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The Journal of Cold War Studies

The Journal of Cold War Studies

About the Journal of Cold War Studies

Please direct all editorial inquiries, comments, and electronic submissions to the JCWS email account: [email protected] .

For all subscription-related inquires for both the print and the electronic versions of the Journal, please see MIT Press for ordering information and rates.

Additional information can be found at the JCWS page on the MIT Press's website.

The Journal of Cold War Studies features peer-reviewed articles based on archival research in the former Communist world and in Western countries. Some articles offer reevaluations of important historical events or themes, emphasizing the changes of interpretation necessitated by declassified documents and new firsthand accounts. Other articles seek to bring new evidence to bear on current theoretical debates. Many existing theories of international and domestic politics have relied on generalizations from the Cold War period, but until very recently the evidence for these generalizations was tenuous at best. Articles in the Journal of Cold War Studies use declassified materials and new memoirs from the former Eastern bloc and Western countries to illuminate and raise questions about numerous theoretical concerns, including theories of decision-making, deterrence, bureaucratic politics, institutional formation, bargaining, diplomacy, foreign policy conduct, and international relations. Drawing on the latest evidence, articles in the Journal subject these theories, and others, to rigorous empirical analysis. The Journal's emphasis on the use of new evidence for theoretical purposes is in no way intended to exclude solid historical reassessments, but articles set within a theoretical context are particularly encouraged.The Journal's Editorial Board consists of 44 distinguished political scientists, historians, and specialists on international relations.

Discussion Forum   

Since 1999, the H-Diplo website, a site that links several thousand historians and political scientists, has been featuring regular discussions of JCWS articles.  In some cases, several commentators evaluate an article or group of articles in the JCWS; in other cases, a single commentator evaluates a JCWS article.  Hundreds of such discussions have appeared.  You can find an archived set of the discussions, by article,  here .

To Submit or Subscribe

Submission Guidelines for manuscripts and a Cold War Studies Style Guide are now available. Please follow the following link .  Find out how to subscribe to the Journal of Cold War Studies. Please visit MIT Press .


In 1999 the Project began publishing the Journal of Cold War Studies, which has been praised by authoritative outlets such as Library Journal and Foreign Policy. The latter said in its Summer 1999 issue that "the Journal of Cold War Studies promises to be a leading forum for path-breaking archival research" and that "the journal fills an important void for historians and political scientists studying the Cold War."

  • Submissions
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Selected Articles

Every issue of the Journal publishes one full access article that is open to public. To view these articles, please see the " Selected Articles " page. The   Journal   is edited by Mark Kramer, Harvard University, and published by The   MIT Press   for the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies.


2022 Impact Factor: 0.8  2023 Google Scholar h5-index: 10 ISSN: 1520-3972 E-ISSN: 1531-3298

Editor: Mark Kramer

The Journal of Cold War Studies features peer-reviewed articles based on archival research in the former Communist world, in Western countries, and in other parts of the globe. Articles in the journal draw on declassified materials and new memoirs to illuminate and raise questions about numerous historical and theoretical concerns: theories of decision-making, deterrence, bureaucratic politics, institutional formation, bargaining, diplomacy, foreign policy conduct, and international relations. Using the latest evidence, the authors subject these theories, and others, to rigorous empirical analysis. The journal also includes an extensive section of reviews of new books pertaining to the Cold War and international politics.

The journal is published by the MIT Press for the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies.

cold war academic essay

Spring 2022 Editor's Note

On 24 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he called a “special military operation” against neighboring Ukraine. This unprovoked war has caused immense bloodshed, suffering, and destruction in Ukraine and has been accompanied in Russia by the reimposition of Soviet-style censorship and severe repression against anyone who questions the war. Whatever Putin’s motives may be, his brutal actions and cruelty deserve unequivocal condemnation. Over the past quarter century, the JCWS has been pleased to publish articles and book reviews by scholars from Ukraine and Russia as well as from other countries, and I deeply regret that Putin’s aggression and malevolent crackdown have endangered so many people and cast doubt on the future of scholarly cooperation and archival openness.


  • Online ISSN 1531-3298
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World History Project - Origins to the Present

Course: world history project - origins to the present   >   unit 7.

  • READ: Devastation of Old Markets
  • READ: Connecting Decolonization and the Cold War
  • BEFORE YOU WATCH: USA vs USSR Fight! The Cold War
  • WATCH: USA vs USSR Fight! The Cold War

READ: Cold War — An Overview

  • READ: The Cold War Around the World
  • READ: And Then Gandhi Came — Nationalism, Revolution, and Sovereignty
  • BEFORE YOU WATCH: Decolonization and Nationalism Triumphant
  • WATCH: Decolonization and Nationalism Triumphant
  • BEFORE YOU WATCH: Chinese Communist Revolution
  • WATCH: Chinese Communist Revolution
  • BEFORE YOU WATCH: Conflict in Israel and Palestine
  • WATCH: Conflict in Israel and Palestine
  • READ: Decolonizing Women
  • End of Empires and Cold War

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Second read: key ideas and understanding content.

  • According to the author, what was the basic difference at the heart of the Cold War conflict?
  • What does this author identify as the three main features of the Cold War?
  • Why did Stalin want to expand Soviet influence in Eastern Europe?
  • What was the policy of containment and what conflicts does the author use as an example of this policy?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

  • The Cold War was a conflict that was all about methods of production and distribution that divided communities across the world along communist and capitalist lines. How would you describe the Cold War through each course frame?

Cold War: An Overview

What was the cold war, a divided europe, the cold war heats up around the world, the end of the cold war, want to join the conversation.

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cold war academic essay

The Cold War (1945-1989) essay

The Cold War is considered to be a significant event in Modern World History. The Cold War dominated a rather long time period: between 1945, or the end of the World War II, and 1990, the collapse of the USSR. This period involved the relationships between two superpowers: the United States and the USSR. The Cold War began in Eastern Europe and Germany, according to the researchers of the Institute of Contemporary British History (Warner 15).  Researchers state that “the USSR and the United States of America held the trump cards, nuclear bombs and missiles” (Daniel 489). In other words, during the Cold War, two nations took the fate of the world under their control. The progression of the Cold War influenced the development of society, which became aware of the threat of nuclear war. After the World War II, the world experienced technological progress, which provided “the Space Race, computer development, superhighway construction, jet airliner development, the creation of international phone system, the advent of television, enormous progress in medicine, and the creation of mass consumerism, and many other achievements” (Daniel 489). Although the larger part of the world lived in poverty and lacked technological progress, the United States and other countries of Western world succeeded in economic development. The Cold War, which began in 1945, reflected the increased role of technological progress in the establishment of economic relationships between two superpowers.   The Cold War involved internal and external conflicts between two superpowers, the United States and the USSR, leading to eventual breakdown of the USSR.

  • The Cold War: background information

The Cold War consisted of several confrontations between the United States and the USSR, supported by their allies. According to researchers, the Cold War was marked by a number of events, including “the escalating arms race, a competition to conquer space, a dangerously belligerent for of diplomacy known as brinkmanship, and a series of small wars, sometimes called “police actions” by the United States and sometimes excused as defense measures by the Soviets” (Gottfried 9). The Cold War had different influences on the United States and the USSR. For the USSR, the Cold War provided massive opportunities for the spread of communism across the world, Moscow’s control over the development of other nations and the increased role of the Soviet Communist party.

In fact, the Cold War could split the wartime alliance formed to oppose the plans of Nazi Germany, leaving the USSR and the United States as two superpowers with considerable economic and political differences. The USSR was based on a single-party Marxist–Leninist system, while the United States was a capitalist state with democratic governance based on free elections.

The key figure in the Cold War was the Soviet leader Gorbachev, who was elected in 1985. He managed to change the direction of the USSR, making the economies of communist ruled states independent. The major reasons for changing in the course were poor technological development of the USSR (Gottfried 115). Gorbachev believed that radical changes in political power could improve the Communist system. At the same time, he wanted to stop the Cold War and tensions with the United States. The cost of nuclear arms race had negative impact on the economy of the USSR. The leaders of the United States accepted the proposed relationships, based on cooperation and mutual trust. The end of the Cold War was marked by signing the INF treaty in 1987 (Gottfried 115).

  • The origins of the Cold War

Many American historians state that the Cold War began in 1945. However, according to Russian researchers, historians and analysts “the Cold War began with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, for this was when the capitalist world began its systematic opposition to and effort to undermine the world’s first socialist state and society” (Warner13). For Russians, the Cold War was hot in 1918-1922, when the Allied Intervention policy implemented in Russia during the Russian Civil War. According to John W. Long, “the U.S. intervention in North Russia was a policy formulated by President Wilson during the first half of 1918 at the urgent insistence of Britain, France and Italy, the chief World War I allies” (380).

Nevertheless, there are some other opinions regarding the origins of the Cold War. For example, Geoffrey Barraclough, an outstanding English historian, states that the events in the Far East at the end of the century contributed to the origins of the Cold War. He argues that “during the previous hundred years, Russia and the United States has tended to support each other against England; but now, as England’s power passed its zenith, they came face to face across the Pacific” (Warner 13). According to Barraclough, the Cold War is associated with the conflict of interests, which involved European countries, the Middle East and South East Asia. Finally, this conflict divided the world into two camps. Thus, the Cold War origins are connected with the spread of ideological conflict caused by the emergence of the new power in the early 20-th century (Warner 14). The Cold War outbreak was associated with the spread of propaganda on the United States by the USSR. The propagandistic attacks involved the criticism of the U.S. leaders and their policies. These attacked were harmful to the interests of American nation (Whitton 151).

  • The major causes of the Cold War

The United States and the USSR were regarded as two superpowers during the Cold War, each having its own sphere of influence, its power and forces. The Cold War had been the continuing conflict, caused by tensions, misunderstandings and competitions that existed between the United States and the USSR, as well as their allies from 1945 to the early 1990s (Gottfried 10). Throughout this long period, there was the so-called rivalry between the United States and the USSR, which was expressed through various transformations, including military buildup, the spread of propaganda, the growth of espionage, weapons development, considerable industrial advances, and competitive technological developments in different spheres of human activity, such as medicine, education, space exploration, etc.

There four major causes of the Cold War, which include:

  • Ideological differences (communism v. capitalism);
  • Mutual distrust and misperception;
  • The fear of the United State regarding the spread of communism;
  • The nuclear arms race (Gottfried 10).

The major causes of the Cold War point out to the fact that the USSR was focused on the spread of communist ideas worldwide. The United States followed democratic ideas and opposed the spread of communism. At the same time, the acquisition of atomic weapons by the United States caused fear in the USSR. The use of atomic weapons could become the major reason of fear of both the United States and the USSR. In other words, both countries were anxious about possible attacks from each other; therefore, they were following the production of mass destruction weapons. In addition, the USSR was focused on taking control over Eastern Europe and Central Asia. According to researchers, the USSR used various strategies to gain control over Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the years 1945-1980. Some of these strategies included “encouraging the communist takeover of governments in Eastern Europe, the setting up of Comecon, the Warsaw Pact, the presence of the Red Army in Eastern Europe, and the Brezhnev Doctrine” (Phillips 118). These actions were the major factors for the suspicions and concerns of the United States. In addition, the U.S. President had a personal dislike of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his policies. In general, the United States was concerned by the Soviet Union’s actions regarding the occupied territory of Germany, while the USSR feared that the United States would use Western Europe as the major tool for attack.

  • The consequences of the Cold War

The consequences of the Cold War include both positive and negative effects for both the United States and the USSR.

  • Both the United States and the USSR managed to build up huge arsenals of atomic weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.
  • The Cold War provided opportunities for the establishment of the military blocs, NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
  • The Cold War led to the emergence of the destructive military conflicts, like the Vietnam War and the Korean War, which took the lives of millions of people (Gottfried13).
  • The USSR collapsed because of considerable economic, political and social challenges.
  • The Cold War led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two German nations.
  • The Cold War led to the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact (Gottfried 136).
  • The Cold war provided the opportunities for achieving independence of the Baltic States and some former Soviet Republics.
  • The Cold War made the United States the sole superpower of the world because of the collapse of the USSR in 1990.
  • The Cold War led to the collapse of Communism and the rise of globalization worldwide (Phillips 119).

The impact of the Cold War on the development of many countries was enormous. The consequences of the Cold War were derived from numerous internal problems of the countries, which were connected with the USSR, especially developing countries (India, Africa, etc.). This fact means that foreign policies of many states were transformed (Gottfried 115).

