Fear of nuclear war in the 1980s

In February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the possible use of nuclear weapons as he pushed ahead with the invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. This sent a shudder of familiarity down the spines of anybody aged 50 and over. Those of us who grew up in the last phases of the Cold War when fear of nuclear conflict reached a terrifying height in the early 1980s. For young people – this unfamiliar territory so let’s shine a light on the past.

Protect and Survive – advice on living through a nuclear war

It’s been a long time since nuclear war gave me butterflies in my stomach. But back in the early 1980s, many young people surveyed genuinely believed they would die in a nuclear conflict. From the mid-1970s, the United Kingdom government issued public information guidance on what to do in the event of a nuclear war. This culminated in 1980 with the issue of a notorious pamphlet: Protect and Survive.

This guidance was intended to be distributed to families once the nuclear threat was very real. Somehow, I got my hands on a copy back then and I share some images below. Very much in the DIY spirit of the time, people were instructed on how to radiation-proof their homes. This involved moving furniture in front of windows, blocking up fireplaces and creating a lean-to shelter by propping up doors against a wall.

A lot of this reflected Second World War approaches to surviving Nazi airborne bombing raids in major cities. You dug a shelter in the garden. Went underground. Avoided the blast as best you could. But given what we knew after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosions in Japan that ended World War Two in a blaze of catastrophic radiation – we were a bit sceptical about this pamphlet!

DISCOVER: Fear in history – what scared us in the past?

Protest and Survive – pamphlet reflecting widespread fear of nuclear war

In fact, Protect and Survive was ridiculed in an alternative pamphlet titled Protest and Survive. Authored by veteran Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, it included quotes from government documents that made sobering reading. For example, in 1976, the Home Office had issued guidance to the chief executives of local authorities on what to do after a nuclear attack:

“When radiological conditions permitted movement, district and borough London controllers should assume that one of the priority tasks for their staff, in areas where survivors where to continue residing, would be to collect and cremate or inter human remains in mass graves.”

And this from the Home Office advising healthcare managers:

“Trained health service staff would be vital to the future and should not be wasted by allowing them to enter areas of high contamination where casualties would, in any case, have small chance of long-term recovery.”

FIND OUT MORE: AIDS and Soviet disinformation in the 1980s

Fear about nuclear war returns as never before

The end of the 1970s saw a dramatic change in the global political dynamic. Ronald Reagan was elected president in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. The rhetoric towards the Soviet Union was dialled up and on both sides, new nuclear weapons were deployed. To be blunt – this freaked young people out. And suddenly, protest about nuclear weapons was back in vogue!

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) saw a huge surge in membership and monster demonstrations through the middle of London. About 300,000 marched in 1983. I attended the 1981 demos where an estimated quarter of a million marched.

This was a revival for CND from its previous heyday in the 1950s when earnest students and intellectuals in duffel coats had rallied in Westminster or marched on the atomic weapons research establishment at Aldermaston. But after the 1963 Test Ban Treaty and a calming in tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, fear of nuclear war and protest activity receded.

In fact, in the 1970s – a decade brimming with protest movements – anti-nuclear barely got a look in. Driving through Europe as a kid in the 70s with my parents, the most notable anti-nuclear presence were German hippies in VW camper vans covered in smiley anti-nuclear stickers saying: Atomkraft? Nein Danke.

Otherwise, we switched on our TVs to see the US President of the day (Richard Nixon then later Jimmy Carter) engaged in long and tedious negotiations with the Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev to limit their respective nuclear arsenals. Even as a politics-obsessed child, I struggled to be interested in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or SALT for short. Things on the nuclear front seemed to be broadly under control with the certainty of mutually assured destruction (appropriately MAD for short) ruling out the use of these bombs.

And then everything changed. Thatcher and Reagan were demonised as the architects of an upcoming Armageddon. Women protestors set up a Peace Camp outside the Greenham Common armed forces base over the proposed siting of cruise missiles there. Pop groups began singing about nuclear conflict – the list of songs on the topic is endless from this period. I try and avoid linking to Wikipedia but on this occasion – there is a comprehensive list of 80s nuclear pop hits HERE.

