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Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear WarRepresentations of Nuclear Weapons and Post-Apocalyptic Worlds$

Paul Williams

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781846317088

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846319792

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Third World Wars and Third-World Wars

Third World Wars and Third-World Wars

Chapter:
(p.224) 8 Third World Wars and Third-World Wars
Source:
Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War
Publisher:
Liverpool University Press
DOI:10.5949/liverpool/9781846317088.003.0009

Abstract and Keywords

This looks back to the literary, scientific and political languages used to represent nuclear weapons since 1945 and considers how these traditions remain visible in early twenty-first-century attitudes towards nuclear weapon possession. It analyzes how the meaning of these representations can be connected to race, ethnicity, nationhood and civilization. In the following discussion of proliferation, the terrorist use of nuclear weapons, and the fictional construction of the Third World as the primal site of World War Three, the focus is on the central contention proffered, debated and challenged throughout this book: that nuclear weapons ‘belong’ to the white Western world.

Keywords:   nuclear weapons, nuclear representations, race, ethnicity, nationhood, civilization, proliferation, whites

The Western sponsors of ‘nonproliferation’, according to George Perkovitch, seemed to replicate the pattern of colonial domination in their insistence that only those who had already tested nuclear devices ought to possess such things. Third World latecomers […] were unwelcome in the nuclear club.

Andrew J. Rotter1

we should be like the Chinese – poor and riding donkeys, but respected and possessing an atom bomb.

Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi2

This final chapter performs the synoptic work expected of a last chapter, looking back to the literary, scientific and political languages used to represent nuclear weapons since 1945 and thinking about how these traditions remain visible in early twenty-first-century attitudes towards nuclear weapon possession. In addition, this chapter analyses how the meaning of these representations can be connected to race, ethnicity, nationhood and civilization. In the following discussion of proliferation, the terrorist use of nuclear weapons and the fictional construction of the Third World as the primal site of World War Three, for one final time we pay attention to the central contention proffered, debated and challenged throughout this book: that nuclear weapons ‘belong’ to the white Western world. In his history of American non-proliferation policy, Shane J. Maddock observes:

The primary tenets remained consistent from the beginning of the nuclear age – some states could be trusted with nuclear weapons and some could not. An atomic hierarchy emerged, first in the imagination of U.S. policymakers, then in political reality, that mirrored power inequalities in the global system. This nuclear regime positioned Washington at the top, followed by its NATO allies, and, later, Israel, with the postcolonial world consigned to the bottom. An Indian diplomat rightly labelled the system ‘nuclear apartheid’.3

The nuclear powers' defence of their entitlement to build weapons with nuclear technology is, of course, not solely (or even primarily) motivated by attitudes of national and racial maturity. For example, the hostile response of the United States to the USSR's building of missile launching sites on Cuba was not motivated by resentment at the enhanced political (p.225) leverage that could potentially be exerted by this postcolonial island nation. It was motivated by a national security need, to prevent the Soviet Union from positioning nuclear weapons so close to the US mainland that there would be an unfavourable (for the USA) imbalance in the speed of the superpowers' nuclear strike capacity. Nonetheless, the language sometimes used in response to this changing geopolitical situation could be expressive of the kinds of hierarchies and prejudices the present study has taken as its subject matter. As Maddock's Nuclear Apartheid (2010) underlines, the imperatives of non-proliferation were more strategic and political than racial or ethnic. Rather than seeing white supremacism as the motivation for nuclear decision-making when race was not the primary factor, I want to draw attention to the way in which linguistic and visual representations of the global distribution of nuclear technology found expression through the register of the West's civilizational superiority and responsibility.

This chapter concentrates on literary, filmic and scientific speculation on Third-World nuclear weapon possession, and with few exceptions the predictions are grim. The speculations are dominated by two fears: the first is that a nuclear bomb will pass into the hands of terrorists who detonate it within a Western city. Shortly before the atomic bomb was invented, physicist Leo Szilard observed that the destructive potential compressed into a relatively small unit made it particularly threatening. His concern was that atomic bombs would make it possible for foreign agents (the future enemy was not stated in March 1945) ‘to smuggle in such bombs in peacetime and to carry them by truck into [American] cities’.4 This has proven to be a recurrent node of anxiety – and soon after Szilard's fears were published, Chandler Davis wrote the short story ‘Nightmare’ (1946), in which an atomic bomb is smuggled into New York City.

The second fearful prediction is that an incident in the Third World will become the trigger for World War Three. This is typically attributed to the treacherous use of nuclear weapons by Third-World peoples or by their technological illiteracy in maintaining a nuclear arsenal; both instances construct non-white peoples as less mature, trustworthy and sophisticated than white civilization. Either through incompetence or duplicity, nuclear representations repeatedly envisage a Third-World nuclear incident escalating into total war between the superpowers. In relation to my comments above, superpower resistance to proliferation may be driven by reasonable (or not) rationales that are unconnected to the belief that one race, nation or civilization is more advanced than another, but many representations do reflect those kinds of assumptions. In many of the following texts, Third-World War is separated from a Third World War by a slender hyphen.

(p.226) ‘The Irresponsibles’

In the late 1950s, trends in the representation of nuclear weapons outside the established nuclear powers coagulated into a recognizable, repeated set of tropes, themes and national characterizations. Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach (1957), in representing Albania as the starting point of World War Three, expresses many attitudes towards non-Western nuclear powers that would resonate through the Cold War. Although Albania is technically a Second-World nation, for various reasons it sat uncertainly within the orbit of Soviet power and the East European communist bloc, and this uncertainty actually increased after 1957. Amongst other factors, very little was known about Albania in the West in the 1950s.

Tracing the impetus for the wider global conflict, readers of On the Beach learn of ‘the Russo–Chinese war that had flared up out of the Russo–N.A.T.O. war, that had in turn been born of the Israeli–Arab war, initiated by Albania’.5 The essential contributing factor to World War Three is the ready availability of nuclear weapons, both financially and because of the Cold War superpowers' willingness to supply smaller countries with military technology:

the damn things got too cheap. The original uranium bomb only cost about fifty thousand quid towards the end. Every little pipsqueak country like Albania could have a stockpile of them, and every little country that had that thought it could defeat the major countries in a surprise attack. That was the real trouble.

The character John Osborne maintains that the fault lies with the ‘pipsqueak’ countries: ‘don't go blaming the Russians. It wasn't the big countries that set off this thing. It was the little ones, the Irresponsibles.’6 This becomes a dominant representational trend: the ‘little’ countries are the ‘Irresponsibles’, unable to control nuclear weapons maturely, that is, not using them at all. In 1957, the scientist Richard S. Leghorn wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the future of humankind would be jeopardized if movements for Third-World self-determination acquired nuclear weapons:

And in ten years it may not be only ‘responsible’ nations who have nuclear bombs. The risks of the so-called Nth country problem will be upon us. With the spread of nuclear stockpiles and of atomic know-how through programs for peaceful uses as well as through the arms race of opposing blocs, it is not inconceivable that future Maos, Nassers, or Perons could acquire atomic bombs. What then for the peace of the world?7

(p.227) Leghorn adds a further element to this complex of assumptions by connecting peaceful nuclear technology to the production of nuclear weapons. The implication is that civilian nuclear programmes in non-Western states are to be promoted cautiously, since the technology slides easily into military purposes. In this sense, Leghorn touches on an ethical question posed in On the Beach: should responsibility lie with the ‘little pipsqueak’ countries who use uranium bombs recklessly or with the superpowers whose geopolitical machinations led to the pipsqueaks acquiring those weapons? In the novel, Commander Dwight Towers leans toward the latter: ‘The Russians had been giving the Egyptians aeroplanes for years. So had Britain for that matter, and to Israel, and to Jordan. The big mistake was ever to have given them a long range aeroplane.’8 In On the Beach these aircraft are used to drop an atomic bomb on Washington, demonstrating the validity of Towers's condemnation of the superpowers' actions (C. W. Sullivan III also sees responsibility shared collectively across the globe in the novel9). However, if On the Beach extends responsibility to the United States and the Soviet Union, the narrator returns one's focus to the peoples of Western Asia. As radiation strips Melbourne of human life, Towers perceives that ‘the streets’ had become ‘dirty’ and ‘littered with paper and spoilt vegetables’, reminding him ‘of an oriental city in the making’.10 Nuclear war has ‘orientalized’ Melbourne, implying in its effects just which people are to blame for the conflict in the first place.

