Commentary Magazine

The Nuclear Bubble

In June 1989 the press carried accounts of a project which had encouraged adolescents to write to Congress about the issues of most concern to them. Over 5,000 seventh- and eighth-graders had done so. The top seven issues mentioned were drugs (25 percent), sex (17 percent), the environment (10 percent), crime (7 percent), education (5 percent), child abuse (5 percent), and suicide (5 percent). Other issues adduced ranged from health care to helmet and skateboard laws.

An addicted reader of information on the young like myself was bound to note an extraordinary omission—there was no mention of nuclear warfare and how to avoid it. How could that be? After all, it had been drummed into us that the fear of a nuclear Armageddon was haunting the adolescent imagination. Indeed, less than a year before we had learned from the august New England Journal of Medicine that nuclear war was “one of the greatest concerns of American children and adolescents.” The implications were said to be profound: in an accompanying guest editorial, a well-known professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School declared that these apprehensions might well affect “impulse control and capacity to delay gratification, the formation of long-term ideals, the ability and willingness to form relationships, views of death, the capacity for intergenerational trust, the development of social responsibility, and interest in planning for the future.” In short, just about everything.

Yet in under twelve short months, nuclear anxiety—supposedly all but ubiquitous in its reach and utterly malignant in its effects—had seemingly vanished, leaving few traces save some stray citations in Psychological Abstracts and Excerpta Medica. How can we account for this? A likely explanation is that the end of the cold war had a great deal to do with it. But if that is so, it would suggest that “nuclear terror” was no more than an ordinary source of worry, much as drugs are at the moment, and by no means the shattering trauma it was alleged to be—real traumas do not dissipate with every change in the headlines. An even more likely explanation is that there had never been a psychological crisis in the first place, that it had been invented as a vast exercise in self-deception—just another bubble, like the South Seas bubble and the Dutch-tulip craze. And if that is so, it tells us something unpleasant about the sciences of psychology and psychiatry in their traffic with political ideas.




My own interest in nuclear anxiety was first aroused unexpectedly some seven years ago when I was telephoned by a Minority aide to the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. The committee, she told me, had been established to study such problems as divorce, illegitimacy, domestic violence, child abuse, and other misfortunes besetting the American family. That was more than enough to exhaust the committee’s time and energy. Yet the chairman had insisted on pushing through a special hearing for the purpose of showing that nuclear anxiety among the young was so severe as to constitute a national crisis in mental health. At this hearing it would be argued that our children were not only terrified by fears of a nuclear catastrophe, but that these fears were also a major cause of other afflictions—the rising rates of suicide, drug abuse, school failure, and so on. Some of the Republican members were upset, largely because the real work of the committee was to be delayed in order to put on a television event. Children were to testify, as were some celebrity psychiatrists. The television networks had been invited and it might well turn into a media circus.

She was calling to ask whether I agreed that the nation’s young were in such a crisis. She herself thought the idea far-fetched. She had seen nothing untoward in her own children, nor among their friends. But then again she was not a psychologist, so perhaps was missing something. What did I think? What I thought, without telling her so, was that she had misunderstood or exaggerated the claims being made. But I said that I would do some checking and get back to her.

Looking into the literature I discovered to my surprise that she had in no way been guilty of overstatement. It was in fact being claimed that the American young were in the grip of despair, induced by their fear of an inescapable nuclear calamity. Yet this conclusion, it appeared, had been reached almost gratuitously. It was based on an array of more or less inadequate studies—some entirely anecdotal, some amateurish, a few no more than passable technically, and as a group showing few signs of inferential prudence. In much of the work, the samples had been tendentiously chosen—the youngsters studied were all upper-middle-class and suburban, the seedbed of the peace movement. Nor were investigator effects taken into account, even though most of the early studies had been carried out by persons who were themselves deeply devoted to the movement.

These were the more obvious errors, most clearly visible in the clinical researches. The other common genre was the opinion survey, wherein youngsters were asked to write in or check off or rate their concerns or worries or fears. That would seem to be the most straightforward of approaches, yet it is not, and when used without sufficient guile can provide extremely misleading data. These studies, then and later, showed little awareness of how tricky it can be to measure complex or fugitive states of mind—being worried is not the same as being concerned or being fearful. Further, being worried may mean entirely different things to different children. Nor is merely saying that you are worried quite the same as the depth of worry that might reveal itself on a projective test. Nor was there much recognition of context effects—many children tend to view a survey taken at school as a current-events quiz, which would account for the surprisingly high frequency of worries about such matters as pollution, overpopulation, and world starvation.



