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Pop culture is no longer full of apocalyptic nuclear visions. That’s too bad via The Washington Post

By Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of “The City in the Middle of the Night.”


Pop culture was once full of mushroom clouds and nuclear winters. From the somber warnings of “On the Beach” to the satirical absurdism of “Dr. Strangelove,” mass media continually sounded the alarm about where we seemed to be headed. Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut and performers including Prince and Tom Lehrer obsessed about our tendency toward self-destruction, as did director James Cameron in his movie “The Terminator.”

Nuclear Armageddon provided conveniently heightened stakes for storytellers, but those fantasies made Americans aware of a genuine threat. “Popular culture was an important factor in shaping people’s perceptions and levels of concern about nuclear war,” says Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico who focuses on nuclear weapons. “The Day After” was watched by 100 million people, and many people credit it with contributing to President Ronald Reagan’s change of heart on nuclear disarmament.
Cold War pop culture also demonstrated a perfect response to an existential problem. Works including “WarGames,” “The Terminator” and “Dr. Strangelove” illuminated the abhorrent logic behind choosing to launch such unthinkable weapons, as well as the computer systems that might automate such a choice. Post-apocalyptic movies such as “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and “The Day After” forced people to imagine the misery of life after a nuclear strike.
Those two approaches, combined with decades of activism, helped build public support for the policy changes that made a potentially civilization-ending conflict less likely.


The good news is, fictional portrayals of nuclear conflagration don’t have to rehash the same old story lines; it’s no longer just a matter of the United States and the Soviet Union staring each other down. And it’s not merely rogue states that pose a risk, either. There are many ways a possible misunderstanding, including one induced by a rogue hacker, could lead to a nuclear strike.

Creators who are looking for new and terrifying post-apocalyptic story lines could stand to remember that even a “limited” nuclear exchange, involving about 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, could have far-ranging after­effects, including failing crops and widespread famine affecting people far from the impact site.


It’s hard to imagine the enormity of nuclear war — which is why books, movies and TV shows were so vitally important in helping us visualize the worst scenarios. But now that the risk is high once again, many of us are in denial about the peril. We need activism, but we also need new stories, to push us to confront this nightmare before it’s too late.

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