Fear of nuclear war recedes again

With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, the fear moved to nuclear material finding its way into the wrong hands – especially terrorists. But the idea of nation states using nuclear weapons in a war that could wipe us all out faded away. Well, history is cruel. And here we are again. Let’s see if Vladimir Putin would really do what Leonid Brezhnev was not prepared to countenance.

Soviet AIDS

AIDS and the Soviet disinformation campaign

In the 1980s, something called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) emerged. A sexually transmitted disease that eventually developed into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) bringing down the body’s natural barriers to infection and cancer. As with Covid, there were wild guesses about its origin at the outset. And into this uncertainty, the Soviet Union’s disinformation efforts exploited fear and ignorance with disastrous consequences.

HIV/AIDS came to public prominence initially because of its impact on LGBT communities in the west. But this 1980s pandemic also ripped through Africa infecting millions of heterosexual men and women. In developing countries, as with Covid, conspiracy theories flourished pointing an accusing finger at rich western countries. Soviet intelligence stoked the flames of fear and suspicion.

DISCOVER: Celebrating LGBT Muslims in history

The Soviet Union developed an information warfare tool in the 1950s it termed ‘active measures‘. We would now call this disinformation or fake news. This involved pushing the story that HIV had escaped from a US military laboratory in Maryland. The KGB and the Stasi – the East German secret police – collaborated to seed this story among journalists using the Soviet press agency, Novosti, and a network of useful idiots and media outlets – sometimes secretly owned by the Russians.

DISCOVER: Inside the Stasi – the East German secret police

This kind of tactic is still employed by Putin’s Russia today. Conspiracy theories are often floated as an alternative or radical or counter-cultural way of looking at things. What Lenin called ‘useful idiots’ – anti-establishment critics hungry for material – are fed narratives that sow disillusionment or mistrust in western institutions including democracy itself. These useful idiots are frequently sourced in academia or among the Twitterati.

The Soviet AIDS theory diverted attention away from animal infection in Africa to American military activity. This found a willing audience among some who felt Africa was being blamed for AIDS. And the Soviets played up on this anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist sentiment. Even more toxic, Soviets pushed the line that the virus had been developed by the US military to deliberately infect minority populations – including within the United States.

Documents now available since the collapse of the Soviet Union are shocking. In one message from the KGB to their Bulgarian secret service counterparts, the objective of the campaign is made very clear:

We are carrying out a complex of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years of a new dangerous disease in the USA, “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome—AIDS”… and its subsequent, rampant spread to other countries, including Western Europe. The goal of the measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad—namely, that this disease is the result of secret experiments by the USA’s secret services and the Pentagon with new types of biological weapons that have spun out of control.

This cynical disinformation campaign by the Soviet Union around HIV and AIDS was only stopped when the virus began to impact people in the USSR. Realising they needed scientific expertise from the west, the Kremlin pulled the plug on the campaign. But it was too late. Infections were already rising rapidly. Even today, Russia has a high rate of HIV infection and while I don’t want to use the word ‘karma’, there is a sad irony that the country which originated so much misinformation – and still does on other topics – is hoist on its own petard, so to speak.

It’s worth noting that Russian disinformation pre-dates the Soviet Union. It was the Tsarist secret police that forged the notorious anti-Semitic document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written around 1903. This purported to be a manifesto from Jewish leaders outlining their intent to take over the world. It was plagiarised from a number of sources including Machiavelli and was circulated by the Black Hundreds, a violent, pro-tsarist and ultra-nationalist body of thugs. It was also given an extensive print run in the United States courtesy of a useful idiot by the name of Henry Ford (yep – that Henry Ford!). The document was completely bogus – but is still widely believed today.

Russia and fake news – a long history!

Russia and fake news go together like a horse and carriage it would seem. Troll factories in St Petersburg and elsewhere pump out messaging intended to undermine confidence in democracy and western values. And with some success.

The mundanely titled Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg is a global centre of disinformation. But this kind of manufacturing of misinformation on an industrial scale isn’t knew for Russia. They have been dealing in fake news since the Soviet era.

