A fallout shelter sign hangs on a building on East 9th Street in New York. File/AP
Russia’s war on Ukraine has most Americans at least somewhat worried that the US will be drawn directly into the conflict and could be targeted with nuclear weapons, with a new poll reflecting a level of anxiety that has echoes of the Cold War era.
Close to half of Americans say they are very concerned that Russia would directly target the US with nuclear weapons, and an additional 3 in 10 are somewhat concerned about that, according to the new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Russian President Vladimir Putin placed his country’s nuclear forces on high alert shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion.
Roughly 9 in 10 Americans are at least somewhat concerned that Putin might use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine, including about 6 in 10 who are very concerned.
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“He is out of control, and I don’t think he really has concern for much of anything but what he wants,” said Robin Thompson, a retired researcher from Amherst, Massachusetts. “And he has nuclear weapons.”
Seventy-one percent of Americans say the invasion has increased the possibility of nuclear weapons being used anywhere in the world.
The poll was conducted before North Korea test-fired its biggest intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday but also shows 51% of Americans saying they are very concerned about the threat to the US posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. An additional 29% expressed moderate concern.
Fear of nuclear war has been a fact of life for decades. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published its “Doomsday Clock” since 1947, showing a theoretical countdown to nuclear annihilation. The latest update, in January, put the time at 100 seconds to midnight — unchanged since 2020, but still closer than ever to Armageddon.
It’s difficult to measure the public’s degree of fear over time because polls use different methodologies or pose questions in different ways. Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, said people often won’t bring it up on their own but list it among concerns if given the choice.
The fear, naturally enough, also tends to rise and fall depending on what is happening around the world. “We have these moments that are sort of high crisis periods,” Wellerstein said. “And then they come and go, and people forget that we had them.”