Miranda Corcoran is a final-year PhD student in the School of English, University College Cork, Ireland. She is currently working on a thesis which explores representations of social paranoia in Cold-War American and Soviet Russian fiction. Her research interests include postmodern theory, absurdist fiction, intersections of literature and psychology, and American popular culture. Email:
Writing amidst the politically taut atmosphere of the early 1960s, the social critic Irving Howe mused that the very notion of utopianism was inherently antithetical to an American national character whose essential pragmatism refused to cultivate “the taste for utopia” (qtd in Wegner 64). A vociferous opponent of totalitarianism in all of its many guises, Howe’s adamant denunciation has been viewed by many commentators as an extension of the pervasive Cold War distaste for the philosophies of a Soviet antagonist whose preoccupation with construction of a socialist utopia would ultimately devastate its own populace. However, despite the ubiquity of such attempts to situate the American character in defiant opposition to that of its communist adversary, the centrality of utopian discourse in shaping the mainstream American thinking remained an indissoluble facet of a national identity in which Puritan pragmatism ceaselessly co-mingled with the quasi-mystical idealism of a people who had crossed the Atlantic in search of an earthly paradise. Indeed, it is possible to discern within much of America’s cultural discourse an inherent preoccupation with the inexorable imminence of a better world formed out of the actualisation of the utopian desires which had enticed its Puritan forbearers to cross the ocean and impelled the nation’s founding fathers towards revolution. As such, the boundless possibilities of a utopian future echoed throughout the linguistic and textual discourse of the United States, informing the nation’s most prized identificatory narratives and ensuring that ― as the modern age dawned ― this foundational mythopoeia would be mobilised in a paean to the twentieth century’s obsession with improvement and ceaseless progress.
This essay argues that contrary to the admonitory refutations of commentators such as Howe, utopianism as an intellectual and rhetorical force existed not merely as the prerogative of totalitarian systems, but as a vital component of American thinking, a recalcitrant memory of profoundly idealistic national origins which, rather than diminishing with the advent of the Cold War and the post-war technocracy, flourished as America sought to justify its policy of nuclear proliferation through recourse to the nation’s most enduring foundational narratives. In doing so, this essay explores the role of utopian futurism in the manufacture of a cohesive cultural consensus during the inceptive years of the Atomic Age and examines its status as a re-configuration of America’s abiding memory of its utopian origins. Foregrounding two educational films from this period, A is for Atom, directed by Carl Urbano and produced by Sutherland productions in 1953, and Our Friend the Atom, an episode of the television series Disneyland, directed by Hamilton Luske and produced by Ward Kimball in 1957, I will examine how the Arcadian ideologies that informed America’s earliest conceptions of its nascent selfhood were re-appropriated by mid-twentieth-century educators as means of explicating and rationalising America’s initial forays into the mysterious new realm of atomic science. In analysing how children’s scientific education was almost invariably framed by idealistic visions of a technologically-resplendent atomic future, I hope to demonstrate how early American utopian concepts were incorporated into twentieth-century scientific discourse. Moreover, this essay will ultimately contend that such films exemplify the manner in which pervasive utopian imagery proved instrumental not only in creating a generation with a positive view of atomic energy, but also in producing a generation whose understanding of the dawning Atomic Age was indelibly bound to an indissoluble memory of their nation’s foundational utopian narratives.
