My umteenth re-read of “On The Beach” prompted this review. This is a very strong story of a ghastly subject told in a gentle but compelling manner. I first read this novel in the late 1960’s, and it strikes me that, of the thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime, this could well be the saddest of them all. The sadness permeates the whole book and rightfully so, since it is about the end of life – human life, anyway – in our lifetime, caused by a global thermonuclear war. This book was published in 1957 (a half a century ago!) and set in the mid 1960’s time frame.
Nevil Shute (full name: Nevil Shute Norway: b. January 17, 1899 in London – d. January 12, 1960 in Melbourne) was a pilot, an aeronautical engineer by trade, and founded the aircraft construction company Airspeed Ltd. in 1931. By the advent of WW II, his Company had made him wealthy and he had become a noted novelist. In 1950, he and his family (a wife and two daughters) emigrated to Australia – his form of protest at the Socialist agenda the British Government had embraced after WWII. He wrote and published 23 books in his lifetime – the first book he ever wrote, “Stephen Morris”, was published posthumously in 1961. Nevil was a believer in capitalism and a good many of his novels portrayed private enterprise (along with self-reliance and individual responsibility) as a source of moral good. His leading characters were almost always persons of strong character and firm morals and there are really no “bad guys” in his books – just sometimes a minor character that does something bad, usually in the context of a war.
Now for the book. If you’ve never read “On The Beach”, I strongly suggest that you should. It is no longer common in bookstores; I would guess either a public library or eBay would be fruitful, although Amazon has it, including the Kindle version. It will certainly be well worth the effort to acquire.
The story is set in southern Australia, in and around Melbourne, at a time when the entire northern hemisphere is dead, killed by the radiation resulting from a global thermonuclear war. The radioactive dust has crossed the equator and is inexorably moving south around the globe, killing off all animal life. As the book begins, there are only a few months left and the book ends when Melbourne does.
Nevil Shute was an engineer, so the world in his novel was realistic and plausible considering what was known in the mid 1950’s. That was the height of the arms race in the cold war and a time when nuclear weapons were being developed (and spread) at an alarming rate. Shute chose to focus on what “could” happen if things kept on as they were. In his book the nuclear war was . . . almost an accident. Albania nuked Naples – for whatever reason – and Italy retaliated against the USSR, who had supplied Albania with the bomb in the first place. The USSR retaliated, of course. And while that was going on, China decided that a sneak attack on the USSR might be a good opportunity to eliminate a rival for future world domination. So while the two communist powers were nuking each other, Egypt used their 8 long-range bombers (supplied by the USSR) to make a sneak attack against the United States. A couple got through to nuke U.S. cities and, since the bombers still had Soviet marking on them, we thought it was the Ruskies attacking, so we nuked them, … and so on. One character in the book suggests that over 4,700 nuclear and thermonuclear devices were used during the brief war.
Shute made the point that after the first nuclear exchanges by the world powers, there was no one left to exercise control over the launching of further attacks – all the “command and control” facilities were targets of the initial attacks and the rest of the war was carried out by unit level command. These were folks that actually had control of the missiles, but couldn’t make the decision on whether to launch or not. That was up to their superiors. But since their superiors were all dead (killed by enemy action) and their country was still under attack, and they still had weapons. . . In the book, everyone in the northern hemisphere used everything they had – and it killed the Earth.
As a foot-note, here’s an excerpt from an article that estimates nuclear weapons proliferation:
“First, there was one, Little Boy, which the United States dropped on Hiroshima as a bitter war was nearing its end sixty-one years ago today; then came Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Both cities were essentially obliterated.
By the time the Russians got theirs — Joe (for Joe Stalin)-1 in 1949, the U.S. had 235 in its arsenal. By the time Britain got its first (“Hurricane”) in 1953, the U.S. had 1,436 and the Soviets, 120; by the time France had its first 4 and China its first in 1964, the U.S. had 31,056; the Russians, 5,221; and the British, 310.”
Another source I read estimates that there are perhaps 50,000 nuclear weapons in existence today.
In the 1950’s & 60’s nuclear hysteria was pretty close to the surface, everywhere. I was attending public schools during that time and we were taught how to cower under our desks, with our arms wrapped over our heads, in case of nuclear attack. This in extreme south Texas, right on the Mexican border – that area being one of the “as close to the edge-of-nowhere” type places as you can find in the United States, with no possible A-bomb targets within hundreds of miles!
In that same time, books and movies decrying the proliferation and spread of nuclear weapons become more and more evident. “On the Beach” was adapted to an award winning film in 1959 – starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astair and Anthony Perkins and directed by Stanley Kramer. The book’s message received broader coverage.
