Following Japan’s surrender to the Allies on August 14, 1945, newspapers across the U.S. and around the world feverishly reported on and celebrated the nuclear bombs that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the once secret Manhattan Project operation that had conjured up those brand-new mega-weapons. At that point, few journalists delved into the profound implications of humanity’s entrance into the atomic age.

E. B. White—then a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, although now perhaps best remembered as the author of the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little—was not among the giddy celebrators. America had indeed ended a global war with the atomic bomb, he wrote in an August 18 Notes and Comment column, but it had also instigated a “complete human readjustment.” Although the war had concluded just three days earlier, that conflict already belonged to another epoch. A new era of unfathomable peril had begun. Mankind was, he wrote, “stealing God’s stuff.”

Within a year, as the U.S. moved onto a peacetime footing, many Americans gradually acquiesced to a seemingly inevitable nuclear future. As the critic Lewis Gannett put it in 1946, upon hearing about the more than 100,000 dead at Hiroshima, many Americans had “swallowed statistics, gasped in awe, and, turning away to discuss the price of lamb chops, forgot.”

White, however, did not forget. His Notes and Comment column was the start of a decades-long campaign, waged in his essays, columns, and articles, to warn the public about the nuclear threat facing all humans. Select governments and power brokers had been empowered to eviscerate civilization at will, but for White, an equally significant threat was the “unwarranted complacency” of the masses over their now tenuous existence.

It’s surprising to me, as a journalist and historian who frequently covers nuclear topics, that White’s nuclear writings seem to have been largely forgotten—even by those who seek vocal allies with his persuasive powers. I can tell you that practically no one in the nuclear-watchdog community today appears aware of White’s currency as a convincing atomic-doom prophet. The New Yorker devoted a whole issue to John Hersey’s article “Hiroshima,” which showed, for the first time, the true effects of atomic bombs on human beings, and justifiably gets quoted and cited by this crowd all the time.

But E. B. White? Never. Not that his accomplishments and influence were ignored—he was, after all, awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. But perhaps his colloquially genteel style precluded him from being taken seriously as a nuclear commentator in perpetuity.

White, who divided his time between his farm in Maine and New York City, became determined to demonstrate that atomic weapons had made every human, in every corner of the earth, inescapably vulnerable. Existential dread is palpable in his famous and otherwise lighthearted essay “Here Is New York”—released in 1949, the same year the Soviets successfully tested their first atomic bomb—in which White reminded his readers that a “single flight of planes” could now “burn … [Manhattan’s] towers, turn underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate millions.”

While New York City was, he stated, a particularly tempting target for “whatever perverted dreamer who might loose the lightning,” city dwellers everywhere now had to grapple with the “stubborn fact of annihilation.” He was less than thrilled that, after World War II—“the worst blood bath in history”—the world’s leadership had apparently learned nothing, and still seemed hell-bent on total self-destruction.

“I hold one share in the corporate earth,” he wrote as the Cold War picked up steam, “and am uneasy about the management.” “God’s stuff” was clearly unsafe in human hands.

In 1950, White drove this point home in his satirical New Yorker short story “The Morning of the Day They Did It,” in which two American soldiers in charge of a mega-weapon even more powerful than the terrifying and just debuted hydrogen bomb go nuts and destroy the world. White’s satirical work long pre-dated the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, with its similar themes, and Red Alert, the 1958 novel that inspired the film.

Peter Sellers in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The specter of nuclear attack—by the Soviets and unhinged compatriots alike—was only one source of White’s atomic panic. Equally alarming, in his eyes, was the gradual, self-inflicted, and irreversible poisoning of the environment with radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, which accelerated in the 1950s. If the rate of atmospheric testing continued apace, he warned in a 1953 column, the planet would eventually become “habitable only for the so-called lower forms, such as the cockroach, who can make a nice meal out of Carbon 14 [released by hydrogen bombs] laced with desk paste.”

Perhaps the most urgent yet quintessentially White-ian writing on the subject was his 1956 essay “Sootfall and Fallout.” The reservoir of radioactive materials floating in the earth’s atmosphere from nuclear testing had reached around 24 billion tons, he warned, citing recent reporting from The New York Times, and was increasing with every test.

