ike many Americans, I had my first glimpse of dynamic electronic maps in a movie theater in 1983. The large screens of NORAD emitted more and more light as control over nuclear conflict slipped from human hearts and hands into the calculations and blinking lights of a supercomputer named WOPR. Reversing representational conventions equating mastery with the map’s “view from above,” the command bunker is lit up in fireworks from the immense displays as WOPR “plays the game” of nuclear war again and again, “learning” that the game cannot be won: “The only winning move is not to play.”

Figure 1: Still from Wargames, directed by John Badham, United Artists, 1983.

In picturing the end of the world in accelerated time for the moviegoing audience, the simulated electronic displays of NORAD may have reflected a broader desire for new maps of nuclear war. Within a few years, two important nuclear atlases would appear: Nuclear War Atlas (William Bunge, 1982 and 1988) and Atlas of Global Strategy (Lawrence Freedman, 1985) are both ancestors of The People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado [PANC]. The creators of the expanded Nuclear War Atlas, the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute, would open up the idea of a people’s atlas. Atlas of Global Strategy described global issues as contradictions, anticipating the “pathways” of the PANC. All three projects present very different definitions of an “atlas” and what it means to picture the world–as counter-cartography, strategic brief, and research-creation.

Counter-Hegemonic View From Above

William Bunge’s Nuclear War Atlas was first published as a double-sided poster in 1982 by the Society for Human Exploration and would be re-published as a book in 1988. The Nuclear War Atlas remains “one of the most famous examples of radical, socially-engaged cartography of the postwar era” (Barnes, 2021). The double-sided poster includes 29 maps that sketch the core absurdities of nuclear strategy, such as the basic fact that radiation not only knows no borders but also follows the wind (See “Potential Fallout on America of Its Own Radioactivity”). The poster itself folded down to 5”x8” and was sold at peace demonstrations; enlarged maps from the poster were also used in educational displays by the anti-nuclear movement. The poster is a specimen from a tradition of radical cartographers locating the pollution and pork of foreign wars here in the United States. A prime example is the War Resistance League’s “Nuclear America,” which illustrator Yuko Tonohira updated in 2012 as the “Map of Nuclear North America” for Interference Archive’s “RadioActivity!” exhibit.      

Figure 2: William Bunge, Nuclear War Atlas, 1982. Courtesy University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Library Digital collection.

For Bunge to call a single poster an “Atlas” was a grandiose gesture at a time when the National Geographic Atlas of the World ran 300 12” x 19” pages. But the claim opened doors for mapmakers to compile new kinds of atlases. Historically, an atlas is a collection of maps that begins with a picture of the world, and then pictures areas of detail with subsequent maps. The image of the world provides the guiding concept of the atlas, and also provides the reason for its name:  it is the whole world which the mythological Atlas bears upon his shoulders. Since Gerardus Mercator’s son, Rumold, published the Atlas Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura (“Atlas or cosmographical meditations upon the creation of the world and the shape of creation”) in 1595, persistent features of the atlas have included an introductory text and copious amounts of historical data connected directly to points on the map (Mercator and Karrow, 2000). By contrast, Bunge’s Nuclear War Atlas does not open with a single, masterful rendering of the world—even if it includes images of it. If there is a mappa mundi that begins the Nuclear War Atlas, then it is a map of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945—“not theoretically perfect rings of destruction but . . . [destruction] shaped by local terrain” (Bunge, 1988: 15).  

Figure 3: Detail, William Bunge, Nuclear War Atlas, 1982. Courtesy University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Library Digital collection.

Hegemonic Views From Above

Lawrence Freedman’s An Atlas of Global Strategy was issued in 1985 by Facts on File, a publisher catering to academic and public libraries, and conformed to the more modern style of reference atlases developed in the 19th century.  Created by the Chicago printer Rand, McNally & Company, the “business atlas” layered maps of roads and railroads with information about the built and legal environment for an audience first of American bankers, manufacturers, and salesmen, and later schools and libraries during the pre-Internet Information Age. Freedman’s book contains an explanatory introduction, historical essays, and issue briefs that pair a single map with an encyclopedic article a few paragraphs long, supplemented with many photographs.

Figure 4: Cover image, Atlas of Global Strategy. Photograph courtesy Alexis Bhagat.

