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Allan M. Winkler - The Atom and American Life

Allan M. Winkler - The Atom and American Life

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Published by L. Lothar C. Hein

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Published by: L. Lothar C. Hein on Feb 27, 2009
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The "Atom" and American Life
Allan M. Winkler
The History Teacher 
, Vol. 26, No. 3. (May, 1993), pp. 317-337.
The History Teacher 
is currently published by Society for the History of Education.Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/about/terms.html. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtainedprior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content inthe JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/journals/history.html.Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is an independent not-for-profit organization dedicated to and preserving a digital archive of scholarly journals. Formore information regarding JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.http://www.jstor.orgSun Apr 8 21:00:42 2007
The "Atom" and American Life 
Allan M. Winkler
Miami University of Ohio
ATOM" HAS HAD A POWERFUL IMPACT on every phase ofAmerican life in the years since World War 11. The first atomic bomb,according to journalist Anne O'Hare McCormick, caused "an explosionin men's minds as shattering as the obliteration of Hiroshima," and in thedecades that followed its dramatic appearance in
the nation hasoperated within an altogether different framework in foreign and domes-tic affairs. The bomb has influenced military strategy and diplomacy,affected economic and political decisions, and conditioned the culturalclimate of the United States. This paper describes that framework, andthe special dialogue it promoted. Throughout the atomic era, scientists,policy makers, and social critics have engaged in a broadly based trian-gular conversation aimed at reconciling fears of cataclysmic destructionwith hopes for a bright nuclear future. Dominated by government leaders,that three-way conversation has defined the boundaries of both publicpolicy and popular culture and so shaped the structure of the postwaryears.'The period that stretches from the Second World War to the present ismarked by an unprecedented effort to balance atomic hopes and fears.Scientists working on the Manhattan Project to create an atomic bombduring the war were afraid of what the new weapon might do. Similarly,President Franklin
Roosevelt perceived the catastrophic possibilities
ahead. Secretary of War Henry
Stimson, overall director of the project,became increasingly aware of the bomb's potential impact on interna-tional diplomatic affairs. In 1947 he reflected that "with the release ofatomic energy, man's ability to destroy himself is very nearly complete."As hydrogen weapons replaced atomic bombs in the 1950s and kilotonsgave way to megatons in the decades that followed, such fear grew evenmore pronounced and speculation about a dismal or non-existent futurebecame more common. Scientists in the 1970s and 1980s predicteddeadly epidemics of radiation-related illness, devastating climatic adjust-ments, and the death of life as we know it2Fear, of course, has always been muted by hope. With the advent ofnuclear energy, a new age beckoned, and for years the possibilities appearedboundless. Atomic energy could "usher in a new day of peace and plenty,"according to University of Chicago Chancellor Robert M. Hutchins in 1945.This wonderful new force, Walt Disney proclaimed a decade later in thepopular children's book
Our Friend the
put to use for cre-ation, for the welfare of mankind." Despite the near-catastrophic accidentsaround the world, the administration of George Bush began at the end of the1980s to dream of the advantages of nuclear power again3In the effort to reconcile hopes and fears, scientists played a majorpart. They spoke out first as the experts who had unleashed the awesomenew force and best understood how to deal with it. Though many haddoubts from the start about the monster they might create, they set asidetheir anxieties in the interests of defeating Adolf Hitler and his Axisallies. "How Well We Meant," Nobel Prizewinner I. I. Rabi titled hisspeech to Los Alamos colleagues at a reunion several decades after theirfirst success. Meanwhile, literary and artistic commentators began toexplore the dramatic possibilities of atomic holocaust. "When the bombwas dropped," author Isaac Asimov noted, "atomic-doom science-fictionstories grew to be so numerous that editors began refusing them onsight." Novels, stories, comics, films, songs-all served as something ofa safety valve, allowing fears to find expression as artists indulged theircreative vision. But it was government officials, rather than scientists orcultural critics, who seized the initiative in shaping the public agenda.The scientists and intellectuals, policy makers felt, failed to understandpolitical demands. As strategic and military planning came to dominatenational discourse, they argued that they alone had the expertise toprotect the nation from nuclear threat. Their reach extended in all direc-tions. They helped promote public dreams about nuclear planes andships, about the medical benefits of atomic isotopes, about the extrava-gant possibilities of nuclear power. And they made the final decisionsabout how development shouldpr~ceed.~

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