Review of "The Dragon's Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age"

The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age, by Robert A. Jacobs, University of Massachusetts Press, 2010, 176 pages

There’s nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons… [but] I am prepared to grovel, to humiliate myself abjectly, because, in the circumstances, silence would be indefensible. So those of you who are willing: let’s pick our parts, put on these discarded costumes and speak our second-hand lines in this sad second-hand play.”
- Arundhati Roy, 1998

In 1998, the year Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapon, and a quarter century after India's first test, the novelist Arundhati Roy wrote the passage above in her essay Pokharan: The End of Imagination.[i] After this humble introduction, she proceeded to write something highly original - an additional 5,000 words that must be one of the most articulate and moving essays ever written against the possession of nuclear weapons. She demonstrated that while the message may be old, there are always new ways to express it and a new generation that has to learn what their elders may feel has become too tiresome to revisit.
These thoughts about Roy’s essay came to mind as I read The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age,[ii] by American historian Robert Jacobs. Nuclear threats are arguably as dangerous now as they were at any time in the past, so silence is still indefensible, and Jacobs too has found a way to make a fresh contribution to the history of the atomic age for a new generation.
Older people who remember the early Cold War may find this book covers familiar ground, but they must know that this book is not written for them. Knowledge of this era will die on the shelves if it is not kept alive in the minds of successive contemporary scholars and reinterpreted for each new generation. It is easy to forget that freshman university students in 2013 were born in 1995. They have no living memory of the first Gulf War, Apartheid, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Vietnam War. They were just starting to learn how to read when airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. People over the age of forty tend to assume these events are common knowledge, and they don’t realize how difficult it is for young people to grasp how there could have been such deep animosities across ideological lines during the Cold War.
Jacobs limits his coverage to the time between Hiroshima and the end of atmospheric weapons testing in the 1960s. The analysis of the historical events and their impact on culture is so good that readers will be left hoping for one or two sequels about the late Cold War period of the 70s and 80s, and the contemporary age consisting of threats by loose nukes, non-state entities building a bomb, aspiring nuclear states, Fukushima, and cell phones with built-in Geiger counters crowd-sourcing fallout data.
People coming of age in the 21st century are not likely to have much awareness of nuclear history because they have no link to a pre-nuclear world. They didn’t live through a time when everyone was talking about this new frontier in the history of humanity, about this new danger that could destroy civilization, and much of the ecosystem, in the span of a few hours.
Nowadays, the person on the street is unlikely to know how many nuclear weapons there are in the world and who owns them. From now on, all generations will have to be consciously taught nuclear history if they are to understand the implications of the weapons (functional or not) and the waste we are leaving behind for them. 50,000 years from now, when the future inhabitants of the earth are trying to understand the implications of their local nuclear waste dump, no one will be speaking 21st century English, or any other language now spoken. The Dragon’s Tail and other such chronicles of these times will have to be passed down like Greek myths, translated by successive generations of scholars.
The Dragon’s Tail begins with an explanation of how the atomic bomb was understood as a profound break with the past. Whereas we used to be in the hands of God, or a fate beyond our control, we now had the power to decide if Armageddon would occur today. In the social sciences, the first reaction to this problem was to dwell on the sorry, violent nature of man rather than to build the political structures that might constrain it.
From these early conceptions, the bomb soon took on mythical and magical properties. Because radiation was intangible yet so destructive, it took a role in popular culture whenever there was a need to display something transformative, awesome and powerful. The Nevada desert, home of weapons testing, came to represent the magical, other-worldliness of everything connected to the new technology (think of alien landings mythology associated with Area 51,[iii] The X-Files,[iv] and the two places where the Freudian id was given free reign – Las Vegas and the Nevada Test Site).
Films, comic books, novels and consumer goods all picked up the atomic motif (the 1982 documentary Atomic Cafe[v] was a chronicle of this era for the previous generation). Godzilla  and Spiderman are two of the familiar fictional supernatural beings created by radiation, but Jacobs describes many more examples − some well-known, others obscure and forgotten. Some are fantasies that portray radiation as having transformative powers unrelated to its real effects, while others are grounded in accurate representations of the effects of radioactivity and the implications of nuclear warfare. There are so many examples described in The Dragon’s Tail that readers come to see the essential role that nuclear physics played in modern realistic and fantasy science fiction. These genres wouldn’t exist without it, and they pushed aside traditional fantasy genres because, when writers had radiation to work with, they didn’t need wizards and magic spells. The arrival of Harry Potter in 1997 might be taken as a sign that the novelty of radiation had run its course in the public imagination.
The trivia about atomic monsters is interesting enough, but this book excels in its analysis of the role that fiction came to play in real-world conceptions and understandings of the atomic era. There were official attempts to get the public to take up roles as citizen-soldiers who could survive a nuclear attack, and the public was initially receptive. For a while, a Los Angeles television station actually live-broadcasted nuclear tests in Nevada. But eventually the absurdity of public information programs became apparent, and the official appeals were weakened by their own contradictions. The hydrogen bomb tests that began in 1954 made it ridiculous to suggest that there would be anything worth living for after a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange. Children wouldn’t be able to just duck and cover then get back outdoors to “clean this place up” (as one famous government film reel declared). Jacobs makes it clear that it was popular culture that helped the public process their fears and honestly confront reality. Fiction gave more honest and informative depictions of the nuclear dilemma than non-fiction reporting.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove[vi] (1964) is a well-known example of such fiction, but Jacobs wisely steers clear of it and digs up the more obscure, and arguably more important, creations that came before it. Others have written about Dr. Strangelove, but who remembers a 1954 episode of the television series Medic?[vii] We can thank Jacobs for reminding us that the information available wasn’t all just ridiculous Department of Energy newsreels deceiving a gullible population. In this era, the American public was exposed to a diverse range of information which might compare favorably with the quality of what we presently get from twenty-four-hour cable television news.