The Cold War (1945-1989) essay part 2

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Related Papers

Priscilla Roberts

Articles: [“Churchill, Winston (1874-1965), 31-34; (with Christopher John Bright), “Committee on the Present Danger,” 39-40; “Cuban Missile Crisis,” 48-52; “Dulles, John Foster (1888-1959),” 56-59; “Eisenhower, Dwight David (1890-1969),” 61-64; “Kennan, George Frost (1904-2005),” 99-101; “Kissinger, Henry Alfred (1923-),” 107-108; “Nixon, Richard Milhous (1913-1994),” 151-153; “Reagan, Ronald Wilson (1911-2004),” 184-187; “United Nations,” 222-228.] The impact of the Cold War is still being felt around the world today. This insightful single-volume reference captures the events and personalities of the era, while also inspiring critical thinking about this still-controversial period. Cold War: The Essential Reference Guide is intended to introduce students to the tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States that dominated international affairs in the second half of the 20th century. A comprehensive overview essay, plus separate essays on the causes and consequences of the conflict, will provide readers with the necessary context to understand the many facets of this complex era. The guide's expert contributors cover all of the influential people and pivotal events of the period, encompassing the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, Southeast Asia, China, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa from political, military, and cultural perspectives. Reference entries offer valuable insight into the leaders and conflicts that defined the Cold War, while other essays promote critical thinking about controversial and significant Cold War topics, including whether Ronald Reagan was responsible for ending the Cold War, the impact of Sputnik on the Cold War, and the significance of the Prague Spring. Features •Several analytical essays by prominent historians, plus 85 additional A–Z reference entries about conflicts, incidents, leaders, and issues •35 examples of relevant primary source documents, including speeches, treaties, policy statements, and letters, such as the Marshall Plan and Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech •A detailed chronology of important events that occurred before, during, and after the Cold War •Numerous maps and images of key leaders and events •A comprehensive bibliography of print resources Highlights •Provides readers with a look inside the Cold War, pinpointing the main causes and consequences of this long-running conflict •Analyzes controversial Cold War topics that still generate widespread debate today to inspire critical thinking among readers •Supplements entries with a broad overview to help readers grasp the far-reaching implications of this worldwide conflict •Discusses key leaders and events in a scholarly, yet accessible manner

cold war academic essay

Tsotne Tchanturia , Dionysios Dragonas

Since 2010, the Cold War History Research Center has also organized an annual two-day English language international student conference on the history of the Cold War, with the participation of BA, MA and Ph.D. students. This volume publishes 29 papers selected from the 144 presentations from 14 countries of the first seven conferences between 2010 and 2016. Our Center proudly presents these excellent research results by motivated students and young would-be scholars.

proceedings of fourth annual conference on marxism and socialism in the 21st century: School of Marxism/Wuhan University

Norman Markowitz

The text of my paper to the fourth annual conference on Marxism and Socialism in the 21st Century, published in English and Chinese in the official proceeding of the conference

Nikolas Gvosdev and Christopher Marsh, Russian Foreign Policy: Interests, Vectors, and Sectors

Christopher Marsh , Nikolas Gvosdev

Muhammad Siddiq

Joseph Larsen

On April 12, 2012, in his last address to the State Duma as Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin declared, “The post–Soviet period is over.” It is in a similar vein that we wrote this book as a study of Russian foreign policy, not Russia’s post-Soviet foreign policy. While it is undeniable that the legacy bequeathed by the USSR continues to have a powerful influence on contemporary Russia, Russian foreign policy today is not a continuation of Soviet policy. For one, the main problems that faced Soviet leaders—especially the ideological rivalry with the West and China—are no longer the ones that concern the Russian foreign policy establishment. Secondly, Moscow must deal with its former imperial possessions and Soviet siblings as independent states with their own foreign policy interests and strategies (which are often at odds with those of the Kremlin). Thirdly, and by no means finally, the contemporary international political, economic, and security environment is drastically different from that of the Soviet era—so much so, in fact, that even if the Soviet Union still existed, a contemporary Soviet foreign policy would scarcely resemble its predecessor in any way.

Tina Machingaidze

Ivana Veskovic

Jerry Landrum

From 1989 to 1999, the US had an opportunity to end its rivalry with Russia. However, a “loss aversion heuristic” dominated the decision-making processes of George Bush and Bill Clinton resulting in policies that provoked Russian fears of encirclement. This “loss aversion heuristic” manifested in four key security decisions: the reunification of Germany within NATO, NATO expansion to newly independent states, the Balkans interventions, and the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Although initially suspicious of Gorbachev, Bush eventually pursued a policy of supporting his reforms. However, as the administration came to terms with the inevitability of German reunification and increased European integration as outlined in the Single European Act of 1987, worries about the US leadership role in Europe emerged. By the fall of 1989, Bush backed German reunification to bolster pro-NATO political parties in Germany. As he assumed the presidency in 1993, Clinton wanted to increase financial assistance to Russia. However, when it came to security issues, Clinton’s fear of losing democratic gains in Eastern Europe to an emerging Russian nationalist movement made him less conciliatory to Russia. Despite Yeltsin’s dismay, Clinton pushed for NATO’s enlargement to protect the newly independent states. The same “loss aversion heuristic” was in play with the NATO interventions in the Balkans in 1995 and 1998. Criticisms of NATO’s ineffectiveness at preventing genocide on the continent called into question the necessity of a European security organization that could not provide security. Even though the interventions cemented a continued rivalry with Russia, the US backed them as a means of protecting the relevance of NATO. These decisions had implications to the US policy of protecting the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Instead of securing a nuclear security partner, US policy contributed to Russians selling technology to rogue regimes, and they resisted US attempts to create an Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense (ABM) system in Eastern Europe. In this way, US policy success in securing NATO resulted in decreased nuclear security. In the first three security decisions, the US overestimated the probability of loss making them unable to consider a more cooperative posture vis-à-vis Russian security concerns. The result of this loss aversion was the protection of NATO and the loss of cooperation on the nuclear non-proliferation regime.


The Cold War: Interpreting Conflict Through Primary Documents

Békés, Csaba, Melinda Kamár (Ed.): Students on the Cold War. New Findings and Interpretations. Budapest

Torben Gülstorff

The Encyclopedia of the Cold War: A Political, Social, and Military History. 5 vols.

Martyna Weryńska

Robert R Kupiecki

Eleni Alexandratou

Bibliography of New Cold War History

Aigul Kazhenova , Tsotne Tchanturia , Marijn Mulder , Ahmet Ömer Yüce , Sergei Zakharov , Mirkamran Huseynli , Pınar Eldemir , Angela Aiello , Rastko Lompar

elena katyshevtseva

vinichhiey khlot

University Press

Akindele Boladale

Kees Van der Pijl

Vladimir Moss

Tsotne Tchanturia , Vajda Barnabás , Gökay Çınar , Barnabás Vajda , Lenka Thérová , Simon Szilvási , Irem Osmanoglu , Rastko Lompar , Aigul Kazhenova , Pınar Eldemir , Natalija Dimić Lompar , Sára Büki

The Bibliography of New Cold War History (second enlarged edition)

Tsotne Tchanturia , Aigul Kazhenova , Khatia Kardava

Kenneth Straus

KaMeLRo Siriwut

Luiz Carlos MB

Orrin Schwab

Antonio Fernandez

smokefilled room

Alunos PPGEF

Songyos Pongrojphaw

Fernando Araújo

Emanuel Copilaș

Guillermo Olvera

S3 Strategic Study Skills Skills

Neil Robinson

Alexandra Petrișor


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Help inform the discussion

National Security Archive

This archive, based at George Washington University, has a library and archive of declassified U.S. documents.

Avalon Project - Cold War Document Collection

This project at Yale Law School contains a wide variety of document collections. This Cold War collection offers users groups of official US government documents through the 1960s. 

The Cold War Files

This website, maintained by the Wilson Center, contains a wealth of resources, especially primary resources, from political leaders throughout the Cold War era. The most useful tools to researchers will probably be the  Entire Document Collection  and the  Resources  section, which has links to further reading.

Truman Cold War Documents

These critical documents, made available through the Truman Library, show the pivotal moments in the early Cold War. The online archive includes presidential memos, letters, official government documents, and photographs.

Eisenhower Cold War Documents

This site contains aerial intelligence from the Cold War, digitized by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.

Kennedy Administration National Security Files

The John F. Kennedy Library maintains an online collection of personal correspondence as well as official government documents relating to national security.

View the once-top-secret National Security Council document of April 1950 that set in motion the massive military buildup of the Cold War.

Student Voices from World War II and the McCarthy Era

This oral history website offers a case study of the impact of World War II and the domestic Cold War on student life at an urban public college campus. It is based on the narratives of Brooklyn College students that participated in Brooklyn College's World War II Farm Labor Project and the experiences of students who were involved in the student newspaper during the McCarthy Era. The site is maintained by The Center for Media and Learning/American Social History Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

The Campus Files: Reagan, Hoover, and the UC Red Scare

This website, maintained by the San Fransisco Gate, holds many FBI documents to show the Bureau's "covert campaign to disrupt free speech." You'll find FBI documents, newspaper articles, photographs, and lots of commentary.

C-SPAN: The Army-McCarthy Hearings 

The transcripts and films from a C-SPAN special on the Army-McCarthy Hearings, including both historical commentary and audio from the hearings.

Newspaper Ads from 1911 to 1955

This site presents consumer culture from 1911 to 1955 through a wide variety of newspaper ads for products ranging from dental supplies to radio tubes.

DOE: Human Radiation Experiments

This website, created in 1994 under the Office of Human Radiation Experiments, tells the agency's Cold War story of radiation research using human subjects with various multi-media sources from declassified government documents, films, soundclips, and photographs.

Atomic Archive

Learn about the development of the atomic bomb in American history. This site provides an archive of historical documents, films, and photographs.

Sputnik and the Space Race

This NASA website provides US and Russian documents chronicling the early policy decisions and reactions to the space race.

Silicon Valley Archive

This archive, from Stanford University and the Silicon Valley Archives Project, describes the birth of Silicon Valley scientific research and development. Unfortunately, the site appears to hold few full-text primary resources.

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly (July, 1945) 

A seminal essay by an architect of the Cold War science complex, Bush proposes a computerized information management system later realized by the Internet.

Library Homepage

Cold War Era

  • Finding Magazines
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  • History Research Guide This link opens in a new window

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Below are scholarly journals that specifically focus on the Cold War.

  • Cold War History Academic Journal; Issues from 2005-Current
  • Journal of Cold War Studies Academic Journal; Issues from 2005-Current
  • Historical Abstracts with Full Text This link opens in a new window Covers world history from the 15th century to the present (excluding the United States and Canada). Coverage extends to related disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology and sociology. Includes the full text of more than 530 journals and 140 books.
  • Military & Government Collection This link opens in a new window Designed to offer current news pertaining to all branches of the military and government, this database offers a thorough collection of periodicals, academic journals, and other content pertinent to the increasing needs of those sites.
  • Peace Research Abstracts This link opens in a new window Peace Research Abstracts includes bibliographic records covering essential areas related to peace research, including conflict resolution, international affairs, peace psychology, and other areas of key relevance to the discipline. EBSCO has digitized the full archive of this index, including coverage dating back to 1964.
  • Race Relations Abstracts This link opens in a new window Race Relations Abstracts includes bibliographic records covering essential areas related to race relations, including ethnic studies, discrimination, immigration studies, and other areas of key relevance to the discipline.
  • JSTOR - All Content This link opens in a new window Searches indexed content, as well as full text content, on the JSTOR interface. Provides indexing for more than 12 million journal articles, books, and other content from a wide variety publishers on the well-known JSTOR interface.

Books at Waterfield Library

Likely Library of Congress Call Number Ranges

  • DK1-949.5 History of Russia, Soviet Union, Former Soviet Republics
  • DK266-292 Soviet regime, 1918-1991
  • E740-837.7 Twentieth Century American History
  • E838-889 Later Twentieth Century (1961-2000) American History

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Home — Essay Samples — War — Cold War

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Essays on Cold War

Hook examples for cold war essays, the tension-building anecdote hook.

Start your essay with a gripping anecdote from the Cold War era, such as a close encounter between opposing forces, a spy's daring mission, or a pivotal diplomatic negotiation.

The Iron Curtain Metaphor Hook

Draw parallels between the Iron Curtain that divided Europe during the Cold War and modern-day geopolitical divisions. Explore how historical lessons can inform contemporary politics.

