Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age (study notes)


According to Cordle, The Nuclear Age is the quintessential Cold War narrative – and, after my extensive studies, I’m inclined to agree. So, why is The Nuclear Age so significant? Put simply, it makes obsession with the constantly threatened but deferred possibility of nuclear war the overriding focus of the narrative.

In the alternative reality O’Brien constructs, it is 1995, but for the Cold War there is seemingly no end in sight. Instead of representing nuclear war or its aftermath (as Cordle argues the majority of narratives in the nuclear thriller genre do), O’Brien focuses instead on the ‘psychological impact of long, drawn-out nuclear suspense’. This could arguably be considered as critique of nuclear deterrence theory, which places individuals like William Cowling – O’Brien’s jellyfish of a protagonist – in a uniquely helpless position. Under nuclear deterrence theory, it is only a small number of people in the highest reaches of government who can make the ultimate decision to use atomic and hydrogen weapons. Without any say in the matter at all, the general public has to passively tolerate the prospect of a nuclear apocalypse. Thus, O’Brien’s novel chronicles the subversion of democracy and its psychological impact on the characters under the logic of nuclear deterrence. The novel consists of alternating episodes, moving the story from the present back through the past.

Throughout childhood (mid-1950s to mid-1960s), William’s adolescent fear is demonstrated by his obsession with a Ping-Pong table in the basement of his parents’ house, where he builds a ‘fallout shelter’ and hides to stave off his mounting nuclear panic.

‘When I was a kid, about Melindaʼs age, I converted my Ping-Pong table into a fallout shelter. Funny? Poignant? A nifty comment on the modern age? Well, let me tell you something. The year was 1958, and I was scared.’

The character acknowledges that his childhood fears could be rooted in the saturation of American culture with ideas of Civil Defence Theory.

‘Who knows how it started? Maybe it was all that CONELRAD stuff on the radio, tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, pictures of H-bombs in Life magazine, strontium 90 in the milk, the times in school when weʼd crawl under our desks and cover our heads in practice for the real thing.’

According to Guy Oakes, the US government intended to suppress irrational terror of nuclear war in the 1950s through a series of media coverage, scientific data and civil defence drills, and ‘foster in its stead a more pragmatic nuclear fear’ – one which, if properly channelled, encouraged the public support essential to nuclear deterrence. In fact, US propaganda and information control, minimising perceived dangers of radioactivity etc., continued from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki right up until 1955, when its government confirmed Ralph Lapp’s caution that radioactive fallout not only threatens civil defence, but it is also ‘a peril to humanity’. This is the reason that William lines his makeshift bomb shelter with pencils: he believes that the lead inside them will absorb radioactivity from the fallout. He is devastated to learn that the pencils actually contain graphite, and are thus no protection at all. According to the logic of nuclear deterrence, priority was given to national rather than human security. Rather than ‘waste’ money on a fallout shelter program, Nixon thought it more effective to ‘maintain the illusion of [passive] security through civil defence’ (quote from Oakes), leaving the government’s funding free to for the nuclear arms race – a more active nuclear deterrent. The little information provided to the public about self-protection via the construction of these shelters was inadequate. Therefore, it seems reasonable to suppose that Williamʼs meagre, self-made fallout shelter is symbolic of the lax policy of civil defence and its limited budget: a policy which was not sufficient to ensure the safety of US citizens in the 1950s.

‘The shelter was no professional job – I knew that – but wasn’t it better than nothing? Better than twiddling your thumbs?’

Lifton offers an alternative analysis of the psychological impact of nuclear imagery upon people of Cowling’s generation. According to his findings, William in is the initial phase of processing the nuclear threat. This involves understanding the bomb as ‘a dreadful and mysterious entity… powerful enough to blow up the world’ – something which William demonstrates at a young age:

‘Even as a kid, maybe because I was a kid, I understood that there was nothing make-believe about doomsday. No hocus-pocus… It was real, like physics, like the laws of combustication and gravity.’

William also experiences the recurring dreams or fantasies about the destruction of neighbourhoods or entire cities, coupled with a need to seek shelter or sanctuary amongst the fire and chaos that Lifton describes (aided by Carey’s 1970s study), in the form of recurring ‘flashes’.

 ‘I was a witness. I saw it happen. In dreams, in imagination, I watched the world end.’

‘My dreams would be clotted with sirens and melting icecaps and radioactive  gleamings and ICBMs whining in the dark.’

