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Nuclear weapons in popular culture


Nuclear weapons in popular culture

A nuclear fireball lights up the night in a United States nuclear test.

Since their public debut in August 1945, nuclear weapons and their potential effects have been a recurring motif in popular culture,[1] to the extent that the decades of the Cold War are often referred to as the "atomic age".


  • Images of nuclear weapons 1
  • In art 2
  • In comedy 3
  • In fiction, film, and theater 4
  • In literature and books 5
  • In music 6
  • In video games 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Images of nuclear weapons

The now-familiar peace symbol was originally a specifically anti-nuclear weapons icon.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the "atomic age", and the bleak pictures of the bombed-out cities released shortly after the end of World War II became symbols of the power and destruction of the new weapons (it is worth noting that the first pictures released were only from distances, and did not contain any human bodies—such pictures would only be released in later years).[2]

The first pictures released of a nuclear explosion—the blast from the Trinity test—focused on the fireball itself; later pictures would focus primarily on the mushroom cloud that followed. After the United States began a regular program of nuclear testing in the late 1940s, continuing through the 1950s (and matched by the Soviet Union), the mushroom cloud has served as a symbol of the weapons themselves.

Pictures of nuclear weapons themselves (the actual casings) were not made public until 1960, and even those were only mock-ups of the "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" weapons dropped on Japan—not the more powerful weapons developed more recently. Diagrams of the general principles of operation of thermonuclear weapons have been available in very general terms since at least 1969 in at least two encyclopedia articles, and open literature research into inertial confinement fusion has been at least richly suggestive of how the "secondary" and "inter" stages of thermonuclear weapons work [6].

In general, however, the design of nuclear weapons has been the most closely guarded secret until long after the secrets had been independently developed—or stolen—by all the major powers and a number of lesser ones. It is generally possible to trace US knowledge of foreign progress in nuclear weapons technology by reading the US Department of Energy document "Restricted Data Declassification Decisions - 1946 to the Present" (although some nuclear weapons design data have been reclassified since concern about proliferation of nuclear weapons to "nth countries" increased in the late 1970s).

However, two controversial publications breached this silence in ways that made many in the US and allied nuclear weapons community very anxious.

Former nuclear weapons designer Theodore Taylor described how terrorists could, without using any classified information at all, design a working fission nuclear weapon to journalist John McPhee, who published this information in the best-selling book The Curve of Binding Energy in 1974.[3]

In 1979 the US Department of Energy sued to suppress the publication of an article by Howard Morland in The Progressive magazine detailing design information on thermonuclear and fission nuclear weapons he was able to glean in conversations with officials at several DoE contractor plants active in manufacture of nuclear weapons components. Ray Kidder, a nuclear weapon designer testifying for Morland, identified several open literature sources for the information Morland repeated in his article [7], while aviation historian Chuck Hansen produced a similar document for US Senator Charles Percy [8]. Morland and The Progressive won the case, and Morland published a book on his journalistic research for the article, the trial, and a technical appendix in which he "corrected" what he felt were false assumptions in his original article about the design of thermonuclear weapons in his book, The Secret That Exploded.[4] The concepts in Morland's book are widely acknowledged in other popular-audience descriptions of the inner workings of thermonuclear weapons, even here in WorldHeritage.

During the 1950s, many countries developed large civil-defense programs designed to aid the populace in the event of nuclear warfare. These generally included drills for evacuation to fallout shelters, popularized through popular media such as the US film, Duck and Cover. These drills, with their images of eerily empty streets and the activity of hiding from a nuclear bomb under a schoolroom desk, would later become symbols of the seemingly inescapable and common fate created by such weapons. Many Americans—at least among the wealthier classes—built back-yard fallout shelters, which would provide little protection from a direct hit, but would keep out wind-blown fallout, for a few days or weeks (Switzerland, which never acquired nuclear weapons, although it had the technological sophistication to do so long before Pakistan or North Korea, has built nuclear blast shelters that would protect most of its population from a nuclear war.)[5][6]

After the development of hydrogen bombs in the 1950s, and especially after the massive and widely publicized Castle Bravo test accident by the United States in 1954, which spread nuclear fallout over a large area and resulted in the death of at least one Japanese fisherman, the idea of a "limited" or "survivable" nuclear war became increasingly replaced by a perception that nuclear war meant the potentially instant end of all civilization: in fact, the explicit strategy of the nuclear powers was called Mutual Assured Destruction. Nuclear weapons became synonymous with apocalypse, and as a symbol this resonated through the culture of nations with freedom of the press. Several popular novels—such as Alas, Babylon and On the Beach—portrayed the aftermath of nuclear war. Several science-fiction novels, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz, explored the long-term consequences. Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb satirically portrayed the events and the thinking that could begin a nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons are also one of the main targets of peace organizations. The semaphore symbols for "N" (nuclear) and "D" (disarmament), entered modern popular culture as an icon of peace.

