Nuclear Weapons and War, Popular Images of

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Nuclear Weapons and War, Popular Images of. From the dawn of the atomic age through the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons, nuclear testing, and fears of global thermonuclear war loomed large in the popular mind, profoundly affecting American culture. President Harry S. Truman's announcement of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 unleashed a wave of nervous media speculation about the new weapon. Editorial writers and radio commentators offered grim scenarios of atomic menace. In The Thirty‐Six Hour War (19 November 1945), Life magazine described a missile attack on U.S. cities and presented graphic drawings of New York City reduced to smoldering rubble. John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946) moved beyond generalized images of a destroyed city to offer sharply etched narratives of six survivors' experiences.

Simultaneously, other media voices and cultural outlets, encouraged by Washington, took a more hopeful view, picturing a utopian future powered by limitless atomic energy. The advent of the bomb also generated an outpouring of atomic trivia as songwriters exploited the theme and hundreds of businesses from the “Atomic Taxicab Company” to the “Atomic Exterminators” appropriated the potent word. The 1946 U.S. atomic test at Bikini atoll in the Pacific inspired a French fashion designer to underscore the explosive effect of his new line of shockingly revealing women's swimsuits by calling them “bikinis,” further expanding the lexicon of the atomic age. While jewelry makers advertised “atomic‐inspired” pins and earrings, the General Mills Corporation in 1947 offered kids an “Atomic ‘Bomb’ Ring” for 50 cents and a Kix cereal boxtop.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the best of the early atomic‐inspired movies, benevolent space aliens urged global cooperation as the only alternative to global annihilation. In general, however, cultural attention to the bomb diminished in the late forties and early fifties, superseded by the Cold War and by anti‐Communist hysteria. But a series of U.S. and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests reawakened public fears, this time focused on the specter of radioactive fallout. From the mid‐1950s through the early 1960s, as organizations such as the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy demanded a test ban, fallout worries permeated the mass media. Many science fiction stories, most notably Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Walter Miller, Jr.'s, classic A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), spun chilling fantasies of the nuclear future. Popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post warned of fallout dangers and a wave of Hollywood “mutant” movies exploited the issue. In Them! (1954), giant ants spawned from the New Mexico atomic test site go on a deadly rampage in their search for sugar. The unfortunate hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) gradually dwindles to microscopic proportions after his exposure to radioactive fallout.

The new medium of television, while mainly offering escapist fare, sometimes addressed nuclear fears as well. Science fiction TV shows of the fifties and early sixties such as The Outer Limits and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone frequently featured stories related to nuclear war themes.

As for Hollywood, a few movies preached patriotism and preparedness as America's best hope for nuclear‐age survival. Strategic Air Command (1955), starring James Stewart and June Allyson, for example, celebrated the nation's armada of supersonic bombers capable of raining nuclear devastation on the Soviets. More typically, as in On the Beach (1959) and Stanley Kubrick's brilliant black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964), filmmakers offered a far bleaker view of the nuclear arms race and its possible outcome.

Federal civil defense authorities, meanwhile, promised survival from nuclear attack through fallout shelters and citizen readiness. As chronicled in the later documentary Atomic Café (1982), this campaign too generated its share of sometimes bizarre cultural by‐products. In one animated civil defense film, cheerful Bert the Turtle taught children to “Duck and Cover” if atomic bombs began to fall.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and later arms limitation agreements such as SALT I (1972) again served for a time to moderate nuclear fear and its cultural manifestations. By the late 1970s, however, anxiety once more intensified, now focused not only on the superpowers' ever‐growing nuclear arsenals but also on the spread of nuclear power plants at home. The film China Syndrome (1979), whose release coincided with a serious accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, helped crystallize the deepening opposition to nuclear power.

The military buildup and belligerent presidential rhetoric of the early 1980s intensified this resurgence of nuclear fear, triggering yet another round of activism and cultural attention to the bomb. While Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth (1982) pondered the meaning of the potential end of all life, artists, poets, dramatists, and photographers also addressed the issue. Tim O’Brien's novel Nuclear Age (1985) and a new round of science fiction stories probed aspects of the nuclear reality and imagined nuclear futures. The movie War Games (1983) drew upon computer technology to update the scary premise of Dr. Strangelove: a nuclear holocaust unleashed by technological systems that break free of human control. A 1984 ABC‐TV special, The Day After, portrayed the effects of a nuclear attack on Kansas City. The complex reciprocal relationship between the nuclear arms race and popular culture was underscored in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan's futuristic Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was immediately ridiculed as “Star Wars” by its critics—a derisive nickname drawn from a popular science fiction movie of the 1970s.

The Cold War's demise in the late 1980s brought decades of U.S.‐Soviet nuclear rivalry to a sudden and unexpected close. The threat of regional proliferation and the long‐term hazard of radioactive waste disposal remained, but the more apocalyptic nightmare of an all‐destroying nuclear Armageddon faded from public awareness. As it did, nuclear menace largely vanished as a cultural motif as well. But for more than forty years, few arenas—from literature and the visual arts to advertising, TV, and the movies—had remained unaffected by the nuclear terrors and obsessions that were the unintended by‐products of President Truman's fateful decision in August 1945.
[See also Cold War: External Course, Cold War: Domestic Course; Culture, War, and the Military; Fashion, Military Influences on; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bombing of.]


Jim Schley, ed., Writing in a Nuclear Age, 1983.
Paul Boyer , By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, 1985; repr. 1994.
Paul Brians , Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1987.
Mick Broderick , Nuclear Movies: A Filmography, 1988.
Spencer R. Weart , Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, 1988.
Catherine Caufield , Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age, 1989.
Edward T. Linenthal , Symbolic Defense: The Cultural Significance of the Strategic Defense Initiative, 1989.
Allan M. Winkler , Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom, 1993.
Guy Oakes , The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture, 1994.
Albert E. Stone , Literary Aftershocks: American Writers, Readers, and the Bomb, 1994.

Paul S. Boyer

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