A similar division of responsibility occurs in Alvin M. Weinberg's December 1958 article ‘Prospects in International Science’, which critiques the cynicism on display when the superpowers court the Third World with nuclear technology. As with On the Beach, Weinberg's choice of words is laden with the values of colonialism: ‘In the old days, when foreigners wished to gain favor with natives they would bear gifts. Nowadays the gifts have taken the form of research reactors or cyclotrons.’ Weinberg con - demns the nuclear powers for seeking political leverage in the decolonizing world by teaching nuclear proficiency to Third-World representatives. One such example is the International School of Nuclear Science and Engineering, at the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States, training foreign technicians since 1955. Like Towers in On the Beach, Weinberg insists on the culpability of the nuclear powers in the spread of nuclear technology in the Third World. For Weinberg, this is menacing because these ‘natives’ will convert what was meant for peaceful use into military purposes.11

The memory of the Great War and the events of summer 1914 undoubtedly shadowed the belief that the origins of World War Three would be a conflict between smaller countries. The Third Pugwash Conference, concerned with scientific cooperation across national borders and reducing the risk of armed conflict, was held at Kitzbühel and Vienna in September (p.228) 1958. The Vienna Declaration produced at the conference articulated the danger posed by any war in the nuclear age:

It is sometimes suggested that localized wars, with limited objectives, might still be fought without catastrophic consequences. History shows, however, that the risk of local conflicts growing into major wars is too great to be acceptable in the age of weapons of mass destruction.12

This extract from the conference's ‘Vienna Declaration’, with its appeal to history, seems to look back to the Great War, and its fear of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ incorporates both the mechanized killing of the early twentieth century and the bigger weapons of the late twentieth century. Nuclear weapons are ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that would transform a ‘local conflict’ into a ‘major war’ with ‘catastrophic consequences’. This early usage of the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ suggests that the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons make them particularly likely to escalate a localized war – the ‘mass’ in this context refers to magnitude of global proportions.

Against the rhetoric of irresponsibility, a British film at the end of the 1950s argued that ‘little pipsqueak’ nations may be the most dutiful custodians of weapons of mass destruction. The Mouse That Roared (1959) even proffers the presence of nuclear weapons outside the Cold War power blocs as an effective stimulus for nuclear disarmament. The fictional country in question is Grand Fenwick, a duchy in the French Alps and the smallest nation in Europe, which is paralleled with decolonizing states in the film's fabricated history. Founded in 1430 by the British Roger Fenwick (he ‘took a fancy to the neighbourhood and moved in’), Grand Fenwick is experiencing economic difficulties: the ‘small but sturdy wine’ that is the duchy's sole export has been copied by a Californian vineyard producing a cheap imitation, and the country faces bankruptcy. Running throughout the film is a suspicion of the economic and military power that America wields in the world and the contention that this overbearing presence has distorted the perception of America from inside and outside the nation. Mouse was funded and produced by Carl Foreman, a former Hollywood writer and producer who had been blacklisted for his communist links and moved to Britain in 1952.13

The Marshall Plan that resurrected European economies after World War Two is identified by the government of Fenwick as their only hope. Learning from the American-aided reconstruction of West Germany and Japan that ‘Americans forgive everything’, the state of Fenwick decides to go to war with the United States. The plan is to lose quickly and let American (p.229) capital rebuild their economy: ‘We declare war on Monday, be defeated by Tuesday, and by Friday will be rehabilitated beyond our wildest dreams.’ Unfortunately, when the United States receives Grand Fenwick's declaration of war, the official who reads it dismisses it as a prank. The army of Fenwick arrives in New York with no one to capture them; because of an air-raid drill, the city's population is sheltering underground. The Fenwick army marches into the New York Institute of Advanced Physics, seizes General Snippet, Dr Alfred Kokintz and the ‘Q-Bomb’ (‘infinitely more powerful than the H-Bomb’), and returns to Europe. Travelling back across the Atlantic, the Fenwick army is once more represented as a primitive military force when they fire longbows (their only weapon) at the British flagship vessel Queen Elizabeth.14 World attention concentrates on Grand Fenwick, now in possession of the most destructive weapon ever built. Field Marshall Tully, commander of the Fenwick Army, informs the American envoy, ‘We'd like your President […] to try and persuade the United Nations to let the little countries of the world look after the [Q] bomb. We want a general disarmament, and we want this league of little nations to be in charge of the inspection.’ And if the ‘big nations’ do not disarm, Grand Fenwick will ‘just have to explode the bomb’. The Duchess of Grand Fenwick adds, ‘If there was another war, we'd all be blown up anyway.’ Why not risk being destroyed to ensure a world without the threat of nuclear war? The film's closing title ‘THE END …we hope’ avows the film's allegiance to this vision of the future, disarmament catalyzed by the intervention of a nation outside the power blocs. Shaw notes that the idea of small states providing the moral antidote to the machinations of the nuclear powers was most rubbished in the leftwing press, for whom the acquisition of nuclear weapons was no laughing matter.15 Certainly, in proposing that unilateral disarmament could be compelled by a nonaffiliated small state threatening destruction against larger states, The Mouse That Roared reiterates the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction: knowledge that absolute violence would be met with absolute violence compels other nations in the world to behave peacefully. The film's conclusion subscribes to the strategic utility of deterrence. Its relative radicalism lies in the depiction of which nations are deterring others from nuclear weapons, accrediting moral authority to ‘little’ nations because they are willing to threaten the world with Q-Bomb destruction.

Crisis in the Caribbean

The threat of World War Three and the dangers posed by ‘little’ nations were combined in the language and literature surrounding the Cuban (p.230) Missile Crisis of October 1962. The USA and the USSR confronted each other diplomatically when the Soviet Union began to build launching sites on the island of Cuba that were capable of firing nuclear missiles. Eventually, both sides agreed a set of diplomatic solutions and face-saving measures, including the dismantling of the launching sites. This moment in Cold War history is often read as the closest the superpowers came to nuclear conflict. Presumably unintentionally, Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup paraphrased On the Beach when he commented to President Kennedy, ‘Does it mean they're [Cuba] getting ready to attack us, that little pipsqueak of a place?’16

An interesting analysis of proliferation can be read across two novels by British writer Ian Fleming, Thunderball (1961) and You Only Live Twice (1964). Both texts are popular espionage thrillers featuring the British secret agent James Bond, and both pit Bond against the criminal mastermind Ernst Blofeld. In Thunderball, Blofeld's organization SPECTRE steals two atomic bombs and holds the USA and UK to ransom for £100 million. If they do not pay the money in a week, ‘a piece of property belonging to the Western Powers […] will be destroyed. There will be loss of life. If, within 48 hours after this warning, willingness to accept our terms is still not communicated, there will ensue, without further warning, the destruction of a major city.’17 The response registered by the novel is not horror or even Commandant Shoup's surprise. Bond is blasé, even by the standard set by the character's earlier exploits:

Just what his Service and all the other intelligence services in the world had been expecting to happen. The anonymous little man in the raincoat with the heavy suitcase – or golf bag, if you like. The left luggage office, the parked car, the clump of bushes in a park in the centre of a big town.

