Nuclear weapons in popular culture

A nuclear fireball lights up the night in a United States nuclear test.

Since their public debut in August 1945, nuclear weapons and their potential effects have been a recurring motif in popular culture,[1] to the extent that the decades of the Cold War are often referred to as the "atomic age".

Images of nuclear weapons

The now-familiar peace symbol was originally a specifically anti-nuclear weapons icon.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the "atomic age", and the bleak pictures of the bombed-out cities released shortly after the end of World War II became symbols of the power and destruction of the new weapons (it is worth noting that the first pictures released were only from distances, and did not contain any human bodies—such pictures would only be released in later years).[2]

The first pictures released of a nuclear explosion—the blast from the Trinity test—focused on the fireball itself; later pictures would focus primarily on the mushroom cloud that followed. After the United States began a regular program of nuclear testing in the late 1940s, continuing through the 1950s (and matched by the Soviet Union), the mushroom cloud has served as a symbol of the weapons themselves.

Pictures of nuclear weapons themselves (the actual casings) were not made public until 1960, and even those were only mock-ups of the "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" weapons dropped on Japan—not the more powerful weapons developed more recently. Diagrams of the general principles of operation of thermonuclear weapons have been available in very general terms since at least 1969 in at least two encyclopedia articles, and open literature research into inertial confinement fusion has been at least richly suggestive of how the "secondary" and "inter" stages of thermonuclear weapons work .

In general, however, the design of nuclear weapons has been the most closely guarded secret until long after the secrets had been independently developed—or stolen—by all the major powers and a number of lesser ones. It is generally possible to trace US knowledge of foreign progress in nuclear weapons technology by reading the US Department of Energy document "Restricted Data Declassification Decisions - 1946 to the Present" (although some nuclear weapons design data have been reclassified since concern about proliferation of nuclear weapons to "nth countries" increased in the late 1970s).

However, two controversial publications breached this silence in ways that made many in the US and allied nuclear weapons community very anxious.

Former nuclear weapons designer Theodore Taylor described how terrorists could, without using any classified information at all, design a working fission nuclear weapon to journalist John McPhee, who published this information in the best-selling book The Curve of Binding Energy in 1974.[3]

In 1979 the US Department of Energy sued to suppress the publication of an article by Howard Morland in The Progressive magazine detailing design information on thermonuclear and fission nuclear weapons he was able to glean in conversations with officials at several DoE contractor plants active in manufacture of nuclear weapons components. Ray Kidder, a nuclear weapon designer testifying for Morland, identified several open literature sources for the information Morland repeated in his article , while aviation historian Chuck Hansen produced a similar document for US Senator Charles Percy . Morland and The Progressive won the case, and Morland published a book on his journalistic research for the article, the trial, and a technical appendix in which he "corrected" what he felt were false assumptions in his original article about the design of thermonuclear weapons in his book, The Secret That Exploded.[4] The concepts in Morland's book are widely acknowledged in other popular-audience descriptions of the inner workings of thermonuclear weapons, even here in Wikipedia.

During the 1950s, many countries developed large civil-defense programs designed to aid the populace in the event of nuclear warfare. These generally included drills for evacuation to fallout shelters, popularized through popular media such as the US film, Duck and Cover. These drills, with their images of eerily empty streets and the activity of hiding from a nuclear bomb under a schoolroom desk, would later become symbols of the seemingly inescapable and common fate created by such weapons. Many Americans—at least among the wealthier classes—built back-yard fallout shelters, which would provide little protection from a direct hit, but would keep out wind-blown fallout, for a few days or weeks (Switzerland, which never acquired nuclear weapons, although it had the technological sophistication to do so long before Pakistan or North Korea, has built nuclear blast shelters that would protect most of its population from a nuclear war.)[5][6]

