Presented at the Atomic Age Opens Conference, July 1995
Presenting the Past: Atomic Cafe as Activist Art and Politics
Robert Jacobs, Assistant Professor
Reflecting on a child-hood spent ducking-and covering in
"dank, subterranean high-school corridors," Robert K. Musil, director
of the SANE Education Fund, wrote in 1982 (the year that The Atomic Cafe was released) that as his generation huddled on the
ground in these corridors, they "decided that our elders were indeed
unreliable, perhaps even insane."1 This is the sentiment that drives much
of the editorial narrative of The Atomic
Cafe: not that the atomic world of the 1950s was dark and depressive, but
rather that it was insane, or more precisely, absurd. What was absurd about the
Cold War era was not just the imminent threat of nuclear destruction, but the
sense of normalcy with which nuclear war was presented to the American people,
and especially to their children.
The Atomic Cafe is a film aimed at
Baby Boomers, centered in the absurdity of their atomic childhoods, with the
purpose of alerting them to the continued existence of both the nuclear threat
and a renewed stream of nuclear propaganda. Its makers, Pierce Rafferty, Jayne
Loader and Kevin Rafferty, having researched broadly, emphasized film and sound
clips that demonstrated official lying about atomic weapons and radiation. By
showing its Baby Boomer audience propaganda from their youth at a time when
they had 20-30 years of history to judge it by, the filmmakers were encouraging
them to build up defenses against a new round of propaganda.
The filmmakers chose not to focus on stories of atomic deceit and
its impact in the lives of individual victims. Stories of Japanese bomb
victims, down-winders, atomic veterans and weapons production workers were
being printed widely publicized and could easily have been structured into the
film's narrative.2 Instead they edited clips from propaganda films made by the
Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA)
or the military and presented them in segments typically as long as a TV
commercial, enhancing the sense of the propaganda as being Cold War
In choosing to make a documentary that was funny rather than
confrontational the makers of The Atomic
Cafe succeeded in making its audience laugh at itself for having ever
believed what by 1982 were obviously lies. This is the fundamental editorial
decision made by the filmmakers, and in so choosing, they reveal the activist
nature of their film, a film aimed at affecting the politics of its audience
rather than one which wallows in pessimistic visions of nuclear destruction.
In the 1950s, nuclear wars were portrayed in government propaganda
as natural events. Families could plan for them, build their houses around
them, bond during them. Civil Defense pamphlets, many distributed in the millions,
urged families to take steps to prepare to survive nuclear war which could just
as easily have been steps to prepare for the arrival of a photographer from Better Homes and Gardens. The 1951 Civil
Defense pamphlet Atomic Blast Creates
Fire gave the advice that "A Clean Building Seldom Burns." Aimed
at America's housewives, and charged with preparing them to fight the
inevitable fires created by a nuclear explosion, the pamphlet asserted that
"Good, Clean, Housekeeping Is Civil Defense Housekeeping."3
Preparing to fight fires in the aftermath of a nuclear war, while
an important goal for civil defense planners, hardly offered the protection it
promised. In the 1957 version of the classic AEC book, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, the concept of cleanliness as an
aspect of nuclear war survivability is absent from the chapter titled
"Thermal Radiation and Its Effects." The relation of blast and fire
are reduced to considerations of material and distance: a clean house will burn
just as sure as a dirty house will if both are made of the same material and
located the same distance from ground zero. Falsehoods such as the ones
advocated in Atomic Blast Creates Fire
carried the sub-textual message that maybe there weren't any real steps one
could take to prepare to survive nuclear war.4
Similarly, the 1955 Civil Defense pamphlet titled Your Car and CD: 4 Wheels to Survival
was based in the belief that survivability was related to the ability to flee
cities by car. Key survival steps listed in the pamphlet include: keeping your
car properly outfitted with good tires, a good battery and always a tank at
least half full with gas. "Your car can be your shopping center,"
reassured the pamphlet, which made no mention of the fate of those who didn't
Instructing his family after a nuclear explosion that it was time
to help clean up, the father (in a propaganda clip in The Atomic Cafe), showed the same kind of businesslike management
of nuclear war evident in the pamphlets. The calm reassuring voice of Dad in the
film clip or of the government experts in the civil defense pamphlets, telling
us that all it takes to come through a nuclear war is a little elbow grease and