As Leo Szilard predicted in 1945, atomic bombs appear to be the most valuable prize in the urban terrorist's toolkit because of the large scale of destruction in proportion to their relatively small size. Even though Blofeld's organization is not the fifth column of another nation, or a religious or political terrorist group, and it has acquired atomic bombs by elaborate theft, Thunderball still uses a vocabulary about proliferation resembling that of other texts in this chapter. Bond's interior monologue continues:

And there was no answer to it. In a few years' time, if the experts were right, there would be even less answer to it. Every tin-pot little nation would be making atomic bombs in their backyards, so to (p.231) speak. Apparently there was no secret now about the things. […] And this was the first blackmail case. Unless SPECTRE was stopped, the word would get round and soon every criminal scientist with a chemical set and some scrap iron would be doing it. If they couldn't be stopped in time there would be nothing for it but to pay up.18

Partly to lend the quest narrative greater significance, the success of Bond's mission is tied to the future status of atomic weapons. If he finds the bombs and thwarts SPECTRE he will deter further nuclear blackmail cases. What he cannot do is avert proliferation, and in this interior monologue Bond mentally recruits the advice of ‘the experts’ to attest that the capability to build atomic bombs is becoming widely available. Rather than accredit international esteem to their owners, he foresees them becoming common to ‘every tin-pot little nation’ and his predictions are those of On the Beach, when ‘every little pipsqueak country like Albania could have a stockpile’ of uranium bombs because ‘the damn things got too cheap’.

Blofeld's scheme, codenamed Operation Thunderball by the UK government, is foiled by Bond's intervention, and the stolen bombs are recovered. Bond and Blofeld clash again in Fleming's You Only Live Twice, published after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The criminal mastermind references this event while he crows over the secret agent as a prelude to killing him. As Bond feared in Thunderball, Blofeld avows that had his blackmail plot been successful it would have transformed the balance of nuclear power. But the leader of SPECTRE does not believe it would have encouraged other atomic blackmailers; had his project been completed, Blofeld states it would have had ‘a valuable by-product’. Reminding readers of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Blofeld suggests ‘in the hands of a Castro’ nuclear weapons ‘could lead to the wanton extinction of mankind’. SPECTRE's plan was a ‘dramatic example’ that atomic bombs are ‘dangerous toys that might so easily get into the wrong hands’. If only the ransom had been paid, Blofeld hypothesizes, the awareness of the jeopardy the UK and the USA had been in would have compelled them to revise the wisdom of maintaining an arsenal of such weapons. He asks, might ‘not the threat of a recurrence of my attempt have led to serious disarmament talks[?]’ Blofeld claims to stand for those poorer nations excluded from the nuclear club by lack of wealth. ‘Rich boys are playing with rich toys. A poor boy comes along and takes them and offers them back for money.’ His moral righteousness draws its strength from this financial inequality, arguing that which countries have nuclear weapons is seemingly controlled by the richest nations, but should they be used they would affect ‘the whole world’. For Blofeld, the nuclear powers have arrogated the world's future, and they would destroy (p.232) the Earth if the leaders of ‘poor’ nations such as Cuba tried to break into their nuclear club.19

As a villain mistakenly delivering what he believes is his victory monologue, readers are automatically suspicious of Blofeld and his critique of the nuclear hegemony. Those familiar with this series of novels (and films by this point) would be likely to expect Blofeld's momentary position of power to be rightfully usurped by Bond before the end of the narrative. However, Blofeld (in You Only Live Twice) and Bond (in Thunderball) do share the belief that humankind is at risk should atomic bombs fall into the hands of ‘little’ or ‘poor’ nations. Bond is concerned it is inevitable as the technology becomes more available; Blofeld's rhetoric sees someone like Castro acquiring atomic bombs only if he ‘takes them’ from a nuclear power. His reference to Castro suggests a worldview whereby it was Cuban recklessness and not Soviet brinkmanship that made nuclear war such a treacherous possibility in 1962. Certainly, a rather different interpretation emerges in Robert F. Kennedy's first-hand account 13 Days (1969), in which responsibility for the missile sites in Cuba lies with the Soviet Union. In fact, during the Cuban Missile Crisis President John F. Kennedy referred to Cuba as being ‘under foreign domination’, with leaders who ‘are puppets and agents of an international conspiracy’.20 Castro is figured by the Kennedy brothers – in the forums of published memoir and public address, at least – as a marionette manipulated by Moscow rather than an errant political actor.

The character of Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice, an Australian intelligence agent stationed in Japan, is another advocate for the cultural immaturity of ‘little’ or ‘poor’ nations. After telling Bond to ‘get it into your head that the Japanese are a separate human species’, he voices his opposition to decolonization and concludes with an apocalyptic prediction:

the U.N. are going to reap the father and mother of a whirlwind by quote liberating unquote the colonial peoples. Give 'em a thousand years, yes. But give 'em ten, no. You're only taking away their blowpipes and giving them machine guns. Just you wait for the first one to start crying to high heaven for nuclear fission. Because they must have quote parity unquote with the lousy colonial powers. I'll give you ten years for that to happen, my friend. And when it does, I'll dig myself a deep hole in the ground and sit in it.21

In the context of the novel, this is presented as a bigoted, unreasonable position. The character of Dikko seems to be a deliberate parody of the stereotypically chauvinistic ‘Aussie’ who denigrates Australian aboriginal people and uses homophobic insults. Important for evaluating the veracity (p.233) of Dikko's diatribe, Bond appears to enjoy the Australian's drunken company and humours his politics but does not necessarily agree with them. With his annoying habit of placing ‘quote’ and ‘unquote’ around terms he disagrees with, and his antagonistic rhetoric of ‘just you wait’ and ‘my friend’, it is difficult to empathize with Dikko. His final image is isolationist and childish, and contrasts against Bond's activity in preventing ‘nuclear fission’ being used harmfully. Between Blofeld and Dikko, Bond represents a suitably reserved middle position, working to minimize proliferation while resigned to its inevitability, seeing danger in ‘every little tin-pot nation’ becoming a nuclear power but not the automatic revulsion that Dikko had for formerly colonized peoples or that Blofeld attached to Cuba and other ‘poor’ nations. Appropriately for a secret agent in Her Majesty's Government, Bond's stance on proliferation is depicted as a very reserved and reasonable form of discrimination.

The year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kurt Vonnegut Jr's novel Cat's Cradle (1963) dramatizes nuclear tensions through an apocalyptic weapon called ice-nine. Ice-nine solidifies all water it comes into contact with, and is fatal when ingested, so once introduced to the ocean towards the novel's end it means the extinction of humankind. Two characters take sanctuary in ‘a cosy bomb shelter’, but death is inevitable: ‘Anything that still lived would die soon enough of thirst – or hunger – or rage – or apathy.’22 Icenine symbolizes nuclear weapons in its destructive power and its fictional heritage, created by Dr Felix Hoenikker, ‘one of the so-called “Fathers” of the first atomic bomb’.23 In Literary Aftershocks (1994), Stone records its similarities with nuclear weapons and the international situation in 1962, commenting that ice-nine is a doomsday device divided between ‘the United States, the Soviet Union, and a small Third World nation […] And the Third World Caribbean country accomplishes what the Cuban Missile Crisis barely failed to do.’ With its ‘postcolonial black population’,24 San Lorenzo stands in for Cuba in Cat's Cradle. It seems that a non-white, Third-World nation that asserts its independence from Western control is a menace to humanity, and its history of dissidence was signalled when it was founded ‘in 1786, [when] African Negroes took command of a British slave ship, ran it ashore on San Lorenzo, and proclaimed San Lorenzo an independent nation’. The erratic nature of the former slaves is demonstrated by the emperor who proclaimed San Lorenzo's independence, the ‘maniac’ Tum-bumwa.25

