Before the end of the cold war, nuclear apocalypse was a frightening possibility that overshadowed everyone’s lives. With tensions rising between the US and North Korea, we can learn valuable lessons from CND and Greenham Common
by Zoe Williams
On Monday, I was idly interrogating my children about their anxieties, when my nine-year-old son raised the prospect of a third world war. Given the current tensions between the US and North Korea, I suppose this wasn’t too surprising. I explained that, were there a nuclear strike, the UK would be very unlikely to be its target, and he replied: “It’s so polluted, we may as well have been nuked already.” There seemed to be the lilt of a joke in this comment somewhere, but I couldn’t swear to it. I squeaked on a bit about how levels of lead have actually gone way down, and diesel cars – one of which we were actually sitting in – would soon be phased out, but thought: this is exactly how I remember life in 1982, the sense of an impending threat that everyone talked about but nobody explained in useful terms. Then it was nuclear war; now it’s pollution.
When I was growing up, kids understood the broad concept of all-out nuclear war, but not what escalation would look like, or who had what capability. I used to think every plane that flew overhead had a nuclear capacity, and it was up to the pilot whether or not he used it. For those of us who reached majority with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the coming of age is indivisible from the relief of an existential threat lifted, so that worrying about nuclear annihilation is filed as part of childhood, a monster in the wardrobe. It was real, until suddenly it wasn’t.