The Mythology of the Nuclear Missile and Masculine Anxiety in the Early Cold War


“Despite the atom bomb and all that, America was again becoming a fun country.” 

— Henry Luce, c. 19651


And all that, indeed. Henry Robinson Luce died on February 28, 1967. Less than a month later, on March 10, Time published a tribute to Luce that chronicled his personal and professional life from his education at the Hotchkiss School and Yale University to his creation of Time with classmate Briton Hadden and finally his long career as editor in chief of the magazine and its various offshoots. “Henry R. Luce: End of a Pilgrimage” illustrates a cultural connoisseur with direct lines into government circles and the attitudes of a mid-century mass culture. The article opens, in fact, with a quote from Luce himself: “As a journalist…I am in command of a small sector in the very front trenches of this battle for freedom.”2 As this quote suggests, there was a persistent evocation of battlefield violence in an emerging American middle class milieu that I will contend was enmeshed in a mid-century sexual and gender crisis.

Visual media was critical to the way men engaged with their gender and sexuality during the years following World War II. Wartime production had pulled the country out of economic depression and created a new middle class eager to spend money, particularly on consumer goods like cars and kitchen appliances which could cultivate a domestic stability that affirmed their new class. Visual media that supported this consumer domesticity was abundant in the 1950s and ’60s: advertisements, television and film, and, most important to this analysis, the news. For Luce, visual news media was a way to cut through a suddenly fast-paced society; busy men shuttling to and from work five days a week, Luce contended, could not sit down and read traditional journalism.3 Such was the incipient motivation for founding Time and for the later acquisition of Life, which Luce transformed into America’s premier photojournalism publication. Visual news media was, according to Luce, “to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.”4 During Time’s early decades, there was a palpable tension between the informative and the thrilling. Indeed, Luce glibly said of the magazine’s tone that it must be either “titillating or epic” or “super, curtly factual.” The drama of news was heightened in its visual medium. Specifically, the forces of gender, sex, war, and visual iconography collide in an epic way on the cover of Time. I will interrogate how men might have engaged with this midea to reconcile their masculine anxieties. Early Cold War Time covers which depict dramatic illustrations of nuclear weapons are prime subjects for this analysis because they provided a fantastical window into a wartime culture which might assuage their masculine anxieties by accessing the powerful and positively correlated relationship between violence and sexual power.

A gendered visual analysis of Time covers necessitates a brief review of the preeminent theories and histories of masculine anxieties during the 1950s and 1960s. Kyle A. Cuordileone, historian of Cold War culture, identifies a newly collectivist ethos permeating mid-century American society that was purportedly responsible for the softness and complacency of American men.5 Cuordileone indicts the myth of monolithic domesticity which upholds what I will call “primal masculinity.” In this mythology, men are empowered as husbands and fathers of nuclear family units; invoking mystic primordial notions of the family, these men leave the home to provide for their wife and children who notably do not venture outside. Parallels to a Western concept of family and gender are uncanny: when sketching the mid-century American family, there is a near universal tendency to assume primal masculinity as the cornerstone of domestic dynamics. Cuordileone challenges the hegemony of the male provider and female homemaker during the 1950s, citing feminist and labor histories which demonstrate an increasingly married female participation in politics and the workforce. Cuordileone names this trend as part of an emerging “sexual modernism,” which also included the growing visibility of gay and lesbian people, and which notably rattled the male psyche.6 Suddenly, male participation in a consumerist workforce as a means to provide for a wife and children no longer affirmed masculine superiority in the primal sense. In postwar America, stability was found in the home, which, even in the context of sexual modernism, was very much the woman’s domain. The home was emerging at the top of a new cultural hierarchy which placed domesticity above other social dynamics, including the labor dynamics which shaped the decades prior. From this new and confusing gender milieu, a narrative emerged in which men were captive to their workplaces, as they worked tirelessly to maintain domestic stability, and to their wives, who maintained control over the home and exercised a new autonomy outside of the home as well. This narrative reveals the potent threat that not only sexual modernism but also collectivism posed to traditional American masculinity. Cuordileone identifies this oppressive togetherness as the unique root of the mid-century crisis of masculinity, which was only exacerbated by usual wartime anxieties surrounding national security and the maintenance of American hegemony abroad. This togetherness was especially troubling in a Cold War context, wherein any sort of collectivism—or even just the absence of robust individualism—elicited accusations of communism.  