Promoting the “Peaceful Atom”
Drawing upon the intractable echoes of America’s earliest identificatory discourses, the Cold War arms race was frequently justified through an appeal to a shared cultural memory which sought to enfold Cold War ideology within the pervasive rhetoric of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, intimating that America’s expansion of its nuclear capabilities was legitimised by the God-given position of the United States as the global avatar of democratic liberty. Yet, while the immense destructive power of the bomb was invariably couched in the quasi-mystical language of divine providence, the era’s preoccupation with the peace-time applications of atomic energy was strongly influenced by the legacy of utopian thought from which the American mind had been engendered. Envisioning a world in which the destructive potential unleashed amidst the arid plains of the White Sands testing ground, site of the world’s first nuclear detonation, would be countered by an equally potent capacity for infinite beneficence, Americans of the immediate post-war period possessed a decidedly fragmented understanding of the dawning Atomic Age. As the author David O. Woodbury wrote in a 1955 issue of the populist publication Look,
Our generation lives between Hell and Utopia. For the very force that can destroy the human race can create wonders without end on earth. It is small wonder that men’s minds today shuttle between fears of doom and dreams of unprecedented bounty. (Woodbury 26)
Yet, while the preponderance of the American populace vacillated between hope and terror, a significant portion of the nation’s policy makers and ideologues saw within the atom’s immense force not merely a weapon but an inexpensive, infinite resource whose subjugation represented the power to transform American society and usher in a new epoch of peace and plenitude. Seeking to emphasise the vast potential contained within the atom’s minute form, America’s most influential scientific bodies set about promoting the positive aspects of nuclear power. As Paul S. Boyer observes, the immediate post-war period “saw something approaching a national town meeting on the atomic bomb and its meaning”, with “news magazines like Time, Newsweek, and United States News; general publications such as Life, Collier’s, and the Saturday Evening Post; and specialized magazines for educators, businessmen, women, ministers, and countless other groups” publishing a surfeit of articles intended to educate the general public about the mysterious power of the atom (31).
Further solidifying these burgeoning pedagogical endeavours, 1946 saw the ratification of the Atomic Energy Act and the attendant formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, a governmental body charged with, amongst other duties, the mammoth task of regulating official discourse related to nuclear energy and entrusted to counteract the images of consummate destruction that emerged out of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by promoting atomic power as beneficial force, subservient to the desires of mankind (History Matters). In tandem with analogous initiatives such as the Atoms for Peace Programme, the AEC was responsible for distributing information and educational materials to schools and similar institutions throughout the United States (History Matters). The progeny of such schemes included numerous educational films designed to pacify the consummate nuclear anxiety of the period, as well as a panoply of comic books, cartoons and television specials all intended to explicate the nature of the inscrutable atom (Rifas 255). Couched in “everyday allusions and reassuring analogies,” these attempts to divest nuclear power of its aura of destruction and menace often manifested in the guise of saccharine texts like John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “The Atomic Story,” a work replete with non-threatening atomic analogues such as “Proton: A plump, positive fellow,” or the equally sentimental popularisation illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak featuring atoms as dancing men and women pairing off to form molecules (Boyer 294).
However, despite the diversity of narrative forms employed in the service of such educational endeavours, the myriad instructive texts which emerged from these initiatives were united by the singular homogeny of their structure. In accordance with the desire to generate widespread acceptance of nuclear power, these texts were almost invariably composed of simplistic, quasi-scientific explanations of nuclear fission and the mysterious sub-atomic universe framed by explicitly utopian imagery, proffering a glimpse of the idyllic future whose realisation was dependent upon mankind’s willingness to embrace atomic power. The vision of atomic power that permeated the consciousness of America’s school children was thus informed by an idea known as the “peaceful atom,”1 a socio-scientific philosophy which emerged contemporaneously with the deterioration of American-Soviet relations in 1947 and emphasised the optimistic position that “atomic energy held enormous potential for good that would be realized only if the new technology were greeted with calm acceptance” (Browne 72). Seeking to counter the images of destruction that seeped into the popular imagination through the ubiquity of rigorous Duck and Cover drills and the seemingly inexorable proliferation of backyard bomb shelters, the rhetoric of the peaceful atom foregrounded a luminous future born out of the responsible application of atomic science. As one booklet for high school students intoned, “Why not keep the bright side of the atomic energy picture in the center of our attention?” (qtd in Browne 73). In consistently linking the power of the atom to a wondrous potential future, post-war educational texts attempted to foster not just understanding, but acceptance and perhaps even desire for the new world which would inevitably be born out of the atom’s incomprehensible force. Consequently, through the omnipresence of such educational materials, children growing up in the shadow of the Atomic Age, learned to regard nuclear energy as a source of strength and authority, an indomitable force which, to quote one comic book from the late 1940s entitled Adventures Inside the Atom, would serve “humanity in the future as a source of almost unlimited power” (qtd in Rifas 255).
