The current talk about no-fly zones in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war take me back to 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis. My family was living in Florida then, and I think our terror was greater than some farther away. The missiles that were being installed in Cuba were medium range – they might have been able to hit Washington DC but maybe not NYC. In Florida we definitely felt at risk. The fear was palpable. The adults talked of nothing else. We had exercises in school where we crouched out in the hall or under our desks. Somehow, even at 11 years old – we all knew our desks would not protect us.
In our suburban neighborhood, everyone was constructing a fall-out shelter. My father dug a “shelter” in the dirt floor of the crawl space and stocked it with rice and canned goods. It was pretty rough, and I could not really imagine how we all – and the dog – would live down there. But I did try to imagine it – what it would be like to live in the fallout shelter for months, what it would be like to take a direct hit (even as children we knew this was the preferable way to go), what it would mean to die of radiation poisoning (not pleasant). It was the first time I heard (or thought about) people owning guns, as there was talk that you needed to have one stashed in your fallout cellar to deter your neighbors from taking it over or stealing your food. Scary stuff.
For the first time, perhaps, we felt like we were all confronting our mortality together. But the crisis lasted 13 long days, and when it passed, we gradually forgot about it. Kennedy made some concessions in this instance to bring us that peace. The concessions were never overtly acknowledged, but, in these times, it is good to remember that concessions can be a valuable tool for peace. In any case, the US and the USSR proved that they could work together to avert catastrophe This is when the hot line/red phone was installed between Washington and Moscow. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a spat of movies about a nuclear apocalypse – try watching On the Beach or Fail-Safe. But, over time, we gradually forgot or repressed the danger. We forgot, that is, until the discussion started about what we could do to help Ukraine, and how the use of no-fly zones would lead to nuclear war with Russia.
It seems inevitable that once we had nuclear weapons, someone would eventually use them. We used them in WWII, with horrific results for the Japanese. Scientists who worked on the bomb had remorse, and Oppenheimer and others saw no point in mankind building bridges, carrying on – as they felt that it was inevitable that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust. The great polymath John von Neumann said: Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will. He also said: It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.
That being said, it seems amazing that there has been so little general discussion of nuclear weapons over the decades since Kennedy and Khrushchev faced each other down. I have to admit, they have not been much on my mind. It is not a comfortable subject. Maybe, like death, the Damocles Sword of possible atomic annihilation is something we know but do not acknowledge, do not allow ourselves to acknowledge. (Is climate change in this same category?)
In his “Thoughts in Time of War,” Freud talks about how war – even a war in which we might not be participants – forces us to acknowledge death, and considers whether this might be a good thing:
It is evident that war is bound to sweep away this conventional treatment of death. Death is no longer to be denied; we are forced to believe in it. People really die; and no longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands, in a single day…. Would it not be better to give death the place in reality and in our thoughts which is its due, and give a little more prominence to the unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully suppressed?
I am indeed lucky to have reached the age of 70 without witnessing an atomic apocalypse, nor have I suffered much anxiety about it since 1962. But I am thinking about it now again, and – as Freud says – war forces us to acknowledge our own mortality, even though most of the time “we were accustomed to behave as if it were otherwise.”
I have never written a story about nuclear war – although I have ended the world with an asteroid (“Back to the Garden”) and an epidemic (The Last Quartet). My story, “Last Things,” though, expresses one way of looking at the end of things – or the possible end of things.