Dressed for the H-Bomb
Notes from an atomic childhood
By Caroline Golum
Reading time 13 Minutes
About twenty years ago
About twenty years ago, give or take, I was sitting shotgun in a rented Sedan piloted by my jet-lagged mother, cruising along a service road for the Horace Harding Expressway in a vain attempt to locate her childhood home. She had the unique privilege of starting her life in Fresh Meadows, a far-flung community in Queens, New York, which may as well have been Ancient Rome, for all I knew. Growing up in sunny Los Angeles, I was accustomed to new and more garish environs. “Out West,” as they called it, things were bigger, hotter, and less staid. These neat rows of single-family brick houses, each afforded their own modest lawn and one-car garage, looked like distant cousins of my own suburban street, but the similarities ended there.
If I recall correctly, it was late Autumn – although those early visits to New York are always, in hindsight, tawny and cool – and many houses were decorated in Halloween finery. At the end of every block or so, we’d come across a church or school or other “communal” structure, equally festooned and then some: in addition to the crepe-paper ghosts and punny foam headstones, these institutions all bore the same familiar decal. The Office of Civil Defense issued these signs in 1960, when my mother would have been about four years old. Each iteration features a three-pronged symbol and the words “Fallout Shelter” beneath. Like changing seasons and effective public transportation, shelters of any kind were largely absent from my youth.
The prominent and frequent display of these signs – still plainly visible throughout the Five Boroughs, by the way – was a bit of a shock. During those halcyon days of the second Clinton Administration, nuclear war (like beehive hairdos) was a dusty relic of a time long passed. That youthful naivité seems rather quaint now, as we awake each morning with a fresh threat of renewed nuclear tension that – in the months since our recent electoral unpleasantness – seems more probable with every passing day. How foolish of me, I think again and again, to ever believe that we are truly safe from total destruction. For the first time in nearly thirty years, America’s nuclear bombers are once again on 24-hour alert. The Doomsday Clock has reversed its decades-long course, and now inches ever closer to midnight. Nuclear annihilation, it seems, is truly the little black dress of doomsday scenarios: pandemics come and go, weather patterns (rapidly) change, but “the Big One” is always âu courant.
As sublime statesman and expert baby-killer Henry Kissinger once said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and for nearly 70 years, the awesome potential of atomic power has excited, enticed, and aroused the Decadent West. Where once we led the world in taming this incredible force, now America is rushing the play catch-up to a handful of diplomatic ankle-biters who strive to perfect their own ace in the hole. This current tack towards mutually-assured destruction is the source of tremendous tsuris today but, as is often the case with matters of national security, it’s a shitstorm of our own making. Our first Atomic Age created a blueprint, of sorts, for other nations; we developed this vogue for nuclear power, and it may well be our undoing.
In the 1940s, Operation Paperclip funneled Nazi scientists into the American military’s research and development departments, giving us a leg up on our foreign enemies – not to be outdone, another multi-national superpower began gaining on us in the nuclear arms race. The Soviet Union, our erstwhile ally in the just-ended Second World War, had their own cache of German scientists working day and night, and it wasn’t long before our own supremacy was threatened by the Communist superstate. With the mushroom cloud of Soviet aggression ever on the horizon, Uncle Sam needed a surefire way to sell folks at home on the most destructive force known to man. Fortunately (?) for us, America has a secret weapon the likes of which our Red rivals could never hope to obtain: when in doubt, let the Free Market sort it out.
Decades of propaganda in the form of films, comic books, radio programs, even women's underwear, reinforced the notion that nuclear fission was not something to fear, but a commodity like any other – a force that could be tamed, packaged, and appreciated by everyday Americans. Among nostalgists and vintage clothing enthusiasts, the Atomic Age is still very much in fashion. The clear-cut gender politics of this era recall, for many, a rose-tinted time when women knew their place and men wanted to fuck a nuclear missile. This feminine extreme trickled down from the lab the runway, leaving its modern mark on women’s own armory: her sexuality.
Bomb tests in the South Pacific during the spring of 1946 put a tiny island named Bikini Atoll on the map, inspiring a style of then-scandalous swimwear that shared the island’s name. Months later, the vampish, hourglass shape that we associate with America’s post-War boom emerged from a humble fashion atelier founded by a then-unknown named Christian Dior. The “New Look,” launched in 1947, was a “return to femininity,” a bold reaction to the hard-edged years of utility and privation: nylon for stockings was no longer rationed, and black markets throughout the Continent provided European women with renewed access to lipstick, perfumes, and champagne.
Across the pond, American scientists had just perfected plutonium nuclear fission, making the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons that much easier to accomplish. Stocking and maintaining a bomb shelter was added to the ever-growing laundry list of women’s work. In the space of two short years, the association between atomic power and sex appeal was forged in fire, and American libidos everywhere seemed to catch the fever. A generation of women who worked swing shifts at munitions plants and brought home the proverbial bacon while their men were overseas now had a new vision of womanhood to aspire to: curvy, maternal, and domestic, with rocket-shaped breasts that would nurse America’s appetite for military supremacy.
