Last night I watched Threads, an extremely affecting BBC film from 1984 about the effects of a full-scale nuclear war on one British city, Sheffield.1 One might say it's a very British 'kitchen sink' approach to the subject, following the lives of two ordinary families during the international crisis (involving Iran -- so what else is new) leading up to the nuclear exchange, then switching to a relentless depiction of the death, confusion, suffering and struggle for existence in the days, weeks and years afterwards. 'Harrowing' is the word usually trotted out for movies like Threads; if you want to feel like you've been punched repeatedly in the stomach for two hours then you won't want to miss it. At the end of it, I let out a huge sigh of relief -- it was over, it wasn't real, I could thankfully escape back to reality again.
The reason why Airminded has a sometime interest in the Cold War is partly because -- at the risk of crossing a bridge before I come to it! -- it's an area I may go into after the PhD, but also because the fear of nuclear war is an obvious comparison to the fear of the knock-out blow. The one grew out of and replaced the other. In fact, it seems to me that they are extremely similar indeed: most of the ideas and tropes in literature anticipating nuclear war were used by the writers worrying about the effects of aerial bombardment upon British society before the Second World War. For example, the opening narration2 of Threads explains the meaning of the title (over shots of a spider weaving a web intercut with ones showing trucks transporting goods around the city):
In an urban society, everything connects. Each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.
As the film goes on to show, a nuclear war would completely sever these connecting threads, and with them, all hope and dignity. (One of the main characters sobs in grief when he finds that he can't get any water out of the taps to comfort his wife, dying from radiation exposure.) Of those Britons who survive the attack, many millions more die for lack of food, water and medical attention. L. E. O. Charlton would have understood the point immediately. In 1938 he wrote that
Our millions are bottle-fed, and all their needs are cared for, by a system of distribution and supply so intricate, and so haphazardly evolved, that once seriously dislocated beyond the power of immediate repair they would be as helpless as new-born babes to fend for themselves.3
But there are also differences. One obvious one is radiation, and its lingering effects. After a knock-out blow, the survivors could rebuild and repopulate Britain without having to worry about no-go areas or genetic damage. Another, related and more striking difference is that the natural world would be largely unaffected by a knock-out blow, whereas a nuclear war would blight the land and the sky for generations to come. In Threads, the global thermonuclear war leads to a nuclear winter (Carl Sagan and Richard Turco are both credited as advisors), with near-freezing temperatures and stunted harvests. Britain's population drops to medieval levels. These scenes, mostly of silent people in the bare fields hunched over and grubbing for what little crops still grow, are very bleak and extremely effective. Visually, they are so dark as to be almost black, while the wind howls constantly. Nature itself has been wounded. Contrast this with a passage in Sarah Campion's 1937 novel Thirty Million Gas Masks. The protagonist is caught in a cellar in an air raid, and recalls a bicycle ride the previous May, in glorious spring:
This at least, thought Judith in December confusedly in the hot horror of her gas-mask, was unconquerable. The bombs might fall; did, in fact, fall at this moment, upon the brick and macadam of the railway bridge outside, upon the chestnut trees and the grassy bank and the dark winter-resisting laurels: the bridge might never be built again, for there might be no men to build it: but the grass would sprout of itself over the brick, and the laurel would put out a startling green bud, pale as water, and the chestnut, though split from top to bottom, would spring up in new life from the seedling now cosily safe at its foot, and bear in April a galaxy of green fingers, and in May a candle-blossom as insouciant as the free air itself. This alone, she thought as a brutal crash turned her world tipsy for a moment, this perennial birth in the face of disaster would go on invincibly to some sort of conclusion, some final flowering, however hazardous.4
Unsurprisingly, visions of the knock-out blow could sometimes turn into anti-urban, back-to-nature utopias by the back door. With the cities destroyed or emptied, the population drastically reduced, industry and commerce at an end, people could return to a simpler and therefore (of course!) better way of life, closer to the land and free of the corruptions of modernity. A Threads-style nuclear war would take this a step too far, corrupting the land as well and offering only an unrelenting and probably pointless struggle for mere existence instead. Even this, though, could be paradise to some, as shown by the survivalist fiction of the later Cold War.
There are some very good websites devoted to Threads: I particularly recommend Don't Panic, Mr Mainwaring: Threads, while the site at Action After Warnings is extremely comprehensive. But above all, watch the film.