It is reasonable to respond to the assertion that Cat's Cradle circulates fears about the irresponsibility of Third-World nations with the retort that the technology is actually American, and that the novel articulates the apocalyptic consequences of Western science's will to dominate nature.26 (p.234) For instance, ice-nine is brought to San Lorenzo by Felix Hoenikker's son Franklin. The island's ruler, Miguel ‘Papa’ Monzano, is seduced by the access to scientific modernity (and ice-nine) represented by Franklin's pedigree: ‘Science – you have science. Science is the strongest thing there is.’ Paradoxically, Papa conceives of Franklin's gift of science in the most irrational and superstitious terms, celebrating him as ‘a chunk of the old man's [Felix's] magic meat’.27 One of Cat's Cradle's most salient features in terms of my argument is the division between science and superstition; on one side, a rational, scientific, technologically advanced white Western nation, on the other, a non-white, Third-World Caribbean people, who are characterized by irrationality, folk wisdom and a rejection of the West's confidence in scientific knowledge. It is not that the latter are demonized in the novel, as the people of San Lorenzo (as opposed to its rulers) are portrayed sympathetically and the novel works hard to invite readers to share their allegiances with San Lorenzans. Rather, non-white peoples are represented as at odds with modernity, a modernity that includes nuclear technology. They are always outside, ‘always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress’, as Alondra Nelson has written of constructions of blackness in Western culture.28 In light of nuclear power's destructivity, Cat's Cradle offers a ‘technologically driven chronicle’ of catastrophe, and much of the novel's support for the people of San Lorenzo derives precisely from their presumed opposition to Western regimes of knowledge. And yet the nature of the novel's privileging of San Lorenzans reinscribes the primitiveness of black Atlantic populations. The people of San Lorenzo are the ‘miserable folk of another race’. Physically, the San Lorenzan men fit the stereotypical Western construction of black peoples as unable to feed themselves (‘thin’) and endowed with large genitals: the men had ‘penes like pendulums on grandfather clocks’. The highly sexualized nature of the San Lorenzans is conveyed through Cat's Cradle's narration, which is delivered by the character John Hoosier, who powerfully desires Papa's daughter, Mona Aamons Monzano. Hoosier's perception of her is infused by her status as racially exotic: ‘She was very young and very grave […] and luminously compassionate and wise. She was as brown as chocolate. Her hair was like golden flax.’ The narrative cannot conceive of Mona's beauty without couching it in terms of her mixed race, ‘blonde Negro’ or ‘sublime mongrel Madonna’. Especially problematic is ‘mongrel’, withholding a degree of humanity from Mona while suggesting part of her attractiveness comes from racial intermixture. ‘Every greedy, unreasonable dream I'd ever had about what a woman should be came true in Mona.’29

Two potential objections to my position can be made: the first is that (p.235) the novel alerts readers to be sceptical of Hoosier's narration and not to read the narrator's filtering of events as a mimesis of the diegetic world. The second (related) objection is that the narration is ironic, using racist stereotypes and assumptions knowingly and inviting readers to laugh at the ridiculous extremes to which they are taken. There is some credence in the first interjection. In an early book on Vonnegut, Peter J. Reed argues the novel invites readers to see it as untrustworthy from the very first line, ‘Call me Jonah.’30 This intertextual allusion to Melville's Moby Dick is read as a reminder that everything that unfolds afterwards is fictional, including the narrator. Reed references several incidents in the novel where Vonnegut parodies his earlier work or where words are shown to be distant stand-ins for their referents.31 One example relates to Mona's body, conceding the unreality of language use, which is a substitute for, but never gives us, the thing itself: her ‘breasts were like pomegranates or what you will, but like nothing so much as a young woman's breasts’.32 Or rather, even as this sentence elicits laughter at the ornamental figurations of language, Mona's tangibility cuts through Hoosier's verbiage. Tellingly, the sexualized physicality of the biracial woman has an authenticity strong enough to disrupt the games with figuration that constitute humankind's understanding of itself in Cat's Cradle (the object in the title is another example of the gap between what a thing is and what it is called).

Conceding the first objection may in fact cancel out the second objection. The argument that the level of stereotyping in Cat's Cradle is deliberately excessive and not meant to be a realistic representation is the alibi allowing the novel to offer up these representations without any moral compass. Reed balances up the ‘possibilities and limitations’ of Cat's Cradle, suggesting that as a consequence of the novel's abandonment of the ‘techniques of the representational novel’ even when humankind comes to the end of its meaningless lifespan the bleakness of this scenario remains ‘unreal’ to the reader. Reed positions the novel closer to cynicism than nihilism, on the grounds that the novel offers compassion and love as alleviating the emptiness of existence, but (unlike Vonnegut's earlier novels) this is intimated rather than experienced in a narrative that closes without having registered ‘human feeling’.33 Writing about the predilection towards the ironic mode amongst certain German intellectuals in the interwar period, Walter Benjamin noted that irony was offered as adequate replacement for the loss of ‘love, enthusiasm’ and other human, spiritual qualities: ‘A know-all irony thinks it has much more in these supposed stereotypes [of lost human feelings] than in the things themselves; it makes a great display of its poverty and turns the yawning emptiness into a celebration.’34 We might see Cat's Cradle as celebrating the ‘poverty’ of its (p.236) images of blackness, taking them to the most naked (figurative and literal) extreme. Aware these stereotypes do not have referents in the world beyond the text, Cat's Cradle flaunts their ‘yawning emptiness’. One might defend the novel's concatenation of racist images by stating that this excess is intended to draw attention to their status as stereotypical depictions of blackness, in order to neutralize the criticism they are being used in the novel in a racist manner – it already ‘knows’. For Benjamin, this ‘knowall irony’ is the enemy because it is a substitute for sincere debate. Beyond offering a repertoire of conventions that the reader will probably concur is racist, Cat's Cradle appears to be recycling said repertoire without adding anything further as a moral statement. This flattening of meaning makes it difficult to read the novel's depiction of blackness as satirical. If the novel knowingly plunges into the zero gravity of representations severed from any world that exists beyond those representations, where is the referential solid ground needed to establish that political satire – mocking a political position or ideology – is taking place? Rather, these stereotypes are polarizing the novel's depiction of rationality, science and modernity along colour lines and marking out separate, racialized modes of being.