After the development of hydrogen bombs in the 1950s, and especially after the massive and widely publicized Castle Bravo test accident by the United States in 1954, which spread nuclear fallout over a large area and resulted in the death of at least one Japanese fisherman, the idea of a "limited" or "survivable" nuclear war became increasingly replaced by a perception that nuclear war meant the potentially instant end of all civilization: in fact, the explicit strategy of the nuclear powers was called Mutual Assured Destruction. Nuclear weapons became synonymous with apocalypse, and as a symbol this resonated through the culture of nations with freedom of the press. Several popular novels—such as Alas, Babylon and On the Beach—portrayed the aftermath of nuclear war. Several science-fiction novels, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz, explored the long-term consequences. Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb satirically portrayed the events and the thinking that could begin a nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons are also one of the main targets of peace organizations. The CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) was one of the main organisations campaigning against the 'Bomb'. Its symbol, a combination of the semaphore symbols for "N" (nuclear) and "D" (disarmament), entered modern popular culture as an icon of peace.

In art

The power and the visual effects of atomic weapons have inspired many artists. Some notable examples include:

In comedy

The mushroom cloud is familiar enough to be treated with humor in a Les Paul advertising campaign.

In fiction, film, and theater

The Day After became known for its realistic representation of nuclear war and groundbreaking special effects for a television movie.

In literature and books

In music

Along with other forms of culture, there have been many songs related to the topic of nuclear weapons and warfare. Many of them have been protest songs or warning songs, while others use the motif as an allusion to great destruction in general.

Some of the more famous nuclear war songs include: "99 Luftballons" (1983) by the German group Nena, which depicts accidental nuclear war begun by an early-warning system identifying a group of balloons with enemy bombers or missiles; and Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" (1963), which premiered shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also made reference to nuclear weapons in his song "With God on Our Side" released as the third track on his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin'."But now we have weapons, of chemical dust...if fire them we're forced to...then fire them we must...". In many cases the allusions to nuclear war are not explicit, however. Iron Maiden's "Brighter than a Thousand Suns", on their album A Matter of Life and Death is a recent example. Steely Dan's "King of the World," on the album Countdown to Ecstasy is an example of upbeat music and very downbeat lyrics which give a very bleak picture of the post-nuclear world.

Heavy metal as a genre has been concerned with nuclear warfare since the days of Black Sabbath. Their classics, "War Pigs" and "Electric Funeral", respectively, are among the first metal songs to describe war, political corruption and atomic holocaust. In the early eighties, Iron Maiden wrote a number of songs which described nuclear war including "2 Minutes to Midnight" (a song about the doomsday clock), and the aforementioned "Brighter than a Thousand Suns" to name a few. The theme continued in heavy metal through the early nineties, especially in the thrash metal subgenre. Metallica wrote many popular songs about nuclear war and political corruption such as "Fight Fire with Fire", "...And Justice For All", and "Blackened". Megadeth's name is taken from the term "megadeath," used to describe one million deaths from a nuclear weapon, and much of their album artworks and songs deal with nuclear war and weapons. Other thrash bands such as Sodom and Anthrax also wrote a number of songs on the topic. The genre even inspired bands like Nuclear Assault and Warbringer to adopt the subject in their band names themselves. This trend also spread to Eastern European metal with popular Russian metal band Aria writing the song "Last Sunset" (Последний).

The emerging punk movement explicitly tackled issues surrounding nuclear warfare. With many punks exhibiting an explicitly pacifist world view there was a need to challenge the conventional wisdom of nuclear deterrence and deployment. Much of this sentiment can be found in British punk bands, especially those emerging from the crust punk subgenre such as Amebix or Antisect and the related anarcho-punk subgenre where bands like Flux of Pink Indians made clear their opposition to nuclear warfare.