This concept is reiterated by Mandelbaum, who argues that those born 1940-1950 arguably comprise ‘a nuclear-haunted generation’. This means ‘nuclear annihilation has become a more prominent theme in their dreams, fantasies and thoughts than in those… born before or afterward.’ After constructing the shelter, having a minor emotional breakdown in the library whilst swotting up on civil defence and then requesting a Geiger counter, his parents decide to send him to a psychotherapist. During his sessions with Chuck Adamson, he preaches the virtues of hobbies and safety; rocks and locked doors. William’s father eventually convinces him to dismantle his shelter by challenging him to a ‘no mercy’ match. After this comforting event, William’s fears recede to some degree and he is able to achieve a sense of normalcy:

‘For the next decade my dreams were clean and flashless. The world was stable. The balance of power held. It wasn’t until after college that those wee-hour firestorms returned.’

This corresponds with Lifton’s second-phase response to the stimuli of civil defence: the recession of conscious images for a period that may, subject to the individual, extend throughout childhood and adolescence. This is not to say that William’s fears disappear completely: he notes the feeling of living a ‘double life’ in October 1962, when political circumstances become ‘ticklish’: life continuing as normal, though it could all end in an instant.

‘October, 1962, and things got ticklish. How did we survive? We were civilised. We observed the traditional courtesies… Vacations were planned and promises were made… My mother vacuumed the living-room rug… [and] told me to buckle down to my schoolwork… We carried on. By looking loved ones in the eye. By not blinking when Kennedy said: the path we have chosen… is full of hazards, as all paths are.’

The question of ‘how and why we become politicised and depoliticised’ is another prominent and significant theme in The Nuclear Age. In the mid-1960s, when the United States was sunk in a morass of war, college student William pickets Peveson’s cafeteria with a sign that reads ‘THE BOMBS ARE REAL’. Cowling argues that, through adolescence, the emotional paralysis caused by nuclear anxiety caused him to withdraw from society. He feels alienated from his peers due to their apparent lack of nuclear fear. His early attempts to engage with civil defence are firstly mocked and then perceived as ‘unhealthy’ by his parents. Consequentially as a teenager, he prefers the safety of solitude, rocks and imagined social encounters (particularly with the cheerleader, Sarah Strouch) to active political engagement. He becomes frustrated, though, by the contradictory information provided by US governmental representatives. The dual narrative provided by US political powers – the supremacy of the West’s destructive capacities, coupled with US citizens’ apparent safety – leaves him distrustful and uncertain of both politics and the bomb:

‘Why not come straight out with things? Bombs, for instance. Were they dangerous or not? Was the planet in jeopardy? Could the atom be split? Why wasn’t anyone afraid?’

However, Cowling’s re-politicisation leads him to re-join the social sphere – his written declaration in the Peveson cafeteria that‘THE BOMBS ARE REAL’ is an invitation for similarminds to join him; to share in his state of fear. Although few of the regular students pay attention to his protest, after two months, William falls in with a group of anti-war activist students. This leads to the formation of the Committee, a group of New Left anti-war political activists: Ollie Winkler, Tina Roebuck, Sarah Strouch &, later, Ned Rafferty.Though all except William are in favour of using force to get people’s attention, it is Sarah who escalates their activities against the Vietnam War beyond college sit-ins and protests. She makes the seamless transition from cheerleader to terrorist, setting the Committee up as part of a militant ‘franchise’ – ‘like Kentucky Fried Terror’.

In this novel, OʼBrien demonstrates the crisis of democracy present in the nuclear politics of the United States. Ulrich Beck argues that public confidence in formal politics inevitably erodes in a late modern society; instead, the citizens prefer direct political participation outside the formal boundaries of representative democracy. William’s peers are not as willing as him to accept the matter of the bomb, or the growing US presence in Vietnam, lying down. As the Committee progress, they begin to appropriate the ill logic of nuclear deterrence theory – determined to fight fire with fire; bombs with bombs; violence with violence. Ollie fervently argues that ‘[they] can’t make a revolution… without breaking a few legs. Sarah maintains that, in their form of terrorism, there is ‘no need to hurt people [but they must] give that impression’ if they want to be effective. Though it is Cowling who first declared that the bombs were ‘real’, he is uneasy about progressing beyond his ‘symbol’ of protest. Regardless, the Committee undertake ever more aggressive actions as their political involvement increases, including a midnight raid of the ROTC in their campus’ Humanities building, a staged blackout at a college football game and hijacking the campus radio station.

‘You think these idiots care about symbols? Fireworks, that’s all they understand… it’s a bad new age – symbols don’t make it’

This theme arises again later via Tina, after the Committee has become part of the ‘franchise’ – ‘like Kentucky Fried Terror…independently owned and operated, but [with backup from] the Colonel’.