The Cuban Missile Crisis Revelation Hook

Begin with a revelation about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a pivotal event during the Cold War. Discuss the world's reaction to this crisis and its implications for global peace.

The Space Race Innovation Hook

Highlight the innovative aspects of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Discuss the technological advancements and the impact on science and society.

The Proxy Wars Connection Hook

Start by exploring the concept of proxy wars during the Cold War. Discuss how these conflicts shaped the global political landscape and their relevance in today's world.

The Nuclear Arms Race Factoid Hook

Begin with startling facts about the nuclear arms race between superpowers. Discuss the fear of nuclear annihilation and its lasting effects on international relations.

The Espionage and Spy Games Hook

Introduce your essay by delving into the world of espionage during the Cold War. Discuss famous spies, intelligence agencies, and the intrigue of espionage operations.

The Cultural Cold War Reference Hook

Start with references to the cultural aspects of the Cold War, including the influence of literature, music, and art. Discuss how cultural diplomacy played a role in the conflict.

The End of the Cold War Paradox Hook

Begin with the paradox of the peaceful end of the Cold War. Explore the factors that contributed to its conclusion and the subsequent geopolitical shifts.

The Lessons from History Hook

Start by reflecting on the lessons that can be learned from the Cold War. Discuss how understanding this historical period can inform contemporary foreign policy and global relations.

Where The Domino Fell Analysis

Essay on the space race, made-to-order essay as fast as you need it.

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Social Effects of The Cold War

The cold war between the united states and the soviet union, analysis of how did the cold war shaped american politics, society, and economy, the cold war: an era of fear, let us write you an essay from scratch.

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Understanding The Effects of The Cold War

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Beginning of The Cuban Missile Crisis

The role of "cold war" in bringing international order, american policy of containment during the cold war and its consequences, fears of america and the emergence of the cold war, america's leadership position at an international stage, the impact of world war ii and the cold war on the development of science in the 20th century, ronald reagan and mikhail gorbachev: discussion on resolving the cold war, analysis of the influence behind the actions of the united states army, cuban missile crisis as a world changing event, the korean war – a conflict between the soviet union and the united states, apocalypse now - cold war perspectives, the political situation in brazil during the cold war, the development of the peace corps in america, the geography of the cold war: why the us embarked on a containment policy, religion as one of the causes of the cold war, red scare: incitement to hatred of anarchy and communism, beware the red scare: another red threat to america, american containment strategy and the end of the cold war, history of american life in the early postwar era, advantages, disadvantages, and application of aip in modern submarines.

12 March 1947 – 26 December 1991 (44 years and 9 months)

North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Soviet Union, United States, Warsaw Treaty Organization.

Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan

Cuban missile crisis, Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, Berlin crisis of 1961, collapse of the Soviet Union

The Cold War was a period of political tension and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasting roughly from the late 1940s to the early 1990s. It emerged in the aftermath of World War II when ideological differences and geopolitical interests between the two superpowers intensified. The historical context of the Cold War can be traced back to the division of Europe after World War II, with the United States championing democratic principles and capitalism, while the Soviet Union sought to spread communism and establish spheres of influence. This ideological divide led to a series of confrontations and proxy wars fought between the two powers and their respective allies. The development of nuclear weapons added a dangerous dimension to the conflict, as both sides engaged in an arms race to gain a strategic advantage. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, a standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The division of the world into two ideological blocs: The capitalist bloc led by the United States and the communist bloc led by the Soviet Union. The arms race and nuclear proliferation, leading to the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by both superpowers and the development of advanced military technology. The establishment of military alliances such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the Warsaw Pact, which solidified the division between the Western and Eastern blocs. Proxy wars and conflicts fought between the United States and the Soviet Union or their respective allies, such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and various conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The spread of communism to several countries, including Eastern European nations that became part of the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc. The Cuban Missile Crisis, a tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, marking the end of the Cold War and the transition to a unipolar world with the United States as the dominant superpower.

One of the major effects of the Cold War was the division of the world into two competing blocs, the United States-led capitalist bloc and the Soviet Union-led communist bloc. This ideological divide created a bipolar world order and fueled numerous proxy wars and conflicts around the world, such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was another significant consequence of the Cold War. Both superpowers invested heavily in the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, leading to an unprecedented level of global military buildup. The fear of nuclear annihilation and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction shaped military strategies and had a lasting impact on international security policies. The Cold War also had economic ramifications. The United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence and sought to spread their respective economic systems, capitalism and communism, across the globe. This led to the creation of economic alliances and aid programs, such as the Marshall Plan, as well as the establishment of the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc and the NATO alliance. Furthermore, the Cold War influenced the course of decolonization and independence movements in many countries. The superpowers often supported or opposed regimes based on their alignment with capitalist or communist ideologies, leading to political instability and conflicts in various regions. In addition, the Cold War had cultural and social effects. It fostered a climate of suspicion and fear, which manifested in widespread political repression, surveillance, and the suppression of civil liberties. The ideological struggle between capitalism and communism influenced cultural productions, including literature, art, and film.

Studying and writing essays on the topic of the Cold War is essential for students due to its multidimensional significance. Firstly, exploring the Cold War provides students with a deeper understanding of the complexities of international relations, diplomacy, and ideological conflicts. It offers insights into the strategies, policies, and motivations of the superpowers involved, such as the United States and the Soviet Union. Secondly, writing essays on the Cold War promotes critical thinking and analytical skills. Students are encouraged to examine primary and secondary sources, analyze different perspectives, and evaluate the long-term consequences of historical events. This process enhances their ability to form well-reasoned arguments and develop a nuanced understanding of complex historical phenomena. Additionally, the Cold War has left a lasting impact on society, culture, and global dynamics. By exploring this topic, students can gain insights into the origins of the arms race, the nuclear age, the space race, and the proliferation of proxy wars. They can also examine the impact of the Cold War on civil rights, technological advancements, popular culture, and the formation of alliances.

1. The term "Cold War" was coined by the American financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch in a speech in 1947. It referred to the absence of direct military confrontation between the superpowers, but the ongoing ideological and political struggle between them. 2. The Cold War was characterized by a state of non-military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. 3. The space race played a significant role during the Cold War, prompting the establishment of NASA and fueling competition between the superpowers. 4. The proxy wars fought between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War resulted in the loss of numerous lives, with casualties reaching millions. 5. Notable "hot" conflicts of the Cold War period included the Korean War, the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, and the Vietnam War. These conflicts involved direct military engagement or support from the superpowers, leading to significant human suffering and loss.

1. Gaddis, J. L. (2005). The Cold War: A new history. Penguin Books. 2. Westad, O. A. (2012). The Cold War: A world history. Basic Books. 3. Leffler, M. P. (2008). For the soul of mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. Hill and Wang. 4. Beschloss, M. R. (1997). Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 affair. HarperCollins. 5. Zubok, V. M., & Pleshakov, C. (2007). Inside the Kremlin's cold war: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Harvard University Press. 6. Hogan, M. J. (Ed.). (2015). The Cold War in retrospect: The formative years. Oxford University Press. 7. LaFeber, W. (2002). America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2000. McGraw-Hill. 8. Lynch, T. (2010). The Cold War: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. 9. Matlock, J. F. (1995). Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War ended. Random House. 10. McMahon, R. J. (2003). The Cold War: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

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cold war academic essay

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Friday essay: ‘me against you’ – Jon Ronson investigates the perpetual outrage of the culture wars

cold war academic essay

Senior Lecturer, Discipline of English and Writing, University of Sydney

Disclosure statement

Alexander Howard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Sydney provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

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The culture wars are perpetually waged in response to new and imagined threats, but they’ve been around forever. They just keep taking on new forms. In Australia, we’re seeing heated zero-sum disputes about everything from gender and sexuality, and race and religious freedom in schools , to climate change and the right to protest.

Just last week, western Sydney’s Cumberland Council voted to ban same-sex parenting books in eight Australian libraries – a ban that was overturned at a late-night council meeting two nights ago, as police watched over competing protests (for and against), outside the council building.

During COVID, conspiracy theories and related ways of thinking accelerated – helped by social media. But neither COVID nor social media caused this shift. Things were already falling apart, and that event and those platforms accelerated processes already underway. We are reaping the rewards of something toxic that has been brewing for a while, which is perhaps borne out by our tendencies to cast everything in binary terms: me against you, us and them.

cold war academic essay

Maybe we are whipping ourselves up into a state of perpetual outrage and distraction because, in the end, we desperately don’t want to acknowledge the complexities of how bad things are getting – in a world beset by accelerating climate disasters, humanitarian catastrophes, widening wealth gaps and cost-of-living and housing crises.

In 2024, populist and authoritarian leaders around the world have succeeded by leaning into conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation. And the recent introduction of artificial intelligence only makes it easier for these things to spread. How did we get here?

Inflamed passions

Forks, Washington, is famous for being the home of Bella and Edward, the fictitious vampire couple in Stephenie Myer’s popular Twilight franchise.

In real life, it is a place where “nothing much happens”, as investigative journalist Jon Ronson says in the second series of his award-winning podcast, Things Fell Apart , about the origins and accelerants of the culture wars.

This changed on June 3 2020, when an innocent family on a Twilight-themed holiday found themselves trapped in the woods, surrounded by a bevy of heavily armed townspeople with short fuses and itchy trigger fingers.

The word on the social media grapevine was that Forks was about to be swamped by violent leftists hellbent on nothing less than the total annihilation of America. Mistakenly identified as members of the decentralised leftist collective Antifa, the family narrowly avoided a violent confrontation. Passions were inflamed, the situation on a knife edge.

The unwitting, traumatised family had, Ronson reveals, “become collateral damage in a culture war inflamed by a national media that had become too polarised and ideological”.

“It feels to me that for great numbers of people […] ideology and activism have started to matter more than evidence,” he told the Guardian in recent days, emphasising the importance of the “nuanced truth” in his work. He says he’s not against activist journalism, which has done “a lot of good”. But he says “the old rules of journalism – evidence, fairness – still need to apply”.

cold war academic essay

The stories in Ronson’s podcast – focusing on Qanon, COVID deniers and conspiracy theorists – depict the faultlines of America. We’re not as far down the road, but the culture wars continue to spill into Australia.

The Albanese government has attempted to defuse them. In his response to last year’s Australian Law Reform Commission report on religious educational institutions and anti-discrimination laws, the prime minister was categorical : “Australians do not want to see the culture wars and the division out there.”

However, as the ferocious and damaging culture war over the Voice to Parliament referendum shows, the country has a long way to go.

And in recent days, responding to the Cumberland Council book ban spearheaded by councillor Steve Christou, New South Wales arts minister John Graham condemned “this councillor importing this US culture war into our country and playing it out on the shelves of the local library”.

cold war academic essay

Culture wars are not new

Ronson offers two provisional definitions of culture wars. In the first series of Things Fell Apart, he described them as issues “people yell at each other about on social media”. In the second series, which focuses on a series of seemingly random events that accelerated the culture wars over 30 days during COVID, Ronson refines his definition: they are struggles “for dominance between conflicting values”.

The historical origins of the term can be traced back to Europe in the 19th century.

On June 29 1868, Pope Pius IX issued invitations for the creation of a Vatican Council. The founding of the First Vatican Council led, in turn, to the Declaration of Papal Infallibility . This edict, which threatened the separation of church and state, went down badly with Europe’s ruling classes.

Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck was one of those who took umbrage. As an empire-builder, Bismarck was perturbed by what he perceived as an attack on his authority and a threat to national sovereignty. A seven-year political standoff between Chancellor Bismark and the Pius IX subsequently ensued.

The German word for this confrontation – which impinged on virtually every sphere of public and social life – is Kulturkampf , which translates as “struggles of cultures”. It has since been taken up by many critics and cultural commentators.

One was sociologist James Davison Hunter, who introduced the term into American public discourse with his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America . Hunter defines cultural warfare

very simply as political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding. The end to which these hostilities tend is the domination of one cultural and moral ethos over all others.

Abortion, education, affirmative action. Religion and the ongoing fight for gay rights. These are some of the polarising social and political issues Hunter discusses in his account of the American culture wars of the late 20th century.

Meanwhile, here in Australia at the time, John Howard and the Liberal Party were embarking on a decades-long campaign against the purported perils of political correctness and multiculturalism – while attacking anyone who had the temerity to criticise Australia’s colonial history . Years later, in 2006, after ten years as prime minister, Howard would literally claim victory in Australia’s culture wars – but of course they’re still raging today.

