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How The Nuclear Agenda Influenced American Popular Culture History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

August 6th, 1945, ushered in the beginning of a new era, one to be forever known as the Atomic Age. The dropping of the world’s first atom bomb over Hiroshima signalled a defining moment in human history. From that moment on the nuclear agenda would come to influence not only international affairs, but the everyday lives of people all around the world. The 17 year period from 1945-62 saw huge changes for American society, in particular the development and expansion of popular culture. How in fact popular culture was influenced by this new nuclear agenda holds the basis for this essay. It will focus on both the direct influences of a new atomic culture, as well as the indirect influences that a new nuclear world had on the popular arts. For the purpose of this essay it is essential to have a working definition for popular culture, in this instance popular culture will be defined as a commercial culture based on popular tastes. From Hollywood movies to comic books, a new nuclear technology became an important characteristic in portraying the lives of everyday Americans. Along with a new kind of nuclear diplomacy theses influences would show themselves in some of the greatest pieces of twentieth century popular culture. What this meant for a nuclear generation and how it showed the signs of a cultural revival will be additional themes to explore.

“The atomic bomb revolutionised American life. In all areas – economic, social, political – it challenged old assumptions and forced reconsideration of accepted standards” (Winkler, 1999: 9). The dropping of the first atomic bomb on that historic day insured at least one thing, a changed world. Rosenblatt neatly describes it, as a moment where nothing has ever been the same since. From that moment everything changed: subsequent wars, subsequent peace, art, culture, the position of science, the role of the military, international politics, and the conduct of lives; all changed. Other ages in history were characterized by heroes or by ideas. The atomic age is characterized by a weapon and a threat. (Rosenblatt, 2005:1)

The end to fighting in World War II brought a period of relative peace in which popular culture was allowed to flourish. Boyer (1985) reveals that this new popular culture encompassed most areas of recreational life, although there were many alterations in interests and tastes. During the 50’s and 60’s particularly, popular culture appealed to a younger generation who had become an increasingly significant social group. Rock n’Roll had become the main focal point for a young generation, and the novel realization of breaking away from childhood, caused the teenagers to become a defined social group in their own right. Teenagers began to reject the old fashioned attitudes and conventions of their parents and rebel against conformity. As stated by Shapiro (2002) this new generation of teenagers started developing a culture from the American teenage way of life, and alongside the behaviour got themselves part-time jobs to help them earn money to spend on movies, fashion, music and other entertainment. Boyer (1985) agrees adding that teenagers could now secure a good amount of money for their wants and needs like making trips to the movies and the purchasing of commercial goods, which became big business for the advertisement and film industries, which duly swooped in on their opportunities. Films which were produced and targeted by the teenage audience solely served to unite the teenage image more extensively. With films like Rebel without a Cause (1954) and The Wild One (1953) movies presented a separate image for the teenage rebel. The indirect effect of a growing nuclear agenda, seemingly allowed a world free from direct military conflict to find its voice again. War time popular culture had been heavily centred around the war effort, yet in this brief period popular culture begun to revolutionise. It became increasingly important for a post World War II America to enjoy this time of relative peace. Subsequently this saw a huge rise in a new consumerism in which trends and fashions; that had seemingly been put on hold during the war years, could dominate popular culture once again.

The changing dynamics of a nuclear agenda began to have a more direct influence on popular culture, this period created what Zeman and Admundson (2004) call the early atomic culture. This distinct period saw an escalation in the nuclear agenda’s influence on the shaping of popular culture. Both the enthusiasm and fear surrounding new nuclear weapons would be portrayed in this expansive new arena. From the secrecy of the Manhattan Project to its introduction on a world stage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this new technology offset an atomic culture. It would be wrong to say that after its first military use the bomb became a subject for fear and anxiety. In truth the majority of Americans at that time were unaware nuclear weapons even existed. For many this was the weapon that had ended the war, saved thousands of American lives and brought forward a longed for epoch of peace. As Winkler agrees, Americans first reaction overwhelmingly was one of euphoria and the bomb became celebrated in popular culture in a well-liked country western song, “When the Atom Bomb Fell”, recorded in December 1945, which attested to this view as it declared the bomb “the answer to our fighting prayers boys”(in Zeman and Amundson, 2004:3).

