82 Seiten, Note: 1
2 Nuclear Apocalypticism
2.1 Apocalyptic Films as Crisis Texts
2.2 The Modern Apocalypse
2.3 Apocalyptic Narratives
2.4 The Nuclear Apocalypse
2.5 The Role of Narratives in the Atomic Age
3 The Cold War: A Brief Summary
3.1 Unraveling Alliances and Growing Tensions
3.2 The Struggle between Superpowers
3.3 The Cuban Missile Crisis
3.4 Proxy Wars and Changing Dynamics
3.5 Locating the Films on the Timeline
4 The Atomic Bomb in International Cultural Discourse
4.1 Phase 1: The US Monopoly
4.2 Transitional Phase: The End of the US Monopoly
4.3 Phase 2: The Arms Race and New Controversies
5 Ideas and Innovations of the Atomic Age
6 US-Specific Media Coverage of the Nuclear Discourse
6.1 Life Magazine
6.2 One World or None
6.3 The Nuclear Sublime
6.4 The Silent Killer and the Walking Dead
7 The Politics of Deterrence and the Imaginary War
7.1 The Metaphorical Nature of the Cold War
7.2 A War against Imagination
7.3 The Exceptional Role of Film and Fiction in the Imaginary War
8 Preliminaries for the Analysis
8.1 Film Production and Release Dates
8.2.1 On the Beach (1959)
8.2.2 The Day After (1983)
9 The Staging of a Nuclear Apocalypse
9.1 Worldbuilding and Narrative Development
9.4 Casting Decisions
10 On the Beach and The Day After as Crisis Texts
10.1 Emotional Reactions and Coping Strategies
10.1.2 Regret and Search for Purpose
10.1.3 Work as a Form of Escapism
10.2 Suggested Solutions
10.3 Hopes and Fears Expressed in the Films
10.4 Castro Gomez’s Narrative Functions in the Two Films
11 Relationship between Fiction and Reality in On the Beach and The Day After
13.1 Primary Sources:
13.2 Secondary Sources:
The Cold War can be seen as the era in which the realms of reality and science fiction merged. It is the period in which humankind first set foot on the moon and simultaneously gained the power to destroy Planet Earth by merely pushing a button. It is the era of looming mushroom clouds pervading the media, of unnerving political tensions, and of un-promised tomorrows. This thesis explores the relationship between apocalyptic fiction and reality during those times. By exploring the zeitgeist and media landscape of the American Cold War culture, this thesis demonstrates that apocalyptic fiction had a significant bilateral role during the Cold War era and influenced the contemporary nuclear discourse. This is illustrated by analyzing two popular apocalyptic movies, On the Beach (1959) and The Day After (1983). Both films portray a worst-case scenario in which the protagonists are confronted with the disastrous and, ultimately, lethal consequences of a nuclear war. These movies are not just blockbusters for entertainment but fuel and contribute to the ongoing nuclear discourse about the Cold War era and its politics of deterrence. To showcase the significant relationship between apocalyptic fiction and perceptions of reality, this thesis is based on the following two premises.
Firstly, this paper perceives the Cold War as a war against people’s imagination. In fact, there has never been a nuclear war. Media coverage and narratives concerned with this topic have drawn their information from a pool of hypothetical knowledge created by the collective imaginary. Film narratives such as those of On the Beach (1959) and The Day After (1983) are a product of that collective imaginary but also simultaneously contribute to it. This bilateral role of films concerned with nuclear discourse is demonstrated by an in-depth analysis of these two apocalyptic films.
Secondly, this thesis interprets films as crisis texts according to the paradigm of apocalypticism research. According to this analytical approach, this study focuses on the films’ contemporary cultural context and investigates how their narratives are related to the political and cultural events of the Cold War. It further evaluates how the Cold War and the threat of a potential nuclear war were processed in mainstream American media at that time.
Following these premises, this thesis aims to answer the research questions below:
§ Regarding the relationship between fiction and reality during the Cold War, what is meant by the statement that the Cold War can be classified as a war against people’s imagination? In which way can that be demonstrated in the movies’ analysis? How does the close relationship between fiction and reality impact the films and their public reception? What kind of public reaction did the movies evoke?
§ Regarding apocalypticism’s definition of an apocalypse as a fundamental crisis, how do the movies’ characters address and react to the dire circumstances they are in? What hopes and fears are expressed in the films? Do they suggest solutions to the dangerous dynamics of the politics of deterrence?