‘What about Nixon? Our chief, executor, he doesn’t grasp symbols. Power. That’s all he grasps… symbolise all you want – sit on your ass and sing If I Had A Hammer – but I’ll tell you something, somebody has to drive home the nails.’

Sarah uses her social position as cheerleader as a platform for her political ideals, leading to William’s comparison of cheerleading and terrorism:

 ‘Cheerleaders are terrorists. All that zeal and commitment. A craving for control. A love of pageantry and crowds and slogans and swollen rhetoric… the hot, energising rush of absolute authority: Lean to the left, lean to the right… fight – fight – fight! Don’t politicians use the same fierce exhortations? … During the spring of 1976, the parallels seemed uncanny.’

Matters quickly progress beyond control, as soon William is challenged to decide once and for all whether he is ‘in’ or not. He is forced into a decision – into politicisation – only when his draft notice arrives in late August, and he has to go into hiding. Reluctant to join the war, William Cowling decides to dodge the draft instead and goes on the run. The decision to do so inevitably means joining with the now politically radical Committee. The group hide out for a while before undertaking paramilitary training with two men, Nethro and Ebenezer Keezer. Ebenezer Keezer and Nethro operate a military franchise – ‘like Kentucky Fried Terror’ – and will stop at nothing in their actions to bring an end to the Vietnam War. The Committee members take part in a series of subversive operations: an ironic fact, seen as their cause is to stop the war and achieve peace. Though Cowling ran from home to escape the war, he finds himself nevertheless a part of it: having to think like a soldier, learning all the tricks of the trade, and simply fighting for another ‘side’.

‘Here… was everything Iʼd run from… you couldn’t run far enough or fast enough… [to] dodge the global dragnet [because] the killing zone kept expanding’

He and Sarah have very different reasons for joining the cause. She believes that ‘it couldn’t happen without [her]’ and feels that no matter how violent her actions become, she is automatically vindicated by moral justification (she is fighting to stop the fighting).

‘Two different value systems. [Sarah] was out to change the world, I was out to survive it. I couldn’t summon the same moral resources.’


 ‘I was running because I couldn’t envision any other way… safety, nothing else. Not honour, not conscience. All I wanted was a place to ride out the bad times.’

Through the irony of left-wing violent activism Cowling finds himself a part of, O’Brien mounts a challenge against nuclear deterrence, citing a profound contradiction in its logic: that the more one arms to protect oneself from others, the more threatened these others become, and the more prone they are to arm themselves in turn in order to protect their own security interests. He becomes increasingly alienated from the group, fantasising about the safety of his childhood bomb shelter and his father’s arms. The psychological link between safety and shelter recurs again here – arguably demonstrating a regression to the childish desire to ‘hide’ when afraid. As a result, his relationship with Sarah begins to break down as his lack of passion and commitment to both her and the cause frustrate her.

‘You want this nice happy world, all roses, except you get all squeamish when somebody goes out and tries to make it happen. The jellyfish mentality.’


‘You really do know. That’s the sin. Right and wrong – real perceptive. Bombs and jets and shit, you know it all. But there’s this neuter problem. Huff and puff but you can’t get it up – conscience-wise, pecker-wise – can’t perform.’

After a traumatic simulated commando drill at Sangua la Grande, in which William freezes, soils himself and regresses to a childlike state (burying himself in the sand), he is demoted to the role of ‘carrier pigeon’ and becomes detached from the political movement. He travels from place to place, from aeroplane to aeroplane, making drop-offs and trying to remain conspicuous. This brings him into contact with Bobbi, who consoles him after he suffers a recurrence of the flashes and panics. She gifts him with a poem (‘Martian Travel’), a blade of grass (which expresses her ‘deepest feelings’ for him) and the fantasy of her memory. William remains obsessed with her throughout his relationship with Sarah and his years in hiding, dreaming of building a life with Bobbi.

Lifton would argue that the recurrence of Cowling’s ‘wee-hour firestorms’ marks his transition into phase three. This is usually in response to an international or more personal scare – in this case, resulting from his traumatic experience at Sangua la Grande. In his absence, the group hijack a consignment cargo of M-16s and, later on, a nuclear warhead, becoming branded terrorists by the US government because of their own version of disarmament:

‘disarmament… no treaties or nothin’, we just flat-out disarmed the fuckers.’

