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In reference to the statement: "The fact that nuclear war can be depicted so casually in terms of conventional warfare (an A-Bomb is just like an ordinary bomb, only bigger) is the most fascinating aspect of the film, coming as it does so soon after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- but without real awareness of it."

In 1952, this was actually pretty much the way Americans thought. They really did see nuclear weapons as giant explosives. Hence Invasion USA offers a very good representation of the popular consciousness at the time. Even though the military was aware by then of the medical implications of nuclear war (well, some of the implications anyway), I think people still didn't make the link, including many of the military themselves. Remember that Douglas MacArthur tried to force a nuclear escalation in the Korean War and had to be physically recalled to the US to prevent that from happening.

Awareness of the effects of radioactivity only sank into the popular consciousness through, of all things, cheap SF/horror films mostly released after Invasion USA. It's been a belief of mine for some time that B-grade horror/sf was far more effective at getting across the dangers of radioactivity than any number of well-intentioned documentaries or serious dramas. The downside is that people were (and still are) being educated by filmmakers whose main purpose is to entertain, and as a result there are some seriously loony concepts around because of their usefulness as dramatic devices. This doesn't just affect nuclear matters, but also genetic engineering and "toxic waste" (which I put in quotation marks because it's a term used so broadly as to have a wide range of meanings).

In 1952, in fact, there could have been an all-out nuclear war between the US and the USSR without destroying the planet. Despite what most people think, nuclear weapons don't cause that much pollution -- at least, fission bombs, which were the mainstay of nuclear arsenals. There are now a number of different nuclear bombs with different radiation properties, but not back in 1952.

People now live safely in the ruins of Hiroshima, and Hiroshima Bay has a vibrant oyster industry. People tend to forget that in most A-bombs there's only a few kilograms of radioactive material involved and the major risk is to those who are directly exposed to the blast. If thousands of A-bombs had been launched, there certainly would have been a big problem, but the big issue there is not so much the radioactivity as the "nuclear winter" that was first imagined by Carl Sagan long after 1952.

There's a lot of confusion between nuclear weapons (which cause most of their destruction by heat and blast) and nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, which did release a lot of radiation into the atmosphere. This is not to say that nuclear weapons are a good thing. I'm strongly in favour of a total decommissioning of all the world's nuclear arsenal, with only a handful (say 20) being held by the UN under very strict surveillance.

As for the effects of A-bombs, I don't think anybody needs a total rewiring of their understanding. It's just that the idea of permanent radioactive Armageddon is oversimplified -- the environmental danger from an all-out war is the nuclear winter scenario (that is, atmospheric dust blocking sunlight and thus dropping temperature levels around the globe). Radiation is a major killer, but mostly to those near Ground Zero. The background radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is now so close to normal that you need very special tools to measure the difference. And even in the bomb survivors who were within a few kilometres of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blast centres, the cancer rate is only 9% higher than expected over fifty years, which was just 428 cases, mostly leukaemias -- this is still terrible, of course, and I don't wish to diminish the suffering of those affected, but it's hardly the sort of radiation-apocalypse that popular culture imagined.

A really good take on this is in a young Bradley Denton's "The Universe Next Door", which in very short summary postulates an alternative history where the Cuban Missile Crisis resulted in a nuclear war, but because of the limited weapons available at the time, the post-war environmental effects were survivable (if not pleasant). Into this world, a number of strangers suddenly appear out of nowhere, all terribly burnt and all dying within hours. The protagonist soon surmises that these are people from an alternative history where the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully and that for this other Universe (that is, ours), when the inevitable nuclear war broke out the resulting war was two decades further down the proliferation track and far more deadly. The story hasn't dated well now that the Cold War is well and truly over, but it was still a very good idea and Denton was already displaying great writing skills.

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by Chris Lawson

Written by Chris Lawson in response to my review of "Invasion USA" (1952).

This response was sent to me by email on 1 May 2005.

Chris Lawson's Frankenstein Journal, an "irregular pseudoblog", can be accessed here. Chris is extremely knowledgeable on scientific issues, particularly relating to medical matters, and always interesting to read.

His collection of SF stories (with interspersed essays), Written in Blood, is one of the major SF publications to appear in Australia in recent years.


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