In art

The power and the visual effects of atomic weapons have inspired many artists. Some notable examples include:

In comedy

The mushroom cloud is familiar enough to be treated with humor in a Les Paul advertising campaign.
  • The comedian/lyricist Tom Lehrer penned a number of humorous and well known songs relating to nuclear weapons. His song Who's Next? took up the issue of nuclear proliferation, chronicling the acquisition of nuclear weapons by various nations, then theorizing on "Who's Next," ending with Luxembourg, Monaco, and Alabama becoming nuclear powers, while We Will All Go Together When We Go looked at the brighter side of nuclear holocaust (not having to mourn over the death of others, since "When the air becomes uranious/ We will all go simultaneous"). It assumes that the entire planet will be instantaneously wiped clean by nuclear fire, and bypasses the much grimmer idea of radiation poisoning. A third song by Lehrer, So Long Mom (A Song From World War III), was introduced as existing because, "If any songs are going to come out of World War III, we had better start writing them now," and tells the tale of a young soldier marching off to nuclear war, promising his mother that "Although I may roam, I'll come back to my home/ Although it may be a pile of debris" and also satirizing the likely extremely short duration of a major nuclear war ("And I'll look for you when the war is over/ An hour and a half from now!").

In fiction, film, and theater

  • Nuclear weapons are a staple element in science fiction novels. The phrase "atomic bomb" predates their existence, back to H. G. Wells' The World Set Free (1914) when scientists had discovered that radioactive decay implied potentially limitless energy locked inside of atomic particles (Wells' atomic bombs were only as powerful as conventional explosives, but would continue exploding for days on end). Robert A. Heinlein's 1940 Solution Unsatisfactory posits radioactive dust as a weapon that the US develops in a crash program to end World War II; the dust's existence forces drastic changes in the postwar world. Cleve Cartmill predicted a chain-reaction-type nuclear bomb in his 1944 science fiction story "Deadline," which led to the FBI investigating him, due to concern over a potential breach of security on the Manhattan Project. (see Silverberg).
  • Many of the characteristics of nuclear weapons themselves have played on ages-old human themes and tropes (penetrating rays, persistent contamination, virility, and, of course, apocalypse), giving their standing in popular culture and politics a particularly emotional valence (both positive and negative). For example, the book Down to a Sunless Sea (1979 novel) is set in a post-holocaust environment, as what may be one of the last planeloads of survivors tries to find a place to land.
  • Nuclear weapons have even been featured in children's works: The Butter Battle Book, by Dr. Seuss, deals with deterrence and the arms race.
  • I Live in Fear, a 1955 Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa, is about a Japanese businessman who is terrified of nuclear war and was among the earliest films to deal with the psychological impact of nuclear weapons.
  • Many films, some of which were based on novels, feature nuclear war or the threat of it. Godzilla (1954) is considered by some to be an analogy to the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan, another pre-dating film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms being the start of a more general genre of movies about creatures mutated or awakened by nuclear testing. Them! (1954) (giant ants in Los Angeles sewers) is based on a similar premise. The Incredible Shrinking Man (novel) (film, 1957) starts with a sailor irradiated by a bomb test, based on a real incident of irradiation of Japanese fisherman. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, (novel, no film, 1959) the previous war is known as the "Flame Deluge"; On the Beach (novel 1957, film 1959, television miniseries 2000) is most famous for making the end of humanity a theme in popular thinking on nuclear war; Final War (Japan, 1960) nuclear war erupts after the USA accidentally bombs South Korea. The 1962 film This is Not a Test addresses the reactions and emotions of a group of people in the minutes prior to a nuclear attack.
  • Some non-fiction works of the time had an effect on cultural works. Fail-Safe (novel 1962) (film 1964) (live-TV remake 2000) was a dramatic version of a similar accidental war that came out soon after. The Bedford Incident, a 1964 film based on the 1961 book of the same name, depicts a game of naval cat and mouse between the destroyer USS Bedford and a Soviet submarine that ends with the nuclear torpedoing of the Bedford.The War Game (BBC TV film, 1965) was a documentary-style film about the effects of nuclear war on England while Planet of the Apes (1963 novel, and five films 1968-1973) was about an Earth ruled by apes because of a nuclear war that destroyed mankind. Damnation Alley (1977) features a chilling launch and destruction sequence, followed by a trek across a ruined America; Taiyō o Nusunda Otoko / The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979), When the Wind Blows (British graphic novel 1982, animated film 1986) is the story of a middle-aged British couple, Jim and Hilda, who naively assume that World War III will be no worse than World War II. Special Bulletin was a 1983 made-for-TV movie about anti-nuclear activists detonating a home built nuclear device in Charleston, South Carolina, the film was shot in a live breaking news show format.
The Day After became known for its realistic representation of nuclear war and groundbreaking special effects for a television movie.
  • The Day After (1983) was a "made for TV" movie that became fodder for talk shows and commentary by politicians at the time due to its depiction of the runup to a nuclear war between the US and the Soviets with graphic explosions on American soil, the aftermath of the attack and alleged political causes. Testament (1983), another postwar vision of survival in a small California town after WWIII; WarGames (1983), features a young computer hacker who nearly starts World War Three when he inadvertently breaks into a fictional NORAD supercomputer named WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) to play the latest video games; The Terminator (4 films, 1984, 1991, 2003, 2009) features a post-apocalyptic future in which artificial intelligence has become self-aware, identifies all humans as a threat and uses the worlds nuclear arsenal to destroy mankind.(all James Cameron films from 1986 through 1994 deal with nuclear explosions); Red Dawn (film, directed by John Milius) a Soviet/Cuban invasion follows a surprise limited nuclear strike on the US (1984), Mad Max (3 films, 1979–1985), a loner Australian highway patrolman wanders a bleak violent post apocalyptic wasteland. Countdown to Looking Glass, (1984) a 'docudrama,' shows an international incident, the breakdown in diplomacy, the escalation in international tensions leading up to a nuclear crisis, the breakout of ground and naval combat overseas, and ends with the president taking off in the airborne E-4 command post ("Looking Glass") and the activation of the Emergency Broadcast System and air raid sirens. Manhattan Project (1986), is not about the actual The Manhattan Project but how, using stolen plutonium, a high school student builds an atomic bomb for a science class project. Threads (BBC TV production made 1984, shown 1985), based on British government exercise Square Leg, shows the effects of an all-out nuclear war on the UK. Project X (1987) which deals with testing of lethal exposures to nuclear radiation on chimpanzees. In Miracle Mile (1988) a musician visiting the "Miracle Mile" area of Los Angeles receives a wrong number phone call and hears a conversation in the background saying that a nuclear attack on the United States is imminent. Denial, confusion, fear and panic ensue before the attack as the protagonist scrambles to save himself and a woman he met earlier in the day. By Dawn's Early Light (1990) portrays an accidental limited nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union after a "false-flag" attack on Soviet territory by Russian ultra nationalist terrorists seemingly launched from a US base in Turkey, and attempts to stop hostilities before they spiral into an all-out nuclear war. Broken Arrow (1996) depicts the theft of two thermonuclear weapons by a rogue US bomber pilot. ("Broken Arrow" is military jargon for an accidental nuclear event; the theft of nuclear devices depicted in the film would actually be classified as an "Empty Quiver" by the US Department of Defense.).