Animating the Atom: Educational Cinema and Nuclear Utopianism
From amongst the vast throngs of such educational materials produced during the nascent years of the Nuclear Age, this essay focuses primarily on two short animated films. The first of these cinematic productions, A is for Atom, was released in 1953 by Sutherland Productions and sponsored by General Electric (Heintjes 212), while the second, Our Friend the Atom, was produced in 1957 by Walt Disney Studios as tie-in to a book of the same name as well as an exhibit at the studio’s futuristic theme park Tomorrowland (Geerhart and Sitz).
Both films stand as exemplars of the manner in which mid-century policy-makers and pedagogues attempted to mollify nuclear anxiety by presenting atomic energy not merely as a positive force, but as a veritable panacea which would usher in a new epoch of unmitigated peace and prosperity. However, while these films present the advancement of scientific knowledge as a ceaseless hurdle towards a nuclear paradise, both prominently feature poignant images of billowing mushroom clouds rising out of an incendiary conflagration thus acknowledging the reality that, as the unseen narrator of A is for Atom explicates in the film’s opening frames, “the shadow of the atomic bomb has been across all of our lives.” Indeed, these films emerge out of the anxieties of an era in which the already considerable force of the uranium bomb had given way to the vast destructive capabilities of the hydrogen bomb, kilotons yielding to megatons as the capacity for utter global devastation which had been brought within the purview of humankind’s technological capabilities became increasingly apparent. Yet, even as these images of consummate destruction fade from the screen, the transitory darkness is illuminated by the calm voices of the films’ respective narrators seeking to reassure their young audiences that under the control of moral men, the atom need not be a destructive force.
Echoing the initial optimism voiced by the University of Chicago scientists who, under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, generated the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, these films are united in their depiction of an imminent future in which the harnessing of the atom represents the dawn of a new age. The rhetoric which pervades both films is indicative of a nation which conceived of itself as situated on the precipice of a new world. Sublimating the catastrophic destruction which attended the birth of the Nuclear Age, both A is for Atom and Our Friend the Atom portray atomic power primarily as a generative force. The linguistic and visual discourse which reverberates throughout these films is one of growth, renewal and promise as both place heavy emphasis on the new world whose realisation is presented as the reward for humankind’s ceaseless struggle towards an ill-defined technological acme. As such, the future which will crystallise out of this momentous effort is depicted as a nuclear Arcadia of incandescent cities and pristine landscapes in which an indefatigable power source will supply light and energy to homes and industries. Accompanied by a cacophony of maxims extolling the virtues of nuclear power, the narrators whose voices preside over these unfolding utopian visions assure their audience that the exploitation of the atom will provide power for the continued growth of the American economy and culture. In summoning forth a fantastic procession of Arcadian images these films function to entice their young viewers with myriad promises that their future will be one of boundless possibilities in which even the confines of the terrestrial sphere will be broken by the miracle of atomic science. Consequently, these films, like the innumerable analogous texts produced during the early Cold War period succeeded in constructing a conceptual space, an idealised tomorrow, independent of any definitive physical or chronological location, onto which the desires and fantasies of post-war America could be projected.
The visual fantasias conjured up by the vividly animated futures depicted in both A is for Atom and Our Friend the Atom are conceptual paradises in which atomic power promises to realise a brave new world where man is no longer constrained by spatial or geographical determinants, but is instead empowered by a profusion of atomic ships, submarines and even planes to transcend his own limited physicality. Indeed, the narrator of Our Friend the Atom goes so far as to intone that the atom “will help us to cast off the shackles of gravity and fly through the vast reaches of outer space,” a prediction replete with allusions to the myriad speculations concerning the feasibility of off-world colonisation which multiplied in public discourse during the nascent years of the space programme. This optimistic sentiment was echoed in the popular discourse of the time, as prominent futurists such as David O. Woodbury assured an enraptured public that by the year 2000 atomic energy
will be as commonplace as gasoline, […] atomic ships will ferry you across the ocean, driven by an atomic engine the size of a present day turbine […], you will see atomic planes in the air. – Nearer home, there will be atomic heating in homes and offices” (31).