Within a year of Hunter’s book, “culture wars” were headline news. On August 17 1992, the right-wing politician Pat Buchanan delivered a fiery and divisive primetime address on the opening night of the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas. He painted a picture of a nation under siege and described “a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America”.

Environmental extremists. Purveyors of pornographic filth. Radical feminists. Bill and Hilary Clinton. The list of those deemed to be attacking and undermining America is seemingly endless and strangely familiar. “My friends,” he implored, “we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country”.

Howard framed Australia’s culture war in similar terms 14 years later, in 2006, claiming his government had seen the end of a “divisive, phoney debate about national identity”. He continued: “We’ve drawn back from being too obsessed with diversity to a point where Australians are now better able to appreciate the enduring values of the national character that we proudly celebrate and preserve.”

Ronson mulls over Buchanan’s proto-Trumpian speech and its mixed reception in contemporary conservative circles in series one of Things Fell Apart.

Journalist Irving Kristol dismissed Buchanan as out of touch, noting: “I regret to inform him that those wars are over, and the Left has won.” During the 70s and 80s in America, Ronson clarifies, the Left had taken control of education, entertainment and the media.

Abortion was legal, school textbooks were becoming more diverse, gay activism was beginning a path to victory, and Hollywood was celebrating those values. “In the early 80s, as conservatives were feeling aggrieved that the culture was running away from them, a strange kind of storytelling began to blossom.”

Did the Satanic Panic birth QAnon?

Ronson illustrates this with a story from the 1980s – the so-called Satanic Panic – that may explain the roots of QAnon , the 21st-century conspiracy theory that essentially revolves around the idea “Democrats and Hollywood elites derive their power from secretly drinking the blood of kidnapped children”.

He traces it back to Bob Larson, a Christian conservative broadcaster in Phoenix, Arizona who was concerned about death metal music, and started to see Satanic patterns everywhere. He encouraged his listeners to reach out if they had ever had firsthand contact with Satanism – and they had.

In regular streets all over America, secret cabals were ritually abusing children in the name of Satan. They told stories of cannibalism and dead cats nailed to pulpits.

cold war academic essay

A credulous Larson incorporated what he heard into a novel, Dead Air , about a heroic radio host who spends his spare time rescuing vulnerable children from the clutches of devil-worshipping cults. Published in 1991, it was advertised as being based on true events.

Roughly 90% of Americans believed in a higher power in the 1980s. Ronson recounts how “mainstream broadcasters saw huge ratings potential, not by debunking the satanic claims, but by entertaining the idea that they might be true”.

Over 12,000 cases of ritualistic abuse were reported. People were falsely accused of bizarre and far-fetched acts of child abuse, and lives were ruined.

Keep this in mind as we move into the 21st century. On October 30 2016, a white supremacist Twitter user, posing as a Jewish lawyer from New York, falsely claimed local police were investigating evidence from disgraced politician Anthony Weiner ’s laptop implicating Hilary Clinton in an international child enslavement ring.

The allegation quickly gained traction across various social media platforms, giving rise to a modern spin on an old antisemitic conspiracy theory about blood libels: the infamous Pizzagate . Online speculation intensified, and the situation eventually spilled over into the real world.

At this point, things turned violent. In a scene that could almost have been lifted verbatim from the pages of Dead Air, a self-styled investigator armed with a high-power assault rifle shot up a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. The assailant, who worked as a jobbing screenwriter and actor, had come to believe children were being held hostage in the restaurant’s basement. The only problem: the restaurant didn’t even have a basement.

cold war academic essay

Despite having been thoroughly debunked, this particular conspiracy theory persists today. Indeed, as researcher Mike Rothschild outlines, “the sordid aspects of Pizzagate, like the abuse of children and the centrality of the Clintons and their inner circle” constitute an important part of the mythology associated with QAnon.

Rothschild argues “no conspiracy theory more encapsulates the full-throated madness of the Donald Trump era than QAnon.” At the same time, QAnon, which has been referred to as “Pizzagate on bathsalts” , also heralded the arrival of what journalist Anna Merlan has identified as the “conspiracy singularity”.

This was the moment, a few months into the coronavirus pandemic, when a multitude of different conspiracy theories, some of which had been lurking in the darker recesses of the internet for decades, began to bleed into each other in strange and surprising ways. Malevolent reptilians masquerading as humans, chemtrails in the sky, the sinking of the Titanic . Everything suddenly seemed to come together. This convergence, Merlan writes, gave rise to “a grand unified theory of suspicion”.

‘Excited delirium’ and George Floyd

The 2024 season of Things Fell Apart is interested in this strange moment of conspiratorial convergence, and strives to understand, to borrow a term from American historian Richard Hofstader , “movements of suspicious discontent”.

It centres on a number of seemingly unrelated events that occurred in May and June 2020, and accelerated the culture wars. Taken together, these events refute Irving Kristol’s assertion about culture wars being a thing of the past. If anything, we are, as Ronson demonstrates, more culturally divided than ever before, living as we do in an age of violent dispute and rampant untruth.

So, for instance, we see the link between a strange, since-discredited diagnosis given to African American sex workers found dead in Miami in the 1980s (“excited delirium”), the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer on May 25 2020, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In 1980, Miami’s coroner explained the deaths, later attributed to a serial killer (which the evidence pointed to), by “discovering” a condition that rendered men impervious to pain and caused instant death in women. Excited delirium, the discredited term, continues to be used in some police training programs – and was voiced by a police officer on the scene while Derek Chauvin choked the life out of George Floyd.

Of course, the protests by Black Lives Matter and Antifa that followed his murder “gave rise to a whole new wave of culture wars”.

cold war academic essay

Cultural critic and activist Naomi Klein describes how, during this incredibly volatile period, it felt like everything started to bifurcate. Society seemed to split into two camps, with “each side defining itself against the other – whatever one says and believes, the other seems obliged to say and believe the opposite”.

The Great Reset

The sixth episode of Ronson’s podcast focuses on the culture war that exploded over the Great Reset , a hastily cobbled together economic recovery plan drawn up by the World Economic Forum in response to the pandemic. “It is our defining moment – we will be dealing with its fallout for years, and many things will change forever,” it read in part.

Launched in June 2020 by Prince Charles and the head of the Davos summit (the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting), the plan took the pandemic as an opportunity to promote several long-favoured ideas that will supposedly save us. For example, artificial intelligence, bio-tech, autonomous vehicles, green capitalism and energy capture.

Conspiratorial placards and chants decrying the Great Reset soon began to appear at anti-lockdown rallies across the globe. If these protesters were to be believed, World Economic Forum CEO Klaus Schwab and his band of unscrupulous Davos cronies were about to strip us of our belongings, make us live in tiny boxes, and force us to subside on a diet consisting entirely of edible insects. (As with almost all conspiracy theories, as Ronson readily admits, there were elements of truth to some of these claims.)

“When they started showing up at the early anti-lockdown protests,” Naomi Klein recalls in her 2023 book Doppelganger, they spoke “as if a great secret was being revealed”. Klein thinks this rather odd, given the Great Reset came with a slick, high-profile marketing campaign. Nonetheless, as Klein writes,

journalists and politicians on the right, and “independent researchers” on the left, acted as it they had uncovered a conspiracy that wily elites were trying to hide from them. If so, it was the first conspiracy with its own marketing agency and explainer videos.

The question Ronson poses in this episode speaks directly to Klein’s droll observations: “why was this happening?” Part of the answer lies in the way people on both sides of the political spectrum were accessing and processing information.

cold war academic essay

‘Something in us … is waiting to be addicted’

Twitter only exploits and magnifies social problems that are already there, wrote commentator Richard Seymour in 2019. “If we’ve found ourselves addicted to social media, in spite or because of its frequent nastiness, as I have, then there is something in us that is waiting to be addicted.”

It was social media that exposed millions of people to the work of conspiracy theorist Mikki Willis, the former actor and model behind the ongoing Plandemic series, which intimates COVID-19 was deliberately engineered as part of a concerted attempt to murder millions and curtail civil liberties.

cold war academic essay

Released May 4 2020, the first of these slickly produced films – which was independently released on YouTube, at just 26 minutes long – includes an extensive interview with discredited virologist Judy Mikovits. In little over a week, Plandemic accrued more than 8 million views on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. On May 5, a day after its release, a QAnon Facebook group dedicated to the conspiracy movement posted the film to its 25,000 members, imploring them to watch it as quickly as possible.

Four years later, Mikki Willis, who has extensive links to the anti-vax movement, is an established presence on the conspiracy theory circuit, and was recently a guest on culture warrior Alex Jones’s InfoWars. He was also present at the January 6 2021 insurrection in Washington DC. He denies knowing anything about QAnon, but in the same breath thanks the movement’s followers for promoting his work.

Ronson sees Willis’ influence reflected across his series, in culture battles as disparate as the Great Reset and trans rights. “When I watched all his documentaries I noticed he had turned everything we covered through the series into one uber-conspiracy,” Ronson told the Guardian .

But what especially interests him is Willis’ devotion to literary scholar Joseph Campbell and his “hero’s journey”, intended as a way of explaining how narratives work – but taken on by Willis as an inspirational self-help book. It’s the sort of thing we might associate with an alt-right guru like Jordan Peterson: a guide to how life should work.

Willis tells Ronson how he stumbled across Campbell’s work in a secondhand bookstore in Los Angeles. He was particularly taken with the thesis Campbell advances in his most famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Published in 1949, this book has inspired countless critics and writers, including George Lucas, who liberally cribbed from it when developing Star Wars.

A work of comparative mythology, Campbell’s book divides the world up into a series of recognisable archetypes. In the end, at least from Campbell’s perspective, it all comes down to an old-fashioned struggle between heroes and villains, between the forces of good and evil:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Conspiracy theorists tend to see patterns everywhere, so it’s easy to see the appeal. Campbell provides a readily discernible framework for approaching and comprehending often bewilderingly complex – and occasionally entirely random – events.

Offering adventure and excitement, Campbell’s schema also comes tantalisingly preloaded with the promise of recognition and eventual adulation. But it also tends towards reduction and oversimplification, and encourages us to understand the world around us in terms of binary opposition. This, I think, should give us pause for thought.

Heroes, villains and the truth

At a glance, Plandemic’s millions and millions of views in a matter of days in 2020 can be explained by clickbait tactics and algorithmical orchestrations. But the more time I spend thinking about it, the more I wonder if we all, to some degree or other, want to believe in binaries, and to understand everything in terms of a clash between heroes and villains.

We do it because it’s easy and, in a way, comforting. Like a balm, this manner of thinking affords us temporary solace and the illusion of respite – at a frightening time, when everything is going from bad to worse. This strikes me as deeply troubling.

The constrictive, ultimately destructive binary thinking that structures much of everyday existence, online or otherwise, only intensifies with the ever-changing and overwhelming media landscape, which continually bombards us with piecemeal fragments of a selectively curated approximation of something that, to the naked eye, passes for reality.

And perhaps, stuck as we seem to be in our silos and personalised echo chambers, we are less likely to try to negotiate an agreed understanding somewhere in the murky middle. I’m not sure how we fix this, or if it can be fixed.

As Things Fell Apart ends, Ronson muses:

When untruths spread, the ripples can be devastating. So it feels more important than ever to hold onto the truth, like driftwood in the ocean, because if not, we might drown.

I agree. But I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that the 20th-century philosopher Theodor Adorno , who is himself the subject of a long-running conspiracy theory with a decidedly antisemitic slant, might have been right all along when he suggested “we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one”.

Read more: Is America enduring a 'slow civil war'? Jeff Sharlet visits Trump rallies, a celebrity megachurch and the manosphere to find out

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The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History

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The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History

21 ‘Gentlemen, you are Mad!’: Mutual Assured Destruction and Cold War Culture

Ivan T. Berend is a Distinguished Professor at the Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles. Previously, he was professor of economic history at the Budapest University of Economics (1953-1985); President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1985-90); and President of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (1995-2000). He is a Member of the British Academy and five other European academies of sciences. His most recent book is Europe since 1980 (2010). Among his earlier works, he published a tetralogy on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Central and Eastern Europe, The European Periphery and Industrialization, 1780-1914 (1984), and An Economic History of 20th Century Europe (2006). He is currently working on an economic history of nineteenth-century Europe.

