Music and the Atomic Bomb on American Television, 1950-1969

by Reba Wissner (Author)
©2020 Textbook X, 202 Pages
Series: Mediating American History, Volume 14


During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War and the potential for nuclear attack were on everyone’s mind. It should therefore come as no surprise that despite an initial reluctance, several television shows that aired during this period focused on the atomic and hydrogen bombs ("the Bomb") and their potential for destruction. Music and the Atomic Bomb on American Television, 1950-1969 is the first book to consider the important role that music and sound play in the destruction narratives about the Bomb on Cold War-era television. This book not only examines the television shows that deal with the nuclear weapons in various forms and genres, but also contextualizes these shows through an analysis of primary source documents such as government pamphlets and documents, newspaper and periodical reports, presidential records, composer and television production records, and informational trade paperbacks.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Musical Examples
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One Before the Bomb Explodes
  • Chapter Two Music for Mutilating Mannequins: Hearing Bomb Test Sites in Television Dramas
  • Chapter Three This Is Your Civil Defense
  • Chapter Four The Imagination of Disaster: Science Fiction and the Bomb
  • Chapter Five Preventative Measures
  • Chapter Six Hearing Children’s Nuclear Anxiety
  • Chapter Seven Conclusion
  • Appendix: Bomb Television Shows, 1950–19691
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book would not have been possible without the help of many people and institutions. I could not have conduced the research for this book without three generous research grants: a James and Sylvia Thayer Fellowship from the University of California—Los Angeles Libraries Special Collections, a Wallis Annenberg Research Grant from the University of Southern California Libraries Special Collections, and a Theodore C. Sorensen Fellowship from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The following people have been immensely helpful in my research: At University of California Los Angeles Libraries Special Collections: Teresa Johnson, Amy Wong, Russell Johnson, Peggy Alexander, and the student workers; at the University of California Los Angeles Film and Television Archive: Mark Quigley, Lygia Bagdanovich, and the student workers; at University of Southern California Libraries Special Collections: Sue Luftschein and Susan Hikida; at The Atomic Testing Museum Archives: Natalie Luvera; at the Margaret Herrick Library: Louise Hilton and Kristine Kruger; at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Daniel Drollette; Steven Plotkin, and the archivists at the John F. Kennedy Library; and at New York University’s Tamiment and Wagner Labor Archives: Michael Koncewitz.

Much of my research could not have been completed without the Paley Center New York. I am grateful to Beth Shields who transcribed some archival material from Gregg Shorthand. Bill Geerhart provided me with scans from some of the ←ix | x→material from the National Archives while Casey Long provided me with scans for material from the Wisconsin Historical Society/Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Special thanks go to the following colleagues who provided comments and critiques on chapter material, told me about episodes that I missed, and, in some cases, also provided letters of recommendation for the fellowships and grants that made this book possible: Jon Burlingame, James Deaville, Danielle Fosler-Lussier, Kate Galloway, Jessica Gengler, Sarah Gerk, Jessica Getman, Arianne Johnson Quinn, Lisa Scoggin, and Robynn Stilwell.

Finally, this book is dedicated to the memory of Andrew Huyler Ramsey, gone far too soon, whose personality lit up the world brighter than a thousand suns.

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Before the Bomb Explodes

On July 27, 2014, an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver tackled the ever-present issue of nuclear weapons in the episode “Nuclear Weapons and the United States.” John Oliver opened his story with a clip from the now infamously misguided civil defense film, Duck and Cover. Oliver’s report was not unprecedented. Indeed, there is a long history of television reporting on contemporary nuclear weapons issues and this episode is no exception, melding the perfect blend of information, comedy, and satire, pointing out absurdities and incongruences along the way. This was not Oliver’s only take on nuclear weapons; he also discussed the nuclear waste problem that resulted from the building and testing of nuclear weapons in a later episode, “Nuclear Waste,” which aired on August 20, 2017. Following this, more nuclear weapons issues aired on television including Home Box Office’s documentary, Atomic Homefront, which premiered on November 17, 2017, that examines the nuclear waste problem in St. Louis County, Missouri, that emanated from the Manhattan Project.