Russia spreading fake news about AIDS in the 1980s

The disinformation and twisting of facts has a longer pedigree in Russia than you might think. The tricks were actually developed in the pre-digital Soviet Union and have simply transferred across to the internet. One story from the 1980s shows how this kind of disinformation has been around for a while.

When AIDS first emerged at the beginning of the 80s, the Soviets decided to implicate the US as the main culprit. The KGB, the Soviet secret police, set about planting stories that would blame American interests for the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus.

‘Active measures’ – the Soviet forerunner of fake news from Russia

This kind of disinformation was referred to as “active measures” by the CIA. It was believed the Soviets spent about three billion dollars a year on disinformation initiatives.

In the pre-digital 1980s and before, the Soviets used TV, radio, newspapers, embassies and supposed experts to carry the false lines. To be successful, active measures had to include a germ of truth – that was exaggerated and distorted.

The stories also had to tap into widespread public anxieties and suspicions. So with AIDS, why not exploit fears about secret labs developing germ warfare experiments and people being secretly and unknowingly tested with deadly viruses?

On 17 July, 1983, a letter appeared in a small circulation Indian newspaper called The Patriot alleging that the AIDS virus was a result of Pentagon backed tests to develop new biological weapons.

Just to make sure the Indian readership of this newspaper sat up and took notice, the letter added that these tests were being moved to Pakistan, secretly of course. And there would be a danger of this toxic virus spreading across the border to India.

This was all laced with true facts about AIDS and the US biological weapons program. And the Soviets always made sure to pepper falsifications with lots of verifiable data – that would convince the end user it must be true.

False media titles spread fake news for Russia

How did this letter get published so easily? Well, the KGB had set up The Patriot in 1967 for the purpose of circulating pro-Soviet stories in India. Why did the Soviets circulate such an immoral story? Because they were coming under attack for their own biological weapons research!

Soviet news sources now began to circulate the story quoting the letter from a mysterious American scientist in….The Patriot. Now all that was required was an unwitting agent within the scientific community to endorse the allegation. And the KGB couldn’t believe its luck when a retired East German biophysicist Professor Jakob Segal became an enthusiastic proponent of the lie.

Actually, luck had nothing to do with it – the Soviets got their opposite numbers in the East German secret police, the Stasi, to reach out to Segal and brief him in a friendly and informal manner. He was not to feel used and manipulated. Instead, he would buy into the story himself – of his own volition.

A useful idiot to spread fake news for mother Russia

Segal was a committed communist. That said, it’s unlikely he believed that he was simply a tool of the Kremlin. All the evidence points to an intelligent man who became completely convinced that the United States had indeed unleashed the AIDS virus from one of its laboratories. In a pamphlet called AIDS – its nature and origin, Segal rejected the idea that AIDS had started in Africa and pointed the finger of blame firmly at the US.

How did the virus spread to the LGBT community? Segal claimed that US scientists had experimented on gay prisoners. They had then spread it through unprotected sex with partners on the scene in New York and San Francisco.

By placing the origin of AIDS in the US, Segal’s views were enthusiastically taken up by sections of the African media. Yet there were clearly African victims – so how had they been infected? A notorious variant on the Soviet lie was developed in a Nigerian newspaper in 1988 that the Americans had tested dodgy polio vaccines on poor Africans in the 1960s.

The Soviets pushed their line through every offline medium: newspapers, radio, TV, handbills, rumours, etc. By 1987, it had popped up in over 200 publications in 25 languages. Segal was given virtually uncritical coverage in British newspapers.

North Korea chipped in with a scare campaign that US soldiers in South Korea were spreading AIDS while broadcasts in Turkish from within the USSR said US bases in Turkey were a health risk.

Russia has second thoughts about its own fake news!

But…the USSR began to have second thoughts. Cases of HIV/AIDS were appearing within the Soviet Union and scientists there openly argued against the Segal view.

Gradually, the Kremlin realised that any political capital to be made out of this disinformation campaign was heavily outweighed by the growing public health problem within their own society. The Soviets needed to be sharing information with scientists in the west to combat the virus instead of trashing them with this AIDS fabrication.

So on this occasion, the story was allowed to quietly die.