By Tom Engelhardt
April 17, 2008
Dedicated sardonically “to Dwight and Nikita” — President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, for those too young to remember — Mordecai Roshwald’s futuristic novel Level 7 was published in 1959. It was the “diary” of a “button pusher” responsible for launching a nuclear war while living 4,000 feet underground in the deepest part of a seven-level bomb shelter. In the course of the book, each level of the shelter is successively snuffed out and falls silent. It represented, as Paul Brians wrote in his Nuclear Holocausts, Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984, “a seven-stage holocaust that deconstructs, as it were, the results of the seven days of creation in Genesis.”
As in the 1957 nuclear novel (and 1959 movie) On the Beach, Roshwald’s embunkered world ended not with a bang but with a whimper. His was but one of a riot of novels, movies, and even TV shows that populated the 1950s and early 1960s with radioactive creatures, alien “rays,” hordes of mutants, and post-apocalyptic landscapes galore — like the desert from which, 600 years after a nuclear holocaust, the monks of A Canticle for Liebowitz struggle to get their prospective saint canonized. Who could, for instance, forget the screeching sound made by the gigantic mutant ants in Them! or the Twilight Zone episode in which friends and neighbors fall to fighting! over who will occupy a private fallout shelter during a nuclear alarm, or the one in which possibly the last man on Earth after the apocalypse hits, being nearly blind, drops and breaks his only pair of glasses.
While film-makers set loose their giant ants, spiders, dinosaurs, and even rabbits (in the deeply avoidable 1972 film Night of the Lepus), members of the National Security Council, in the privacy of highly classified documents, screened nightmares of their own. From perhaps 1950 on, in their new battle scenarios, which were but other kinds of “fiction,” these advisors to the president, began to plan for the possibility that 100 atomic bombs landing on targets in the U.S. would kill or injure 22 million Americans, or that an American “blow” might result in the “complete destruction” of the Soviet Union.
About the time Roshwald published his novel, American military planners were developing the country’s first SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) meant to organize the delivery of more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities which would, if all went well, cease to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured (and this undoubtedly underestimated radiation effects). Everyone, it seemed, had a version of the “unthinkable” to offer, of future wars of annihilation in which humanity would descend en masse into the charnel house of history.
And then, as if in imitation of Dr. Strangelove, the Pentagon created its own version of Level 7 by gouging out the insides of a mountain in Colorado. And among those who ended up working inside Cheyenne Mountain was none other than Tomdispatch regular William Astore, who now takes us into the real Level 7, while reminding us that the unthinkable is still being thought about — and not only in outlaw “rogue states” either.
This piece is a shared venture of Tomdispatch on-line and the Nation magazine in print. Tom
Leaving Cheyenne Mountain
How I Learned to Start Worrying and Loathe the Bomb
By William Astore