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The images of a nuclear war bringing the end of the world or something close to it have been firmly planted in the human imagination since 1945. Fiction and speculative nonfiction writers quickly followed John Hersey’s factual and journalistic Hiroshima with fantastic imaginings of nuclear Armageddon, especially once the Cold War began. In the early nuclear age, visions of future wars often fell into the nuclear holocaust, end-of-the-world genre. Writers imagined future nuclear war as a no-win exchange of strategic city-busting nuclear weapons. This tradition continued until the end of the Cold War. There are well-known works, such as 1963’s Fail-Safe, a novel that speculated ominously about an accident leading to nuclear war. The book’s preface warns that the “laws of probability assure us that ultimately it will occur.” Many lesser known works proliferated, such as a 1962 edition of Village of Stars with bomber pilots pictured on the cover with the teaser "could they . . . disarm the deadly nuclear bombs before it destroyed them all—and triggered World War III.” The peak of warnings about nuclear Armageddon was arguably the 1980s, which saw continuing literary and motion-picture renderings of nuclear war as the end of the world. Such works included the widely viewed 1983 ABC television drama The Day After, which simply followed a tradition that imagined the worst possible outcome should nuclear weapons ever be used. Nuclear energy generation itself eventually suffered the same fate and became synonymous with a dangerous and pessimistic future. The end-of-the-world theme dominates our remembrance of the entire nuclear age. However, a reexamination of the early nuclear age (Hiroshima in 1945 to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962) shows many diverse ideas on the use of nuclear power for weapons and energy generation.

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This document was originally published in The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives by The University of Tennessee Press. Copyright restrictions may apply.

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