Accidental Armageddons

Nuclear Threats, Nuclear Fear and the Cold War of the 1980s
(New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2016)

Edited by Eckart Conze, Martin Klimke, and Jeremy Varon


In the most significant accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry, the reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial core meltdown on March 28, 1979, allowing large amounts of radioactive reactor coolant to escape. Exacerbating the panicked public reaction to this incident was the fact that a popular movie depicting a major nuclear accident, The China Syndrome, had been released only 12 days earlier. Three Mile Island was not only a turning point in public opinion regarding atomic technology but also helped fuse two protest movements together: that against nuclear energy and that against nuclear weapons.

Over the next several years, this combined “anti-nuclear” movement staged mass protests around the globe. On October 10, 1981, in the largest peace demonstration in German history to that point, between 250,000 and 300,000 demonstrators of diverse social, political, and cultural backgrounds gathered in Bonn to voice their opposition to the renewed arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic’s role in it. This protest was matched by other mass rallies in Europe and North America. On June 12, 1982, more than one million people participated in a Nuclear Weapons Freeze demonstration in Central Park and the streets of New York City. In the fall of 1983 alone, about five million people, mostly in Western Europe, took part in demonstrations against the deployment of “Euro Missiles” (Pershing II). Anti-nuclear activism even emerged in Eastern European countries, paving the way for greater political dissent toward the end of the decade. The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in April 1986 served to intensify the global anti-nuclear movement.

This proliferation of the anti-nuclear movement was brought about by escalating fears of nuclear annihilation. In December 1979, NATO announced its “Double-Track” strategy: If arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union should fail, the West would station intermediate nuclear forces to counterbalance the Soviet Union’s recent deployment of SS-20 mid-range missiles. This momentous decision, alongside the contemporaneous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, heightened international tensions. Finally, a new brand of conservative leader – embodied in Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl – came to power in the West, fomenting domestic protest and renewing fears of an actual nuclear war. The world thus moved from an era of reduced tension during the détente years of the 1970s to a “Second Cold War” in the 1980s.

Nuclear fears, partly precipitated by scientists’ warnings that even a limited nuclear war could cause an apocalyptic “nuclear winter,” also reverberated within popular culture. The American television movie The Day After (1983), which depicted this doomsday scenario, reached a record audience of 100 million, noticeably impacting leading decision-makers. Anti-nuclear messages abounded: in movies such as War Games (1983) and When the Wind Blows (1986); in Jonathan Schell’s best seller The Fate of the Earth (1982); in songs by David Bowie, The Clash, and the German singer Nena; and in all-star concerts accompanying demonstrations.

This volume explores the impact of the political and cultural discourse on nuclear weapons and atomic energy during the Cold War of the 1980s.


Table of Contents:

Eckart Conze, Martin Klimke, Jeremy Varon


1. Nuclear Winter: Prophecies of Doom and Images of Desolation During the Second Cold War
Wilfried Mausbach

2. Atomic Nightmares and Biological Citizens at Three Mile Island
Natasha Zaretsky

3. The Role of National Socialism and the Second World War in the Discourse on Nuclear Armament
Eckart Conze


4. We Can Work It Out: British Popular Protest Music and the Second Cold War
William Knoblauch

5. Artists for Peace: Nuclear and Environmental Discourse in 1980s Popular Music and Electoral Politics
Laura Stapane and Martin Klimke

6. A Tenuous Peace: International Anti-Nuclear Activism Within the East German Writers Union in the 1980s
Thomas Goldstein


7. Small Spaces for Peace: Toward A Transnational History of Nuclear Free Zones, 1970-1985
Susanne Schregel

8. Finding Meaning in the “Example of Wyhl”: How Grassroots Protest in the Rhine Valley Inspired West Germany’s Anti-Nuclear Movement
Stephen Milder

9. ‘We envisage a European-wide campaign, in which every kind of exchange takes place’: European Nuclear Disarmament in the West European Peace Movements of the 1980s
Patrick Burke

10. The Interchurch Peace Council and the Christian Peace Movement in Western Europe
Sebastian Kalden

11. No Nukes and Front Porch Politics: Environmental Protest Culture and Practice on the Second Cold War Home Front
Michael Foley


12. Peace through Strength? The Impact of the Antinuclear Uprising on the Carter and Reagan Administrations
Lawrence Wittner

13. The Discourse on Nuclear Weapons and the Influence of the Peace Movement on the West German Government and the Social Democratic Party, 1977-1983
Tim Geiger and Jan Hansen

14. Why is there no “Accidental Armageddon” Discourse in France? How Defence Intellectuals, Peace Movements, and Public Opinion Rethink the Cold War During the Euromissile Crisis
Katrin Ruecker

15. Building Trust: The G7 Summits and International Leadership in Nuclear Politics
Enrico Boehm