Cuordileone applies this framework to an interrogation of masculinity in the government. Critically, male complacency to the state was not countered by anti-American rebellion, but rather by partisan forces. Conservatives, riding the mid-century wave of anti-intellectualism, attacked liberals for being soft, emotional, feminine, and generally incapable of adequately crushing the communists. Senator Joe McCarthy, who was notorious for dishing accusations of homosexuality and communism to peers in the Senate and the State Department, famously declared at a press conference in the early 1950s, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.”7 Of course, these conservative attacks were not without their rebuttals. By the end of World War I, conservative masculinity had been exhausted and was now using ad hominem politics to hide from a growing culture of social reform. Liberals even returned charges of homosexuality to their colleagues across the aisle, including McCarthy, often pointing to their inflated machismo as compensatory projection.8 Notably, Cuordileone is mapping social trends onto the specific interactions between government officials to chronicle early Cold War masculine anxiety. He does not represent the men of so-called “mass society” but rather makes them into a homogenized canvas upon which he can illustrate the dynamics of his government subjects.9

Gregory Daddis, in his book Pulp Vietnam, explores a similar masculinity crisis among American soldiers in the Vietnam War through men’s adventure magazines. For Daddis, these magazines reflect the anxiety of specifically the demographic of men who fought in Vietnam, disproportionately working class and uneducated. His analysis is particular to the geography and social contexts of Vietnam as well. Nevertheless, he provides a useful perspective on gendered magazine culture during the Cold War. 

The cover for the September 1957 issue of Man’s World, for example, shows a tough GI straddling a .50 caliber machine gun, its barrel jutting out toward the reader while spewing bullets. Next to the soldier, in bold white letters, is a teaser for one of the articles inside, “Sex Life of the American Woman.” (Rifles and machine guns as phallic stand-ins seemed an artistic requirement.)10

For the soldier readership of these adventure magazines, violence and warfare were clear mechanisms of exercising their masculinity in the face of a complexly gendered zeitgeist. Imagery of a gun as the phallus is uniquely demonstrative of this demographic’s reaction to the mid-century gender crisis, as violence and sex became nearly indistinguishable, particularly in the specific geography of Vietnam, where American soldiers frequently raped and otherwise sexually subjugated Vietnamese women. Daddis cites one veteran who admitted, “You had the power to rape a woman and nobody could say nothing to you . . . It was like I was a god. I could take a life. I could screw a woman.”11 For these men overseas, masculinity was manifested through violent action that tapped into a milieu of sexual frustrations surrounding their subservience to a state that was failing to win the war. Like Cuordileone, Daddis is applying social trends to a particular demographic, and is using some unnamed class of purportedly “‘proletarianized’ white-collar workers” to sketch the specific anxieties of soldiers.12 In Cuordileone’s analysis, these men make up “mass society.” I am particularly interested in the men of this mass society because, although they are just points of reference Daddis and Cuordileone, I believe their gender reckoning reflects something more universal to American society which must be examined in order to address the pernicious ways in which patriarchy still manifests in our security doctrines today. These men were neither making decisions on the homefront nor shooting guns—or their phalluses—at the enemy on the battlefield. Yet, they were enmeshed in the same gender crisis. Their masculine exhale I believe can be traced through an interrogation of the mythology of the nuclear missile and its visual renderings in Time

To be clear, I don’t believe there is a clean demarcation between the men who fought in the Vietnam war and the men who were reading Time. In fact, Luce and his co-founder Briton Hadden were inspired to create Time after their experience with the “rank and file of America” at military training base Fort Jackson, where they observed for the first time the a demographic of men who did not, or were not able to, keep up with the news. However, Time’s wide readership can help me identify how popular news media evoked the gender crisis to mold a generation of men around a specific ideal. “Time is interested not in how much it includes between its covers but in how much it gets off its pages into the minds of its readers. To keep men well-informed—that, first and last, is the only ax this magazine has to grind.”13 That is how Luce himself articulated the magazine’s purpose, and it has two implications for this analysis. First, men as a target demographic is simultaneously broad and specifically revealing of Time’s ethos. Beyond marketing itself to Luce’s ideal of the American man, I would contend that Time was assuming an active role in creating this man. In his famous 1941 essay, “The American Century,” Luce argues for the responsibility of Americans—a descriptor that becomes interchangeable with men—in guiding their nation toward global hegemony. In placing blame, Luce points toward a deceitfulness among politicians, educators, religious leaders, and scientists. Notably, however, he upholds the integrity of journalists. On this matter, he identifies a failure to draw “clear and honest inferences” from the facts that journalists report.14 Even more revealing is that “The American Century” was published in Life. For Luce, there is certainly something foundational about news media, which informs the second implication. From Luce’s quote, it is clear that Time was not meant to be an exhaustively informative publication, but rather a quick and dirty way of staying in the know. Therefore, it is not an overstep to place particular emphasis on Time’s showy covers. How they inform the reader experience and retention is critical and intentional. With that, we can turn to the mythology of the nuclear missile. 