Fictional television, too, has recently had its share of nuclear weapons episodes. The 2006–2008 CBS series, Jericho, focuses on the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the small town of Jericho, Kansas. The crux of the 2014–2015 WGN America series, Manhattan, was the building of the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project. Most recently, in Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return, airing on June 25, 2017, David Lynch posits that the responsible party for all of the evil in the town ←1 | 2→of Twin Peaks was born from the Trinity test. Clearly, given current events, nuclear weapons are having a moment on television, but seeing this topic dramatized on television is not something new.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War and the potential for a nuclear attack were on everyone’s minds in some capacity, not unlike today. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that many television shows that aired during this period focused on nuclear weapons—atomic and hydrogen bombs (hereafter referred to as the Bomb)—and their potential for destruction, despite an initial reluctance to do so given television’s escapist purpose.1 Many television shows and films during this period discuss the Bomb and its potential for destruction.2 While much has been written on this subject, the music of films and television shows that feature nuclear destruction is a ripe area for study. The majority of attention paid to media during the 1950s and 1960s that focus on the potential for atomic disaster is given to films. However, there are more television episodes than films that focus on this topic, and their treatment is much different than their film counterparts.

Whether or not we would like to admit it, the Bomb—and its resulting mushroom cloud—has left an imprint on American society and popular culture at large. This ubiquity has made it “located in between invisibility and social assimilation.”3 Its myriad appearances in art, film, music, literature, and television during the Cold War demonstrate the object’s ubiquity. Brian T. Brown likens the mushroom cloud of the Cold War to our modern meme, a pervasive icon of the day’s culture.4 The reasons for its infiltration in popular culture—from social commentary to political critique to catharsis and everything in between—are also plentiful. But what’s with the enjoyment of the Bomb? As Mary Manjikian argues, ironically, those who are in relative positions of safety are those who enjoy apocalyptic stories.5

The Bomb: A Short History

The first detonation of the Bomb was the Trinity test, which was part of the Manhattan Project. It is unclear exactly why the test was called Trinity, but it is speculated that the name came from an allusion to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, to which Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was introduced shortly before working on the test.6 Its detonation was on July 16, 1945, at the White Sands Missile Range in Alamogordo, New Mexico. After its successful detonation, Oppenheimer cabled his colleagues and then-President Harry S. Truman the message “It’s a boy.”7 Thus, communication played a valuable role even in the very first Bomb tests and even before. Upon seeing the Trinity bomb detonate, Oppenheimer’s first words were a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The ←2 | 3→Bomb has had various nicknames given to it by the military from the Trinity test bomb which was called “the Gadget” to “the Thing,” “the Panic,” and “the Ostrich Egg.”8 The Bombs that would later be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were called “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” The Bomb, as an object, defined all definitions, but its power would soon be increased when Edward Teller successfully tested the first thermonuclear device in 1952.

Once the thermonuclear bomb was invented, people needed to understand how much more destructive it was than the standard atomic bomb. For this reason, the U.S. Department of Defense specified the difference between the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb for the public: “An atomic or A-bomb explodes through the fission (splitting) of atomic nuclei; a hydrogen or H-bomb is called a thermonuclear weapon because tremendous heat is needed to start the fission process.”9 Thermonuclear bombs are considered more dangerous than atomic bombs through their magnitude for destruction.

Since 1945, the American focus on the Bomb—televised or otherwise—has been on its sheer blast power and magnitude for destruction.10 This focus has been a central theme in television episodes that deal with the Bomb as a topic in whatever guise it is presented. According to Andrew Bartlett, there are three pervasive topics in atomic bomb films. The first is the post-apocalyptic environment in which the Bomb has already fallen but we have not seen it. The second is what he calls nuclear countdown dramas in which the crux of the film plays on the detonation—or threatened detonation—of the Bomb at the culmination of the film. In the cases in which the threatened detonation does not occur, the threat is merely represented and inferred.11 The third category of films “locates fully disturbing or frightening images of or allusions to nuclear warfare in the middle of the narrative action,” which he calls dramas of nuclear devastation.12

