Even though I listen to many, many podcasts, I rarely feel the need to recommend one. However, this particular story is one that is powerfully relevant to today even it may not seem so. It is about the shadow that we all live under, a shadow that that we rarely contemplate, a shadow that no one could have ever conceived could be made darker through tweets. That shadow that I’m referring to, of course, is the possibility of nuclear war and the annihilation of our species as a result.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is an incredible series that provides an in-depth and balanced look at a wide range of historical subjects and time-periods. I admit I’ve only listened to his World War I series (Count Down to Armageddon) and this one, The Destroyer of Worlds. Even if you’re not a history buff, this podcast is a must listen because we still live in the nuclear age. Nuclear war is still a possibility. Perhaps less so after the Cold War but these weapons and their implicit threat have not gone away. This podcast presents an excellent primer on the subject if you’ve never contemplated what having nuclear weapons really mean to the fate of our species.
Carlin explains that the invention of nuclear weapons was a paradigm-shifting event the likes of which humanity has never previously grappled and these new implements of destruction inexorably shaped the reality of this new world. He walks through the Cold War up until the Cuban Missile crisis through the lens of nuclear weapons and how they influenced decisions on both sides of the divide during this period. It’s a fascinating perspective, which I have not considered when learning about historical topics such as the Korean War. Carlin presents a remarkably nuanced and human discussion of the thought processes of various military and political figures and does his best to argue various different historical perspectives. I think this latter point is particularly important because history is most often presented through a single lens when in reality humans are complex multifaceted entities. History distills particular leaders like Truman and Eisenhower almost down to a stereotype. I greatly appreciated Carlin’s endeavor to describe this figures much more holistically.
Carlin peppers the historical events with a more philosophical discourse on the implications of nuclear weapons. He really does an excellent job of placing the advent of nuclear war in a global frame and anchors this frame based on the course of human history up to that moment. His metaphor is perfect; humans in the 1940s and 50s were children given a gun. They had the power to kill in a way thought inconceivable before 1945, but no one had any idea on the right way to use it (if at all) or what it really meant to have it in the first place.
Of particular significance, he also includes first-hand accounts of what it is like for a human being to be exposed to one of these hellish devices: accounts of survivors of Hiroshima. I never even new such accounts existed and they are truly horrifying. Everyone should listen to this podcast simply to hear these stories alone.
Most relevant and poignant for today, though, is the huge burden of responsibility placed on leaders such as Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Carlin’s insights on what these two leaders were thinking at the time are excellent. Both leaders understand their actions may lead to nuclear war but at the same time cannot show any signs of weakness or capitulation. Heads of state have been doing this dance ever since there were things we now call countries but the dance chanced dramatically once humanity now had a tool that could literally annihilate civilizations.
But what really struck me about this podcast is my own terrifying hypothetical that seems to become less hypothetical every day: What if Trump was in Kennedy’s shoes in 1962? What type of world would be living in today? I know how I would answer. I doubt most people have even thought about the question.