In this way, the message which reverberated throughout the discursive sphere of mid-century America contained within it the certainty that the world inherited by the children of the Atomic Age would be one connected by advanced communications systems and impossibly efficient modes of transportation, where an infinite source of power and heat would forever eradicate the scourges of cold and hunger.
The Atomic City on a Hill – Utopian Discourses for the Nuclear Age
Within in the discursive universe of both A is for Atom and Our Friend the Atom, as well as in the innumerable analogous texts that proliferated during this period, atomic power is conceived of as the panacea which would efface the inequities and hardships that had eternally plagued mankind, thereby hastening the actualisation of the egalitarian paradise envisioned by American ideologues ever since John Winthrop and his Puritan cohorts established a democratic system of local government on the Shawmut peninsula, thus determining the ideological paradigms upon which America’s collective identity would be founded. Indeed, despite the plethora of futuristic imagery which proliferates throughout both films, the rhetoric and ideology promulgated by such propagandistic texts are strongly tied to the mythopoeia of the American past, as, like many mid-twentieth century futurist texts, they “championed an exotic technological utopianism that addressed familiar histories and ordinary hopes” (Kilgore 33). In presenting the future as an egalitarian earthly paradise, these films are drawing upon a tradition of American utopianism which evolved out of the myriad virtues and values that were projected onto the new American continent as an empty vessel primed to hold the utopian dreams of disenfranchised old world exiles. Reflecting the pervasive cultural discourses of the immediate post-war period, these films present an imagined future which, like the New Jerusalem envisioned by America’s earliest European settlers, functions primarily as a conceptual space. Just as Perry Miller attributes the origins of the American self to a “dyadic relationship between Europe and an empty continent”, a utopian desire inflamed by the vast potential which inhered within the “imaginary vacancy of the wilderness” (qtd in Kaplan and Pease 6), the future is here figured as a vast cognitive arena in which mankind’s myriad unrealisable fantasies of an ideal community are allowed to roam free.
The strain of utopian thought deployed in both A is for Atom and Our Friend the Atom, as well as within countless other mid-century educational tracts, exists as an intellectual successor to utopian desires of the nation’s Puritan progenitors who wished to forge an Edenic society amidst the vast, ostensibly vacant, territories of the New World. This facet of utopian desire is evident, not merely in the highly speculative discourse which pervades these films, but in much of their explicitly bucolic imagery which overtly literalises such Edenic fantasies by anticipating a future in which a pastoral Arcadia could develop alongside the technological splendour of the nuclear age.
Both films strongly advocate the replacement of fossil fuels with the infinitely sustainable juggernaut of atomic energy which, produced quietly and cleanly, possesses the ability to free mankind from the polluted legacy of nineteenth-century industrialisation. Moreover, these films display parallel visions of a natural world transformed by the atom’s benevolent might, where radioactive isotopes injected into plants and animal feed would allow scientists to track growth and isolate optimum conditions for the cultivation and production of agricultural produce. As the sanguine narrator of A is for Atom announces amidst a plethora of idyllic rural images, the application of atomic science to traditional vocations such as agriculture will guarantee “bigger and better yields from tomorrow’s farms.” Echoing this language of natural profusion and pastoral abundance, the imagery deployed to illustrate the utopian predictions of Our Friend the Atom depicts an agricultural utopia which, despite its reliance on new technology, is never industrialised, but rather remains a lush agrarian paradise, reminiscent of the bucolic ideal sought by America’s earliest European settlers.
