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Living with the bomb

by Jeff Kingston

THE DRAGON’S TAIL: Americans Face the Atomic Age, by Robert A. Jacobs. University of Massachusetts Press, 2010, 151 pp., $24.95 (paper)
FILLING THE HOLE IN THE NUCLEAR FUTURE: Art and Popular Culture Respond to the Bomb. Edited by Robert A. Jacobs. Lexington Books, 2010, 276 pp., $32.95 (paper)

There is a lingering ambivalence in the United States about atomic weapons with vindicating narratives battling with critical assessments of their use against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Smithsonian Museum became a battleground of these competing narratives in 1995 when the curator attempted to stage a show that presented the varied discourses about the bombings and artifacts from the bomb sites. In the end, opponents succeeded in censoring the show, stifling criticism of President Harry Truman’s decision and excluding emotive reminders of what happened to those who were bombed.

In “Dragon’s Tail,” Robert Jacobs focuses on “nuclear narratives” from 1945 to 1963 when the U.S. conducted aboveground testing. He helps us understand how the first generation of Americans living in the atomic age confronted this sinister specter. It was both a scary and heady time, with concerns about Armageddon vying with hopes that atomic power might change the world for the better.

Jacobs excels at explaining how the atomic age shaped American culture and discussing various narratives about the Bomb gleaned from an impressive range of sources including films, novels, magazines and civil defense pamphlets. Nuclear anxieties escalated with revelations about the extent of atmospheric testing and the adverse public health consequences of radioactive fallout.

The abstraction of nuclear oblivion was brought home to Americans in less cataclysmic, but more tangible ways, as they confronted the invisible menace of radiation in the air and in their food.

This is an invaluable analysis of how Americans came to grips with the unprecedented power of the Bomb and how they imagined nuclear war might be. For many, it was a watershed “separating the normality of the past from the uncertainty of the future.” The public “identification of nuclear science with alchemy and with the magical worldview . . . endows nuclear iconography with a profound sense of the supernatural.”

This iconography exuded an aura of magic because Jacobs argues that “the visceral experience of the advent of these weapons for most Americans was a breakdown of the normalcy of their life’s story and an entrance into mythic space.”

During the Cold War, the mushroom cloud made its way into the American living room as the Nevada above ground tests were televised from 1952. In Japan, perceptions about the dangers of radioactive fallout were reinforced by the fate of the Lucky Dragon, a tuna trawler that was hit by radiation from the 1954 U.S. Bravo test in the Pacific.

Miscalculations about the extent of fallout lead to the evacuation of Pacific islanders while stoking public fears and skepticism about government reassurances. Growing public anxieties about fallout from aboveground testing eventually drove it underground in 1963, but not before the emergence of “a culture of hand-to-hand combat with giant bugs, of soldiers advancing from trenches toward mushroom clouds, or pilots named Kong riding H-bombs like bucking broncos.”

Between 1945 and 1963, the U.S. detonated 317 nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, including 80 in 1962 alone, before the ban took effect. Nevada was the site for 207 of these tests.

The public learned just how dangerous the fallout from these tests was due to media coverage about mistakes such as the death of 4,200 sheep pastured downwind across state lines in Utah. Hollywood sought to turn fallout fears into commercial success with sci-fi B-movies such as “The Incredibly Shrinking Man,” “Them” (about giant irradiated ants) and “Killers from Space.”

Radioactive monsters and aliens stomped their way into American homes including Godzilla, freed from the ocean floor by a bomb test that gave him radioactive fire-breath. His trashing of Tokyo evoked memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while his birth in an atomic explosion drew on the Lucky Dragon incident. Closer to home, the movie, “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” (1958), was situated in the Nevada desert, “showing the Joshua trees that had come to symbolize the test site.”

Subversive political perspectives seeped into public discourse through science fiction with “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), a film that depicted the Cold War as a petty political spat and emphasized the common destiny of a world bristling with nuclear weapons.

Threatened by the Earth’s embrace of atomic bombs, in this movie other planets created “an intergalactic peacekeeping program in which giant robots will destroy any planet that continues to manufacture nuclear weapons.”

The edited volume does not quite fill the hole as magnificently as Jacobs’ monograph, but the 11 contributions by scholars and artists based in Japan, the U.S. and Australia feature an eclectic array of cultural and artistic responses to a world threatened by atomic devastation. There are several poems, film criticism and some translated manga, an installation and an excellent essay by Yuki Tanaka on Godzilla.

The final essay on nuclear fear and imagery by Spencer Weart, spanning 1987-2007, argues that such anxieties not only infuse popular culture, but are also manipulated for political purpose as with the Bush administration’s emphasis on weapons of mass destruction to justify invading Iraq.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan.