The Atomic Age in the United States

Dylan Bedford
January 25, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: "Survival Under Atomic Attack" was released as both a booklet and a film. The in-depth descriptions of the effects of an atomic bomb were meant to educate and reassure, but they are also terrifying. [4] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The first nuclear bomb, a plutonium implosion fission device with a yield of twenty kilotons and nicknamed "the Gadget," was detonated on July 16, 1945, on the Trinity test site at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. [1] The United States then employed similar nuclear weapons in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the very next month. These new weapons displayed the incredible power of nuclear energy. The era that followed in the United States was one of apprehension, in the face of these new powers and the coming of the Cold War, but simultaneously one of optimism, in the post-war boom and the great promise of nuclear energy. This divide was perhaps the defining feature of the Atomic Age: as Time's 1945 article described it, "With the controlled splitting of the atom, humanity, already profoundly perplexed and disunified, was brought inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split." [2] Although the advent of nuclear power had an immense impact on culture and technology worldwide, this article will focus particularly on the effect of nuclear power in the United States through the 1950s.

Fear: Nuclear Threat and Fallout Shelters

After World War II, the United States had discovered a newfound power in the form of the atom bomb, but they were soon not alone in possession of this power. With the successful Soviet test of a nuclear weapon in 1949, a hydrogen bomb in 1953, in conjunction with the Sputnik launch in 1957, the threat of a nuclear war with Russia became very real. [3] A great deal of content was produced to educate the U.S. population about what to do in the case of a nuclear attack. The U.S. Office of Civil Defense released the booklet "Survival Under Atomic Attack" in 1951 (see Fig. 1) which instructed citizens to keep first aid, food, and water nearby, and to determine what part of their homes would make the best shelter. This booklet reassures the reader, saying, "your chances of living through an atomic attack are much better than you may have thought", but the extensive descriptions of flash burns and radiation poisoning are also difficult to ignore. [4] Several plans for extensive fallout shelter projects were proposed in the early 1950s but were scrapped for being too expensive. In fact many homeowners also shied away from building their own shelters due to the cost, even in the face of this nuclear threat. [3]

Optimism: Scientific Advancement and Design

The United States saw a simultaneous period of optimism, which was caused by many factors including the celebration of victory, a postwar economic boom, and the promise of a nuclear revolution in technology. On August 14 (dubbed "Victory over Japan Day,") much of the immediate reaction in America was mixed, but contained celebration as well as gloom. [5] The United States was in a position of victory, which was also true of its material wealth. President Truman's "Fair Deal" aimed to replace the New Deal and to secure this position of strength and security. [6] This power and strength, perhaps in part symbolized by the power of the atomic bomb, also promised a powerful future for nuclear science. Produced by Disney, "Our Friend the Atom" captures this spirit of optimism, pointing out the potential of nuclear science as a power source for advances in energy, medicine, and agriculture, among other uses. [7] The Ford company even proposed a design for a nuclear-powered car, the Ford Nucleon, with a sleek design and futuristic tailfins. [8] The first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, was commissioned in 1954 and was a great success; The U.S. Air Force also fitted a Convair B-36 "Peacemaker" bomber with a nuclear reactor (not to power it, but to test the viability of transporting a nuclear reactor on an airplane) and had several successful test flights. [9] The atomic model became a logo in the postwar years, and it also influenced art, inspiring the ideas of protean vital forms, organic, changing, and imbued with the life-force of the atom. [10]


In "Our Friend the Atom," the power of atomic energy is portrayed as a capricious genie with immense power, which may be used for good or for evil. [7] After World War II, the United States had seen what this power was capable of, and the reaction was split, just as the atom had been. The United States experienced fear, both at the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also at the threat of a future attack. However, at the same time the atom seemed to promise immense power, and such prosperity was reassuring and irresistible. As such, the "Atomic Age" was marked by this continuous dual nature.

© Dylan Bedford. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. Ukropina, "The Trinity Test" Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.

[2] J. Agee, "The Peace: The Bomb," Time, 20 Aug 45.

[3] K. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture (New York University Press, 2004), pp. 4, 19, 24

[4] "Survival Under Atomic Attack," U.S. National Security Resources Board, NSRB Doc. 130, 1950.

[5] TIME 1945: The Year That Changed the World (Time Inc. Books, 2016).

[6] M. Henriksen, Dr. Strangelove's America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age (University of California Press, 1997).

[7] H. Haber, The Walt Disney Story of Our Friend the ATOM (Simon and Schuster, 1957).

[8] N. Morris, From Fail to Win! Learning from Bad Ideas: Transportation (Raintree, 2010).

[1] B. Klopfer, "Nuclear Vehicles" Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.

[10] B. K. Rapaport, Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960 (Abrams Books, 2001).