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Monday, 22 May, 2000, 18:04 GMT 19:04 UK
How we learned to stop worrying and forget the bomb

Generational gaps are usually measured in such trivialities as musical tastes.

However, today's youth are also marked out from older Britons because they have never strained to hear an air raid siren or laid awake, terrified at the imminent prospect of nuclear holocaust.

The deal announced by the US, Russia, China, France and the UK to "unequivocally" move towards full nuclear disarmament has made relatively little impression on many people.
Nagasaki after nuclear attack, 1945
The fear of a nuclear holocaust has receded

This may be in part because no timetable has been set for this project or that the nuclear club has been swollen by several new members still chuffed with their prestige toys.

But perhaps it is because we in Britain have really learned to stop worrying and tolerate the bomb.

Professor Paul Rogers, from the University of Bradford's peace studies department, says many young people are blissfully ignorant of weapons which gave their elder siblings, parents and grandparents nightmares.

Beyond belief

"Students in the 1980s knew all about the effects of nuclear weapons. Today, there is a distinct generation, right up to their mid-20s, for whom these things are not within their mental view."

While the Cold War was littered with potential nuclear flashpoints, the 1980s saw a flood of information reach the public about the potential devastation of a missile exchange.
Mushroom cloud
Apocalypse then: Nuclear threat hung over many generations

Many a child read Raymond Briggs' apocalyptic tale When the Wind Blows, expecting a repeat of Fungus the Bogeyman or The Snowman. Instead they got fall-out shelters and radiation sickness.

Pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood followed up their sexually-explicit hit Relax with Two Tribes.

Complete with wailing sirens and "official" warnings about what to do in the event of nuclear war, the song's video had a fake Ronald Reagan wrestling with his Soviet opposite number.

War games

Along with a rash of TV dramatisations, the BBC dusted off the shelved docu-drama The War Game in 1985. The graphic depiction of a nuclear attack on Britain was thought too disturbing for 1965 audiences.

Thanks to groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) - which hit a peak membership of 100,000 in the mid-1980s - nearly every Briton knew the effects of a nuclear explosion.
Cruise missile base at Greenham Common
Bringing it home: US missiles in the UK

"Local groups produced leaflets outlining the damage that would be done to their city or town. That's just all in the past," says Mr Rogers.

Missiles with 25 megaton warheads were once on stand-by. Were one to have exploded over London, it would have ignited everything within the circle of the M25 motorway, says Mr Rogers.

"If you say that to students now they just won't believe you. They don't have the history."

Dr Douglas Holdstock, from the physician's pressure group Medact, says the fall of the Berlin Wall has reduced concern over nuclear arms.

Common complaint

"What made the difference 20 years ago was that Cruise missiles were based at Greenham Common. That made southern England a target for Soviet attack."

The basing of these American missiles at the British airfield was part of an expansion of the arms race which saw nuclear arsenals reach their peak.
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
Cold thaw: Dangers of another era?

In 1985/6 the global stockpile of nuclear weapons stood at 69,000. Mutually assured destruction in spades.

Mr Holdstock says people on both sides of the Iron Curtain began to see the folly of this course.

"Neither [the capitalist or communist] system was perfect, but both could be lived with better than living after a nuclear winter."

As the Cold War thawed, other visions of apocalypse emerged. Aids, globalisation and environmental disaster have all come to the fore since 1989.

Bombed out

Manchester Metropolitan University historian Dr David Nichols says apathy is not at the root of young people's ambivalence to the bomb.

"I don't think radicalism has disappeared, it's just shifted to new issues."
Russian missile silo
The bombs have not gone yet

This shift may have come too soon according to Mr Rogers.

"The reality is that the nuclear era is not over as we would like."

Mr Holdstock is even more cautious: "It still only takes a missile officer in Dakota or Vladivostok getting a rush of blood to his head to start a nuclear war tomorrow."

Are you listening out for the sirens yet?

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