During the Cold War, was the United States government was able to dissuade the American public into believing in a “safe” atomic bomb?
When the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki in 1945, the world was introduced to what quickly became the most feared weapon on the planet. While today the world argues over the use of nuclear bombs, debating who should have them and who shouldn’t, during the Cold War, the question regarding the atomic bomb was not whether or not one nation should have it, but rather, when they’d use it. From schoolteachers to parents and their children, all around the United States, people took notice of the changing atmosphere surrounding the bomb and what was intended as a mark of strength became one that incited fear. The government took notice of this transformation and started to manipulate American fear of the bomb into acceptance, addressing the public’s concerns with its own answers. What the American public knew was what the government wanted it to know, and what it didn’t know never even existed; Washington’s control of information, in other words, was nearly impossible to breach. In this essay, I will examine how the government went about advertising the bomb to different parts of the country as well as how it operated its nuclear facilities during a time of heavy public scrutiny. It will also look at how American citizens responded to the government’s propaganda and how it affected their lives adversely. All in all, I want to know how the public atmosphere changed with the American public’s evolving attitude towards the bomb and most importantly, whether the United States government was able to dissuade the American public into believing in a “safe” atomic bomb.
Before the United States dropped the first nuclear bomb on an enemy state, all information on the atomic bomb was kept under locked doors and any mention of its existence or its capabilities were kept private between the leaders of the allied forces. The public, in short, was completely blind to its existence, and even those that worked on the nuclear bomb didn’t fully know understand the full scope of their own projects.1 However, once the explosion devastated Japan, there was no one who didn’t know of the atomic bomb’s existence or its destructive capabilities. Americans across the country then celebrated for years, thinking the United States was unstoppable after winning two World Wars and being the holders of the strongest weapon in the world. However, their cool attitude would change in 1949, when the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb.
The introduction of a new adversary and the start of the Cold War set the American public on edge. In response, during the 1950s and ’60s many studios produced films of atomic war and apocalypse, such as On the Beach (1959), A Day Called X (1957), and Five (1951), a film depicting a group of five people stuck in a house after a nuclear war. With this came the fear of nuclear proliferation, and Americans were slowly succumbing to a state of paranoia. Subsequently, anything associated with Soviet Russia was quickly suspect, and McCarthyism, marked by the establishment of committees such as the “The House Un-American Activities Committee,” gained traction with the public. The American government, however, realized that if it didn’t stop Americans from becoming too paranoid, it would lead to a weakened nation, so it opened up the U.S. Office of Civil Defense. This office created most of the propaganda about nuclear bombs released by the government and at the same time controlled most of the country’s nuclear facilities. Although, while the government says it was merely setting up a government agency whose focus was nuclear education, some historians, such as Robert A. Jacobs, believe that it was really created to distort facts and censor the truth about what was really going on in America’s nuclear facilities.
