Nuclear Missile | Adobe Stock 174996998
Nuclear Missile | Adobe Stock 174996998

The Bunkered Decades: Digging into the Atom Bomb’s Effect on Cold War America

When Americans realized the atom bomb their country created could be turned on them, arts and society alike bunkered down into nightmares of nuclear destruction. 

Cold War Space and Culture in the 1960s and 1980s: The Bunkered Decades
David L. Pike
Oxford University Press
December 2021

Scholar David L. Pike has had an eclectic career, writing about such diverse topics as the modernist obsession with imagery from ancient and medieval underworlds (Passage through Hell: Modernist Descents, Medieval Underworlds, 1997), underground spaces such as sewers and railways (Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 2005) and contemporary Canadian cinema (Canadian Cinema Since the 1980s: At the Heart of the World, 2012). One recurring thread in his work has been a fascination with underground spaces of all kinds, and his latest book, Cold War Space and Culture in the 1960s and 1980: The Bunkered Decades, is no exception, focusing specifically on the underground bunkers and fallout shelters of the cold war.   

Another recent book on a closely related topic, Bunker: Building for the End Times (2020) by experimental geographer Bradley Garrett, is concerned with the physical space of bunkers themselves, and the “doomsday preppers” whose various fringe theories feed their need to bunker themselves. In contrast, Pike’s comparative study suggests that the bunker is not a fringe concept, it is something that has entered our collective subconscious and mutated to the point where it is all around us, and yet not always instantly recognizable. 

Cold War and Space Culture returns us to a time when world governments spent excessively on nuclear arms and fortifying shelters. Meanwhile, ordinary Americans were encouraged to build shelters in their own backyards and basements and to prepare for a potential disaster. Popular culture of all kinds expressed what Pike calls “the bunker fantasy”, expressions of the dreams and nightmares of nuclear destruction. As he explains:

As idea, as image, and as physical space, the bunker dominated Cold War culture; since 1989 it has continued to dominate the way we respond to and process everything we inherited from that war, and the ways we think about shelter, security, boundaries, and difference. But we seldom attend to the meanings mobilized by these ideas, images, and spaces, to our profound ambivalence towards them, or to the ways they contain our deepest fears entangled with our strongest desires.

– David L. Pike

For Pike, this obsession with bunkers, as fortresses, personal spaces, and more, has wide-reaching but not always easy to notice resonances, hence his eclectic, interdisciplinary approach. The bunker fantasy is at least twofold: it’s not only a yearning for security that verges on a nostalgic desire to return to a womb-like state but also a desire that the country should become a fortress, fortified against outsiders. Readers may recognize in this latter formulation some overtones of Donald Trump’s MAGA project, but Pike doesn’t confront this directly, perhaps he’s weary of glib comparisons or of dating his analysis. 

Pike’s focus on two specific decades cleaves the book into two main sections. The 1960s and ’80s are studied as particular high points in the cold war. The early ’60s saw the resumption of Soviet nuclear tests and the Cuban missile crisis, while the less-studied cold war culture of the ’80s was fueled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which began in 1979 and heated up the cold war again. The détente period of the ’70s is not covered here, as it produced quite a different strain of pop culture (the spectacle-oriented campiness of the James Bond franchise, for example.)  

The ’60s section is organized according to five themes: 1. home shelters, 2. the cave as the home for a feral humanity, 3. survivalism and the private bunkers, 4. shelter and community, and finally 5. the kind of government shelters seen and talked about in films such as Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove and Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe. At the outset of the 1960s section, he cites historians Peter J .Kuznick and James Gilbert, who argued that the principal effect of the Cold War on culture was a psychological one, not a direct one. This allows Pike his heterogeneous approach.

Despite this eclecticism, the 1960s section cleaves fairly closely to the bunker theme. Pike draws useful insights from considering the bunker in relation to gender. He demonstrates how the bunker relates to the idealized suburban home of the 1950s/’60s as a feminine domain, and how it has also been conceived as a space for a particularly masculine kind of alienation and isolation. 

While images of Cold War suburban nuclear anxieties have become pop culture staples (seen in TV shows such as The Simpsons, for example), the idea of the government super shelter has been less studied, and so the final chapter of the 1960s section is of particular interest. As Pike notes:

The tension between fascination with secret underground headquarters, fear and suspicion of government secrecy, corruption and favoritism, and disapproval of the existence of technologically sophisticated and heavily fortified government shelters with nothing remotely analogous available to regular citizens drives the imaginary around these supershelters even more than around the private bunkers discussed above.

– David L. PIke

Here, Pike contrasts two political versions of the bunker fantasy: the liberal version of the bunker myth, in which the apocalypse proves a kind of theodicy for government, proving their worth in times of crisis, and the conservative version, exemplified by Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957), in which the apocalypse purges the bureaucratic excesses of government. 

Rand, of course, didn’t become mainstream until the 1980s, the focus of Pike’s next section. 

The remaining three chapters deal with the following: men’s action fiction, what Pike calls nuclear realism, and feminist approaches to the bunker fantasy. The chapter on nuclear realism is one of the book’s broadest, starting with the recognizably ‘realistic’ Testament (Lynne Littman, 1983) and Threads (Mick Jackson, 1984), before moving to satirical treatments of the nuclear threat, before finally discussing pop songs such as “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It becomes clear that nuclear realism isn’t about fealty to naturalism, but about a long hard look at what the reality of a nuclear apocalypse would look like, something that would eventually filter into the usually carefree sphere of pop music.

Pike provides a dizzying amount of interdisciplinary references in Cold War and Space Culture, from Wisconsin-based feminist sci-fi writers such as Jeanne Gomoll, who were involved with the magazine Aurora, to the found-footage documentary The Atomic Café (Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty, 1982). Indeed, this is undeniably an incredibly well-researched book, brimming with detail and the ability to connect even the most mundane piece of popular culture to the fear-driven Cold War. As such, it is an essential read for anybody interested in Cold War culture or how apocalyptic themes manifest themselves in film, literature, and other forms of culture. As Pike suggests in his conclusion, other existential threats such as the climate crisis will ensure that the bunker fantasy continues to mutate and influence our culture.