Pop Culture

Nuclear Dreams

If you can stomach just a few more words about the State of the Union…

I have no intention here of analyzing Donald Trump’s speech—nor the First Lady’s clothes, the opposition’s behavior, or any of that nonsense. States of the Union are usually non-events, and this one was no different.

But there’s one part of his speech that chilled me to the bone, and in the newspapers and websites that I read, I didn’t see any particular mention of it.

He said:

As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression. Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

On the page, those words are grotesque enough. But there was an insidiousness to how he said it—especially that last sentence, which had a sickly, condescending tone. It triggered some old, primal fears.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet anxieties. I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation who remembers waking in the middle of the night from nightmares about nuclear war. Our schools and popular culture scared the hell out of us with the prospect of the annihilation of the planet.

My memories of ‘80s pop culture echo the helpless fear that our leaders would be “forced” by our enemies to use nuclear weapons—the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Like a lot of ‘80s detritus, much of it today seems campy and silly—but we took it very seriously. 

For instance, my favorite movie around the time of my Bar Mitzvah was WarGames, which imagined that two computer nerds (with their crackling antediluvian modems and monochrome computer screens) could inadvertently set off a chain of events that would lead to war. Today, we giggle at some of the dialogue:

 “Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?”
“Later. Let’s play global thermonuclear war.”

But back in 1983, it wasn’t so funny. It scared the hell out of us.

Pop music at the time got on the nuclear fear-stoking bandwagon, too. U2—when they were young, vaguely punky, and cutting-edge—recorded War and The Unforgettable Fire, which seemed to nod toward these themes. Pink Floyd released the vinyl quaalude The Final Cut, which droned on about nuclear apocalypse. Even a disposable act like Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a hit single called “Two Tribes” about the dangers of nuclear proliferation—this is what passed as dance music in those days!

In school, they gave us books like Alas, Babylon (a holdover of the previous generation’s atomic terror) which depicted the aftereffects of a nuclear war. But the worst, by far, was The Day After—a televised movie “event” that was considered so important that it was aired without any commercials! It was about the futility of survival after the nukes go off, because of the environmental cataclysm that comes afterwards, making the planet uninhabitable. By the end of the film, the blast’s survivors have succumbed to radiation poisoning, nuclear winter has started to settle in, and the extinction of the human race seemed assured. Everybody watched it; it was one of the highest-rated TV programs of all time.

This is what we were raised on. One night in June 1989 there was an explosion at the Hercules munitions plant in my hometown, shattering windows miles away. I remember falling out of my bed from the blast, but the worst part was the sheer terror that this was it:  it was so loud, surely that it meant that the Soviets had launched their nukes (and we all knew that Picatinny Arsenal, not far away, would be a primary target when doomsday actually came). I don’t think I’ve ever been so metaphysically terrified at any other time in my life.

Even as teens, we knew the numbers: that our nuclear arsenal was so large it could destroy the planet hundreds of times over. We couldn’t comprehend the logic: if we could only completely destroy the entire Soviet Union 178 times, was it really more of a deterrent to be able to wipe them out 212 times? 

Miraculously, the Soviet Union collapsed without any of these horrors coming to be, and the Doomsday Clock slipped backwards a few clicks from midnight. But I presume I’m not the only one who senses that keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists and lunatics couldn’t be more important. It’s a big part of why I take Israel’s warnings about Iran’s nuclear threat so absolutely seriously: a nuclear weapon in the hands of an apocalyptic regime is the stuff of real nightmares.

So to hear the President speaking of the need to “rebuild” our nuclear arsenal triggers certain long-dormant reflexes in me. Conservatives and progressives alike should be able to find common cause in being able to restrain this insane return of a ghost that should be resting permanently in peace.

Jews, especially, should know that exponential power of nuclear weapons is a moral anathema. A tradition that demands that when you go to war, you must not destroy the fruit trees in enemy territory (Deuteronomy 20:19) should be appalled at the idea of devastating entire ecosystems with weapons of ghastly force.

Moreover, the standard interpretation of an obscure passage in the Talmud (Shevuot 35b) is that a war that would kill a massive number of civilians—a sixth of the population, an atomic proportion—is absolutely prohibited.

Furthermore… my God, do we have to do this? Do we really need religious prooftexts to say that we shouldn’t contemplate wreaking devastation on a planetary scale? Can we just call this one of those things that the Talmud considers סברא הוא, just plain common sense?

As Joshua said back in ’83—and everyone in Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury, NJ could quote it—it is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.