False Alarms

The End is Nigh!
People have been preaching gloom and doom forever. Many ancient religions had tales of cyclic destruction (Aztec, Maya) or warnings from priests that, should the society not obey every dot and tittle of their requirements, an angry god would visit death and destruction upon them. The Hebrew prophets positively burbled with threats of Yahweh’s gruesome revenge. 

The Christian religion established a less ferocious endtime, in which God would call everybody to account. This provided the basis for countless predictions that the endtimes were upon us. I suspect that, at any given moment in the last 2,000 years, somebody, somewhere was sure that the Apocalypse was just days away. An endless list of reasons for believing this have been presented. The most creative involve the liberal application of poetic license to Biblical verses. Sometimes these dire predictions have attracted public credence, such as the movement in 1000 CE that was sure that, 1,000 being a nice round number, it just HAD to be the date of the Apocalypse.

Late in the 19th century, a new strand of apocalyptic thinking was inspired by the terrible new weapons that were appearing. The machine gun and the lighter-than-air craft inspired nightmares about horrid new forms of warfare than could slaughter people in the millions. These nightmares were realized in World War I, which added aircraft, gas warfare and tanks to the mix. The terror they inspired wasn’t really rational; military experts realized just how limited these weapons were. Instead, their stimulation of apocalyptic thinking was due to how horrible these weapons were. Although the machine gun was indeed a weapon of mass slaughter, the other weapons were nowhere near as destructive as civilians feared. Yes, bombers could take the war to civilians, and in fact there were a good number of air raids conducted against cities. But their bombs were pinpricks, mere terrorism, not warfare. Poison gas made for a ghastly way to die, but gas masks quickly reduced its value as a weapon. Tanks were especially terrifying: great mechanical, clanking monsters. Again, they were nowhere near as horrific a weapon as civilians feared. In the Cambrai offensive, the British lost half their tanks on the first day, primarily to mechanical problems.

Nevertheless, World War I devoured the lives of 18 million people and horrified the civilized world, which resolved to eliminate the horrid weapons of war during the 1920s. Sadly, the strong anti-war sentiments of the old Allies served only to smooth the path to German military victories in the early years of World War II. 

World War II was much closer to Armageddon than World War I; civilian populations were subjected to aerial attacks, and the bombing of Germany and Japan reduced their cities to rubble. But the weapon that truly changed everything was the A-bomb. When John Hershey published his report on the effects of the bomb at Hiroshima, people were deeply shocked. As A-bombs grew more powerful and more numerous, people everywhere realized that these weapons truly could bring about the end of the world. But the only way of dealing with them seemed to be the MAD doctrine: “Mutually Assured Destruction”. If both the USA and the USSR realized that a nuclear war would result in their own destruction, then both would refrain from crossing the nuclear threshold.