A Zero-Sum Game

Nuclear War in the 80s

Cover to the Radio Times from September 1984, with a scene from Threads on the cover.

On Sunday, 23rd September, BBC2 broadcast Threads, a ‘drama-documentary’ that followed a disparate group of ordinary people in Sheffield, as East-West tensions suddenly escalate into a full-out nuclear war. Only the previous year a US TV movie, The Day After, which also dramatised the effects of a nuclear war on the lives of ordinary people, had been shown in the UK on BBC’s main rival, ITV. Threads went one step further by incorporating new research into the likely effects of a nuclear war, which indicated that, as well as the incredible initial destruction and the insidious effects of radioactive fallout, a conflict of sufficient size might be followed by a ‘Nuclear Winter’. As the BBC’s listings magazine, The Radio Times, explains in its summary of a documentary, On the 8th Day, broadcast the day after Threads:

‘Most people — and most governments — believe that following a nuclear war, no matter how terrible the effects of blast, fire and radiation might be, there would be unaffected areas from which civilisation might be rebuilt. But since 1982, scientific evidence has been accumulating that smoke and dust from a nuclear conflict could plunge the northern hemisphere into twilight for weeks, and cause temperatures to drop as much as 40° centigrade, with catastrophic effect on plants and animals.’

Poster to the film WarGames.

It was a cheerful way to start a no-doubt rainy Autumn week, but the prospect of nuclear war was omnipresent throughout the 1980s. Films (such as 1983’s kid’s movie WarGames), TV (as well as The Day After and Threads, there was a 1984 Play for Today adaptation of the post-holocaust survival novel Z for Zachariah, and conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkness in 1985), and songs (“Enola Gay” by OMD, “99 Red Balloons” by Nena, “I Won't Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Nik Kershaw, “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood) all added to the general background radiation of nuclear-war culture, so that it was an ever-present, though barely-confrontable, reality.

Of course, it wasn’t just in the culture. It was often in the news, too.

Cover to the government booklet Protect and Survive.

In 1979, the UK announced that its old nuclear “deterrent” Polaris was to be replaced by a new system, Trident. Also, that 160 US cruise missiles would be housed in the UK at Greenham Common and Molesworth military bases. The following year, the government published a now-infamous leaflet, Protect and Survive, advising its citizens what to do in case of a nuclear war.

In a section entitled “Plan a Fall-out Room and Inner Refuge”, the leaflet says:

“Because of the threat of radiation you and your family may need to live in this room for fourteen days after an attack, almost without leaving it at all.”

Such a room would need to be provided with the basics, such as water:

“You will need enough for the family for fourteen days. Each person should drink two pints a day — so for this you will need three and a half gallons each.”

In a gradual escalation of increasing bleakness, the leaflet goes on to warn:

“You cannot remove radiation from water by boiling it.”

And to remind you that:

“Water means life.”

As are air, sunlight, food, and shelter, all things that would be seriously compromised by a nuclear war.

Diagram showing how the temperature in different areas of the world might be affected by a nuclear winter.

from The Radio Times, 22-28 September 1984

Cover image of When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs.

In his 1982 graphic novel, When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs quietly but devastatingly satirised the utter inadequacy of the government’s advice, by telling the story of an ageing couple trying to do their Blitz-spirit best in the face of a situation that was almost incomprehensibly worse than anything they lived through in World War II — and, of course, in the end, failing.

Also in the news, on the 31st August 1983, a Korean passenger plane was shot down after entering Russian airspace and not responding to radio contact. This led to an escalation of tensions — but tensions that were already slowly rising. Perhaps it was just the way the West, in the heyday of a Thatcherite-Reaganite capitalist boom, just rubbed a failing but outwardly stony-faced communist East the wrong way.

Something had to change, and at times it seemed that war — which could only mean nuclear war — was the only way that anything would. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and everyone realised things could change in better ways, too.

Growing up in the 1980s, though, it could be hard to differentiate anti-nuclear protest (which, like Threads, tried to demonstrate the futility of any idea of a nuclear “deterrent” by demonstrating how devastating the use of such weapons would be) from a despairing prediction of what might, at any moment, happen.