All that postwar anxiety about being vaporised by a nuclear bomb was a complete waste of emotion

The balance of terror worked its magic beautifully, as BBC4’s new Mark Cousins documentary, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, unintentionally demonstrates

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my three main fears were: being blown up by the IRA; being eaten by a Jaws-like great white shark; being vaporised by a nuclear bomb.

I expect it was the same for most kids of my generation. The first two, obviously, were a function of the Birmingham bombings (et al.) and the Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg axis of shark terror. And the third was the product of the relentless propagandising of CND as rehearsed faithfully on pretty much every BBC programme going from John Craven’s Newsround to The Archers, Animal Magic and Roobarb and Custard.

I don’t actually remember the notorious episode where Hector gets so pissed off with the relentless nagging of Zsazsa and Kiki that he bans them from entering the basement of his eponymous House just as the five-minute warning has been sounded — and all he sees at the end are the skeletons of a cat and a frog glowing radioactively through the closing credits. But it’s probably only because the trauma made me blank it from my memory.

What I do recall, very distinctly, was how incredibly difficult it was to be a nuclear annihilation sceptic in those days. Our entire culture, from Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and that notorious documentary The War Game (all the more scary for the fact that no one had ever seen it) to Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows and the endless news footage of Greenham Common women being dragged off the fence, was geared towards convincing us that we were all going to die horribly and that it was probably kind of our fault.

And for what, exactly? Here we are, 70 years on from Hiroshima (6 August: my birthday), and not one of you reading this has been blinded by the flash of an exploding nuke or even slightly injured by a blast or suffered radiation sickness or spawned a child with three heads. All that worry and fear was a complete waste of emotion. Though more than 2,000 nuclear warheads have been detonated since and there are now 15,700 in the world, the balance of terror — that dangerously right-wing concept that the peace campaigners derided — has worked its magic beautifully.

I wonder if this is a point that filmmaker Mark Cousins intended to make in his film Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (BBC4, Sunday), a nostalgic look back on seven decades of nuclear threat. Hard to be sure because there was no commentary: just a brooding, dreamy soundtrack by the Glaswegian post-rock band Mogwai and lots of well-chosen archive footage strung together in the manner of an Adam Curtis documentary, only without the complicated overarching theory.

This ambiguity gave it a pleasingly different feel: it’s a rare thing to come across a BBC documentary that doesn’t bludgeon you over the head. Take the footage at the end of Ukrainian peasants blithely fishing in a stream near Chernobyl. Were we supposed to go, ‘Poor deluded fools: you’re doomed’? Or, ‘Yeah. You’re probably right. Most of the evidence — including an extensive World Health Organisation report — suggests the panic was overdone and that unless you were one of those sacrificial firemen in the early stages of containment, you’re probably no worse off at Chernobyl than, say, in Rotherham.’

Earlier, we saw anti-nuclear campaigners on their way to Aldermaston. One elderly chap in a greatcoat had a limp, possibly from an injury sustained fighting for his country in the war. The younger men all wore duffle coats. Protest may have looked a bit smarter and more respectable in those days, but was it any less hectoring or fatuous? In the gestures and fiery expressions of the marching, jazz-playing Fifties yoof, I saw prefigurations of Russell Brand at an Occupy rally. As for the elderly bloke making an impassioned appeal to the camera on behalf of ‘the children of the future’: now where have I heard that recently? Oh yeah, in every piece of emotional blackmail ever voiced in invocation of the new greatest threat of our age, global warming.

And, of course, just like now, both the broadcast media and the government were stoking up this apparently inescapable threat for all they were worth. We saw a deliciously patronising ‘Women, Know Your Place’-style public-information commercial from the Fifties in which a silly, gossipy woman in lipstick was overheard grumbling about anti-nuclear safety measures. ‘How are we supposed to spend days on end cooped up in the same room? We’ll all end up in the madhouse.’ At which point, a grave, male authority figure arrived to put her in her place: ‘Better that than the mortuary, Mrs Richardson.’

Do bear in mind, though, that this piece was written several days ago. If, since publication, it turns out that, say, Iran has nuked Tel Aviv, I apologise for my short-sightedness and flippancy and I now humbly acknowledge that the tiresome jazzer loons in duffle coats were in fact right all along.