a little common sense looked ridiculous after three decades of heavy nuclear
arming. The American civil defense program, criticized throughout the Cold War
for its failure to equal Soviet civil defense programs, might have commanded
more public attention had it scared the public to death with fears of a Soviet
attack. Instead, FCDA public relations seemed to placate the American public to
the awesome destructive power of these weapons, describing them as easily
One of the most frequently seen film clips from the Nevada tests is
of a house exploding after a nuclear explosion in which the windows of the
house are seen to smoke momentarily before the house is ripped apart from
within. This image was filmed at a test that was specifically fired to test
civil defense procedures, including the "survivability" of home
shelters. This film clip was reproduced in a 1953 Civil Defense pamphlet called
2 2/3 Seconds, the length of time it
took for the house to explode. Added to the 26 photographs of the exploding
house was one of a mannequin in a bomb shelter in the basement who is said to
be "un-harmed" by the explosion of the house above her. The clear
conflict of messages in this pamphlet, a house violently ripped apart in all
directions in 2 2/3 seconds and a smiling happy mannequin in the basement,
neatly frames the dilemma that public relations became for the AEC and the
When the United States resumed continental nuclear weapon tests in
Nevada in 1951, the fear of nuclear war found new expression in the fear of
radioactive fallout. The AEC, the agency charged with the management of nuclear
weapon production, struggled to find ways to calm public fears of radiation.
Incidents like the Bravo test in 1954, in which the crew of a fishing boat
situated over a hundred miles away from Ground Zero were blanketed with
sufficient radioactive fallout to kill one crew member and sicken all, led to
widespread public dis-ease over the issue of fallout.8
Fearful that public concern over radiation might hamper operations
at the NTS, potentially weakening National Security, the AEC worked to limit
both dissent and discussion of radiation issues during the 1950s. Continental
weapon testing was preferred because it was cheaper than testing in the
Pacific, and it expedited the flow of weapon design concepts into tested,
deliverable bombs. In support of this goal, the AEC and the larger Eisenhower
administration developed several public relations projects: the clean-bomb
campaign, the Atoms for Peace program, and the "facts" about fallout.
The "clean-bomb," was the mythical nuclear weapon to be
developed for weapon tests in Nevada, which would create no fallout. Describing
it to the public at a press conference on June 26, 1957, President Eisenhower
spoke glowingly of an "absolutely clean bomb," which would create no
radioactive fallout, claiming that the US was testing bombs that were 96%
fallout-free.9 The essence of the "clean-bomb" concept was to
detonate the bomb at higher altitudes so that it would not draw as much sand
and soil up into its Mushroom Cloud. The idea of a "clean" nuclear weapon
suggests that perhaps the nuclear weapons we were testing in Nevada were good
nuclear weapons. Notably absent from Atomic Cafe, the clean-bomb campaign
embodies much of the culture it targets for ridicule.10
The Atoms for Peace program is also absent from The Atomic Cafe, but only because the
filmmakers limited themselves to material about the bomb. The Atoms for Peace
program, ostensibly designed to nurture the nuclear power industry, was also
designed to suggest a second option besides the one its name counters, Atoms for
War. The program encouraged Americans to see the advent of atomic energy as a
progressive force, working to transform the world into a better place. This was
intended to counter the popular fear that atomic energy would destroy the
world. Part international diplomacy, part good business, part good PR, the
Atoms for Peace program worked to suggest that not all things Atomic were bad.
US Cold War propaganda taught Americans to fear the Soviet soldier and spy, but
did not dwell on Soviet atomic weapons. If people became too scared of Soviet
bombs, those fears might be transferred to US testing of nuclear weapons.
After the 1951 resumption of continental atomic weapon testing at
the Nevada Test Site (NTS), the government avoided unnecessary public
discussion of radiation or other weapon effects. In an effort to silence
opposition to testing at the site itself, the AEC launched a large-scale public
relations campaign aimed at those living downwind from the test site, and
servicemen who were made to participate in tactical maneuvers on an atomic
battlefield. The essence of this PR campaign was to give these groups the
"facts" about fallout, which were that fallout was not harmful. The Atomic Cafe pays tribute to the
stories of both the down-winders and the atomic veterans, yet avoids the gory
details, choosing instead to play the campaign to give them the
"facts" about fallout for laughs and absurdity.