While historians of the U.S. nuclear program have largely focused on the general public, the people who were most directly affected by the nuclear industry were those who worked in it. In nuclear facilities across the country, men and women ranging from unskilled laborers to college graduates were being hired and placed in dangerous work positions, usually without any prior experience. “DuPont hired women because they were good workers. They did just as they were told and followed directions precisely. The best lab technician he knew was a woman who had been a short-order cook. She was good at following the same recipe, exactly the same way, over and over.”2 Those that managed the facilities also conveniently placed restrictions on what different workers could say to each other, at one point barring chemists from explaining the hazards of radiation to those that worked with it.[3.“DeGooyer (an employee) was told how to do things, but not why. Her supervisor explained that the chemicals she worked with were dangerous, but he did not mention radioactivity.” (Kate Brown, Plutopia, 47).] Historian Kate Brown, in her book Plutopia, draws from the accounts of nuclear facility employees: “chemists, ‘with their college degrees,’ would come to the door to give them new formulas, ‘They wouldn’t come into our lab,’” [a worker] said, alluding to the fact that the chemists knew just how dangerous it was to be in the labs, even if only for a moment.”3 Furthermore, Brown says that not even the officials working on the Manhattan Project knew what types of labor were more destructive than others: “Work in the chemical processing plant, where workers would distill irradiated uranium down to drops of plutonium, was considered to be safer and less complicated than work in reactors . . . that guess proved wrong.”4 Moreover, even when the officials at nuclear facilities such as DuPont knew how life threatening their procedures were, it didn’t stop them from maintaining them. In one instance, Brown describes how officials at DuPont fired a nuclear scientist after he concluded that one of their dyes was life threatening. Instead of listening to him and taking the chemicals off of the production lines, management threw him out of the facility, destroyed his scientific reputation, and hired sham scientists to disprove his claims.5 Meanwhile, on the Manhattan Project, management officials often hired scientists of questionable ethics to research the effects of radiation on the environment. One in particular, Dr. Joseph Hamilton, was previously known for injecting radioactive strontium into leukemia patients and administering costly neutron baths to rich cancer patients, most of whom died within six months. After being hired onto the Manhattan Project, his job quickly changed from finding out why animals were dying into working on killing them as fast as possible.6 Brown reports, “Instead of looking at ways to increase safety, Hamilton studied how to manufacture greater radioactive hazards. Instead of determining how to preserve life, Hamilton researched how best to bring about death.”7 In fact, at one point he even bypassed DuPont’s security and had direct conversations with Manhattan Project officials on a “need to know” basis, discussing “the best ways to use Hanford waste to “make everybody [in an enemy population] nauseated, vomiting and incapacitated within 24 hours [using air currents].”8 When it came to nuclear tests with the military, Robert Jacobs writes in his social history of the atomic age, The Dragon’s Tail, that the American government taught its soldiers not to fear radiation, saying it was just another danger the soldiers would overcome. “In fact, if uninjured by blast or burns, don’t worry about flash radiation . . . the decontamination process is relatively simple . . . just use good old fashioned soap and water—the hotter the water and the stronger the soap the better.”9 But since the soap didn’t actually do anything, many of the soldiers died from the radiation they encountered while working as the governments’ lap dogs. Furthermore, the soldiers were then sworn into secrecy, unable to even tell their doctors that they’d been exposed to radiation if they had medical complications. Recently, some of these soldiers have spoken out. One, Wayne Brooks, said, “We were used as guinea pigs – every one of us,” and “They didn’t tell us what it was gonna do to us. They didn’t tell us that we were gonna have problems later on in life with cancers.”10 Meanwhile, those who worked in the labs, physically dealing with the chemicals, were not taught proper procedures for handling radioactive chemicals11 and often died more quickly than the soldiers who merely monitored explosions. Also not to be forgotten are the average workers and soldiers’ families who had their lives disrupted by the creation of a nuclear facilities near their homes.