§ Regarding the staging of the movies, how do the filmic narratives unfold? Where and how does the storyline begin, and when does it end? How is focalization used in the films, and what effects are achieved with it? How is the nuclear confrontation depicted onscreen or described by protagonists? What are the settings of the films, and what purpose could they serve for the films’ effects?
In its theoretical part, this thesis provides an overview of the Cold War era and reveals how the beginning of the Atomic Age changed the dynamics of power and politics forever. Furthermore, this thesis investigates several selected concepts and aspects connected to the Cold War that explain why this analysis operates according to this specific research approach.
In its analytical part, the research questions concerning these films are answered, and evidence of the bilateral role of apocalyptic films in the Cold War era is provided.
This thesis is constructed in the following way:
Chapter 2 provides a definition and an overview of the topic of nuclear apocalypticism. It presents insight into the studies of media scientist Peter Podrez and other researchers who have investigated the topic of filmic apocalypses and their depiction onscreen. It also engages with the concept of Gerhard Marcel Martin, who classified an apocalypse as a fundamental crisis and defined the implications connected to this classification. Furthermore, it describes the development of the term “apocalypse” and how it has changed over the decades. Finally, it explains what role apocalyptic narratives played during the Atomic Age.
Chapter 3 provides a summary of the Cold War’s main historic events. This chapter is important in understanding the underlying political and cultural dynamics that define that age. It shows how the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, struggled for power in Europe and how the arms race developed. It also connects the production and air dates of the movies On the Beach (1959) and The Day After (1983) to the timeline of the Cold War and showcases that both films were created during especially hazardous times in this period.
Chapter 4 addresses the international cultural discourse concerned with nuclear weaponry. Since this thesis operates with a highly context-dependent analytical approach, it is important to understand how the nuclear discourse of the Atomic Age developed. This chapter illustrates how the politics of deterrence came into being and how the public’s fear of a nuclear confrontation was manipulated and stoked by the US government.
Chapter 5 provides an overview of the Cold War era as a time of groundbreaking ideas and innovations. It is concerned with the atomic bomb’s story of origin, but not with its scientific development but with the idea of the bomb itself. Long before the first nuclear weapon existed, the idea of it did. Even the name “atomic bomb” was coined by a science-fiction novelist. This chapter explores how the images and ideas used in the nuclear discourse were created.
Chapter 6 focuses on nuclear discourse in US mainstream media. It investigates how prominent magazines and newspapers such as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies’ Home Journal featured the nuclear discourse in their articles. Based on these media reports, the predominant narratives, themes, and motifs that can also be found in the two films are then identified.
Chapter 7 engages with the Cold War as a concept of thought. It aims at providing a deeper understanding of its nature as a war against people’s imagination. It explains the intrinsic mechanisms of the politics of deterrence and its high dependence on fictitious scenarios. Moreover, it explains in depth why films and other media were especially significant in the Cold War era.
Chapter 8 provides basic information about On the Beach (1959) and The Day After (1983) that is necessary for the subsequent analysis. This chapter provides information on the films’ production and release dates and their plots and protagonists.
Chapter 9 is concerned with the general structure and worldbuilding of the two movies. It examines how the narratives unfold and how information about the state of the world is conveyed to the viewer. It also investigates how the nuclear apocalypse is portrayed in the two films. This chapter provides answers to the third set of research questions.
Chapter 10 interprets On the Beach (1959) and The Day After (1983) as crisis texts and applies the theories stated in chapter 3. It provides the answers to the second cluster of research questions by analyzing what kinds of hopes and fears concerning the impending threat of a nuclear war were realized in the movie narratives. Additionally, this chapter assesses the coping strategies that the protagonists apply to survive in their new reality.
Chapter 11 demonstrates how the significant relationship between apocalyptic films and the reality of the Cold War era is expressed in On the Beach (1959) and The Day After (1983). Whereas chapter 10 investigates how the zeitgeist of the Cold War era is expressed in the two movies, this chapter focuses on how they influenced contemporary viewers. It also answers the third and first clusters of research questions.
Finally, chapter 12 summarizes the main points of this thesis and draws final conclusions.
Since the films On the Beach (1959) and The Day After (1983) showcase scenarios that are concerned with the end of humankind, they belong to the genre of apocalyptic films. In his book Der Sinn im Untergang (The Sense in the Doom), media scientist Peter Podrez investigates several types of apocalyptic narratives. His research has shown that different cultures have varying approaches to this topic. According to his studies, the focus on an atomic apocalypse is an inherently US notion. Podrez claims that the key difference between the German and US apocalyptic film genre is that American-made movies almost always incorporate numerous historic references to the atomic discourse. The historic contextualization and reflections that are an essential part of the US apocalyptic film genre render these films an interesting subject for analysis.
