The Nuclear War Atlas is a compilation of 28 maps put together by geographer William Bunge in 1982. These maps were presented on a double-sided 20 by 34-inch poster that could fold into a 5 by 8-inch card. This atlas was designed for peace demonstrations, as during the Cold War people were concerned about the use of nuclear weapons. The combination of maps and writing highlight the danger of nuclear activity and push for the end of nuclear weapons.
Bunge reframed data from researched sources (Progress of Nuclear Energy, Health Physics, Child Psychology, etc.) into a clear and concise format. According to Bunge, selling the atlas was an excuse to talk peace during the summers and reinforced the need for a clear plan to save humanity. The original edition of the Nuclear War Atlas was published in Lobeck’s Physiographic diagram of North America. It is a famous example of radical, socially engaged cartography of the post war era. The Nuclear War Atlas was used in education displays by the anti-nuclear war movement and reflects the American fear that nuclear war could happen at any moment. Calling a single poster an atlas was a huge gesture and this claim opened doors for mapmakers to make new types of atlases. In the Nuclear War Atlas, Bunge emphasized the threat of nuclear weapons through the use of simultaneous contrast, when a light color is engulfed by a dark color, to draw on a distinction between the elements being mapped.
The maps are divided into four subtopics labeled with titles (Blast, Radiation, Star Wars, The Future) in large red letters. Each map has an alarming, and sometimes sarcastic subtitle, and is accompanied by captions detailing the damage that would occur in a nuclear war or the consequences of past nuclear disasters. One major idea of the atlas is how we are responsible for our own demise through nuclear weapons. Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of the atlas is an image of an explosion captioned with a quote from Albert Einstein, who said, “Shall we put an end to the human race or shall we renounce war?”. To instill fear across the country, numerous maps emphasize the effect a nuclear bomb would have geographically in North America and the United States. The themes of proximity give an overall perspective of space and time and inevitably look toward the future. The Nuclear War Atlas is an example of activism concerning the destabilization of state power. Conveying the idea that this is a war mapped countries are waging on themselves, some maps make it seem as if certain countries (specifically the US and USSR) are going to blow the entire world up. These maps create fear of scientific advancements of nuclear weapons in the future and highlight dangers of nuclear weapons even when they are not being used, sometimes rhetorically subjugating the peaceful uses of nuclear technologies to militaristic ones. Bunge inverted the idea of technological superiority into fear of its aptitude for destruction. Although there is research behind the maps, some of their claims could be exaggerations. The map dramatically frames facts to inspire people to oppose nuclear weapons.
During our presentation, we had a productive class discussion about the Nuclear War Atlas. The class had an opportunity to get engaged through a game in which they looked at a map and guessed the title. After discussing our thoughts on the maps, classmates had an opportunity to talk about their ideas and perspectives of the maps. Our discussion questions functioned well to guide the class in a discussion about the major themes and background of the Nuclear War Atlas.