by Paul Brians
The Causes of Nuclear War
Nuclear war in fiction is distinctive not only in the way that its course and aftermath are portrayed, but even in the portrayal of its causes. A number of the more popular causes of holocausts are considered in the following pages: accident, madness, the “bolt from the blue” attack by the Russians or others, terrorism, and—most peculiar of all—the actions of vicious pacifists. The estimate that we make of the likelihood of a nuclear war is linked to our notions of its likely causes, so that these latter provide one of the most significant indices to attitudes on the subject.
In the majority of cases, such wars are presented as beginning by accident or from unspecified causes. So overwhelming is the prospect of a nuclear holocaust that authors rarely provide reasonable justifications for what seems to most people the ultimate act of political madness. Undoubtedly the strong streak of fatalism in our attitudes toward nuclear war helps to create this pattern. The thought that the end of civilization or of life on Earth could be precipitated by a mechanical malfunction or by the impact of a meteor being misinterpreted also appeals strongly to the absurdist mentality of many writers, and a very great number of fictional nuclear holocausts are set off in error.
The best known depiction of an accidentally caused nuclear war is Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail-Safe (1962). Like all such accounts, the detailed criticisms Burdick and Wheeler make of defense equipment and procedures can be and have been answered; but such novels function primarily on the metaphorical level. Any particular accidental war is extremely unlikely, but the fact that accidental war is possible at all is horrifying. In any case, the authors of Fail-Safe demonstrate fairly convincingly that once matters escalate to the level of a red alert, the irrationality inherent in cold war animosity makes the plunge toward oblivion almost inevitable. The least persuasive part of the novel is not the series of mischances which leads to an unintentional attack on Russia, but the resolution by which the president of the United States—in.a parody of the sort of limited war described by Herman Kahn (depicted as Dr. Groteschele in the novel)—agrees to limit the war by sacrificing New York City in exchange for having accidentally destroyed Moscow. A year earlier, in “The Day They Got Boston,” Herbert Gold had also used the idea of an accidental nuclear war being managed through negotiations, but he had treated it satirically, foreseeing that it would be impossible to limit hostilities once begun.
Reports of Strategic Air Command alerts being prompted by meteor showers are reflected in several novels, such as Paul O. Williams’s The Dome in the Forest (1981). In Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959), the danger of what is now called a “launch on warning” tactic is underlined when the enemy (unspecified) accidentally begins a war which is automatically carried on by the machines of the other side. Computer malfunctions of one sort or another trigger some fictional atomic wars, though fewer than might be supposed. More common is the defense computer so intelligent that it assumes control of humanity, as in D. F. Jones’s Colossus series (1966-77). (See Carolyn Rhodes, “Tyranny by Computer,” in Thomas D. Clareson, ea., Many Futures, Many Worlds: Theme and Form in Science Fiction [Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1977], 83-84.)
In a variation on the Frankenstein theme—or better, the theme of the sorcerer’s apprentice—more than one author has depicted battle machines which go on fighting long after their masters have disappeared. Thus nuclear war can be its own cause. The earliest example is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s story “Dumb Waiter” (1952). Philip K. Dick inverted the theme in “The Defenders” (1953), in which the robots lie to their human masters, creating the illusion of a war which has long since ceased. In the same year Dick followed Miller’s lead in “Second Variety,” in which the robots take over. He returned to that device in 1955 with “Autofac,” and finally developed fully the phony-war theme first explored in “The Defenders” in his 1967 novel The Penultimate Truth.David R. Bunch’s Moderan (1959-70) depicts a world in which atomic war continues of its own momentum long after its rationale has been forgotten. Keith Laumer has accidentally reactivated battle machines running amok in the stories collected as Bolo: The Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade (1976). Battle machinery turning on its masters found its way into the mass media in the 1970s in the television series Battlestar Galactica, albeit without nuclear weapons. The theme reached its most sophisticated development in Gregory Benford’s outstanding 1984 novel, Across the Sea of Suns. Such stories provide a metaphor for the way in which nuclear weapons tend to acquire a life of their own. Strategy is often dictated by the possibilities of technology. A new weapon is invented, then a war must be designed to fit it. Once the technology is in place, it cannot usefully serve its makers except as a deterrent; instead they must serve it.
