The Nuclear Age in Dylan and the Beats

The Nuclear Age in Dylan and the Beats

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. 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.

from The Illustrated Desolation Row

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 a dollar-denominated global economy, and that economy was based on military spending and nuclear weapons build-up.
Space exploration, telecommunications research, and computer innovation were all directly or indirectly products of 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 bomb changed everything, and it is still at the forefront of the major issues of this century. The intractable conflicts in the Middle East are shaped by who has a nuclear deterrent and who does not.
One of the best ways to understand the impact of the nuclear age is to see how it has affected art and popular culture. Sometimes the influence is explicit, but usually it is implicit in everything around us. The technocratic, militarized security state is present in every work of art. Comic books and science fiction B-movies offer many examples of how nuclear danger couldn’t be confronted consciously—it appeared subconsciously as mutant monsters, blobs and aliens. In other cases, it was an explicit element of the story. Whereas traditionally children’s stories resorted to magic and spells to give characters special powers, the progress of rational science now provided the transformational power, and, ironically, the superstitious nonsense. A rich comic book and movie franchise was established by the bite of a radioactive spider. Spy novels and popular music are other genres that offer thousands of works with Cold War and nuclear-age themes. These influences on the arts and popular culture have been covered in books such as The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age, [1] and the famous documentary film Atomic Café. [2]
There is insufficient space here to cover a wide range of nuclear age art and literature, but the best place to start is at the source, with the writers of the 1940s who grasped how the world had changed and were the first to raise the rebel yell. They influenced everyone who came later in the baby boom generation. These artists saw the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union breaking down and heading in an ominous direction. There were pockets of resistance in the political discourse from former officials in the Roosevelt administration, but these would soon be silenced and pushed out of power. The former vice president, Henry Wallace, made an urgent speech in 1946 trying to steer foreign policy away from confrontation with the Soviet Union:

The only kind of competition we want with the Soviet Union is to demonstrate that we can raise our standard of living faster during the next 20 years than Russia. We shall compete with Russia in serving the spiritual and physical needs of the common man… Let’s make it a clean race, a determined race but above all a peaceful race in the service of humanity… The source of all our mistakes is fear. …Russia fears Anglo-Saxon encirclement. We fear communist penetration. If these fears continue, the day will come when our sons and grandsons will pay for these fears with rivers of blood. Out of fear great nations have been acting like cornered beasts, thinking only of survival. …A month ago Mr. Churchill came out for the Anglo-Saxon century. Four years ago I repudiated the American century. Today I repudiate the Anglo-Saxon century with even greater vigor. The common people of the world will not tolerate a recrudescence of imperialism even under enlightened Anglo-Saxon, atomic bomb auspices. The destiny of the English speaking people is to serve the world, not dominate it. [3]

Wallace was soon fired from Truman’s cabinet, a demotion which came after having lost the vice presidential nomination at the 1944 Democratic convention, thanks to manipulation of the vote by party bosses. Thus the writers of the late 1940s picked up on the warnings made by progressives like Wallace. William S. Burroughs, who by odd coincidence attended a high school that was later converted to the Los Alamos Laboratory where the first atom bombs were made, said of his own writing years later:

This is science fiction, but it is science fiction in terms of what is actually here now. I have nova conspiracies, nova police, nova criminals... The virus power manifests itself in many ways: in the construction of nuclear weapons, in practically all existing political systems which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom, that is, at control. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in Western countries. It manifests itself in the ugliness and vulgarity we see on every hand, and of course, it manifests itself in the actual virus illnesses. On the other hand, the partisans are everywhere, of all races and nations. A partisan may simply be defined as any individual who is aware of the enemy, of their methods of operations, and who is actively engaged in combating the enemy. You must learn who and what the enemy is, their weapons and methods of operation. The enemy is in you. [4]

Burroughs’ familiars were fellow writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. All of them had lived on both sides of 1945, so they were well positioned to witness how the atom bomb had transformed society. In the Ginsberg biography American Scream, 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. [5]