Among the many songs alluding to nuclear weapons and nuclear war in the 1980s was the song "Manhattan Project" (1985) by the band Rush, one of the few songs with copious literal references to historical events leading to the first nuclear weapons. Additionally the band has a song about the possibility of nuclear war entitled "Distant Early Warning", the video of which features nuclear-related imagery.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's 1980 song Enola Gay depicts the events of the 1945 deployment of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima from the point of view of the crew of the B29 Superfortress Bomber Enola Gay. Clear references are made to the exact time the bomb detonated ("It's eight fifteen, and that's the time that it's always been"), and questions are asked as to whether the action was necessary. The song also references a supposed radio message in which the crew detail no anomalies as a result of nuclear detonation ("We got your message on the radio - conditions normal and you're coming home"); the American government denied any rumours of radiation sickness associated with the dropping of the bombs.

Alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs released the song "Grey Victory" on their 1985 major label debut album The Wishing Chair, in which the Enola Gay is described as having made a "casual delivery" and dispassionately describes the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, perhaps as a cynical response to the seeming general acceptance and lack of outrage in an age living with the threat of nuclear disaster ("Please build a future, darling, with our bomb/Cherish and love it for the sake of earth-bound kingdom come").

The band Pink Floyd produced a song titled "Two Suns in the Sunset", which indirectly references a nuclear attack. This song was the last of the predominantly war-themed album The Final Cut (1983). In addition, Roger Waters continued his commentary on the threat of nuclear war on his 1987 solo concept album Radio K.A.O.S., where a simulated nuclear strike is depicted as a warning in the song "Four Minutes".

Sting released the song Russians in 1985 directly addressing Cold War tensions and the policy of "Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)". "Russians" was not only a humanized expression of the Cold War conflict, pitting the fate of actual people against political rhetoric, but expressed the deep misunderstanding of political forces in calculating ordinary people's aspirations to live in peace ("I hope the Russians love their children, too").

Satirical artists such as Tom Lehrer and "Weird Al" Yankovic have drawn upon the motif of nuclear war for humor in their songs (as discussed in the 'Comedy' section).

The album cover for the single "Teenagers" by My Chemical Romance is a mushroom cloud. The image also appears in the video for the song.

The glam metal band Warrant released a song off their 1992 album Dog Eat Dog entitled "April 2031" which depicts life after a nuclear holocaust.

Ska punk band RX Bandits make a reference to Nuclear War in their song "Nugget" with the line "Its 3 Years til I'm 24 and i don't wanna die in a Nuclear War"

Irish rock band U2 also named their 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

The song "Wendy Clear" from blink-182's 1999 album Enema of the State mentions a "nuclear device".

Linkin Park's 2010 album A Thousand Suns deals with nuclear warfare and themes of war in general.

In video games

See also


  1. Professor Ferenc M. Szasz and Issei Takechi, "Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945–80", The Historian 69.4 (Winter 2007): 728-752.
  2. Paul S. Boyer. By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon, 1985). Pgs. 5, 8-9, 207
  3. John McPhee, The Curve of Binding Energy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. ISBN 0-374-13373-5
  4. Howard Morland, The Secret That Exploded, Random House, 1981. ISBN 0-394-51297-9
  5. Freeman J. Dyson, Weapons and Hope, HarperCollins, 1984. ISBN 0-06-039031-X
  6. Nigel Calder, Nuclear Nightmares: Investigations into Possible Wars, Penguin (non-classics), 1981. ISBN 0-14-005867-2
  8. Battlestar Galactica, Season One, Episode Three: "Bastille Day"
  9. Battlestar Galactica, Season Three, Episode Ten: "The Eye of Jupiter"
  10. The Superman Files. Matthew K. Manning (trans.). p. 91.
  11. Wallace, Daniel; Dolan, Hannah, ed. (2010). "1940s". DC Comics Year By Year A Visual Chronicle. Dorling Kindersley. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-7566-6742-9. A stunning cover by Wayne Boring heralded a tale that played on the conflicted post-war zeitgeist surrounding the use of nuclear weapons.
  12. Job 38:12.

Further reading

External links

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