Still, the clinical studies were the most troublesome, given their casual and at moments reckless habits of inference. Clinical theory had taken a hard look at those habits in recent years, and had developed some doctrines of self-consciousness and caution. Yet none of that delicacy of touch could be perceived in the nuclear-anxiety literature. If the subject (interviewee, patient) was openly fearful, that made the case; if the subject feared something else, that was a derivative, and also made the case; if there were no signs of fear, that pointed to “psychic numbing,” a concept which acted as a universal solvent to wash away all contradiction.

No wonder, then, that one writer, in an approving summation of the literature, could represent “the bomb” as “a major force behind increased apathy, conformity, hedonism, and lack of faith; the source of powerlessness, nervousness, sensationalism, alienation, and dehumanization; the creator of a weakness in the distinction between reality and unreality, information overload, psychic numbing, expectation of holocaust, rejection of materialism, rejection of technology and the religion of nuclearism.”

Surely a terror so devastating would have been noticed by others. Yet I could find no references to nuclear panic outside the work of those engaged in the anti-nuclear movement. For example, in a fairly recent book reporting studies on childrens’ ideas of death as depicted in their drawings, there was no allusion to nuclear disaster at all (despite the vivid iconographic properties of the mushroom cloud), and in fact there was scarcely any reference to death in war (fewer than 2 percent among those nine to twelve years of age). Surveying a dozen texts in child and adolescent psychology and psychiatry, I discovered that the topic simply did not appear. Even the fear of war was rare—among children of latency age it showed up in only 8 percent of the girls and was hardly mentioned by the boys.

One could easily imagine an advocate’s rejoinder to these findings—that they were out of date, and that they did not penetrate deeply enough into the subterranean torments the new clinical research had uncovered. Yet the most compelling evidence against accepting the claims of nuclear terror was precisely its absence in current clinical observations. I detected no sign of it in my own clinical cases, or in those of my graduate interns, or in those of the young psychologists I supervised, or in the presentations at case conferences. Nor did my colleagues report it when questioned. Nor did the child and adolescent therapists I spoke to. I went so far as to examine all the process notes from the therapy supervisions I had done during the past year—about a thousand hours—and unearthed only one reference to nuclear matters, and that involved a patient talking about someone else. I gave special attention to fantasies and dreams, to see whether one could discern even faint derivatives of nuclear anxiety; they were not there.

Bear in mind that most of the patients were young adults, a group both vulnerable and au courant; and bear in mind, too, that the place was Ann Arbor, a leading suburb of Greater Academia, at a time (1983) when one could not stroll down its main campus street without being asked to sign a petition to make the city a nuclear-free zone, or avoid coming upon persons holding up large posters reading 500 FEET FROM GROUND ZERO and the like. Even so, there were no nuclear perturbations to be felt in psychotherapy. By way of contrast, at that very moment AIDS was just beginning to seep into public awareness, and yet its perturbations were almost immediately evident in psychotherapy, and not among homosexuals alone.

When we next talked, I told the Minority aide that in my opinion nuclear fears did not pose a threat to the mental health of the young: the data supporting that notion were flawed or nonexistent. I also offered to prepare a report to become part of the record of the hearings. After the hearings were over, she called to say that they had gone surprisingly well, meaning—as it turned out—that her side had broken even. The media coup she had feared did not quite come off. The child witnesses, though winsome and articulate, were so clearly atypical—fledgling members of the anti-nuclear culture—that they were not taken seriously as representative of children in general. The Majority’s mental-health experts were effectively countered by the Minority’s; there was a stand-off.

So ended the first chapter of this adventure. At the time I believed it would also be the last, since I could not see how the idea of nuclear anxiety could sustain itself, absent a serious conflict between the superpowers—something like the Cuban missile crisis, or worse—and there seemed no likelihood of that. Political disputes, national and international, about nuclear strategy would keep those issues prominent and “concern” high; but there was no reason to expect that they would induce terror, conscious or otherwise. And when that became evident, the anxiety about anxiety would diminish and the topic would fade from view.




So much for prescience. The doctrine I thought would soon be moribund was in fact at the beginning of a spurt which would produce an explosion of psychological writing. It was not to be an explosion of new thinking, however, only more—much more—of the same. Nevertheless, the rapid growth in quantity provided the illusion of quality, as the topic acquired committed authors and audiences. But I am getting ahead of the story.

