Excerpted from Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music. Chapter 2. Are you Ready for the Great Atomic Power? I Heard the News Today, Oh God (PopMatters / Soft Skull, March 2009)
Fred Kirby couldn’t sleep the night of 7 August 1945. News of the atomic bomb’s destruction of Hiroshima had broken that day, and the North Carolina songwriter was having an uncharacteristically dark night of the soul. Kirby was suffering from a shared sense of dread that was sweeping the country and the world as the atomic age had dawned in a blinding light over the Land of the Rising Sun. Rousing himself from bed, he sat down and began composing the first song dedicated to this new and awesome weapon, “Atomic Power”. Kirby’s song went through several drafts before its recording and release, allowing him to add reference to Hiroshima’s atomic sister city, Nagasaki, but from its inception, it was a somber song of warning and anxiety.
Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music
David Janssen, Edward Whitelock
“Atomic Power” was the most successful of what country music scholar Charles K.Wolfe has dubbed a minigenre of atomic country songs that sprang into vogue during the five years following the inauguration of the atom age. All told, seven versions of the song emerged within two years of the release of Kirby’s original in 1946, though the most successful recording was the version by North Georgia’s Buchanan Brothers, which spent a month on the “Most Played Jukebox Folk Songs” chart in 1946. The song initiated two of the dominant themes that would appear in many songs written about the atomic bomb: piety and alarm. For Kirby was quick to attribute this new power not to man but to God (“Atomic power ... was given by the mighty hand of God”) while sounding a cautious, warning note as well (“Be careful, my dear brother, don’t take away the joy / But use it for the good of man and never to destroy”).
Kirby’s song struck a resonant chord in listeners, especially throughout America’s Bible Belt, and he performed the song thousands of times during his long career as a songwriter, performer, and, later, popular children’s television show host. The continued success of the song inspired Kirby to return to the theme five years later, when he recorded his second atomic country classic, “When That Hell Bomb Falls”. Indeed, the commercial success of the song Kirby wrote that first night of the atomic age was not surpassed by an atomic-themed song until the 1965 release of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”.
The news of the atomic bomb’s release upon the world and the resultant end of World War II evoked contradictory responses in the hearts and minds of Americans, from elation to despair, oftentimes simultaneously. The British writer Paul Fussell captured the sentiment of countless soldiers in his later essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” (1988), recalling the elation he felt upon hearing the news that he and hundreds of thousands of others would not be fighting a land battle for the conquest of mainland Japan as had been anticipated. And his sentiments were doubtlessly shared by the families of American GIs who wanted, more than anything, an end to the sacrifice and the safe return of their (mostly) sons after four years of hellish fighting and heavy casualties. But, unlike the end of World War I, the joy at this war’s end was seriously tempered by dread.
As Paul Boyer has demonstrated, the means to that end was a disconcerting one: Citing a report from the Rockefeller Center, he notes that “Thanks to the atomic bomb ... the nation’s mood at the moment of victory was bleaker than in December 1941 when much of the Pacific Fleet had lain in ruins at Pearl Harbor.”News of the atomic bomb caused, in the words of Anne O’Hare McCormick in an 8 August New York Times commentary, “an explosion in men’s minds as shattering as the obliteration of Hiroshima.” For many Americans and citizens of the world, news of the atomic bomb seemed to have snatched despair from the jaws of victory, as evidenced by Edward R. Murrow’s comments on his 12 August CBS radio broadcast:“Seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear, with such a realization that the future is obscure and that survival is not assured.”
Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, declared,“Atomic war will be the most horrible we have known, and both the victor and the vanquished will lose it,” in his December 1945 pamphlet, The Atomic Bomb Versus Civilization. Being a lifelong education reformer, Hutchins proposed one potential solution to what appeared an inevitable slide into global nuclear war and mass extinction: “The only hope,” he claimed, “is to increase the rate of moral progress tremendously.”Norman Cousins shared Hutchins’ concern, and, in his 1945 book Modern Man Is Obsolete, contended that “man has leapt forward centuries in technological prowess, but still lags behind in moral reasoning and wisdom.” Further, he noted that “it should not be necessary to prove that on August 6, 1945, a new age was born ... Nor should it be necessary to prove the saturating effect of the new age, permeating every aspect of man’s activities, from machines to morals, from physics to philosophy, from politics to poetry.”
The “saturating effect” of which Cousins speaks is the subject of this chapter, particularly as regards the first two decades following what Arthur Koestler later dubbed “the new Year Zero.” For the atomic bomb infiltrated every aspect of American life and culture in the first 20 years after its revelation to a shocked world. And like the curious mix of panic and elation that greeted the irradiated announcement of the end of World War II, as Americans learned to live with the bomb, their responses to its presence and promise demonstrated a contradictory mix of paranoia and optimism. Hutchins worked his own sense of dread into one of the more farreaching idealistic programs of the mid-century, serving as the general editor of Encyclopædia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World series, a subscription program in 54 volumes that brought the major works of 72 of the foundational writers in the Western cultural tradition, from Homer to Freud, into more than 50,000 American homes within ten years of its 1952 release.
As demonstrated by “The Great Conversation”, the essay he wrote for the inaugural volume of the series, the concerns and conclusions he had expressed in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb were among the guiding principles in this, the most expansive self-improvement project ever undertaken by a publisher in America. “We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking,” he wrote, and, “We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation.” Hutchins then addressed the fact that “education is concerned with the future” while acknowledging the great sense of doubt that many felt for any kind of future in the atomic era. Future wars are inevitable, he noted, but now the destructive power of our weapons could wipe out the whole of the human race, and what good would self-education and enlightenment be then? Acknowledging that a culture-wide immersion in the Great Books would not guarantee world peace, he contended, nonetheless, that it offered at least a chance, since America is still a young country and an even younger world power: “A country that is powerful, inexperienced, and uneducated can be a great danger to world peace.” Self-improvement through education could be the difference between perpetuation of the species or extinction. Of course, there’s no telling how many of those who bought the series actually read them, as opposed to the number of people who used them as a decorative accent in their living rooms, complete with matching drapes. But Hutchins was sincere in his attempt to save the world through higher thinking.