William eventually leaves the group’s activism behind, with Chuck Adamson’s help. After the Vietnam War reaches its climax, the group go their separate ways. He and Ned Rafferty decide to dump the M-16s. They later, ironically, make their collective fortune mining uranium – going ‘from ban the bomb to boom the bomb’. William notes how uranium, in its natural state, offers all the safety of rocks and geology that reassured him in his adolescence. However, its use and purpose is inevitably questionable – used in all probability in the construction of nuclear warheads – and this places him in a difficult moral position. Sarah, though, argues that ‘guilt went out of fashion with culottes’.

Once he has legally cleared himself of desertion charges, he goes to Bonn chasing his fantasy woman – Bobbi – pursued by the ever-loyal and increasingly desperate Sarah. They follow the trail of broken hearts Bobbi has left behind her. Against all the odds, he and Bobbi quickly marry and settle down in the Sweetheart Mountains of Montana, leaving William’s political past behind them, much to Sarah’s dismay. They start a family and live happily until their domestic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Sarah Strouch and Ned Rafferty. Their domestic bliss remains undisturbed until Melinda reaches the age of ten, when William and his family are visited by Sarah Strouch and Ned Rafferty. They come bearing gifts and a nuclear warhead, stolen from the Committee members wanting to use it as a ‘demonstration’, and so need a place to hide. During their stay, Sarah’s health deteriorates (brought about by a form of encephalitis) and she dies. Ned re-joins the Committee, and later they are all violently killed in a military standoff (brought about by their possession of the stolen warhead). The loss of his friends leaves William traumatised. Now 49 years old, William is in the midst of a family breakup. All his friends are dead (apart from Chuck Adamson) and his marriage to Bobbi is failing after she disappeared for ‘two weeks and [took] her [contraceptive] diaphragm… with her’. He fears that she will leave him, just as she left behind the string of men he had to follow to find her.

‘That summer Bobbi disappeared. She was gone two weeks; her diaphragm went with her… It was like watching a hole. The diaphragm, I came to realise, was one of those objects whose absence reveals so much more than its presence.’  

‘I couldn’t sleep… for several months afterward… In bed, I watched her eyelids. I plotted tactics. Ropes and locks and dynamite. I felt sane and brutal. Dig, a voice whispered, but that came later.’

Using Lifton’s theory, one could reasonably argue that at this stage, William re-enters phase three of the psychological model, sparked on this occasion by a more ‘personal scare’: the ‘disintegration of [his] domestic situation’. His coping mechanism and method of containment is to begin digging a nuclear shelter in the backyard of his home, located in the Sweetheart Mountains near Fort Derry, Montana – insurance and protection against both nuclear war and the separation of his family. In response, his wife and daughter ‘quarantine’ themselves in the bedroom, a fact William is unable to comprehend.

‘A lockout, but why? I’m a pacifist, for God’s sake. The whole Vietnam mess: I kept my nose clean, all those years on the run, a man of the most impeccable nonviolence’

William and his wife argue through poetry. Being a poet, Bobbi chooses words as her weapon to spar with her husband. She writes him poems, using rich nuclear imagery to analyse their domestic problems. She threatens to ‘split’ the atom of their domesticity; the familial and matrimonial bonds holding them together, in a poem called ‘Fission’. In ‘The Balance of Power’, she uses his tightrope metaphor for political circumstances against him, applying it to him directly (’the high-wire man… [has] one foot in fantasy, one foot in fear’). Bobbi reminds him that even if he retreats to the furthest corners of space (becoming‘the Man in the Moon’) and ‘divorce[s]… planet Earth’, he will be ‘forever bound to [it] by laws of church and gravity’ – meaning he can escape neither science nor his societal responsibilities as a husband.

Cowling criticises his wife Bobbi’s love of ‘clean metaphors and clean language’, blaming her in ability to ‘process hard data’ like the reality of the bomb on her ‘artistic temperament’. He believes that she ‘hides’ behind art and finds ‘comfort in poetry’. He ridicules her for the presumption that beauty can serve as any kind of defence from ‘the facts of fission’. A polarity is created between art and science; between female and male; between Bobbi’s ‘clean metaphors’ versus William’s ‘messy’ realities (because ‘holes aren’t clean… safety can be very messy’). However, for all his protests otherwise, William is also a manipulator of symbolic language. He manned the college cafeteria armed with a single statement – ‘THE BOMBS ARE REAL’ – but showed reluctance to engage with the realities of political activism. It is in fact Sarah who forces his acknowledgement of the inadequacy of symbols in this ‘bad new age’, deeming his use of words ‘half-assed’. She notes William’s tendency to become ‘squeamish’ whenever their political endeavours progress beyond words to actions, and accuses him of having ‘a jellyfish mentality’. William uses scientific language to try and justify his perpetual cycle of retreat to his wife (and also to himself), trying to link the indisputability of science with his own more questionable decision to hide in a hole.

