81: Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light

Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age seeks to understand how the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 affected American culture, thought, and worldview in the first 5 years of the new “atomic age.”  Accordingly, the book uses a wide range of contemporary articles, books, editorials, letters to editors, radio broadcasts, movies, popular music, opinion polls, and the personal papers of prominent political figures to reconstruct both the history of nuclear energy and the new atomic culture.  Boyer argues that the culture industry was able to channel multiple fears and reactions to the bomb immediately after the blast into an understanding that “the dread destroyer of 1945 had become the shield of the Republic” by 1950.

According to Boyer, reactions to the bomb followed a rough trajectory from multiple viewpoints to a single viewpoint in less than five years.  Right after Hiroshima, Boyer found multiple expressions of a “primal fear of extinction,” which led to support for international control of atomic energy.  However, this movement failed because the atomic scientists and other proponents of atomic energy exploited widespread anxiety about a nuclear war between capitalist and communist states… which led not to international regulation but to anticommunist hysteria.  American attempts to quell the hysteria by searching for a silver lining in peaceful applications of nuclear energy also backfired as early as 1947, when writers began suspecting that nuclear energy’s positive impact had been “badly oversold.”  The strategy that ended up working was the one taken by the federal government and allied groups, which emphasized future peaceful applications of nuclear energy combined with arguments for the feasibility of nuclear civil defense and the need for supremacy in the arms race.

Boyer finds in this story the roots of 1980s nuclear policy.  I think it also provides a compelling cultural-technological explanation for the beginning of the Cold War, as well as a strangely anachronistic interpretation of post-war culture.  Perhaps the 1940s and 50s really were as top-down as the Culture Industry would have us believe?  After all, Boyer did get much of his cultural information from contemporary pop-culture stories…

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