When it came to the people who lived near the nuclear tests sights in Nevada, after 1951, the perception of the atomic bomb was not one of destruction, as the soldiers witnessed, but one of excitement. “The bomb presented to these specific communities was a beautiful bomb, a Disney bomb.”12 In these communities, officials encouraged people to go and watch nuclear explosions with their families. They also said to bring glasses because the flash might be a little too much for the picnic overseeing the bomb. In addition, advertisements from an AEC commissioned booklet, Atomic Tests in Nevada, even depicted a cowboy and his girlfriend demonstrating how to use sunglasses while a nuclear cloud looms behind them.13 Moreover, the people whose homes were in range of nuclear fallout were not told to stay away; rather, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) let people play with the snowlike radioactive fallout and continued to encourage the use of soap.14 Jacobs also talks about efforts by the AEC to please nearby communities by initiating frequent visits to speak about the nuclear bomb and to give out informational pamphlets to the people who came. In addition, the AEC would often offer giveaways to the communities in forms of household items or food and would donate money to the towns. Most notably, they gave out free gas to people on the highways near the bomb sites.15
However, as much as the AEC worked on its appearance, those running the organization didn’t actually care about the people living near the test sites; if they did, they would have told their neighbors to move, not stay. In one instance, the pamphlets handed out by the AEC, known as the Green Book, mentioned that the people living near the test sites shouldn’t worry about the high readings on their Geiger counters, even though, as a measurement of nearby radioactivity, high readings on the Geiger Counter correlated to very high danger.16 Jacobs explains, however, that all this was done for only one reason: to convince the American people that the bomb their government was creating was one meant for good while the Soviet Union’s bomb was meant only for bad.17
Did the AEC and OCD succeed in convincing the American public into believing that the nuclear bomb was really as safe as they said? One thing these organizations forgot when trying to test the bomb without public scrutiny and at the same time continuously lie about what they were actually doing is both obvious and illuminating: The people who worked at nuclear facilities and died because of radiation exposure had a family waiting for them back home. A family who, when their mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters came home with “softball-sized tumors,” horrifically deformed bodies, or in body bags, would then take note of the source and consequently look at radioactivity with a more critical eye.18 Those that lived near these sites also noted that they were unable to have children, and many farmer families experienced miscarriages thinking it was just a regular attribute in their community. However, the veil quickly fell when they started to question this abnormal behavior after seeing scientists in hazmat suits coming to their land and taking samples. Farmers were now left wondering whether or not they were the guinea pigs of Americas nuclear experiments. This was the great flaw in the advertising ploy of suburban communities by the Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Office of Civil Defense.
Meanwhile, in more urban communities, the U.S. Office of Civil Defense (OCD) advertised the atomic bomb, in particular to schoolchildren and their parents. In schools, the children were subjected to duck-and-cover drills once every two weeks, and at home, parents were instructed in how to build their own bunkers.19 In the classrooms, children even competed to see who could find the best place to duck in case of an attack.20 A famous film released by the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) in 1952, Duck and Cover: Bert the Turtle, was distributed to schools and played in classes everywhere. The film gave kids glimpses of independence because while it says they must always follow their teachers and the OCD employees, it still goes over many scenarios in which the kids are alone, such as when riding their bicycles. Historian JoAnne Brown writes that the film was meant to portray that “atomic attack is no different from many other forms of everyday danger, and responses to it [should be] no different from other safety routines.”21 In fact, the film conveys an immediate sense of safety because of the simple animation and playful slogans sung by the background voice actresses.22 The film presents to its viewers simple procedures and shows happy kids, generally conveying a nonsensical feeling of safety to those watching it. Ending of the film, when the narrator speaks about what to do if outside during a flash he states that, “even a newspaper could protect you from a bad burn.”[25.“Duck and Cover script.”] More important than what the FCDA wanted kids to believe, however, is what the kids themselves actually believed. Jacobs argues that children believed the opposite of what they were being taught because of what they read in science-fiction comics and saw in movie theaters. “Children heard a competing message loud and clear: their science fiction magazines convinced them that no such comforting illusions should be harbored, and that they would be just as alone after the war as they were when the bombs went off.”23 Supporting this claim, Jacobs points to a scientific study on personality development at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, which found that 70 percent of the kids who participated in drills had a grim outlook on their own futures. Jacobs cites participants responses to the prompt to “Think about the world as it may be ten years from now. What are some ways it might be different from today?”: “‘Maybe we will not even be here ten years from now,’ posited one twelve year-old, ‘maybe there will be no such thing as a world.’”24 Here, we see how children were able to look through the government’s lies and eventually take notice of the inconsistencies that existed between the known facts of nuclear damage, such as its demonstrated ability to destroy everything in sight, and the useless “safety” procedures advertised and commissioned by the United States government.
