H-Diplo Article Review 977 on “Life after the Bomb: Nuclear Fear, Science, and Security Politics in Switzerland in the 1980s.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 977

16 September 2020

Silvia Berger Ziauddin and Sibylle Marti.  “Life after the Bomb: Nuclear Fear, Science, and Security Politics in Switzerland in the 1980s.”  Cold War History 20:1 (2020): 95-113.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2018.1536121.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Dario Fazzi, Roosevelt Institute for American Studies

In the early 1980s, rampant militarism, fear of accidental radioactive contamination, and the specter of widespread nuclearization, which, thanks to NATO’s double-track decision, loomed above Europe, fueled threats of nuclear annihilation and prophecies of doom.[1]  As a consequence, anti-nuclear protests resurfaced worldwide, with participants demanding governments to put nuclear power under rigorous scrutiny.[2]  Post-apocalyptic discourses and representations permeated popular culture, in such varied forms as TV-movies like The Day After, pop songs like Neunundneunzig Luftballons, or manga like the Fist of the North Star. These aftermath narratives constituted the core of a rising nuclear anxiety.[3]  In turn, a series of comprehensive survivability assessments, prepared by a plethora of authoritative experts, tried to rationalize the consequences of a nuclear exchange, thus compelling governments and people alike to come to terms with the possible vanishing of the “nuclear taboo.”[4]

This is the backdrop against which Silvia Berger Ziauddin and Sibylle Marti present their fascinating story.  The two authors offer an original account of the so-called “Weiterleben” report, an official study commissioned in 1983 by the Swiss government that was supposed to provide a rational, quantitative answer to the most ominous existential question of the time, how to survive a nuclear blast.[5]  The authors lucidly detail both the context and the metacontext of that extensive study. They explain the exigencies, aims, and motivations that led the Swiss authorities to launch and support that investigation.  They also expound on the contents of the study, the main operative concepts behind it, its methods, and the lively debates that occurred among the many actors that were involved in its compilation.  Perhaps even more interestingly, the authors provide a captivating description of the long evolution of the study, and emphasize its development vis-à-vis the contemporary change in the epistemology of the aftermath studies. An initial emphasis on quantitative measurements, indeed, left room for humanities-based approaches, where the broader anthropological, societal, and psychological implications of a nuclear explosion gained the same attention as the thoughtfulness previously devoted to infrastructural and material damages.  This switch made the entire research and writing process longer than originally expected, and the study eventually came out only in 1989 (though portions of it had been leaked before).  By then, however, as the authors correctly point out, the sense of urgency connected to the early 1980s nuclear anxiety and further boosted by the Chernobyl accident in 1986 had faded away and had been replaced by the general optimism that was anticipating the rise of a new American-led world order.[6]

One of the article’s main merits is to offer an innovative, non-centrical perspective on the early 1980s nuclear anxiety by focusing both on its worldwide diffusion and on its local repercussions.  As the authors argue, the essay is meant to show “the difficulty of governing populations, providing information, and managing emotions in an era when citizens sensed and expressed an all-encompassing acute vulnerability” (97).  In this regard, the Swiss study is primarily read as a top-down attempt to cope, nationally, with the consequences of a global phenomenon.  The article explains exhaustively how Swiss policymakers—who, after all, were only marginally involved in the nuclear arms race—invested a great deal of time, energy and resources in assuaging people’s rising fear.  Another important contribution that the article makes is that it enlightens our understanding of the complex machinery behind national nuclear policymaking processes.  Translating into policy the inputs coming from so many different know-hows, including those of military strategists, urban planners, psychologists, and physicians, required a fine exercise of statecraft that further challenged modern democracies.[7]  At the same time, while coordinating the efforts of multidisciplinary panels charged with the semi-impossible task to come out with plausible post-apocalyptic predictions, governments like the Swiss one also had to manage how these forecasts percolated into the public consciousness. The article reconstructs this dynamic in a convincing way.  The net result is an analysis that further proves how nuclear anxiety genuinely globalized the Cold War confrontation, both politically and culturally.  Accordingly, the essay complements studies on the transnational dimension of the early 1980s nuclear criticism by re-scaling nuclear anxiety at a regional level, implicitly drawing on Lorenz Lüthi’s invitation to scholars to focus on mid-level analyses.[8]

Though largely commendable, the article suffers from a few minor flaws as well.  For instance, it does not take into adequate account the roots of nuclear anxiety, nor does it make a convincing attempt to connect the story of the Swiss case to a longer historical trajectory.[9]  Among other things, such an omission hinders the analysis of the transformative impact of the linkage between political anti-nuclear dissent and the consolidation of a global environmental awareness.[10]  As a result, the statement that the proximity between the outcomes of many aftermath studies and the imagery of post-apocalyptic fiction was “intuitively brought forward” (96) before the 1980s are misleading, since the causal relationship between nuclear fallout and long-lasting radioactive contamination, congenital disorders, and substantial alterations of the whole human ecosystem was actually established in the late 1950s.[11]  Similarly, the paper does not acknowledge the preponderant masculinity affecting nuclear aftermath narratives, which was blatant in the Swiss case. In so doing, the authors miss the opportunity to meaningfully engage with that ever-expanding historiographical thread that embeds feminist critique into the analysis of national nuclear policymaking.[12]  Finally, it should be clarified that NATO’s dual-track decision not only affected the UK, Western Germany, and Italy (98), but Belgium and the Netherlands as well.