Nuclear Anxiety and the Cold War

Anxiety about the potential use and abuse of the Bomb could be found everywhere during the Cold War. One Atomic Energy Commission publication from 1965 illustrated the rapid change in how the Bomb became such a pervasive part of American life: “Twenty-five years ago, atomic energy was a subject discussed only by scientists. Today, this force is a significant part of our culture and has a profound import for all mankind.”13 To be sure, atomic anxiety was not the only anxiety facing Americans during the early Cold War, but it was also a uniquely American anxiety; while other countries around the world were cognizant of the potential of nuclear annihilation, with the exception of Canada and the United Kingdom, ←3 | 4→they did not share Americans’ level of anxiety about it.14 Indeed, postwar anxiety is related just as much to the multiplicity of opinions on the Bomb as it is to how Americans define success in the shadow of war, both of which are mirrored by popular culture that allows for its visibility.15 Despite the many uncertainties about the Bomb’s effects, there was some information made available to the public. One manual targeted toward housewives summed this up to mitigate the fear of the unknown in the Bomb’s effects: “More is known about the effects of atomic bombing than is known about the common cold.”16 When it came to fallout, some government pamphlets also recognized that fear and controversy came from both how the government situated it and people’s general emotions related to these portrayals.17

Regardless of the information available or not available, there are multiple reasons why the Bomb remained so terrifying. First, it could permeate borders without warning. The destruction it would cause would be terrible and likely cause retaliation.18 Americans were even told at one point that “both sides have come to possess enough nuclear power to destroy the human race several times over.”19 It is no wonder that Americans were frightened. Indeed, the Bomb was a pervasive part of American life, either indirectly or directly, and was “a backdrop whose images and fears radiated through America’s collective consciousness.”20 In reference to photography, John O’Brian writes that “a single nuclear image can serve multiple performances at once.”21 Indeed, this also holds true for film and television in which one nuclear image can serve to both mobilize and immobilize those who are watching.

The Cold War was equally about rhetoric and action.22 Part of this was because it was a war in which not a single shot was fired and, for this reason, it distinguished itself in the eyes of the government as being short of a hot war that featured active combat.23 There were multiple fears about nuclear war, one of which was that Americans might be able to survive it, but that democracy would not. Thus, Communism would take over whatever remained.24 As Kenneth Rose writes, nuclear apocalypse was a widespread fear in the middle of the twentieth century, thanks to the advent of nuclear weapons that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and further, focused on the anxieties that were related to nuclear war and its aftermath.25 This nuclear fear was also infused with a fear of Communism, especially hiding in plain sight, and this was intensified by events such as the McCarthy Hearings. Thus, the fear of nuclear apocalypse was on par with the fear of being mistaken for a Communist.26

Nuclear anxiety, however, ebbed and flowed throughout the Cold War.27 Scott Zeman and Michael Amundsen divided the Cold War into three periods of atomic culture. This book will focus on the last two of those periods: High ←4 | 5→Atomic Culture (ca. 1949–1963) and Late Atomic Culture (ca. 1964–1991). According to Zeman, “High Atomic Culture is characterized by a Cold War consensus, civil defense drills, fallout shelters, and urging hopes for a bright atomic future.”28 As Zeman and Amundsen note, “popular culture appropriated aspects of the bomb into American culture for entertainment value.”29 This subsequent atomic culture was a reflection of and a response to ordinary Americans adjusting to living with the new reality of the Bomb and the feeling that the likelihood of being bombed was diminishing.30 Erin Ihde posits a distinct difference between Cold War culture and the cultural Cold War, the former of which is how the global dynamic of the Cold War shaped everyday existence and life.31 Part of the reason for this is a polarization between east and west in terms of aesthetics during the Cold War.32