Podrez has observed that there is relatively little research into this niche of media studies. His own survey aims at providing a new approach to this topic, analyzing apocalyptic movies as crisis texts (10). This thesis adopts and adapts Podrez’s approach, regarding the films On the Beach and The Day After as crisis texts according to the crisis paradigm of apocalypticism research:
„Apokalyptik“ ist Ausdruck einer fundamentalen Krise. Zu ihr gehören ins Wort und ins Bild gesetzte Erfahrungen und Erwartungen dieser Krise, die Symbolisierung von Ängsten und Hoffnungen, ein Vorstellungskomplex mitten in der Krise angesichts vergangener, gegenwärtiger und noch zu erwartender Katastrophen und Rettungen. (Martin 74)
Gerhard Marcel Martin has summarized apocalypticism as a fundamental crisis. This crisis is shaped by all visual and verbalized experiences and expectations that are made during its duration. To the crisis experience belongs a whole complex of ideas concerned with past, present, and expected calamities and rescue scenarios. It also accounts for symbolized hopes and fears that are products of the crisis (74).
In addition to Martin, Podrez refers to Victor R. Castro Gomez, who has posited that apocalyptic narratives are not just a depiction of a crisis but also serve as a psychological coping mechanism (11). According to Castro Gomez, apocalyptic narratives have six functions: They (I) provide a sense of purpose, (II) offer solace, and (III) help to overcome fear. Furthermore, apocalyptic narratives (IV) aid in coping with the present, (V) boost stamina, and (VI) work as a psychological compensation mechanism (Castro Gomez 36).
These functions show that crisis texts are not just texts that originate during a crisis, but they also represent a crucial part of processing the crisis. In concordance with Castro Gomez, Podrez has concluded:
Wenn Film- Apokalypsen als Krisentexte untersucht werden, ist die Betrachtung des Krisenkontextes, der sie hervorgebracht hat, notwendig. Dieser wird diskursiv entfaltet, wobei seine Topoi und Strukturen nicht nur auf die Thematik der Filme, sondern auch auf ihre Krisenbearbeitungs- und -bewältigungsstrategien Einfluss nehmen können. (Podrez 11)
To analyze apocalyptic films as crisis texts, it is necessary to develop a deeper understanding of the crisis’s larger context, which led to the production of the film. The discursive analysis of the film encompasses not only its topoi and structures in relation to the major themes but also considers which strategies are applied to work on and cope with the crisis (Podrez 11).
Therefore, this thesis engages with the movies’ larger context by surveying the political dynamics, life circumstances, and daily media content of the Cold War culture in the United States. Within the filmic analysis, the movies’ contexts as well as Castro Gomez’s six functions of apocalyptic narratives are considered.
The term “apocalypse” derives from the ancient Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apokálypsis), which derives from the words ἀπό and καλύπτω, literally meaning "an uncovering" (Wikipedia contributors, “Apocalypse”). Historically, the term was used in Christian eschatology and carries religious connotations as it marks the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. However, over the centuries, the notion of the apocalypse has been secularized and decontextualized. Additionally, Podrez has observed a process of pessimization. The original religious term “apocalypse” was meant as only one part of the trinity: crisis, destruction, new beginning. Although the traditional term embodies destruction, it simultaneously conveys the promise of a new beginning. The modern version of the apocalypse, however, lacks this promise and just references destruction without the hope of recovery. A process of universalization finally completes the three other processes (secularization, decontextualization, and pessimization) and generalizes the term even more. The modern apocalypse is set in multiple mundane contexts, does not carry religious connotations or salvation promises, and has lost its quality of being all-encompassing, meaning the modern term “apocalypse” can be used for local events, such as the destruction of a city or a country, and not exclusively the destruction of the entire planet (19–23). Subsequently, in modern times, the term “apocalypse” describes “a serious event resulting in great destruction and change” (Cambridge Dictionary, “Apocalypse”).
