Atomic Cafe

[15 January 2009]

By George Tiller

War, I’ve known no war
I’ll never know war and if I ever know it
The glimpse will be short
Fireball in the sky
No front line battle cries
Can be heard as the button is pushed by a soul that’s been bought
And the armies remaining will judge without people or courts
And there’s no point pretending that knowing will help us abort
I’ll know no war
  —from I’ve Known No War by Pete Townshend 1982

“…a nuclear war, despite our best pacifistic inclinations, is in the hands of a few men who will simply decide to push a button, and that the ensuing annihilation will be sudden, certain and eternal”
— Parke Puterbaugh in Rolling Stone 1982

It was all a lot funnier in 1982. The Atomic Café, is a brilliant collage of newsreels, public service ads, music and training films that depicted the history of the atomic age from 1945 to the mid ‘50s. It showed the United States government lying through its teeth to a frightened and trusting nation. Of course in 1982 we felt that we were far wiser than we were in the early years of the cold war. Memories of Vietnam and Watergate were still pretty fresh and we felt amused at the clumsiness of the propaganda and the gullibility of the American public that fell for it.

So by the 34th year of mobilization for the war that never happened we were all rather jaded. Half of Americans were born and raised as nuclear hostages by the time The Atomic Café came out. Not only did the average American know that he wouldn’t survive a nuclear war, he was rather amused by those who thought they could. And curiously enough, a strange confidence had grown in the leadership of the Soviet Union. They were widely seen as evil but not any more stupid or crazy than American leaders.

So in this environment, The Atomic Café was a must see hit and was one of the most successful documentaries ever made. Not only was it hilarious, it was scary as hell, a combination that makes for irresistible viewing. Young folks were suddenly asking their parents, “Did this really happen? Really?” The USA Network made Atomic TV which became a staple of their popular late night show Night Flight. There was a collective feeling of optimism that, however bad things got, at least we wouldn’t be duped like that again.

Fast-forward to 2009 and The Atomic Café isn’t in the least bit funny anymore, but it’s a hell of a lot scarier now. For not only had we been duped again but we had been duped with remarkably little effort. At least in the bad old days the government had to break a sweat in order to gull the public. In 1982 we laughed at the past full of uptight squares and credulous yokels. In 2009 we are looking into a mirror and seeing ourselves. It’s a stunning if unintended indictment of our times and of us.

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Atomic Café is that the material that’s shown in the movie isn’t cherry picked for effect, but is a fair sample of what Americans were being told at the time. In fact the amount of propaganda is so vast that Atomic TV was easily able to run clips of it for seven years without even coming close to running out of material. I had to check this in 1982 and I’ve rechecked it again 27 years later and the same unbelievable result holds true.

This is really what Americans saw back then and the clips shown on The Atomic Cafe aren’t extreme examples of paranoia but are representative. Millions of older Americans vividly remember being shown Duck and Cover in elementary school. My wife still has her dog tag that schoolchildren were required to wear (for body identification) in the happy days of the ‘50s. This documentary is an authentic, unadulterated slice of reality.

If I seem to belabor the point that what is shown in The Atomic Café is really what Americans saw, it is because what they were seeing strains belief. This is really where we were. We really told kids that an atomic attack could happen at any time and we really drilled them in duck and cover. Catholic priests were really telling the public that it was moral to kill somebody who’s trying to break into your fallout shelter. Troops really were marched through the aftermath of an atomic test. We really used to test the damn things in Nevada (above ground!).

The Atomic Café grips the viewer and doesn’t let him go. This is an amazing work that shocks more now than when it was first released. One example of this is the newsreel footage of a young Congressman, Lloyd Bentsen, demanding nuclear attacks on North Korea and China during the Korean War. He later became a Senator and Dukakis’ running mate in 1988.

I would like to digress in order to apologize to Dan Quayle, George H. Bush’s remarkably inept Vice President and Lloyd Bentsen’s hapless foe in the 1988 debates. Quayle said a lot of stupid things in his public life. But he never said anything approaching the reckless, irresponsible and murderous stupidity of what Llyod Bentsen says in The Atomic Café. If we had YouTube back in the ‘80s, Bentsen would have been dead meat.

The Atomic Café also fascinates because an astute viewer can detect the amazing amount of opportunism and some of the reactions to the atomic age that still haunts us today. This was when anti-intellectualism really came to the fore in political life. It’s also the period when “In God We Trust” started to become our national motto as opposed to “E Plurbis Unum” (out of many, one), which was the old one. There’s a scene in which an actor links the necessity of atomic weaponry to the new shopping center that’s just opened. It’s an incredible performance.

The Atomic Café is a truly important work that should be required viewing in Civics classes. The DVD comes with an extraordinary collection of eight government propaganda films that are enlightening to watch. The House in the Middle is an exhortation to good housekeeping as a means to survive nuclear attack and some are even more ridiculous. There are also some more straightforward depictions of atomic tests and weapons development. The cumulative effect of it all produces a sense of wonder that we actually survived such lethal silliness.

Fortunately we not only survived but also had a happy ending. There are a lot less missiles that they used to be, most are pointed at the ocean and the alert crews aren’t on alert any more. Communism went its way and now millions of Russians and Americans travel freely in each other’s countries. Americans and Russians get drunk together and roll on the floor with laughter watching Dr. Strangelove. We have met the enemy and they are pretty cool (the women are hot!), our horror has become relief and our fears an old joke. While current relations aren’t so good they are infinitely better than what they were. The world may end, but not the way we feared.

But in spite of this, The Atomic Café is more relevant now than it was in 1982. Because this documentary is not only about atomic weapons but also what a frightened America will do and what it will believe. It’s about the manipulation of a people. It’s about us, here and now. It’s a disturbing look in the mirror. We all need to take a look.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/68867-atomic-cafe/