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Show comments
  • Mark Pawelek

    I’m not a fan of the balance of terror scenario. Possible possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is cause for war against our opponents: even when there’s no other national interest at stake. Actual possession a guarantor of peace! Seems to me that James Delingpole just makes up the scenarios to suit his world-view.

    • rodger the dodger

      The balance of terror thing wasn’t invented by James Delingpole, but by mathematician John Nash as an outcome of game theory (Nash Equilibrium) when he worked for the Rand Corporation/US Department of Defence in the 50s. The idea wasn’t to have less nuclear weapons, but more. If your opponent attacks you, they know in turn they will be obliterated. So they don’t attack you; it would be highly irrational, as the object of the exercise is to win.

      Seems to have worked so far. Nobody with nuclear weapons has attacked anyone else with nuclear weapons.

      • Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves

        India and Pakistan? China and the US? Russia and Ukraine?

        • rodger the dodger

          What about them? I said nobody with nuclear weapons has attacked anyone else with nuclear weapons.

          Please detail where any of those countries has nuked the other. Delighted to take it into account if it’s the case…

          • Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves

            Sorry thought you meant attacked someone who has nuclear weapons not attacked somebody using such weapons.

          • rodger the dodger

            Not to worry! all clear now…

  • greggf

    “Most of the evidence — including an extensive World Health Organisation report — suggests the panic was overdone….”

    Now who’s fault is that James?
    An alarmist media looking for copy, an ignorant government populated by PPE fools and even sillier greenies…….is there something sinister in a West dominated by subtle propagandists?
    Do tell James we are all ears?

  • John Carins

    More people have died or been seriously injured at the end of a bayonet. The bayonet perhaps the most deadly weapon ever invented. The majority of the CND loonies fail to appreciate the real horror of war and the concept that it’s not the weapon per se but the intentions of the user. Users of intent need to be deterred.

    • Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves

      It has been estimated that of 900,000 British dead in WW1 ,only 5,000 were at point of bayonet and 7,000 a result of gas.
      One bayonet incident may kill one person. One atom bomb may kill 500,000. The bayonet tended not to be used on innocent civilians.

  • John Thomas

    Yes, James, you end with reference to Iran/Israel. Growing up in the 1960s, I always, through all the crises, felt MAD kept us safe – now we know that Stasi-funded CND would have sold us all out to the USSR – but now, I feel … very much less-safe. The Soviets were at least sane-ish and open to reason; Iran has vowed MAD on all of us, as long as it is free to fry Israel – then … (as that Scotsman used to say in Dad’s Army) We’re doomed …

  • blandings

    I don’t recall being bothered at all by the threat of nuclear Armageddon.
    Hell, they didn’t even know where I lived.
    That enormous skinhead next door though, he was a problem.

    • Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves

      CND’s main mantra was the extortionate cost to the UK government. “We can’t afford to build it, we can never afford to use it , so why have it? ” This question is still very relevant today , when thinking of modernising our pointless deterrent. Trident alone cost £12 billion in the 1980’s. About £65 billion in today’s money.

      • blandings

        I suppose the counter-argument might be that just because a deterrent hasn’t been used doesn’t demonstrate that it is pointless.
        I’m in two minds to be honest, though I come down marginally on the side of: Leave things as they are – it’s a volatile world run, in large part, by people who are mad and bad”


        • Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves

          Plus it helps the Davis set, the Mont Pelerin Society and most World leaders to have people living in fear. When the Berlin wall tumbled they wasted no time in engineering a new enemy to fear in Islam. This serves them sell when destabilising the Oil rich nations.
          I agree in part , a lot of leaders are bad and indeed a few are mad…..Putin may be both.

          • blandings

            Putin is scary.
            I don’t believe in conspiracies – mostly: Unelected leaders invariably come to the conclusion that a bit of fear is a good thing. Was it Machiavelli who said that it is nice to be loved but essential to be feared? – Damaris could probably quote it in the original Tuscan. (Cue Damaris)
            I think Islam manages to induce fear without any help from anyone. – May God save us from true believers eh? I have an affection for Anglicanism though – how can you not admire a religion that doesn’t really do God?