The Louvin Brothers’ 1952 classic, “Great Atomic Power,” was recorded in the aftermath of the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country gospel song reflected the fear and awe of the early Atomic Age:
“Do you fear this man's invention
That they call atomic power
Are we all in great confusion
Do we know the time or hour
When a terrible explosion
May rain down upon our land
Meting horrible destruction
Blotting out the works of man”
Now, 60 years after the only two atomic bombs used in warfare were dropped, the world has the nuclear jitters again.
North Korea claims it has developed nuclear weapons to counter threats by the United States. Iran is seemingly turning its back on the world to develop the bomb. The U.S. has officially invited India to join the nuclear club, creating worries about the reaction of Pakistan.
And the fear that a stray Russian nuke left over from the Cold War could end up in the hands of terrorists has been omnipresent since 9/11.
Those fears are nothing new. They’ve been around since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
But those fears have been balanced by other views of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The nuclear arsenal, it was argued for decades, keeps the country safe and nuclear power creates cheap energy that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels.
On the other hand, the nukes could be used to blow up the world — and then there’s the sticky problems of nuclear plant meltdowns and what to do with atomic waste.
All those hopes and fears have worked their way into our popular culture.
Concerns about both bombs and reactors have gone up and down with political changes and global tensions.
After the Cold War ended and there were visions of a peaceful world, popular interest in all things nuclear waned and nearly faded away.
But now nukes are back on the national and international radar.
By the Bomb’s Early Light
As is often the case, we can gain some perspective on today’s situation by looking back.
When the U.S. pulled its “secret weapon” out of its back pocket and dropped it on Hiroshima, obliterating a city as large as Denver, President Harry Truman had these words for a stunned populace:
“We have spent more than $2 billion on the greatest scientific gamble in history, and we have won. Having found the atomic bomb we will use it. … We thank God it has come to us and not to the hand of our enemies, and we pray that he will help us use it to his purposes.”
Three days later, another bomb wiped out Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered, ending World War II. The general reaction was jubilation.
“There was no question that it shortened the war in the Pacific,” said Don Hanway, now 88, who was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Italy at the time the bomb was dropped. “We were more concerned with it bringing the enemy under control than the longer-term dangers to humanity.”
Historian Paul Boyer, author of two books about the cultural impact of nuclear weapons —“By the Bomb’s Early Light” (1985) and “Fallout” (1998) — believes Truman had postwar strategy in mind but “almost surely had little idea that the use of the new weapon would resonate powerfully in American life for half a century and beyond, shaping not only Cold War strategy and diplomacy, but also the nation’s art, literature, ethical discourse, religious life and mass culture.”
Within hours of the Hiroshima blast, the Washington Press Club was offering an “atomic cocktail.”
Within days, Los Angeles burlesque theaters were promoting “atom bomb dancers.”
Within weeks, a New York jewelry company was selling “atomic inspired pin and earring sets” that were “as daring to wear as it was to drop the first atom bomb.”
Within months, Kix cereal was offering an “atomic bomb ring” for 15 cents and a box top.
And thus the word “atomic” became a synonym for anything new, innovative and powerful.
Serious commentators recognized the bomb’s potential for global destruction. But others expressed the utopian belief that the awesome power of the atom would make future wars unthinkable.
Nebraskan Paul Olson, then in junior high, argued in a 1946 speech contest that because of nuclear weapons “we would have to have a rule of law in this world or the human race is going to destroy itself.”
Olson went on to become an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a peace activist teaching courses in the literature of war and peace. Looking back at his 1946 speech, Olson sees himself as a small voice crying in a wilderness where most Americans were just glad we had the bomb instead of the bad guys.
That attitude changed dramatically in 1949 when the Soviets successfully tested an atomic bomb and the arms race was on.
Public fears about the bomb grew along with the fear of communism. The Korean War started in 1950, with Truman threatening to use another A-bomb if necessary to stop the communists. An anti-communist witchhunt led to the McCarthy hearings of 1953-54 and the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Russians.
