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Book Review: Understanding the Imaginary War: Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945-90 edited by Matthew Grant and Benjamin Ziemann via LSE

In Understanding the Imaginary War: Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945-90, editors Matthew Grant and Benjamin Ziemann offer a collection focusing on how the unknowable and inconceivable – nuclear war – was necessarily imagined during the Cold War period. April Curtiswelcomes this as a valuable contribution to understanding the cultural history of the Cold War that also serves as a reminder of its continued impact on contemporary international relations. 

The world existed in a precarious state of duality during the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union, the only two superpowers, were both at war and at peace. Nuclear weapons — commonly shortened to ‘the bomb’ — made a nuclear holocaust feasible, and yet also served as credible deterrence against such an event. Understanding the Imaginary War: Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945-90, edited by Matthew Grant and Benjamin Ziemannis a collection of cultural history essays exploring experiences of this unique duality. The book covers a wide breadth of communities and topics focusing on individual nations, such as Britain, the US, the USSR and Japan, as well as more narrow groups, such as the Catholic community, physicians, nuclear scientists and the imagery of nuclear war in US government films.


Metaphors were another tool used to conceptualise the destruction that a nuclear war would bring. The world struggled to create a distinction between the known —conventional warfare — and the unknown — nuclear warfare. Scientists promised that a nuclear war would be more destructive than World War II, yet how this could be possible was difficult for the public to grasp. Jason Dawsey’s chapter on philosopher and anti-nuclear activist Günther Anders argues that in order to imagine what the war of the future would look like, it was necessary to turn to a book from the past: the Bible. Anders believed a gap had formed between technology and humanity’s ability to imagine the destructive powers of its own invention. Despite not being religious himself, Anders used religious apocalyptic eschatology in order to bridge this gulf as the Bible’s imagery seemed the only thing capable of conceptualising the devastating potential of nuclear war. He hoped that if humanity was able to imagine nuclear war clearly, nuclear weapons would be eliminated. Dawsey’s essay provides an excellent juxtaposition with Daniel Gerster’s essay on Catholic anti-communism in West Germany and the USA. Here, Gerster argues that Catholics who spoke out against nuclear weapons rarely employed apocalyptic imagery, but instead kept their arguments abstract in order to increase their credibility.


Understanding the Imaginary War is useful both as a historical tool, but also as a reminder that nuclear weapons still exist, and that nuclear war is still a very real possibility. If anything, the current political situation between Russia and the United States, and especially the inclusion of Article 27 in Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine relating to the possibility of using nuclear weapons to respond to a conventional attack, shows that emotions felt during the Cold War still affect contemporary relations.

Read more at Book Review: Understanding the Imaginary War: Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945-90 edited by Matthew Grant and Benjamin Ziemann 

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