The term “narrative” is used in several disciplines and can therefore be defined in several ways. This thesis applies the term according to the following definitions that belong to the disciplines of historiography and social sciences. In general, “narrative” derives from the Latin word narrare, which means “to tell.” The word narrare, in turn, derives from the adjective gnarus, which means “skilled or knowing” (Wikipedia contributors, “Narrative”). According to The Cambridge Dictionary, a narrative can be defined as “a story or a description of a series of events” and “a particular way of explaining or understanding events.” Merriam- Webster adds that narrative describes “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values.”
A classic apocalypse is always a narrative. Podrez has argued that all narratives automatically possess coping strategies and refers to Wolfgang Müller- Funk:
Narrative stiften Sinn, nicht aufgrund ihrer jeweiligen Inhalte, sondern auf Grund der ihnen eigenen strukturellen Konstellationen: weil sie eine lineare Ordnung des Zeitlichen etablieren. (Müller-Funk 29)
According to Müller-Funk, narratives provide a sense of purpose due to their quality of establishing a temporal linear order of events. However, the decisive element of a narrative’s purpose-giving quality is not its content but the structural constellations within the narrative itself (29). Hence, the verbalization of a crisis is the first step of crisis management. By verbalizing diffuse feelings of fear and anxiety, they are given a concrete form that can be communicated to others. This establishes a distance between the person afflicted by the crisis and the actual experience of the crisis. Furthermore, it raises awareness of the crisis and opens up space for reflection. The process of narration divides time into different sections and establishes a conception of a temporal structured reality within the chaotic experiences of the crisis and its accompanying feelings of disorientation and uncertainty (Podrez 32 et seq).
Apocalyptic narratives mainly address anxious anticipations of an uncertain future. Martin has already defined an apocalypse as a fundamental crisis that encompasses all ideas that are connected to past, present, and expected calamities and considers all symbolized hopes and fears that are a product of the crisis (74). Hence, apocalyptic narratives express hopes and fears about the future and represent a way of coping with the present by verbalizing negative emotions and establishing a linear temporal order of events and potential events through narration (Podrez 32–34).
A nuclear apocalypse has the specific characteristic of being global and all- encompassing. The existence of all of humankind is at stake. Eva Horn has stated that during the decades of the 1950s and ’60s, in which the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse seemed most feasible, the notions of atomic bombs “produced formulas of a negative theology of destruction” (chap. 2), which means that the atomic bomb was perceived as the harbinger of “the end,” “the absolute nothing,” “ the empty,” “the big void” that would be the only thing to prevail after the nuclear apocalypse. The idea of the nuclear apocalypse is not limited to certain areas or countries; when initiated, it is seen as global, all-encompassing, inescapable, and lethal to all of humankind (chap. 2).
Therefore, the crisis of the nuclear apocalypse exceeds the possibilities of crisis management and fails to offer solutions after the crisis already occurred. The only solution is to avoid a nuclear crisis altogether, which is also the main message of the two movies On the Beach and The Day After (Podrez 76).
A typical theme of nuclear apocalyptic discourse is the relationship between humans and technology. Horn has referred to the philosopher Günther Anders, who classified the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse as “a symptom of a ‘Promethean Gap’” (Horn chap. 2). Anders’s philosophical concept of the Promethean gap describes the fact that humanity has become so technologically advanced that its ability to produce technology exceeds its capability to fathom and anticipate the consequences and calamities of this technology. Accordingly, Anders and Horn have assessed that one of the nuclear apocalypse’s most dangerous qualities is a lack of human imagination (chap. 2).
The public’s disposition within the nuclear apocalyptic discourse fluctuates between a feeling of omnipotence and total helplessness. The power to avoid a nuclear apocalypse rests entirely in the hands of humanity. Simultaneously, the individual is powerless and at the mercy of the few in the position of pushing the button. However, even those in control of the nuclear arsenals are trapped in a system of complex political dynamics that could leave them with no choice but to return fire should an enemy launch a nuclear attack. The result of these dynamics is visible in the politics of deterrence that led to the infamous arms race of the Cold War era, which aimed at deterring one’s opponent by threatening a nuclear retaliatory strike if the enemy should strike first while simultaneously having no intention to ever start a nuclear conflict (Podrez 59–77).
Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy and neurobiology, states in his work Consciousness Reconsidered that "evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form. We are inveterate storytellers" (Flanagan 198). He further asserts that a “narrative conception of the self” (198) is essential for establishing a stable identity and healthy form of self-representation. This sense of individual identity, however, is embedded in larger structures such as family, social groups, cultural environment, and contemporary society. Subsequently, Flanagan argues:
Furthermore, because the story of any individual life is constituted by and embedded in some larger meaning-giving structure and because, in addition, only in terms of this larger structure does a life gain whatever rationale it has for unfolding in the way it does, it follows that a life is illuminated, for the person who lives it and for others, by seeing it against the background of this larger structure. (Flanagan 198)
In summary, Flanagan states that narratives both on the individual level and in broader contexts, such as on the cultural level, constitute a large part of human identity. To subsume all occurrences in one’s life into different narratives is an innate reaction that is deeply rooted in human nature. Narratives aid people in structuring and comprehending reality (198). Therefore, narratives are especially important in times of uncertainty or in which circumstances change rapidly.
The beginning of the atomic era represented such a time in which numerous fundamental concepts, such as the notions of security and war, became obsolete due to the discovery of nuclear power. The immense destructive power of nuclear weapons revolutionized the concept of how to wage war and threatened the safety of civilians in unprecedented ways. Word War II was fought in Europe and the Pacific; bombs did not fall, nor did hostile troops land, on US soil. The civil population was safe while World War II ravaged across Europe and left only ruins of once-proud cities behind. The discovery of atomic bombs threatened this sense of American security since one bomb could suddenly destroy a whole city within seconds and render the whole area uninhabitable and toxic for many generations to come.
As a response to these new, frightening circumstances, the public soon started to develop narratives that helped them come to term with this unprecedented reality. The media played an important role in developing and propagating these narratives. In this period, one of the most influential media forms included illustrated magazines and newspapers that were read on a regular basis by most Americans. The historian Zeman has observed that popular illustrated magazines engaged in constructing narratives about the meaning of the atomic age—in photographs and in text—that were remarkably similar and stable across the various publications. The fact that the magazines, as well as other forms of popular culture, seized on particular narrative forms to explain the atomic age encouraged Americans to think about the meaning of the atom in formulaic ways. These formulae often proposed simplistic answers to the unprecedented and immediate questions raised by all the realities of nuclear power. (Zeman 53)
As Zeman has argued, narratives are prone to simplify complex issues; nevertheless, they represent interesting objects of research and aid in capturing the zeitgeist of the atomic era.
Cinema and television also belonged to the emerging new media that rapidly increased in popularity. Even more suited and useful to create lively stories, films produced in the atomic age generated narratives that became an inveterate part of US Cold War society.
Since this thesis takes an analytical approach that is highly influenced by the larger context of the selected movies, this chapter provides an insight into the era of the Cold War. It contains a historical overview that explains the predominant global political dynamics and how they sparked and promoted the arms race that led to the threat of a potential nuclear apocalypse. At the end of the chapter, the two films are located on the timeline and related to the political and cultural events of their respective release dates.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the Cold War as “the open yet restricted rivalry that developed after World War II between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies” (“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”). After the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the wartime alliance that the United States and the United Kingdom had with the Soviet Union started to unravel. The Soviets strategically installed left-wing governments in all countries that had been liberated by the Red Army. This caused the United States and its allies to grow concerned about a possible permanent Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. Predominantly, the Americans feared that emerging communist parties might also gain political power in western and southern Europe and threaten its democracies (“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”). It was expected that the disastrous post-World War II conditions such as staggering rates of unemployment and poverty might create sympathies for the ideology of communism. Therefore, the US government initiated a self-help program that supported economic recovery in 17 western and southern European countries. The major goal was to stabilize and strengthen the economic conditions to create a political and social environment in which democratic institutions could thrive.
Originally, the support of the Marshall Plan (formally called European Recovery Program) was offered to all European countries, including those under Soviet military occupation. The Soviet Union, however, did not participate in the Marshall Plan, and other Eastern European countries under its influence soon followed suit. The European countries that benefited from the Marshall Plan were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and West Germany (“Marshall Plan | Summary & Significance”). As a consequence, these nations were under American influence, whereas the rest of Europe was ruled by communist governments established by the Soviet Union (“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”).
By 1947–48, the smoldering conflict between the two rivals solidified, and the fronts began to harden. In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed as a measure to ensure its members sovereignty and to represent a united military force against the enemy. The Soviets, however, intended to maintain and expand their power in Europe and to spread communism worldwide. Their first successful atomic bomb detonation in 1949 changed the existing power relations in their favor. Thus, the standoff between the two rivaling superpowers, NATO and the Soviet Union, both in possession of atomic warheads, was created. (“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”).