The fear of the Bomb during the time of High Atomic Culture sometimes turned into apathy, which was one manual defined as “simply a lack of interest.”33 As one Cold War publication put it, “we think that apathy is attributable to one of two things: either people are too overwhelmed by the size of the bomb to feel capable of coping with it, or they have been so frightened by it, subconsciously, that they are afraid to look civil defense and its implications full in the eye.”34 In a 1960 letter from the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (OCDM) director Leo A. Hoegh to Clark Newlon, executive editor of Missiles and Rockets, he writes, “Apathy stems less from ignorance of the facts than from the desire to ignore those which are unpleasant.”35 Panic and fear were so rampant among Americans that civil defense head Val Peterson wrote an article in Collier’s remarking that panic could be more destructive than the Bomb itself.36 Panic was even referred to, in this context, as one of the four horsemen of the Atomic Apocalypse.37 So pervasive was this panic that homeowners insurance companies responded to the fear by writing “atomic bomb clauses” into policies that would absolve them from paying out claims.38 As Ira Chernus correctly points out, nuclear fear is equal parts conscious and unconscious anxieties and conscientiousness of the Bomb’s power.39 Similarly, Kae Caldwell of the Michigan Office of Civil Defense believed that apathy could be eliminated with the mental acceptance of any potential threat.40

Americans also held a certain ambivalence about the Bomb; on the one hand, they were hopeful about the peaceful uses of the atom, but on the other hand, they were nervous about nuclear accidents and high spending for an arms race that some deemed unnecessary.41 During the 1950s, Americans were being asked to both fear and trust nuclear weaponry.42 As H. Bruce Franklin thoughtfully clarifies, American culture and its weapons are mutually exclusive since one stems from and causes profound changes in the other.43 Sometimes, however, people ←5 | 6→dealt with nuclear anxiety simply by ignoring the possibility of atomic destruction altogether.44

Both the Cold War and television were pervasive societal elements at the same time.45 For this reason, the Cold War was often considered the nation’s first television war because of its constant television coverage.46 Television had the power to both unify and polarize Americans while establishing and altering the national mood.47 People would often gather around store windows with television sets to see the flash of a Bomb blast. Like the Cold War, television could also itself distort every aspect of this mood.48 Patricia Mellencamp observes that Americans viewed the Cold War through the context laid by television, which was “predicated on a defensive nuclear imaginary—an image of death that turned many of us into neurotics.”49 Not surprisingly, in many cases, this atomic neurosis increased the American use of tranquilizers.50

One reason that Americans had such ebbing and flowing nuclear anxiety was because of some of the events of the 1950s and 1960s, namely President Truman’s announcement of the Russian nuclear bomb and later the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Archival research has shown even further that not only did Americans get conflicting information about the Bomb and nuclear war, but also the government often withheld crucial information about it; sometimes the government did not understand the true dangers accurately themselves. For example, at the beginning of one pamphlet distributed to Army officers, it was noted that any nuclear weapon to be exploded would likely be that of America using it on the enemy, while at the end of the same booklet it noted the likelihood of any Bomb exploding being equally as likely to be used by America as the enemy.51 Often, the government told Americans that fire would not be a danger in the event of a nuclear blast but only fallout would present a danger.52 These conflicting pieces of information made it difficult for people to know what to believe.

The details of the organizations will be mentioned in this book. In 1950, President Truman signed the Civil Defense Act, which established the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) that existed until 1958. The FCDA was not a federal government office but rather an affiliated non-profit organization. In 1958, during the Eisenhower Administration, the FCDA became the OCDM, which was a merger between the FCDA and the Office of Defense Mobilization, the latter of which was a government office.53 This merger into a government office would last until 1961 when OCDM was redesignated as the Office of Emergency Planning (OEP). All of these offices were tasked with non-military responses to nuclear war. The reason for all of the name and office changes stemmed from the evolving purpose of civil defense.

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Television and the Bomb


X, 202
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 202 pp., 20 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Reba Wissner (Author)

Reba Wissner (Ph.D., Musicology, Brandeis University) is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Columbus State University. She is the author of A Dimension of Sound: Music in The Twilight Zone and We Will Control All That You Hear: The Outer Limits and the Aural Imagination.


Title: Music and the Atomic Bomb on American Television, 1950-1969