In the episode of Medic, (recently issued on DVD) the prime time audience was shown the suburban aftermath of a nuclear attack on a large city some distance away. Nothing in the story is sugarcoated like the information in government leaflets. The hospital is visited by irradiated, blinded children, and other children who need to be told that mommy is “still in the city.” Morphine has to be denied to people with grotesque injuries so that there will be some for those patients who still have a chance of being alive in a few days.
In an episode of another television series, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone,[viii] a group of superficially friendly neighbors are confronted with the news that nuclear war has started. As they fight over scarce resources and a place to shelter, bitter resentments emerge, and by the time the false alarm has been confirmed, their once-peaceful relations have been destroyed. Rod Serling appears at the end to remind the audience, “For civilization to survive, civilization has to remain civilized.”
Such simple truths were nowhere to be found in the official line about nuclear weapons, which focused instead on concerns such as how to defend one’s fallout shelter from the unprepared victims who might want to fight their way in. Jacobs comes to the strongest point of his thesis when he identifies the origins of the counter-culture movement in the way children of the fifties noticed the gap between propaganda and reality. Fiction shed light on a truth that the government and the older generation wanted to look away from, and this was the origin of the baby boomers’ rejection of their parents’ values. The counter-culture movement might seem to have stemmed from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, but it was the “duck and cover” safety drills of the 1950s that made the post-war generation doubt that adults could be trusted. The official pamphlets and newsreels had the opposite effect of making children feel safe. The hypocrisies and contradictions of nuclear defense drills planted the seed of the rebellion that would come in the sixties.
Jacobs illustrates this point effectively with an analysis of a piece of sci-fi schlock that less astute observers would dismiss as an unimportant B-grade movie. Who would have thought that The Blob[ix] (1958) could really be about so much more than a small town terrified by an expanding mass of jelly? The film revealed the emerging cultural shift triggered by a totally new kind of existential threat, and the adults who were incapable of recognizing it. While the fifties are famous for television shows like Father Knows Best[x] (1954-60), it was also the era of James Dean and the Beat Generation, precursors of the sixties counter-culture. Millions of people were tuning out of the square society being handed to them. In The Blob, a new genre emerges – that of the youth who must save themselves and the world while authority figures snooze and fumble in the face of a new threat they can’t even recognize.
Jacobs’ coverage is limited in this short book to the first two phases of the Cold War – the period of testing fission bombs, and the next period of testing massive hydrogen bombs. The analysis stops at the time when atmospheric testing ended, almost entirely, in 1963. Of course, the Cold War didn’t end then. Weapons testing moved underground, both literally, and figuratively in the collective subconscious. It was out of sight and out of mind, but the existential threat never went away. There would be a shortcoming in Jacobs’ book only if it left some readers with the impression that the story was over when the baby boomers grew up and the Cold War came to its conclusion in 1991. In future studies, we can hope that Jacobs will apply his talents to a book about the culture of more recent nuclear history.
In the present age we are preoccupied with the ecological crisis, and we’ve grown complacent about the threat of nuclear war. It didn’t happen during the worst crisis in 1962, so we have mistakenly assumed that we’ve figured out a way to avoid the worst in every scenario that might arise. As the Cold War heated up in the 1980s, there were new films about nuclear threats such as War Games[xi] (1983), The Day After[xii] (1983, which is credited with changing President Reagan’s thinking about nuclear deterrence, which led to drastic reductions in Soviet and American stockpiles[xiii]), Special Bulletin[xiv] (1983), and Threads[xv] (1984). These confronted mass audiences (after a two-decade lull) again with serious messages about the futility of possessing nuclear weapons. Since then the message seems to have stalled. Nuclear weapons in subsequent films showed the planet-saving meteor-buster of Armageddon[xvi] (1998), or the terrorist’s ticking time bomb defused by agent Jack Bauer in 24[xvii] (2001-2010). This is the most that popular culture can come up with while we live with the aftermath of Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear waste that has nowhere to go, and proliferation risks that are inextricably linked to an energy industry believed by some to be the solution to global warming.
Another false impression that readers might get from The Dragon’s Tail is an understanding that nuclear catastrophe was avoided only because of bottom-up resistance that drew its inspiration from popular culture. Jacobs cannot be blamed for choosing this focus for his book, but there are questions to be asked about how much it was bottom-up pressures that prevented worse outcomes. What influenced Soviet and American leaders to make them realize they had to step back from the brink? When they managed to agree on a moratorium on testing from 1959-60, then on the end of atmospheric testing three years later, they might have been influenced by films like The Blob and The Day the Earth Stood Still[xviii] (1951), or by citizens who had been moved to action by such stories. Another possibility is that it was initiatives by elite intellectuals that opened up East-West dialog and changed thinking in both Washington and Moscow. The Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955[xix] led to the Pugwash Conferences (in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Canada) where top Western and Soviet scientists met for the first time. It’s also possible that the enormous expense and danger of the nuclear buildup was so obvious that Khrushchev and Kennedy didn’t need rocket scientists or science fiction writers to tell them it couldn’t go on. Then again, it’s just as likely that the worst was averted only because of luck and chance decisions like the one made by the captain of a Soviet submarine who decided in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis that, despite the pressure on him to press the button, he didn’t want to start World War III.[xx]
None of this quibbling is to take away from what Robert Jacobs has achieved with his study of the culture of the early Cold War era. The Dragon’s Tail serves as an excellent point of entry for anyone who wants to learn about this field and related aspects of the nuclear age.


