Cold War revisited: York Nuclear bunker marks 70th anniversary of the nuclear age

By William Axtell | 16 July 2015

Artist says inauguration of President Bush sparked attempt to "make sense" of nuclear war



The 70th anniversary of the detonation of the first nuclear bombs, first harmlessly in the desert and then devastatingly in the skies above Japan, will be commemorated with a series of films combining documentary, docu-drama, action and Japanese Manga at York's Cold War Bunker.

Events will take place throughout the summer, focusing on the key dates which plunged the world into the Cold War. Meanwhile, an exhibition by artist Michael Mulvihill, Standby for the New Stone Age, aims to reflect on geopolitical structures driving the war and how the explosions of 1945 turned into the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

A photograph of an orange chair
A chair and desk within the hideaway© English Heritage
“I had vivid memories of the tangibility of nuclear war during the 1980s but the impetus to make sense of the irrationality of nuclear war did not occur until the inauguration of President George W Bush in January 2001,” says Mulvihill.

“Until this time the threat of nuclear war had vanished with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”

A photograph of a telephone
A telephone inside the bunker© English Heritage
The project has an added historical dimension through the use of artefacts from the bunker, tying the local site to the global Cold War context.

The 1945 summer of horror started on July 16 with the Trinity nuclear test. The outcome of the Manhattan Project, a joint venture between British, American and Canadian scientists tested at the US Air Force base at Alamogordo, New Mexico, resulted in a 20 kiloton explosion which obliterated the steel tower the bomb was resting on.

A photograph of some uniforms
Some uniforms at York Cold War Museum© English Heritage
Estimating that a conventional assault on Japan would result in 100,000 American casualties, President Truman ignored the moral reservations of some of his senior commanders and ordered the bombing of first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.

More than 100,000 civilians died immediately, followed soon after by many thousands more as radiation sickness took its toll. The second bomb finally triggered Japan’s surrender, bringing to a close one conflict and opening another.


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An artwork of a nuclear explosion
Artwork by Plumbbob Priscilla© Courtesy Vane Gallery
An artwork of a nuclear explosion
© Courtesy Vane Gallery
More museums to see the history of the Cold War in:

Gravesend Cold War Bunker
Gravesend's secret Cold War bunker was an underground command post, built in 1954, from which Gravesend's rescue and emergency services were to be co-ordinated in the event of a nuclear attack.

Bentwaters Cold War Museum, Suffolk
Based in the United States Air Force's hardened command post on an airbase which closed after their withdrawal in 1993, this is believed to be the only such building open to the public in the UK and Europe. Aircraft on display include English Electric Lightning, Hawker Hunter, BAC Jaguar and McDonnell Douglas Phantom & Harrier.

Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker, Nantwich
Declassified in 1993, the 35,000 sq ft underground bunker would have been the centre of Regional Government had nuclear war broken out. Built in the 1950's as part of a vast secret radar network codenamed 'ROTOR'. The bunker today offers a warm welcome through massive blast doors.


Follow William Axtell on Twitter @WilliamAxtell.
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