Not every immediate response to the bomb took the high road. Only weeks after the first atomic blast, bars and taverns in several American cities began offering “Atomic Cocktails”, a different kind of high road. None caught on for very long, though the brief fad did inspire another of the earliest of atomic bomb songs, Slim Gaillard’s jazzy “Atomic Cocktail”. That song’s silly, repeated refrain of “BOOM! Atomic Cocktail!”was intended, one assumes, to replicate the feeling of actually downing the drink. That the song was released on the newly-founded Atomic, Inc. label only added to the absurdity. Bill Geerhart and Ken Sitz note that the song’s lyrics reflect the simultaneous notion of promise and danger that the atom wrought in the public imagination. When Gaillard sings “You push a button, turn a dial / Your work is done for miles and miles,” the sentiment is reflective of “the popular notion of the day that the Bomb had ushered in a carefree new era of easier living—not to mention killing—through science.”
Such walleyed optimism in the power of science is evident in a 1947 Collier’s magazine article on the promise of atomic power in medicine; the article is accompanied by a photo of a smiling man emerging from a mushroom cloud, the wheelchair to which he had been previously confined abandoned, though glowing oddly, in the background. It’s as if the atom has suddenly seized the pulpit from a Pentecostal healer at a prayer meeting: “The power of Fission compels you; rise!” Of course, Americans had to be encouraged to think the best of this new invention; to let them think otherwise could lead them, like so many of William Miller’s misguided followers, to stop working towards the future since there wasn’t going to be one, anyway.
Geerhart and Sitz contend that “the very word ‘atomic’ ... insinuated itself into every aspect of American life.” Opportunistic entrepreneurs in every American city appended the word atomic to their products and services, from dry cleaning to shoes, from lawn care to underwear (one wonders about the wisdom of applying the adjective to that particular business when considering the inevitable flatulence jokes). In Hollywood, an obscure starlet named Linda Christians was dubbed “The Anatomic Bomb” and returned to obscurity almost as quickly as the initial flash of the weapon for which she was named, but not before receiving a 1945 Life magazine photo spread, complete with her lounging corpse-like at poolside in a two-piece bathing suit that had yet to be christened “the bikini” after the Bikini Atoll atomic test sessions of the following year.
In 1947, kids could send a box top and 15 cents to Kix Cereal Headquarters and receive their very own “atomic bomb ring”, which promised an opportunity to “See genuine atoms split to smithereens!” And the lure of sudden riches through uranium mining set prospectors off on a miniature, irradiated version of the 19th century gold rush. The invention of the Geiger counter inspired one of the weirdest love songs in the history of Hollywood musicals (and that’s saying a lot), “Tic,Tic,Tic”, sung by star Doris Day in My Dream Is Yours, wherein she equates the quickening beating of her heart to the telltale ticking of the new radiation-measuring device: “You give me a radioactive kick!” she sings to her love interest. Scott C. Zeman and Michael A. Amundson have noted that such inevitable and immediate trivial responses to the atom bomb during this early phase of the atomic age “[disassociated] the devastating potential of nuclear warfare from the realities of everyday life.” Treating the bomb as a curious novelty served to minimize its power to provoke anxiety.
Linda ‘The Anatomic Bomb’ Christians
The sometimes absurd influence of the atomic bomb on American movies certainly fulfilled that purpose, among others, and has been the subject of numerous books already, such as Jerome Shapiro’s Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film and Kim Newman’s Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema. As the most popular American public entertainment form, it was inevitable that films would be irradiated quickly with atomic influence, and in keeping with the average citizen’s murky understanding and confused feelings about atomic energy and nuclear armaments at the time, the films offered an ambivalent mix of optimistic pride in harnessing the atom with terrifying paranoia of atomic power run amok. In the former category, The Beginning or the End (1947) tells the story of the Manhattan Project from a perspective informed of the weapon’s danger but impressed as well by the American ingenuity that created it. Similarly, Above and Beyond (1952) fictionalizes the life of Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets, focusing on his bravery in service to his country and the sacrifices he made in his own personal life, as he had to hide the details of his mission from his young and loving wife. Even Atomic Kid (1954), a slapstick, glow-in-the-dark comedy starring Mickey Rooney as a rube who stumbles into an atomic testing site, served to mollify fears of a public just learning of the effects of radiation poisoning.
But nuclear paranoia probably tipped the scales when it came to Hollywood’s portrayal of the mysteries of the atom. Five (1951) offers the final five survivors of a nuclear war converging in a single house to plan for the future, though three die, leaving only an “Adam and Eve” with the hopes of saving the human race. In a similar vein, Invasion, U.S.A. (1952) dramatized forcefully that it can happen here, and it won’t be pretty. Abandoning any pretense of realism, the ants exposed to a radiation test in the Nevada desert in Them! (1954) grow to the size of Winnebagos and wreak havoc. So, too, in The Amazing Colossal Man (1957):When a soldier is accidentally exposed to radiation during an atomic test, he grows to grotesque, gigantic proportions and goes on a rampage in downtown Las Vegas. All of these films, and dozens more in the 20-year period from 1945 to 1965, spoke directly to public anxieties regarding the atom bomb, sometimes quelling those fears, often stoking them.
Want to continue reading what Janssen and Whitelock say about fear, fashion, and more on the obscene and dangerous musical form known as rock ‘n’ roll? See Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music.