Many American’s set aside lurking fears of the new nuclear weapon as they contemplated the ‘golden age of abundance’ that beckoned after World War II. They were further persuaded by the speeches of President Truman who hailed the atomic bomb as a “god given tremendous discovery” and “one to bring together one human community”. Others like David Lilienthal where also quick to speak out over the “limitless beneficial applications of atomic energy” (Winkler, 1999: 137). The atomic bomb continued throughout the period to be closely linked with its positive benefits and government programs attempted to educate the public about the science behind the bomb. An educational video produced by none other than Walt Disney was commissioned in 1957 entitled “Our Friend the Atom”, which attempted to demonstrate the benefits of the nuclear age and the wonder of this new technology. This film was shown in schools throughout America and became increasingly significant in showing nuclear power in a favourable light. Other video’s such as “A is for Atom” sponsored and paid for by General Electric were also produced to try and help explain the benefits of nuclear technology. This is not to say that the dropping of the bomb in Hiroshima went unnoticed. As mention by Gamson; H.V.Kaltenborn, the dean of radio news commentators, warned his NBC audience on the very same day, “For all we know we have created a Frankenstein! We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we use today can be turned against us. (1987:15)

The continued promotion of the nuclear agenda also expanded to the American commercial markets, and the wonders of the bomb became tied in with consumerism. 1946 saw the General Mills Corporation expansion into “Atomic ‘Bomb’ Rings” with the Kix cereal boxtop. Advertised as a gleaming aluminium warhead, “see real atoms SPLIT” cried the advert, and some 750,000 American children inundated General Mills for their own “Atomic ‘Bomb’ Ring”. Boyer (1985) identifies this move from a promotional premium, to that which actually premeditated several cultural themes that would obsess America in the years ahead. Another example from Boyer reveals that only days after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, retail shops were offering “atomic sales” and products offering “atomic results. (1985: 9) This type of cultural consumerism seems void of the true fear that would come to surround the nuclear agenda. Instead it highlights the apparent ease into which America welcomed the birth of the atomic bomb; although this was not always the case.

This period in American history coincided with attempts at a new world order and the emergence of the United States as a global superpower. Political, social, economic and ideological issues became not only domestic but international issues. The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in particular were set up to help fund an American friendly Europe. The movement of the nuclear agenda began to change with the American foreign policy of Containment, an uneasy separation both geographically and ideological, which would see Churchill talk up fears of an “Iron Curtain”. These international fears would spark a concern of a superpower rivalry and after the Soviet tests of 1949; two countries with conflicting ideologies now had the most destructive weapon ever invented.

Hollywood was quick in using the new found nuclear agenda for film ideas. The Manhattan project was dramatized in the 1947 film The Beginning or the End, one of the first of several films on the subject. The film tackled the creation of the atomic bomb and its subsequent use in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Filmmakers saw this new nuclear agenda, as a story waiting to be told. One of the trailers produced at the time to promote the film showed an interviewer asking movie goers for their thoughts on what they’d just seen. “You can’t ignore this picture” one women said and “the most important motion picture I have ever seen” said another. These along with taglines such as “the men, the magic the machines” saw an increased interest in the development of the “bomb”. The subject matter was of course both dramatic and dangerously fascinating to a new generation. It talked about the secrecy behind the Manhattan Project and the destructive power behind the bomb. It led many to pose questions in particular like that within the film’s title; was this the beginning or the end? The film industry could now see the need and want of the people to know about the bomb. Much of the film was of course a sensationalised view, and alot of what the Manhattan Project was actually about was unknown by those making the films. Although the sentiment and an increased interest around the bomb would see that the nuclear agenda would continue to influence film.

A particular genre within Hollywood that would see a rise in popularity at this time was film noir. As Kakutani identifies in the wake of World War II and with anxieties created by the dawning of the atomic age, film noir a sometimes nihilistic genre became galvanised. The likes of “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Fallen Angel” found success at the box office. The genre with its partiality to outsiders and deeply rebellious themes inevitably appeared and emblematized at a time of deep stress. (2001: 1) These kinds of Hollywood films began to show a prevailing attitude that the nuclear agenda had brought about.

Hunner (in Zeman and Amundson) describes the nuclear agenda as a totally new age, one full of promise and peril. People searched for a new way of living under this new age thus creating this new culture. And the reason why the nuclear agenda began to find its way into popular culture had a lot to do with the changing nature of nuclear importance. From the creation of the atom bomb moving to the advances with the first nuclear power plant, the science behind the bomb began to spread to new technologies. Nuclear powered aeroplanes and submarines were just some of the uses that that the Unites States found for nuclear energy. Even with these new advances a key turning point for the “bomb” would come in 1949. Zeman and Amundson (2004) identify this development from the early atomic culture morphing into the high atomic culture of 1949 to 1963. The following years were seemingly different from the earlier phases, as one key turning point would stress. This period saw the American nuclear monopoly which had been expected to last until the 1960’s, come to an abrupt end in August of 1949. The Soviets after Hiroshima had been working from the American design to build an atom bomb for itself, and the first Soviet test in Kazakhstan steppe signalled a build up of arms. The Soviet atomic test ensured a changing nuclear agenda from the wonder of technology to a characterization of an enemy. A two superpower world would change the very nature of popular culture.

