental Armageddons: The Nuclear Crisis and the Culture of the Second Cold War, 1975-1989

Nov 04, 2010 - Nov 06, 2010

Conference at the GHI | Conveners: Eckart Conze (University of Marburg), Martin Klimke (GHI), Jeremy Varon (New School for Social Research, New York City)

After having been lost for almost thirty years, Albert Sonneman's photo-realist piece "The Last Washington Painting" was recently rediscovered. The painting is a classic of nuclear doom. It shows a mushroom cloud exploding over the American capital city as cars speed across Fourteenth Street Bridge straight into disaster. "It was painted in the days of mutually assured destruction, the daily business of parents of people I knew in D.C.," Sonneman recalled in a recent interview with the Washington City Paper: "This is the business of Washington. My girlfriend's father arranged the distribution of nuclear warheads for NATO." The painting very nicely reflects the cultural mood of the early 1980s, when the resurgence of Cold War tensions, the rearmament decisions of NATO, and the election of Ronald Reagan to the American presidency fed into a new bout of nuclear angst.
The story of the loss and the recent rediscovery of Sonneman's painting, which can now be seen at American University, is almost metaphorical for the returning interest in the controversies of the 1980s about an impending "nuclear Holocaust" - as the atomic doomsday scenario was commonly referred to at the time. By historical accident, this resurging interest is now accompanied by a new anti-nuclear movement in Germany. This conference at the German Historical Institute in Washington studied the historical context in which artworks like Sonneman's painting clearly resonated in Western cultures. As the conveners explained in their introduction, the "Accidental Armageddons" conference sought to explore the political and cultural discourse on nuclear weapons and atomic energy in the 1970s and 1980s - the Second Cold War - by analyzing diplomatic and strategic debates as well as the "anti-establishment" perspective of protest movements, and by linking political debates with cultural representations of nuclear death in music, literature, and film.
The first panel on "Doomsday Ideologies," chaired by Martin Klimke, started with a comparative discussion by Michael S. Foley of the environmental protests of the Clamshell Alliance against the Seabrook (NH) and Diablo Canyon (CA) nuclear power plants, on the one hand, and the grassroots campaign of Love Canal (NY) residents, on the other, who had discovered that their houses had been built on a toxic waste site. As Foley argued, Love Canal activists were more successful than their anti-nuclear peers because they could see concrete "visible evidence" of pollution from their "front porches." This "front porch politics" succeeded in mobilizing the critical support of representatives in Congress, whereas the dangers of nuclear power remained more abstract even after the Three Mile Island (TMI) disaster in March 1979. Wilfried Mausbach then analyzed the "Nuclear Winter" scenario, which burst onto the scene in the fall of 1983 and which he characterized as "the one and only new concept that separates the struggle against nuclear weapons in the 1980s from its antecedents in the 1950s." Although the science behind it was not particularly new, the idea of "nuclear winter" resonated because it was an outgrowth of a new environmental awareness that had not existed two to three decades earlier. It also tapped into the general sense of doom and crisis that became characteristic of the 1970s. Eckart Conze examined the "instrumentalization of Auschwitz" during the early 1980s debates about nuclear rearmament in West Germany. He highlighted the mobilizing effect of the term "nuclear Holocaust," which was meant to provoke anxiety and fear of death. It stipulated a "special German responsibility." German as well as American politicians were linked to Nazi crimes, which provoked conservative politicians, such as CDU General Secretary Heiner Geissler, to fortify their political positions by also using historical analogies to the 1930s. Geissler famously claimed in the West German Federal Parliament (Bundestag) that the pacifism of the 1920s and 1930s had "paved the way to Auschwitz."
Nuclear death in film and popular culture was the theme of the second panel, chaired by Jeremy Varon. Tony Shaw used the 1979 movie The China Syndrome, which dealt with a near disastrous turn of a fictional safety cover up at a California nuclear power plant, to look at the cultural dimensions of the Cold War. He asked how Hollywood's skepticism of nuclear energy connected with a critique of corporate power and the media. Originally conceived of as a small-scale docudrama, the film became a major blockbuster thanks to the input of activist actors like Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas and its auspicious timing, since it was released shortly before the near meltdown at TMI. In fact, the movie seems to have framed the reaction to TMI of journalists who had had little knowledge of nuclear energy up to that point. William Knoblauch then examined British anti-nuclear pop music of the 1980s. Geography, memories of World War II, and British civil defense propaganda made Britain a unique case. MTV enabled activist musicians to convey their political messages and even export them to the United States. Overall, however, Knoblauch concluded that nuclear pop was more popular in Great Britain than in the United States, which seemed to be less exposed to nuclear threats. Furthermore, anti-nuclear pop came to a sudden end in 1987, when Cold War tensions eased and groups shifted their focus to other political issues.
