Skip to content

Response to Review of Understanding the Imaginary War: Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945-90

We would like to thank the reviewer for the thoughtful and generous comments on our book. We would entirely agree that additional research is needed to further understand the nature, extent and impact of intellectual and culture understandings of the prospect of nuclear war. Such research, we hope, will proceed in two interlinked ways. The first is an increased number of studies on the different cold war national contexts. As we hope the chapters in the book show, the history of how people responded to the nuclear threat was strikingly different across national contexts. Even within Western Europe, nuclear war was understood very differently in West Germany and the United Kingdom. In essence, different societies and cultures faced very different imaginary wars. We would like to see more research on European societies across the cold war divide, but research on how societies and cultures across the Global South imagined nuclear war is particularly urgent. The second line of research is to understand how those national contexts were interlinked and shaped by transnational encounters and the work of international organisations. Chapters in the book discuss different ways in which the boundaries and content of the imaginary war were changed by such encounters and advocacy work. Yet there is much still to know about how nuclear knowledge circulated.

We are also very pleased that the reviewer noted our commitment to probing the metaphorical nature of the cold war nuclear threat. One crucial aim of the book was to understand the limits of the imagination, the fundamental difficulty of imagining nuclear destruction for people living through the cold war, and the methods and techniques people used to make sense of the possibility of nuclear war. The physical world was of course vital in this: the damage wrought in Japan by the two atom bombs dropped in August 1945, the scientific findings of hundreds of nuclear tests, and for European societies even the visible consequences of the Second World War. Yet above all, the threat of nuclear war required an effort of imagination, and metaphor and allusion enabled people to reach into the abyss of ‘unimaginable’ destruction and begin to imagine it. Only then could they understand, fight against, or perhaps ignore, the threat of nuclear war.

Our volume is an attempt to map the cold war’s ‘present future’, a future horizon that nuclear war seemed to leave very narrow. We are very pleased the reviewer recognised that we have made an excellent step towards this.