By the end of that year, the U.S. had conducted 85 nuclear tests, including one thermonuclear test in the Marshall Islands, code-named “Castle Bravo,” which packed an explosive payload of 15 megatons (around the equivalent of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs). The Soviet Union had also been testing for seven years by that point, having gone nuclear in 1949 and thermonuclear in 1953.

White was aghast at the levels of strontium 90—a radionuclide with the sinister nickname “the bone seeker”—being shot up into the atmosphere and deposited on land and sea around the globe. “The correct amount of strontium with which to impregnate the topsoil is no strontium,” he wrote. “I belong to a small, unconventional school that believes that no rat poison is the correct amount to spread in the kitchen where children and puppies can get at it.”

He warned that wrapping this environmental toxicity in the flag of national security did nothing to offset the effects of the fallout: “As though the national verve somehow transcended the natural world,” he scoffed. Decades later, the U.S. government has paid more than $2.6 billion to tens of thousands of “downwinders” exposed to radioactive-test fallout and other nuclear workers, and members of Congress are currently fighting to expand such compensations.

White’s early criticisms of the American nuclear program took no small measure of bravery. After all, some were published as Joseph McCarthy was waging his own scorched-earth campaign against writers and creatives across the nation. Anyone seen to be undercutting the American effort in the Cold War was vulnerable to attack. Yet White boldly took aim at the assertions that possessing nukes made nations omnipotent and that such weapons would prevent future wars in general.

A U.S. atomic-bomb test on the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll, in July of 1946.

“A nation wearing atomic armor is like a knight whose armor has grown so heavy he is immobilized,” White retorted. “He can hardly walk, hardly sit his horse, hardly think, hardly breathe.” The H-bomb, he wrote, had “little virtue as a weapon of war, because it would leave the world uninhabitable.”

If anything, he added, the atomic age was itself a ticking bomb, containing the seeds of global destruction—with roaches, not Americans, waiting to inherit the earth. “The time of grace will run out, sooner or later, for all nations,” White wrote. “We are in a vast riddle, all of us—dependence on a strength that is inimical to life.”

White’s proposed solution to the nuclear threat was the implementation of a world government, another years-long and obviously fruitless cause of his. That said, he had quickly soured on the United Nations after its advent (“At the end of a war fought to defeat dictators, the U.N. welcomed Stalin and [Argentinean president Juan] Perón to full membership,” he wrote in “Sootfall and Fallout”), and watched in dismay as nationalism surged around the world once again.

Six decades after White first took up his cause, some nuclear experts today have grimly marveled that, catastrophic nuclear accidents aside, our grace period has indeed not yet run out. Russia’s war on Ukraine has given the world a terrifying wake-up call, with Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons in what would be the first wartime nuclear attack since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Fears of the U.S. nuclear arsenal certainly did not deter the brazen Russian invasion, and has left the world dreading a possible escalation among nuclear superpowers.

The last World War left an estimated 60 million combatants and civilians dead, at least. A nuclear World War Three could end the whole ball game.

As we teeter on the precipice of a renewed international nuclear-arms race, with the U.S. alone poised to spend more than $1 trillion on nuclear-arms development, deployment, and sustainment before 2046, White’s questions and arguments once again have real currency. So does his pledge to fight complacency.

For White, in the atomic age—with its lack of divide between military front lines and civilian home fronts—escapism had become impossible, he wrote in “Sootfall and Fallout” as he overlooked the small patch of garden outside his New York apartment.

“The rich brown patch of ground used to bring delight to the eye,” he said. “Tomorrow we will have rain, and the rain falling on the garden will carry its cargo of debris from old explosions in distant places. Whether the amount of this freight is great or small, one thing is certain: the character of rain has changed, the joy of watching it soak the waiting earth has been diminished, and the whole meaning and worth of gardens has been brought into question.”

Lesley M. M. Blume is a journalist, historian, and New York Times best-selling author, most recently of Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World