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My Life at World’s End
Indulge me for a moment. This is how “The Prophecy” in my 1962 high school yearbook began. It was written by some of my classmates in the year we graduated from Friends Seminary in New York City.
“Being an historian, I am jotting down these notes out of habit, but what I saw and experienced two days ago I am sure no one else as civilized as I am will ever see. I am writing for those who shall come a long time from now.
“First of all, let me introduce myself. I am THOMAS M. ENGELHARDT, world-renowned historian of the late twentieth century, should that mean anything to whoever reads this account. After the great invasion, I was maintaining a peaceful, contented existence in the private shelter I had built and was completing the ninth and final volume of my masterpiece, The Influence of the Civil War on Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century, when I was seized by a strange desire to emerge from my shelter, have a look at the world, and find some companions. Realizing the risk I was taking, I carefully opened the hatch of the shelter and slowly climbed out. It was morning. To my shock, I was in a wide field overgrown with weeds; there was no sign of the community that had been there…”
As I wander, I finally run into one of my classmates, now “a skinny old man with bushy white hair, wearing a loose deer skin.” And yes, whatever happened (that “great invasion”) while I was underground in — as anyone of that period would have known — a private nuclear-fallout shelter, is unclear. Still, in the world I find on emerging, all my former classmates, whom I meet one after another in joking fashion, now live in caves. In other words, it had obviously been devastated.
True, in those high school years, I was something of a Civil War nut and my classmates ragged me for it. I couldn’t stop reading grown-up books on the subject. (Thank you, Bruce Catton, for your popular histories of that war and for the magazine you founded and edited, American Heritage, to which I was a teen subscriber!) They obviously thought I was a history wonk of the first order. But more than 60 years later, it strikes me that we kids who had learned to “duck and cover” at school — to dive under our desks, hands over our heads (with CONELRAD warnings blaring from the radio on our teacher’s desk) — in preparation for a Russian nuclear attack, already had a deep sense not of future promise but of doom to come. In those days, it wasn’t that hard to imagine ourselves in a future devastated world returned to the Stone Age or worse.
And at the time, I suspect that was hardly out of the ordinary. After all, there were, in a sense, mushroom clouds everywhere on the horizon of our lives to come. By 1962, America’s victory weapon that, in two blinding flashes in August 1945, took out the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, had become a weapon (in other hands) of potential defeat. Everywhere in our lives there lurked the possibility that “we,” not “they,” might be the next victims of nuclear extermination. Consider it an irony indeed that our country’s nukes would chase Americans through the decades to come, infiltrating so many parts of our world and our lives.
Back in 1954, our Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, already had its own nukes (though as yet little effective way of delivering them). No one thought it worth a comment then that, in Walt Disney’s cinematic retelling of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, when Captain Nemo blows up his island, what’s distinctly a mushroom cloud rises over it. Of course, in those years, end-of-the-world movies would become everyday affairs.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, a now-forgotten bunker-culture mentality enveloped this country and my classmates caught the moment perfectly. In fact, that “shelter” I emerged from would, in 1962, still have been far too recognizable to need further description. After all, we grew up in a time when the Cold War was only intensifying and the very idea of building private nuclear shelters had become a commonplace. As an article in Smithsonian Magazine reminds us, right after the first Russian nuclear test went off in 1949, “[General] Douglas MacArthur’s ex-wife said she was furnishing the former slave quarters beneath her Georgetown mansion as a bomb shelter” and, only six years later, the head of Civil Defense began urging every single American “to build an underground shelter right now.’”
By 1961, faced with a crisis over a divided Berlin, President John F. Kennedy himself urged Americans to do just that. (“The time is now,” he insisted.) In those years, Life magazine typically ran a feature on constructing “an H-bomb Hideaway” for a mere $3,000! And real-estate ads even promised “good bomb immunity,” while Science News warned of “hucksters who were peddling backyard shelters, burn ointments, dog tags, flashbags, and ‘decontaminating agents.’” Naturally, once you had built your private shelter, there was the question of whether, should a nuclear war be about to begin, you should let the neighbors in or arm yourself to stop them from doing so. (A friend of mine still remembers one of his schoolmates and neighbors warning him that, in a crisis, according to his parents, his family better not try to come to their nuclear shelter or they would regret it.)
And that yearbook passage of mine was written in the winter or spring of 1962, months before the Cuban missile crisis shook us all to our bones. That October, I remember fearing the East Coast, where I was then attending my freshman year of college, might indeed go up in a giant mushroom cloud. And keep in mind that, in those years, from popular magazines to sci-fi novels to the movies, the bomb either exploded or threatened to do so again and again. In my youth, atomic war was, culturally speaking, all around us. It was even in outer space, as in the 1955 film This Island Earth in which another planet goes up in a version of radioactive flames, scaring the living hell out of the 11-year-old Thomas M. Engelhardt.
So, yes, my classmates were messing around and having fun, but underneath it all lurked a sensibility (probably only half-grasped at the time) about the world we were to graduate into that was anything but upbeat. The planet that our leaders were then assuring us was ours for the taking seemed to us anything but.
