Magazine Article - Arms Control Today

A Grim Vision of Nuclear War

| December 2018

Book Review:

The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States
By Jeffrey Lewis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2018, 208 pages


Each fall, the students of Harvard Extension School’s course on nuclear weapons and international security are subjected to a tone-setting viewing of the 1984 film “Threads,” a BBC production that offers an even grimmer presentation of a full-scale nuclear exchange than its U.S. predecessor “The Day After,” which terrified millions the previous year. Such films, along with other contemporary media, reflected a deep-seated cultural dread that a sudden, civilization-ending nuclear war was an increasingly likely possibility. To a class of students increasingly born well after these years, “Threads” vividly presents the worst fears of a seemingly bygone era.

Unfortunately, as the class learns, the potential for such a catastrophe is anything but bygone—society has just shifted its focus. As the Cold War nightmare faded in the early 1990s, expressions of nuclear war in films, books, and music became scarce. Meanwhile, decades-old thinking on nuclear conflict and deterrence has continued with little adaptation to the new era. As the general sense of relief expressed in the ’90s gave way to a post-9/11 focus on international terrorism, popular culture largely ignored the lingering possibility of catastrophic nuclear war, producing a generational blind spot on the subject.

This has become especially evident recently as a new generation of Americans encounters and begins to mentally process a resurgence of nuclear fears in the wake of North Korea’s 2017 testing blitz. Hawaii’s false alarm emergency alert this past January, in particular, caused a spike in anxiety and revealed a lack of public knowledge about what to do were a nuclear attack indeed underway. Since then, President Donald Trump’s so-far unsuccessful efforts to force unilateral denuclearization by North Korea have kept the issue alive.

It is timely, then, that Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, has thoroughly imagined the contemporary possibilities of nuclear war with his “speculative” novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Framed as a future U.S. governmental attempt to understand and summarize the devastation wrought in a calamitous resumption of the Korean War, Lewis populates the novel with today’s political leaders in an environment shaped by recent events. In this, The 2020 Commission Report is a realistic and compelling drama written to bring this grim subject back into the popular conversation.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Facini, Andrew. “A Grim Vision of Nuclear War.” Arms Control Today, December 2018.