Nuclear holocaust

Mushroom cloud from the explosion of Castle Romeo.

Nuclear holocaust refers to the possibility of the near complete annihilation of human civilization by nuclear warfare. Under such a scenario, all or most of the Earth is made uninhabitable by nuclear weapons in future world wars.

A common definition of the word "holocaust": "great destruction resulting in the extensive loss of life, especially by fire."[1] The word is derived from the Greek term "holokaustos" meaning "completely burnt." Possibly the first printed use of the word "holocaust" to describe an imagined nuclear destruction is Reginald Glossop's 1926: "Moscow ... beneath them ... a crash like a crack of Doom! The echoes of this Holocaust rumbled and rolled ... a distinct smell of sulphur ... atomic destruction."[2] In the 1960s the principal referent of the unmodified "holocaust" was nuclear destruction.[3] Since the mid 1970s the capitalized term "Holocaust" has been closely associated with the Nazi mass slaughter of Jews (see The Holocaust) and "holocaust" in its nuclear destruction sense is almost always preceded by "atomic" or "nuclear".[4]

Nuclear physicists and authors have speculated that nuclear holocaust could result in an end to human life, or at least to modern civilization on Earth due to the immediate effects of nuclear fallout, the loss of much modern technology due to electromagnetic pulses, or nuclear winter and resulting extinctions.

Since the 1947 the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists visualizes how far the world is from a nuclear holocaust.


Nuclear holocaust in popular culture

The theme is widely used in dystopian fiction books, films, and video games.

One of the first depictions of a nuclear holocaust is included in Olaf Stapledon's celebrated Last and First Men (1930). Unlike the post-1945 treatment of the subject, where the disaster is almost invariably the outcome of a war between states, Stapeldon depicts this holocaust as the result of class war between an arrogant ruling class and downtrodden miners in a future civilization. Abuse of the newly-discovered Atomic power source leads to what would now be called a chain reaction engulfing the entire world, so that "of the two hundred million members of the human race, all were burnt or roasted or suffocated - all but thirty-five, who happened to be in the neighborhood of the North Pole" (and from whom humanity is eventually regenerated for many more millions of years of existence). The book "By the Waters of Babylon", written in 1937, also is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a sort of nuclear or atomic disaster is alluded to.

Throughout the Cold War, nuclear holocaust was something many people in the developed world were afraid of because of a perceived likelihood of occurrence. The topic became somewhat less common after the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, as many of the works created during the Cold War were primarily just commentary on that conflict. Asian work that deals with the theme and western work influenced by it often borrow much imagery from American atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II in 1945. To this date, those bombings and the failure of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 remain the only nuclear disasters from which authors and screenwriters can draw real world experience with the aftermath of such instances.

Authors, directors, and game designers have approached the topic from a variety of angles and in every major media. Novels such as the Hugo Award-winning A Canticle for Leibowitz tell of a reemerging civilization several hundred years after the bombs fell, likening the civilization of the North American survivors to that of the Dark Ages in Europe. In a similar vein, the book The City of Ember ties a nuclear holocaust in with the tale of a new civilization's rise. In some, the holocaust seems complete. Nevil Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach, for instance, chronicles the extinction of the human race by radioactive fallout in the months following a massive nuclear war; "There Will Come Soft Rains", a short story by Ray Bradbury, depicts a world of alarm clocks and robotic vacuum cleaners operating endlessly in the absence of their owners. The notable 1963 French art house film, La jetée, is set in the post-World War III Parisian underground and the experiments that try to free humanity from its nuclear wasteland. Planet of the Apes's film franchise alternates between a post-, pre- and, in its fifth entry, post-nuclear war world. The 1979 TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century showed the mutant-inhabited crumbling ruins of Chicago (in stark contrast to the gleaming metropolis of New Chicago on the horizon) five centuries after a professed 1987 nuclear exchange that had devastated the world and impeded civilization for centuries; (it was later mentioned that only the Egyptian pyramids and Mount Rushmore had survived this nuclear holocaust unscathed.) The early 1980s also featured a small wave of made for television movies, such as Threads in Britain or The Day After and Testament in the United States, dramatizing the devastating effects on civilization of a world nuclear war. The Terminator franchise is oriented around a nuclear holocaust (called "Judgement Day") triggered by a rogue artificial intelligence. Although not set on Earth, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series depicts a human civilization inhabiting a system of twelve planets, where a race of robots known as Cylons, created by humans, rebel and carry out the Destruction of the Twelve Colonies by a nuclear holocaust. In other works, such as the Fallout series of video games, in which, in the year 2077, the world was wiped clean in an atomic holocaust. The nuclear holocaust is used as a backdrop to a dystopian tale of mutant monsters and beasts. In many of these works, a partly forgotten nuclear holocaust provides a backdrop to a new creation story.

See also


  1. ^ American Heritage Dictionary definition of "holocaust"
  2. ^ Reginald Glossop, The Orphan of Space (London: G. MacDonald, 1926) -- p 303 for the words quoted prior to "atomic destruction"; "atomic destruction" is on p. 306. The atomic weapon of the book is planted in the office of the Soviet dictator who, with German help and Chinese mercenaries, is preparing the takeover of Western Europe -- a strangely prescient book, biological warfare, cellular phones, a version of the Gaia hypothesis, and an atomic weapon.
  3. ^ See in the paragraph preceding footnote 38
  4. ^ President Bush in August 2007: “Iran’s pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust." -- The headline of the article: Bush ... Iran bomb ... warning of 'holocaust'. For the 1970s increasing employment of "Holocaust" in the sense of mass murder of Jews see

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