March 11, 2022

International politics

The thread of history

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Still image from ‘Threads’

Still image from Threads, jointly produced by the BBC, Nine Network and Western-World Television Inc.

For the Cold War generation, the threat of nuclear war in Europe brings a familiar dread

Before the billionaire Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980, he organised for a military band to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at his mansion, which also served as the early broadcasting headquarters for the country’s first 24/7 news network. The performance was filmed and used as CNN’s sign-on, but then Turner had another request: could the band play the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee”?

And so, before Turner’s reflecting pool, and in front of his mansion’s classical columns, the band was filmed performing the hymn about Jacob’s dream. “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it,” reads Genesis.

Inside CNN, it came to be known as the “Turner Doomsday Video”. It was Turner’s intention to broadcast the performance at the end of the world, which, were it to come, the mogul was sure would be in the form of several mushroom clouds.

Nuclear holocaust haunted Turner. In 1985, he broadcast the British anti-nuke film Threads on his other network, TBS, the same year Kerry Packer’s Nine Network broadcast it here without commercials.

It is an awesomely frightening film, radically unglamorous and sufficiently haunting to survive the cheapness of its production. Made as a docu-drama, details of global military escalations run Telex-style across the screen, but the precise motives, agitations and assumptions of the warring actors remain deliberately murky. What stays in focus are the people of Sheffield, England – from one week before the nuclear attack, to 10 years after when there are no longer cities or, in fact, many citizens with a memory of them.

Given the long chronology of the film, we don’t just witness the immediate, hellish trauma of an atom bomb on human flesh. We watch the swift erosion, then erasure, of civil society. Along with the landscape, we watch history and language gradually deracinated in a perpetual nuclear winter, as the deformed children of survivors experience, uncomprehendingly, a life that is truly nasty, brutish and short. “It wasn’t until I saw Threads that I found that something on screen could make me break out in a cold, shivering sweat and keep me in that condition for 20 minutes, followed by weeks of depression and anxiety,” The Guardian’s film critic, Peter Bradshaw, later wrote.

Before the broadcast in 1985, Ted Turner personally addressed the camera. “We at Turner Broadcasting System are bringing you the following program to increase awareness about the consequences of nuclear confrontation in an effort to promote world peace,” he said. “This film, produced in Great Britain, is called Threads. It is powerful and alarming. However, it is not our intention to frighten, but inform.”

My schoolteacher had a similar idea. A few years later, while the Berlin Wall was being slowly dismantled, my class was taken to the communal TV room to watch Threads. Movie screenings were cherished, but our joy quickly vanished as we watched the mass vaporisation of the people of Sheffield.

I’m still curious about my teacher’s motivation. Did she have some strange faith in our maturity? But then, how, precisely, could we respond – other than by quivering? Had she anticipated that our terror or morbid excitement, once impressed upon our families at home, might shake our parents from some presumed complacency about nuclear annihilation?

My father was hardly complacent. In 1978, three years before my birth, he’d volunteered for a nuclear radiation monitoring course conducted by the federal government’s Civil Defence School. As a boy, I’d familiarised myself with the government’s pamphlet on surviving a nuclear blast that my father had brought home. While studying the illustrations, I wondered how the nightmare force of weaponised fission could be mitigated by crouching under a desk.

Threads was a significant event, but smaller than The Day After. This, too, was a made-for-TV drama, produced by the American Broadcasting Company, and preceded by weeks of hype. In an age well before streaming-on-demand, there was just one fixed broadcast time, for which an estimated 39 million households – a combined audience of nearly 100 million – tuned in on the Sunday evening of November 20, 1983, to watch a dramatisation of nuclear war. Outside of Super Bowls, it was one of the largest television audiences in American history.

As art, The Day After is poor – the characterisation wooden, the pacing awkward, the editing a mess. But it works as a nightmare, almost as numbing and grossly dispiriting as Threads. The film was debated for weeks before, and weeks after. Should children watch it? Did it simplify disarmament? Was it preaching appeasement?

News crews filmed watching parties in churches and community halls, and interviewed the blanched and trembling audience afterwards. President Ronald Reagan watched it six weeks before it aired and recorded the following in his diary: “It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. So far they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled & I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the ‘anti nukes’ or not, I can’t say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.”

Everyone had thought about nuclear war. In the introduction to Einstein’s Monsters, his 1987 collection of short stories on the theme, Martin Amis wrote: “I am sick of them – I am sick of nuclear weapons. And so is everybody else. When, in my dealings with this strange subject, I have read too much or thought too long – I experience nausea, clinical nausea … They are there and I am here – they are inert, I am alive – yet they still make me want to throw up, they make me feel sick to my stomach; they make me feel as if a child of mine has been out too long, much too long, and already it is getting dark.”

The nukes didn’t go anywhere, but the Wall came down, the competitive bipolarity of the Cold War dissolved (temporarily, at least), and fear of nuclear war abated. Generations grew up without the spectre of nuclear Armageddon, to whom the public spectacle of those two films might have seemed anachronistic.

But here we are again, thinking about the unthinkable. Last month, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin conspicuously placed his nuclear forces on a higher alert, while threatening opposing countries with “consequences they have never seen”. Belarus, Russia’s compliant neighbour, then passed legislation allowing the hosting of Russian nukes. Last week, a Ukrainian nuclear plant caught fire after shelling, and Europe seemed briefly on the cusp of another Chernobyl.

Sure, Putin has made this threat before, in 2015, albeit in a far less volatile theatre. And there are other precedents: George W. Bush ambiguously threatened Iran with “tactical” nukes and Richard Nixon did similarly with the North Vietnamese – though in neither instance was each side in possession of nuclear weapons. There was no threat of mutually assured destruction. In 2017, responding to threats from a nuclear-armed North Korea, Donald Trump promised that “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”.

But these precedents are similar only in rhetoric. None of these threats were made in the context of a nuclear-armed power aggressively redrawing the boundaries of Europe. The West is now engaged in a parlous, sometimes contradictory mission: to aid the Ukrainian defence while not provoking Putin into a catastrophic escalation. This means the provision of arms and the enforcement of sanctions; it also means denying Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s repeated requests for a no-fly zone and reaffirming its position not to send troops to his country’s aid.

The calculus of constraining Russia, versus provoking it, is delicate, shifting and based upon imperfect assumptions. What might thwart Russia is also the thing that might provoke it, and once again we’re thinking about nuclear brinksmanship in Europe. 

We’re told that nuclear war is unlikely, but the possibility is uncomfortably higher than zero. The nukes didn’t go anywhere, and nor did history. However this plays out, we can probably mark the end of the post–Cold War era. What replaces it is yet to be determined. 

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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