Late in the summer of 1961, an interracial group of Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, North Carolina, a town long mired in intense racial conflict, to join civil rights activist Robert F. Williams’s campaign to integrate the town’s public facilities, including the schools and the municipal swimming pool. He also wanted to achieve nondiscriminatory hiring practices in local factories, to guarantee the appointment of African American citizens to positions within the city government, and to have all signs indicating white and non-white areas removed from public view. As president of the Union County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Williams had generated considerable controversy two years earlier when, in a moment of frustration over a series of racially-biased court decisions, he claimed that “the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attacker on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”1 Although Williams tried to soften his rhetoric by explaining that he had meant only to say that the African American community must consider armed self-defense until such time as the criminal justice system guaranteed the constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the national leadership of the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, suspended Williams from his leadership post after a period of high-profile debate over the organization’s position on self-defense. It was in response to his being censured that Williams began to publish The Crusader, a widely-distributed monthly newsletter that served as a platform for his ideas and helped further elevate him as a militant voice within the largely nonviolent Civil Right Movement. The Freedom Riders who descended on Monroe that summer intended to help Williams integrate the town, but they also wanted to counter his position on armed self-defense by demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in a town that had become notorious for its racist violence.
The escalating nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea have me thinking of the 1965 film The War Game, a mock-documentary that dramatizes a thermonuclear attack on a small British city. The film, directed by Peter Watkins, won an Academy Award for best documentary, though it was ultimately denied airtime by the BBC because of its violent content. The experience of watching the film is disturbing, not only because it recalls how deeply the threat of nuclear war had penetrated global consciousness during the Cold War, but also because it draws attention to how disconnected our contemporary cultural sphere is from the species-level threat of nuclear war. We just don’t seem to care anymore. This is precisely why The War Game is still worth watching. It not only illustrates the danger of nuclear proliferation, but it also serves as a reminder that the international community has failed to address the persistent danger of nuclear arms.
There are many aspects of The War Game that remain relevant today. For example, the nuclear strike depicted in the film is provoked by a conflict between the United States and China over American military involvement in South Vietnam. The United States threatens to strike the Chinese military with tactical nuclear missiles, which in turn provokes the Soviet Union to assist the East Germans in unifying Berlin under the Communist regime. In an effort to defend Berlin from Communist aggression, the United States and Britain strike Soviet forces with a nuclear missile, thus initiating a full-scale thermonuclear conflict. This was a likely enough scenario when the film was released, and it should give us pause regarding how easily the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea can explode into a larger conflict between any number of nuclear powers.