  • The 1984 book The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth and its 1987 film describe a plan by lone and extreme Soviet government elements to encourage unilateral British disarmament. They smuggle the components of a small tactical nuclear bomb into Britain, to a deep-cover Russian spy who gathers them for assembly and eventual detonation near an American nuclear base, the week before a General Election.
  • The James Bond films are also known to have plots surrounding nuclear weapons. Films like Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Octopussy (1983), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World Is Not Enough (1999) involve nuclear weapons. Some are based around their threatened use or theft, others in a showdown between the superpowers. The threat is prevented by Bond in the nick of time, although weapons are detonated in The Spy Who Loved Me when two Polaris missiles each destroy a stolen nuclear submarine out at sea, British and Russian respectively. However, these do not harm the world's population or land, killing only the villain's crews in each stolen submarine. In Goldfinger (1964) the titular antagonist (with assistance from Chinese and North Korean agents who want economic collapse in the West) attempts to irradiate the US's national gold reserves stored at Fort Knox with an atomic bomb in order to increase the value of his own stockpile. The villain in Octopussy (1983) was a power-mad renegade Soviet general opposed to disarmament talks with NATO, who hatches an elaborate plot to invade Western Europe after the clandestine placement and detonation of a nuclear weapon on a US Air Force base in West Germany. GoldenEye (1995) focuses on a nuclear satellite weapon that unleashes a powerful electromagnetic pulse attack upon whatever area it is detonated over, destroying anything with an electronic circuit.
  • There have been a few fictionalized accounts of historical events relating to nuclear weapons as well. The Manhattan Project itself, for example, was depicted in both the 1989 theatrical film Fat Man and Little Boy and, somewhat more in-depth, also released in 1989 the CBS television film Day One. Thirteen Days (2000) dramatizes the tensions of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis from the standpoint of Pres. Kennedy's Cabinet.
  • The second season of the television series 24 involves Muslim terrorists smuggling a nuclear bomb across the Mexican border and planning to detonate it in Los Angeles. In the fourth season, after a series of terrorist attacks, a group of Islamic terrorists capture and launch a nuclear cruise missile at Los Angeles. The sixth season also involves nuclear weapons as a major theme, with a group of terrorists having access to five nuclear suitcase bombs.
  • Nuclear weapons, both conventional and "enhanced" (through the use of fictional advanced technology), are used in the feature film Stargate and the related television series Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis.
  • The Tom Clancy novel and movie The Sum of All Fears depicts a nuclear explosion caused by Islamic terrorists in Denver (novel) or by neo-Nazis in Baltimore (film).
  • The movie On The Beach is based around the premise of a nuclear war. In the original novel, the war starts as a "catalytic war" caused by Egyptian airmen destroying Washington, DC in Russian-built bombers, causing mistaken retaliation against the Soviet Union and a general nuclear exchange. In the 2000 Australian remake of On The Beach, a nuclear war is fought between the United States of America and the People's Republic of China over a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
  • In the comic The Invisibles, writer Grant Morrison references Oppenheimer using the "Destroyer of Worlds" quote as a mystic phrase and using the moment of detonation as part of a magical ritual. The roleplaying game GURPS Technomancer repeats this theme, depicting an alternate history where Oppenheimer unwittingly completes a necromantic ritual that releases magic back into the world at Trinity. The CBS Television Drama Jericho (2006) focuses on a small town that is left without communications and basic necessities after a nuclear attack on major US cities. The film The Hills Have Eyes (2006) features a group of miner's descendants in the New Mexico desert, who have become genetically mutated due to the radiation caused by the atomic tests, and terrorize travelers in the area, who are lured to their mines in the hills by a gas station owner who profits from the victim's jewelry.
  • There have also been a number of plays set around the theme of nuclear weapons development. Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning Copenhagen (1998), for example, contemplates the ethics and early history of nuclear weapons development through the eyes of the physicist Niels Bohr, his wife Margarethe, and his former pupil Werner Heisenberg. Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt addressed the question of the responsibility of scientists in a post-Hiroshima world explicitly in his 1961 satire, Die Physiker. The rise-and-fall of American physicist and "father of the atomic bomb" J. Robert Oppenheimer has been the subject and inspiration of a number of plays—Heinar Kipphardt's In the Matter J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964), PBS's American Playhouse's 7 part "Oppenheimer" (1982),[7] and even an opera, Doctor Atomic (2005).
  • In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), set in 1957, Indiana Jones finds himself at the Nevada test site just before an atomic test. Chased by Soviet soldiers, he wanders into an area set up to resemble a suburban town when hearing an air raid siren, he realizes that its only a matter of seconds before an atomic detonation, he locks himself in a lead-lined refrigerator. The explosion flings the refrigerator a safe distance away, where Jones emerges without any serious injuries.
  • The third episode of Lost's fifth season, "Jughead," reveals that the United States military brought a hydrogen bomb called Jughead to the island in 1954; the military troops were killed by the Others and the bomb was seized. A time-traveling Daniel Faraday convinces the Others that he is part of a military science team sent to defuse the bomb, which is leaking radioactive material, but eventually confides to one of their members that the bomb must be buried underground after being sealed with lead or concrete, explaining that he knows this will work because the island is still intact 50 years later, having never been destroyed in a nuclear blast. However, in 1977, the bomb was used in an attempt to stop the Incident, in the hope of changing the future.
  • In the movie Back to the Future, Marty McFly, in 1955, is showing Doc Brown a video made in 1985 in which Marty and the future Doc Brown are wearing radiation suits. Doc Brown surmises that the radiation suits are worn to protect himself and Marty from the fallout "from all the atomic wars" (presumably referring to the fact that the 1955 Doc Brown is living during the Cold War).
  • In the 2004 reimagining of the television series Battlestar Galactica, nuclear weapons are a recurring weapon in the arsenal of both the Human and Cylon forces, though the Cylons use the weapons in colossal force when they bombard the Twelve Colonies with nuclear weapons, wiping out almost all life on the twelve planets. While the Galactica is stated to possess five nuclear warheads shortly after they flee the destroyed Twelve Colonies,[8] (though it is later shown to carry six,[9] possibly having been given several from the Battlestar Pegasus), the Cylons possess an unknown number, though given the sheer amount of the nukes used to devastate the Twelve Colonies, it is estimated that they possess many thousands.