Conspicuously absent as a cause of nuclear war is the mad scientist. These evil geniuses had populated science fiction since its earliest days, Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll, H. G. Wells’s invisible man and his Dr. Moreau being famous examples. But by the forties, the mad scientist had been relegated, by and large, to radio and movie serials and to the comic strips. In science fiction short stories and novels the scientist was usually the hero. Few criticized the physicists of the Manhattan Project for their role in developing the bomb. The doubts and fears about their role expressed by Oppenheimer and Szilard have found few echoes in fiction except in the novels depicting the Manhattan Project itself, the best of which is James Thackara’s America’s Children(1984). Even here, these scientists are troubled, but they are neither mad nor evil.
Many science fiction writers understood that the power of the new weapon threatened civilization and perhaps human survival, but they placed the responsibility for the coming holocaust on the shoulders of politicians or military men and argued that science still provided humanity’s best hope for the future. One must search diligently in the years immediately following Hiroshima to discover an unambiguous fictional attack on nuclear scientists, and what one finds—F. Horace Rose’s The Maniac’s Dream: A Novel of the Atomic Bomb (1946)—is eccentric, unrepresentative, and almost unread. In this book, a group of atheistic scientists try to prove the nonexistence of God by destroying most of the world with nuclear weapons. They are foiled by the protagonist and the pious daughter of one of the scientists aided by God himself, who strikes down the maniac of the title.
The mad scientist does not reappear as a cause of nuclear war in fiction until 1963, and then only as a by-product of the film Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was subsequently novelized by Peter George and included the bizarre scientist of the title. Note that Strangelove is not the instigator of the war, however; that role belongs to the crazed anticommunist General Jack. D. Ripper. Strangelove himself—an amalgam of Kahn, Teller, and Kissinger—was an invention of Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, who wrote the film script. The novel which inspired the film, George’s Two Hours to Doom (1958; American title Red Alert), was a serious treatment of the theme of the danger of war started by a madman.
Philip K. Dick responded to the movie with Dr. Bloodmoney; or, How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965) about a scientist who causes a worldwide catastrophe unintentionally by incorrectly certifying that a high- atmosphere bomb test will be safe. Driven insane, he later sets off more bombs, but the war itself is not directly his responsibility. Dick came closer to blaming the scientist in Deus Irae (1976; co-written with Roger Zelazny), but the theme is treated with great irony: the scientist longs for martyrdom but is instead worshipped by his ignorant victims. These two novels represent perhaps the most negative portraits in science fiction of scientific responsibility for nuclear war, and they seem very moderate indeed.
If mad scientists don’t begin nuclear wars, mad generals occasionally do. The general in Two Hours to Doom must have seemed frighteningly convincing in 1958. If one accepts his premises—that the Russians must be destroyed at almost any cost—then his passionate arguments make a good deal of sense. He reflects the attitudes of many Americans and certainly the public posture of many politicians at the time that the novel was originally written. George’s character fails in his quest to make the world safe for American democracy because he hasn’t realized that the Russians have secretly built but not yet announced a doomsday device which will automatically destroy the world if the USSR is attacked, a circumstance which renders his planned first strike suicidal. (This twist in the plot can be criticized as a deus ex machine.) One might be tempted to view this conclusion as a warning against assuming that any first strike can be guaranteed success, since one can never be sure what the other side may do, but George ultimately places his hope in the improvement of the balance of terror.
Whereas in Two Hours to Doom he had avoided the threatened nuclear holocaust by a fortunate accident, in Dr. Strangelove George faithfully follows the movie by having the mad general’s scheme play out to its disastrous conclusion.
It is surprising that the notion of a crazed military man armed with nuclear weapons has not been treated seriously more often. Back in 1949 in “The Long Watch,” Robert A. Heinlein depicted a lunar official who tried to rebel against Earth’s government by using nuclear blackmail. George H. Smith created a Russian counterpart to General Ripper in his 1963 novel Doomsday Wing.The attack on New York in Robert Buchard’s Thirty Seconds Over New York (1969) is the result of a pyromaniac colonel; but he is Chinese, and in thrillers the Chinese are assumed to be capable of any madness, as we shall see.