Freedman was a historian, not a geographer—a young Professor of War Studies at King’s College London at the time. His viewpoint is realpolitik-al and lacks the concern with social transformation through map-making that Bunge’s Nuclear War Atlas and the People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado share. Like A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado, however, Freedman uses multiple pathways to bring in a diversity of perspectives, organizing his text into “contrary trends” in a way similar to the paired paths of “positivism” and “shadow” in A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado. For Freedman, contradiction—both a source of uncertainty for scenario planners and the friction that kindle real conflicts—is a means to discuss Cold War strategy as understood from the Washington perspective. However, as a reference book, Atlas of Global Strategy was out of date almost as soon as it was published: in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had been named Premier of the Soviet Union and the Cold War order described in the book began to unravel. The instability of glasnost, and mass anxiety over Chernobyl, made room for other atlases to appear with other stories to tell. Pluto Press spun out new variations of the State of the World atlas, a reference atlas from a Trotskyist perspective (Wood & Krygier, 2009).

Aggregate Views From Below

A map of the world drawn from the grounded perspective of a single city: this is the innovation of the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute (DGEI), which Bunge and Gwendolyn Warren co-founded in 1968. “The DGEI was an organization that involved hundreds and was dedicated to radical geographical praxis in research and in education: to action research in the city in the service of justice, especially around issues of race, class, and youth, and to a profound rethinking and practice of education” (Bergmann and Morrill, 2017: 293-4). When the British Marxist textbook publisher Blackwell re-issued Bunge’s Nuclear War Atlas in an encyclopedic book form in 1988, the original 29 maps were supported by new texts, maps, and infographics created with collaborators at the DGEI. It was not these infographics which built the road for A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado; rather it was the localized participatory research maps created by DGEI that indicated the possibility of people’s atlases. In these maps, Detroit, not Planet Earth, was the cosmos. “Where commuters run over black children on the Pointes-Downtown track” was one area of detail, drawn from daily life and struggle. Compiling maps like these could create a people’s atlas (DGEI, 1971: 7).  This was a step which DGEI never took themselves: it would be AREA Chicago, a collective of artists and mapmakers who first met at the mess hall art space in 2005, who would initiate a tradition of people’s atlases (Tucker, 2011).

People’s atlases can be confounding or illegible if you begin by looking for the world map. In the tradition that includes A People’s Atlas of Chicago (ongoing since 2005) and A People’s Atlas of Detroit (2020), the city itself is the world. These atlases constitute a world through joining many subjective interpretations, rather than first imagining a world and then elaborating on its parts. In this way, people’s atlases are products of their time, since official atlases are also agglomerations now, albeit of aerial and space photography and satellite data—surveying from above. People’s Atlases, on the other hand, articulate from below, drawing on the knowledge and expertise of inhabitants. Emphasizing proximity, “the world” that opens these atlases needs to miniaturize, to move much closer to home.

In PANC, Colorado is a microcosm of our world. “The state has seen uranium mining, plutonium processing, underground defense posts and labs, active air force bases, nuclear testing and training, and waste monitoring and dumping/forgetting” (Introduction). It isn’t everywhere that you can see all of these processes related to the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons in such proximity. As Havlick describes in his contribution: “Colorado almost certainly stands alone for its full-lifecycle commitments to the modern nuclear state: uranium mining and processing still mark remote western Colorado towns; for decades, key nuclear weapon components were manufactured and assembled at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver; the state’s northeastern plains continue to harbor dozens of nuclear missiles, tucked in underground silos; and burrowed into the heart of Cheyenne Mountain.” Shocked and irradiated by nuclear testing, ready to destroy the world and protesting against the madness, a compendium of all our nuclear legacies may be found in Colorado.

Forking Paths

The supercomputer in Wargames concludes that the winning move in nuclear war is “not to play.” But the effects of nuclear weapons production have far reaching environmental legacies which require care and engagement. To dismantle our nuclear legacy, the only winning move, the only surviving move, is to play, to enable surprises that question inevitability, to make room for joy that engenders unlikely alliances.  A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado “seeks to bring together diverse ways of perceiving, understanding, and responding to nuclear legacies,” explain the editors. In this way, A People’s Atlas is not mere geography but a game board of artistic research, framing oral history, social science, visual art and poetry. The forking paths drawn and written by the 46 contributors to A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado together represent a picture of the world. Choose your path. Make your move.


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Alexis Bhagat is an information science graduate student at University at Albany-SUNY. Together with Lize Mogel, he was the editor/curator of An Atlas of Radical Cartography (2007).