  • Published: 18 September 2012
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In the year after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the historian and critic Lewis Mumford made a dramatic attack on the insanity of the nuclear age. In his article entitled ‘Gentlemen: You are Mad!’, Mumford said: ‘We in America are living among madmen. Madmen govern our affairs in the name of order and security’. According to Mumford, the modern superweapon society, for all its technological supremacy, was unable to recognise the looming disaster. People were sleepwalking towards the abyss of atomic war. The Cold War arms race created and served to maintain what Winston Churchill termed ‘the balance of terror’. By the end of the 1960s, both the United States and the Soviet Union had more than enough nuclear weapons to withstand a first strike and still be able to retaliate. This article explores how mutual assured destruction (MAD) was reflected and refracted in European culture and society from 1950 to 1985, and shows how film and fiction played a key role in highlighting the potential effects of MAD – a global nuclear holocaust.

‘The more one thinks about the implications of a nuclear policy, the more absurd and dangerous it all becomes.’ Tony Benn 1


In the year after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the historian and critic Lewis Mumford made a dramatic attack on the insanity of the nuclear age. ‘We in America’, he wrote, ‘are living among madmen. Madmen govern our affairs in the name of order and security.’ According to Mumford, the modern superweapon society, for all its technological supremacy, was unable to recognize the looming disaster. People were sleepwalking towards the abyss of atomic war:

The madmen have taken it upon themselves to lead us by gradual stages to that final act of madness which will corrupt the face of the earth and blot out the nations of men, possibly put an end to all life on the planet itself. 2

Mumford's article, entitled ‘Gentlemen: You are Mad!’, was published at a time when most Americans credited the atomic bomb with ending World War II and saving the lives of many US soldiers. But the shockwaves from the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki reverberated throughout the world in the following years. As the arms race accelerated in the 1950s, people were forced to come to terms with the idea that, for the first time in history, humankind was able not just to wipe out entire cities at the touch of a button, but to end life on earth. To quote one science fiction story of the period, the Cold War became the era of the ‘alphabet bombs’: first there was the A-bomb, then the H-bomb, and after that came the scientists’ ultimate gifts of destruction—the C-bomb (cobalt bomb) and the N-bomb (neutron bomb). 3

As the superpowers built up their arsenals and the fear of nuclear technologies grew, so people became increasingly hostile towards their inventors: the scientists. Scientists had signed a Faustian pact with what President Eisenhower termed the military–industrial complex and it seemed to many observers that in the Cold War the notion of progress itself was increasingly compromised. At the start of the twentieth century, scientists had been viewed as saviours, heralds of a coming technological utopia. Now their genius seemed to be directed solely at transforming the laws of nature into new and more destructive weapons. Bertholt Brecht summed up the dilemma facing Cold War science and society in his great play Leben des Galilei (1955). As the father of modern physics looks into the distant future, he sees a time when the scientists’ shouts of Eureka! will be greeted by ‘a universal cry of horror’ because people have learnt that, rather than improving the lot of humanity, science now leads to ever more terrible weapons of mass destruction. 4 As a result, in popular film and fiction during the Cold War, scientists were more likely to be depicted as Strangelovean madmen than saviours.

War had traditionally been viewed as the continuation of politics by other means, an idea first expounded in the nineteenth century by the Prussian general and war theorist Carl von Clausewitz. This notion had made war socially acceptable—even useful. But the atomic bomb changed that. As H.G Wells had predicted in his novel The World Set Free (1914), in which he coined the phrase ‘atomic bomb’, war in an age of superweapons became mutual suicide. Instead, atomic-age politicians and strategic analysts introduced the concept of deterrence. Jonathan Schell—author of the hugely influential 1982 study of nuclear weapons The Fate of the Earth —has argued that the effect of deterrence was to create ‘terror on a mass scale without actually using force’. The fear of annihilation was the only thing preventing war: ‘The battles that could not be fought physically were to be fought out instead on psychological terrain.’ 5

The Cold War arms race created and served to maintain what Churchill termed ‘the balance of terror’. By the end of the 1960s, both the US and the USSR had more than enough nuclear weapons to withstand a first strike and still be able to retaliate. The superpowers had reached the point of ‘assured destruction’, to use US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's 1968 phrase. It was critic Donald Brennen who added ‘mutual’ to this concept and created the memorable acronym that aptly sums up the politics and strategy of the Cold War: MAD. 6 This essay explores how mutual assured destruction was reflected and refracted in European culture and society from 1950 to 1985 and shows how film and fiction played a key role in highlighting the potential effects of MAD—a global nuclear holocaust.

The Doomsday Decade: 1954–64

By summer 1949, President Truman had given up on postwar attempts to secure international control of atomic energy. Instead, he said, ‘we must be strongest in atomic weapons’. 7 Until 6 October 1949, the President had not even heard of the hydrogen bomb. But the successful Soviet test of an atomic bomb in 1949 and lobbying by scientists such as Edward Teller soon convinced him that this was the new winning weapon that America needed to have in its arsenal. The arms race had begun.

Many scientists, some of whom had been involved in the Manhattan Project, were disturbed by the prospect of a nuclear arms race. If the project to build the hydrogen bomb was successful, Einstein warned in 1950, then ‘radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere and hence annihilation of any life on earth has been brought within the range of technical possibilities’. 8 Einstein's apocalyptic warning was splashed across nearly every front page. In France the paper Aurore printed a startling headline across three columns: ‘wherever it falls the H-bomb will obliterate all human life for a thousand years’. 9 You didn’t need Einstein's brain to work out that Europe would be the battlefield of World War III. As the New Statesman put it, ‘the British people know perfectly well that, even if America and Russia might survive an atomic war, Britain and Western Europe would not’. 10

In his Nobel acceptance speech in 1950, William Faulkner captured the mood of atomic anxiety perfectly: ‘there are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?’ 11 These concerns, dismissed by Time magazine as ‘hydrogen hysteria’, were also emerging in popular culture. 12 The classic Boulting brothers film Seven Days to Noon (1950) reveals both the growing anxieties about atomic war and a feeling that scientists had betrayed the ideals of their discipline. Professor Willingdon, a British scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, disappears from his government research establishment together with an atomic bomb. Willingdon threatens that, unless the British prime minister agrees to stop building atomic weapons, he will destroy central London. The professor is tormented by the thought that atomic war will mean the ‘total destruction of mankind’. 13 He has also lost faith in science: ‘When I was a young man I saw in science a way of serving God and my fellow men. Now I see my life's work used only for destruction. My dream has become a nightmare.’

The idealism of the early years of the twentieth century, when scientists were hailed as saviours of humankind, was long gone. Cold War films were quick to reflect the growing suspicion of scientists. The stock-in-trade character of the mad scientist was as old as cinema itself. But in the 1950s, more subtly flawed scientists began to appear in the movies. They included scientists such as Dr Edward Morbius in The Forbidden Planet (1956) and the sinister Dr Carrington in The Thing (1951), who is even prepared to sacrifice human lives in the cause of science. Such scientists were the antecedents of that most famous Cold War cinematic scientist—Dr Strangelove.

In contrast to popular movies, Cold War public information films sought to reassure audiences by glossing over the true horror of nuclear war. In Atomic Alert (1951) viewers were told that ‘the chance of your being hurt by an atomic bomb is slight’. 14 In private, scientists and statesmen were rather more concerned. Within weeks of the first atomic bombs being dropped, the new British prime minister, Clement Atlee, admitted in a personal memorandum that:

It is difficult for people to adjust their minds to an entirely new situation … Even the modern conception of war to which in my lifetime we have become accustomed is now completely out of date … it would appear that the provision of bomb-proof basements in factories and offices and the retention of ARP [Air Raid Precautions] and Fire Services is just futile waste … The answer to an atomic bomb on London is an atomic bomb on another great city. 15

Atlee's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, was more outspoken: ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’ 16 The Royal Air Force received its first atomic bombs in 1953, the year Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. As Atlee had predicted, deterrence was now accepted as the only defence against atomic attack.

In the same year that the RAF began carrying atomic bombs, Her Majesty's civil servants calculated the effects of a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom. They assumed that the aerial assault would consist of 132 bombs of the type dropped on Nagasaki, targeted on major cities and facilities. The result would be 1,378,000 of the Queen's loyal subjects dead and 785,000 seriously wounded. London would lose 422,000 of its citizens. During the whole of World War II, Britain had suffered 440,000 military and civilian dead.

America successfully tested its first thermonuclear device in 1952. On 1 March 1954, an improved version was detonated on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Los Alamos scientists who designed it expected a yield of 5 megatons. Instead it exploded with the power of 15 million tons of TNT, making it the biggest bomb ever tested by the United States. The fireball expanded to four miles wide. Without warning, radioactive fallout began raining down on the nearly ten thousand personnel of the naval task force gathered in the Pacific to observe the test, code-named Bravo. The test cast a vast radioactive pall over thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean. But the rest of the world might never have heard about what happened were it not for what occurred two weeks later. A Japanese tuna fishing boat, the Fukuryu Maru (‘Lucky Dragon’), returned early to its homeport of Yaizu. All twenty-three crew members were suffering from a mysterious illness. It turned out to be radiation sickness. They had been fishing 90 miles east of the Bravo test, several miles outside the exclusion zone.

What especially ‘alarmed the world’ about this ‘thermonuclear monster’, as the American press labelled the Bravo H-bomb, was the invisible yet lethal fallout from the explosion. 17 In spite of the warnings four years earlier from Albert Einstein and other scientists about radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere, the word ‘fallout’ had scarcely been mentioned. Now the papers were full of stories describing how the fishermen had been ‘burned by fall-out’. 18 As Daniel Lang wrote in the New Yorker , Bravo ‘was the shot that made the world fallout-conscious’. 19

Despite frequent reassurances from the Atomic Energy Commission, the public in America and around the world began to wake up to the threat posed by this new, invisible killer. In November 1954 one of the most famous atomic movies of the Cold War opened in Tokyo: Gojira , better known in the West as Godzilla . According to Tomoyuki Tanaka, the film's producer, Gojira was about ‘the terror of the Bomb. Mankind had created the Bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.’ 20   Gojira was an instant box-office success in Japan where 32 million people had signed a petition against the H-bomb in 1954. Audiences who knew better than any nation on earth what a nuclear weapon could do, watched in total silence. Many left the cinema in tears.

On his return from the Bravo test site, AEC chairman Lewis Strauss boasted to reporters that they could now make an H-bomb ‘as large as you wish’. According to Strauss ‘any city’ could now be wiped out by an H-bomb. 21 Strauss clearly hoped to reassure his fellow Americans that they were winning the arms race. Instead, many asked: ‘But at what price?’ By 1954, the hands of the Doomsday Clock on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists —the Cold War's most graphic depiction of how close the world was to nuclear Armageddon—stood at two minutes to midnight. With the Bravo H-bomb test, the world entered its most dangerous years.

Within days of the Americans exploding the biggest bomb the world had yet seen a high-level meeting of civil servants and top scientists took place in London. The man in charge of building the British atomic bomb, mathematician Sir William Penney, briefed them on the hydrogen bomb projects of the Soviet Union and the United States as well as describing to the assembled Whitehall mandarins what would happen if even a modest five-megaton bomb were dropped on their city. If such a bomb exploded above Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, everything and everyone from the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street in the south (including the room in which they were all sitting) to Soho in the north would be instantly vaporized. Beyond that, buildings would be totally destroyed up to three miles away and badly damaged up to seven miles. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was appalled. It was, he said, ‘the most terrible and destructive engine of mass warfare yet known to man’. 22 Nevertheless, at Cabinet later that year, he still argued that Britain needed to be armed with H-bombs, or risk losing ‘influence and standing in world affairs’. 23

A month after the Bravo H-bomb test, a headline in the New York Times declared: ‘now most dreaded weapon, cobalt bomb, can be built’. In his article, William Laurence (the only journalist allowed access to the Manhattan Project during World War II) explained how a thermonuclear bomb with a shell of cobalt around the fission and fusion devices would create a lethal radioactive cloud when it exploded. 24 A giant cobalt ship bomb exploded offshore could potentially wipe out an entire continent. This article drew shocked responses from around the world. The following day, the London Times reported Laurence's article prominently. Beneath it was a report on the worsening condition of the twenty-three Japanese fishermen exposed to radioactive fallout after the H-bomb test at Bikini on 1 March. Media stories about the cobalt bomb—a theoretical possibility in nuclear weapons design that no country has ever admitted building—reflected widespread public anxiety at this time regarding fallout and the development of ever more terrible weapons of mass destruction. From 1954, the reports of a cobalt doomsday weapon would feature regularly in newspapers around the world. In fiction and film, such as Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove , it also became a powerful symbol of the suicidal nature of the Cold War arms race and mutual assured destruction.

