My favourite gen-x pop culture and nuclear holocaust obsessive does a quick explanation of how fucked up growing up as a kid in the shadow of mutually assured destruction was in the eighties, compared to in hindsight much less scary fifties and sixties:
While the early Atomic Era spread its cultural tendrils far and wide, they were nowhere near as up front and morbidly (and joyously) blatant as they were when I was kid. It was prevalent enough in the mellow malaise of the late Seventies, but went into hypercriticality after Reagan took office and ramped up the belligerent rhetoric alongside the nation’s nuclear stockpiles. The specter of armageddon overshadowed every aspect of my formative years. There was no escape even in the traditional avenues of escapism.
It’s not that a nuclear war wouldn’t have mussed up our hair had say the Cuban Missile Crisis turned hot — and certainly we here in Europe would’ve been screwed — but there were so many more nuclear weapons aimed at us in the eighties, so many more opportunities to see it all go horribly wrong. We all know that on at least one occasion only the willingness of a fairly low level Soviet officer to wait just a bit longer before launching the missiles. Or the other way around, having Reagan joke on live television that the bombing starts in five minutes, which almost starts the bombing for real. An aggressive military build-up by a Republican administration talking about a winnable nuclear war combined with a paranoid, verging on the senile Soviet leadership meant that when NATO started a particularly realistic military exercise including preparations for nuclear war, we got as close to the real thing as we’d ever got. Note that this happened only a month or so after Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov managed to save the world from nuclear death by false alarm.
The weight of it actually broke my brain during junior high school. There was stretch of my eighth grade year where I lived in constant panic of sirens, the sound of jets overhead, and unexpected interruptions during TV or radio broadcasts. I was afraid to sleep, because it brought nightmares where my family and friends would rot away and die from radiation poisoning. It was triggered by reading a book club edition of On The Beach, but amplified by years of ceaseless atomic anxiety.
It’s no wonder that pop culture and the public consciousness was drenched in nuclear war. I remember the nightmares, triggered by reading pop science articles or seeing something about Pershing or cruise missiles deployments on the evening news. The Netherlands is not quite small enough that a single h-bomb would destroy it, but it was pretty clear even as a kid, especially one like me who was a bit of a military nerd, that there were enough targets here that it didn’t matter much where in the country you lived come World War III. I wasn’t quite as traumatised as Andrew Weis describes here, but the nuclear nightmares recurred through most of the eighties.