Ginsberg believed the bomb had caused a “psychic disturbance” among his friends, fueling their despair and subsequent drug use. In his journals, Kerouac labeled the spiritual crisis the “atomic disease.” [6] In his writing and his actions, Kerouac showed no interest in politics, or protests and petitions of any kind. Some said his intent was never to save America but to praise its joys and eulogize it, as if the existence of the atom bomb had doomed it. However, William Burroughs said about his influence, “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their disclaimers.” He believed that Kerouac had inspired a worldwide movement that took his work to the next logical step, an activism which aimed to better the world, not merely fatalistically eulogize it. [7]
Kerouac described his writing as a holy calling, a command from God to “go moan for man” and be “as minute as a seed in the pod” in doing so. [8] Indeed, he may have been one of many humble seeds, for the more powerful forces in the disarmament movement arose later, some secular, some religious such as Plowshares (still spilling blood on nuclear installations in the 21st century) and evangelical Christian groups. It is impossible to know what the alternate history would have been, but it is plausible that nuclear annihilation was averted only because of the resistance of millions of citizens who forced political leaders to step back from the brink. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2015, Pope Francis echoed Henry Wallace’s speech when he declared:

An ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction—and possibly the destruction of all mankind—are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the United Nations, which would end up as “nations united by fear and distrust”. There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in letter and spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons. [9]

Even in Kerouac’s final year, when his talent and his relevance were said to have been drowned in terminal stage alcoholism, he could show flashes of wit and a flair for bringing attention to the existential problem that the chattering classes preferred to ignore. In an appearance on William F. Buckley’s show Firing Line in 1968, [10] he joined a panel discussion seeking a definition of “the hippie movement.” One could say that Kerouac was pathetic in this appearance, offending everyone and at times incapable of speech. But even drunk and diminished as he was, he could still play the holy fool. He may have been aware of what was going on but just couldn’t stomach the political discourse and the inanity of the questions about hippies and beatniks.
Buckley asked him if the hippie movement was “Adamite” (aspiring to a state of purity like Adam in the Garden,) but Kerouac was confused by this flaunting of obscure vocabulary (a habit of Buckley’s that annoyed his critics). He asked with puzzlement, “Adamite? You mean Adam and Eve, or atom? What? Adam and Eve? What’s Adamite? They wear their hair long, in layers? Live in caves?”
“Yeah, sort of, and back to nature and...”
“Well, that’s alright. We might have to in due time—after the atomite bomb! Haha!”
Buckley flashed a smile, “That was good. Give that man a drink.”
So here, even at the end of his road, Kerouac was harkening back to what he had felt in the 1940s on a journey to Mexico City. His evocation of the atom bomb in the final pages of On the Road reveals the reason the characters have refused to chase the post-war prosperity on offer in mid-century America. All the preceding delinquency and mad wanderings of these “best minds of a generation,” as Ginsberg referred to them, now seem to be explained by a painful consciousness of the destiny of the world. This is also the moment of the story when the narrator becomes conscious of the failure within. They have rebelled against their society, but they are also the flawed products of America now carousing through a foreign land. The search for freedom and God has gone hand in hand with utter irresponsibility. As Burroughs would say, this is the recognition that the virus is in them too. Behind them lies a trail of abandoned wives and children, not to mention a few stolen cars. To the natives coming down from the hills, and the pimps and the women in the whorehouse they visit, they are just yanquis with dollars in their pockets. Kerouac shifts our attention back to where it needs to be, to the aboriginal peoples of the world who have endured and paid the costs of Western civilization’s suicidal rivalries:

Strange crossroad towns on top of the world rolled by, with shawled Indians watching us from under hatbrims and rebozos. All had their hands outstretched. They had come down from the backmountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer and they never dreamed the sadness and poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and banks and reduce them to jumbles like the avalanche heap, and we would be as poor as them someday and stretching out our hands in the samesame way. [11]

Bob Dylan was inspired by On the Road before he hit the road on his famous trek from Minnesota to Greenwich Village, and Alan Ginsberg later befriended him when he recognized him as an heir to the Beat poets. Dylan spoke about the effect of the nuclear age on music in an interview with Jann Wenner 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.