Despite the fact that George lent his name to the novelization of Dr. Strangelove, whether he actually wrote it or not (see the discussion of this question in the bibliography entry), he obviously took the notion of an insane military officer seriously because he returned to it in his 1965 novel Commander-l. He acknowledged the weaknesses of his original plot, but concentrated this time on the mad submarine commander James Geraghty, who appoints himself ruler of the postwar world but who is in no way responsible for the war itself.
The vision of a submarine commander armed with nuclear weapons and difficult if not impossible to control from headquarters has often been presented in nonfictional discussions of the danger of accidental war; yet only Mordecai Roshwald in A Small Armageddon (1962) has treated the theme in nuclear war fiction, and done so in a farcical manner. Speculation about psychological pressures on the “men whose fingers rest on the button” finds expression in Kris Neville’s “Cold War” (1949), where the stress of serving as the guardians of the ultimate deterrent leads a military crew to crack and set off an attack. The power eats at them, Neville writes, “like marijuana.” Similar tensions seem destined to precipitate the holocaust in Donald Barthelme’s “Game” (1965).
There are plenty of serious novels which search for causes of nuclear war more realistic than technology run wild or generals gone mad. Many of them reflect the assumptions of those who develop United States nuclear war doctrine. The most common of these assumptions is that the Russians might be willing to attempt either a conventional invasion or a first strike against the West. As might be expected, the vast majority of works depicting such an attack were written during the late fifties and early sixties, when the cold war was at its height and the Russians had developed their ICBMs to the point that they posed a genuine if limited threat to our mainland, a threat made graphic by the launching of the first Sputnik in 1957. Although the atomic bomb was first used by the United States against Japan, there are those who still argue that President Truman intended the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at least partially as a warning to the USSR. Whatever the truth of that theory, it was certainly widely accepted after the war that the most likely target of future nuclear bombings would be Russia, and the fiction of the time naturally reflects that supposition.
Most often it is not considered necessary to propose a rationale for such an attack. The Russians are depicted as single-mindedly bent on dominating the world, even if that world should consist in large part of radioactive rubble. These early works contain little in the way of political theory. Conflict with the Soviet Union is simply viewed as inevitable. In this respect Robert A. Heinlein’s 1953 story “Project Nightmare” is typical. Heinlein, like Wylie more attentive to technical realism than most, realized early on that it would be possible to smuggle small-scale bombs into this country, making a devastating attack possible even before the Russians had perfected the ICBM. When an array of such bombs is discovered, Heinlein’s army uses trained psychics to prevent them from exploding and then sets the same psychics to devastating Russia—with notable glee—by exploding its own bombs on site. Heinlein is an interesting figure in the history of nuclear war fiction. Perhaps the most widely read science fiction author during certain periods, he has been deeply patriotic, extremely hostile to communism, and generally willing to glorify the military and the heroism of combat—see, for instance, his notorious novel glorifying militarism, Starship Troopers (1959). K. A. MacDermott analyzes Heinlein’s politics in an article entitled “Ideology and Narrative: The Cold War and Robert Heinlein” (Extrapolation 23 : 25~69), finding a fairly direct correlation between cold war politics and the attitudes presented in Heinlein’s fiction. However, Heinlein was no simple jingoist in the fifties. He was genuinely alarmed about the dangers of nuclear war and often wrote articles and stories warning his readers of the impending cataclysm. These are conveniently collected in Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein (1980). Because of his belief that nationalism and nuclear weapons were a fatal combination, he advocated a world government, as did many in the wake of Hiroshima.