‘Bobbi doesn’t understand… I’ve named names… – the undisputable realities: …Poseidon, Trident, Cruise, Stealth, Minuteman, Lance, Pershing’

‘Uranium is no figure of speech… it’s hard and heavy and impregnable to metaphor. I should know, I made my fortune on the stuff… You can hold it in your hand. It has an atomic weight of 239.03; it melts at 1,132.30 degrees centigrade’

‘Ask this question: am I crazy? …ask the wall shadows at Hiroshima… and then listen hard… you’ll hear the soft drip of a meltdown, the ping-ping-ping of a submarine sonar, the half-life of your own heart’

He is aware that retreat – his need to ‘dig in’ – has become a perpetual cycle in his life: dodging bombs, and drafts, and feds, and live bullets in simulated commando drills, and the crushing burdens of reality. But for William, it is unavoidable; essential:

 ‘No metaphor, the bombs are real… what choice do I have? Just dig and dig.’

 ‘Call it what you want – copping out, dropping out, numbness, the loss of outrage, simple fatigue. I’ve retired. Time to re-trench. Time to dig in. Safety first.’

‘The year is 1968, and 1958, and 1995, and I’m here digging, I’m sane, I’m trying to save my life. What can one do? Safety first!’

‘When in doubt, dig. Abnormal, yes, but what’s the alternative? Plan a dinner party? Chalk it up to the existential condition? If that’s normal, I’m proud to call myself deviant.’

‘It’s an era of disengagement. We are in retreat, all of us, and there is no going back’

‘I couldn’t envision any other way… Safety… nothing else. Not honour, not conscience. All I wanted was a place to ride out the bad times’

William also begins to project an identity upon the hole that he is digging in the back yard – it becomes something he is able to converse with; be motivated by; that can reason with him.

‘The hole rumbles: I am Armageddon. I am what there is when there is no more. I am nothing, therefore all. I am the before and after “Safe?” … Yes, that too – I am safe.

It is as if his personality has undergone a split, a transformation, of schizophrenic proportions. The hole develops its own voice and identity; issuing its ever-insistent instruction to ‘dig’ – and, later, to detonate the charges with his family inside, burying them – and William is gradually convinced, despite the negative impact of his actions.

‘I don’t want [to detonate] but I can see it, as always… We will become the world-as-it-should-be… Here, she can’t leave me.

He believes that he can explain this decision rationally to them, and that they will understand the reasons behind his extreme actions and thank him in the end:

‘I’ll reason with them. I’ll explain that it’s love and nothing else… Bowl them over with my own sanity. I’ll show them photographs of an armed nuclear warhead – …I’ll do mathematics [and] slip the equations under the door.’

He begins to understand love – his obsession – in much the same way that Sarah used to, showing that ‘if necessary, [he too] will wipe out the world’ to keep Bobbi. A parallel between the political and domestic spheres arises here; between the things people are willing to do to retain love, and the extremities undertaken in the name of attaining peace. He drugs his wife and daughter, and transports them both to the hole (where they lay sleeping in hammocks, unaware of the danger). William rigs the charges, planning to bury himself and his family under the debris and contain them there forever, fossilised in their togetherness:

‘I don’t want [to detonate] but I can see it, as always… the wall shadows of Hiroshima, and Bobbi’s diaphragm… [but down] here, she can’t leave me. We will become the world-as-it-should-be.’

It is only when his daughter awakes unexpectedly – hearing him cackle ‘’Dynamite!’ in the hole’s voice – that he realises the insanity of his actions. He therefore decides to stop, and thus ignore the impending threats of reality in order to be happy:

‘One day it will happen… we will see flashes. One day, my daughter will die. One day, I know, my wife will leave me… I know this, but I [must] believe otherwise.’

‘I will trust the seasons. I will keep Bobbi in my arms for as long as she will stay… I will firm up my golf game and invest wisely and adhere to the conventions of decency and good grace… I will take my place  in the procession… to the grave, believing what cannot be believed:  that all things are renewable, that the human spirit is… infinite.’

‘[Even] when it finally happens… I will hold to the steadfast orthodoxy, confident to the end that E will somehow not quite equal mc2, that it’s a cunning metaphor, that the terminal equation will somehow not quite balance.’

This shows a final disregard of the ‘ephemeralism’ that William has experienced throughout his life: the feeling of pointlessness accompanying ultimately worthless pursuits and achievements.


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