How Culture Wrestled with the Atomic Age

Movies, music and even candy wrappers helped people process what it meant to put the powers of gods in human hands.
Atomic images
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Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- The previously inconceivable destructive power of nuclear weapons influenced the military, relationships between nations, and countless other facets of the human experience. Not least, it captivated imaginations worldwide in myriad ways. Atomic bombs killed more than 100,000 people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later, weapons tests conducted by many countries spread the invisible danger of radiation far and wide.

Art in its many modes provided a way for people to process the complex feelings of fear and fascination stirred up by the bomb. That includes the idea that nuclear weapons give people apocalyptic, godlike powers, said Robert Jacobs of the Hiroshima Peace Institute at Hiroshima City University.

"In 1945, people had lived through the Great Depression and two world wars, and they were only too well aware of how flawed human beings are," he said.

When nuclear weapons enter a film or a story they change the rules, said Jacobs. A Geiger counter's click indicates the presence of radiation, and after that anything can happen. A monster can attack. A character's personality can change. Fear and suspense grow.

That fear and fascination borne of the atom's destructive power has manifested in many different ways. It captivated kids growing up during the Cold War: They played with atomic-themed toys, read comics that referenced radiation and attacks, and watched the radioactive monsters and apocalyptic scenarios featured on TV and in movies from around the world. Mick Broderick studies how atomic weapons and energy have influenced culture at Murdoch University in Australia. He grew up immersed in all of this, and eventually wrote "Nuclear Movies," a critical analysis of more than 1,000 feature films.

One of the dominant images that stand in for the destructive power of nuclear weapons is the billowing mushroom cloud. It’s created after an explosion when a bubble of gas expands and rises. That hot air climbs higher and higher through a central stem, pulling in dust and smoke until it reaches as high as an atmospheric layer called the tropopause. At its highest, the material spreads out to form the mushroom cloud's familiar cap. Even conventional explosives, in large amounts, can create mushroom clouds. But in the atomic age, the clouds came to represent the awe-inspiring, terrible power of nuclear weapons in particular.

Bikini mushroom cloud

The Baker Test, part of Operation Crossroads, took place at Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, on July 25, 1946. The weapon detonated underwater, surrounded by a fleet of empty ships.

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 Everett Collection via Shutterstock

After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mushroom cloud image -- and other atomic references -- have been used in countless settings and even in whimsical ways. By 1954, children could snack on spicy cinnamon candies called atomic fireballs. A newly developed swimwear garment took its name from the site of a 1946 test explosion, Bikini Atoll. The mushroom cloud even showed up on record albums and toys.  

"The nuclear era is complex and contradictory," Broderick wrote in an email to Inside Science. While the 19th-century discovery of radiation led to medical treatments and discoveries, it also highlighted the scarcity of valuable radioactive materials and their potential to create nearly unlimited energy and access to a "fundamental power of the universe," he wrote.

After the weapon's first use at Hiroshima, people quickly began to wrestle with the new implications. "Within 24 hours of this announcement, newspapers and radio programs immediately voiced concerns over future atomic bombs being used against the USA," Broderick wrote. "The utopian dream of a bountiful atomic age was quickly tempered by increasing fears of an atomic, then thermonuclear, war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and many cultural products reflect this antagonism and antipathy."

The mushroom cloud image conveys much of that conflict to the viewer.

"You can't not pay attention to [a mushroom cloud] because it has such a resonant power," said Jacobs. "We're all wired to be vigilant for it and to pay attention to it and to try to understand it. It became extremely popular as this way of signifying power, signifying future, signifying new."

Atomic-themed products

Composite image of three pieces of atomic-themed products, from the collection of Mick Broderick.

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Mick BroderickAtomicalia collection

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Used with permission

While the mushroom cloud image was used in products and advertising, it was rarely used in fictional representations on television, said historian Reba Wissner. When she studied American television from the 1950s and '60s she found more than 160 references to atomic weapons, but few mushroom clouds.

"There's really only about a handful of fictional TV episodes that actually even show the detonation of a bomb into the mushroom cloud," said Wissner. "So most of it is either done through sound and sound design, or through just illusion, and context."

The feeling of awe many attach to mushroom clouds may be related to being able to observe them from a distance, Jacobs said.

"There's two kinds of people," Jacobs said. "There's the people looking at the mushroom cloud, who are far enough away to see the whole cloud, and then there's the people underneath it."

Americans, Jacobs said, are the ones who created the cloud and got away. That contrasts with how images in Japan, such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, tend to focus on the loss of life, the destruction of two cities, the way radiation continued to affect people long after the explosions, and the rebuilding efforts.

Wissner found that while American television often dramatized scenarios inspired by nuclear-related topics, just one program referenced Japan. That was an episode of the 1960s medical drama "Dr. Kildare" that featured a woman who had survived the bombing at Nagasaki, and was many years later diagnosed with leukemia, attributed to the radiation exposure from the bomb.

However, American television and films did approach bomb-related topics in many other ways. The topic even appears on shows where you might not expect it, from children's programming like "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "Lassie," to thought-provoking dramas such as "The Twilight Zone," which explored the relationship between the bomb and anxiety.

Duck and Cover cartoon

During the Cold War, messages from the Federal Civil Defense Administration provided information for the public about protecting themselves in the event of a nuclear attack.

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James Vaughan via Flickr

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The bomb and the related science are so powerful and difficult to comprehend -- and in the case of radiation, completely invisible -- that people can't help but take their complicated feelings and make art, whether that's "Godzilla" (which is also inspired by firebombings that happened in dozens of Japanese cities, including Tokyo) or the comics and animations known as manga, or the 1964 black comedy "Dr. Strangelove."

"There's this really high interest and an anxiety around nuclear things and a very, very low level of grasping any of the mechanics of it," said Jacobs.

"As people start to come to terms with this looming threat," said Wissner, "they have to find some cathartic element to come to terms with it. And so there you have popular culture."

After nuclear weapons emerged and the Cold War deepened, culture transformed in response, seeding further changes that came later, said Jacobs.

"You have this teen culture, this kid culture in the 1950s, which is very much about how dangerous the world is," he said. That influenced how American school kids looked at the world, especially after they practiced huddling under their desks, ducking and covering as Bert the cartoon turtle told them, in a seemingly futile attempt to protect themselves in case of a nuclear blast. "[W]hen they were down on the ground, the thought they had in their head was that the adults are crazy."



For more stories, videos and infographics related to Inside Science's coverage of the far-reaching ways that the Manhattan Project influenced science and society, visit our page: Seventy-Five Years After Trinity.

Author Bio & Story Archive

Chris Gorski is the Senior Editor of Inside Science. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.