In the years 1948–53, the Cold War reached its climax as the Soviets failed in their attempt to gain control over West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade (1948–49), and the proxy war between the communist North Korean alliance and the US- supported South Korean government erupted (1950–53). In 1953, the death of Joseph Stalin temporarily eased the tensions between the two superpowers. However, in 1955, the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet equivalent of NATO, was formed. Then tensions rose again in the years 1958–62 as both superpowers invested in the development and testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 1962, it was discovered that the Soviets had installed atomic warheads in Cuba that would allow them to launch nuclear attacks on major US cities. This finding led to the Cuban Missile Crisis (“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”).
The Cuban Missile Crisis represents the high point of all accumulated tensions that finally led the two superpowers to the brink of a nuclear war. Since this thesis is concerned with films that depict such worst-case scenarios, the Cuban Missile Crisis is discussed in detail.
In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a thirteen-day standoff over nuclear-armed missiles on the island of Cuba, which had been installed in secret by the Soviets. An American U-2 spy plane discovered the nuclear missile sites and reported it to the US government. On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed the American public in a televised speech and informed the nation of the new hostile missile bases (“Cuban Missile Crisis | JFK Library”). In his speech, Kennedy made it clear that the United States was prepared to strike first to secure its territory. Never before had hostile missiles been installed in such close proximity to the US mainland. From their launch point, the Soviets’ medium-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads were capable of hitting most major cities in the eastern United States, including Washington, DC (John F. Kennedy Source 1).
Up until then, the United States had always been ahead in the Cold War arms race, and the Soviets had felt endangered by the large numbers of American nuclear missiles pointed at their direction. The missile base installments in the US-hostile country of Cuba had been a calculated move by the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to increase the Soviets’ nuclear strike capabilities. This was their opportunity to level the playing field.
The Kennedy administration, however, deemed the hostile Cuban missile sites as unacceptable. The challenge was to initiate a peaceful deconstruction of the Cuban missiles without sparking a larger conflict or even a nuclear war. President Kennedy assembled a committee of advisers, known as the ExComm, that debated further courses of action. After discarding more aggressive strategies such as bombing the missile sites or invading Cuba, Kennedy decided to order a naval blockade on Cuba to prohibit the installment of further military equipment. After “quarantining” the island of Cuba with a ring of war ships, Kennedy delivered an ultimatum to the Soviet Union and demanded the removal of the existing missiles (History.com, “Cuban Missile Crisis”).
On October 24, Soviet ships approached the US sea blockade. If the Soviet ships had tried to break the US Navy’s line, a war would have been certain. However, the Soviet ships stopped shortly before reaching the blockade. The tense standoff between the two superpowers continued throughout the week. On October 27, an American surveillance plane was shot down, and the United States prepared for an invasion in Cuba. With this incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis had reached its peak, and the entire world seemed to hold its breath. Nonetheless, the Soviet and American leaders managed to deescalate the situation.
On October 26, Khrushchev informed Kennedy via a letter that the Soviet Union was willing to dismantle the Cuban missile installments if the United States promised to desist from invading Cuba. In a second message on October 27, the Soviet Union repeated its offer to remove its missiles sites on the condition that the Americans would remove their missile sites in Turkey. The deal was accepted on both sides, and on October 28, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis drew to a peaceful close (History.com “Cuban Missile Crisis”).
The Cuban Missile Crisis showed both sides that neither was willing to risk an open nuclear confrontation out of fear of a mutual nuclear annihilation. In 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which outlawed aboveground nuclear weapon testing. However, the Soviet Union continued to grow its military forces, and the arms race proceeded for the next twenty-five years (“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”).
Although the United States and the Soviet Union avoided direct military confrontations in Europe, they engaged in proxy wars or smaller combats to keep the status quo in their allied countries or to strengthen their political power in certain regions around the globe. The United States invaded the Dominican Republic (1965) and Grenada (1983). Even prior to that, it supported the coup to overthrow the communist Guatemalan government (1954), unsuccessfully invaded Cuba in 1961, and engaged in the Vietnam War (1964–1975) to prevent South Vietnam from falling under the rule of communist North Vietnam. The Soviets provided military aid to preserve communist rule in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979) [“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”].
