Emotional Health

Trigger Alert: The Baby Boomers and Nuclear Anxiety

Popular culture reflected this view. Movies explored the consequences of nuclear conflict. Two of the best, On the Beach (1959), and Fail Safe (1964), were especially effective. In the former, Gregory peck plays an American submarine commander who has brought his crew to Australia, the last place on earth still untouched by atomic fallout after a war. The rest of the world has perished, and the Australian citizens are preparing themselves for the same fate.

Fail Safe explores how dangerous it is when nations are on a constant alert for nuclear war. An American bomber carrying an atomic weapon mistakenly gets through all our checkpoints and is headed for Moscow. No one can recall him, and the President, played by Henry Fonda, must decide how to convince the Soviets that it is an error, and he must deal with this crisis without creating a holocaust.

Both films are dead serious, and don’t contain a shred of irony or doubt. Even comedies, such as Dr. Strangelove, (the source of the famous line  “I’m not saying our hair wouldn’t get mussed,” referring to the consequences of nuclear war), dealt with this topic. The films seem dated and irrelevant now, but at the time they were expressing what we all felt.

Unfortunately, it is the James Bond films that come closest to depicting the scene we have today. The series, based on books by Ian Fleming, a former British spy, almost all center on a power-mad individual, super-rich and without concern for anyone but himself, who aims for world domination. There is no somber, thoughtful Henry Fonda to lead us to safety. Instead we must rely on the almost superhuman spy, James Bond, who always manages to divert annihilation with only seconds to spare.

New fears have taken over, and our children grew up with the threat of terrorism at the forefront. But nuclear weapons, while reduced in some countries, have continued to proliferate in others, and with nations hostile to us, like Iran and North Korea, gaining ground in the quest for arms, we have been trying for years to find diplomatic solutions that might work to contain them.

What we have not done, ever, is to threaten leaders with taunts and try to shame them. We watched the delicate diplomacy unfold during the Cuban Missile Crisis; historians have written that President Kennedy was always mindful that while showing force he needed to careful not to paint the Soviets into a corner. Great attention was paid to the mind and character of their leader, Nikita Krushchev, in deciding what to do.

Veteran foreign correspondent David Ignatius warned on MSNBC that Koreans, like other Asians, are especially sensitive to shame. Calling an unstable young leader of an Asian nation silly names would not be effective in the same way it was when Marco Rubio was taunted with the moniker “little Marco,” but instead is a serious mistake.

Unfortunately, we have little immediate control over the situation. Many people have tried to overcome their fears about our current divisions by working to change the political tone and endorsing candidates with responsible positions. I suggest that you do the same, because any proactive activity is usually better than feeling like a passive victim. In the meantime, live each day well, spend time with your grandchildren, and don’t forget to cover their sensitive ears.


Cecilia M. Ford, Ph.D.


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  • Patricia. Moscatello September 30, 2017 at 9:03 am

    I have not wanted to think about this conflict between our country and N Korea. It creeps into my thoughts daily. However your article brought to mind those memories of under the desk drills and bomb shelters that I had stuffed somewhere in my mind, wanting to forget the stress of those times. Now I understand where my recent anxiety has come about. Thank you for the suggestions to overcome the fears.