In the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union ignited over the threat of nuclear attack. By the early 1950s , the U.S. had even launched publicity campaigns with “duck and cover” training films and cartoons that instructed citizens what to do in the event of nuclear war.
Meanwhile, both countries began building up massive nuclear arsenals as insurance against annihilation. Concern was fed by popular novels like “Seven Days in May,” and films like “Dr. Strangelove,” which, along with “Ban the Bomb” marches, became part of the cultural landscape in the 1960s.
While tensions seemed always to escalate, leaders of both countries were well-aware that an accidental blunder – rather than an intentional assault – could spell global doom for all. That belief in a shared fate caused both sides to put safeguards in place and brought them to the negotiating table.
By the late 1980s, major arms reduction agreements had been negotiated by President Reagan, while the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 seemed to greatly diminish the threat of nuclear war.
But over the last few years, the nuclear weapons situation has become more complicated. The major superpowers – the U.S., Russia, and China – still face off with nuclear arsenals. But they are not alone. North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel reportedly have nuclear capability, and other countries including Iran seem eager to join them.
At the same time, some of the chief lessons of the Cold War – the necessity of safeguards and the value of negotiation – seem to be missing.