Tomorrow Might Not Be Another Day: The poster which swept the pre-Internet world in the anti-nuclear 80s. Those born in the post-Cold War period have little idea of how pervasive was the fear of nuclear annihilation. Those weapons have not gone away. Vladimir Putin's reassertion of his country's geopolitical interests may yet reacquaint the world with the fears of the 1980s. The Russian bear still has nuclear teeth.
IT WAS ONE of the most famous posters of the anti-nuclear 80s. Parodying the 1939 movie poster promoting Gone With The Wind, the 1980s version depicted Ronald Reagan in the role of Rhett Butler, and Margaret Thatcher as Scarlet O’Hara. Instead of rescuing his heroine from the wreckage of a burning Atlanta, Reagan carried Thatcher from the fallout of an ominous mushroom cloud. The anti-nuclear poster’s tag-line read: “She promised to follow him to the end of the earth. He promised to organise it.”
Black humour? Undoubtedly. But the worldwide popularity of the poster in those pre-Internet days speaks volumes about the existential fears of ordinary people everywhere that their leaders were impelling them towards a nuclear Armageddon.
These globally experienced fears were given specific expression in New Zealand by the nationwide movement to have the country declared nuclear-free. Distracted by the upheavals of the Springbok Tour for most of 1981, the Nuclear-Free New Zealand Movement only began gathering serious political momentum in 1982. By 1984, however, there were very few cities and towns in New Zealand that had not declared themselves nuclear-free. The incoming Labour Government, elected in July 1984, had little option but to go with the flow. Among its rank-and-file members (all 85,000 of them!) anti-nuclear sentiment was as intense as it was immovable.
It is difficult for New Zealanders who did not live through the early-1980s to appreciate just how tense the stand-off between the USA and the Soviet Union had become.
President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher were both implacable cold warriors. Indeed, when asked by a youthful aide to sum up his position on the Cold War, President Reagan breezily replied: “Well, I think we should win it.”
Soviet leaders, by contrast, came and went with almost comical speed. Between the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and the accession of the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985, the world welcomed and farewelled in quick succession Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.
Meanwhile, as the Soviets were casting about frantically for a leader capable of lasting longer than eighteen months in office, Nato forged ahead with its plans to install nuclear-tipped Cruise missiles – a first-strike weapon – along the length of the Iron Curtain. Not surprisingly, the vast nuclear arsenals of the opposing superpowers were on a hair-trigger.
To New Zealanders born after 1991, the year the Soviet Union quietly blipped-off History’s screen, the mutual and assured destruction (MAD!) strategies of the Cold War era are mostly experienced as the more-or-less harmless echoes from a far-off, but very-far-from-harmless, historical era.
Today’s 24-year-olds may be intellectually aware that substantial stockpiles of nuclear weapons still exist in the United States and the Russian Federation, but the oppressive sense of their parents’ generation, that the slightest political miscalculation (or even a flock of errant geese!) might trigger the utter destruction of human civilisation, has, mercifully, faded from memory.
Global Warming, the existential threat du jour, may prove to be equally devastating, but its effects will be experienced over decades – not in the micro-seconds of a nuclear detonation.
Meanwhile, as the Millennials battle to prevent runaway global warming, another, all-too-literal battle rages between the forces of the Nato-supported Ukrainian government and the Russian-backed militias of Ukraine’s breakaway eastern provinces. Reported only fitfully in the Western news media, this conflict now threatens to escalate into a general European war. As former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday.
“Unfortunately, war with Russia is conceivable. We are definitely living through one of the more dangerous historical phases, especially if you view the situation from a European perspective […] What makes the situation so explosive is that there is also great uncertainty about global power relations.”
The global uncertainty Mr Bildt speaks of is being fuelled by statements issuing from the United States Vice President, Joe Biden, reaffirming the Obama Administration’s determination to “allow Ukraine to defend herself”. By which the Americans mean – be given access to the heavy weapons necessary to drive back the pro-Russian separatists.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has reacted sharply to the Vice President’s statement, declaring that she could not “imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily.”
Only now is the European Union beginning to grasp its reckless folly in allowing anti-Russian extremists within Nato to connive in the fascist-supported overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically-elected President, Victor Yanukovych, in February 2014. Only now, having spent the last 12 months baiting the Russian bear, have the Europeans, the Americans, and the rest of us, belatedly remembered that the Russian bear has nuclear teeth.
The Nato powers promise to follow the fascist-backed Ukrainian regime to the end of the earth. Vladimir Putin offers to organise it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 February 2015.