Panel three, chaired by Eckart Conze, continued to explore nuclear themes in music as well as in the arts more generally. Laura Stapane spoke about the "Artists for Peace" (Künstler für den Frieden) movement, which in the early 1980s served West German musicians, artists (e.g., Joseph Beuys), actors, and intellectuals as a platform for utilizing artistic expression as a means of political protest. Politically triggered by NATO's double-track decision, the movement aimed to disseminate the idea of a nuclear-free world in a series of cultural events. Thanks to a wide variety of genres and artists - a plethora of different types of music such as rock, pop, classical, folk, and the so-called German Schlager was offered - these art festivals were highly successful both financially and in terms of participation. The organizers were also able to mobilize groups not normally interested in political issues. Martin Klimke then linked anti-nuclear expressions in West German popular music at the beginning of the 1980s (such as Nena's "99 Luftballons") to the "Green Caterpillar" bus tour that was organized by the newly founded West German Green Party as part of its 1983 electoral campaign. A fusion of cultural and political event, the tour not only forced the Social Democratic Party to reconsider its ties to critical artists but also strengthened the Greens' appeal as an "anti-party party." In addition, the tour's emphasis on regional input helped pull the party together. Finally, it also helped to broaden the draw of Green politics beyond the alternative milieu.
The fourth panel, chaired by David Lazar, turned its attention to literature. Philipp Baur argued that one of the Second Cold War's characteristics was "the intentional use of fiction to warn and educate the public." By looking at Gudrun Pausewang's Die Letzten Kinder von Schewenborn (The last children of Schewenborn) and Anton-Andreas Guha's Ende. Tagebuch aus dem 3. Weltkrieg (End: Diary of World War III), he came to the conclusion that regionalism and the localization of Armageddon were peculiar features of the artistic anti-nuclear engagement during the 1980s. These scenarios also fed on scientific visions of a post-apocalyptic world (like those presented in the concept of nuclear winter). Thomas Goldstein examined how the official East German Writers Union (Schriftstellerverband) served the regime's propagandistic purposes with mixed results. Whereas the government had some success in co-opting even critical writers to its "peace agenda," the narrow focus on NATO missiles that it fostered became increasingly untenable as Gorbachev's reforms and a growing environmental consciousness in the GDR triggered increasing criticism of the dictatorship. Dolores Augustine's examination of the representations of the peace and anti-nuclear movement in the West German print media focused on the weekly Der Stern. The Second Cold War saw a confluence of the debate about peaceful and military use of nuclear power. In contrast to debates of the 1950s, those during the Second Cold War utilized visual strategies to convey the horrors of nuclear destruction; protests were generally portrayed in a sympathetic light, and the synergy between anti-nuclear power and anti-nuclear weapons issues made media coverage during this period a "force" to be reckoned with.
Establishment reactions were the focus of the fifth panel, chaired by William Burr. Jan Hansen summarized his findings on the political and cultural discourse on nuclear weapons within the West German Social Democratic Party. NATO's double-track decision shattered party unity over central foreign policy questions. Driven by cultural anxiety and deep-seated fears regarding modernity, the Social Democratic split over nuclear weapons led to a renegotiation of the possibilities and nature of legitimate political action within the political mainstream. In his presentation, Tim Geiger asked: "Did Protest Matter?" According to Geiger, the peace movement did not have to push the government very hard for détente, because the SPD-FDP government coalition aimed to reduce nuclear arsenals anyway. Furthermore, the peace movement helped the federal government to present itself as a proponent of a moderate approach and to bolster its international position. It was forced, however, to step up its propaganda efforts. Reinhild Kreis then analyzed the discourse about a "successor generation" as a master trope that structured the debate about an alleged "transatlantic crisis" among diplomats, politicians, and experts. Fears of estrangement, which were couched in generational terms, need to be read in the context of the contemporary discussions about "value change." Leaders therefore focused on bringing the "next generation" on board for German-American friendship, which they feared anti-nuclear sentiments and widespread anti-Americanism had sundered.
The sixth panel, chaired by Philipp Gassert, on "Security Cultures" focused on the emergence of particular national discourses structured around nuclear issues. Natasha Zaretsky discussed how, following incidents such as Watergate or the oil crisis, the TMI accident led to a further erosion of public trust in governmental policies and official insurance. TMI now placed the human body - and, more specifically, the pregnant, the young child's, or fetal body - in the center of a question of trust. TMI emerged as a fully-fledged cultural crisis because the "grammar of human life" enabled female members of a largely white, conservative, rural Pennsylvanian community, especially, to remain good Christians and patriots while opposing nuclear energy at the same time. Tim Warneke's presentation explored the discourse about "madness" in the United States and West Germany. Taking his clues from Dr. Strangelove, Warneke argued that the consensus of "what was reasonable and what was insane" broke down in the context of shifting values, resulting in an almost complete rupture of communication between the two warring camps. Finally, Katrin Ruecker explained why France did not experience a prolonged period of nuclear anxiety. The small, and mostly communist, French peace movement operated in a "discouraging context" (Wittner), with all major parties strongly in favor of the force de frappe (the French nuclear program) and NATO's rearmament decision. Also, public opinion was either strongly in favor of nuclear power and nuclear weapons or indifferent. Finally, French international aspirations and, thus France's national identity were closely linked to having access to nuclear weapons. The nonaligned French peace movement therefore had only limited access.