During the 1960s and ’70s, the political and economic dynamics shifted and became more complex. Western Europe and Japan had achieved economic growth during the 1950s and ’60s and became less dependent on the United States. These circumstances gave smaller and less powerful countries the chance to resist the two superpowers’ demands and assert their independence. Additionally, the Soviet Union began to unravel. A major power split occurred between the Soviet Union and China in 1960, destroying the unity of the communist bloc. Gradually, new international relationships and alliances developed, and the chessboard of power and politics was no longer dominated by just two superpowers. Moreover, in 1972 and 1979, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talk Agreements (SALT I and II) eased the Cold War tensions a little as both superpowers agreed on limiting their antiballistic missiles and strategic nuclear weapons (“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”).
In the early 1980s, however, tensions rose again as the Soviet Union and the United States accelerated their arms race and competed for influence in the so-called Third World. However, the early 1980s are seen as the last critical period of the Cold War era. During the late 1980s, the Soviet administration under Mikhail S. Gorbachev started to democratize the Soviet political system, and from 1989 to ’90, the Soviet-bloc countries in Eastern Europe started to rally for independence. In late 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and fifteen new, independent countries emerged, ending the Cold War era (“Cold War | Causes, Facts, & Summary”).
As can be seen in this timeline, the two films analyzed in this thesis were produced and released during the two most critical periods of the Cold War. On the Beach premiered in 1959, which falls into the period in which the tensions between the superpowers skyrocketed and finally climaxed in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film foretells of such a crisis and warns what could have happened if the leaders of the two superpowers had not found a peaceful solution. The Day After premiered in 1983 as tensions rose again, and the doom of a potential nuclear war was again all too tangible. This film also showcases and warns about the dire consequences of a nuclear attack in the American heartland.
Dick van Lente’s work provides a detailed investigation into the international nuclear discourse from 1945 to 1965. Since an understanding of this cultural discourse is helpful for the context-dependent analytical approach of this thesis, van Lente’s findings are summarized in this chapter. In general, van Lente has divided the discourse on nuclear power into two main phases with a short transitional phase in the middle. The first period was characterized by the US monopoly on nuclear weapons, followed by several years in which other nations developed their own nuclear weaponry. The second period was heralded by the US test of the first hydrogen bomb in 1952. This phase was characterized by “a long series of atmospheric bomb tests, the rise of the antinuclear movement, and an intensive propaganda campaign for peaceful applications of nuclear technology” (10).
The first phase of the international discourse on nuclear technologies started with the reports of the bomb droppings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. At that point in time, the United States was the only nation that had the knowledge and resources to build atomic weaponry. However, the White House was aware of the fact that this situation would eventually change and that other countries would build their own nuclear arsenals. Therefore, the United States needed to establish “a kind an international regime” (11) that would enable it to manage and contain potential threats. In March 1946, the White House published a widely read pamphlet with the title “One World or None,” informing American citizens and the world about the potential aftermath of multiple hostile nations armed with nuclear weapons. The United States tried to establish an institution of oversight for nuclear weaponry that should be chaperoned by the United Nations. However, several months later, the progress stagnated due to disagreements between the two superpowers. Russia demanded that the United States dismantle its nuclear arsenal first, which America refused to do.
In these years, several antinuclear movements found traction among the population, mostly led by scientists and Christian organizations that had been active during the prewar era. Hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were also publicly active during this time. The Russians stoked and encouraged these antinuclear movements. An attempt was made to redirect the public fear of nuclear war into a peace movement from the Soviet side, backed by celebrity scientists such as Frédéric Joliot Curie and J. D. Bernal. In 1950, millions of signatures collectively formed the Stockholm Appeal, which demanded to outlaw nuclear weapons to prevent atomic holocaust. However, in the West, the initiative was dismissed as communist propaganda and ultimately failed to achieve anything. The antinuclear movement had been in decline for some time up to that point; it was however, revived again some years later when the nuclear threat loomed larger than ever (11).
On August 29, 1949, the threat of other nations also successfully developing nuclear bombs became a reality. Russia tested its first atomic bomb, sparking the arms race between the two superpowers and leading to the development of even more powerful weapons. In January 1950, President Eisenhower financed the research on the hydrogen bomb, a nuclear weapon “based on the fusion of hydrogen atoms in the intense heat created by a fission device” (11). This nuclear weapon type became known as a thermonuclear weapon, which is vastly more destructive than an atomic bomb. The first US hydrogen bomb was tested on November 1952 on Eniwetok island in the Pacific. Only a year later, Russia followed suit and tested its own (11).