The change in nuclear agenda saw an alteration in the types of films being produced in Hollywood. In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of movies attempted to make social commentaries on the war. As Day reveals “Films like On the Beach, Fail Safe and The Bedford Incident all took a grim tone about humanity’s future, wagging a finger at world leaders who held the fate of the world in their hands and implying that words like “democracy” and “communism” had little meaning when the world was teetering on the brink of Armageddon.” (Day, 2004: 1). The shift in agenda also introduced the introduction of the B movies which entertained the fear of mutilation. Films such as “Them” where giant ants mutated by atomic radiation threaten US cities in the South West, and “Attack of the Crab Monster” were becoming increasingly popular to an American audience. The links to events in the international community such as the nuclear accident in Castle Bravo and Chelyabinsk in 1957 brought about a sense of anxiety. The idea of being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation further influenced the idea of mutation. One of the most recognised films of this period and one that would inspire numerous re-makes was Godzilla. The original Hollywood version in 1954 is considered to be the correspondence of the nuclear weapons which were dropped in Japan. The film unlike its B movie counterparts had a bigger budget and became instantly popular. Other films such as Mickey Rooney’s Atomic Kid (1954) which appeared to disassociate the potential of nuclear radiation, failed to do so well at the box office. Later films such as Dr Strangelove would also focus on the idea of a doomsday advice. Other signs that showed the increasing significance of the nuclear agenda were no more apparent than in the Laurel and Hardy motion picture Atoll K. A well loved and admire comedy duo choose for their last screen outing to portray a shipwreck on an island rich in Uranium deposits. It was a far cry from there simplistic and popular humour which had served them well earlier in their careers. In truth Hollywood had become infiltrated by a collection of A and B movies each adding their representations to the nuclear agenda.

As well as Hollywood films the American Civil Defence began producing advice videos such as “Burt the Turtle” and “Duck for Cover. They were clearly designed to help to combat the fear of nuclear catastrophe, and were used to reassure the general public about the dangers of nuclear weapons. They would usually involve drills for mass departure to fallout shelters, and popularized the likes of “Duck and Cover”. The drills with their indications of dissonantly empty streets and the hiding activity from the nuclear bomb under the schoolroom desk, would later could turn into symbols of the expected inescapable and popular fate formed by those weapons. Most Americans were affected by these videos, especially amongst those in the richer classes who could afford the back-yard fallout shelters which offered a diminutive protection from the direct attack and could keep away from the wind-blown fallout, for some days or weeks.

Popular culture within America increased extensively in the early 1950s and 60’s, with widespread tensions growing amongst segregated groups in society. The cultural significance of such movements as the non violent rebellion 1955-60, brought the hope of peace and equality for many American’s. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the influence of charismatic race leaders such as Martin Luther King promoted the need for non-violence; such a belief directly opposed the violent and intermediating prospect of nuclear war. As King himself was quoted in a speech denouncing atomic warfare entitled ‘Time to Break Silence’, “Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness.” Whilst King was a strong figure fighting for an end to segregation and civil rights the effect of the nuclear agenda was still quite evident in all aspects of American life. Fairclough points out if it were not for the nuclear agenda; the case and call for civil rights might have been addressed a generation earlier. (2001: 249)

The effect of previous atomic tests and the sight of great chemical explosions found itself positioned in “kitsch art”. Titus (in Zeman and Amundson) recognises how the mushroom served as symbol for weapons themselves. Pictures on the nuclear weapons never became public until 1960 and even those were only the mock-ups for the “Fat Man” and the “Little Boy”. Diagrams of the bombs interior working have been obtainable only for the last few years since design for nuclear weapons became the most strictly guarded secret. These all had an impact of fear on society has well as the nuclear diplomacy that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union. The nuclear agenda found itself quickly ingrained within American life.