In literature and books

  • Superman—A 1944 story involving Lex Luthor using an atomic bomb against Superman was put on hold until 1946 by the War Department. It was later mentioned this would have been good subterfuge.[10] Artist Wayne Boring drew the "Superman Covers Atom Bomb Test!" cover for Action Comics #101 (Oct. 1946).[11]
  • The Secret of the Swordfish—by Edgar P. Jacobs, first album of the Belgian comic strip Blake and Mortimer, depicts a 20th-century World War in which a fictional Asian Empire ("Yellow Empire") nearly conquer the entire world. It ends with the destruction of the Yellow Empire capital city while the Emperor were planning to launch his nuclear weaponry. The Time Trap and The Strange Encounter, later albums of Blake and Mortimer, deal with time-travels and a potential future where Earth is devastated by a nuclear war.
  • Watchmen—by Alan Moore set in an alternative history where the USA and USSR edge dangerously close to nuclear war.
  • When the Wind Blows—a graphic novel for adults by children's author Raymond Briggs which follows a retired couple in the days immediately after a thermonuclear war.
  • Arc Light—a techno-thriller by Eric L. Harry depicting a limited nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia.
  • Command the Morning[12]—a 1959 fictionalization of the Manhattan Project by Pearl S. Buck, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • "Emerald City Blues"—a short story by Steve Boyett published in the Fall 1988 issue of Midnight Graffiti in which the horrors of nuclear war are made vivid by having an atom bomb dropped on Oz with the fallout killing Dorthy Gale.
  • Several novels by Dale Brown feature nuclear weapons being employed. Among them are Sky Masters, in which a Chinese naval vessel uses a tactical nuclear weapon near the Philippines, in the disputed waters around the Spratly Islands; Fatal Terrain, in which China launches a nuclear attack on Taiwan and on Andersen Air Force Base in Guam; Chains of Command in which Russia attacks the Ukraine with nuclear weapons, and the Ukraine destroys a Russian bunker with a nuclear weapon. and Plan of Attack, in which Russia destroys several US air bases with nuclear weapons.
  • The Japanese Manga, Barefoot Gen written by Keiji Nakazawa and adapted into an Anime by the same name. Takes place in 1945 in and around Hiroshima, Japan, where the six-year-old boy Gen lives with his family. After Hiroshima is destroyed by atomic bombing, Gen and other survivors are left to deal with the aftermath. The story is loosely based on Nakazawa's own experiences as a Hiroshima survivor.
  • The Manga and Anime franchise Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) takes place in an alternate future that nuclear war during the 1990s has turned into a wasteland ruled by warbands of mutants and tyrannical martial arts masters.
  • Ender's Game—Nuclear weapons are used during the war with the alien Formics, and references are given to "The nuking of Mecca" and "The shields make it so no one bothers with nuclear weapons anymore."
  • The Valley-Westside War—by Harry Turtledove. After a nuclear war between the USA and the USSR in 1967, L.A.'s San Fernando Valley is reduced to a collection of primitive warring feudal states.
  • Halo: Ghosts of Onyx—Kurt detonates two nuclear warheads, on Onyx. Also, a NOVA bomb (a bomb composed of multiple nukes in a special casing) destroys part of the Sangheili fleet.
  • George Orwell, features Britain run by a dictatorship after a nuclear war that takes place in the 1950s.
  • Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order—a non-fiction theoretical book by historian Max Ostrovsky, outlining macro-historical and geopolitical forces inexorably leading to total nuclear war between Western and Eastern Hemispheres that will end either in nuclear apocalypse or nuclear genesis of the World State.
  • C. S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew features the "Deplorable Word," apparently a thinly-veiled criticism of nuclear warfare. When said with the "proper ceremonies," it destroys all life forms in the world except the speaker. The only known speaker of the word is the White Witch, Jadis.
  • Jean-Hugues Oppel's Réveillez le président ! (in French, Éditions Payot et rivages, 2007, ISBN 978-2-7436-1630-4) about France's France and weapons of mass destruction.

