At a moment when the global COVID-19 pandemic is finally loosening its grip on the public consciousness as an object of existential dread, a new fear has swept in to supplant it: nuclear annihilation.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has stoked U.S. nuclear fears like no other event since the close of the Cold War, according to foreign policy scholars and public opinion curators. In poll after poll this year, a majority of Americans have said they believe Russian President Vladimir Putin may unleash nuclear weapons on Ukraine, as Putin himself has threatened.
“The level of anxiety is something that I haven’t seen since the Cuban missile crisis,” said Peter Kuznick, a history professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, referring to the tense 1962 standoff between the United States and Soviet Union. “And that was short-lived. This has gone on for months now.”
Nuclear unease surged with the Feb. 24 invasion, then spiked further when Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert days later. Tensions eased over the summer, as the Ukraine invasion faded from the headlines and Americans grew to accept the lingering war as a new normal. Fears rose again this month amid suggestions that Putin might resort to using nuclear weapons to stem mounting losses.
Several polls in February and March found Americans increasingly concerned about imminent nuclear peril. In a new Reuters-Ipsos poll, released Monday, 58 percent of respondents said they fear the United States is headed toward nuclear war.
“I don’t recall any time in the last 20 years where we’ve seen this sort of level of concern about the potential for nuclear apocalypse,” said Chris Jackson, senior vice president of Ipsos.
The Ukraine invasion, with its attendant saber-rattling, marks a rare flare-up of nuclear angst in the post-Cold War era. Americans briefly feared nuclear conflict with North Korea in 2017, amid escalating rhetoric between then-President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In the early 2000s, nuclear fears fueled a broader national panic over potential terror attacks after 9/11.
Some scholars say the threat of nuclear conflict looms larger now than at any time since the close of World War II. The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic measure of humans’ proximity to extinction, stands at 100 seconds to midnight, the nearest the world has ever strayed to its hour of doom since the clock was first set in 1947. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists consider climate change and other perils in their calculus, but nuclear fears predominate.
“We really are hanging on the hope that Putin is rational, and not suicidal, and not delusionary,” Kuznick said. “[President] Biden said this week Putin is a rational actor being given bad information. We hope he’s right. The problem is, we’re dealing with the future of life on our planet.”
And what are the actual odds of nuclear war?
“It’s very difficult to quantify the risk,” said Derek Johnson, managing partner of the anti-nuclear organization Global Zero, in an email interview. “Is it 1 percent? Two percent? Ten percent? I don’t know, and I don’t know any credible expert who claims to know either,” he said.
“But I can say it’s a lot higher than we should be comfortable with, and likely higher now than it has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis, if only for the fact that the war in Ukraine is a cascade of opportunities for mistakes and miscalculations.”
For all the current societal unease, foreign policy experts do not necessarily see a return to the bone-deep nuclear terror of the 1980s, when the Iron Curtain stood and many Americans feared that humanity’s extinction lay only a button’s push away. Nuclear fears emerged as a defining theme of that decade, typified by a 1982 anti-nukes march in New York City that drew 1 million people, and the nightmare-inducing 1983 television film The Day After, which depicted nuclear war and its grim fallout.
“In the ‘80s, people lived it every day, and in the ‘60s even more, probably,” said Dina Smeltz, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Relations.
The latter decade saw the Cuban missile crisis — the 60th anniversary of which arrives Sunday — unfold when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The ensuing confrontation with the Kennedy administration brought the nations to the brink of nuclear war.
For Americans in 2022, by contrast, nuclear war is “kind of an abstract fear, compared to the very practical worry of staring at the gasoline pump and trying to figure out how to afford five-dollars-a-gallon gas,” said Jackson of Ipsos.
Last spring, the annual Stress in America survey by the American Psychological Association and the Harris Poll found that 69 percent of respondents believed they were watching the beginning of World War III. Yet, as worrisome as that sounds, the same respondents said they were even more perturbed by supply chain issues and the price of groceries and gas.
“I think things like money and inflation, things that really feel personal and hit home and have an immediate impact on their lives in an immediate way, I think that’s why they reach the top of the list,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of the Office of Health Care Innovation at the psychological association.
On a philosophical level, nuclear obliteration and consumer prices are “different kinds of threats,” Smeltz said. “One is existential, one is pocketbook.”
For most of the past three decades, the threat of nuclear war has sat quietly on the backburner of American consciousness, a concern so remote that the psychological group didn’t think to ask about it in the annual poll. Following the Ukraine invasion, the association ran a second poll.
In regular surveys dating to 2017, Ipsos has asked Americans to rank their top worries. In that span, nuclear concerns have ebbed and flowed, but no more than 21 percent of respondents have ever listed nuclear conflict among their three top fears.
When Johnson started work at Global Zero in 2010, he recalled, “the fundamental challenge was convincing people this was still a problem. To the extent that anyone was thinking about nuclear weapons at all, most folks in the West assumed that when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the worst was over and these weapons were on their way out.”
Absent nuclear concerns, Americans worried about other things. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic preoccupied the nation through most of 2020 and 2021, consistently cited in Ipsos polls as an overarching issue.
Before the pandemic, “it was a bunch of things,” Jackson said. “Sometimes it was immigration, sometimes it was health care, sometimes it was climate change. Because, frankly, there wasn’t anything people were too worried about.”
Amir Afkhami, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University, said his Beltway patients seem more concerned about midterm elections and the economy than “Putin dropping a bomb.”
Nonetheless, he fears the specter of nuclear conflict could seed mental health issues, especially coming on the heels of COVID-19, and particularly for the young.
“For adults of a certain age, we have some exposure to this, we can contextualize it on the basis of our experience,” he said. “We have a new generation that has never experienced that potential for Armageddon.”