27 May 2012

American Media Culture in the Atomic Age

After nearly four of decades of Cold War conflict, accompanied by apathy and acceptance of the general population, the ‘no-nukes’ movement finally arose in the early 1980s to protest the ongoing threat of nuclear conflagration. Or so goes the pious orthodoxy that Margot A. Henriksen seeks to problematize in Dr Strangelove's America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age (University of California Press, 1997), a cultural history of the Cold War years in America. On the contrary, she postulates that a long-standing resistance to nuclear weapons and warfare is evident in a ‘culture of dissent’ born with the first blast of the atomic bomb during World War II, and that this wide-ranging dissent is found in all walks of society, but primarily in works of film, art, music, television and literature during the period from the mid-1940s to the late 1970s, preceding the no-nukes movement. The American culture of dissent challenged ‘the dominant culture of consensus and its vision of a new order of atomic security, defense, and prosperity.’ Henriksen’s goal in pursuing this legacy is to highlight ‘the changed forms of cultural expression which challenged the serenity and order of the atomic consensus with a new cultural chaos that mirrored the disruption of matter achieved in the technology of the atomic bomb.’ Her work seems primarily geared toward refuting the consensus historians who have claimed that Americans were generally apathetic or disinterested in the threat posed by the atomic bomb until president Ronald Reagan re-invigorated the Cold War in the early 1980s.

Henriksen shows that after physicists succeeded in splitting the atom, the resulting use of their discovery to destroy two Japanese cities caused a rift among the scientists that was mirrored in American culture. Some of the physicists involved in developing the bomb later dissented against their own discovery, most notably the head scientist of the Manhattan Project, Robert J. Oppenheimer, who challenged the Truman and Eisenhower policies of nuclear diplomacy and who was eventually stripped of his security clearance in the anti-Communist climate of the 1950s. As revealing as this may be of dissent to the bomb, Henriksen gives short shrift to the millenarian proclamations of other scientists who also worked on the bomb, some of whom saw the bomb as twisted form of salvation to bring a lasting peace on earth. More useful is Henriksen’s treatment of the culture of dissent in its popular and media induced forms. In fact, much of the book consists of synopses of films and novels that demonstrate to one degree or another the culture of dissent. So while her work on the scientific community is a bit facile or short sighted, the real value of the book is in her understanding and explication of the multiple ways, subtle and distinct, that terror and ambiguity toward the atomic bomb infused American culture. In this she has succeeded in refuting her colleagues, and her work also gives pause for reflection on the ways in which the bomb gave rise to a half century of troubled and divided society and culture in America.

Soon after World War II, several spy drama films highlighted an aspect of the Cold War that historians have only recently begun to take seriously. Movies like The Stranger or Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious develop the theme of post-war Nazi intrigue in America, foreshadowing later revelations that American (and Soviet) officials gave immunity to Nazi scientists and intelligence experts in exchange for their contributions to the nuclear arms race and Cold War intelligence apparatus. The case of Klaus Barbie still embarrasses American officialdom, and Henrikson shows that cultural dissent to the issue, in the form of spy drama films, arose almost immediately within the post-war film industry.

During the 1950s, as American officialdom began to escalate the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a genre of science fiction movies reflected a growing sense of anxiety and terror toward the bomb by way of films about flying saucers and giant or mutated monsters. Movies like Them! and The Thing from Another World focused on the terrors of invaders from space and creatures born of the bomb who wreak havoc and destruction on humanity. Similarly, and more ironically, the Japanese film industry adopted this genre to offer their own take, producing in 1954 Gojira (aka ‘Godzilla’) about a giant monster that tramples Tokyo into rubble, much like the American bombs did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki a decade earlier.

Henriksen finds in these 1950s science fiction films two tendencies of the Cold War era: fear of the bomb and anxieties about the McCarthy era hunt for ‘un-American’ activities, the latter targeting several filmmakers and writers. Henriksen notes, ‘This merging of antiatomic and anticommunist fears – particularly in the form of attack or invasion from outside forces, often tainted with radiation – became a relatively standard device in cold war science fiction films, and the representation of anticommunist anxieties helped to make the identical representation of atomic anxieties more acceptable to scrutinizing studios and law-and-order committees.’ She also finds more deeply seated cultural feelings toward unleashing the anti-human and destructive power of the bomb. For example, she outlines the contradictions found in many science fiction films that portray mutant creatures as the result of nuclear testing, who are then destroyed by the same technologies that created them. The bomb is both the destroyer and redeemer. In such films, Henriksen suggests that ‘their sensibility to guilt and remorse and their recognition of the crime against nature and man that is the essence of atomic and hydrogen bombs coalesce into an effective indictment of the atomic base of American power.’

These more or less direct depictions of nuclear war and its results, no matter how fantasized or stylized, are not the only aspect of the culture of dissent that Henriksen reviews. In fact, she locates relevant contradictions and even psychoses in a variety of films and novels of the 1950s, ranging from the senseless murders of In Cold Blood to the youthful rebellion of Rebel Without a Cause.