In music

Along with other forms of culture, there have been many songs related to the topic of nuclear weapons and warfare. Many of them have been protest songs or warning songs, while others use the motif as an allusion to great destruction in general.

Some of the more famous nuclear war songs include: "99 Luftballons" (1983) by the German group Nena, which depicts accidental nuclear war begun by an early-warning system identifying a group of balloons with enemy bombers or missiles; and Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" (1963), which premiered shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also made reference to nuclear weapons in his song "With God on Our Side" released as the third track on his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin'."But now we have weapons, of chemical dust...if fire them we're forced to...then fire them we must...". In many cases the allusions to nuclear war are not explicit, however. Iron Maiden's "Brighter than a Thousand Suns", on their album A Matter of Life and Death is a recent example. Steely Dan's "King of the World," on the album Countdown to Ecstasy is an example of upbeat music and very downbeat lyrics which give a very bleak picture of the post-nuclear world.

Heavy metal as a genre has been concerned with nuclear warfare since the days of Black Sabbath. Their classics, "War Pigs" and "Electric Funeral", respectively, are among the first metal songs to describe war, political corruption and atomic holocaust. In the early eighties, Iron Maiden wrote a number of songs which described nuclear war including "2 Minutes to Midnight" (a song about the doomsday clock), and the aforementioned "Brighter than a Thousand Suns" to name a few. The theme continued in heavy metal through the early nineties, especially in the thrash metal subgenre. Metallica wrote many popular songs about nuclear war and political corruption such as "Fight Fire with Fire", "...And Justice For All", and "Blackened". Megadeth's name is taken from the term "megadeath," used to describe one million deaths from a nuclear weapon, and much of their album artworks and songs deal with nuclear war and weapons. Other thrash bands such as Sodom and Anthrax also wrote a number of songs on the topic. The genre even inspired bands like Nuclear Assault and Warbringer to adopt the subject in their band names themselves. This trend also spread to Eastern European metal with popular Russian metal band Aria writing the song "Last Sunset" (Последний).

"Weird Al" Yankovic has a song called Christmas at Ground Zero, dealing with the effects of a nuclear war starting on Christmas!

The emerging punk movement explicitly tackled issues surrounding nuclear warfare. With many punks exhibiting an explicitly pacifist world view there was a need to challenge the conventional wisdom of nuclear deterrence and deployment. Much of this sentiment can be found in British punk bands, especially those emerging from the crust punk subgenre such as Amebix or Antisect and the related anarcho-punk subgenre where bands like Flux of Pink Indians made clear their opposition to nuclear warfare.

Among the many songs alluding to nuclear weapons and nuclear war in the 1980s was the song "Manhattan Project" (1985) by the band Rush, one of the few songs with copious literal references to historical events leading to the first nuclear weapons. Additionally the band has a song about the possibility of nuclear war entitled "Distant Early Warning", the video of which features nuclear-related imagery.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's 1980 song Enola Gay depicts the events of the 1945 deployment of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima from the point of view of the crew of the B29 Superfortress Bomber Enola Gay. Clear references are made to the exact time the bomb detonated ("It's eight fifteen, and that's the time that it's always been"), and questions are asked as to whether the action was necessary. The song also references a supposed radio message in which the crew detail no anomalies as a result of nuclear detonation ("We got your message on the radio - conditions normal and you're coming home"); the American government denied any rumours of radiation sickness associated with the dropping of the bombs.

Alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs released the song "Grey Victory" on their 1985 major label debut album The Wishing Chair, in which the Enola Gay is described as having made a "casual delivery" and dispassionately describes the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, perhaps as a cynical response to the seeming general acceptance and lack of outrage in an age living with the threat of nuclear disaster ("Please build a future, darling, with our bomb/Cherish and love it for the sake of earth-bound kingdom come").