Prefiguring the depiction of the San Lorenzans' exteriority to modernity is the character of Lyman Enders Knowles, ‘a small and ancient Negro’ at the laboratory where Hoenikker worked. This language hints that Knowles is personally venerable as well as being a representative of an ‘ancient’ race. The narrator provides evidence that ‘Knowles was insane’ by quoting his speech: ‘Hello, fellow anthropoids and lily pads and paddle wheels’.35 Knowles's exile from rationality and modernity chimes with the philosophy of Bokonon that peppers the novel. Bokonon is a prophetic figure in Cat's Cradle, a ‘Negro’ born in Tobago in 1891, who ‘enrolled in the London School of Economics and Political Science’, fought for the British in the Great War and became ‘a follower of Mohandas K. Ghandi’.36 From the position of the British Empire in 1963, in the midst of decolonization, Bokonon's political allegiance invokes the spectre of non-white colonial subjects (once loyal, as evidenced by their participation in the Great War) now resistant to Western authority. With his history, Bokonon has imbibed a metropolitan education and distorted its values, just as he is now known by a dialect form of ‘Johnson’, his surname. Bokonon is ‘against science’, lives in the hills of San Lorenzo and rejects urban modernity: ‘what an ugly city every city is!’ He is a criminal to Papa's regime, a ‘communist’ against the capitalist organization of society. A wanted poster depicts him as ‘a scrawny old coloured man […] smoking a cigar. He looked clever and kind and amused.’37 This image gestures towards the symbolism of the Cuban Missile Crisis at work in Cat's Cradle, Bokonon toting the (p.237) iconic cigar favoured by Fidel Castro, communist leader of Cuba. Bokonon also suggests the stereotype of the wizened old black man who is the receptacle of folk wisdom and humour.38 That Bokonon has become ‘insane’39 conjures up the figure of the Shakespearean fool, who has lost his or her reason but voices eternal truths. These eternal truths are excerpted in Cat's Cradle from the fictional The Book of Bokonon, a collection of his sayings. Cat's Cradle was written near the start of literary postmodernism, and Bokonon insists knowledge is a pretence humankind is unable to abandon, human history is a record of inhumanity and the future existence of the species is unlikely.40 Followers of Bokonon have as their sacred object ‘Just man’, and Bokonon even employs an auto-critical scepticism of his own pronunciations, refusing to adopt a tone of authority: ‘Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma [lies]!’ Bokonon's final act, the last words of The Book of Bokonon, is a gesture of defiance against the notion of a deity whose existence would give meaning to human life and human suffering. Bokonon advocates taking one's own life by imbibing ice-nine and proceeding to lie on his ‘back, grinning horribly, and thumbing [his] nose at You Know Who’. Gleefully embracing his own meaninglessness, Bokonon confirms himself as an avatar of a postmodern tendency that confounds notions of ‘progress’ by citing ‘the history of human stupidity’,41 but it is a defeatist postmodern sensibility shading into antimodern reaction.

In Cat's Cradle, the end of the world emanates from an island in the Caribbean, the product of military technology first completed by the United States. The novel's depictions of San Lorenzo and ice-nine are expressions of wider cultural fears surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear weapons. The San Lorenzans are apprehended through stereotypical sexualized racial imagery differentiating them from the white, urban, scientific, capitalist United States in which the first section of the novel is set. Bokonon can be read as: a symbol of black Atlantic populations coming to self-determination as European imperialism is in decline; a communist, cigar-brandishing Castro; or a madman prophet railing against cities, science, notions of rationality, progress and grand narratives, who nonetheless reflects on the limitations of his own philosophizing. Cat's Cradle marshals readers' empathies towards Bokonon and his rebellion, offering in human extinction a firm example of why Bokonon's rejection of detached Western science and his exultation of human spirituality is so valuable.42 Yet Bokonon rejects the modernity that produced ice-nine and atomic bombs, embracing exile from modern civilization and finally death rather than critiquing the terms that structured his exclusion.

(p.238) The Yellow Peril Revisited

At least since the Yellow Peril fictions of the nineteenth century, Asian peoples had been represented in Western texts as swarming uncontrollable masses, and after the People's Republic of China's 1964 nuclear tests that representational tradition was observable in the depiction of China's speculated nuclear aggression. Allen Ginsberg's ‘Beginning of a Poem of These States’ (1965) locates the possibility of nuclear ‘Armageddon’ in a dispute between two Asian states: ‘Chinese armies massed at the borders of India […] Red Chinese Ultimatum 1 A.M. tomorrow’.43 The late 1960s and early 1970s saw nuclear anxieties focus on an aggressive, unpredictable China, latecomer to the Nuclear Club. Morris West's novel The Shoes of the Fisherman was first published before the PRC nuclear tests, in 1963. In its speculated near future, China is ravaged by famine and plans to invade Southeast Asia to feed its people: ‘The Chinese have gone to Moscow and […] they want a war now, or they will split the Marxist world down the middle.’ As a result, the United States and the Soviet Union are heading reluctantly but inevitably into a ‘cataclysmic cosmic war’.44 In the 1968 film adaptation, produced after China's nuclear tests, the menacing aspect of the Chinese hordes is amplified. Famine-stricken China assembles its armies on the Russian border, and the Soviet Premier is concerned that lack of foreign aid means that the world is starving China ‘into an atomic war’. The Asian famine is referred to as an ‘explosion’, suggestive of a nuclear blast and an exponentially swelling population. The newly elected Pope must find a resolution to this situation before the Chinese Army takes control of the country and starts a nuclear war. The Soviet Premier uses a dehumanizing metaphor to stress the repercussions of a Chinese invasion of the USSR: ‘If the ants move out of the ant heap, there will be rain.’

In a post-nuclear-war New York, the repulsive narrator of Harlan Ellison's ‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1969) watches a propaganda film from the Third World War, in which the racism directed against the Japanese in the Second has been translated to the Chinese. The narrator describes a scene from the film, entitled ‘Smell of a Chink’, which features American forces ‘jellyburning a Chink town’.45 The narrator's language invites readers to see the United States's relation to China as one of racist prejudice, and the fact that the title of the propaganda film uses the same derogatory word suggests that the USA shares the violence and racism of the narrator. The action depicted in the film, the burning of a town, could apply in an altered context to the Vietnam War that was raging while the story was being written. Ellison identified a personal motivation for the short story in the (p.239) American state's murderous repression of anti-Vietnam protesters.46 In Edward Bryant's short story ‘Jody after the War’ (1972), the nuclear war of the title ensued when (in the words of Paul the narrator) ‘the Chinese suicided their psychotic society in the seventies, and destroyed most of urban America in the process’.47 Paul's choice of words imply it is not that the Chinese people are irresponsible or that they endanger neighbouring populations as a swarming mass. They are simply not sane enough to be in control of nuclear weapons. When psychological instability leads the Chinese to immolate themselves, America's cities are caught up in their insanity. This bears out Paul Brians's observation that China demonstrates ‘near-suicidal recklessness’48 in Anglophone nuclear fictions, although how far the reader is meant to trust Paul is unclear, since his glib language suggests emotions are clouding his judgment.

In slightly later nuclear representations, the anxiety surrounding China subsides, but the fear of marauding non-white hordes endures: in M. J. Engh's novel Arslan (1976) the invading army remains explicitly Asian. Their leader, General Arslan from Turkistan, exploits the threat of nuclear weapons to occupy the United States; he is described as ‘young, jaunty, halfway Oriental like the second-row extras in Turandot [presumably a reference to Puccini's opera, set in Peking]’.49 In the American film Red Dawn (1984) the Chinese are America's allies, but the foreignness and savagery of the USA's invaders is established through blunt historical parallel. As the country is attacked by nuclear weapons and invaded by Russian and Latin American soldiers, a High School history class takes place on the Mongol invasions of Asia. The history teacher lectures on the Mongol atrocities – ‘once the killing started it lasted days, weeks, even months’ – and communist paratroopers drop onto the school playing field, linked by association to the bloodthirsty Mongol forces.

Nonetheless, the selection of Cuban and Nicaraguan invaders was consciously meant to evoke the contemporary geopolitical anxieties of President Reagan's administration. Director John Milius envisaged Red Dawn as a warning against Soviet-sponsored sorties operating out of Central America, with communist agents entering the US posing as ‘illegal aliens’. In the film, Cuban and Nicaraguan forces creep over the Mexico–US border in the guise of undocumented workers and neutralize strategic targets, paralyzing the US nuclear defence system.50 Red Dawn was made over a hundred years after Atwell Whitney's 1878 novel Almond-Eyed but non-white immigrants still elicit fear as the advance guard of an enemy invasion.