In addition to children, the nuclear bomb’s advertising also specifically targeted women. The married women at home were presented in bunker advertisements as the primary manager of the family and the people who would be tasked with all the preparations. In 1951 the U.S. Office of Civil Defenses commissioned a film, Survival under Atomic Attack, which depicted a husband mostly just looking for a place to have the bunker, not setting it up. Susan Stoudinger Northcutt, in Women and the Bomb: Domestication of the Atomic Bomb in The United States, argues that “the bomb was privatized, that is, it became a part of the private sphere where women and women’s concerns prevail.”25 Thus, a woman’s role in the new nuclear environment remained that of taking care of her children and husband, maintaining her role as the primary caretaker in the family. Throughout the Cold War, the military would also often paint women on bombs or associate women with bombs, for instance, calling a woman a “Bombshell” to indicate how attractive she was.26 In Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War, historian Elaine Tyler May argues that women were called upon to be even stronger than men, offering the example of a female Federal Civil Defense Agency employee, referred to only by her last name, Fuller, who “claimed that women had special skills and qualities that enabled them to cope with atomic war”27 Fuller, however, wasn’t all talk; she withstood an atomic test in a bunker 350 yards from a real atomic blast, stating that her “experience [that] morning [showed] conclusively that women can stand the shock and strain of an atomic explosion just as well as men.”28 Fuller played a unique role in the emboldening of women across the country due to her position in an organization that often sexualized women. For example, the Civil Defense Preparedness Agency at the time was also posting ads depicting three scantily clad women as different types of radioactive rays, stating that, like the women, they were both “harmful and helpful.”
Nevertheless, May ultimately concluded that “a major goal of these civil defense strategies was to infuse the traditional role of women with new meaning and importance, which would help fortify the home as a place of security amid the cold war.”29 In the end, women were both asked to prepare the nuclear bunkers and at the same time depicted as the problem, whether it be through over sexualized advertisements or the government’s general fear of female sexuality: “While officials encouraged women to enter the paid labor force, their public presence gave rise to concerns about the long-term effects of the changes … women were expected to remain “feminine”—a term that implied submissiveness and allure along with sexual chastity—and to embrace domesticity after the war.”30 In the end, as May writes, this led to consistent mistrust and questioning of these government organizations by women, because in the same breath the government would be asking for their help and blaming them as the problem.
Despite the government’s attempts to deceive the American people, it was ultimately unable to fool the American public into believing that the bomb was something they could prepare for and live with comfortably. Eventually, the soldiers from the nuclear sites and the lab technicians who dealt with the hazardous material came out and spoke about what they’d witnessed. In addition, workers who eventually came home from their jobs at nuclear facilities had families who took note of the inconsistencies between what the government said these chemicals did and what they were actually doing to their family. Film companies and comic book creators, in turn, saw what the nuclear damage really did by looking at the victims of radioactivity both at home and abroad, and then created the films and comics that the children bought. These representations held more sway in children’s imaginations than government-sponsored films that told them that even a newspaper could protect them from a burn. In addition, women, who were constantly being mistreated in nuclear facilities and in public, didn’t appreciate how the government sexualized them in its advertisements and then also asked them for their help. As a result of all these factors, the government’s Civil Defense Office, its Federal Civil Defense Administration, its Atomic Energy Commission, and its Nevada Atomic Bomb Site, were unable to deceive the American public. The American public was not blind to manipulation. It was able to see the inconsistencies that existed between what the government said and what it actually did. This is a testament to the resiliency of the American public, that no matter how well the government tries to shadow the evil actions it pursues, that eventually, we will take notice.
- Robert S. Norris, a historian of the atomic age said the project was “super-secret” and that “at least 5,000 people were coming and going to work, knowing only enough to get the job done” (William J. Broad, “Why They Called It the Manhattan Project”).
- Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 47.
- Kate Brown, Plutopia, 48.
- Kate Brown, Plutopia, 46.
- Kate Brown, Plutopia, 61.
- “Hamilton injected radioactive solutions into mice and turned solutions into smoke and food pellets for mice to inhale and ingest, trying to figure out the surest and swiftest ways to induce the mice to die.” (Kate Brown, Plutopia, 53-54).