Two days before Christmas 1954, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, who had been imprisoned in World War I for his pacifism, gave a BBC radio talk in what the Times described as ‘the solemn, urgent tones of Cassandra’. Russell voiced people's unspoken fears: ‘Is our race so destitute of wisdom, so incapable of impartial love, so blind even to the simplest dictates of self-preservation,’ he asked, ‘that the last proof of its silly cleverness is to be the extermination of all life on our planet?’ 25

The broadcast struck a chord with the public and Russell received many letters of support. Encouraged, he decided to approach leading scientists to add their names to a joint statement warning about the dangers of thermonuclear war. In February 1955, Russell wrote to the world's most famous scientist: Albert Einstein. A lifelong anti-militarist, Einstein was immediately enthusiastic and promised to sign the statement. Russell received Einstein's signed copy on 18 April—the day the world learned of the great physicist's death. On 9 July 1955, Russell held a press conference in Caxton Hall, central London, to announce the publication of what became known as the Russell–Einstein Manifesto. It called on governments, the general public, and scientists to confront the dangerous situation that was facing the world:

We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt. … Almost everybody who is politically conscious has strong feelings about one or more of these issues; but we want you, if you can, to set aside such feelings and consider yourselves only as members of a biological species which has had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire. We shall try to say no single word which should appeal to one group rather than to another. All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it. We have to learn to think in a new way. 26

In 1955, Russell's call for a new way of thinking about the nuclear issue made a huge impression on a student at the Moscow State University. His name was Mikhail Gorbachev. Thirty years later, the new Soviet leader would reiterate Russell's words and lead the world into a new era of disarmament that would end the Cold War.

The Russell–Einstein Manifesto received widespread media coverage around the world. In Britain there had been growing opposition to the development of atomic weapons from pacifist groups as well as trade unions and some Anglican bishops. However, for the Labour Party the nuclear issue became a deeply divisive matter in the coming decades. Although anti-nuclear Labour MPs fiercely attacked the Churchill government's decision to develop the H-bomb in March 1955, the executive of the Labour Party eventually endorsed the British bomb. But individual Labour MPs, such as Fenner Brockway and Anthony Wedgwood Benn (who were involved in founding the Hydrogen Bomb National Campaign in April 1954), began organizing protest against nuclear weapons in general and the British nuclear deterrent in particular.

In March 1955, a poll found that 54 per cent of people were in favour of Britain developing the H-bomb, and 32 per cent opposed it. However, in common with other Europeans most Britons were appalled by the idea of ever using such a weapon. A survey conducted for the US government in February that year found that 71 per cent opposed using nuclear weapons in response to an attack on Europe with conventional weapons. Two months later, 67 per cent opposed first use in any circumstance. These attitudes were echoed across the continent. West Germans were shocked to learn in 1953 that atomic cannon had been deployed on their territory. In 1955, a mere 15 per cent said they wanted nuclear weapons used to defend West Germany against an invasion. In June that year, 88 per cent said they wanted to ban the bomb, a desire expressed in opinion polls throughout Europe. 27

After the ‘Bravo’ H-bomb spread fallout across the Pacific, nuclear testing became an issue of increasing concern for Europeans. US intelligence reports from Britain mention that when a new series of nuclear tests was announced for 1956, ‘the press as a whole expressed varying degrees of repugnance to the idea’, with considerable ‘concern for the possible genetic effects of radiation’. By the end of 1956, 72 per cent of Britons wanted their politicians to work for an international agreement to halt H-bomb tests. 28 Across Europe, prominent intellectuals added their voices to the chorus of concern about fallout. In 1957, Albert Schweitzer described it as ‘a catastrophe for the human race’, a view endorsed by the Pope. 29

Despite the clear opposition of Europeans, nuclear testing continued. By the end of 1958, America, the Soviet Union, and Britain had detonated 307 devices, most in the atmosphere. Britain's first thermonuclear test, in May 1957, provoked a public outcry. At the beginning of that year, the National Council for Abolition of Nuclear Weapon Tests had been formed with the support of leading cultural figures such as Russell, E. M. Forster, Julian Huxley, and Henry Moore. Within a year this had become the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the most influential anti-nuclear movement of the Cold War. At its public launch on 17 February 1958, there were speeches from public intellectuals including the author J. B. Priestley, Labour MP Michael Foot, and historian A. J. P. Taylor, who encouraged the audience to attend political meetings and shout ‘Murderer!’ at politicians. According to opinion polls that year, 72 per cent of British people supported global nuclear disarmament. 30 However, from the outset, one of CND's core objectives was unilateral disarmament and this remained a controversial and less popular aim throughout the movement's history.

The Aldermaston march of Easter 1958 was organized by the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War with the full support of CND. It began with a rally in Trafalgar Square that, despite the rain, attracted 5,800 people. Afterwards thousands spent four days marching 52 miles to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. It was on this historic march that artist Gerald Holtom's classic anti-war symbol—the circle with a broken cross—first appeared on placards and banners. Based on the semaphore symbols for n and d from the words nuclear disarmament, Holtom's design would become an instantly recognized emblem of opposition to nuclear war around the world.

In the 1940s and 1950s, fiction writers played an important role in thinking the unthinkable—to use the infamous phrase of nuclear theorist Herman Kahn. After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pentagon moved swiftly to confiscate and suppress images of the victims of America's new superweapon. Fiction writers stepped into the vacuum, describing what no one was allowed to see: what would happen when the Cold War turned hot and the dreaded mushroom clouds started rising on the horizon. Through narratives of human suffering, their texts brought alive for people the doomsday threat hanging over the world. Novels about a future nuclear war—such as Philip Wylie's Tomorrow! (1954), Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959), Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), and Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7 (1959)—were no longer regarded as mere science-fiction fantasies, but became international bestsellers. The most famous of these was by British-born author Nevil Shute. His novel On the Beach (1957) sold 100,000 copies in its first six weeks. By the 1980s it had sold more than four million copies, an astonishing total and more than any other novel about nuclear issues.

Set in 1963, Shute's novel depicts a world dying a slow and creeping death caused by fallout from a war fought with cobalt bombs. The novel centres on the only part of the globe not yet affected by radioactivity, Melbourne in the far south of Australia. Shute examines how people behave when faced with the inescapable reality that within nine months—when the cobalt-60 fallout finally reaches them—they will all be dead. ‘It's just too big a matter for mankind to tackle’, says one character. Indeed, Shute depicts people reacting fatalistically to what lies ahead: ‘It's not the end of the world at all. It's only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.’ 31

For Shute and for many readers, the stoicism of his characters and their attempt to continue a normal life, right up to the very end, was deeply poignant. It captured perfectly the mood of powerlessness that many people did indeed feel in the 1950s, as they faced the awesome possibility of a global nuclear holocaust that might end life on earth. Shute's moving human story cut through the Cold War propaganda and confronted people with what could actually happen if deterrence failed. The film version of 1959, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Anthony Perkins, became one of the most popular nuclear movies of all time and left audiences around the world ‘stunned or weeping’. 32 Nobel prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling said after watching the film ‘it may be that … On the Beach is the movie that saves the world’. 33 At a time when the top secret US Emergency Plans Book (1958) estimated that one in five Americans would die in a nuclear attack, novels and films brought home to people the urgency of the situation and helped swell the ranks of anti-nuclear organizations such as CND.

The beginning of the 1960s saw a dramatic increase in anti-nuclear activism in Europe and beyond. In 1960, 40,000 joined the Aldermaston march. The direction of the march had now been reversed, culminating in a rally at Trafalgar Square. That year the square was packed with 100,000 people, the largest popular protest in Britain since the Chartist demonstrations of 1848. CND went from strength to strength. In 1962, 150,000 attended the final rally at the end of the Aldermaston march. CND counted among its supporters key members of Britain's intellectual and cultural elite, including John Osborne, Doris Lessing, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Bolt, Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten, and Iris Murdoch. CND's core supporters were predominantly middle class, with women and students being particularly active in the movement. According to Lawrence S. Wittner, who has written the definitive history of the global anti-nuclear movement, ‘nuclear disarmament activism helped spawn a rambunctious “youth culture” that scandalized more conventional members of British society’. Peggy Duff, secretary and chief organizer of CND from 1958 to 1967, agrees: ‘they were slightly crazy, but not so crazy as the world they were trying to change’. 34 CND and its sister groups across Europe sowed the seeds of 1960s youth culture as well as preparing the ground for environmentalist activism in later decades. CND's campaigns were hugely successful and emulated by protest movements around the world. West Germany, in particular, witnessed vast demonstrations in this period. In polls across Europe the numbers who wanted to ban the bomb grew steadily in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In September 1961, the Soviet Union shocked the world by resuming its programme of atomic tests, which the superpowers had suspended in 1958 largely as a result of widespread public concern about the dangers of fallout, particularly of strontium-90. According to the press, Moscow blamed ‘the threatening attitude of the United States and its allies in the Berlin dispute’ for its decision. 35 That year the notorious Berlin Wall had been built, dividing the city (said Time ) like ‘a monstrous guillotine’. 36 On 30 October 1961, the Soviets detonated the largest nuclear weapon ever tested, the Tsar Bomba , ‘King of Bombs’. The western press described it as ‘Khrushchev's monster’. 37 Its potential yield was an enormous 100 megatons but for the test it was limited to 50 megatons. On the same day, Khrushchev wrote a chilling letter to the British Labour Party warning that in any future war the United Kingdom ‘may be among the first to experience the destructive power of nuclear blows’. 38 The presence of American nuclear-armed bombers and Britain's own H-bombs (supplied to the RAF this year) made this green and pleasant land a certain target for Soviet weapons, including the new 100-megaton bomb.

Each day the newspapers were full of stories about the threat of nuclear Armageddon. It was at this time that Stanley Kubrick began reading the best-selling nuclear thriller Red Alert by British author Peter George, an active member of CND. It would become the basis for the film that depicted the insane logic of the Cold War better than any other— Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb .

In Britain, Red Alert had been published in 1958 as Two Hours to Doom under the pen name, Peter Bryant. It describes how World War III might be started by a maverick military commander. Terminally ill and suffering from depression, General Quinten (the psychotic General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick's film) orders his B-52 bombers to attack the Soviet Union. But what he does not realize is that the Soviet Union has secretly built a doomsday machine using cobalt bombs beneath the Urals. Any nuclear attack on their country automatically triggers the device, the ultimate symbol of the precarious Cold War balance of terror.

In the novel, the world escapes the nuclear apocalypse. But Kubrick's film has a darker conclusion. Dr Strangelove ends with an awesome display of mushroom clouds erupting across the face of the earth, as the cobalt bombs of the Soviet doomsday machine explode. News footage of H-bomb tests is accompanied by British forces’ favourite Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The brutal reality—fully understood by the film's audience in 1964—was that there would be no reunions after World War III. Nuclear war could have only one outcome: mutual annihilation.

Despite Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph likening Kubrick's portrayal of Americans to Soviet propaganda, the film was hugely popular with moviegoers who ‘ringed the block’ at the Columbia cinema in London. 39 Ticket sales were 25 per cent higher than for any other film the Columbia had shown. For Lewis Mumford, Kubrick's masterstroke was to make Dr Strangelove ‘the central symbol of this scientifically organized nightmare of mass extermination’. Mumford thought that the tragedy of the age they were living in was eloquently expressed by the manic figure of this fanatical, ex-Nazi rationalist, a composite character inspired by Cold War scientists such as Edward Teller, Wernher von Braun, Herman Kahn, and John von Neumann: ‘This nightmare eventuality that we have concocted for our children is nothing but a crazy fantasy, by nature as horribly crippled and dehumanized as Dr Strangelove himself.’ 40

Mumford rightly described Kubrick's masterpiece as a crucial moment in the culture of the Cold War. For people all over the world, Dr Strangelove came to personify the sinister alliance of science and power politics that made it possible to annihilate millions at the touch of a button. Dr Strangelove's logic could transform acts of inhumanity into practical solutions, his rhetoric clothed barbarity in sweet words of reason, and his think tanks—such as the ‘Bland Corporation’, aka RAND—used computers to transform lives into numbers. For numbers, as Herman Kahn once said, are something you can think the unthinkable about. But in the 1960s, a new generation began to reject a life reduced to numbers and to look for answers beyond science and rationality. This generation— the people who queued around the block to see Dr Strangelove —no longer felt comfortable with the easy postwar certainties that their parents had accepted without question. For those who grew up in an age haunted by the Strangelovean cobalt bomb, the old ways of looking at the world seemed to lead to a dead end—to mutual assured destruction.