Then, in 1962, the world stepped to the brink…
“But the critical event of the 1960s was the 1962 discovery that Russians had deployed forty-eight offensive ballistic missiles in Cuba. In a showdown of nuclear brinkmanship, both the Soviet Union and the United States went on highest alert in their preparations for war. For thirteen days the cold war almost went hot. As the Russian nuclear missiles were nearing operational status the Kennedy administration weighed such options as mounting an air strike, staging an invasion, or conducting a naval blockade. After the latter was selected, a Russian fleet steamed west to break it; a U.S. spy plane was shot down over Cuban territory killing the pilot. Eventually, though, diplomacy and level heads prevailed. The missiles were removed in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade the communist country and to remove its obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The nations’ closeness to the unthinkable contributed to their agreeing on the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”
The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was the first global agreement on nuclear energy and, as such, was the first small step back towards sanity.
Nevil Shute was was no anti-war leftist. Here are a couple of quotes from David T. Beito, writing for:
“Perhaps no book gave greater inspiration to the anti-nuclear bomb movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s than On the Beach. The story, which appeared in 1957, had many elements which were prophetic, or near prophetic…”
“… Although most of the political activists who drew inspiration from On the Beach were leftists, the author, Nevil Shute, counted himself as a friend of low taxes, entrepreneurship, and an enemy of socialism.”
An instructive side issue was the blow-up Nevil Shute had during the filming of “On The Beach”. The characters in Shute’s book were persons of high moral character – indeed, almost all of his characters in all of his books were like that. And they were – all of them – characters of firm self-discipline; they always did what they felt they had to do, no matter how personally painful it was. One of the more moving scenes in the book was a trout fishing trip taken by the American U-Boat skipper in company with an Australian girl who was falling very much in love with him. They spent 3 days together in a fishing lodge ‘way back in the boondocks, and it was entirely platonic. They slept in separate rooms and it was agreed – before they left – that that’s the way it was going to be. The American still considered himself a married man, even though his family had been dead for at least two years. In his mind, though, this was just another separation and he would be rejoining them in a short time (when he died from the radiation poisoning); he’d never broken his marriage vows in the past and wasn’t about to start now. This type of moral firmness, especially in sexual matters, is typical of characters in Nevil Shute’s books and, I suspect, was probably practiced by Nevil Shute himself.
But the movie! Here’s a quote from Phillip Davey (author of “When Hollywood Came to Melbourne”):
“The main problem, it seems, was Kramer’s alleged distortion of the two main characters when, in the mountain hotel bedroom scene, the inference was that they “hit the sack.” In the book, Peck’s character is loyal to his dead wife right to the end. Kramer felt that it was totally unreasonable for a man in Dwight’s situation to remain loyal to his convictions, given the awful circumstances. … There were also problems with different cultures causing friction. Shute was a “well mannered English country gentleman,” whereas the people from California had different ways and customs. Seems that these factors had some bearing on the ill feelings.”
Nevil Shute was furious and refused to have anything else to do with the film. Because of that corruption of his main characters, he hated the film and often said that he thought it was the poorest adaption of any of his books to film.
What is instructive to me is the philosophic differences exposed here. Nevil Shute was a conservative man – both socially and politically – and as such had a firm belief in an absolute (and universal) moral code. That’s reflected in all his books. And to him, of course, one of the important definitions of a man was his moral strength. To Nevil Shute, a man who would compromise his moral code (violating his wedding vows, for instance) because of a little thing like the end of the world, was not a man at all, but a weakling to be avoided by true men.
The film director, Stanley Kramer, on the other hand, was a typical Hollyweird leftist. The concept of a universal morality didn’t exist for him. Because he accepted the collectivist philosophical belief that each of us exists in his or her own separate and unrelated reality, he also accepted (and practiced) the idea that morality is a situational thing – something that evolves for each individual as his or her reality (situation) changes. To him, the decision on whether to have an extramarital affair is decided not in the abstract, but by whether you might get caught, and since the character’s wife is long dead (and far away, anyway) it’s inconceivable to him that the character wouldn’t have an affair. After all, that’s what he would do, as would anyone he had ever associated with. Further, anyone who wouldn’t take advantage of that situation couldn’t be much of a man, and he certainly wanted the lead character in his film to be all man.
So Stanley Kramer changed a small scene in the movie to make it more realistic and believable by, in Nevil Shute’s view, destroying the main character’s moral fiber, exposing him as a weakling who would give up his lifelong convictions for a few fleeting minutes of passion. As I say: instructive.
My final thoughts here are about the year 1957. This book, published this year, could well be said to be one of the primary forces behind the move to finally start to control the nuclear arms race. If nothing else, it shows how insane the 1940’s & 50’s were when it came to nuclear weapons. But there was another book published in 1957 that I think might be even more important. Ayn Rand published “Atlas Shrugged” in 1957 and it was this book that changed conservative thought in this country enough to spark the presidental campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. That led to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and finally the campaign and election of Ronald Reagan, who changed the political face of this planet forever by ending the cold war.
In retrospect, it looks like 1957 was a very good year.