Friday 27 March 2015

Nuclear Terror and the Extinction of Man (1950-60's)

It is hard to think of two generations that had such different experiences than the Silent generation (the term used before the term the Greatest generation took over) and their children the Baby Boomers. Parent and child, but such vastly different experiences of war and peace, poverty and wealth, unemployment and employment, it bred two very different generations. There really was a generation gap.

Lets look at the Silent generation first, born from 1900 to the 1930's they grew up in a time of great technological change, but for most of them it was a something they saw in the distance. Most people didn't have cars, or telephones in the house, or fly in aeroplanes, or even electricity. As time went on that changed, but most of this generation grew up without these things, things that we and our parents take for granted. Most grew up knowing hunger, not starvation, but they didn't always eat 3 meals a day because the money to buy food wasn't always available. They were taught to be patriotic, to be proud of their history and to be religious. Not all were of course, but most were taught to be and most were. They believed in thrift and in good manners. Of course that didn't mean everyone behaved that way. They served in large numbers in time of war and as a generation they saw much of war and they suffered. They saw much of poverty, even if they were not poor they saw others who were.

But during WWII people saved money, they had too. The Government forced people to buy war bonds, there were war bond drives to encourage people to voluntarily buy even more war bonds and finally with so much of industry geared to creating the weapons of war, they were forced to save because there was nothing to buy. Get millions of people to do that and you have a mass of money to invest. That nest egg lasted until the 1960's.

When the war ended the Silent generation wanted to get married, they wanted jobs and families. The 1930's had been a time of economic depression, the 1940's a time of war. Now men and women wanted to be ordinary people, they wanted jobs and houses and spouses and babies.

Babies that were known collectively as the Baby Boomers. The war had meant people moved, now housing was in short supply and new suburbs were built and the infrastructure to support it. Cars became common, credit started to become common, it was a boom time. But it came at a cost, everything comes at a cost, nothing is really free. Families became isolated as young families moved away to get housing and better jobs. Mothers were left to look after children without family support. Which meant that grandparents couldn't provide support and encouragement, instead "experts" filled the gap.

These children had a vastly different experience to their parents. Technology was rapidly changing, but now it was a part of their life, cars were owned by most families, telephones became a regular feature in most homes, flying in an aeroplane wasn't unheard of, instead most people came to expect that they would fly, if not today at some point. Electricity was now common and with it came television and household appliances. Life for most people was much better. So good in fact that many of the Baby Boomers couldn't understand the life that their parents told them about. It often made parents angry that their children didn't have any real idea of just how good they had it, some even resented it.

What does any of this have to do with nuclear terror and the extinction of man?

As it turns out quite a bit. The Silent generation knew war, they have lived through it, they had served and fought and suffered in it. They were both idealistic and practical people, they had ideals and beliefs, but they also understood that the world didn't always pay attention to such things. War was horrible, it had cost them so much, years, away from family and work, it cost money and effort and it inflicted suffering and death. But the Baby Boomers heard two very different tales of war, they heard that the war were the best years of their life, about all the good times they had, about the adventures they had been through. But they also heard about the horrors of war, how war wasn't worth it, war should be banned it was so horrible. This created a schizophrenic attitude in the Baby Boomers to both their parents and towards war.

Because the Baby Boomers had a problem that no other generation had ever been faced with. They were told from a young age, that everyone they loved and everything they treasured could be taken from them in an instant. That Atomic Bombs were so powerful they could make life on Earth extinct. Those who supported nuclear weapons talked about how powerful they were, those who opposed nuclear weapons talked about how powerful they were and together they created a sincere belief that the Human race would be extinct...and soon.

The limitations of nuclear weapons were never discussed, by anyone. The two Atomic Bombs dropped on Japan were portrayed as city busters, and subsequent advances in nuclear technology were talked up. But rarely was the fact that Japanese cities of the period, were built mainly of wood and paper, talked about. Imagine if I told you about an amazing new weapon I'd made that could destroy buildings made of wood and paper, how impressed would you be? I don't think I have ever seen test footage of a nuclear blast that had a solid brick building, wooden houses yes, but not solid structures. Solid structures break up the force of explosions, nuclear or otherwise. Look at this image of Hiroshima after the Atomic blast. What do you notice? That everything that isn't solid has been destroyed, but the solid buildings are still there, seriously damaged but still there. Nor is radiation talked about properly, yes some radiation can last for thousands of years, but as a general rule, the shorter the half-life of radiation the more dangerous it is. A radioactive isotope that has a half-life of 10 seconds will kill you. A radioactive isotope that has a half-life of 10,000 years is basically harmless. Need proof? Hiroshima and Nagasaki are both functioning cities, 1.1 million in Hiroshima and 400,000 in Nagasaki, today.

But instead those who should have given comfort and support gave tales of nightmares. It was widely assumed that this was inevitable, certainly that idea that it was only a matter of time until someone made all of mankind extinct gained currency. Live life for today because there will be no tomorrow. Eat, drink, do drugs, have sex, spend, spend, spend. Remember there is no tomorrow. Because tomorrow or next week or next year someone will drop the bomb and mankind will be extinct. Survive, you think you could survive? Haven't you heard that the living will envy the dead? Haven't you been paying attention? There is no way to survive, there is no future.

If mankind is to have a future he must throw off the old thinking that starts wars, wars can destroy mankind. If man is to survive he must get rid of courage, courage encourages fighting, fighting leads to wars and wars can destroy mankind. If man is to survive he must reject the past and find new ways of living. If man is to survive he must change quickly. So went the thinking, in a way it is quite logical, but of course it shows a failing of the Silent generation, not the Baby Boomers. It is the idea that today is important but the past is not, that history cannot teach us anything because its old, only the new can teach us anything. The Baby Boomers should have been given that comfort, that support, some were, many were not. The legacy of this period is with us still and it will be for a long time. It gave a mighty push to nihilistic thinking and made it mainstream. It will be very hard to get of it, and we need to do exactly that.

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  1. Interesting, I have never thought about the limitations of nuclear weapons in this way.

  2. An excellent summation. The fiscal and demographic effects of the nuclear age, and its 80s collapse, are a major reason behind our current foreign policy problems.