Protest and Survive: 1964–85

After world leaders stepped back from the brink of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, public concern about the Bomb declined significantly. It seemed as though the superpowers had stared into the abyss and realized that they were not prepared to press the doomsday button after all. The following year Khrushchev signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. CND rightly regarded it as a victory for public protest, a view echoed later by McGeorge Bundy: ‘what produced the treaty was steadily growing worldwide concern over the radioactive fallout from testing’. The atmospheric test ban was, he claimed, ‘achieved primarily by world opinion’. 41

Despite this success, after 1963 CND's membership fell dramatically and the Aldermaston march was abandoned as an annual event in 1964. Across Europe the anti-nuclear movement went into a similar decline. In 1959, 64 per cent of Americans had told pollsters that nuclear war was the nation's most urgent problem. Six years later that figure had dropped to 16 per cent. By the early 1970s, the atomic bomb was ‘no longer an editorial topic for local newspapers or a conversation piece at dinner tables’, claimed an American sociologist. It was a ‘dead issue’. 42 According to Robert Jay Lifton, ‘psychic numbing’ and denial played a major role in the fall-off of support for the protest movements. One young person summed it up in 1965: ‘If we lived in fear of the bomb we couldn’t function.’ 43 Frustration and fear had created doomsday fatigue. Ironically, in the same period as anti-nuclear activism declined, nuclear arsenals were increasing dramatically until US and Soviet arsenals reached the point of mutual assured destruction.

Although the fear of nuclear weapons faded from people's minds during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it didn’t disappear. How could it? The Bomb was now an intrinsic part of Cold War culture. Nuclear fear re-emerged with a vengeance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The neutron bomb (an enhanced radiation weapon that killed people while minimizing damage to property), and the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Eastern and Western Europe raised anxieties anew. In 1974, a mere 200 people had taken part in the Aldermaston march and 2000 attended the final rally. By contrast, in October 1980, a rally organized for UN Disarmament Week attracted 80,000 demonstrators. It was, said the Times , ‘the second coming of CND’. 44

Across Europe, the decision by NATO leaders to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles brought people on to the streets in unprecedented numbers. In the UK, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision in 1982 to replace the submarine-launched Polaris nuclear-armed missile system with Trident missiles played a major role in the revival of CND's fortunes. Another factor was the election of Ronald Reagan. The new American president referred to the anti-nuclear movement as ‘a suicide lobby’ and called, not for more negotiations with the Soviet Union, but ‘strategic superiority’. 45 During the presidential campaign he championed a number of new weapons systems, including the B-1 bomber, Trident, the MX ‘Peacekeeper’ missile, and the neutron bomb. The former Hollywood actor's credits included Murder in the Air (1940), a film about an ‘Inertia Projector’, a ray gun that destroys planes in mid-air. In the film an American admiral claims that by ‘making the United States invincible’, this superweapon ‘promises to become the greatest force for world peace ever discovered’. 46 It was possibly with this film in mind that President Reagan described the neutron bomb as ‘the dreamed of death ray weapon of science fiction’, and ‘the ideal deterrent weapon’. 47

Reagan instigated a dramatic escalation of the arms race and raised anxieties amongst Europeans. In 1981 he speculated about a nuclear war limited to Europe. Two years later he referred to the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’ and commented: ‘I find myself wondering if we’re the generation that's going to see [Armageddon] come about.’ 48 In the same year he gave the go-ahead for the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as ‘Star Wars’, a far-fetched project for space-based weapons systems proposed by the father of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, that most scientists believed was unachievable. CND was quick to capitalize on Reagan's unpopularity on the eastern side of the Atlantic. His actions and opinions, generally supported by the British prime minister, alienated many Europeans on both sides of the Iron Curtain. One CND poster captured the public mood. It depicted Reagan and Thatcher embracing like Rhett and Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind . Behind them rose a mushroom cloud and the slogan read: ‘She promised to follow him to the end of the earth. He promised to organise it.’

From 1983 to 1985, CND membership rose from 75,000 to 100,000, the largest membership of any political organization in Britain apart from the Conservative Party. Its October 1983 rally of 400,000 in Hyde Park was the largest demonstration up to that date in British history. In February that year as many as 49 per cent of people thought a nuclear war was likely. Later that year, 70 per cent said US policies had increased the risk of war. In West Germany, a mere 15 per cent expressed approval for the deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles. In October 1983 rallies held in four West German cities brought over a million people on to the streets. According to Wittner, ‘the antinuclear campaign had become the largest extraparliamentary movement in the history of the Federal Republic’. Petra Kelly, Chair of the Green Party, spoke for many: ‘We … have little time left to stop the nuclear madness … We are a country which can only be defended in the atomic age at the price of its total destruction.’ 49 Across Europe—in Rome, Oslo, Paris, Vienna—Europeans demonstrated in unprecedented numbers. In 1984, polls found that in six out of seven NATO countries a majority believed that ‘US policies have increased the risk of war’. 50

Popular culture responded to heightened public anxieties about nuclear issues, as it had in the 1950s and 1960s. In fiction, Russell Hoban's powerful novel Riddley Walker (1980) offered a haunting vision of a world blasted back to the stone age by its own advanced weaponry. When the Wind Blows (1982), a poignant graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, satirized civil defence advice such as the British government's Protect and Survive (1980). This booklet, together with the accompanying TV and radio programmes, had a widespread impact on popular culture in Britain at this time, although not in the way the authorities had intended. Indeed E. P. Thompson immediately produced a parody entitled ‘Protest and Survive’. Patrick Allen, the narrator of the Protect and Survive TV programmes, featured in some mixes of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood pop song ‘Two Tribes’ (1984), the title of which is itself derived from the Mad Max series of post-apocalyptic films (1979–85). The Protect and Survive booklet was also lampooned in an episode of the popular BBC sitcom The Young Ones in 1982. Rather than reassuring the public, British civil defence advice convinced many that there was indeed no defence against nuclear war, something fiction writers had been saying for the last forty years.

Chas Newkey-Burden, author of Nuclear Paranoia , was 11 when he saw the BBC film Threads . The 1984 film was a realistic depiction of the effect of a nuclear attack on the city of Sheffield. Afterwards he was physically ill. The next morning he rang CND and formed a youth branch. ‘I was utterly consumed by a fear of nuclear war’, he writes, and suggests that many CND marchers were like him more ‘petrified than political’. The British novelists Ian McEwan and Martin Amis (whose 1987 collection Einstein's Monsters directly addresses the nuclear issue) both recall watching and being impressed by the film. The Daily Express thought it was ‘brilliant, informative and shattering’. The Financial Times described it as an ‘awful warning’. Afterwards CND received thousands of phone calls. The organization had prepared information packs describing the effects of a nuclear attack to send out to worried viewers. A survey of Sheffield residents found that of those who had been neutral regarding nuclear weapons, half said they were more in favour of disarmament after watching the film. 51

In 1985, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the BBC screened The War Game . A hard-hitting docudrama directed by Peter Watkins, this film had originally been commissioned in 1965. However, the Director General of the BBC, Sir Hugh Greene, refused to show it on the grounds that it was ‘too horrific for the medium of broadcasting’. Privately Watkins was told that if it were shown the BBC expected thousands of people to commit suicide. The film was indeed disturbing and shocking. Using simulated newsreels and street interviews it depicts the effect of a nuclear attack on Kent with three single-megaton bombs. As Gojira and On the Beach had shown, such nuclear films and fictions could have a powerful impact on audiences. It has been estimated that half the adult population of America watched The Day After (1983), which depicted a nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, a record for a TV film. 52 Booklets on the issues raised by the film were distributed to half a million people and teach-ins were organized across America. Even President Reagan watched The Day After and according to the film's director Nicholas Meyer it made a deep impression on the hardline president. After Reagan met Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 to agree the terms of the landmark INF Treaty, Meyer recalls, ‘I got a telegram from his administration that said, “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.” ’ 53

In the 1980s, as the temperature of the Cold War plummeted and nuclear war seemed imminent, a change in leadership in the Soviet Union suddenly transformed the relationship between the superpowers, ushering in a new era of trust. In October 1985, just after he became leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the French Parliament. He told them bluntly that humankind faced ‘self-destruction’. It was time, declared the leader of one of the world's most powerful nuclear nations, ‘to burn the black book of nuclear alchemy’. Gorbachev said that they had to make the twenty-first century one ‘of life without fear of universal death’. Using a phrase that echoed the words of Russell and Einstein thirty years earlier, Gorbachev called for ‘new thinking’ to halt the arms race. 54 He had been a student in 1955 when the Russell–Einstein Manifesto was published. Now their call for a new way of thinking to deal with the nuclear issue spoke powerfully to Gorbachev at this time of renewed tension. The leader of the Soviet Union had finally realized that ‘the arms race, just like nuclear war, is unwinnable’. 55

This change of heart at the top of the Soviet state opened the floodgates to progress on arms control, progress many had thought impossible. On 6 August 1985, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Gorbachev instigated a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. Then, in January of the following year, he put forward an ambitious blueprint for the abolition of nuclear weapons by 2000. This proposal paved the way for the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987, the first treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons—including the ground-launched Pershing II, cruise, and Soviet RSD-10 Pioneer (SS-20) that had proved so unpopular in Europe. Gorbachev's new thinking on the nuclear issue represented the beginning of the end of both the Cold War and the era of mutual assured destruction.

The threat from nuclear weapons has certainly not disappeared in the twenty-first century, but the two superpowers have now acknowledged that the policy of mutual assured destruction was unsustainable. According to Wittner, the progress of the 1980s was only possible thanks to the public protests of the previous thirty years:

as millions of people poured into the streets of Sydney and New York, Amsterdam and Moscow, Budapest and London, bearing the nuclear disarmament symbol, it became the largest grassroots movement in world history—one which exemplified, through its global nature, the gradual emergence of a world community. 56

However, as I have argued, the new thinking on nuclear weapons also owed much to attempts by writers and film-makers to imagine the unimaginable: a global nuclear holocaust. Films and fictions from On the Beach to The Day After played a major role in convincing people that the logic of MAD was deeply flawed and that mutual assured survival was what world leaders should be working towards. Or, as Albert Camus said just days after the bombing of Hiroshima, ‘peace is the only battle worth waging’. 57

Further Reading

Bird, Kai and Lawrence Lifschultz (eds), Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy (Stony Creek, CT: Pamphleteer's Press, 1998 ).

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Braun, Reiner , Robert Hinde , David Krieger , Harold Kroto and Sally Milne (eds), Joseph Rotblat: Visionary for Peace (Weinheim: Wiley-VCH, 2007 ).

Brians, Paul , Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction 1895–1984 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1987 ).

Caufield, Catherine , Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age (London: Penguin, 1990 ).

Franklin, H. Bruce , War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988 ).

Frayling, Christopher , Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema (London: Reaktion, 2005 ).

Hennessy, Peter , The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War (London: Penguin, 2003 ).

Newkey-Burden, Chas , Nuclear Paranoia (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2003 ).

Rhodes, Richard , Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Touchstone, 1996 ).

Smith, P.D. , Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (London: Allen Lane, 2007 ).

Weart, Spencer R. , Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988 ).

Winkler, Allan M. , Life under a Cloud: American Anxiety about the Atom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 ).

Wittner, Lawrence S. , The Struggle against the Bomb , 3 vols: One World or None; Resisting the Bomb; Toward Nuclear Abolition (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993 –2003).

Tony Benn , Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963–67 (London: Hutchinson, 1987) , entry for 3 April 1957.

Lewis Mumford, ‘Gentlemen: You are Mad!’, Saturday Review of Literature (2 March 1946), cited in Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz (eds), Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy (Stony Creek, CT: Pamphleteer's Press, 1998), 284–7.

Fritz Leiber , ‘Coming Attraction’ (1950), in James Gunn (ed.), The Road to Science Fiction, Vol. 3: From Heinlein to Here (New York: Mentor, 1979), 173.

Bertolt Brecht , Leben des Galilei (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1972) , Scene 14, 126. See P.D. Smith , Metaphor and Materiality: German Literature and the World-View of Science 1780–1955 (Oxford: European Humanities Research Centre, 2000), 265ff.