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

I think so.[12]

Dylan was reminding us of the socially disruptive power of the bomb that was first noticed in the late 1940s. 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 looked back on the era in the same way as Dylan, in an interview with Barbara Walters and others on the TV talk program The View, in 2012:

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. [13]

Dylan and Townshend are not saying here 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.
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, mobilized and technological security state. 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. The present destruction of Syria is seldom recognized as a post-communist resurgence of the Cold War, a proxy war that could escalate into something much worse under more reckless leadership.
In spite of the first Cold War having apparently ended in 1989, thousands of nuclear weapons are still ready to launch 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. America backed out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, and nuclear arms reductions have been stalled since the 1990s. Meanwhile, the US and NATO have expanded eastward toward Russia while at the same time perversely calling the country encroached upon not an enemy but a new “adversary.” China is antagonized in a similar fashion when the US Secretary of Defense talks about defending “freedom of the seas” in waters 10,000 kilometers from North America.
In addition to the threat of nuclear war, the leftovers of the civilian nuclear project might be enough to cause a global catastrophe in slow motion. 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, or an off-the-scale disaster at one or more of them before they are safely put to rest.
Returning to Dylan, it is worth noting that his catalog contains numerous songs on the subjects of politics, war, decline and apocalypse. These compositions include 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. The lyrics of Hard Rain, excerpted below, are some of the most explicitly apocalyptic of Dylan’s songs:

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

Because of these lines, and because the song was written at the height of Cold War tensions in the early 1960s, many people thought the “hard rain” referred to a nuclear fallout rain. Dylan denied this in an interview when he said:

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. [14]

“Some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.” These few words explain much about where Dylan went with his music in the years that followed. He stopped writing the genre of “protest” songs he had invented, and refused to speak for causes or take sides in ideological battles. He lived with his family in seclusion in upstate New York during the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement, and later turned to religion. Like Kerouac, he seemed to be more concerned now with celebrating the life and art of the common man, and eulogizing a world he had concluded was doomed, as well as with preparing himself for the world to come. By the end of the century, Bob Dylan’s 30th studio album Time Out of Mind was infused with these themes, especially one with a line that says everything: Tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door. In these songs there is no hint of politics or activism, but the line implies a reason for that door closing. To be welcomed in heaven, we would have to save the place we’ve already been given.


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

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

3. Henry Wallace, April 12, 1946, RG 40 (Department of Commerce); Energy 1, General Records of the Department of Commerce, Office of the Secretary, General Correspondence; Box 1074, File “104251/6” (2 of 7), National Archives, Washington, D.C., in The Untold History of the United States, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick (London: Edbury Press, 2013), ch. 5.

4. Allen Hibbard (Editor), Conversations with William S. Burroughs (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 12.

5. John Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press, 2004). Ginsberg’s concern with the nuclear threat continued throughout his life as he participated in protests in the 1970s at the Rocky Flats, Colorado plutonium pit factory which inspired his poem Plutonian Ode.

6. Mark Sayers, The Road Trip that Changed the World (Moody Publishers, 2012), 57.

7. Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams (directors), What Happened to Kerouac (1986; New Yorker Films).

8. Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody, (McGraw-Hill, 1972).

9. “Fulltext of Pope Francis’ speech to United Nations,” PBS Newshour, September 25, 2015,  .

10. William F. Buckley (Host), Firing Line, The Hippies, Season 3, Episode 32 (September 4, 1968; National Educational Television),  .

11. Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll (Penguin Books, 1951, 2007), 398.

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

13. “Pete Townshend on ‘Who I Am,’” The View, ABC Television, October 8, 2012.

14. Jonathan Cott (Editor), Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (New York: Wenner Books, 2006), 7-9.

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