The final panel, chaired by Marianne Zepp, explored grassroots initiatives at the local level. Stephan Milder discussed the protests against the planned Wyhl nuclear power plant in South Baden, Germany. Local grassroots opposition, which included conservative farmers and middle-class citizens from the neighboring university town of Freiburg, served as the model on which many subsequent anti-nuclear protests were built. The media portrayed them mostly in a positive light, and their opposition to what they perceived as non-responsive government officials proved to be contagious. In "Radical Feminism and the Anti-Nuclear Movement" Kyle Harvey looked at the emerging "eco-feminism" of the 1970s and 1980s. Exposing deep rifts within feminism, the movement was characterized by clashes that were as much about womanhood as they were about politics. Using the example of the tensions over the Seneca Falls Women's Encampment in upstate New York, Harvey demonstrated that feminist radicalism turned off many potential supporters. Finally, Susanne Schregel analyzed Nuclear Free Zones as part of the transnational oppositional movement to nuclear war, which was both global and local at once. Within this movement, the local was seen as the place where global transformations would emerge. This special, localized nature of protest seems to have been one further characteristic of the 1980s peace movement that distinguished it from its predecessors in the 1950s, as some of the other papers demonstrated as well.
An evening keynote lecture and a public panel discussion rounded out the conference. In his keynote on "The Rise of the Hawks and the Revolt of the Doves: Writing the History of the Second Cold War," Lawrence S. Wittner raised the question of the impact of the peace movements. Whereas some politicians like former U.S. President George H. W. Bush retrospectively claimed that pursuing "peace through strength" had worked, Wittner came to a different conclusion: in fact, governments listened to anti-nuclear activists. From Jimmy Carter's inaugural address to Ronald Reagan's stunning course reversal in the mid-1980s, the idea of nuclear abolition proved to be irresistible. A "remarkable popular uprising" against "nuclear madness," along with the "rise of world citizenship," led to a considerable reduction in the nuclear danger. With nuclear arsenals now significantly diminished (there are now about 20,000 nuclear warheads worldwide, down from a peak of more than 60,000 in 1990) Wittner stressed that real progress had been made.
A panel discussion on the second night of the conference provided a contrast to Wittner's upbeat message. It featured the author and anti-nuclear activist Jonathan Schell, whose book The Fate of the Earth (1982) remains one of the key texts of the nuclear apocalyptic genre. Sharing the panel with Frida Berrigan and Philipp Gassert, Schell highlighted some of the failures of earlier anti-nuclear movements, discussing how his 1980s prophecies had stood the test of time and what their contemporary relevance was. As Schell insisted, the dangers of "exterminism" are still with us, and with global warming, they seem to have taken on a dimension that would have been unimaginable in the 1980s.
Whereas Jonathan Schell, from the perspective of his own involvement, stressed continuities between then and now, the final discussion of the conference explored some of the discontinuities and specificities of 1970s and 1980s culture that particularly interest historians. Eckart Conze proposed that "a real and perceived crisis of modernity" is the common denominator of the various anti-nuclear movements and groups. Martin Klimke submitted the interaction of the transnational and the local levels as a 1980s peculiarity, including how human rights discourse unified or divided peace activists in Eastern and Western Europe. He asked what the impact of both popular movies and the 1986 meltdown in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union was. Jeremy Varon underscored the lessons and examples that the 1970s and 1980s still provide in how to cope with global problems. Wilfried Mausbach asked to what extent the Second Cold War had a specific culture different from the 1950s and what the parameters for distinguishing between a First and a Second Cold War should be. Reinhild Kreis emphasized the importance of different perceptions of time and timeliness in contemporary debates on nuclear and environmental issues. Philipp Gassert stressed that the "nuclear crisis" provides raw materials for a history of the political culture of the 1980s, when people were trying to make sense of multiple crisis scenarios and got stuck in the most dramatic one. As the conference's discussion demonstrated, historical research into the 1980s, which has only just begun, is propelled by new questions and exciting source materials, some outstanding examples of which this conference brought to the fore.
Philipp Gassert (University of Augsburg)