Gendering the nuclear missile is not revolutionary. In fact, much of the gendering is done by the people (men) who formulate our nuclear doctrines, in the conversations they have with each other and when they are educating the general public. The bulk of this textual and linguistic analysis I will draw from the writing of Carol Cohn, a scholar at the intersection of gender and security issues who attended a summer workshop hosted by these men in 1984 and wrote about her experience in her essay “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” in 1987. Cohn termed the men leading these workshops “defense intellectuals,” whose broader role is to create the doctrine that governs how we interact with nuclear weapons from a policy perspective.15 Cohn’s identification of metaphor and euphemism as critical to the language of these defense intellectuals is central to her essay—Cohn calls this language “technostrategic.”16 For Cohn, technostrategic language enables defense intellectuals to familiarize themselves and their audiences to the devastation of nuclear weapons without incurring a guilty conscience. For my own analysis, however, I am deeply concerned with the emotions that technostrategic language and its visual offshoots can evoke, particularly its gendered components. How men feel when they see an illustration of a nuclear missile on the cover of Time informs how they gender themselves in an era of anxiety that is concerning gender and security wherein both are inextricable from the other.   

The most effective way to communicate the gendered—and sexual—language observed by Cohn at this workshop is to excerpt it directly from her essay. 

[L]ectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks—or what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.”17

Notably, in this quote from an unnamed military adviser, the dropping of a nuclear weapon is analogous to an orgasm. This specific euphemism demonstrates the troubling implications of technostrategic language in the physical employment of nuclear weapons. That is, detonating a nuclear missile is an action men can take to reach some sort of climax. To be sure, I am not suggesting that any real orgasm was achieved by these men, but rather that the thought of dropping a nuke was satisfying to some sexual end that empowered their masculinity—at least to the extent that defense intellectuals deemed sexual euphemisms an effective teaching mechanism at this summer workshop. There is something material about the link between sexual completion or domination and militaristic violence. Daddis argues that soldiers in Vietnam enacted sexual violence against local women because they markedly could not achieve domination through military violence on the battlefield. I propose that the converse is also true: men at home relished in the fantasy of the nuclear missile to reassert their masculinity against the confusing tides of sexual modernism they experienced at work and at home. Time contributed to this mythology in dramatic visual renderings of nuclear missiles on their covers. 

On January 30, 1956, Time published an issue whose cover featured an illustration by Boris Artzybasheff called “The Missile.” “The Missile” sports a skeletal hand pointing down, assumingly toward a target, and a human brain. Connecting this anatomy is a tangle of wires and pipes, and notably, two circular parts that vaguely resemble eyes. Altogether, The Missile is uncannily human and undeniably phallic. Particularly in an era of phallic political rhetoric, and in the context of Cohn’s essay which, although written three decades later, still reflects an enduring language of nuclear doctrine, the association between The Missile and the phallus is not projected but extracted. I want, for a moment, to return to the emotions this imagery may evoke. As Cohn exposes, technostrategic language can be profoundly sexual and revealing of a sort of sexual power hierarchy projected onto the deployment of nuclear weapons. However, that language itself is exclusive to defense intellectuals; Cohn makes clear in her essay that an important discursive quality of this language is that it excludes the general public from conversations about nuclear weapons by replacing intuitive terms like death with jargon like collateral damage.18 It is how this language informs popular renderings of nuclear weapons that can reveal how the public does engage with nukes as a masculine fantasy. Luce, as a linkage institution, would have interacted with defense intellectuals and their technostrategic language; in fact, we get a glimpse at Luce’s artful way of speaking about nukes in the quote that opens this paper. While the language itself may not have trickled down into mass culture, Time was certainly steeped in the same emotional qualities. The magazine’s illustrations of nuclear weapons can be considered a visual analogy to technostrategic language.      

Laura Mulvey, who coined the term the “male gaze,” provides much of the foundational theory surrounding phallocentrism in visual media. Mulvey, referencing film in particular, contends that recognition of the self in visual media is closely related to the mirror phase, when a child first recognizes themself. 

The mirror phase occurs at a time when children’s physical ambitions outstrip their motor capacity, wth the result that their recognition of themselves is joyous in that they imagine their mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body. Recognition is thus overlaid with misrecognition: the image recognised is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject which, re-introjected as an ego ideal, prepares the way for identification with others in the future.19