But what about those countless decals
But what about those countless decals affixed to schools and libraries, the very same ones my young mother looked to for reassurance during many a bomb drill? The existential threat of a nuclear holocaust is not an easy notion to dispel, and Americans were right to be wary of the very weapons we tested in far-flung deserts and tropical islands. By the 1950s, atomic bomb tests were de rigueur throughout the American Southwest, and the freshly-minted hamlet of Las Vegas provided a perfect catch basin for tourists who made the trek to watch bombs go off between glimpses of the Hoover Dam. Local residents and visiting tourists were little more than unwitting guinea pigs in a series of scientific experiments conducted by the United States Air Force, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Federal Civil Defense Administration.
Television further reinforced the “harmless” nature of these experiments, with regional broadcasts offering housewives an opportunity to invite nuclear fission into their living rooms.
Leave it to the state department to find a soft shell for such a hard sell! As nuclear testing began to heat up the Las Vegas suburbs, local media outlets and military outposts formed a relationship of mutually beneficial construction. Models and actresses from the surrounding towns were plucked from relative obscurity and used as living avatars of nuclear power’s might and beauty.
In a 1955 short film from the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration called “Operation Cue,” the effects of nuclear missiles on phony homes and phony residents is rendered in awesome technicolor and narrated throughout by a calming, almost maternal female voice. Though Operation Cue was plagued by difficulties from the beginning – unfavorable weather conditions, inaccurate data – the resulting gallows humor proved to be a “big break” of sorts for one local starlet.
Actress Linda Lawson, best known for cult works like Night Tide and Let’s Kill Uncle, was a plucky University of Nevada student and sometime Copa Cabana showgirl when local airmen conscripted her to pose as “Miss Cue,” a grim play on a missed detonation cue that could have potentially wiped out the entire Vegas strip. In her most iconic picture, Lawson poses beside a half-dozen eager servicemen, wearing a skintight swimsuit and the smile of a thousand suns. Her come-hither posture and inviting shape provide the perfect distraction from the scorched-earth experiments happening a stone’s throw away.
As the certainty of Soviet atomic capability solidified from ambient anxiety to fearful reality, America’s love affair with nuclear novelty slowly began to fade. The prosperous heyday of the 1950s gave way to the tumultuous 1960s, as anti-bomb peaceniks and pansy pacifists crowed louder and louder about the very real threat of planetary destruction. By the time of its release in 1964, Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy Dr. Strangelove perfectly personified this zeitgeist. The film, an adaptation Peter George’s 1958 doomsday novel “Red Alert,” dispensed entirely with the finger-wagging seriousness of its source material, choosing instead to defang the spectre of nuclear disaster with a unique, ribald brand of gallows humor.
The cast boasts iconic performances from a blustery, pre-Patton George C. Scott, a deadpan and disquieting Sterling Hayden and, of course, Peter Sellers as an ineffectual American president, a straight-laced visiting British general, and the titular German scientist straight out of Operation Paperclip. Strangelove’s depiction of our nuclear moment is brutish and brutalist in the extreme: little, if any, of the film is shot outside, and most scenes take place within cramped offices or harshly-lit situation rooms. Kubrick makes clear that this hazardous world is a world built for and by men, at the expense of nearly everyone outside of it. The lone female presence is actress Tracy Reed, a shapely British beauty whose portrayal of Ms. Scott – General 'Buck' Turgidson’s mistress-cum-secretary – provides a brief but welcome respite from the furrowed brows and hanging jowls that populate the rest of the film.
Fifty years is not a long time, and the distance between our nuclear past and present seems to be constantly shortening in direct conjunction with our news cycle. Easily replicable and widely distributed footage of ICBM tests and cocked warheads loop in and onto itself like a hysterical noose, and the noose tightens with each passing day. As a young girl, the worst case scenarios that haunted my parents were inconceivable to me: as dusty and obsolete as the Fallout Shelter decals on my mother’s elementary school.
At one point on our aforementioned tour, we passed by her alma mater, P.S. 173 – rolling down the window, she pointed a manicured finger toward the single-story brick structure. “See that window there?” she brayed, “Our teacher always told us, whenever we had a bomb drill: ‘if you see a flash, stick your butt towards the window.’ Every time she said that, we’d laugh.” Whenever some histrionic thinkpiece about our sure damnation comes across my social media transom, I ponder this image of my mother: a mischievous hoyden, rear end pointed skyward in a defiant gesture against fear mongers, once-Nazi engineers, and the long arm of the American propaganda machine. Then I laugh, maybe make some crack to myself about “fighting in the war room,” and browse through vintage bathing suits on eBay, mostly because it’s all I can do to keep from crying out in anguish.
Caroline Golum is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn. When she is not working for the man, she is usually at, writing about, or trying to make a movie. You can follow her on Twitter, and nowhere else, at @carolineavenue.
Art by Jason Ngai