This is the first image that pops up on Google Image search for “nuclear weapons.” What can this tell us about the portrayal of the atomic and the concept of “doomsday?” The majority of the these images are rather terrifying and visually explosive, (pun intended) with intent to scare. Pictures tell us a thousand words, and images of nuclear weapons throughout the times show us how terrifying the nuclear age was. Images of nuclear weapons evoke strong feelings of fear and uncertainty, which has led to the molding of a distinct popular culture around these weapons and reactionary political repression.
Since their worldwide debut in 1945, nuclear weapons have infiltrated popular culture via album covers, nuclear ballads, and classic Hollywood films. Since this introduction, the primary nuclear narrative functions as a signifier of social and cultural transformation. The lyrically talented Bob Dylan famously composed the song, “A Hard Rains Gonna Fall” a song influenced by the Cuban Missile Crisis which eventually morphed into a protest song throughout the 1960s and beyond. In addition to Dylan, films surrounding nuclear weapons have become extremely popular, including the infamous “Dr. Strangelove.” This film is a dark and deceiving parody based on the nuclear scare of the sixties. This film, among others, showcases the terror of nuclear weapons within popular culture.
From the end of WWII until the early 1990s, our world faced a period of heightened international tension and competition, called the Cold War. The United States and the Soviets of the former USSR were competitively developing dangerous nuclear weapons and flexing their newfound nuclear muscles extending throughout the world. In
1945, when the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a new world order had formed. We were now aware of how dangerous life could become by just pushing a single button. This “push-button war” became a very real and scary threat to humankind. The Cold War was a period of history profoundly shaped by a physical object--the bomb--that very few people had actually ever laid eyes on. What gave the American public and beyond nightmares of nuclear explosions or guided them to quickly build fall-out shelters, or to throw money at the arms race were stories about the bomb. These stories were told in articles by experts who predicted doomsday by the advent of nuclear weapons. These stories have surpassed generations and infiltrated within the daily lives of most Americans living in the 1950s and sixties.
During the atmospheric testing era, from 1945 to 1963, the United States detonated 317 nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, including 207 in Nevada, with a peak of more than 80 between Nevada and the Pacific testing site in 1962. As the frequency of nuclear weapon testing increased, so too did public awareness of radiation and fallout. Nuclear weapon advertisements, along with scattered news reports, reminded Americans that the world they lived in was increasingly radioactive. American celebrated the end of the defeat of the Japanese and the Axis Powers but post Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the constant frightful awareness of nuclear weapons was evident. If you took a walk down your familiar streets in anytown, USA after the two bombs were dropped, fear was every where.
With the successful Soviet nuclear bomb test and the initiation of the Korean war, the already heightened state of fear was coupled with fears of nuclear fallout that would come from the other side of the world, in the Soviet Union. News outlets tended to exploit these fears of the American public with the arrival of McCarthyism, which is political repression based on fears of communism that lead to the widespread practice of baselessly accusing citizens of disloyalty, subversion or treason initiated by the anti-communist agenda of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
By the early 1950s, McCarthyism swept the nation. Everyone was afraid of each other and accusations of Communism abound. Seemingly innocent neighbors could be thrown in prison for the mere suspicion that they might be a communist. This widespread witch hunt gradually become known as the Second Red Scare and lasted well in the early 1960s. Americans feared that the Russians were harboring nuclear weapons with intent to destroy America and above all, they were destined to turn the entire world to communism and that American citizens were becoming loyal to this Soviet agenda.