In the whole history of the Republic, America was never weirder than in 1956. In that year the government made the instructional film "Warning Red," one of dozens of so-called atomic hygiene films instructing civilians on how to act in the event of a nuclear attack. My favorite moment: A man returning from the ice cream parlor sees a blinding light, the mighty spark of an atom bomb. He comes to in a burning, irradiated ruin. Dazed and bleeding, he looks around desperately until, with a sigh of relief, he finds his smoldering fedora. It's the end of the world, but by all means, don't forget your hat.
This and many more moments of ironic fallout are included in "Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security," a darkly amusing collection of songs, civil defense messages and short films about the commie bomb. Assembled by the preservationists of Conelrad.com--the name comes from the civil-defense alert during CONditions of ELevated RADiation--"Atomic Platters" takes us to a zany yet oddly familiar land of galloping paranoia, where shadows are etched in concrete and happiness is a warm bomb shelter.
There is nothing funny about nuclear weapons, of course, but there is no denying that "the bomb" was fun, especially since it never went off. What today can compare to the unified sense of purpose of an air raid drill? What child did not wonder how those bomb-shelter crackers tasted? (When I was 10, I built a Geiger counter.) The Cold War had the frisson of fission, a huge game of atomic spin-the-bottle, and wasn't life a little sweeter for the possibility that it might wink out in a snap of nuclear flame?
And so we have Bill Haley and his Comets savoring the Mormon-esque possibilities, post-apocalypse, in "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)." And Wanda Jackson kicking out the bed slats in the rockabilly classic "Fujiyama Mama": "I drink a quart of sake, smoke dynamite, chase it with tobacc'y and then shoot out the light." Uh-huh. In the coded 1950s, the bomb was a euphemism for sexuality gone supercritical.
With the bombing of Japan not so far in the background, a lot of this stuff seems barbarously insensitive, or at least in bad taste, but the American public saw things differently. "The media of the day was very successful portraying the bomb as some kind of silver bullet that ended the war early," says Conelrad co-founder and editor Bill Geerhart. "The bomb was seen as a saving grace."
"Atomic Platters" maintains its bemused distance, preferring to focus on curiosities of the save-the-hat variety. "We don't dwell on the polemics of the bomb," says Geerhart. "We're simply trying to preserve the pop culture impressions left by the bomb."
Pop culture is how we coped, how we managed our frantic, now comic, dissociation. That's what makes the movie "Atomic Cafe"--a collection of the-bomb-is-our-friend propaganda films--such a hoot.
The big-B Bomb was the first postwar pop star, with its name up in million-degree lights. By the end of the 1940s, thousands of businesses, from dry cleaners to restaurants, had put the word "atomic" in their names. The Manhattan phone book of 1947 even had a listing for The Atomic Undergarment Company. Postmodern marketers still exploit its celebrity. Take, for example, the title of the mixed-drink recipe book "Atomic Cocktails."
Why are we still interested? The Cold War was America's dress rehearsal for homeland security, with all the xenophobic ardor the phrase conveys. The new film "Good Night and Good Luck" dramatizes Edward R. Murrow's battles with anti-Communist inquisitor Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who, decades before Condoleeza Rice, invoked the specter of mushroom clouds. In San Francisco, the recent opera "Dr. Atomic" took Manhattan Project technical papers and turned them into a libretto of Ground Zero.
Our parents had Uncle Joe Stalin and international communism. We have Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Yet it's odd that the so-called War on Terror has produced so little creditable pop culture. I suppose the jingoistic country ballad "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," by Toby Keith, and Tim Robbins' neo-con satire "Embedded" count, but it's a short list, in any event. I can't help thinking that's because the Cold War had the virtue of clarity.
It's odder still that the bomb--in many ways the central figure in postwar America--has slipped so comprehensively down the memory hole, while the potential for nuclear attack is greater than ever, thanks to Pakistan's A.Q. Khan, North Korea and other lands of loose nukes. At least during the Cold War we knew where to find the Soviet Union.
My advice? Don't forget your hat.