(p.240) ‘Nuke Iran’

In the 1979 film Cruise Missile, a European co-production and ‘an espionage thriller set in Iran’, the Soviet Union and the United States work in tandem ‘to disrupt a plot to sell tactical nuclear weapons to those non-nuclear states who want to disrupt the Cold War balance of power’.51 From the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, historical events focused attention on Western and Central Asia as a possible starting point for a Third World War.52 Broderick records that in 1979 a ‘probable joint South African-Israeli atmospheric nuclear test [was] detected by [a] U. S. monitoring satellite’.53 In 1979, the Shah of Iran was deposed in a revolution and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran became an Islamic republic, verbally hostile to America and taking American hostages that would not be released until 1981. Also in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and when Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1980 he committed the nation to increase its defence budget by 50% and refused to ratify the SALT II nuclear arms control treaty with the USSR.54 Reagan's belligerence reached into the environs of America's esteemed universities, as Caldicott recalls in the wake of the Iranian Hostage Crisis: ‘I saw a young messenger walking through the halls of the Children's Hospital at Harvard, wearing a T-shirt that read “Nuke Iran.”’55 W. D. Ehrhart has a similar recollection from 1980: ‘Last fall, I went to a Vanderbilt football game. At halftime, a group of students came onto the field with an effigy of Ayatollah Khomeini hanging from a pole and a large banner reading “Nuke Iran”. They were clearly having a good time.’56

A typical scenario is depicted in the British television film Threads (1984), when Cold War brinkmanship over the kind of Soviet expansionism seen in Afghanistan leads to a gradually escalating nuclear conflict that culminates in World War Three. The USSR invades Iran, which leads to provocation between the superpowers' navies, which leads to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which leads to World War Three. In a variation emphasizing Third-World maliciousness, the American film Def Con 4 (1985) starts by proclaiming that the United States's new Outer Space orbiting nuclear missile space station makes war between East and West impossible, parodying the Reagan administration's pursuit of a nuclear defence system in 1983 (popularly known as ‘Star Wars’). Libyans seize a disguised American vessel transporting Cruise Missiles and initiate World War Three between the USA and the USSR.

A striking feature of 1980s nuclear anxiety is that many leftwing critics writing against the nuclear powers combine explicit denunciation of Western nuclear machinations with this trepidation that conflict in the (p.241) Third World will initiate nuclear conflict. Joel Kovel's Against the State of Nuclear Terror (1983) warns ‘if nuclear holocaust is to come, it will be most probably by the spreading out of control of one of these wars in the Third World’. While Kovel fears World War Three may originate in the ‘Middle East’, he argues such a future conflict would most likely be ‘an imperialist war raging out of control’ fought under the assumption of racial or ethnic superiority:

Israel and South Africa are the most likely by far of any nation to resort to nuclear weapons […] in part, because of the gross racism of their relations with adversaries. Most of the really hideous exercises of technological slaughter – Nazi versus Jew or Slav, the Americans at Hiroshima or in Vietnam – have occurred in a context of belief in racial superiority, and the present cases of Israel and South Africa are no exception to this attitude. Nothing […] is more deadly than an imperial technocracy when it faces opposition from a people it considers less than human.57

Feminist scholar Helen Caldicott's book Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War (1984) contains a chapter whose title needs little exegesis by now: ‘Germs of Conflict: The Third World’. This imagining of the Third World as a site of fatal infection causing nuclear war is as offensive as previous characterizations of Third-World peoples as ‘natives’. Caldicott picks up Szilard's concern that the relative transportability and anonymity of nuclear weapons makes them the weapon of choice for Third-World nuclear revenge plots:

As the Third World becomes progressively more deprived […] the new nuclear nations of the world will obviously focus their frustration upon the rich. The anger in many Third World countries toward both the United States and the USSR is overt […] In the near future, a small nuclear nation could well threaten to, or actually, destroy New York or Moscow.58

In the 1964 television movie The Crunch, ‘a Middle Eastern state’ smuggles the component parts of an atomic bomb into London through diplomatic pouches, assembling the bomb in the basement of their embassy. Their demand is ‘one billion pounds as reparation for the period the country spent as a colony’,59 tying proliferation to the decolonizing world's assertions that the injustices of colonization must be made good. In 1985, the novelist Walter M. Miller Jr acknowledged the threat of ‘Allah-fearing backpackers with 68-pound nukes’ hitchhiking ‘from our beaches to their targets’,60 but he counselled his readers that the most awesome destructive (p.242) power belongs to the superpowers: ‘I'm a lot more afraid of Reagan, Gorbachev, & Co. than I am of, say, a mini-nuclear state headed by Muammar al-Qaddafi or Fidel Castro.’61 Miller suggests that terror of nuclear proliferation has created an unthinking assumption in the West that ‘mini-nuclear’ states are to be resisted and feared. Why should we be more acceptant of nuclear weapons when they are controlled by rich governments, especially when the only use of those weapons in combat was by one of them?

After the War Has Gone

By the start of the 1990s, the Soviet Union was being dismantled and the perceived threat of World War Three diminished significantly. The end of the Cold War accelerated the cultural representation of Third-World peoples acquiring nuclear weapons, especially in popular film. Russia's internal crises were seen to have left the country without the authority to monitor its nuclear weapons. David Yost's The US and Nuclear Deterrence in Europe (1999), published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, warns that some ‘of the greatest nuclear uncertainties facing NATO concern the reliability of Russia's measures to protect its nuclear forces from theft, tampering, accidents and diversion’.62 Film critic Jerome Shapiro comments of post-Cold War cinema that there is a ‘minor industry devoted to just churning out cheap films about stolen nuclear materials and weapons’,63 and Atomic Train (1999), directed by David Jackson and Dick Lowry, would certainly fit that bill. In Atomic Train, the American President laments, ‘we buy Russian [nuclear] weapons to keep them out of the hands of terrorists’. There were big-budget film interpretations of the ‘uncertainties’ Yost referred to, such as 1997's The Peacemaker, and the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). The pre-title sequence of Tomorrow Never Dies takes place in ‘A Terrorist Arms Bazaar on the Russian Border’. Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan and codenamed ‘White Knight’ for this mission, has gone undercover at the bazaar and is secretly relaying camera footage back to intelligence headquarters. Despite Bond's protests, a British naval vessel launches a long-range missile at the bazaar, but as the missile flies out of range and cannot be recalled, the personnel at headquarters realize their mistake: attached to a jet fighter being sold at the bazaar are ‘Soviet SBS nuclear torpedoes’. These are weapons that have leaked out of the crumbling Soviet Union, and a British Admiral turns to his Russian counterpart and snarls, ‘Can't you people keep anything locked up?’ Bond has to avert disaster by flying the jet fighter out of the locale before the explosion takes place. With seconds to spare, he succeeds (the (p.243) film would have been very short otherwise). The initiative and skill of the ‘White Knight’ – the codename is instructive – prevent Russia's unsecured nuclear weapons from falling into terrorist hands, or exploding.