Henriksen links the growing fascination with violence and chaos to the moral dilemma of the Cold War, that the key to peace lies in promulgating weapons of mass destruction on a global scale. This is best outlined in the second section of the book, about ‘the emergence of a schizoid America in the age of anxiety.’ One of the most engaging chapters in this section is on civil defense. During the late 1950s, the US government sponsored a series of films and other public relations ploys to convince Americans that they ought to build and learn to live in bomb shelters. This reflected a growing acceptance within the Eisenhower administration and officialdom in general that the only key to survival in the world of the bomb would be to shelter the population in the rapidly growing suburban sprawl around most large cities. Such a policy considered cities as lost causes, since they would be the first targets of Soviet nuclear strikes. It also addresses the problem of masses of people fleeing from destroyed cities into the outlying suburban areas, shining new light on the promotion and growth of American suburbia. The bomb shelter craze led to all sorts of depraved and schizoid behavior, including, for example, a 'civil defense' film that features a proclamation by a priest that it was acceptable for Americans to kill each other in defense of their private shelters. But the culture of dissent responded to such lunacy in a variety of ways, including a series of articles in periodicals like The Nation, and as reflected in the plots of television shows like The Twilight Zone, which directly or indirectly criticized the cruel ironies and moral bankruptcy of these official policies.

The culture of dissent also responded to the increasingly growing and noticeable psychological and emotional problems of Americans, giving rise to widespread practices like the use of medication to ease the tension of living in terror of the bomb. As Henriksen suggests, ‘The surface complacence of the Eisenhower years, perhaps in part artificially induced by the security network that promoted conformity, may also have been medicinally aided by the billions of tranquilizers ingested by Americans in the postwar era. Adding to the complexity and ambiguity of this era’s surface calm was this new reality: mental health had become the number one medical concern of the nation.’ This problematizes the narrative of conservative historians who write off the 1960s as a time of social stupor induced by illicit drug use among the American youth; in the 1950s, the drug-induced stupor was prescribed by doctors. Henrikson continues: ‘While the mainstream American culture of consensus and Eisenhower’s politics of tranquility continued to uphold the image of a secure and contented American society, the culture of dissent shifted its attention to this coexistent underground America of anxiety, where tranquility and satisfaction dissolved into tension and conflict.’ The growing atmosphere of repressed tension and conflict in the 1950s gives birth to the tumultuous 1960s, with its mass youth rebellion, the movement for Black liberation and the murderous American adventure in Vietnam.

Henriksen derived her title from an early 1960s film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, by Stanley Kubrick, who was a key figure in the culture of dissent. The strange love of Kubrick’s apocalyptic film is love of the bomb above all else. Peopled with sick technocrats, venal politicians and insane war mongers, the startling imagery of the film brought to the screen many of the tensions and conflicts that had been seething under the seeming calm surface as the culture of dissent gained momentum in the 1950s. Kubrick’s dark and macabre comedy ends with impending nuclear holocaust, providing an irreverent warning to those who flirt with the bomb.

The culture of dissent continued to question all that was sacred in the American culture of consent, culminating in questions about the existence of God. By the late 1960s, even mainstream publications like Time magazine asked, ‘Is God Dead?’ Many Americans saw the gross contradictions of nuclear diplomacy, the Vietnam war and continued repression of Black liberation as signs of a total moral breakdown in mainstream American society, leading to the growing infusion of atheism into the culture of dissent.

At the same time, public intellectuals like Lewis Mumford urged humanity to rediscover moral values and abandon scientific claims to objectivity ‘with its traditional lack of concern for the social consequences of its discoveries.’ While atheism was becoming pervasive among some segments of the culture of dissent, other people sought refuge in Eastern religions and philosophies, still rejecting the American culture of consensus but from within a framework informed by varieties of faith and spirituality. The opposition between faith and atheism points to another of the many contradictions in the postwar American society, and forms a key generative tension in the culture of dissent. As Henriksen develops this aspect of her thesis, she begins to tie together some of the previous elements of her argument into what amounts to a fresh perspective on the 1960s. She locates some of the tensions born of the bomb in the civil rights movement, with its opposition between non-violence (as embodied by Martin Luther King) and self-defense (which Malcolm X advocated), or in the hippie movement with its opposition between passive ‘flower power’ and the Weather Underground’s calls for violent revolution, or the popular sentiment to ‘make love not war.’ Ultimately, as Henriksen shows, the Watergate scandal was a major turning point in American history, in that the ‘widespread alienation from American authority represented by Nixon reflected the consummation of the long-term cultural suspicions about the American atomic age system of power and its figures of authority. The Watergate scandal gave true credibility to the cynicism and disdain for corrupt and immoral authority which had developed in the awakened and rebellious culture of the 1960s and early 1970s.’

Henriksen concludes this important and wide ranging work by suggesting a resolution of the multifarious tensions manifested in the culture of dissent: ‘The culture of dissent, whether with a violent or peaceful counterforce of protest, had kept the tension in American culture and society high and had ultimately promoted the alternative peaceful and humanist values that helped to control the destructive values of the system.’ An odd ending, perhaps, for an enlightening book, since she finds a benefit in the decades of hysteria, death and destruction that become more apparent once one places her story in a global context. This oddly anti-climatic conclusion points to perhaps a key shortcoming of the work, which arises from her adherence to a particular methodological orthodoxy of American scholarship. Henriksen, an American historian, infuses her work with the insights of cultural studies – a welcome addition to a discipline that all but ignores culture – but in so doing she concedes almost completely to the rigid and limiting periodization and localization that's become faddish among many historians. While the book, as a result, lacks breadth, it is nevertheless a worthwhile synthesis that provides a much needed insight into the ways in which the atomic age created its own uniquely tragic cultural history for Americans.

[This essay is extracted from Books For Critical Consciousness: Forty Reviews by J. Progler (Penang: Citizens International, 2010), pp. 81-87. Dr Strangelove's America is available with preview reading on Google Books.]

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