Rabid militarism was far more common in the fifties than Heinlein’s position. Some writers went so far as to advocate that the United States make a first strike against the enemy. Even after the Russians developed (or stole, as was commonly thought), the A-bomb, the prospect of annihilating their country with a devastating nuclear attack was irresistibly attractive to many. Perhaps the most striking elaboration of this fantasy has been mentioned in chapter 1, the special issue of Collier’s magazine for October 27, 1951, entitled “Preview of the War We Do Not Want.” The Russians here are joyously liberated from their cruel Communist masters by a righteous nuclear assault on the Soviet Union, prompted by its invasion of Yugoslavia. It is somewhat alarming to note that in a number of works based more or less realistically on official American foreign policy statements, the United States—while responding to Soviet aggression—is nevertheless the first to use atomic weapons. Edward Teller, “father of the H-Bomb,” offered a scenario called “A Concise History of the Crostic Union War” in his 1962 book The Legacy of Hiroshima. He proposed that a limited nuclear war with the Russians could be fought and won given a sufficiently determined president. For an updated version of such scenarios, see William M. Brown’s 1975 study for the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency entitled The Nuclear Crisis of 1979. From the time of Dulles’s announcement of the massive retaliation strategy for Europe, to the United States government’s current refusal to make a no-first-use statement, the only nation on Earth which has announced it might begin a nuclear war in response to a conventional threat has been the United States. War-gamers are keenly aware of that fact, and use it in their prognostications.
A few liberal novels portray the danger that the United States will strike first because of paranoid fears of attack. John Brunner’s The Brink (1959), in which such an event is narrowly averted, is an unusual anti-cold war story which depicts the world as being endangered more by American anticommunism than by Russian aggression. When a Russian rocket crashes near an American missile site, bombers are sent out to retaliate, but an officer realizes that the missile was simply a misdirected spacecraft and recalls them. Even though he has saved the world from accidental holocaust, he is accused of treason and suspected of being a Communist, as is a liberal minister who has preached against bomb tests. Brunner’s work is a scathing attack on American militarism, chauvinism, racism, and paranoia. A similar theme is treated by S. B. Hough’s Extinction Bomber (1956). Both of these works were published exclusively in Britain, and both depict near-wars rather than actual wars.
In Burdick and Wheeler’s Fail-Safe the United States attacks first, of course, but blame is evenly distributed since the technical failure which leads to the catastrophe is caused by Russian jamming of our radio communications. America was simply not pictured as an atomic aggressor by anyone. To the average novelist, especially in the cold war era, a war of conquest against the West launched by the Russians seemed far more probable, or even inevitable.
During the Vietnam era, America’s trustworthiness was occasionally called into question, notably in Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash” (1969), which draws inspiration from the apocalyptic imagery of much psychedelic rock music (particularly that of The Doors). In Spinrad’s tale, the scheming military uses the mesmerizing power of electric rock to gain approval of the younger generation for the use of nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia. (This premise recognizes the odd contradiction between the antimilitary mood of youth in the late sixties and the extremely violent imagery of many of its most popular songs.) The cynical generals underestimate the power of music, however, and the story ends not in the wave of sympathy they had hoped for but in the unleashing of World War III. The story captures vividly the apocalyptic mood of the end of the decade in which many in a generation impatient with politics as usual longed for instant solutions. Spinrad’s story makes no claims to realism, but as a metaphor it is quite striking.
Yet there are those who—while not supporting a preemptive strike—nevertheless believe that a nuclear war could be survivable, and even beneficial to the interests of the West. An up-to-date Russian invasion scenario has been depicted by a retired British general, formerly of NATO, Sir John Hackett. In collaboration with his military colleagues, he has produced two volumes of nuclear age war-gaming entitled The Third World War: A Future History (1978) and The Third World War: August 1985 (1982). These works, replete with maps, photographs, and detailed descriptions of every major weapon in the arsenals of both sides, are hardly novels at all. They are rather lightly fictionalized essays on the probable course of a European war initiated by Russian aggression. Without much in the way of characters or plot, the books are almost unreadable; but they provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of the military strategists associated with NATO.
The war begins in Germany in 1985 and escalates slowly (a major assumption of Hackett’s, and one which he shares with few other novelists). Only toward the conclusion of the book, almost as an afterthought, are atomic weapons used, destroying—not Moscow, London, or New York—but first Birmingham and then Minsk. The nuclear warning shot across the Soviet bow precipitates the same sort of nationalist rebellions which dismember the USSR in Collier’s 1951 World War III issue and in Philip Reynolds’s When and If (1952), with much less justification.
Hackett’s main aim seems to be to make a case for preparing for a conventional war in Europe, but he rather undermines his own cause by creating a situation in which the superior weapons of the West leave the Russians no choice but to retaliate in desperation with nuclear bombs. Clearly if superior conventional weaponry is no deterrent to a nuclear war and the Russians are foolish enough to ignore the nuclear deterrent, nothing can be done to prevent them from launching a suicidal attack on the West.