The band Pink Floyd produced a song titled "Two Suns in the Sunset", which indirectly references a nuclear attack. This song was the last of the predominantly war-themed album The Final Cut (1983). In addition, Roger Waters continued his commentary on the threat of nuclear war on his 1987 solo concept album Radio K.A.O.S., where a simulated nuclear strike is depicted as a warning in the song "Four Minutes".

Sting released the song Russians in 1985 directly addressing Cold War tensions and the policy of "Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)". "Russians" was not only a humanized expression of the Cold War conflict, pitting the fate of actual people against political rhetoric, but expressed the deep misunderstanding of political forces in calculating ordinary people's aspirations to live in peace ("I hope the Russians love their children, too").

Satirical artists such as Tom Lehrer and "Weird Al" Yankovic have drawn upon the motif of nuclear war for humor in their songs (as discussed below).

The album cover for the single "Teenagers" by My Chemical Romance is a mushroom cloud. The image also appears in the video for the song.

The glam metal band Warrant released a song off their 1992 album Dog Eat Dog entitled "April 2031" which depicts life after a nuclear holocaust.

Ska punk band RX Bandits make a reference to Nuclear War in their song "Nugget" with the line "Its 3 Years til I'm 24 and i don't wanna die in a Nuclear War"

Irish rock band U2 also named their 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

The song "Wendy Clear" from blink-182's 1999 album Enema of the State mentions a "nuclear device".

Linkin Park's 2010 album A Thousand Suns deals with nuclear warfare and themes of war in general.