Call for Papers

In the most significant accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry, the reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial core meltdown on March 28, 1979, allowing large amounts of radioactive reactor coolant to escape. Exacerbating the panicked public reaction to this incident was the fact that a popular movie depicting a major nuclear accident, The China Syndrome, had been released only 12 days earlier. Three Mile Island was not only a turning point in public opinion regarding atomic technology but also helped fuse two protest movements together: that against nuclear energy and that against nuclear weapons.
Over the next several years, this combined "anti-nuclear" movement staged mass protests around the globe. On October 10, 1981, in the largest peace demonstration in German history to that point, between 250,000 and 300,000 demonstrators of diverse social, political, and cultural backgrounds gathered in Bonn to voice their opposition to the renewed arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic's role in it. This protest was matched by other mass rallies in Europe and North America. Two weeks later, some 200,000 people assembled in Brussels; on November 21, Amsterdam saw almost 400,000 demonstrators; and on June 12, 1982, more than one million people participated in a Nuclear Weapons Freeze demonstration in Central Park and the streets of New York City. In the fall of 1983 alone, about five million people, mostly in Western Europe, took part in demonstrations against the deployment of "Euro Missiles" (Pershing II). Protests stretched as well to Japan and Australia. Anti-nuclear activism even emerged in Eastern European countries, paving the way for greater political dissent toward the end of the decade. The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in April 1986 served to intensify the global anti-nuclear movement.
The proliferation of the anti-nuclear movement, which entailed the founding of countless national and transnational grassroots organizations, think tanks, and pressure groups, as well as the mass mobilization of people in street protests in diverse countries, was brought about by escalating fears of nuclear annihilation. This new anxiety over a "nuclear holocaust" had several sources, among them concerns raised by the growing environmental movement and heightened public distrust of the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Increased East-West confrontations that departed in alarming ways from the détente policies of the previous decade also fueled new worries.

