1980s: From Star Wars to the End of the Cold War

Throughout the 1980s until the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the world still shivered in the edgy cold war air. The global yearning for world unity and peace appeared to be cast far off into a never-never land. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists report of 1980 positioned the nuclear clock at 7 minutes to midnight. The US and the Soviet Union still viewed nuclear weapons as an “integral component of their mutual security.” Incensed, one Bulletin writer thought that the Soviets and the US behaved like “nucleoholics”—drunks who insist that this drink will be their “last one.”

One year later in 1981, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US’s hardened nuclear posture pushed the clock ahead three minutes, to 4 minutes before midnight. In fact, the early 1980s was a worrisome time for the world. Things did look gloomy. US-Soviet relations had reached their iciest point in decades. Dialogue had almost stopped. In the Bulletin’s assessment, “Every channel of communication has been constricted or shut down; every form of contact has been attenuated or cut off. And arms control negotiations have been reduced to a species of propaganda.”

By 1984 it was 3 minutes to midnight. In fact, the total number of nuclear weapons in the world reached its highest point in 1986. Moreover, superpower deployment of SS20s in Soviet Bloc countries, American Pershing missiles in W. Europe and Britain’s replacement of Polaris armed submarine fleet with Trident missiles drove thousands of anti-nuclear protestors into the streets.

By 1988, miraculously enough, President Ronald Reagan’s hard-line approach to the “evil empire” had softened. In the early 1980s Reagan had entertained scenarios of nuclear attack and even dreamed up crazy ideas like a missile defense shield, popularly known as “Star Wars.” Hobsbawm thinks that the US experience of defeat and public ignominy in the 1970s fuelled the “apparent insanity of this outburst of military fever, the rhetoric of apocalypse, and the bizarre international behaviour of US governments, especially in the early years of President Reagan (1980-1988)” (p. 247). The US was suffering from the trauma of humiliation: the “greatest power on earth” couldn’t defeat the Viet Cong or even decisively confront the consortium of feeble Third World states that strangled oil supplies in 1973 or handle the Iranian hostage taking crisis with skill and aplomb. But in the late 1980s something almost miraculous occurred.

Capturing this unlikely moment, the Atomic Bulletin exclaimed: “The US and the Soviet Union signed the historic Intermediate nuclear forces treaty, the first agreement to actually ban a whole category of nuclear weapons.” This momentous occasion, which even included treaties to ban all nuclear weapons by 2000, was propelled by Gorbachev-Reagan and signed in 1987. Gorbachev also promised to remove all troops from Afghanistan and Mongolia by July 28th. Hobsbawm hails Gorbachev’s complex positive role in sealing this agreement and observes that Regan “actually believed in the coexistence of the USA and the USSR, but one which should not be based on an abhorrent balance of mutual nuclear terror” (p. 249). Hobsbawm thinks that the Cold War ended in 1987.

The Cold War was beginning to thaw a trickle or two. Both the US and the USSR had distorted and overstretched their economies as massive amounts of money were spent on armaments. But the USSR, with its command-state economy scarcely able to compete with that the US, driven as it was by new technologies, and drained by payments to Soviet allies and dependents, couldn’t handle massive debt (The US debt was 3 trillion) as the world capitalist system seemed able to do. The Cold War was, Hobsbawm points out, a “war of unequals” (p. 251). But, while there was a fleck of hope of moving beyond endless wars in 1987, from 1945 until the late 1980s the superpowers sought to win friends and influence people by feeding them huge supplies of arms. The world was drowning in weapons of destruction. It still is!

Yet even though the world has reduced its numbers of nuclear weapons to around 15,000 (down from the heights of 50,000-70,000 in the chilly 1980s), these alone can provoke the “nuclear winter” scenarios imagined by scientists writing in the early 1980s. The apocalyptic image of black, sooty smoke from cities and industrial sites billowing and darkening the sky would block out the sunlight over the entire planet. This would precipitate, in turn, disastrous consequences for agriculture, fires raging uncontrollably everywhere, radioactivity permeating life and ruining modestly decent everyday life. Alan Robock (“Nuclear winter,” Climate change, vol. 1, May/June 2010, p. 420) states: “A nuclear explosion is like bringing a piece of the Sun to Earth’s surface for a fraction of a second. Like a giant match, it causes cities and industrial areas to burn.” The image of nuclear winter—analyzed by scholars and exploited by film makers —is one unwanted heritage of the “culture of fear” gripping the 1980s imagination.


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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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