The town of St. George, Utah lies about 135 miles east of the NTS.
AEC rules of firing test shots in Nevada stated that when the wind was blowing
from the test-site towards Las Vegas (75 miles to the southeast) shots weren't
fired. When the wind was blowing away from Las Vegas, tests would be fired.
When the wind was blowing away from Las Vegas it was blowing towards St.
George. St. George, Utah was the city that AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss said the
tests always "plaster." 11
In the summer of 1954, St. George was the home base of the
Hollywood movie crew that filmed The
Conqueror, starring John Wayne as Ghengis Khan. It was widely rumored
during the 1970s that over 50% of the cast and crew of this film (including
Wayne and Agnes Morehead) had died of cancer within 20 years of making the film
in the Utah desert outside of St. George.12
On May 19, 1953, the AEC tested Shot Harry, a fission weapon of
projected to be 35K (or almost the twice the size of the Hiroshima bomb) but
which detonated at an intensity of over 70K, or more than twice as big as it
was supposed to be. The Shot, known as Dirty Harry, blanketed a large area to
the east-north-east of the test-site with heavy amounts of highly radioactive
fallout. Though the AEC took the extreme action of having radio stations
broadcast advisories that residents of St. George and other towns should take
cover, the advisories came after the heaviest readings had passed.
After the test, and after other tests in the spring Upshot-Knothole
series, increasing numbers of dead sheep led downwind shepherds to sue the
federal government for losses (they would lose). The AEC decided to make a film
of the Dirty Harry incident which emphasized the cooperation of the people of
St. George with the AEC to avoid fallout exposure. The AEC had the people of
St. George play themselves in the film, and then showed the film primarily in
St. George and other downwind communities in an effort to maintain a good
relationship with the down-winders. Clips from this film are included in The Atomic Cafe, but are used strictly
for the comic effect of the people of St. George, with little acting skills
displayed, responding obediently to the AEC instructions. Rather than showing
us the darker horror going on here, the victims reenacting their contamination,
the makers of The Atomic Cafe use the
film for its value at challenging blind, sheep-like obedience.13
In 1955, and again in 1957, the AEC distributed a booklet titled Atomic Tests in Nevada to the downwind
community. This booklet informed down-winders that, "You people who live
near the Nevada Test Site are in a very real sense active participants in the
Nation's atomic test program."14 At the same time, AEC commissioners were
privately determining policy with statements such as, "People have got to
learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are
Servicemen participating in atomic tests were both lectured to and
studied. The participation of thousands of men in military maneuvers on an
atomic battlefield was seen as both testing tactics, and demystifying the fears
that servicemen had of radiation. By exposing them to the experience of the
atomic battlefield, human resources experts felt they could alleviate some of
the anxiety among servicemen about nuclear weapons.16 But before battle, the
troops participating in the various Desert Rock exercises (as the troop
participation in tests at the NTS were named), were briefed as to the nature of
atomic bombs. "Blast, heat and radiation," they heard over and over,
these are the effects of an atomic bomb. What history has shown to be the
falsehood in the "blast, heat and radiation" lecture is featured
prominently in The Atomic Cafe.
In a clip from an AEC film shown to troops at Camp Mercury, the
staging ground for the Desert Rock operations, the test-site lecturer tells the
troops that "radiation is the one new effect of the weapon, and the one
you have to worry about least." Both AEC personnel and military personnel
knew that indeed, it was radiation that the soldiers should have worried about
most, and by the time the makers of The
Atomic Cafe showed this clip to their 1980s audience, most of them knew it
too. Darker stories about the atomic veterans were also available to the
filmmakers, who chose comical bad acting over hard-hitting personal tragedy.