The transportable, clandestine nature of nuclear weapons underpins the dramatic tension in James Cameron's 1994 thriller film True Lies, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Harry Tasker, an American secret agent tracking an Islamist terrorist group called Crimson Jihad (this film was made with the assistance of the Pentagon64). One of Harry's team informs him ‘a week ago four [nuclear] MIRV [multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle] warheads were smuggled out of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan’, and that Crimson Jihad ‘bought the nukes and is trying to bring them onto US soil’. Harry's boss tells the secret agent to gather information on the group ‘before somebody parks an automobile in front of the White House with a nuclear weapon in the trunk’. Crimson Jihad was formed by Salim Abu Aziz, a ‘psycho’ responsible for ‘dozens and dozens of car bombs’ and ‘that café bomb in Rome last year’. Art Malik's performance as Aziz fits the description given by one of his American accomplices, an art dealer called Juno Skinner (played by Tia Carrere): ‘they're very well-funded raving psychotics’. Aziz slaps Juno to enforce his orders, and he berates her for ‘laughing and flirting like a whore’, living up to the stereotype of the misogynistic Muslim fanatic. He leads a prayer as his group prepare to explode one of the warheads: ‘In 90 minutes a pillar of fire will light up the sky […] we are set on our course. No force can stop us now.’ Skinner specializes in trading art from Ancient Persia, and she informs Tasker how difficult it is to collect work from this period: ‘Iran, Iraq and Syria’ occupy the land that Persia once stood on, ‘Not the most popular places to live.’ She smuggles the four nuclear warheads into the country through Persian statuary: ‘I call them the Four Horsemen. They're warrior figures from the Persian empire of Darius the First, 500 BC.’ Her reference to Four Horsemen invokes the apocalypse that Crimson Jihad plot to unleash on America's cities and the choice of statuary ties the nuclear threat to the Persian leader who invaded ancient Greece but was defeated at the Battle of Marathon, a symbolically important moment in the rise of Greek civilization. One should be careful not to overemphasize the significance of these details as they are peripheral references in terms of the narrative and relationship between characters. The primary significance of the statuary's origins seems to be underlining Aziz's philistinism when he tears the statues apart for the weapons hidden within. Following Said, we might extrapolate from this scene the following message: contemporary militant Islam is prepared to decimate the artefacts of Asian civilization and by intervening in their actions Western agents are not only (p.244) preserving the peace but acting in the interests of Asia by preserving their cultural treasures. These particular fictional cultural treasures hold the memory of the defence of Greek civilization, and the symbolism lays a similar veneer on the American agent, tasked with defending civilization once more.

True Lies acknowledges that while Aziz's antagonism to the USA is founded in religious, civilizational differences, his immediate goals are political and directed towards the ongoing influence of America in Western Asia. His demands to the US state are that unless America pulls its troops out of the Persian Gulf, ‘Crimson Jihad will rain fire on one American city each week.’ This terrorist action is not unprovoked: ‘You have killed our women and children. Bombed our cities from afar, like cowards. And you dare to call us terrorists?’ A similar comment is made by a fictional Arab terrorist in Julian Barnes's novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989). Upon being told it is unfair to take civilian hostages, the terrorist replies, ‘There are no civilians any more […] Your governments pretend, but that is not the case. Those nuclear weapons of yours, they are only to be let off against an army?’65 As Aziz's demands recall, the end of the Cold War and the advent of a ‘New World Order’ was heralded in the early 1990s by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Desert Storm campaign that followed. During Desert Storm, the T-shirt manufacturers busy during the Iranian hostage crisis sensed a repetition of a theme, Stam and Shohat observing the ‘zealous [American] citizens who sported “Nuke Iraq” T-shirts’.66 The Disney film Aladdin (1992), emerging in the aftermath of Desert Storm and set in Western Asia, features the character of Genie, a protean figure who at one point transforms into a mushroom cloud. Alan Nadel reads this as a figuration of Iraq's own deceptive, shifting guises, an ally in the 1980s that became an arch nemesis, with the mushroom cloud symbolizing uncertainty over Saddam Hussein's remaining nuclear weapons.67

The American television movie Deterrence (1998) crudely mobilizes many of these currents: that nuclear technology sold to the Third World will have disastrous repercussions, Iraq is untrustworthy and has rearmed with ‘weapons of mass destruction’ since Desert Storm. Set in the near future, when Deterrence begins US troops are stationed along the 38th Parallel (dividing North and South Korea) to prevent a Chinese invasion. American President Emerson is faced with a dilemma when Iraqi dictator Uday Hussein (Saddam's son) invades Kuwait and readies chemical and biological weapons to attack Tel Aviv, Greece and Turkey. Emerson cannot withdraw his armed forces from the 38th Parallel, believing that if America lets the ‘domino fall’ in South Korea, the Chinese will also invade Japan. (p.245) The answer? Drop a nuclear weapon on Baghdad. The narrative of Deterrence is more complicated than that, but only slightly so. The film's revelation that Iraq has hidden ‘weapons of mass destruction’ mounted on mobile launching pads is more familiar since the Iraq War that begun in 2003, but not necessarily any more credible. Deterrence's message is that only American nuclear intervention in Asia can preserve the fragile peace across the globe. It is unfortunate that the meaningful strategic concerns represented by Iraqi rearmament in the 1990s are splayed into a dogmatic and obnoxious film.

Nuclear Sheriffs

The premonition of atomic weapons secretly constructed or smuggled inside Western cities continued into the twenty-first century, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Various media texts, state-sponsored and otherwise, informed one how to preserve ‘yourself and your family’68 should a nuclear weapon be detonated. The spectre of a ‘dirty’ nuclear device was identified as the most dangerous threat, low in explosive power but fatally high in radioactive contamination, and detonated by the forces on which the UK, the USA and their allies are waging war.69 On 27 March 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared ‘the dominant security threat of our time […] is the combination of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of unstable, repressive states and terrorist groups’.70 In March 2003, American President George W. Bush explained that the war was necessary because, with access to Iraq's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, ‘terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other’.71 In the popular television programme 24 (2001–10), first shown in the United States on the Fox Television Network, the counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) repeatedly races against time to stop Islamist terrorists from detonating nuclear bombs or attacking nuclear power plants on US soil. This occurs in series two, four and six, with the terrorists originating from the Middle East or Turkey (a nuclear device does explode in an American conurbation in series six, suggesting the suspense generated by the possibility of a single bomb going off has been somewhat exhausted). The series repeatedly puts the character of Bauer in pressurized situations where he has to make fast, radical moral judgments which he believes are in the interest of America's public safety. Because they safeguard national security, these moral choices are presented in such a way that legitimizes his decisions to torture and murder criminals. With typical understatement, (p.246) theorist Slavoj Žižek compares the antiheroes of 24 to the people who carried out the Holocaust; Žižek understands the series as popular cultural justification for the unilateral actions of US foreign policy.72

The rhetoric used by George W. Bush connects the War on Terror to the USA's settlement of North America via Wild West imagery where civilization is imposed by force against belligerent savagery. The language of the American West punctuates Bush's statements on Iraq's alleged possession of nuclear weapons: ‘The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.’73 President Bush sees himself waging ‘a war to save civilisation itself’, requiring the ‘courage and optimism’ that defined frontier society, the ‘spirit’ in which America ‘was born’.74 Before the Iraq War, Bush made a call-to-arms that included collecting up a ‘posse’, and has declared that Osama Bin Laden, the head of the Al'Quieda terrorist network that perpetrated the World Trade Center attacks, is ‘wanted, dead or alive’.75

The threats summoned up by Blair and Bush are not the novel products of a New World Order shaken by terrorist atrocities, of which the September 2001 attacks were the most devastating and shocking. This is not to minimize the unprecedented scale of murder on 9/11, or the suffering and death caused by subsequent terrorist acts in locations such as Bali, Madrid and London. Nor do I wish to suggest that states such as Iraq and Iran have not been or are not building nuclear weapons – an assessment of the status of twenty-first-century proliferation is beyond the scope of this project. What I have attempted to do in this chapter and in this book is demonstrate that nuclear fears, of Third-World states coming into possession of nuclear weapons or terrorists acquiring the materials necessary to build atomic devices, have a long history. That history of nuclear representations has often reproduced the racial, ethnic, national and civilizational hierarchies that grew out of European imperialism and North American settlement, which in turn drew a large part of their epistemological legitimacy from nineteenth-century racial sciences. I hope a fuller grasp of this rich representational history has been provided by attending to these hierarchies and the subtle (and not so subtle) ways they invite certain kinds of reading, viewing and listening experiences. It has not been a one-dimensional story, since writers from Langston Hughes to Walter M. Miller Jr to Octavia Butler, and film directors from Ranald MacDougall to George Miller and George Ogilvie, have found ways to wring out the white supremacism that peppered pre-1945 future-war fictions. Reading nuclear weapons for the ‘heart of whiteness’ at their core does illustrate the recurring importance of race, ethnicity, nationhood and (p.247) civilization when engaging with these texts, a process that multiples the possibilities offered by nuclear representations. If the reader of Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War closes the book with that thought, it will have satisfied its intention.

