Religious, nuclear, or environmental, the end of the world continues to entrance and terrify people. How have societies responded to the real and imagined threat of mass destruction? Got your 2020 bingo card handy? The idea of the “end of the world” has the power to entrance, excite, and terrify. This panel explores the explosive impact of the combination of apocalyptic excitement and fear on societies and popular culture--even if the apocalypse isn’t real or isn’t ours.

Moderated by Jason Dyer. Jason works for a technology company in San Francisco. He writes about modern culture and technology as a contributor on AskHistorians.

Samantha Smith: Citizen Diplomacy in the Cold War, by Joshua Porter

On November 28, 1982, an eleven-year-old girl in Manchester, Maine ripped a handwritten note on yellow legal paper out from a three-ring binder and mailed it to Yuri Andropov, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The letter spoke of the unusual fear an eleven year old girl had of nuclear war, the destruction of the world, and that the Soviet Union sought to invade the United States. Andropov invited Samantha Smith and her family to come to the Soviet Union to visit and to see that “…everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.” Smith with her letter and her visit to the Soviet Union subverted business as usual to open up a new dialogue and to change a system that almost led the world to nuclear armageddon. This paper will focus less on the trip and more on what led an eleven year old girl to write Andropov, why she was chosen by the Soviets and the United States media as a citizen diplomat, and what that says about gender, childhood, and perceived “girlish innocence.”

Joshua R. Porter recently completed his Master of Arts degree in History at the University at Albany. His research focuses on how ideology, memory, propaganda, and perceptions shaped diplomacy and culture in both the Soviet Union and the United States. He currently plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Russian history in 2021.

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More Powerful Than The Atomic Bomb: Dinosaur Extinction and Nuclear Warfare, by Kenneth Reilly

Historian Lukas Rieppel has analyzed the role of Gilded Age business tycoons in funding and creating dinosaur exhibitions to demonstrate positive connections between unbridled capitalism and science, and the extinction of dinosaurs has been used as analogies between intense capitalism or socialism. Yet, the fact that the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction became popular during the 1980s, an age of fears over human extinction through nuclear warfare, suggests that people saw themselves in dinosaurs in a way that extended beyond political ideology. This paper will explore how this theory became understood during fears of nuclear annihilation in the United States throughout the 1980s, examining newspapers, music, and children’s literature that compared the demise of dinosaurs to nuclear destruction. I will argue that in a decade that approached the 40th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a refusal of the American government to engage in disarmament of nuclear weapons, and a general feeling of imminent nuclear destruction, mass extinction from an asteroid became relevant for Americans, scientists and non-scientists alike.

A recent MA student from the University of Western Ontario, Kenneth Reilly recently finished his thesis on northern reactions to kudzu vine. He has presented his research at the Agricultural History Society, the Perennial Problems: Histories of Health and Environment across Borders, and the American Society for Environmental History, and is currently working on an article on weed removal in Atlanta, Georgia throughout the 1980s. If you wish to contact him, his twitter handle is @KReilly16 and his email address is kreill22@uwo.ca.

The Nuclear 1979: Revolution, Islam, and 'The Bomb', by Malcolm Craig

1979 marks a crucial but largely publicly ignored juncture in nuclear history. It was in this year that the Iranian Revolution, public disclosures about Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, and a voracious media brought the 'Islamic bomb' into the Western public eye. Suggesting that one 'Muslim' nation would automatically share nuclear expertise with other 'Muslim' nations because of the bonds of faith, the idea of the 'Islamic bomb' quickly became a mainstay of discussions about the 'Islamic world' and nuclear weapons. It harked back to long standing Western images of Islam, intertwining them with more modern anxieties about atomic weapons in the hands of non-white 'others'. Based on original research, this paper will explore how and why the 'Islamic bomb' exploded into the media in 1979, and why it continues to be a popular trope in newspapers, television reports, novels, films, and online up to the present day.

Malcolm Craig's main research interests lie in the fields of US and UK foreign policy in the post-1945 period, with a particular focus on national security, nuclear weapons, and secret intelligence. His work on the global arms trade, nuclear non-proliferation, Western interactions with the 'Islamic world', and domestic British intelligence issues has appeared in Cold War History, Diplomatic History, Intelligence & National Security, and The International History Review. His first book (on US-UK policy towards Pakistan's nuclear programme) appeared with Palgrave Macmillan in 2017. He also co-hosts the American History Too! podcast.

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The great peril of their bodies and souls’: Failure, Response, and History in the Würzburg Annals, by Corranne Wheeler

The dismal failure of the Second Crusade sent ripples of panic through the clergy of twelfth- century France and Germany who were well positioned to interpret the failure in political, military, religious and moral contexts. In Germany in the 1160s, two clerics put forwards eschatological arguments to explain the crusade’s failure. Whilst the views of Gerhoh of Reichersberg have been analysed extensively, the Würzburg Annals have been dismissed as ‘unusual’ without real scholarship being dedicated to the text itself; the most extensive analysis remains that of Giles Constable in 1953. Detailed analysis of the text, however, reveals that the unorthodox views of the (anonymous) cleric were a complex theological interpretation of a crusade and its outcome, and an utterly unique response to what he perceived as a religious disaster. Furthermore, the Würzburg Annals were one of the earliest texts to challenge the legitimacy of crusading as an endeavour. This paper will demonstrate how disasters contributed to challenges to papal policy by considering how this cleric positioned contemporary events within the biblical chronology of world history. In this text, this is considered with particular reference to the ultimate catastrophe: The Apocalypse.

Corranne Wheeler completed an MLitt in Medieval History at the University of St Andrews in 2018 following a BA in Ancient and Medieval History at Royal Holloway, University of London. She works as an Archives Assistant for Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archives where she is a specialist in transcribing and analysing medieval and early modern records. Her independent research focuses on twelfth-century European literature with a particular interest in the associations Latin writers made between non-Latin cultures, the Antichrist, and the Apocalypse.

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