I suspect many fewer people are assigned John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a book most everyone in my cohort read at some stage in their education. And certainly, far fewer people are subjected to the kind of alarmist (and reasonably so) propaganda films that dramatized the grisly details of fallout and nuclear winter. Even the recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl, with its grotesque depiction of radiation poisoning, prompted a wave of tourism to the site, drawing Instagram generation gawkers born too late to have heard the terrifying news firsthand.
Yet, the threat of a nuclear disaster and its attendant horrors has hardly gone away. The UN General Assembly issued a statement this year warning of the highest potential for a devastating incident since the Cuban Missile Crisis. We are entering a new era of nuclear proliferation, with many countries who have no love for each other joining the race. “As the risk of nuclear confrontation grows,” writes Simon Tisdall at The Guardian, “the cold war system of treaties that helped prevent Armageddon is being dismantled, largely at Trump’s behest.” Calls for a No-First-Use policy in the U.S. have grown more urgent.
Living memory of the period in which two global superpowers almost destroyed each other, and took everyone else with them, has not deterred the architects of today’s geopolitics. But remembering that history should nonetheless be required of us all. In the Business Insider video above, you can get a sense of the scope of nuclear testing that escalated throughout the Cold War, in an animated timeline showing every single explosion in Japan and the various testing sites in Russia, New Mexico, Australia, and the Pacific Islands from 1945 into the 1990s, when they finally drop off. As the decades progress, more countries amass arsenals and conduct their own testing.
Despite the expert warnings, something certainly has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Over a forty year period, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. trained to annihilate the other, and the prospect of nuclear war became an extinction-level event. That may not be the case in a fragmented, multipolar world with many smaller countries vying for regional supremacy. But a nuclear event, intention or accidental, could still be catastrophic on the order of thousands or millions of deaths. The animation shows us how we got here, through decades of normalizing the stockpiling and testing of the ultimate weapons of mass destruction.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness