IAM a child of the Cold War. One of my earliest boyhood memories goes back to 1962 when I was almost five years old. Though at the time I had no idea of what was actually going on, I still recall my parents and other grown-ups being very serious when they talked about it.

And talk they did, as what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States, Soviet Union and the world to the brink of nuclear conflict.

For those unfamiliar with that intense 13-day political and military stand-off, it came about after an American spy plane photographed a Soviet SS-4 ballistic missile being assembled for installation in Cuba barely 90 miles from US shores.

In a television address the then US president John F Kennedy told the world of the missile’s presence and his decision to enact a military blockade of Cuba and willingness to use force to neutralise this perceived threat to national security.

While the world waited nervously for the Soviet response, it watched too on television as Soviet ships bound for Cuba carrying more missiles neared the US blockade. Only at the 11th hour did the Soviet ships stop short and turn around, thus avoiding all-out confrontation and a war that would likely have plunged the world into a nuclear abyss.

The palpable sense of fear and uncertainty, which reached its height during that crisis, would in the years that followed ebb and flow in its intensity. Always, though, its reminders were never far away as the threat of nuclear annihilation cast a shadow over a generation.

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For those growing up during the Cold War, that one key image of a mushroom cloud in the first flash of atomic detonation became seared into their imagination, permeating their lives through everything from books and films to posters and popular culture. It gave rise also to questioning the need for weapons that guaranteed “mutually assured destruction” known appropriately enough by the acronym MAD.

Up until that time and since, only one nation and its people has ever been subjected to the indescribable horror of an actual atomic weapon deployed in warfare.

This week it will be 75 years since

August 6, 1945, when at 8:15 Japanese time a giant US B29-Superfortress bomber, named after Enola Gay Tibbets, the mother of the pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets, dropped a uranium bomb codenamed

Little Boy over the city of Hiroshima.

“My God, what have we done?” the co-pilot Robert Lewis later recalled saying moments after the detonation. Three days later, the US launched another mission to strike the city of Korura. With the city obscured by clouds, however, Nagasaki was chosen instead. The bomb, this time codenamed Fatman, was then dropped, laying waste to the city.

Flying in an accompanying aircraft over Nagasaki as one of a group of official observers was the legendary British bomber pilot Leonard Cheshire, who later recalled the cloud caused by the atomic blast.

“Obscene in its greedy clawing at the earth, swelling as if with its regurgitation of all the life that it had consumed,” was how Cheshire described what he saw that day.

And what a grotesque and unimaginable consumption of human life that was. Both cities were all but eviscerated with an estimated 200,000 killed, many of those victims succumbing to radiation poisoning in the weeks that followed.

“The impact of the bomb was so terrific that practically all living things – human and animal – were literally seared to death by the tremendous heat and pressure set up by the blast,” Tokyo radio said in the aftermath of the explosion, according to a report by The Guardian in August 1945.

“All the dead and injured were burned beyond recognition. Those outdoors were burned to death, while those indoors were killed by the indescribable pressure and heat.”

But it was the effects of radiation poisoning which “totally shocked” scientists, according to Professor Alex Wellerstein, a science and nuclear weapons historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in the United States.

While scientists were concerned about the possible effects of radiation on their own staff, they showed little interest in calculating what that damage could be for the Japanese, Wellerstein told The New York Times in a recent interview to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the bombings.

“They expected the blast and fire effects of the atomic bomb would greatly overshadow any radiation casualties,” Wellerstein added, basing his assessment on the extensive research he has conducted into what the US knew about the long-term consequences of using the weapons.

What was clear enough to all, though, was that the devastation was unlike anything in the history of warfare. What happened during those August days in 1945 not only ushered in an era of weapons of mass destruction, but also shifted the global geopolitical dynamic. Out of this emerged the Cold War and its legacy, the reverberations of which are still felt today.

While the United States was the first country to develop nuclear weapons, Russia was not far behind. Between them, these two superpowers at the height of the Cold War held the vast majority of the world’s nuclear arsenal. While the nuclear strikes on Japan have always been presented as being motivated by the need to ensure the country’s surrender during the Second World War, even today historians continue to disagree over whether or not the administration of US president Harry S Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bomb for political reasons rather than strictly military ones. By that time Washington’s eye was firmly on the perceived threat presented by the Soviet Union.

Some say the nuclear blasts in Japan were also meant to send out a message to those in the Kremlin and communist world and bring pressure on Moscow into negotiating over Eastern Europe and Germany.

At least two years before America’s attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had already given the green light for a Soviet nuclear programme and, barely a year and a half after the Japan strikes, Moscow achieved its first nuclear chain reaction.

