British culture struggled to understand the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War. This difficulty in fully ‘imagining’ the destruction a future war would bring had important consequences for how the Cold War was understood and fought in Britain. In the years after Hiroshima, atomic war was understood primarily through the prism of the memory of the 1939-45 war. Atomic destruction was downplayed as people elided future destruction with that experienced in the Blitz. From 1954, however, the hydrogen bomb ensured that the opposite was true: its city destroying power making any sort of survival difficult to imagine. This vision of the Apocalyptic nuclear war drove both the peace campaign and the Government’s deterrent policy. As such, Britain’s nuclear culture from 1945 onwards rested on how nuclear war was – and could be – imagined.

in Understanding the imaginary war
Culture, thought and nuclear conflict, 1945–90

This volume takes the metaphorical character of the Cold War seriously and charts how the bomb was used as a symbol for nuclear war at the very heart of this conflict. The contributions consider the historical relevance of the political, cultural and artistic ramifications of nuclear weapons as signifiers for a new type of conflict. Tis understanding of the metaphorical qualities of the Cold War is encapsulated in the notion of an imaginary war, or, more precisely, a war against the imagination. As an attack against the imagination, the nuclear threat forced politicians and ordinary people to accept the notion that preparations for nuclear annihilation would contribute towards peace, and that the existence of these weapons, and the anticipation of large-scale destruction that came with them, were an inescapable corollary of security, freedom and future prosperity on both sides of the Cold war divide.

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The Cold War as an imaginary war

This chapter interprets the Cold War as an imaginary war, imaginary in the sense that formats that are usually described as fictitious – from dreams and nightmares, films and novels to forecasts and scenarios – had an important bearing on the reality of the Cold War as a nuclear confrontation. The chapter argues that representations of the nuclear threat have to be situated in discourses about national and international security and about the role of nuclear deterrence in the postwar world.

in Understanding the imaginary war