Some months after the committee hearings, the transcript was published. To me it was discouraging, at moments appalling, for several reasons. The child witnesses were, I felt, being exploited, being displayed for effect alone, to drive home the motif of the suffering child which played so large a role in the imagery of the anti-nuclear movement. The children were willing to tell us that they were suffering, that they were haunted by the prospect of their imminent annihilation, yet we saw little if any evidence of that. We had, for example, a forceful twelve-year-old boy who lectured the graybeards assembled before him on Democritus and Newton and Einstein and on how to construct a nuclear weapon and why nuclear energy could not be used safely. What came to mind was not a picture of the terrified child but of the child-evangelist, a venerable American figure, preaching the gospel of hellfire and salvation.

Even more troubling was the nature of the psychiatric testimony. I had imagined that the gravitas of a congressional hearing would induce rhetorical restraint. And to be sure, there were the usual polite murmurs about preliminary findings and more research needed. But these served merely to launch even more astonishing assertions—e.g., that the recent interest in video games was a displacement from nuclear fears, or that working hard academically was “the only alternative to despair” about the world’s blowing up. We were also offered the familiar mind-boggling clinical anecdotes—e.g., children of five and six expressing fears of nuclear destruction, and an eleven-year-old girl asking her parents “if she would have time to commit suicide” upon hearing that nuclear bombs were on their way.

But the most troubling element of the transcript was that it revealed so very clearly the root intention of the hearing, which was not merely to support the nuclear-freeze resolution circulating in those days, but also to pave the way for a national program of political education. The constant refrain was that the American young were being thwarted by a conspiracy of silence which kept them from learning the truth about our common nuclear peril. It was alleged that all discussion of the topic was taboo and that the effects of that taboo were poisonous—a building-up of doubt, desperation, despair, hopelessness, helplessness. Parents would not talk honestly to their children. Nor would the schools. And so the kids themselves were now demanding that the curtain be lifted and the truth be told.1



Lo and behold, programs of pedagogy were already in place and ready to meet this “demand.” Curricular units on nuclear education had been developed by such powerful groups as the National Education Association (NEA), and were soon to be employed in thousands of schools. Shortly thereafter the leading journals of education—in concert—would devote entire issues to the need for such education. And at about the same time, several of the larger foundations announced that they would sponsor munificent programs of peace research and education.

The NEA’s curriculum, Choices, apparently the most widely used, offered a heavy dose of shock treatment. Since nuclear psychiatry held that children were living in a state of denial, the syllabus depicted as gruesomely as possible the terrible damage occasioned by nuclear war. Children were invited to imagine, even forced to gaze upon, horrific pictures of devastation, and to read the most lurid tales of human suffering.

The other stated purpose of the curricula was pedagogic: to meet the supposed yearning of youngsters for more information on the nuclear impasse. There was an irony here—the very establishment which had presided over the collapse of American education was nevertheless prepared to teach the Byzantine complexities of arms control. Remember that most of our high-school seniors could not, on a four-part multiple-choice test, choose the five-year period during which D-day occurred, or when the United Nations was founded, and that only a bare majority knew the quarter-century of the Eisenhower or Roosevelt presidencies, or could identify Stalin as the Soviet ruler during World War II. How then were they to be instructed in world history and geopolitics?

Even a cursory scan of the major curricula made it plain that they were disingenuous exercises in indoctrination. The students were informed that there were two competing nuclear powers, with one (the United States) rather more to blame than the other. The U.S., it seemed, would not recognize how much the Russians had suffered, how beleaguered they felt, and how strong their interest in peace really was; Soviet efforts at conciliation were always rebuffed by us, leaving them little option but to continue an arms race they had no interest in (all this during the time the Afghanistan brutalities were being carried out). In some cases the nuclear curricula also trafficked in what could only be called weird ideas—for example, the notion that “the West” was disposed to violence because of its bloodthirsty religious tradition (Judeo-Christian), while the religions of the East were conducive to tranquility. This, in the face of the fact that the bloodiest massacres and genocides in the post-World War II period took place in the East—especially China and Cambodia.2

Even disconfirming contemporaneous events had little impact. Consider The Day After episode. That television play, dramatizing the aftermath of a nuclear exchange in a small American city, received enormous pre-showing publicity. Many in the anti-nuclear movement believed the program would trigger mass hysteria, because of the reservoir of hidden panic supposedly present among so many of our citizens. The belief was so strong that a national hotline was established, to offer reassurance and advice to the many psychiatric casualties expected. But then The Day After was shown, and everyone watching it was able to go to bed and awake the next morning with no outpouring of calls to the hotline, no increased activity at the emergency rooms, no rise in suicides—and no sign that the nuclear-anxiety psychiatrists had learned any lessons from their failure of prophecy.