Jonathan Schell , The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 52.

Joseph M. Siracusa , Nuclear Weapons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 68.

Truman, July 1949; quoted in Richard Rhodes , Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 363.

‘Einstein Sees Bid to “Annihilation” in Hydrogen Bomb’, New York Times [hereafter NYT ] (13 February 1950), 1.

Cited in Harold Callender, ‘Paris Fears Race for Super-Weapon’, NYT (15 February 1950), n.p.

‘The Logic of the H-bomb’, New Statesman 39 (4 February 1950), 117.

William Faulkner , Essays, Speeches and Public Letters , ed. James B. Meriwether (New York: Modern Library, 2004), 119.

‘Hydrogen Hysteria’, Time (6 March 1950), 88.

John and Roy Boulting , dir., Seven Days to Noon (London Films, 1950).

Atomic Alert (Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, 1951) [no dir.].

Clement Atlee, ‘Memorandum by the Prime Minister’, 28 August 1945, PRO, CAB 130/3; cited in Peter Hennessy,   The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War (London: Penguin, 2003), 46.

Ernest Bevin's comment was made during discussions in the Cabinet Committee on Atomic Energy on 25 October 1946; see Hennessy , The Secret State , 48.

Hanson W. Baldwin, ‘H-Bomb Fall-out Poses New Defense Problems’, NYT (20 February 1955), IV, 10.

Lindesay Parrott, ‘Japan to Survey Radioactivity of Sea around the Bikini Tests’, NYT (17 April 1954), n.p.

June 1955, in Daniel Lang , From Hiroshima to the Moon: Chronicles of Life in the Atomic Age (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 369.

Tomoyuki Tanaka, quoted in William Tsutsui , Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 18.

[Anon], ‘H-Bomb Tests End; Called a Success’, NYT (14 May 1954), 5.

Macmillan Diary, 26 January 1955; quoted in Hennessey , The Secret State , 52.

Winston Churchill, 8 July 1954, PRO, CAB 128/27, quoted in Hennessey , The Secret State , 58.

William L. Laurence, ‘Now Most Dreaded Weapon, Cobalt Bomb, Can Be Built’, NYT (7 April 1954), 4. The idea of a cobalt bomb was first described publicly by Leo Szilard in 1950. See P. D. Smith , Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (London: Allen Lane, 2007).

‘1954—Portrait of the Year’, Times (1 January 1955), 11.

‘The Russell–Einstein Manifesto’, in Reiner Braun et al. (eds), Joseph Rotblat: Visionary for Peace (Weinheim: Wiley-VCH, 2007), 263.

Lawrence S. Wittner , Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement 1954–1970, The Struggle Against the Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), vol. 2, 17, 19.

Ibid. , 17.

Albert Schweitzer, ‘Declaration of Conscience’, broadcast 23 April 1957; quoted in Wittner , Resisting the Bomb , 31.

Wittner , Resisting the Bomb , 47, 50.

Nevil Shute , On the Beach (London: Heinemann, 1957), 40, 89.

Spencer R. Weart , Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 218.

Jerome F. Shapiro , Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film (New York: Routledge, 2002), 23.

Wittner , Resisting the Bomb , 194.

Seymour Topping, ‘Moscow Cites Berlin Tensions—Boasts of Superbomb Project’, NYT (31 August 1961), 1.

‘Berlin’, Time (8 September 1961), 26.

‘Superbomb’, Newsweek (30 October 1961), 44–5.

James Feron, ‘Britain is Atomic-War Target, Khrushchev Warns Laborites’, NYT (31 October 1961), 14.

[Anon.], ‘Debate over Strangelove Film Echoes Happily at the Box Office’, NYT (10 February 1964).

Lewis Mumford, ‘ “Strangelove” Reactions’, NYT (1 March 1964), II, 8.

McGeorge Bundy , Danger and Survival (New York: Random, 1988), 460–1 ; quoted in Wittner , Resisting the Bomb , 467.

Peyton Lyon , Canada in World Affairs 1961–3 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968), 78 ; cited in Wittner , Resisting the Bomb , 447.

Quoted in Wittner , Resisting the Bomb , 451.

Lawrence S. Wittner , Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present, The Struggle against the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), vol. 3, 65.

Ibid. , 112–13.

Quoted from Christopher Frayling , Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema (London: Reaktion, 2005), 173.

Wittner , Toward Nuclear Abolition , 113.

Ibid. , 120.

Ibid. , 144–5.

Ibid. , 168.

Chas Newkey-Burden , Nuclear Paranoia (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2003), 8, 58–9.

Chas Newkey-Burden , Nuclear Paranoia , 50–1 ; Shapiro, Atomic Bomb Cinema , 186–91.

Wittner , Toward Nuclear Abolition , 370–1.

Gorbachev , Perestroika (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 138 ; quoted in Wittner , Toward Nuclear Abolition , 371.

Wittner , Resisting the Bomb , 473.

Albert Camus, ‘After Hiroshima: Between Hell and Reason’, Philosophy Today (Spring 1988), in Bird and Lifschultz (eds), Hiroshima's Shadow , 260–1.

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Jim Simons, Math Genius Who Conquered Wall Street, Dies at 86

Using advanced computers, he went from M.I.T. professor to multibillionaire. His Medallion fund had 66 percent average annual returns for decades.

An close-up photo of Mr. Simons, who had thinning gray hair and a gray-stubble beard and wore a blue shirt with a purple patterned necktie. His left hand was raised holding a cigarette.

By Jonathan Kandell

Jim Simons, the prizewinning mathematician who abandoned a stellar academic career, then plunged into finance — a world he knew nothing about — and became one of the most successful Wall Street investors ever, died on Friday in his home in Manhattan. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by his spokesman, Jonathan Gasthalter, who did not specify a cause.

After publishing breakthrough studies in mathematics that would play a seminal role in quantum field theory, string theory and condensed matter physics, Mr. Simons decided to apply his genius to a more prosaic subject — making as much money as he could in as short a time as possible.

So at age 40 he opened a storefront office in a Long Island strip mall and set about proving that trading commodities, currencies, stocks and bonds could be nearly as predictable as calculus and partial differential equations. Spurning financial analysts and business school graduates, he hired like-minded mathematicians and scientists.

Mr. Simons equipped his colleagues with advanced computers to process torrents of data filtered through mathematical models, and turned the four investment funds in his new firm, Renaissance Technologies , into virtual money printing machines.

Medallion, the largest of these funds, earned more than $100 billion in trading profits in the 30 years following its inception in 1988. It generated an unheard-of 66 percent average annual return during that period.

That was a far better long-term performance than famed investors like Warren Buffett and George Soros achieved.

“No one in the investment world even comes close,” wrote Gregory Zuckerman, one of the few journalists to interview Mr. Simons and the author of his biography, “The Man Who Solved the Market.”

By 2020, Mr. Simons’s approach to the market — known as quantitative, or quant, investing — accounted for almost a third of Wall Street trading operations. Even traditional investment firms that relied on corporate research, instinct and personal contacts felt compelled to adopt some of Mr. Simons’ computer-driven methodology.

For much of its existence, Renaissance funds were the largest quant funds on Wall Street, and its style of investing spurred a sea change in the way hedge funds traded and made money for their wealthy investors and pension funds.

By the time he retired as chief executive of the business in 2010, Mr. Simons was worth $11 billion (almost $16 billion in today’s currency), and a decade later his fortune had doubled.

While he continued to oversee his funds as Renaissance chairman, Mr. Simons increasingly devoted his time and wealth to philanthropy. The Simons Foundation became one of the largest private funders of basic science research. And his Flatiron Institute used cutting-edge computational techniques for research into astrophysics, biology, mathematics, neuroscience and quantum physics.

James Harris Simons was born on April 25, 1938, in Cambridge, Mass., the only child of Matthew Simons, the general manager of a shoe factory, and Marcia (Kantor) Simons, who managed the home. A prodigy in mathematics, he did his undergraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was only 23 when he received his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley.

Beginning in 1964, Mr. Simons taught at M.I.T. and Harvard University while simultaneously working as a breaker of Soviet codes at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded nonprofit group. But he was fired from the institute in 1968 for publicly expressing strong anti-Vietnam War views.

Over the next decade, he taught mathematics at Stony Brook University on Long Island, part of the State University of New York, and became chairman of its math department. While running the department he won the nation’s highest prize in geometry in 1975.

Then, in 1978, he abandoned his scholarly career and founded Monemetrics, an investment company with offices in a small shopping mall in Setauket, just east of Stony Brook on the North Shore of Long Island. He had never taken a financial course or shown more than a passing interest in the markets. But he was convinced that he and his small team of mathematicians, physicists and statisticians — mainly former university colleagues — could analyze financial data, identify market trends and make profitable trades.

After four roller coaster years, Monemetrics was renamed Renaissance Technologies. Mr. Simons and his growing staff of former scholars initially focused on currencies and commodities. Every conceivable type of data — news reports of political unrest in Africa, bank statistics from small Asian nations, the rising price of potatoes in Peru — was fed into advanced computers to glean patterns that enabled Renaissance to score consistently huge annual returns.

But the real bonanza came when Renaissance plunged into equities, a much larger market than currencies and commodities.

Stocks and bonds were long seen as the purview of Wall Street brokerages, investment banks and mutual fund companies whose young, tireless M.B.A.s analyzed listed companies and turned over their research results to senior wealth managers, who then relied on their experience and instinct to pick market winners. They initially scoffed at the math nerds at Renaissance and their quantitative methods.

A few times, Mr. Simon’s methodology led to costly mistakes. His company used a computer program to buy so many Maine potato futures that it nearly controlled the market. This met with the opposition of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the regulatory agency in charge of futures trading. As a result, Mr. Simons had to sell off his investments and miss out on a large potential profit.

But far more often he was so successful that his biggest problem was hiding his trades and research techniques from competitors. “Visibility invites competition, and, with all due respect to the principles of free enterprise — the less the better,” he wrote in a letter to clients.

Business rivals weren’t the only ones eyeing Mr. Simons’s results with envy or suspicion. In 2009, he faced a rebellion from outside investors over the enormous disparity in the performance of different Renaissance Technologies portfolios. The previous year, the Medallion Fund, which was available only to Renaissance present and past employees, registered an 80 percent gain, while the Renaissance Institutional Equities Fund, offered to outside investors, dropped 16 percent in 2008.

In July 2014, Mr. Simons and his firm drew bipartisan condemnation from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for using financial derivatives to disguise day-to-day trading as long-term capital gains. “Renaissance Technologies was able to avoid paying more than $6 billion in taxes,” asserted Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, in his opening statement at the subcommittee hearing.

Both Mr. Simons and his onetime co-chief executive, Robert Mercer, were among the largest financial contributors to politicians and political causes. While Mr. Simons generally backed liberal Democrats, Mr. Mercer was fervently right-wing and became a leading funder of Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns .

In 2017, Mr. Simons, then chairman of Renaissance Technologies, fired Mr. Mercer as C.E.O. because his political activities were provoking other key Renaissance executives to threaten to resign. Mr. Mercer stayed on as a researcher. According to both men, they remained friendly and continued to socialize.

In 2011, his foundation gave $150 million to Stony Brook University, with most of the money going to research in medical sciences. At the time, it was the biggest gift ever bestowed in SUNY’s history.

Last year, the foundation outdid that gift with a $500 million donation to Stony Brook, which called it the largest unrestricted endowment gift to a higher education institution in American history.

As he became older and wealthier, Mr. Simons enjoyed a lavish life style. He purchased a 220-foot yacht for $100 million, bought a Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan and owned a 14-acre estate in East Setauket, overlooking Long Island Sound. A chain-smoker, he refused to put out his cigarettes in offices or at conferences and willingly paid fines instead.

His first marriage, to Barbara Bluestein, a computer scientist, with whom he had three children — Elizabeth, Nathaniel and Paul — ended in divorce. He then married Marilyn Hawrys, an economist and former Stony Brook undergraduate who received her doctorate there. They had two children, Nicholas and Audrey.

Paul Simons, 34, was killed in a bicycle accident in 1996, and Nicholas Simons, 24, drowned off Bali, Indonesia, in 2003. His wife and other children survive him, as do five grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Mr. Simons lamented to a friend about the deaths of his sons, according to his biographer, saying, “My life is either aces or deuces.”

Hannah Fidelman contributed reporting.


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