Nuclear tests in the Nevada desert made mushroom clouds a common sight in newsreels and on TV.
Development of ever-bigger bombs offered the comfort of “mutually assured destruction” — the Cold War era policy that argued that if both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had large nuclear arsenals, neither would use them because the dropping of one bomb would trigger a nuclear war that would annihilate both countries and much of the rest of the world.
Learning to Love the Bomb
The bomb “kicked off a whole societal tsunami” that was reflected in films, books and popular songs, said Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies at UNL. “The fear of the A-bomb and the fear of instant annihilation infused the 1950s more than anything else.”
In his book “Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema,” Dixon describes scores of films with apocalyptic or doomsday themes.
The earliest “nuke” films were sensationalist, like “Invasion U.S.A.,” a 1952 B-grade flick about the Soviets taking over the United States, with taglines that boasted “SEE! New York Disappear! SEE! Seattle Blasted! SEE! San Francisco in Flames!” The pressbook noted: “‘Invasion U.S.A., in which cities vanish before your eyes, will inspire awareness of civil defense in everyone.”
On the other side, government-sponsored documentaries put a positive spin on the bomb.
In 1950’s “You Can Beat the A-Bomb,” “a family survives Armageddon by closing the windows and hiding under the furniture,” Dixon notes. “Survival Under Atomic Attack” (1951) recommended covering windows with cardboard and putting bales of hay outside the barn to protect livestock.
Later films were more realistic. “On the Beach” (1959) envisions the last people on earth awaiting inevitable death from fallout. They take suicide pills, which led Leo Hoegh, civil defense director in the Eisenhower administration, to criticize the film’s “feeling of utter hopelessness.”
Mutually assured destruction was the genesis of two 1964 films that have become classics.
Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” portrays a crazed Air Force general launching an attack on Russia, triggering a doomsday machine that destroys the world.
“Fail-Safe” has the U.S. accidentally blowing up Moscow, and the president, played by Henry Fonda, ordering the destruction of New York City to make amends.
Both films begin with a disclaimer from the U.S. military that an accidental nuclear attack, as depicted in the films, could never happen because of “a rigidly enforced system of safeguards.”
Singing in the (black) rain
The A-bomb also inspired music such as “Great Atomic Power.”
Many early Atomic Age songs were in the genre of “Atomic Bomb Baby” (1948), which used the bomb as a metaphor for sex. But some dealt with the uncertainty of life in the atomic age, like Sammy Salvo’s “A Mushroom Cloud” (1961):
“I cling to my baby and she clings to me
We talk of the future, but what do we see?
“There's a mushroom cloud that hangs in the way
Tomorrow looks black so we live for today.”
Political songster Tom Lehrer’s “We’ll All Go Together When We Go”(1959) was more cynical:
“When the air becomes uranious
We will all go simultaneous
Yes we will all go together when we go.”
Duck and cover
While popular culture was exploiting all things atomic, the government launched its Civil Defense campaign, aimed at teaching Americans how to protect themselves from nuclear attack.
Bert the Turtle, a grinning movie reptile, taught grade school kids how to “duck and cover” by dropping to the floor and hiding under their desks.
Danny Lee Ladely, director of the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater at UNL, recalled being in grade school in Gordon and learning to imitate Bert.
“They’d show you these films of buildings exploding at test sites,” he said. “It was pretty scary. There was no way (hiding under a desk) was going to save you. We kids said, ‘You can bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.’”
The government also encouraged everyone to build fallout shelters stocked with food and water so a family could survive for weeks.
Beatrice “Mike” Seacrest, widow of former Lincoln Journal editor Joe R. Seacrest, recalls the fallout shelter they had built at their south Lincoln home. It was a cylindrical room that extended out from the basement, with bunks hanging from chains and a hand-cranked air intake system that was supposed to filter out radioactive particles.
“We never used it,” she said. “The kids used to play hide and seek in it. We knew some other families that put in something similar, and they were never used.”
Losing faith in the atom
Subsequent decades were influenced by the bomb, but in far different ways.