While articles written to prepare soldiers to participate in atomic
tests reassured them that after an nuclear explosion, "If you've received
a death-dealing dose of radiation, brother, you've already been killed by
either blast or heat," their superiors were hearing a different message.17
In a 1959 article aimed at Battle Commanders in the magazine Army, the question of what to do with
the "living doomed" was explored. The "living doomed" were
soldiers who had been exposed to sufficient radiation to kill them, but not to
kill them immediately. "This means that these men represent a group of
soldiers who are able-bodied a t the moment and who will be for 15 to 20 days
more. But after 20 to 25 days they will all be dead." What do you as a
Battle Commander do with this "group?" Several options were explored,
returning them home, giving them immediate leave, or integrating them into your
battle-plan. "If, in your opinion, your situation was so tenuous that it
required the application of every possible combat means, would you be justified
in requiring these men to continue serving in their parent units? Or would you
organize a kamikaze or banzai type of unit from among the doomed, for executing
especially hazardous missions?"18 This same article discusses combat
tactics such as using nuclear weapons at night when the eyes of troops admit 50
times as much light as they do during the daytime, resulting in blindness
lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to life.
Many of the troops participating in atomic weapon tests experienced
something a little closer to being among the "living doomed" than
finding that radiation was worry-free. From 1946-63, from 250,000-500,000
troops participated in atmospheric atomic test s.19 The National Association of
Atomic Veterans (NAAV), an advocacy group that was founded in 1979 estimates
that 75% of those who participated were dead within 20 years of potentially
radiation-induced cancers. The NAAV
Newsletter is filled with accounts that are much more horrifying than any
footage shown in The Atomic Cafe. The
most horrifying of these are by soldiers who were less than three miles from
ground zero and who were not in trenches, but were told to kneel on one knee
and cover their eyes.
One physician present at the only test of an atomic cannon (Shot
Grable, 1953) reported that, "Following the countdown to 'one' there was a
brilliant flash that I saw with my back turned to the blast and with my hands
covering my eyes. I even saw the bones in my fingers." Those facing the
blasts reported seeing their feet bones through their covered eyes as well as
their finger bones. Some in trenches reported that their trenches collapsed on
them and they had to dig themselves out of the ground in or der to properly
advance on the mushroom cloud. Accounts such as these could easily have been
read over film-clips of troops in trenches, giving horrific context to those
clips, but it would have changed the tone of the movie from one designed to
activate its audience into one intent on depressing them.20
The politics of the 1970s included a great deal of blame laying and
detailing of the past wrongs of government agencies, and in the early years of
the Reagan era, the Nuclear Freeze movement was at its height. It would have
been very much in style for the filmmakers of The Atomic Cafe to work within this framework, but much to the
derision of others on the left, the film was made more as a comedy than as a
political documentary.21 This film vilifies the process of rhetorical
propaganda in order to build up defenses to just such propaganda in its
audience. Released in an era that saw a new brand of late Cold War pro-nuclear
war propaganda, the film was successful in attacking, not the abuses of the
past, but the propaganda of its present.
Jimmy Carter's PD 59 (Presidential Directive 59, 1980), a
political-campaign driven revision in nuclear-war fighting strategy which
allowed for smaller, winnable nuclear wars, was followed by the defense
build-up and slightly reckless brinkmanship of the early Reagan years. In an
infamous quote, a Reagan Administration Defense Department Under Secretary with
some authority over nuclear weapons, T. K. Jones, told reporter Robert Scheer
of the Los Angeles Times that a major
nuclear war was indeed survivable, "if there are enough shovels to go
around, everybody's going to make it."22 What the filmmakers of The Atomic Cafe got their audiences to
see for themselves was that there was a hole in the shovel.
The Atomic Cafe was meant to
succeed as art not as politics. It was designed to change the beliefs and
feelings of its audience, and not necessarily to direct them into specific political
acts, such as joining the Freeze movement, even though many of its fans
probably did just that. It was meant to encourage its viewers to know when they
were being lied to, especially about nuclear weapons. By showing them
propaganda of the fifties the filmakers were encouraging them to build up
defenses against the propaganda of the eighties. The saber rattling of the late
Cold War, with talk of nuclear war as winnable and survivable, framed against
the images from the fifties of cleanliness as a nuclear-war preparation, or
radiation as harmless, painted the new propaganda as absurd, prompting memories
like that of Musil, the fear that our elder(s)-statesmen were still insane.
The nuclear war that Ronald Reagan joked about in his off-hand way
in 1981, was potentially so big as to make the fears of the 1950s seem puny.
Herein lies the activist nature of The
Atomic Cafe. It was meant as a foil against the propaganda of the present
as much as it was an expose of the propaganda of the past. The fact that so
many of us have used it in our classrooms and that we have highlighted it here
at this conference is testimony to the success of Jayne Loader and the
Raffertys in creating a work of art that endures as a work of culture and
history as well. And in its use of dark comedy to wake up the American
citizenry to the absurdity of nuclear war propaganda and planning, The Atomic Cafe can be seen as perhaps
the one film to follow in the tradition of Dr.
Strangelove, carrying a similar message to the next generation.
1. Robert K. Musil, "Growing Up Nuclear," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 38:1
(January 1982), p. 19.
2. See Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon, Killing our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic
Radiation (New York: Dell Publishing, 1982); Howard L. Rosenberg, Atomic Soldiers: American Victims of Nuclear
Experiments (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980); Ernest J. Sternglass, Secret Fallout: Low-Level Radiation from
Hiroshima to Three-Mile Island, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981); and
Leslie J. Freeman, Nuclear Witnesses:
Insiders Speak Out (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981).
3. Federal Civil Defense Administration, Atomic Blast Creates Fire (Washington D. C.: U. S. Government
Printing Office, 1951).
4. Samuel Glasstone, ed., The
Effects of Nuclear Weapons, revised edition (Washington D. C.: U. S.
Government Printing Office, 1962), pp. 316-68.
5. Federal Civil Defense Administration, Your Car and CD: 4 Wheels to Survival (Washington D.C.: US
Government Printing Office, 1955).
6. For a discussion of the perceived inferiority of the U. S. civil
defense program, see Greg Herken, Counsels
of War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), pp. 256-9.
7. Federal Civil Defense Administration, 2 2/3 Seconds (Washington D. C.: US Government Printing Office, 1953).
8. The story of the crew of the fishing boat the Lucky Dragon, is
told in Ralph Lapp, The Voyage of the
Lucky Dragon (New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1958), pp. 55-88.
American press coverage can be charted in the New York Times from March 17, 1954, through Eisenhower's press
conference on March 31, 1954.
9. "The President's News Conference of June 26, 1957," Public Papers of the Presidents, 1957
(Washington D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1958), pp. 498-9.
10. See Robert A. Jacobs, "Strategic Fallout: Clean and Dirty
Weapons in the Cold War," Thematica
11. Joint Hearings Before the
Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Interstate and
Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives and the Health and Scientific
Research Subcommittee of the Labor and Human Resources Committee and the
Committee of the Judiciary of the United States Senate, 96th Congress,
First Session, April 19, 1979 (Washington D.C.: US Government Printing Office,
1979), p. 181.
12. Philip L. Fradken, Fallout:
An American Nuclear Tragedy (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989),
13. Fradken, pp. 112-5.
14. Atomic Energy Commission, Atomic
Tests in Nevada (Washington D. C.: US Government Printing Office, 1957), p.
15. Spoken by AEC Commissioner Willard Libby, at AEC Meeting 1062,
March 28, 1955, reprinted in, "Health Effects of Low-Level
Radiation," Joint Hearings, p.
16. See Technical Report
1-DESERT ROCK 1: A Psychological Study of Troop Reactions to an Atomic Explosion,
by Peter A. Bordes, John L. Finan, Joseph R. Hochstim, Howard F. McFann, and
Shepard G. Schwartz, February 1953, Task DESERT ROCK 1; and Information Report - Spread of Information
Following an Atomic Maneuver, by Richard Snyder and Eli Saltz, 4 February
1954, Human Research Unit No. 2, OCAFF, Fort Ord, California.
17. Roy E. Heinecke, "You Versus the A-Bomb," Leatherneck. 36:8 (August 1953), p. 33.
18. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur W. Milberg, "Atomic War
Questions for Battle Commanders," Army
9:6 (January 1959), p. 26.
19. Catherine Caufield, Multiple
Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age (New York: Harper and Row,
1989), p. 107.
20. Thomas H. Saffer and Orville E. Kelly, Countdown Zero (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1982), 201-36. This
book is the autobiography of the founder of the NAAV, published posthumously.
The chapter titled "And there Were Others," gives accounts writ ten
by atomic veterans typical of the accounts published in the NAAV Newsletter.
21. See John Lawrence's accompanying article.
22. Robert Sheer, With Enough
Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War (New York: Vintage Press, 1983), p.