- Kate Brown, Plutopia, 54.
- Kate Brown, Plutopia, 54.
- Kate Brown, Plutopia, 90.
- Jennifer LaFleur,“America’s atomic vets: ‘We were used as guinea pigs – every one of us,’”Reveal News, The Center for Investigative Reporting, May 27, 2016. https://www.revealnews.org/article/us-veterans-in-secretive-nuclear-tests-still-fighting-for-recognition/
- “DeGooyer and the other lab techs measured and poured these highly radioactive solutions using bare hands. Spills were not uncommon” (Kate Brown, Plutopia, 48).
- Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (Ann Arbor: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), 85.
- Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail, 86.
- “After a bomb, there it would be, the fallout, fine like flour, kind of grayish white. We would play like that was our snow. We never had snow there because it was a warm climate. Then we would go out and write our names in it. It would be thick enough you could write your name in it and see it. It would burn your fingers, it would irritate you, and you would have to wash your hands” (Diane Nielson, a nurse from Henderson, Nevada, quoted in Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail, 84-85.).
- “AEC employees carried cans of gas to aid motorists stranded in the desert, “compliments of the AEC,” as they told the drivers” (Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail, 86).
- “Civil defense pamphlets were advising Americans to keep a Geiger counter in their fallout shelters in case of Soviet attack, but the AEC derided the importance of Geiger counters to the downwinders. “Many persons in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and nearby California have Geiger counters these days,” the Green Book cautioned. “We can expect many reports that ‘Geiger counters were going crazy here today.’ Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don’t let them bother you” (Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail, 92).
- Jacobs points to a passage from The Green Book that assured civilians that “‘We are not talking about radiation from enemy bombs designed to do the most damage possible. We are talking only about low yield tests, conducted under controlled conditions at Nevada Test Site.’ Apparently, the Nevada atomic bombs were not the threatening kind; rather, they were a form of the weapon whose dangers could be ‘controlled.’”[AEC, “Atomic Test” in Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail, 91.
- According to Kate Brown’s research, “DuPont executives worried about the radium example, more so after September 1943, when Dr. Robley Evans published photographs of a radium worker with the lower half of her face consumed by a softball-sized tumor” (Kate Brown, Plutopia, 52).
- “From February until June 1951, the drill came once every two weeks, and monthly thereafter” (JoAnne Brown, “‘A Is for Atom, B Is for Bomb’: Civil Defense in American Public Education, 1948-1963,” The Journal of American History, vol. 75, no. 1, 1988, pp. 68–90, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1889655.
- “A school official from Newton, Massachusetts, Harry L. Walen, described his town’s victory over fear: “Youngsters in the elementary schools vied with one another to see which room could proceed most quietly and rapidly to its assigned position” (JoAnne Brown, “‘A Is for Atom, B Is for Bomb.’”
- Joanne Brown,“‘A is for Atom, B is for Bomb,’” 84.
- “Bert: Remember what to do, friends! Now tell me right out loud: what are you supposed to do when you see the flash? Children: (offscreen) Duck . . . and cover!”(“Duck and Cover script,” posted to Scribd by Bill Geerhart; original script by Raymond J. Mauer for Archer Productions (1951).
- Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail, 110.
- Participant in a study conducted by Sibylle K. Escalona in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (1982), quoted in Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail, 113.
- Susan Stoudinger Northcutt, “Women And The Bomb: Domestication of the Atomic Bomb in The United States,” International Social Science Review, vol. 74, no. 3/4, 1999, 137, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41887009, 137.
- “Subversives at home, Communist aggressors abroad, atomic energy, sexuality, the bomb, and the ‘bombshell’ all had to be ‘harnessed for peace.’” (Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War (New York, Basic Books) 108.)
- Quoted in May, Homeward Bound, 99.
- Quoted in May, Homeward Bound, 99.
- May, Homeward Bound, 101.
- May, Homeward Bound, 70.