Vietnam proved that nuclear deterrence was no deterrent to a conventional war. But it fueled a broader peace movement that grew into the “nuclear freeze” effort of the 1970s and 1980s.
The energy crisis helped spawn a burgeoning nuclear power industry. But that bubble was punctured in 1979 by the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and further deflated by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1985.
Hollywood was quick to pick up on the disillusionment with nuclear power, turning the story of a plant in meltdown into a box office smash with 1979’s “The China Syndrome.”
In 1980, “No Nukes,” a concert film brought the musical protest against nuclear weapons and nuclear power to the big screen featuring performances by, among others, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor. They were only the biggest names involved in an ongoing series of anti-nuke shows that even included nuclear freeze benefits held at the Drumstick, Lincoln’s top 1980s rock club.
Two years later, the hilarious documentary “Atomic Cafe” turned actual ’40s and ’50s newsreel footage and Civil Defense training films into a devastating satire of the atomic era.
Apocalyptic themes in movies continued to be popular. But the films had less message and more horror and schlock.
Among the worst examples of the latter were “Invasion by the Atomic Zombies” (1980), “Class of Nuke ’Em High” (1986) and “Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter” (1991). The big budget hit “Independence Day” (1996) also fits in the apocalyptic genre, although it replaces man-made nukes with an attack by space aliens.
There’s even a picture in theaters today with a nuclear theme. The killer mutants in “The Hills Have Eyes,” a remake of Wes Craven’s classic 1977 horror picture, were created by atomic bomb testing.
The 9/11 Effect
Complacency about nuclear issues in the 1990s was shattered after Sept. 11, 2001, which awakened Americans to the fact that we aren’t safe and never have been — and that nuclear terrorism is a very real possibility.
“The global apocalypse of ‘Dr. Strangelove’ now seems simultaneously remote and yet infinitely more tangible,” Dixon writes. “In a world where one person can wipe out an entire metropolis with a nuclear device no larger than a suitcase, everyone is at risk.”
That threat was conveyed in the 2002 film “The Sum of All Fears,” a cinematic adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel about an atomic bomb being set off in Baltimore by neo-Nazis.
Meanwhile, the word “atomic” still hasn’t lost its punch.
The Web offers “atomic” products ranging from toys to jewelry to cosmetics. A Mexican restaurant chain promotes its Atomic Salsa. A Canadian rock band calls itself Atomic Candy.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions, coupled with President Bush’s support for nuclear power, has brought nuclear fears back into public focus. Bush recently declared, “If the Iranians have a nuclear weapon they could blackmail the world.”
A recent trend is the proliferation of Web sites with instructions on how to build fallout shelters. One such site has a map showing Nebraska as a prime target for a nuclear attack.
Tim Rinne of Nebraskans for Peace believes that threat is real because StratCom, based at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, is now responsible for both defensive and offensive strategy, making it a key player in pre-emptive strikes against potential enemies. The proximity of Cooper and Fort Calhoun nuclear power plants to Offutt make them vulnerable to terrorists as well, he said. He’s also concerned about “bunker-buster” nukes that could be used in conventional warfare.
The odds of a nuclear terrorist attack at Offutt — or anywhere else — are slim. And North Korea, Iran and other potential enemies with nukes don’t have delivery systems to get the bombs here, yet.
But that doesn’t mean that the threat isn’t real. And as long as the threat is out there, the bomb will be with us, in politics, diplomacy and popular culture.
L. Kent Wolgamott contributed to this email@example.com.
Reach Bob Reeves at 473-7212 or at
Nebraska in the Atomic AgeSources: “Nebraska in the Atomic Age” mid 1990s exhibit, Museum of Nebraska History (Paul Eisloeffel, curator); plus newspaper files.
* Theodore Jorgensen, University of Nebraska physics professor, worked on the secret Manhattan Project that developed the A-bomb.
* The Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the Hiroshima bomb, was built at Martin bomber plant near Omaha. Pilot Paul Tibbits (later portrayed in the movie “Above and Beyond” by Nebraskan Robert Taylor) trained at Grand Island Army Air Base.