[i] Arundhati Roy, Pokharan: The End of Imagination, Dianuke.org, May 2013. Originally published elsewhere in 1998. http://www.dianuke.org/pokharan-the-end-of-imagination-arundhati-roy/.

[ii] Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010). Japanese publication: Robert Jacobs (author),Takahashi, Hiroko (editor), Nitta, Jun (translator), Kaku no Anzen Shinwa to Amerika no Taishu Bunka (Gaifusha, 2013). ロバート・A・ジェイコブズ (), 高橋 博子 (監修), 新田  (翻訳)ドラゴン・テール――核の安全神話とアメリカの大衆文化. 凱風社 (2013/4/22).

[iii] Annie Jacobsen, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base (Back Bay Books, 2012).

[iv] Chris Carter (producer), The X-Files, 20th Century Fox Television, 1993-2002.

[v] Jane Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty (directors), The Atomic Cafe, Libra Films, 1982.

[vi] Stanley Kubrick (director), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Columbia Pictures,1964.

[vii] John Meredyth Lucas, James E. Moser (directors), Flash of Darkness (episode title, aired February 1955) in Medic, (television series, aired 1954-1956), NBC Television, Timeless Media Group DVD release: 2011.

[viii] Rod Serling (creator and director), The Shelter (episode title, aired September 1961) The Twilight Zone, CBS Television, 1959-1964. Nuclear holocaust was a recurring theme of the series in other episodes such as A Little Peace and Quiet and Shelter Skelter (from the 1985 series of the same name).

[ix] Irvin Yeaworth (director), The Blob, Paramount Pictures, 1958.

[x] Peter Tewksbury (director), Father Knows Best, CBC Television, 1954-1960.

[xi] John Badham (director), War Games, United Artists, 1983.

[xii] Nicholas Meyer (director) The Day After, ABC Television and Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1983.

[xiii] Eric Schlosser, Command and Control (Penguin Random House, 2013), p. 451.

[xiv] Edward Zwick (director), Special Bulletin, NBC Television, 1983.

[xv] Mick Jackson (director) Threads, BBC, 1983.

[xvi] Michael Bay (director), Armageddon, Touchstone Pictures, 1998.

[xvii] Joel Surnow, Robert Cochrane (creators), 24, 20th Century Fox, 2001-2010.

[xviii] Robert Wise (director), The Day the Earth Stood Still, 20th Century Fox, 1951.

[xix] Josehph Rotblat, “The 50-Year Shadow,” The New York Times, May 17, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/17/opinion/17Rotblat.html?ex=1270785600&en=37bef79604f97228&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&_r=2&

[xx] Edward Wilson, “Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war,” The Guardian, October 27, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-stopped-nuclear-war.

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