"The Last Survivor" Reflects on Nuclear Holocaust

Well, just how will North Korea react to the threat of “serious repercussions” uttered by the US? What is the nature and extent of the threat? And what is its validity? The current crisis may very well usher in the New Cold War, now that North Korea is said to have tested its first nuclear bomb, a privilege that the US apparently feels compelled and entitled to reserve for itself. Why should any nation intimidating the US with atomic competition feel obliged to heed such a warning? And why should any one second or third or fourth world power (thus labeled and locked in some position of dependency according to a Western system of classification) abandon its scientific efforts, hostile or otherwise, considering how well stocked American arsenals remain these days?

I had hoped atomic grandstanding went out with the Reagan administration—and partly as a result of that period of negotiation. Now the heirs of the “Fat Man” are reclaiming the throne in the reign of terror, a reign that, however imaginary or overstated, began some sixty years ago. On this day, 11 October, in 1949, nearly two months after Communist Russia managed to copy the “Fat Man”—stolen from the US by one of my compatriots, German physicist Klaus Fuchs—to become the world’s second nuclear power, American listeners were treated to an apocalyptic vision of life after the final fallout.

“The Last Survivor,” written, produced, and directed by the Mysterious Traveler team of Robert A. Arthur and David Kogan (who, at any rate, got the credit for it), is not one of those science fiction fantasies set in the near or distant future. Instead, the play creates a dystopia set in the here and now—the here and now of the less than peace-assured post Second World War era.

Back in 1947, the chief of an experimental rocket section stationed at an army air base in St. Augustine, New Mexico, is being offered the opportunity to build and man a spaceship running on the kind of power that brought down Japan. Working with one of the scientists who helped to develop the atomic bomb, the narrator and eponymous “Last Survivor” agrees to assist in demonstrating the “peaceful use of atomic energy.”

The rocket reaches Mars and the mission proceeds according to schedule. Upon their return, however, the space travelers are greeted by a horrific site, watched and commented on from above. The world to which they had hoped to return is going up in flames. During their two-year absence, atomic energy had once again been weaponized, this time to wage a war to end not only all wars, but all peaceful co-existence on the planet. The nuclear blasts very nearly destroy the rocket; only a single scientist remains to tell the tale. His last words, addressed at anyone listening—at no one in particular or no one at all—are more haunting and provocative than any CGI trickery achieved in Hollywood movies:

I am alone now, sitting here staring at the scanning screen; and as I look at that burning, unrecognizable planet once called Earth, the same question keeps running through my mind. What happened? And why? Why did the earth explode in fire? Was there anything that I [. . .] might have done to prevent that all-consuming Holocaust? And I know that as long as I, the last survivor, live, I’ll keep asking myself, why did it happen? Why?

Unlike so many radio thrillers of the late 1940s and early ’50s, “The Last Survivor” does not exploit its premise to advance an anti-Communist agenda. It does not ask, let alone state, how this atomic war started or who started it. Instead, its concluding monologue—the monologue of an isolated speaker in a world beyond dialogue—suggests collective guilt and individual responsibility when it comes to our reliance on or complacency about decisions that affect the future of our planet.

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