How the Atom Bomb Rocked the World

If you look at all these early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled… They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before.
- Bob Dylan, 2007

I learned about atomic weapons and the potential of nuclear war at a young age, and I was sometimes puzzled that people could carry on like the threat didn’t exist, but then again, the point is that I was only sometimes puzzled. Most of the time I was getting on with my life, like everyone else. I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative, and Chernobyl, but it was the Fukushima meltdowns too close to my home that got my attention and made the nuclear threat unforgettable.
It might seem that most people live as they did before the 1940s, concerned with their families, traditional beliefs, jobs and where to take their next vacation. We hear about close calls like the Cuban Missile Crisis, and bluffs by crazy world leaders like Kim Jong-un or Richard Nixon that remind us of the dangers of nuclear warfare. There is the occasional nuclear power plant meltdown, but it seems to be impossible for humanity to sustain a persistent awareness that nuclear war, or just a colossal accident in a spent fuel storage pool, could wipe out civilization--and it is probably a good thing that we can put these worries aside. Nonetheless, the awareness is always there at some level and it has had profound effects on history, culture and consciousness.
The atomic age came with the establishment of the American world economic order. The Bretton Woods agreement set the stage for dollar-denominated global economy, and that economy was based on military spending and nuclear weapons build up (for data on the spending, see 50 Facts About U.S. Nuclear Weapons).
Space exploration, telecommunications research and computer innovation were all directly or indirectly stimulated by the nuclear arms race. The Soviets and the Chinese were ostensibly not part of this new American world order, but they had to militarize their societies to keep up with the Americans. The atom changed everything, and it is still at the forefront of the major issues of this century. The intractable conflicts in the news this year are all rooted in the questions of who will be allowed to have a nuclear deterrent, and who will be offered protection under a nuclear umbrella.  So if you think you aren’t thinking about nukes, you just aren’t paying attention.
Bob Dylan spoke about this effect of the nuclear age in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine in 2007:

It wouldn’t have made sense to talk to somebody back then [in the 1920s and 1930s], to ask him, “What was it like in the late 1800s or 1900s?” It wouldn’t have interested anybody. But for some reason, the 1950s and 1960s interest people now. A part of the reason, if not the whole reason, is the atom bomb. The atom bomb fueled the entire world that came after it. It showed that indiscriminate killing and indiscriminate homicide on a mass level was possible…. I’m sure that fueled all aspects of society. I know it gave rise to the music we were playing. If you look at all these early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled. Jerry Lee [Great Balls of Fire], Carl Perkins [Blue Suede Shoes], Buddy Holly [Rave On], Elvis [Shake, Rattle and Roll], Gene Vincent [Be-Bop-A-Lula], Eddie Cochran [Summertime Blues]… They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before. Lyrically, you had the blues singers, but Ma Rainey wasn’t singing about, nobody was singing with that type of fire and destruction. They paid a heavy price for that, because obviously the older generation took notice and kind of got rid of them as quickly as they could recognize them. Jerry Lee got ostracized, Chuck berry went to jail, Elvis, of course, we know what happened to him. Buddy Holly in a plane crash, Little Richard, all that stuff.

Then in this new record [Modern Times], you’re still dealing with the cultural effects of the bomb?

I think so.

Dylan wasn't saying anything original here, but he gave a worthwhile lesson to a generation that didn't directly experience how the atom bomb affected society in the years after WWII. The concept of the bomb as a socially disruptive power was expressed by many artists in the late 1940s. In the book American Scream:Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin wrote:

“Nineteen forty-eight was the crucial postwar year,” Ginsberg explained. “It was the turning point. Of course the atom bomb had already gone off in 1945, and Kerouac and Burroughs and I had talked about it, but the psychological fallout from the bomb—the consciousness—didn’t really hit until 1948. There was the splitting of the atom and the splitting of the old structures of society and also a sense of the inner world splitting up and coming apart.” Like many other writers around the world, Ginsberg turned the atom bomb into an all-inclusive metaphor. Everywhere he looked he saw apocalypse and atomization.

This view of the world passed from the Beat Generation, to Dylan, then to the rock music of the 1960s. Pete Townshend of The Who looks back on the era in the same way as Dylan:

As a young kid, walking around in my neighborhood, all of the older boys had been told… “Here’s a gun, go and kill the enemy.” We had none of that. What we had was, “There’s this bomb. We dropped it in on Japan. War is over. We now have an even bigger one. The Russians have it. We’re all doomed.” That was what I grew up with. So in a sense, the sound of the war, the sound of the bombers – I wanted my music to speak of that. That was the umbrella, the cloud that we grew up in in West London. And I know you guys had it too, so when we brought our music to America – although your situation wasn't as acutely bad immediately after the war - the one thing that triggered was the anger and the revolution and the reaction in the music. It really chimed with our audience here.

- Pete Townshend of The Who, interviewed by Barbara Walters and others on The View, 2012.

Dylan and Townshend seem to be saying here not that everyone was thinking directly about Armageddon all the time, or that Elvis was an avid reader of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. None of the songs on Modern Times, and hardly any other music of the last sixty years, is explicitly concerned with nuclear arms. They are about characters living in this world where things have changed, where there are direct and indirect effects of the atom bomb throughout our culture.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
As the music became “fast and furious,” so did the pace of social change. If further examples of the modern interest in this era are needed, consider the present popularity of cable television series like Mad Men (set in the early 1960s) and The Americans (set in the dying days of the Cold War), or the fact that my freshman students in Japan listen to 1970s progressive rock, or even Bob Dylan sometimes. There is still intense interest in these decades that made the modern world.
After the atomic bomb, people were on the move in the perpetually militarized and technological economy. Jack Kerouac was On the Road and Allan Ginsberg was Howling. People became much more inclined to question the authority and tradition that were filling the atmosphere with nuclear fallout. By the time the first post-war generation came of age, everything was being questioned. The establishment pushed back hard, but the Cold War unraveled in unexpected ways regardless. The danger seemed to be resolved, but it never really was. Little cold wars still play out in the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean peninsula, with enormous effects on all the proxies involved.
The World Health Organization is subordinate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which promotes nuclear power while pretending to keep us safe from it. Seventy years of nuclear waste has piled up with no place to go. Hundreds of aging nuclear power plants will need to be decommissioned in the coming decades, and it would be naïve to think there won’t be another level 7 disaster at one or more of them before they are safely put to rest. Thousands of nuclear weapons are still ready to launch and be in the air within thirty minutes. Barack Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize for once having said some fine words about nuclear disarmament, but since receiving this prize he has achieved nothing on this issue, primarily from lack of trying. With absolutely no intention of giving up their own nuclear weapons, Israel and the US toy with the notion that there is a military solution to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. How could all of this not be rocking your world?

Dylan songs on politics, war and apocalypse (partial list):
Chimes of Freedom, Desolation Row, High Water, It’s All Good, It’s Alright Ma, Let Me Die in My Footsteps, Man of Peace, Masters of War, Political World, Slow Train, Talking World War III Blues, With God on Our Side and...
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

Words by Bob Dylan, covered by Joan Baez, Bryan Ferry, Edie Brickell, George Harrison, Arcade Fire and many others.

No, it's not atomic rain, it's just a hard rain. It isn't the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that's just gotta happen... In the last verse, when I say, 'the pellets of poison are flooding the waters', that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers. (Cott, 2007)

Because this song was written at the height of Cold War tensions and during atomic weapons testing, many people thought the hard rain referred to the fallout rain. Dylan denied this in the quote above, but still this song illustrates what he meant when he claimed that the atomic bomb changed music and culture in profound ways.

Oh, where have you been, my blue eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin'
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a bleedin'
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin'
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a blazin'
Heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a gonna fall

Oh, what'll you do now, my blue eyed son?
Oh, what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a fallin'
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well before I start singin'
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a gonna fall


Jan S. Wenner, “The Long View,” Bob Dylan: 40 Years of Rolling Stone Interviews, p. 69-75, 2013. Originally published in Rolling Stone, Vol. 1025-1026, May 3-17, 2007.

Jonathan Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, p. 7-9, in Wenner, 2007.

Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

Jane Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty (directors), The Atomic Café, Libra Films, 1982.

Jonah Raskin. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press, 2004).

The Brookings Institution, 50 Facts About U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1998.

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