Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

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 of Texas
Women (web)

Video: Atomic Cafe

Music: 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,"

Daily Class Web Links

Preparing for Nuclear War: Civil Defense

U.S. develops its Nuclear Arsenal

The Effects of Nuclear War

The Struggle to Prevent Nuclear War

Daily Class Outline

1. U.S. government efforts to reassure Americans about nuclear war.

Daily Class Questions

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: "I
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

Daily Class Notes

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.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 28 Oct. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/cafe.htm
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