Question for Discussion: How
did the United
States' preparations for nuclear war affect
American society in the 1950s?
Reading: "The Fate of
the Earth" (web); William
Faulkner Nobel Prize Speech (web); Survey
Tom Lehrer, "So Long Mom, I'm Off to
Drop the Bomb," "We will All Go Together
When We Go;" Atomic Cafe album: "Jesus
Hits Like an Atom Bomb," "When MacArthur
Drops the Atomic Bomb,"
Preparing for Nuclear War:
U.S. develops its Nuclear
The Effects of Nuclear War
The Struggle to Prevent
1. U.S. government
efforts to reassure Americans about nuclear war.
1. Why does Mark Twain think that human beings
are the "lowest animal"?
2. What do you think this Mark Twain essay
has to do with our discussion about nuclear war?
3. Does Twain's argument about humanity's
baser instincts help us understand the United States and
the Soviet Union preparations for nuclear war
throughout the Cold War?
4. According to William Faulkner, what iis
one of the major obsessions that writers and Americans have in
the late 1940s?
5. Does Faulkner think that writers' fear
of dying in a nuclear war undermine their writing?
6. What does Faulkner mean when he declares:
believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail"?
7. Is Faulkner suggesting that many writiers
and Americans have given up on humanity and are merely waiting for
inevitable nuclear war?
8. Is Faulkner arguing that without the prospect
of a future, writers can't write and Americans can't really
From 1945 to the present, the United
States has relied on the threat of nuclear war to deter its enemies.
During the Cold War, the U.S. threatened the Soviet Union on a number
of occasions with full-scale nuclear war. But this policy created
a real dilemma for American leaders in 1949 when the Russians exploded
their first atomic bomb; and later in 1953, when the Russians exploded
their first hydrogen bomb. Now, American threats to fight and win
nuclear war might lead to nuclear war, in which the U.S. itself
is attacked with nuclear weapons. In the 1950s and 1960s, the government's
response to this dilemma was not to stop threatening to wage nuclear
war but to prepare the American people to survive a nuclear war.
In order to reduce American's fears about nuclear war in the 1950s
and early 1960s, the federal government created a propaganda campaign
to convince Americans that with the proper precautions and planning
they could survive a nuclear war.
The film, "Atomic Cafe,"
was first released in 1983. It is a collection of U.S. government
propaganda films in the 1950s and early 1960s preparing the American
people for nuclear war. The government tried to convince Americans
that nuclear war as a "risk," and risks were just part
of our everyday lives, so we shouldn't spend a lot of time worrying
about it. However, after viewing government civil defense programs
and nuclear war education programs in "Atomic Cafe," it
seems to me that instead of reducing American's fears about nuclear
war, these programs actually increased American's anxieties. You
can see this in the government survey of housewives about whether
they felt they were prepared for a nuclear war in the early 1960s
Despite scaring the American people,
and especially young children, with their campaign to prepare Americans
for nuclear war, the United States government continued its civil
defense programs and propaganda about surviving a nuclear war. American
leaders wanted the Soviet Union to believe that we were ready to
fight and win a nuclear war, and our civil defense programs were
proof of our commitment to do so. In some way, Tom Lehrer's song,
"We will all go together when we go," reflects the American
anxiety about and the absurdity of these preparations for nuclear
war. The most prosperous and democratic society on Earth was basing
its future and security on the threat to wage nuclear war. This
contradiction still haunts the children and adults who lived through
the Cold War and experienced this civil defense propaganda. Whenever
the civil defense warning tests went off on the radios, we stopped
and wondered if this was just a test of "the emergency broadcast
system" and not an "real and actual emergency"--the
announcement of a nuclear war. This was the real legacy of the United
States civil defense programs to prepare Americans for nuclear war.