Thermonuclear weaponry, which, after a phase of development, went on to be one thousand times stronger than the original atomic bombs, restarted the international discourse on this issue. The discovery of thermonuclear weapons led to an arms race between the two superpowers and several other nations that started to build up nuclear arsenals. In 1952, the United Kingdom tested its first atomic bomb, followed by France in 1960 and China in 1964. Just a few years later, these three nations also started to test thermonuclear bombs.
However, the research and manufacturing of the growing nuclear weapon arsenals devoured immense sums of money, and the governments of the respective countries had to publicly justify these expenses. For this purpose, government officials often exaggerated the threats posed by other hostile nations and their own nation’s need to defend itself. In 1952, the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union publicly declared that they would “not hesitate to use nuclear weapons in the event of war, even if the opponent had only used conventional arms” (12). In 1953, the United States installed nuclear short-range missiles in the territory of Western Germany. In 1955, the US military started an operation called Carte Blanche, in which it simulated that West Germany was under attack by the Soviet Union. This military exercise intended to show the public how Western Germany would look after a nuclear attack.
Newspapers issued articles about the horrendous consequences after such an attack and stoked the public’s fears. Simultaneously, however, Western governments also tried to calm and reassure its citizens that they could, in case of a nuclear attack, rescue themselves with easy safety measures. For this purpose, the governments published a number of safety pamphlets and short films, through which the public received information on the effects of a nuclear attack and how to behave in such a scenario.
In summary, the public received a very mixed message from its officials: On one hand, Western governments justified the enormous budgets spent on the arms race by portraying their nations as being on the brink of a nuclear war. On the other hand, the governments wanted their citizens to feel safe by supplying them with information about nuclear attacks and proposing several questionable safety measures such as improvised shelters. The result of this double-edged strategy was an exceedingly alarmed population and “a sharp increase of nuclear fear” (12).
Aware of the dire consequences of nuclear fallout, the public discourse soon shifted toward the dangers of the multiple atmospheric bomb tests conducted by several nations but especially by the two superpowers. The US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which conducted these tests, first declined all requests concerning people falling ill and cattle suddenly dying in the perimeter of a bomb-testing site in Nevada. However, in March 1954, the atmospheric test of a thermonuclear bomb on Bikini Island produced far more radioactive fallout than scientists had estimated. All citizens on neighboring islands had to be evacuated, and the AEC could no longer deny the impact of radioactive fallout in the vicinity of the testing sites.
Unfortunately, a high dosage of radioactive fallout hit a small Japanese fishing boat named Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon). At the time of the explosion, the fishermen worked far outside of the marked danger zone but suffered and died from severe radioactive poisoning. This incident received worldwide media attention and renewed demands for nuclear disarmament. Ultimately, the Fukuryu Maru accident marked the beginning of a second antinuclear movement. Van Lente has noted that the second wave of the antinuclear movement of the Cold War era was, like the first, led and guided by scientists, who spoke about the danger and long-term consequences of nuclear weapons: “Already in 1950, Einstein had tried to persuade President Truman not to pursue the hydrogen bomb, because ‘radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere’ would lead to ‘annihilation of any life on earth’” (12). In 1955, after the Fukuryu Maru accident, other scientists and celebrities in the fields of physics and medicine also started to speak in public. Among the most renowned scientists who issued warnings about the aftermath of nuclear fallout were the French nuclear scientist Frederic Joliot-Curie, the biochemist Linus Pauling, and the doctors Albert Schweitzer and Benjamin Spock. Eventually, they were joined by many other public personalities, from the British philosopher Bertrand Russel to the American presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Simultaneously, reports of radioactive-contaminated materials such as rain, milk, and even children’s teeth started to spread around the globe. Thereafter, the antinuclear movement gathered more strength and gained more followers daily. In 1954, the religious leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant World Council of Churches gave public statements in which they officially condemned the arms race and nuclear testing. In 1957, the Canadian businessman Cyrus Eaton tried to take initiative by inviting scientists from Western and Communist countries to his estate to discuss possibilities for a worldwide nuclear disarmament. This was the start of a branch of the antinuclear scientists’ movement that received formidable attention in the media. In general, 1957 is considered the year in which the antinuclear movement rapidly started to become a powerful entity in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan. Organizations were formed, and thousands of volunteers participated in protest marches and other activities to raise awareness of the issue. Among the protestors, women and young people were the largest population groups.
On the political level, negotiations concerning nuclear disarmament were difficult due to a general distrust among nations, not only between the East and West but also among Western leaders since many western European governments doubted that the United States would defend their countries if doing so would provoke a nuclear strike on US soil.
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