Notes

Notes:

(1.) Rotter, Hiroshima, p. 296.

(2.) Quoted in Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present, University Press of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill (2010), p. 9.

(3.) Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid, p. 1.

(4.) Leo Szilard, ‘Atomic Bombs and the Postwar Position of the United States in the World’ (1945), in Morton Grodzins and Eugene Rabinowitch (eds), The Atomic Age: Scientists in National and World Affairs, Basic Books, New York (1963), p. 14; see also Seed, American Science Fiction and the Cold War, pp. 19, 58.

(5.) Nevil Shute, On the Beach, Heinemann, London (1957), p. 11.

(6.) Shute, On the Beach, pp. 85–88.

(7.) Leghorn, ‘A Rational World Security System’, p. 260.

(8.) Shute, On the Beach, p. 86.

(9.) C. W. Sullivan III, ‘Alas, Babylon and On the Beach: Antiphons of the Apocalypse’, in Carl B. Yoke (ed.), Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT (1987), p. 39.

(10.) Shute, On the Beach, p. 259.

(11.) Alvin M. Weinberg, ‘Prospects in International Science’ (1958), in Morton Grodzins and Eugene Rabinowitch (eds), The Atomic Age: Scientists in National and World Affairs, Basic Books, New York (1963), p. 513.

(12.) The Vienna Declaration (1958), in Morton Grodzins and Eugene Rabinowitch (eds), The Atomic Age: Scientists in National and World Affairs, Basic Books, New York (1963), pp. 558–64.

(13.) Tony Shaw, British Cinema and the Cold War (2001), I. B. Tauris, London (2006), p. 123.

(14.) Cf. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 75.

(15.) Shaw, British Cinema and the Cold War, p. 124.

(16.) Quoted in Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow (eds), The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Belknap Press and Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1997), p. 181.

(17.) Ian Fleming, Thunderball, Jonathan Cape, London (1961), p. 75.

(18.) Fleming, Thunderball, p. 81.

(19.) Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice, Jonathan Cape, London (1964), pp. 232–33.

(20.) Quoted in Kennedy, 13 Days, p. 137.

(21.) Fleming, You Only Live Twice, p. 58.

(22.) Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Cat's Cradle (1963), Penguin, Harmondsworth (1965), pp. 164–65.

(23.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, p. 9.

(24.) Stone, Literary Aftershocks, pp. 62–63.

(p.248) (25.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, p. 82.

(26.) The novel is discussed for its subversive attitude towards the ethos of Western science in Daniel L. Zins, ‘Rescuing Science from Technocracy: Cat's Cradle and the Play of Apocalypse’, Science Fiction Studies, 13.2 (July 1986). See also Brian Stableford, ‘Man-Made Catastrophes’, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander (eds), The End of the World, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale (1983), p. 134; Wagar, Terminal Visions, p. 172.

(27.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, pp. 93, 55.

(28.) Alondra Nelson, ‘Introduction: Future Texts’, Social Text, 20.2 (Summer 2002), p. 1.

(29.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, pp. 56, 88, 54, 57, 90.

(30.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, p. 7.

(31.) Peter J. Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Warner Paperback Library, New York (1972), pp. 124, 130–33.

(32.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, p. 128.

(33.) Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., pp. 140–45.

(34.) Walter Benjamin, ‘Left-Wing Melancholy’ (1931), transl. Ben Brewster, in Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (eds), Selected Writings (vol. II), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1999), p. 425.

(35.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, p. 41.

(36.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, pp. 68–70.

(37.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, pp. 147, 22, 95, 87.

(38.) See Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks.

(39.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, p. 111.

(40.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, pp. 115, 157, 153.

(41.) Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, pp. 133, 163, 179, 147. See Wagar, Terminal Visions, p. 173.

(42.) Wagar, Terminal Visions, p. 173.

(43.) Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947–1980, Viking, London (1985), pp. 371–72.

(44.) Morris West, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Heinemann, London (1963), pp. 35, 220.

(45.) Harlan Ellison, ‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1969), in Walter M. Miller, Jr and Martin H. Greenberg (eds), Beyond Armageddon, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE (2006), pp. 337–38.

(46.) Walter M. Miller Jr's introduction to Ellison, ‘A Boy and His Dog’, pp. 332–33, discusses Ellison's motivation to write the short story.

(47.) Edward Bryant, ‘Jody after the War’ (1972), in Walter M. Miller, Jr and Martin H. Greenberg (eds), Beyond Armageddon, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE (2006), p. 118.

(48.) Brians, Nuclear Holocausts, p. 36.

(49.) M. J. Engh, Arslan (1976), Orb and Tom Doherty Associates, New York (2001), p. 3. Arslan is considered in more detail in Martha A. Bartter, ‘The Hidden Agenda’, in George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin (eds), Fights of Fancy: Armed Conflict in Science Fiction and Fantasy, The University of Georgia Press, (p.249) Athens, GA (1993), pp. 155–69.

(50.) Tony Shaw, Hollywood's Cold War, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh (2007), p. 273.

(51.) Toni A. Perrine, Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, Garland, New York (1998), p. 129.

(52.) Brians, Nuclear Holocausts, pp. 36–37.

(53.) Broderick, Nuclear Movies, p. 126.

(54.) Weart, Nuclear Fear, pp. 377–78.

(55.) Helen Caldicott, Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War, Morrow, New York (1984), p. 102.

(56.) W. D. Ehrhart, ‘Address to Middle America’ (1980), in Jan Barry (ed.), Peace Is Our Profession: Poems and Passages of War Protest, East River Anthology, Montclair, NJ (1981), p. 276.

(57.) Kovel, Against the State of Nuclear Terror, pp. 210–11.

(58.) Caldicott, Missile Envy, pp. 90, 50.

(59.) Newman, Apocalypse Movies, p. 206. The BFI online Film and Television Database places the country in East Asia.

(60.) Walter M. Miller Jr's introduction to Ray Bradbury, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains,’ Walter M. Miller Jr and Martin H. Greenberg (eds), Beyond Armageddon, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE (2006), p. 253.

(61.) Walter M. Miller Jr, introduction, in Walter M. Miller, Jr and Martin H. Greenberg (eds), Beyond Armageddon, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE (2006), p. xvi.

(62.) David S. Yost, The US and Nuclear Deterrence in Europe, Oxford University Press and International Institute for Strategic Studies, Oxford (1999), p. 52.

(63.) Shapiro, Atomic Bomb Cinema, p. 218. See also Newman, Apocalypse Movies, p. 209.

(64.) Shaw, Hollywood's Cold War, p. 305.

(65.) Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), Picador, London (1990), p. 51.

(66.) Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, p. 128.

(67.) Alan Nadel, ‘A Whole New (Disney) World Order: Aladdin, Atomic Power, and the Muslim Middle East’, in Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar (eds), Visions of the East: Orientalism on Film, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ (1997).

(68.) Anon., Preparing for Emergencies: What You Need to Know, Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London (2004).

(69.) See Dirty War, dir. Daniel Percival, prod. Luke Alvin, BBC 1 (26 Sept. 2004).