In December 1979, NATO announced its "Double-Track" strategy: If arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union should fail, the West would station intermediate nuclear forces to counterbalance the Soviet Union's recent deployment of SS-20 mid-range missiles. This momentous decision, alongside the contemporaneous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, heightened international tensions. Finally, a new brand of conservative leader - embodied in Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl - came to power in the West, fomenting domestic protest and renewing fears of an actual nuclear war. The world thus moved from an era of reduced tension during the détente years of the 1970s to a "Second Cold War" in the 1980s.
Nuclear fears, partly precipitated by scientists' warnings that even a limited nuclear war could cause an apocalyptic "nuclear winter," also reverberated within popular culture. The American television movie The Day After (1983), which depicted this doomsday scenario, reached a record audience of 100 million, noticeably impacting leading decision-makers. Anti-nuclear messages abounded: in movies such as War Games (1983) and When the Wind Blows (1986); in Jonathan Schell's best seller The Fate of the Earth (1982); in songs by David Bowie, The Clash, and the German singer Nena; and in all-star concerts accompanying demonstrations. The "Second Cold War," in sum, entailed a deep and widespread cultural response to new, perceived dangers generated by the renewed nuclear arms race.

The first of its kind, the conference "Accidental Armagedons" seeks to explore the political and cultural discourse on nuclear weapons and atomic energy during the Second Cold War. While welcoming myriad approaches, the conference has several core goals:
(1) To explore diplomatic, political, and strategic debates surrounding nuclear armaments and the doctrines governing their possible use. "Traditional" actors, such as the political, diplomatic, and military elites, certainly shaped these debates, but "anti-establishment" forces such as civil society organizations and activist groups also played an important role within them.
(2) To merge "establishment" perspectives with an analyses of protest cultures by looking at non-state actors, grassroots activists, civil society organizations, and artists.
(3) To transcend the traditional East-West divide of the Cold War by examining both sides of the Iron Curtain, the views and activities of those in "non-aligned" countries, and the cooperation of policy makers, organizations, activists, scientists, and intellectuals across borders.
(4) To understand how "ecological" protests against the civilian use of nuclear energy and activism against nuclear weapons converged in a new, comprehensive anti-nuclear movement. That movement, from diverse vantage points, articulated a new and profound critique of the postwar, industrial, and technological modernity that had emerged after 1945.
(5) To establish how nuclear anxiety and fears of environmental apocalypse facilitated the rise of global consciousness and conceptions of global citizenship.
The conference will place special emphasis on the cultural and trans-/international dimensions of nuclear discourse.
Accordingly, we invite proposals on the following topics:

  • cultural representations of nuclear weapons, energy, and war in film, literature, the media, and the arts
  • the deployment of such representations by protest groups
  • the global dimension of both nuclear discourse and the anti-nuclear movement
  • public responses to nuclear discourse and the anti-nuclear movement
  • national grassroots organizations (e.g., the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, Finland's Committee of 100, Great Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, America's Ploughshares)
  • transnational protest organizations (e.g., European Nuclear Disarmament, Women for Peace, Pax Christi, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War)
  • the ideology and practices of the peace and environmental movements
  • individual demonstrations and key activists (e.g., Randall Forsberg, Petra Kelly, the Berrigans, etc.)
  • activist and dissident networks between East and West
  • security cultures
  • government reactions to cultural and political protest
  • the efficacy of anti-nuclear protest
  • contemporary images of nuclear apocalypse and representations of 80s-era anti-nuclear politics

Please send a paper proposal of no more than 500 words and a brief CV via e-mail to Bärbel Thomas.

The deadline for submission is March 1, 2010. Participants will be notified by the end of March.
The conference, held in English, will focus on the discussion of 5,000-6,000-word, pre-circulated papers (due September 1, 2010).
Expenses for travel and accommodation will be covered, though you may defray organizing costs by soliciting funds from your home institution.
For more information, please contact
Dr. Martin Klimke
German Historical Institute
1607 New Hampshire Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20009-2562