On the contrary, if anything the nuclear issue became attractive to a great many more psychologists and psychiatrists. A bibliography published in 1985 reported about 750 items, and there would soon be many more in print. Nuclear psychology became a standard topic at the national conventions of the mental-health associations, though it must be said that the papers did not contribute much beyond a sense of outrage, usually by generalizing such exotic cases as an eight-year-old who threatened suicide to avoid nuclear death. (That child, or some equivalent, was becoming a stock figure of the movement, a kind of Little Nell.)

Nor did the more restrained voices offer anything new. A famous psychologist proposed a long list of suggestions, each and every one banal: talk to the students, create discussion groups, speak and write about the arms race for the general public, “encourage others to follow our example,” etc., etc. Another instructed us in great detail that an all-out nuclear exchange would be a most unsettling event psychologically.

On the major question as well—nuclear anxiety among the young—there was heightened activity but little genuine progress. The opinion surveys were now more sophisticated in method, but they tended to yield different results depending on minor variations in phrasing. And even then, they sometimes stubbornly refused to confirm the claims of the movement. Thus, at a peak period of anti-nuclear publicity, one survey of 8,000 students (fifth and ninth grades) found “nuclear destruction” well down the list of worries, in fact twelfth behind the front-runners—school performance, one’s looks, being liked, parental death, and how one’s friends treated one. (This, of course, was taken as evidence of denial or psychic numbing.)

But even if nuclear fear had invariably been number one, we would still have remained unclear about its depth. Any number of catastrophes—local and planetary—can overtake us. If a person lives in earthquake country or on the edge of a volcano, his sense of the future should be affected; and yet unless there has been actual trauma, this does not seem to be the case. Why then should nuclear fear be any different? Peace psychiatry insisted that it was different, decisively so, different not only in degree but in essence; nuclear anxiety—so it was claimed—had generated unique psychological effects, above all nihilism and a sense of futurelessness so severe as to unhinge the average child. Was that true? The evidence was entirely anecdotal. Could a more exacting test be devised? It did not have to be the perfect test; all one needed was a modest study providing some elementary controls. But this need was simply not met.

A good example was the much-praised book by David S. Greenwald and Steven J. Zeitlin, No Reason to Talk About It, subtitled Families Confront the Nuclear Taboo (1987). It could not have had better credentials. Under the imprint of a most distinguished publishing house, it carried on its dust jacket ecstatic commendations by such household names as Karl Menninger. Yet it turned out to be almost a textbook case of how not to do a serious study. The writers, both specialists in family therapy, interviewed 25 families, discussing with them their reactions to a nuclear threat. There were the superficial trappings of systematic research—the interviews were videotaped and later transcribed—but that was about the size of it. For the rest, the book managed to repeat every error made in the early and presumably exploratory stages of work in the area. The investigators were dedicated members of the peace movement. The families studied were in no way chosen randomly, but found by word of mouth, or “networking,” a clear majority of them political activists, many in the peace movement, with an even larger majority, 80 percent, being middle- to upper-middle-class in social status. There was no systematic interview format, and apparently no intention of making systematic comparisons.

Here, then, was one more caricature of disinterested inquiry. The work began not from hypothesis, not even from expectation, but from a fixed belief that, as one of the blurbs on the book jacket put it, “the American family is haunted by the nuclear specter.” That being assumed, there seemed no need to discover whether it was in fact so, or for whom it was so, or when, or how that specter related to the many other specters of contemporary life. The task was to confirm and illustrate what was already known.

The inferential pattern discussed earlier obtained here as well. If a person was haunted by the specter, that made the case; if a person did not seem to be, denial and numbing were at work; if a person followed the adage of Sir Sydney Smith, to trust in God and take short views, a childlike passivity might be inferred. If there was not much talk about the specter at the dinner table, it meant that the children had not been “given permission” by the parents, and this in turn had interfered with “the struggle for mastery” and with “identity formation.” On the parental side, the specter had destroyed the ability to guide the next generation, which amounted to “an assault on generativity.” And so it went, every developmental crisis imagined by Erik Erikson being brought into play. It was research by asseveration, by the accumulation of selected interview excerpts—sound bites.