Hackett takes such pains to make his work up-to-date, setting it in the very near future, that parts of it are already dated. The sequel, which gives details skimmed over or ignored in the first volume, considerably revises his view of the world situation. While he was the first author to deal with the danger of electromagnetic pulse radiation (EMP), he disposes of it cavalierly and unconvincingly by stating that it was successfully barred by the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. In an odd way, Hackett trusts the Russians. He trusts them not to launch the sort of war he would find impossible to fight. He also assumes a massive, deep- seated hatred by the Russian people toward their government, which needs only slight stimulus to set off a revolt. The heartening prospect of a disintegrated Soviet Union and a largely intact Western Europe makes a brisk nuclear exchange almost attractive, although in a postscript Hackett acknowledges that the Russian decision not to launch an all-out strike to defend itself is almost incredible, an admission which underlines the weakness of his whole scenario.
One chapter of the sequel depicts the dismantling of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Striving for realism, Hackett allows China to keep its bombs while the Europeans agree to disarm if other Third World nations follow suit. (In addition, Hackett shows himself to be no hidebound conservative by praising the deeds of a female bomber pilot and generally supporting the use of women in combat.) In general, Hackett’s combination of technological sophistication and political naiveté is frightening because it suggests the state of mind prevalent among many who hold in their hands the fate of humanity. What is even more frightening is the warm reception Hackett’s work received in many powerful conservative circles, and its commendation by President Ronald Reagan, who was greatly impressed with it.
Again and again it is assumed that the Russian nuclear arsenal is intended for aggressive use. Never—except in Bertrand Russell’s “Dean Acheson’s Nightmare” (1954—are the Russians seen as primarily on the defensive. Indeed, their aggressiveness often verges on madness. Philip Wylie, in his 1963 novel ironically entitled Triumph, proposes that the Russians will deliberately sacrifice the Northern Hemisphere, including their own nation, in order to use their remaining nuclear weapons to blackmail the rest of the human race into submission. A remnant of the Communist party will rule over a remnant of humanity. Although the Russian scheme fails only in one crucial respect—all the Russians are killed—Wylie clearly intends his novel, like his other, similar works, to be a warning. But how can a nation of kamikazes be deterred? In common with several other authors, Wylie depicts an enemy so crazed by the lust for world domination that no conceivable action can prevent it from executing its schemes.
Deterrence is treated more credibly in certain other novels. Pat Frank wrote two works in which he warned of a pair of “missile gaps”: Forbidden Area (1956) and the much better known Alas, Babylon (1959). In the former, he suggests that the Russians might launch a preemptive strike before our ICBMs can be based; and in the latter he echoes Kennedy’s concerns that the Russians could successfully pull off a first strike (they are prevented from succeeding only by the fortuitous defection of a Russian turncoat). Oddly enough, in the final pages of Forbidden Area, the United States rejects the opportunity to launch its own unilateral attack—which would definitely defeat the USSR—because of fears by government officials that such an all-out attack might result in ecocide, a consideration not previously mentioned. Frank was careful not to raise this prospect in Alas, Babylon, where the war is relatively benign. Ultimately Frank imagines, with many of his contemporaries, that the Russians are far less rational than the Americans. He grants that nuclear war is madness on a global scale in these novels, but nevertheless feels that such a war, deliberately instigated by the Russians, is probable if our deterrent is inadequate.
Forbidden Area is an essay in military preparedness, depicting the army and air force as incredibly reluctant to consider warnings of the danger posed by a mid-fifties window of vulnerability. Similarly, Alas, Babylon begins as an essay in civilian preparedness, preaching the need for an effective civil defense program. Yet Frank cannot resist the logic of nuclear war. In his farcical first novel, Mr. Adam (1946), as noted in chapter 1, he had depicted the sterilization of every human male but one through a nuclear accident. He criticizes his own frivolousness in Forbidden Area:“Years ago a fellow wrote a story about all the men being sterilized by a big nuclear explosion. If there had been a war, I don’t think anything so quick and simple would have happened. It would have been much worse. A big bang, and then a long, long whimper.” As Frank continued to write about the subject of nuclear war, the prospects he depicted became more and more grim, although his main aim remained to warn his readers to preparedness. It is a common pattern, recalling Philip Wylie’s development in particular. The serious contemplation of atomic warfare has a sobering influence on some minds.
