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The Atomic Fifties

During July 1946, “Operation Crossroads” – a series of atmospheric nuclear tests in the central Pacific – blew the tiny island of Bikini - by all firsthand accounts - to hell.

Just days after, French engineer and fashion designer Louis Réard unveiled his modern two-piece swimsuit – likewise an exciting, explosive, and potentially dangerous development – the name stuck.

So, stop worrying, just as Americans in the 1950s did, and learn how to love the atomic bomb! I’m Joel Rhodes “Telling History.”

Since the end of World War II, the omnipresence of the atomic bomb’s towering purple, orange, and gray mushroom cloud – permeated the nation’s consciousness. How we integrated and synthesized deeply ambivalent, often dichotomous, emotions about the bomb’s extraordinary power shaped early Cold War culture. Intense pride and relief over the weapon that ended the war and now shielded the republic mixed uneasily with equally intense fear of a Frankenstein monster capable of destroying its creator.

While the United States researched, developed, and built bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons in an arms race with the Soviet Union governed by the logic of mutual assured destruction, 1950s Americans sought to live with the bomb by optimistically integrating the technology into their postwar expectations about health, happiness, and prosperity, rather than dwell on our demise. Scientists envisioned a future “nuclear utopia” with fantastic predictions of nearly unlimited uses for atomic energy. Compact household reactors to heat, cool, and light the home complimented with nuclear appliances. Atomic cars. Artificial suns mounted on towers to illuminate the night. Highways constructed – not with asphalt – but fused solid rock. Energized soil for maximum -albeit mutated – farming yields. A climate-controlled continent: air-conditioning entire sunbelt cities while heating northern climes. Cancer-curing isotopes.

The bomb’s light illuminated popular culture as advertising, film, and music tried to domesticate Oppenheimer’s invention. The same complex – and fascinating – psychological link between atomic power and female sexuality reflected in the bikini swimsuit, inspired Hollywood’s use of the term “bombshell” to promote young starlets, or the “Atom Bomb Dancers” featured in a California burlesque show. There was even a Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contest.

Toy makers wowed baby boomers with miniature atomic energy labs, a Uranium prospecting game complete with miniature Geiger counter, or Kix cereal’s Atomic “Bomb” Ring that – for just fifteen cents and a box top – split atoms to smithereens right on your finger.

An entire genre of science fiction films with atomic themes – many in 3-D – terrified movie-goers with doomsday giants, monsters, and sundry mutants unleashed on humanity by atomic energy gone horribly wrong. Them! – with Gunsmoke’s Marshall Matt Dylan, himself, James Arness battling humungous ants – The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Atomic Kid, It Came From Beneath The Sea, Creature With The Atom Brain, Tarantula, and Attack of the Crab Monsters.

Civil Defense preparedness programs and backyard bomb shelters were also meant to calm our anxiety and fear. But in truth, we never stopped worrying about the bomb. If anything, Americans at mid-century grew numb to the prospects of atomic annihilation, shouldering on with silent denial and resignation. You see, far from a love affair, our complicated relationship with the A-bomb only reinforced Cold War hostility toward the Soviets, fueled the anticommunist hysteria of McCarthyism, and alienated a generation of youth.

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.