Nuclear War?! There Goes My Career!

Silkscreen Print - © Mark Vallen 1980

In 1980 I created the silkscreen print, Nuclear War?!… There Goes My Career! The artwork was in response to public fears that a nuclear war would break out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But the print wasn’t merely an assault upon those who possessed nuclear weapons - rather, it was a critique against those self-possessed and upwardly mobile individuals who were too busy with their careers to notice they were in part responsible for the state of the world.

It may seem that I followed the example of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, couching my message in an image inspired by American comics, but in actuality my poster was inspired by the Situationists - whose intent it was to subvert the world of art. That my print was loosely based upon the comic book superhero, Wonder Woman, lent a disturbing irony to the artwork; even America’s superheroes were helpless before the nuclear juggernaut. I was astounded at the popularity of my print, its title even becoming a part of popular American colloquial speech. Eventually the New York Museum of Modern Art would display my print in an exhibition of political poster art.

Another anti-nuclear silkscreen print I created, We’re Number One, was printed in 1984. The title and theme of that work was inspired by a newspaper headline from the now defunct, Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Reporting on the intensifying nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the paper ran a banner headline that read, “U.S. plans to win nuclear war.” When I saw those words I pondered what “winning” a nuclear exchange with the Soviets would actually have meant? Major population centers in Europe obliterated, key cities in Russia and the U.S. reduced to nothing - resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocent civilians.

The “winner” of course would inherit a smoldering wasteland of radioactive rubble. My print was never intended as an anti-American barb, but a forceful jab at those who thought a nuclear war winnable. The artwork depicted three deathly figures, two in radiation suits and one in military garb clutching a photo of a dead child from Hiroshima. The Day of the Dead inspired silkscreen was printed in a sickly radioactive green.

Silkscreen Print - © Mark Vallen 1984

We’re Number One was meant as a condemnation of people like T.K. Jones - a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense in the Reagan administration who infamously said Americans would survive atomic war with the Soviets “if there are enough shovels to go around.” Like other cold-war civil defense advocates at the time, Jones promoted the notion that once the missiles started flying one could dig a hole with a shovel; cover the trench with a door; pile dirt upon the makeshift bunker; and then wait in the hovel until the nuclear blasts subsided.

Presupposing the “victory” of the U.S. in such an exchange, Americans would then rise from their foxholes to rebuild the country. The deadly and long lasting effects of radiation and the very real likelihood of a nuclear winter were never spoken of as being part of the scenario. Unfortunately, my print is still relevant today, as the characters from Doctor Strangelove keep popping up in the American political landscape.

On July 15th, 2005, Colorado congressman Rep. Tom Tancredo advocated nuking Mecca if America was again attacked by terrorists. Speaking on a radio station in Florida, Tancredo said the “ultimate threat” would have to be met with an “ultimate response.” Then there’s the news that the Pentagon, under instruction from Vice President Cheney, has assigned the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM), the task of creating contingency plans to conduct a large-scale air assault on Iran. The attack would include the use of tactical nuclear weapons and would be carried out in the event of another 9/11-type terror attack on U.S. soil.

We’re Number One and Nuclear War?!… There Goes My Career!, were exhibited at the Parco Museum in Tokyo, Japan, June 2005, as part of the Yo! What Happened to Peace? traveling exhibition. Then, as now, these particular silkscreen prints are dedicated to war enthusiasts of all countries.

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