World-Endings, Part Two
It’s true that, in the years between then and now, the world didn’t go up in a mushroom cloud (with an accompanying nuclear winter killing billions more of us, a probability we knew nothing about in 1962). Still, whether you’re talking about actual war or potential nuclear catastrophe, it’s certainly looking mighty ugly right now.
Worse yet, if you’re 18 as I was then (and not 78, as I am now), you undoubtedly know that the future isn’t looking cheery these days either, even without a nuclear war. Sadly, in the years since I graduated high school, we discovered that humanity had managed to come up with a second slower but potentially no less devastating way to make this world unlivable. I’m thinking, of course, of climate change, a subject deeply on the minds of the young on this embattled planet of ours.
I mean, from unparalleled floods to unprecedented melting ice, staggering megadroughts to record wildfires, sweltering heat waves and ever fiercer storms to… well, increasingly extreme weather of almost any imaginable sort, this planet is an ever less comfortable place on which to live, even without a mushroom cloud on the horizon. And that’s especially true, given how humanity is dealing with the crisis to come. After all, what makes more sense right now than a never-ending war in Europe to create an energy crisis (though that crisis is also helping fuel the rapid growth of alternative energy)? What makes more sense than an escalating arms race globally or the world’s two greatest greenhouse gas producers, the United States and China, facing off against each other in an increasingly militarized fashion rather than cooperating to stop our planet from burning up?
What makes more sense than the Biden administration giving the nod to an oil drilling project on federal land in Alaska expected to produce an estimated 576 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years, despite the president’s previous promise not to do such a thing? (“No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.”) What makes more sense than China using more coal, that monstrous greenhouse-gas producer, than the rest of the world combined? What makes more sense than the major oil companies garnering greater profits in 2022 than in any previous moment in history as they broil the planet without mercy? What makes more sense than, as the Guardian reported, more than 1,000 “super-emitter” sites, mostly at oil and natural gas facilities, continuing to gush the potent greenhouse gas methane into the global atmosphere in 2022, the worst of those sites spewing “the pollution at a rate equivalent to 67 million running cars”?
And no less daunting, so Michael Birnbaum reported at the Washington Post recently, as various countries begin to explore the possibility of “solar geoengineering” (spraying a sun-blocking mist into the earth’s atmosphere to cool their overheating countries), they might also end up messing with atmospheric conditions in other lands in a fashion that could lead to… yes, as the “U.S. intelligence community” has come to fear, war. So add potential climate wars to your list of future horrors.
It’s true that alternative energy sources are also ramping up significantly, just not yet fast enough, but there’s certainly still hope that, in some fashion, humanity will once again figure out how to come up short of The End. Still, if you’re young today and looking at the world, I suspect it’s not a pretty sight.
Prophesies to Come
Let me now offer my own little summary of the very future that I, like so many of my classmates, did live through to this moment: No, Thomas M. Engelhardt never wrote that classic book The Influence of the Civil War on Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century, but he did author The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (published in 1995) in which he wrote about the victory weapon of World War II, the “bunker culture” of the 1950s and 1960s that it produced, and what (as best he could tell) to make of it all.
In addition, with that end-of-the-world sensibility still in mind, while an editor at the publishing house Pantheon Books, he would make more visible something Americans had largely been prevented from seeing after August 1945. As it happened, a friend would show him a book put out by a Japanese publisher that collected the memories of some of the survivors of Hiroshima along with drawings they had done of that experience. Yes, in his childhood, Thomas M. Engelhardt had indeed seen giant irradiated ants and an incredible shrinking man on screen in science-fictionalized versions of an irradiated future. But missing from his all-American world had been any vision of what had actually happened to the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that all-American past.
In 1979, not long before an antinuclear movement that would make use of it revved up in this country, he published that Japanese book, Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, which all too vividly laid out the memories of those who had experienced world’s end in an up-close-and-personal fashion. And several years later, thanks to that book’s Japanese editor (amazed that any American would have considered publishing it), he actually went to Hiroshima and visited the Peace Memorial Museum, something he’s never forgotten.
And in the next century, the one my high school classmates and I hadn’t even begun to imagine and weren’t at all sure we’d live to see, he would, almost by happenstance, start a website called (not by him) TomDispatch that would repeatedly focus on the two world-ending ways humanity had discovered to do itself in and how to begin to deal with them.
And honestly, all of this leaves me wondering today what that “prophesy” might look like for the high school graduates of 2023 or those of my grandchildren’s generation in an even more distant future. I certainly hope for the best, but also fear the worst. Perhaps it, too, would begin: “Being an historian, I am jotting down these notes out of habit, but what I saw and experienced two days ago I am sure no one else as civilized as I am will ever see. I am writing for those who shall come a long time from now. First of all, let me introduce myself. I am [NAME TO BE FILLED IN], world-renowned historian of the twenty-first century, should that mean anything to whoever reads this account….”
More than 60 years later, even writing that, no less remembering the world of once-upon-a-time, and imagining what it will be like after I’m long gone sends chills down my spine and leaves me hoping against hope that, someday, one of my grownup grandchildren will read this and not think worse of the class of 1962 or their grandfather for it.
Copyright 2023 Tom Engelhardt