In an era of acute gender anxiety, where men often felt their “‘primal masculinity”’ was limited by emerging modernity, a parallel can be drawn to the children of Mulvey’s analysis. Mulvey utilizes the mirror phase in advancing her argument that phallocentric film fulfills some “primordial wish” to identify an ideal of the self. For Mulvey, these dynamics of the viewer and the viewed are deeply gendered along the stereotypical line of active/male and passive/female. At the same time, for the mirror phase to be achieved by these men, there must be an ideal of self for them to identify with. Mulvey names these figures in film, but I will further contend that the nuclear weapons on Time’s cover satisfy this mirror phase as well. For sexually insecure men, images of virile nuclear missiles with the power to devastate entire civilizations would provide that ideal of self—already there exists anatomical parallelism between The Missile and the phallus, but where men were feeling emasculated and impotent, The Missile is strong and erect. Just as Daddis identifies in men’s adventure magazines, violence and sexuality are inextricably linked; performing one may fulfill a desire for the other and both serve to empower manhood. In Vietnam, soldiers who craved the opportunity to enact militaristic violence fulfilled this desire through committing sexual violence against Vietnamese women. At home, men frustrated by a gradually equalizing society lived out fantasies of sexual domination through hypothetical nuclear devastation.   

If The Missile provided Time readers with an ego ideal, then a cover published six years later reflected the increasing turbulence brought on by the enduring failures in Vietnam. The cover of the August 23, 1963 issue of Time, titled “U.S. Atomic Arsenal,” depicts a jumble of nuclear missiles pointing in all directions. The United States carried out sustained bombing campaigns in Vietnam beginning in 1962 and ending a decade later, so it is impossible to excise this illustration of missiles from its context of material devastation. I propose that U.S. Atomic Arsenal attempts to masculinize the individuality crisis that Cuordileone and Daddis project onto the typical American man. The text banner that reads “The Size & Condition of the U.S. Atomic Arsenal” suggests a “taking stock” of American capabilities that was implicated in the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union—received by contemporary critics as a pissing contest between the two nations. In U.S. Atomic Arsenal, each member is distinct. If we extend the analogy of the nuke as a phallic ego ideal, then this cover simultaneously asserts a robust and individualistic arsenal of men/nukes. They point in all directions, manifesting a United States whose reach extends around the globe. In this way, nuclear weapons are material mechanisms of deploying and discharging American masculinity on the global stage. Such a fragile construct is evidently partial to social tides, which adds a perilous dimension to American military offensives abroad—could we perhaps connect the sustained bombing campaigns in Vietnam to frenetic masculine hedging?  

In 1941, Henry Luce put forth the great problem faced by the United States as it reached the midpoint of the twentieth century. 

In the field of national policy, the fundamental trouble with America has been, and is, that whereas their nation became in the 20th Century the most powerful and vital nation in the world, nevertheless Americans were unable to accommodate themselves spiritually and practically to that fact.20

Given the work of Cuordileone and Daddis which advances a theory that the preeminent social tide of mid-century America was the belief that men were going soft at just the wrong time, Luce’s quote here seems to join a legacy of writing and rhetoric which helped raise that tide. How men could get hard again was a complex project, branches of which Cuordileone and Daddis dissect specifically along the axes of class or status. Identifying mass culture gendering requires a ubiquitous mythology which I find in the nuclear missile. A thrilling presence in the American zeitgeist, the nuclear weapon was a virile phallus American men could claim as their own. Historically, this gendering of nuclear weapons can provide a retrospective dimension to the hot wars of the past, which has generative potential for developing scholarship on alternative feminist histories of American military intervention. Simultaneously, this lens can be critical to wars unfolding today. Can gendering wartime violence help us anticipate and regulate the potential devastation of present geopolitical conflicts? Can we curb the nuclear erection before it’s too late?

  1. Henry Luce quoted in “Henry R. Luce: End of a Pilgrimage,” Time, March 10, 1967, 33.
  2. Luce quoted in “Henry R. Luce: End of a Pilgrimage,” 26.
  3. Luce quoted in “Henry R. Luce: End of a Pilgrimage,” 29.
  4. Luce quoted in “Henry R. Luce: End of a Pilgrimage,” 31.
  5. K.A. Cuordileone, “‘Politics in an Age of Anxiety’: Cold War Political Culture and the Crisis of American Masculinity, 1949-1960,” The Journal of American History 87, no. 2 (2000), 522-523.
  6. Cuordileone, 527.
  7. Cuordileone, 521.
  8. Ibid., 517, 541-542.
  9. Cuordileone, 522.
  10. Gregory A. Daddis, Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 6-9.
  11. Daddis, Pulp Vietnam, 6-9.
  12. Daddis, Pulp Vietnam, 28.
  13. “Henry R. Luce,” 29.
  14. Henry Luce, “The American Century,” Diplomatic History 23, no. 2 (1999), 160.
  15. Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs 12, no. 4 (1987), 687-688.
  16. Cohn, “Sex and Death,” 690.
  17. Cohn, “Sex and Death,” 693.
  18. Cohn, “Sex and Death,” 704, 691.
  19. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975), 9-10.
  20. Luce, 165.
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