Boyer, Paul. By The Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the
Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
The first atomic bomb exploded at the Trinity test sight in mid-July, 1945. The weapon was kept
secret until 6 August when the first bomb exploded over Hiroshima. Then the bomb was the
"secret weapon" which would end the war quickly. The weapon was again used on 10 August
when Nagasaki was bombed. The war ended on 14 August. Everyone realized the full potential
of the bomb quickly and the specter of WWIII was awesome. Was WWII merely a Pyrrhic
victory? There was no denying it: two cities had been wiped out and the world was suddenly an
There was fear in what lay ahead. America's nuclear monopoly was to be short-lived, Confusion
and disorientation gripped the American people. One reaction to the bomb was a plea for
"international control." That took the form of one-world government which would limit the use
of the bomb - that was the perceived political necessity. Albert Einstein was the Big Name
scientist who lent his name to this movement but he was certainly not alone. But the movement,
initially attractive to about 1/3 of the nation, succumbed to the climate of suspicion and
conformity. By 1949, the idea was pretty much defunct.
Scientists had begun to organize themselves shortly after the first bomb had been dropped and
they were scandalized by the use of the second. There's some evidence that participation in the
Manhattan Project had been a traumatic experience. "Many scientists concluded after August 6,
1945, that it was their urgent duty to try to shape official policy regarding atomic energy. So
began the ‘scientists' movement.'" (49) By November, the Federation of Atomic Scientists - it
was later changed to American Scientists. Scientists wished to have a part in decision-making
regarding the use of the bomb, they did not wish to leave it completely under military control. It
should be noted that the stature of American scientists was never higher than immediately after
the war: these were the guys who had built that awful weapon and they were all given credit.
Those guys were no longer perceived as four-eyes and dull. A doctorate in physics meant a great
deal. They tried to capitalize on their new-found stature but probably their most important effort
to influence public opinion was in the creation of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. But their
effort to promote fear in the hope of getting action from politicians backfired. They put out a
booklet - One World or None.
Bikini's testing was ballyhooed. Happily, the first test was a letdown: the blast was well off
target and the observers saw little. The public was bored with the scientists trying to drum up
fear. It became time to listen to government scientists who muted "excessive" fears and promoted
a peaceful atom. At the same time, it was the fallout from the Bikini tests that made the public
aware of the dangerousness of fallout.
By 1951, there were calls to use the bomb in Korea. Then Russia had its bomb. Anticommunist
propaganda helped spark the Cold War in earnest.
Government scientists spoke of the bright promise of atomic energy. There was to be an atomic
car, cancer would be cured through radio-isotopes, atomic energy was a "tremendous new source
of energy. Philip Wylie hailed a new day, "probably in your lifetime, when all sorts of good
things would derive from this new source of power. Stuart Chase promised all sorts of goodies.
This euphoria was just as much a part of the reaction to the bomb as was fear. People mixed the
good and the bad.
Social scientists tried to get into the picture. William Ogburn, Robert Redfield, and others
suggested that only social scientists could predict social reactions to the bomb - (AJS., Jan 1946).
The American conscience never did resolve the question of the use of the bomb. The religious
presses response to the bomb was mixed and "far from uniform." (P. 199). The Catholic World
came out against it as a moral horror - "atrocious and abominable." (P. 203) A most important
book was John Hersey's Hiroshima. He took a realistic approach. But there were several distinct
arguments: was the bomb any worse than mass incendiary bombing? We had killed 100,000 in
those raids in Tokyo of, for example, 9-10 March 1945. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish moralists
took different positions and, suffice to say, they argued. As Boyer puts it: "The nation's religious
leaders, while clearly deeply troubled by the ethical implications of atomic weapons, failed to
render a clear and unequivocal no to these new instruments of mass destruction." (p. 229)
There were a flood of science fiction and other fantasies about the bomb. Ray Bradbury, Isaac
Asimov, among others, looked forward rather beakly. Louis Mumford wrote "We are living
among madmen." (p. 284)
By 1947, the fear approach has paled. The government tried to allay public fear. Opinion molders
in government, education and the media tried to reshape public attitudes and repudiated the fear
approach taken by scientists. A potent weapon in the soft soaping of the public is the ability of
the AEC to remain secret. There was the reassuring message of civil defense. The public was
assured that the atomic threat was not as bad as it had been painted by science. By 1950, the
public had embraced the bomb and would endorse any measures to maintain atomic supremacy.
By 1950, we could and would work on the superbomb. What replaced fear was the Cold War
ideology and a new nuclear strategy became our military's defense.
What's happened since: cycles of activism and apathy. Reactions: 1) illusion of diminished risk;
2) loss of immediacy; 3) " ...in the 1960s and early 1970s, the promise of a world transformed by
atomic energy. Once again, as in the late 1940s, this helped mute concern about nuclear weapons.
This time the utopian dream was focused on nuclear power, reinforced by the reality of power
plants springing up from Maine to California. By the mid-1970s, these plants would become the
focus of demonsrations and protest, but initially, thanks to heavy promotion by the nuclear power
industry, they were viewed in a hopeful light. Indeed, a kind of psychological balancing act
seems to have occurred, with images of the peaceful atom once again counteracting and to a
degree neutralizing images of the destroying atom." (p. 357)