One of the best known accounts of a European war escalating to a nuclear holocaust is Hans Hellmut Kirst’s The Seventh Day (1959). For the most part it is a slick political thriller which—like Ewart C. Jones’s Head in the Sand (London: Arthur Baker, 1938)—was written in response to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Similar events in Poland cause a war in Germany, the setting of most of the novel, which is only natural considering that Kirst is German. He creates a large, sympathetic cast of characters and then destroys them one by one, an effective technique which, however, is seldom used by other writers of nuclear war fiction. Normally they concentrate on a relative handful of characters, usually located in a single area. But in many other political novels and in a host of spy stories, the threat of a Russian nuclear attack functions primarily to heighten the tension of a crisis, as in Fletcher Knebel’s Night of Camp David(1965), and nuclear war is simply a peripheral interest.
In distant second place as an attacking nation is China. Occasionally, as in Mervyn Jones’s On the Last Day (1958), the Chinese figure as allies of the Russians; but after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, this ceased to be a realistic scenario. However, one of the clichÃ©s of American foreign policy during the sixties was the belief that when Mao said that a nuclear attack could not destroy China because millions of its immense population would survive, he was demonstrating a near-suicidal recklessness. (It seems more likely that he was merely whistling in the dark, since the only realistic “deterrent” China had to a nuclear attack by one of the two superpowers was its mere ability to survive.) This analysis of the Chinese point of view turns up occasionally in fiction. While no author has suggested that China is capable of devastating the United States with its own small atomic arsenal, more than one has presumed that her leaders might engineer a war between the Soviet Union and America which would leave them unchallenged rulers of the world.
I have already mentioned Bernard Newman’s The Blue Ants: The First Authentic Account of the Russian- Chinese War of 1970 (1962). It is an extreme example, but it well expresses the paranoia which suffused American views of the Chinese in the sixties. Bound in a lurid yellow cover, this bizarre work tells of the plot by the fiendish Feng Fong to trigger an East-West war which will leave China master of the Earth. This is perhaps the earliest example of a fictional Russo-Chinese nuclear war, a theme which has become more common in recent times as border skirmishes have lent some credibility to such a scenario.
In the 1970s and 80s tensions in the Near East rendered the Arab-Israeli conflict as the precipitating cause of a nuclear war credible. See, for instance, Thomas N. Scortia’s Earthwreck!(1974), David Graham’s Down to a Sunless Sea (1979), and Luke Rhinehart’s Long Voyage Back (1983). More often than not the Israelis are depicted as striking first—probably because they are the Middle Eastern nation most widely suspected of having nuclear warheads— although in Dean Ing’s Pulling Through (1983), the Iraqis institute the use of such weapons. Other combinations of combatants are rare. Originality of political alignment is, however, a distinguishing feature of the absurd The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 (1973) by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop. The Irish attack Britain with LSD, which leads a crazed prime minister and parliament to launch a nuclear attack. The unlikely coalition of Ireland, China, and South Africa is formed, fighting against a British-American-Russian coalition. The bizarre politics of these alliances are not explored, their main function being to leave the Israelis the sole relatively untouched nuclear power so that the authors can send Jewish mercenary soldiers in tanks across the southwestern deserts to rescue the president of the United States, kidnapped by rebellious Texans.
It would be inaccurate to leave the impression that the Russians are usually portrayed as the primary instigators of fictional nuclear wars. As noted at the outset of this chapter, most often no political cause is specified; rather the war is either an accident or a cataclysm of the distant past whose details are lost to human memory. Clearly authors are hard pressed to create a credible political scenario in which the decision to use nuclear weapons can be depicted as rational; most prefer to describe a “bolt from the blue” or simply evade the question. In a few cases, such evasion is purposive, as in Roshwald’s Level 7, which avoids specifying either the victim or the aggressor nation so that he can concentrate on human suffering, not on international politics. And Will F. Jenkins creates a mystery around the theme “Who launched the attack?” in his novel The Murder of the U.S.A. (1946). He outlines a method by which a sneak attack could be launched by a nation wishing to conceal its identity but never identifies the attacking country. Jenkins, unlike Roshwald, is extremely nationalistic and strongly argues for retaliation, but it is difficult to see why he does not specify the identity of the attacker unless he simply found the task of drawing up a credible scenario beyond him.