The essay, as well as some of the existing literature on 1980s nuclear anxiety, does not fully illuminate the evolution of 1980s nuclear anxiety.  The authors seem to consider the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as the main game changer, yet they remain silent on what was left of the global anti-nuclear sentiment after the signature of it.[13]  Similarly, the authors do not sufficiently engage, as Beth A. Fischer and Joseph S. Nye, Jr. do, with President Ronald Reagan’s shrewd U-turn on nuclear deterrence, which was famously epitomized by his 1984 public denunciation of nuclear war as unwinnable and unfightable. That statement not only delegitimized anti-nuclear dissent, but also effectively mitigated nuclear fears.[14]  In this regard, and to their credit, Silvia Berger Ziauddin and Sibylle Marti correctly point to the role that innovative research paradigms may play in reassessing the resilience of that nuclear anxiety; the authors, in particular, invite scholars to complement classical historical interpretations with analyses that could take into account the performative role played by such cultural signifiers as emotions. This is an important reminder, especially in times of crisis management and post-disaster assessments.


Dario Fazzi is Senior Research Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies and Lecturer at Leiden University, the Netherlands.  He teaches courses on US History, Cold War History, and Transatlantic Relations.  He has edited books, published articles and contributed chapters on nuclear historiography, anti-nuclear protests, transnational movements, and base politics.  He is the author of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Anti-Nuclear Movement: The Voice of Conscience (New York: Palgrave, 2016) and is currently working on a book on ocean incineration.



[1] On the resurfacing of nuclear fear, see Wilfred Mausbach, “Nuclear Winter: Prophecies of Doom and Images of Desolation during the Second Cold War,” in Eckart Conze, Martin Klimke, Jeremy Varon (eds.), Nuclear Threats, Nuclear Fear and the Cold War of the 1980s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 27-55. See also Dario Fazzi, “The Nuclear Freeze Generation: The Early 1980s Anti-Nuclear Youth Revolt between ‘Carter’s Vietnam’ and ‘Euroshima’,” in Knud Andresen and Bart van der Steen (eds.), A European Youth Revolt in 1980-1981 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016), 145-158; Spencer Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); and Eckart Conze, Martin Klimke, Jeremy Varon (eds.), Nuclear Threats, Nuclear Fear and the Cold War of the 1980s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[2] Lawrence S. Wittner, The Struggle Against the Bomb, vol 3., A History of the World Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003); Holger Nehring, “Peace Movements and the Demilitarization of German Political Culture, 1970s-1980s,” in Peter N. Stearns (ed.), Demilitarization in the Contemporary World (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 60-88.

[3] Joseph Masco, “Atomic Health, Or How The Bomb Altered American Notions of Death,” in Jonathan M. Metzl and Anna Kirkland (eds.), Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 133-156; Kyle Harvey, American Anti‐Nuclear Activism, 1975-1990: The Challenge of Peace (London: Palgrave, 2014).

[4] Along with the studies quoted by Silvia Berger Ziauddin and Sibylle Marti at the beginning of their essay, it is important to highlight here that one of the first survivability studies was produced by the US Congress of Technical Assessment in 1979.  Titled “The Effects of Nuclear War,” that study examined “the full range of effects that nuclear war would have on civilians” including “direct effects from blast and radiation; and indirect effects from economic, social, and political disruption.” See The Effects of Nuclear War, May 1979, available online at http://atomicarchive.com/Docs/pdfs/7906.pdf, accessed on April 17, 2020. See also Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[5] For an overview of the historical analyses on the breadth of the nuclear threat, see Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov, “Nuclear Winter Revisited with a Modern Climate Model and Current Nuclear Arsenals: Still Catastrophic Consequences,” Journal of Geophysical Research 112:1307 (2007), 1-14. On the “existential” nature of the nuclear threat, see Thomas E. Doyle II, Nuclear Ethics in the Twenty-First Century: Survival, Order, and Justice (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2020), 5.

[6] Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

[7] Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

[8] Lorenz M. Luthi, “Introduction,” in Lorenz M. Lüthi, ed., The Regional Cold Wars in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, 4.

[9] On this, see Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 3-16.

[10] Robert Whutnow, Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[11] E. C. Tsivoglou, “Research for the Control of Radioactive Pollutants,” Journal (Water Pollution Control Federation) 35:2 (1963), 242-259.

[12] Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs 12:4 (1987), 687-718; Claire Duncanson and Catherine Eschle, “Gender and the Nuclear Weapons State: A Feminist Critique of the UK Government’s White Paper on Trident,” New Political Science 30:4 (2008), 545-563; Catherine Eschle, “Gender and the Subject of (Anti)Nuclear Politics: Revisiting Women’s Campaigning against the Bomb,” International Studies Quarterly 57:4 (2012), 713-724.

[13] Angela Santese, “Ronald Reagan, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and the Nuclear Scare of the 1980s,” The International History Review 39:3 (2016), 496-520.

[14] Beth A. Fischer, “US Foreign Policy under Reagan and Bush,” in Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, The Cambridge History of the Cold War.  Volume III: Endings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 270-271.  In her essay, Fischer contends that Reagan’s confrontational approach played only a secondary role in bringing about the ending of the Cold War, while his anti-nuclear stances played a major one.  Joseph Nye, in his new book, supports this idea, by arguing that Reagan’s decision to transform his previously harsh rhetoric about the “evil empire” into a commitment to ending the nuclear threat was crucial to the strengthening and maintenance of a liberal world order; see Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Do Moral Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 416.