Why Should You Be Interested In Nuclear History?

23 Jan

There is a degree of arrogance involved in publishing your thoughts at random on the internet. A vain assumption that there are people out there who will be interested in what you have to say (and as an aside: hello and welcome to both of you!) This is perhaps even more apparent when you are dealing with the obscurities and super-specific geekiness of academic history. One reason for this particular blog is the hope that it might interest an audience outside of what is often called ‘the academy.’

That leads into the main question: why in heavens name should you be interested in nuclear history? I for one am not going to pretend that I have all – or even a minority of – the answers to this question. But, I’m enough of a bloviator to think that I might be able to stumble towards a few basic thoughts on the matter.

On the most fundamental level, historians exist to elucidate an understanding of the past. Or at least as good an understanding as we can hazard. The history of our post-WW2 world is intimately tied up with nuclear weapons, therefore understanding their history and impact can help us better understand our world.

There are caveats, though. Some would suggest that nukes – in the context of their war-making or war-preventing capabilities –  have not always been as important or as influential as some would suggest. A more controversial opinion in academia – primarily voiced by John Mueller – is that nuclear weapons were essentialy irrelevant in the Cold War.(1) What Mueller suggests is actually a little broader than it first appears: the Cold War would have remained cold regardless of whether or not the weapons had existed, as it was the obsolesence of major war between states (as demonstrated by the horrific destruction of the Great War and WW2) that prevent outright conflict between the two major power blocs.(2)

Regardless of what you make of the Mueller thesis, nuclear weapons (and nuclear power) were significant as factors in a wider context than the perceived bipolar Cold War struggle. Aside from the position of nuclear issues within the US-USSR aspect of the Cold War, it also impacted in a wide range of spheres. In popular culture they drove a whole slew of films from It Came From Beneath The Sea, Godzilla, through the James Bond series, The War Game, to Miracle Mile and beyond.(3) The image of the nuclear bomb (and to a lesser extent nuclear power) has influenced our cultural world to vast extent.

Millions of people worldwide have been affected by nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The Native Americans whose land the first bombs were tested in, the citizens of the north west of England affected by the accidents at Windscale/Sellafield, the people of the Pacific who were uprooted from their islands so that the United States, Britain, and France could test ever more powerful weapons, farmers from the lands surrounding Chernobyl, all have had their lives altered by the existence of the nuclear idea. And more widely, we have all been impacted by their stories and experiences.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of contemporary relevance to studying nuclear history. The rhetoric used against Iran today is strikingly similar to that used against China in 1964, India in 1974, and Pakistan in 1978/79. Examining these past events may help us understand what is going on today. Although, it must be stressed that historians should never be in the business of trying to predict the future – the result is often spectacular failure rather than brilliant prescience! But we can – I think – offer some insights into the present.

Finally, looking at the specifics of nuclear history can help place wider events into perspective. Returning to my own particular area, the approaches made by the US and UK to nuclear proliferation in India and Pakistan during the 1970s can help to illuminate wider issues: how did ‘the North’ see ‘the South’ in terms of technological development?; what were relations between these two white, Western nuclear like?; how do ideas of religion, ethnocentrism, and the baggage of Imperialism affect foreign relations?

Whether we like it or not, nuclear weapons and nuclear powerplants are not a genie we can stick back into a convenient bottle. By assessing their past, we can hopefully make wiser decisions for the future.


(1) Mueller outlines his thesis in Retreat From Doomsday: The Obsolesence of Major War (New York, NY, 1989) and, more succinctly in ‘The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World‘, International Security, Vol.13, No.2 (Fall 1988), pp.55-79.

(2) A thing that I find wonderful about the work of Professor Mueller is that he combines the role of heavyweight thinker on major international relations issues with that of a leading expert on the filmic works of Fred Astaire.

(3) Although, the influence of Bond may have been somewhat overstated in recent weeks. See ‘It’s The Fault of Bond. James Bond‘ for more on this particular topic.

One Response to “Why Should You Be Interested In Nuclear History?”


  1. Interesting Nuclear History Reads « theatomicage - February 8, 2012

    […] mentioned John Mueller before, in the context of his earlier work on the irrelevance of nuclear weapons to the Cold War. In this, […]

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