It is obvious that, employing the same premises, methods, and modes of inference, an equivalent case could be made for a great many other specters. Imagine a pair of scholars from the “Meryl Streep Institute” eager to show us that the American family is haunted by unavowed fears of carcinogens. They gather a group of largely upscale families and someone to run the camcorder, and set about finding out how much is known about the substances that befoul the air, the water, the food, and the earth itself—the pesticides, the toxic wastes, the acid rain. Some children will tell them that they know something about all this but not that much, and that they expect to die of cancer, since that is what everybody gets, though in the meantime they expect to go to the state university and study marketing. Others will say that they do not know what carcinogens are, since they have not yet come to the subject in their civics class. Some parents will confess that they are worried but have not yet discussed the problem with their kids since they do not really understand it. Other parents will say that they do not worry because the government would not let the problem get out of hand.

All the categories we need are already in place here: futurelessness, denial, psychic numbing, the childlike belief in government, parental powerlessness, the assault on generativity, and on and on.

Or take another example: abortion. Does anyone doubt that a compelling case could be made for abortion anxiety, or abortion guilt, given children pre-programmed by religious or politically conservative families, and given an investigator eager to make the case? Such an investigator would go about demonstrating the pandemic malevolence of abortion guilt by committing the elementary error of taking correlation to imply causation, assuming a connection between two events coincident in time.

It is precisely this rather simple mistake that pervades the nuclear-specter studies. Carried to its extreme it produces some startling examples—e. g., a researcher in organizational psychology asserts that the reason athletes have become so exhibitionistic (high fives, dancing in the end zone) is that “the specter of nuclear war and other overwhelming problems” causes them to feel helpless. In a further extension of this fallacy, all events are conditioned by their being part of the Nuclear Age. I recently came upon an essay discussing Anna O., the first psychoanalytic patient. In speculating on what she might be like if she were a patient today, the author twice speaks of “Anna O. in the Nuclear Age.” But what does the Nuclear Age have to do with Anna O.? Why not the Biogenetic Age, the Computer Age, the Age of Space Travel, the Audio-Visual Age, or for that matter the Anorexic Age, or the Psychobabble Age, or the Age of Abortion?




Nuclear psychology is the worst example we have had so far of a more general problem in psychology: the erosion of the boundary between ideology and disinterested research. In other instances politics biases the work, tilts it, by a variety of not quite conscious devices—through the samples chosen, the questions asked, the methods used, the inferences made. In the case of nuclear psychology the topic itself seemed created to serve political aims; it was politics masquerading as psychology. Just as distressing was the near unanimity of opinion. Of the hundreds of articles written by and addressed to psychiatrists and psychologists, only a handful voiced discordant views, and even those were not often heard.

The absence of dissent may lift the spirits momentarily but sooner or later it deadens thought. Inanition sets in. And so it was that professional gatherings on nuclear psychology soon became rallies, revival meetings, prayer services.

To the self-indulgence produced by the absence of opposition, there was added the self-indulgence permitted by clinical modes of inquiry. The free and easy means of discovery and proof we see throughout this body of work provides—to the lifelong clinician—a truly depressing confirmation of the critiques of psychoanalysis advanced by Adolf Grünbaum, Frederick Crews, and many others. Discovery: seek and ye shall find; proof: right you are if you think you are. The solipsistic temptations of the clinical method were too easily realized; the disinterest hard enough to obtain under ordinary conditions of clinical work disappeared completely.

Episodes such as these take their toll in the form of squandered credibility. Among sophisticated audiences—among journalists, legislators, jurists, natural scientists—one can discern a growth of skepticism, not merely about this or that theory or about specific findings, but about the entire enterprise of psychological research. To some degree this reflects the recognition that psychology so often exceeds its grasp, that it does not have the means to answer really difficult or complex questions. Yet a more important reason may be the suspicion that were it able to answer those questions, it would not do so in good faith. It would load the dice. Bias in, bias out. There are too many instances where findings dovetail much too neatly with ideological interests. Conversely, we have had unpleasant findings evaded or denied, and—worse yet—we have had scholars penalized for making such findings.

Is it any wonder, then, that many observers have come to view psychiatrists and psychologists as they do lawyers—as nothing more than advocates, hired guns, even if procurable not by money but by the love of a cause?


1 For additional details about these hearings, see “Terrorizing Children,” by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Joseph Adelson, COMMENTARY, April 1985—Ed.

2 For more detailed analyses of these curricula, see the excellent articles by André Ryerson in COMMENTARY, June 1986 (“The Scandal of ‘Peace Education’”) and Keith B. Payne and Jill Coleman in Policy Review, Fall 1987.

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