BY 1949 the USSR had tested “First Lightening” its first nuclear device codenamed Joe-1 by the United States. The first chill of the Cold War was quickly settling in and the race for thermonuclear weapons with hundreds of times the firepower of the bombs America had used in Japan was on between Washington and Moscow.

“No matter how many bombs they had or how big their explosions grew, they needed more and bigger … enough was never enough,” observed historian Craig Nelson in his book The Age Of Radiance: The Epic Rise And Dramatic Fall Of The Atomic Era.

While there were some within the Truman administration who argued that co-operation with the Soviets was the only way to avoid a nuclear arms race, opposing views would prove far more influential.

It was the now famous 8000-word “Long Telegram” to the US State Department in 1946 by George Kennan, the then American charge d’affaires in Moscow, that would provide one of the most solid underpinnings of what became known as the Truman doctrine and America’s Cold War policy of containment. Many who read and listened to what Kennan had to say on what US policy should be towards the communist state clearly agreed.

In the years that followed, the often bizarre brinkmanship rules of the Cold War played themselves out and for three decades after 1960 both the US and Soviet Union grew their nuclear arsenals to well over 10,000 warheads. What was created became a hierarchy of power dependent on whether a nation possessed a nuclear weapons capacity.

As former French president Charles de Gaulle once rather bluntly summed it up: “No country without an atom bomb could properly consider itself independent.”

Clamouring for such weapons as many countries were, few were equally in doubt as to what the consequences of a nuclear conflagration would be.

“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country,” observed J Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who is among those who are often credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb” for their role in the US Manhattan Project.

As the nations of the world engaged in a tense stand-off, East against West, “the bomb” became not just a tool of military struggle, but an object of worldwide anxiety.

How many of a certain age reading this will remember the 1986 British graphic novel and film written by Raymond Briggs entitled When The Wind Blows about gentle elderly couple Jim and Hilda Bloggs who attempt to survive a nuclear attack and maintain a sense of normality in the subsequent fallout?

How many, too, recall those chilling short public information films made by the UK government during the late 70s and early 80s called Protect And Survive, designed to be broadcast during times of imminent nuclear threat.

Even our film and television “entertainment” became preoccupied with this lurking danger, with realistic dramas about how war might happen such as Threads (1984) in Britain and The Day After (1983) in the US.

Some of these icons of the times are easy to remember, but perhaps less well known is the real story of a man called Stanislav Petrov, who was on duty in the Soviet Union’s nuclear early-warning command centre on the evening of September 26, 1983.

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I WAS celebrating my birthday that day but little did I, or indeed many people, realise until years later how close the world was to nuclear war that night. Code-named Oko, meaning eye, the command centre collated information from multiple satellites in orbit that endlessly monitored the skies for ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads on their way to attack the Soviet Union.

In the early hours of that day back then, the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the US. Computer read-outs suggested several missiles had been launched. In the political climate of 1983, a retaliatory strike would have been almost certain.

But duty officer Stanislav Petrov – whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches – had a decision to make. Should he alert his superiors or dismiss the attack as a false alarm?

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” he later told the BBC’s Russian Service some 30 years later. In the event, Petrov decided to dismiss the warning as a false alarm and malfunction of the detection system.

Later dubbed “the man who saved the world”, Petrov years afterwards, when asked about what he did that night, simply said he ‘‘did nothing’’.

It was just once incident, one near miss that could have caused a catastrophe. How many more have come and gone without us knowing is anyone’s guess.

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) 75 years after the nuclear strikes that devastated Japan, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined significantly since the Cold War, down from a peak of approximately 70,300 in 1986 to an estimated 13,410 in early 2020.

But as the federation is also quick to point out, comparing today’s numbers with that of the 1950s is like “comparing apples and oranges” given that the current global arsenal is vastly more capable.

What’s clear is that instead of planning for nuclear disarmament, the nuclear-armed states appear determined not only to retain large arsenals for the indefinite future, but are adding new weapons and increasing the role they play in their national strategies.

Right now 91% of all nuclear warheads are owned by the US and Russia. The other nuclear nations are the UK, France, China, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea. Iran is suspected of attempting to build its own nuclear weapon.

There are those, of course, who will argue that the very presence of such vast arsenals have helped to maintain global peace. But likewise, as the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs has warned, “the dangers from such weapons arise from their very existence”.

If the Cold War was a time of paranoia, then our current age is little different. Many countries still harbour ambitions to possess such weapons.

Then there are the rogue elements and terrorist groups. In the latter’s case, the supposed logic behind the principle of “mutually assured destruction” and

“deterrence” becomes even more of a nonsense if those who hold nuclear weapons are no longer rational.

Just over seven decades ago the world was given a glimpse into the apocalypse that nuclear warfare can inflict.

That one glimpse and the Cold War that subsequently descended on the globe tells us all we need to know as to why we must never stare into that abyss again.