The nuclear agenda that followed the end of fighting in WWII took on a life of its own, and yet was not the first time popular culture had embraced nuclear technology. Ironically the first reference to the nuclear agenda comes not after its first military use but it can be traced back to 1908 in H.G Wells, The War in the Air as well as his subsequently work The World Set Free. The novels first explored the prospect of a nuclear holocaust and an atomic bomb that would be used in war. Perhaps even more telling was the influence it would have on one Leo Szilard. The nuclear agenda might have started life as science fiction but its influence would most definitely lead to science fact. At a time of a new found fascination in the science behind the bomb, it would seem inevitable that the science fiction genre would experience an increased popularity, and it did. “Suddenly the question of what the future might hold, the question of “what if”, gained a horrible new importance. Now, instead of looking a thousand years ahead, humanity was looking at the hands of a Doomsday Clock that were edging closer to midnight.” (Plested, 2009:1). Nuclear weapons would become a fastener element in the science fiction novels. The phrase “atomic bomb” predated their continuation when scientist had realized the ending of radioactivity had a potential implication of limitless energy. “Until then, the word “atomic” had been nothing more than a convenient gimmick in science fiction, a buzzword that provided power for everything from pistols to robots to spaceships. Once the atomic bomb had been used, it proved this scientific leap forward, a leap which proved that science fiction authors ‘were not such wild-eyed dreamers as had been thought'” (Plested, 2009: 1). However, the science fiction novels began to follow and treat the threat of potential nuclear fallout and its implications for society. Newman, K. (2000) notes the various popular novels like the Babylon, Alas and On the Beach reviewed the aftermath of the nuclear war. Other science fiction novels like “A Canticle for Leibowitz” exposed the long-standing consequences of a nuclear war. “Hand in hand with the immediate perils of thermonuclear death, science fiction introduced the public to the other horsemen of the new Apocalypse: Fallout, Nuclear Winter, and Mutation. The latter provided heady fare for the filmmakers of the 1950’s, with screens filled with shambling monstrosities of every shape, size and species.” (Plested, 2009:1)

The crisis of the Cold War coincided with the emergence of the Television, it grew in stature and with the growth of consumerism by the 1950’s the TV quickly became a “technological novelty an inescapable medium that quickly rivalled the power of movies, radio and mass circulation magazines” (Whifield, 1991:153). In 1946 around 7000 American owned their own television set and by 1960, 50 million sets had been purchased and over 530 stations were available by 1961. Yet the reality of nuclear weapons haunted not just photographs and newsreels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but visions of the future. In 1950 LIFE predicted “the growing likelihood of World War III” in the essay “How U.S. Cities Cab Prepare for Atomic War”. Colliers described a hypothetical atomic attack on New York in “Hiroshima U.S.A: Can anything be done about it?” (Boyd, 1985: 23) Nuclear anxieties boosted the popularity of psychoanalysis an probed the subconscious.

Signs of the impacted nuclear agenda also found their way into the music industry. Many songs such as Skip Stanley’s “Satellite Baby” pleaded: “Nuclear baby don’t fission out on me…we’re gonna rock it, we’re gonna rock it….Isotope daddy’s found out what you are worth.” As well as the likes of Bob Dylan with his 1962 song A Hard Rain’s Gonna fail which was thought to have alluded to an upsurge in the possibility of a nuclear fallout. Through the progression of the nuclear period protest songs in particular became more frequent, such as 99 red balloons, and Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. These songs became opposition against a nuclear build up and warning songs while others utilized the theme like allusion to a huge destruction in general. This period also began to see the rise in the popularity of tranquillity organizations such as the CND. Newman, K. (2000) said the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) was one of the principle organizations campaigning in opposition to the bomb. Its symbol, a grouping of the semaphone symbols for “D” (disarmament) and “N” (nuclear) came into the modern culture as icon for peace.

1962 saw a flashpoint in the course of the Cold War, a socialist revolution in Cuba would bring the world closer to nuclear war than ever before. The Cuban Missile Crisis illustrated how fragile the balance between a nuclear war and peace had become. The period of time saw a shift in public opinion towards the bomb, how close the world had come to catastrophe had shown Americans the true terror of a nuclear attack. Popular culture moved into a new era of fear and more open criticism of the nuclear programme (Zeman and Amundson, 2004: 4)

The scale of influence the nuclear agenda had on popular culture became elevated as the threat of nuclear war become more possible. The time frame saw a great deal of change within America. It becomes apparent that the early atomic culture had a huge influence on popular culture, but the ways in which it affected it were various to say the least. From civil defence videos to sci-fi b movies, the period generated a phenomenal amount of popular culture. The significance is perhaps the diversity of the materials and the changes the nuclear agenda brought into popular culture. The strength of the nuclear culture insured it was impossible for outlets to ignore, instead the bomb in sorts became commercialised and the threat of apocalypse became a somewhat side point. In truth, it would appear in an era of progression and change the nuclear agenda became quite dominant in popular culture. It affected the lives on not only Americans but those in a global community. The turning point perhaps comes at the end of this period during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the nuclear agenda hatched up the fear and tensions of an American society who had been blissfully unaware of the true dangers happening behind closed doors.

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