In thrillers, terrorists of various stripes, including apolitical atomic blackmailers, threaten to precipitate nuclear war, but they are almost always foiled at the last minute. One exception to this rule is the excellent account of clandestine bomb-building by Nicolas Freeling entitled Gadget (1977), which ends with most of the world’s leaders being killed. Another variety of terrorist —the violent pacifist—poses a more serious threat in muscular disarmament novels. Usually written from a conservative anti-Communist perspective, such works see anti-bomb crusaders as likely to precipitate the very sort of war they claim to want to prevent. Figures loosely based on repentant nuclear scientists like Szilard and Oppenheimer threaten the world with nuclear holocaust unless it agrees to disarm in Alan Gardner’s The Escalator (1963) and John Briley’s The Last Dance (1978). A similar mad scientist-pacifist menaces human survival in Bob Shaw’s Ground Zero Man(1971). And as noted in chapter 1, there are no more violent, vicious, and treasonous antiwar activists than those in Allen Drury’s portrait of the Vietnam era movement, The Promise of Joy(1975).
In right-wing fiction, muscular disarmament is admirable only if it is carried out by the right people. Bernard Newman, for instance, mercilessly mocks the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and United States antiwar groups in Draw the Dragon’s Teeth (1967), but endorses the scheme of the Legion of a Thousand to force disarmament on the world. China’s reluctance to cooperate forces the legion to smuggle nuclear bombs into that country to destroy its plutonium processing plant. In Martin Caidin’s The Mendelov Conspiracy (1969), a similar group uses superpowered flying saucers to enforce its demands. Again the Chinese are reluctant, and this time Russia and the United States must threaten a joint invasion to get them to cooperate.
A few authors seem to endorse the schemes of pacifists. James MacGregor’s A Cry to Heaven (1960) depicts a wealthy eccentric who kidnaps prominent people and flies them into the area of a planned H-bomb test to bring it to a halt, with seeming success. And in William C. Anderson’s farcical Pandemonium on the Potomac (1966) the British hoax the world into disarming by sending emissaries claiming to be from Venus who—like the aliens in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)—claim to have irresistible powers at their command. The best known of all muscular disarmament novels is, of course, Leonard Wibberley’s The Mouse that Roared (1955); but in that instance the superweapon turns out to be a dud.
Pacifism has not fared well, then, in nuclear war fiction. Several novels depicting the period after Hiroshima involve scientists who campaign for peace, but these are mostly Oppenheimer/Szilard figures concerned to prevent a holocaust (they also pay for their activism by being treated as security risks); they are not pactfists as such. Only Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day (1959) articulates a consistently pacifist view of nuclear war. An advocate of the doctrines of Gandhi, Clarkson points out that the usual clichés about dying for one’s country make no sense when one’s government is engaged in ensuring the death of its own citizens and the destruction of its territory. Clearly analyzing the qualities which make nuclear war distinctly different from traditional war, Clarkson anticipated many of the arguments used by Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth (1982). But rarely in these liberal works do pacifists succeed in gaining power. That happens mainly in the nightmares of conservatives, as in the pacifist dystopias to be discussed in chapter 4.
Other sorts of civil revolt—including race riots in W. D. Pereira’s Aftermath 15 (1973) and youth rebellions in G. R. Kestavan’s The Pale Invaders (1974) have precipitated fictional nuclear wars. In fact almost any political position or movement a writer finds obnoxious, left or right, has been shown to be liable to lead the world to an atomic death. What more clinching argument could one wish for in a political argument than a rousing holocaust? Yet though there is an abundance of candidates for most likely instigator of the end of the world, most authors care little who begins the war. The very possibility of a holocaust may render such considerations irrelevant in many people’s minds: a large proportion of readers and writers alike were convinced that we were doomed to destroy ourselves in a nuclear war, that it was only a matter of time until the holocaust came.