*Strategic Air Command (later StratCom) headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base since 1948. Civil Defense Office labeled Omaha “high priority” for enemy attacks.
* The Nebraska Loyalty Oath Act of 1951 required oath of all public employees; ruled unconstitutional in 1967.
* A steel building designed by Walter Behlen of Columbus survived a 1955 bomb test in Nevada. This led Behlen Manufacturing to develop family and community fallout shelters for sale.
* The Nebraska Department of Agriculture developed “Nebraskits,” compressed wheat biscuits formulated to supply two weeks’ nutrition for people in fallout shelters.
* In 1959 four 4-H girls spent 36 hours in a fallout shelter; believed to be the first civilian survival test in Nebraska.
* In 1963 Roberts Dairy had a two-week survival test for 325 cows and one bull in a concrete shelter on its farm at Elkhorn.
* Underground Emergency Operating Center built in early 1960s at 14th Street and Military Road so state government could function in an attack.
* Omaha Action, month-long vigil in 1959 at Atlas missile silo construction site near Mead, was the second anti-nuke demonstration in the nation at a missile base.
* The Sheldon Nuclear Station near Hallam, world’s first sodium-graphite nuclear power plant, went on line in 1963; after a year it was converted to a coal-fired plant.
* Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant opened in 1973 north of Omaha, and Cooper station near Brownville in 1974; both plants still operate.
* In 1980s, Nebraska became part of the Central Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact. In 1987 the compact voted to put nuclear waste in Nebraska, beginning a fight that ended with the state paying a $141 million settlement.
* Prairie Peace Park, founded in 1994 at the Pleasant Dale interchange on Interstate-80, featured events and exhibits about the arms race and peace. Global Country of World Peace bought the site last fall and plans a $1.5 million Peace Palace.
A sampling of atomic movies
“Invasion USA” (1952) — multiple bomb blasts.
“Above and Beyond” (1952) — romance set against dropping the A-bomb.
“Atomic Kid” (1954) — Mickey Rooney survives a bomb test.
“On the Beach” (1959) — the slow wait for death.
“Panic in the Year Zero!” (1962) — societal breakdown following nuclear war.
“Dr. Strangelove”(1964) — spooky satire of nuclear deterrence.
“Fail-Safe” (1964) — the toughest decision a president ever faced.
“This is Not a Test” (1960) — World War III is about to begin.
“The War Game (1965) — nuclear attack on Great Britain.
“The Bed-Sitting Room” (1969) — surrealistic post-apocalypse.
“A Boy and His Dog” (1975) — life in a post-WWIII world.
“Mad Max” (1979) — revenge in post-apocalypse Australia.
“Atomic Cafe” (1982 ) — devastating satire using actual newsreel and Civil Defense training films.
“The Day After” (1983) — the aftermath of nuclear war in Kansas.
“Black Rain” (1988) — Japanese film about Hiroshima.
“Blast from the Past” (1999)— romance after 35 years in a fallout shelter.
“The Sum of All Fears” (2002) — neo-Nazis set off A-bomb in Baltimore.
Songs are the bomb
Here are some “radioactive hits” from CONELRAD.com and other Web pages:
“Atomic Cocktail” (1945), Slim Gaillard Quartet
“Atom Bomb Baby”(1948), Dude Martin's Round-Up Gang
“Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb” (1950), Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio
“I'm Gonna Dig Myself A Hole” (1951) Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup
“Great Atomic Power (1952),” The Louvin Brothers
“Bert The Turtle: The Duck And Cover Song” (1953), Dick “Two Ton” Baker
“Senator McCarthy Blues” (1954), Hal Block with the Tony Borrello Orchestra
“We'll All Go Together When We Go” (1959), Tom Lehrer
“A Mushroom Cloud” (1961), Sammy Salvo.
“Love That Bomb” (1964), Dr. Strangelove and the Fallouts
“The War Song” (1984), Culture Club
“Manhattan Project” (1985), Rush.
“Ask” (1987), The Smiths
“No Winners” (1988), Paul Hardcastle