In video games

  • The Ace Combat Series featured nuclear strikes. Example: in Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, Belka, a fictional antagonist country, detonated seven nuclear warheads to fend off Allied troops.
  • Frontlines: Fuel of War includes the detonations of two tactical nuclear warheads to destroy American tank battalions.
  • The game Balance of Power, written by Chris Crawford and published in 1985 puts the player in the position of the President of the United States or the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, with the goal of increasing "prestige", balanced out by the need to avoid a nuclear war, which ends the game.
  • In Battlefield 3, the main antagonist, Solomon, buys three portable nuclear devices from Amir Kaffarov, a Russian arms dealer, and detonates one in Paris in the mission "Comrades" which kills 80,000 people. The player finds one of them in mission "Operation Guillotine", and the last one in the mission "The Great Destroyer". The player also sees the nuke detonating in Paris and a picture of its mushroom cloud in the starting cut scene of "Thunder Run".
  • In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Captain Price launches a nuclear missile out of a nuclear submarine - however, instead of attacking land, he detonates it in the stratosphere, destroying the International Space Station and creating an electro-magnetic pulse throughout the eastern seaboard of the United States in order to disable all invading Russian tech sources and turn the tide of battle in America's favor. Also, in multiplayer gameplay, a person that has received 25 kills (or 24 with the second tier perk upgrade called hardline) without dying can call in a "tactical nuke" to end the game.
  • In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the game's antagonist, Vladimir Makarov, captures the Russian president in an attempt to extract Russia's nuclear launch codes from him.
  • In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a group of the warlord Al-Asad's forces in a fictional Middle Eastern country under occupation by the USMC detonate a Russian nuclear warhead, annihilating themselves, the capital city and nearly the entire invading US Marine force. Later in the game, the USMC must work together with the SAS to stop two SS-27 Topol M missiles, loaded with MIRVs, sent by the Russian ultranationalist forces, from destroying eight US cities: Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Norfolk, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. - which would kill more than 40 million people.
  • The Civilization series features nuclear weapons as a possible area of research in their extensive "tech trees." A player must construct their own version of the Manhattan Project to unlock the construction of nuclear weapons; afterward all players with sufficient technology can build nuclear weapons. In all versions of Civilization the use of nuclear weapons destroys all units in the area that was attacked, pollutes the surrounding area, and contributes to global warming. A nuclear attack on or near a city decreases the population of the city rather than annihilating it (Civilization Revolution has a single ICBM which can destroy cities and in Civilization V, nuclear weapons will destroy a city with a population rating lower than 3). In all Civilization games, the use of nuclear weapons can result in harsh diplomatic penalties.
  • The Soviets in both Command & Conquer: Red Alert and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, the Brotherhood of Nod in Command & Conquer and Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, and the Chinese in Generals can launch small tactical missiles to destroy key units and buildings, although the destruction is nowhere near its real-life counterpart. However, in Red Alert one mission requires the player prevent a strategic nuclear strike on Paris, and in Red Alert 2, the Soviets successfully destroy Chicago with a large nuclear bomb. In the game's expansion pack, Yuri's Revenge, the main villain nukes Seattle, Washington several times to extort money from a computer corporation. In a mod for C&C Generals Zero Hour, called 2015, Waste Land Conflict, the game features a nuke that is very realistic in damage and creates an EMP wave.
  • The 2006 game DEFCON by UK-based independent developer Introversion Software puts the player in charge of one of six world territories in a situation which inevitably deteriorates to global thermonuclear war. The game uses a graphical and audio style which deliberately evokes images from films such as WarGames, cited by the developers as a major inspiration. With the sense that nuclear war is being commanded by distant generals in deep underground bunkers using abstract images, the game gives an unsettling impression of how popular culture imagined nuclear war would look to the people responsible for starting it. Because "Everybody Dies", DEFCON is extremely difficult to win, as all sides will inevitably suffer nuclear attack. In the game's terminology, the victor is the player who 'loses the least'.
  • The Fallout series of computer games contains numerous direct and indirect allusions to nuclear wars and potential nuclear holocaust, with a distinct 1950s cold war style. The games themselves are set in a post-nuclear war wasteland where human civilisation has been ended by a nuclear conflict between the USA and China, and the main character of the first game is a 'Vault Dweller', a survivor from a self-contained nuclear shelter. The first two games contain devices resembling the Trinity "Gadget" as central plot elements, and during one of the main quests in Fallout 3, the player must decide whether to detonate or disarm a nuclear bomb resembling the Fat Man in the center of a town called "Megaton."
  • Guerre Nucléaire (translates, from French, as Nuclear War) is an interactive fiction game. This text game is a simulation of a war between the USSR and USA.
  • In the popular Halo franchise of video games and novels, nuclear weapons, from hand-held to planet-devastating, are used in both space and land combat by the United Nations Space Command.
  • The flight simulator F/A 18, Korea Gold, includes nuclear strike missions using the B61 tactical thermonuclear weapon.
  • In the game Mass Effect the player character, Commander Shepard, uses a "repurposed" starship drive core to destroy an alien cloning facility, and recovers a human thermonuclear booby trap of a human scout probe.
  • In Mass Effect 3 a massive, two-millennia old turian nuclear munition is uncovered by the human-supremacist group Cerberus, who proceed to attempt to detonate it in the densely populated area in which it had been left behind. The detonation is prevented by a turian detaching the implosion array, which then harmlessly explodes.
  • In Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, the main objective of the player is to obtain a nuclear bunker buster to penetrate the main enemy's hardened bunker (after which the bomb can be purchased and used according to the player's wishes).
  • The Metal Gear Solid Series by Konami, revolves around Metal Gear, a weapon described as a giant solo-operating tank capable of firing nuclear missiles at any target on the planet's surface.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater the primary antagonist, Colonel Volgin, obtains two M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear rifles. He then uses one of them to destroy half of a forest and cover up the theft.
  • The game Metro 2033, a first-person shooter based on Dmitry Glukhovsky's novel of the same title, takes place in a nuclear war ravaged Moscow and its metro tunnels. Radiation has made the upper world toxic and has mutated the wildlife. The player, Artyom, can choose to spare the mutants or destroy them with nuclear missiles.
  • In Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, a mission requires Samus Aran, the game's main protagonist, to use her ship to collect 3 pieces of a thermonuclear bomb needed to break a force field blocking her way to a boss fight.
  • In the game Missile Command the player must defend a city against a never ending series of incoming nuclear missiles.
  • In Nuclear Strike, the third level begins in Pyongyang, North Korea. It is revealed that a nuclear bomb has been smuggled inside Kim Il-sung's giant statue at Mansudae Hill and the player has to escort as many diplomats out of the city as possible before the bomb detonates.
  • In the game Nuclear War, a turn-based strategy game, the player takes part of a satirical and cartoonish nuclear battle between five world powers.
  • In Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots you can access nuclear missiles once you are at an advanced enough age. Each launched nuke reduces the so-called "Armageddon timer" by 1, and when it reaches zero, the game instantly ends with "Armageddon", causing every player to lose the game. (Simulating the effects of a nuclear winter)
  • In a few Shin Megami Tensei titles, nuclear weapons have destroyed the world and became responsible for creating a dimensional rift that allowed demons to cross over.
  • In the 2007 4X-RTS Sins of a Solar Empire the Trader Emergency Coalition (the game's "baseline human" faction, as opposed to psychic transhumans or aliens) uses nuclear weapons fairly liberally, for space-to-space combat, including nuclear torpedoes for anti-structure attacks, and for planetary bombardment, including salted bombs.
  • In the game Splinter Cell: Double Agent the is a possible ending with two events where the player must disarm a nuclear bomb, one in the JBA headquarters, another on a boat. One of the mission failure scenes shows New York City being destroyed in an explosion.
  • In Spore's Civilization stage, militaristic nations may use two types of nuclear weapon once certain prerequisites have been fulfilled - the Gadget Bomb, which can wipe out all structures of a city and capture it instantly, and the ICBM, which can be used to wipe out every nation on the planet simultaneously, winning the stage. The Gadget Bomb severely impacts international relations, and both weapons produce indestructible radioactive rubble.
  • In the StarCraft series, the Terran can construct laser-guided nuclear missiles for Ghost units to deploy. Several locations in StarCraft's backstory were affected by nuclear attacks prior to the events of the game.
  • In the ThirdWire series of combat flight simulators (Strike Fighters: Project 1, and the games descended from it) there are several downloadable modification which allow the player to use nuclear weapons. Free falling bombs, air-to-surface missiles, air-to-air missiles, and air-to-air rockets are covered in these modifications. American, British, Russian and French weapons are provided (with the range of American weapons being the most comprehensive). A variety of effects packages are available to provide the appropriate visual representation of the nuclear explosion. Several of aircraft in the ThirdWire series were either designed as, or came to be used as nuclear weapons carrying aircraft including the F-101 Voodoo, F-89 Scorpion, and B-29 Superfortress.
  • In the RTS Forged Alliance, all of the factions have strategic nuclear missiles. In addition, many nuclear-powered units explode with the blast of one.
  • In the games Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain and the original Syphon Filter both end with either the player or Gabe Logan having to disarm a nuclear missile.
  • In Tom Clancy's EndWar Saudi Arabia and Iran have destroyed each other with nuclear weapons, setting the basis for the storyline of the game.
  • In the game Tomb Raider the game's antagonist, Jacqueline Natla, is released from her prison by a nuclear weapons test.
  • Trinity was a text adventure game that featured a plotline involving time travel to various sites related to nuclear weapons. The title refers to the Trinity test site.
  • In the games Tropico 3 and Tropico 4, nuclear testing is available as edict.
  • In Twisted Metal 4, the playable character Calypso drives a truck where its special attack is to launch the nuclear missile it carries.
  • In the RTS War Front: Turning Point, the Allied faction's super weapon is a small nuclear bomb dropped from a Northrop YB-35, that unleashes a small sized yet long lasting damaging blast.
  • In Warhammer 40,000, nuclear weapons are used to cause widespread damage to a planet (the methods collectively being called an "Exterminatus", a mass execution of a population through futuristic weapons) and in combat. The nukes must be properly arranged in orbit to create a global firestorm.
  • The RTS game Warzone 2100 is set after a nuclear holocaust initiated by an intelligent computer virus known as Nexus.
  • In the Microsoft Windows strategy game World in Conflict, the United States uses tactical nuclear weaponry to halt the advance of the Soviet Union in America. The weapons are also available in multiplayer games.
  • In Wolfenstein: The New Order in the year 1948, the Nazis build "the most powerful atomic bomb in history" and order it to be dropped onto New York City in the United States. The atomic bomb destroys the island of Manhattan and kills 200,000 people, this then forces the United States to surrender to the Nazis, winning World War II and subsequently taking over the world.

See also


  1. ^ Professor Ferenc M. Szasz and Issei Takechi, "Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945–80", The Historian 69.4 (Winter 2007): 728-752.
  2. ^ Paul S. Boyer. By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon, 1985). Pgs. 5, 8-9, 207
  3. ^ John McPhee, The Curve of Binding Energy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. ISBN 0-374-13373-5
  4. ^ Howard Morland, The Secret That Exploded, Random House, 1981. ISBN 0-394-51297-9
  5. ^ Freeman J. Dyson, Weapons and Hope, HarperCollins, 1984. ISBN 0-06-039031-X
  6. ^ Nigel Calder, Nuclear Nightmares: Investigations into Possible Wars, Penguin (non-classics), 1981. ISBN 0-14-005867-2
  7. ^
  8. ^ Battlestar Galactica, Season One, Episode Three: "Bastille Day"
  9. ^ Battlestar Galactica, Season Three, Episode Ten: "The Eye of Jupiter"
  10. ^ The Superman Files. Matthew K. Manning (trans.). p. 91. 
  11. ^ Wallace, Daniel; Dolan, Hannah, ed. (2010). "1940s". DC Comics Year By Year A Visual Chronicle.  
  12. ^ Job 38:12.

Further reading

  • Paul S. Boyer. By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon, 1985).
  • Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear fear: a history of images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); The Rise of nuclear fear (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,2012)
  • Margot A. Henriksen, Dr. Strangelove's America: society and culture in the atomic age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), ISBN 0-520-08310-5, LoC E169.12.H49 1997.
  • Allan M. Winkler, Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  • Jerome F. Shapiro, Atomic Bomb Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2002). [10]
  • Louis Menand, "Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age," The New Yorker, June 27, 2005 online
  • Stephen Petersen, "Explosive Propositions: Artists React to the Atomic Age" in Science in Context v.14 no.4 (2004), p. 579-609.
  • "Reflections: The Cleve Cartmill Affair" by Robert Silverberg

External links

  • magazine which the US Department of Energy sought to suppress in a 1979 court casethe ProgressiveThe Federation of American Scientists Web page on the letter from aviation historian Chuck Hansen to Senator Charles Percy on open-literature knowledge about the design of thermonuclear weapons prior to Howard Morland's article in
  • US Department of Energy document RDD-8, "Restricted Data Declassification Decisions - 1946 to the Present", the official account of which nuclear weapons design information has been or should be declassified and placed in the public domain.
  • The Federation of American Scientists Web page on the Kidder-Bethe correspondence on the US v. Progressive magazine, et al case, in which nuclear weapons designer Ray Kidder lists several open literature sources available before 1978 which may have revealed how radiation implosion works in thermonuclear weapon secondary and inter stages.
  • "The Bomb Project", includes section relating to nuclear imagery in art
  • Top 10 "NUKES of HOLLYWOOD" Moments, a countdown list of nuclear explosions in Hollywood movies.
  • "Conelrad", a sardonic look at the Cold War culture of the fifties and sixties
  • "Nuke Pop", page on nuclear weapons in popular culture by Paul Brians, a professor of English at Washington State University
  • Ground Zero: A Javascript simulation of the effects of a nuclear explosion in a city
  • Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, By Paul Brians, Professor of English, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington
  • Annotated bibliography on nuclear weapons in popular culture from the Alsos Digital Library
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