Furthermore, the rhetorical construction of this nuclear future and the concomitant portrayal of the farm of tomorrow as a veritable cornucopia of plenitude and profusion is conspicuously redolent of the language used to entice the first American colonists to venture forth into the vast territories of the New World. This pragmatic figuration of utopian rhetoric was strongly tied to the availability of natural resources at a time when the new continent represented the prospect of freedom from the spectres of plague and famine which had ceaselessly preyed upon the inhabitants of sixteenth-century Europe. As Hugh Brogan notes, numerous tracts and advertisements from this period herald the Virginian colony as a “country where an illimitable forest provided an inexhaustible supply of free fuel and housing materials, […] a land more like the Garden of Eden: which the Lord planted, than any part else of the Earth” (16). The language of utopian splendour has thus resounded down throughout American history, a recalcitrant memory of the nation’s origins as a conceptual paradise, which has successfully insinuated itself into America’s identificatory framework. This rhetorical preoccupation with the manifold possibilities of a new Eden manifests itself intertextually in the title of A is for Atom in which the traditional alphabetical association of “A is for apple” is subverted so that the customary fruit is supplanted by the eponymous atom. This substitution becomes more significant when one considers the centrality of the apple within the Christian mythos which provides the foundation for America’s pervasive utopian mythology. In exchanging the apple, the avatar of the fall of man, for the atom, the portent of a new technological paradise, the inescapable intertextual connotations suggest that the ascendancy of the atom can reverse the mankind’s expulsion from the garden and restore the prelapsarian paradise of Edenic grace.
Further developing this quasi-theological rendering of the atom as imbued with the power to recreate the American landscape as a new Eden, both films portray nuclear power and the attendant right to wield atomic force as a divinely-bestowed gift. Indeed, Our Friend the Atom and A is for Atom are equally dominated by the presence of god-like figures intend to serve as the physical embodiment of the omnipotent atom. While these incarnations of the atom’s might are ostensibly secularised in both pedagogical texts ― manifesting as the proverbial “nuclear genie” and a nameless atomic giant respectively ― the appearance and function of these immense figures are couched in unambiguously religious rhetoric as both are depicted as possessing an infinite capacity for creation and destruction, the power to give life and the ability to extinguish it.
The narrator in Our Friend the Atom articulates the divine nature of the atom when he observes that “the atomic genie weighs in his hands both the powers of creation and destruction”, while A is for Atom conceptualises an equally potent nuclear deity who, like the multi-faceted Trinity of Christian doctrine, assumes many guises ― in this case simultaneously embodying the role of “warrior, engineer, farmer, healer.” Moreover, not only do these films establish clear parallels between the awesome power of the atom and the Judeo-Christian god, they also locate this deistic conception of atomic power within a similar ideological framework whereby America’s possession of atomic technology is envisioned not as a product of scientific endeavour, but as a divine right, a consequence of America’s special position as a bastion of freedom and democracy. Consequently A is for Atom and Our Friend the Atom form part of a broader post-war discourse in which atomic power was enfolded within America’s foundational religious and moral traditions, embodying a philosophical perspective which, as Paul S. Boyer notes, was defined by the belief that “God had given America the secret, and its further development would reflect the divine plan” (211).
This quasi-theological conception of the possession of the atomic secret as America’s God-given right was initially legitimised in the hours following the destruction of Nagasaki on August 9th 1945 when President Harry S. Truman spoke on a nationwide radio broadcast, solemnly intoning that, “[I]t is an awful responsibility which has come to us. We thank God that it has come to us instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes” (qtd in Boyer 6). Echoing this position, both A is for Atom and Our Friend the Atom emphasise that their promised atomic utopias can only come to fruition if the unfathomable power of the atom remains in the hands of those who will use it wisely and for the betterment of humanity. Our Friend the Atom literalises this exceptionalist position when, amidst his litany of hopes for a technologically resplendent future, the film’s narrator explicitly wishes that “the atomic genie will remain ever our friend.” Once again, this understanding of the birth of an atomic utopia as an expression of God’s will, an indicator of the exceptional theological and spiritual status of the United States draws numerous parallels with America’s foundational utopian discourses, expressing as it does the unique, divinely-sanctioned position afforded to the United States as rightful inheritor of an Edenic paradise. Within the textual space of these films the rhetoric of techno-centric optimism which pervaded the discursive sphere during the early Cold-War period is thus conflated with the language of divine providence that informed America’s foundational utopian yearnings, as scientific progress, concentrated within the hands of the righteous, is conceived of as the catalyst which would accelerate the actualisation of the utopian vista envisioned by the nation’s founders, ultimately transforming the conceptual paradise of early American philosophy into a tangible physical space.
The buoyantly hopeful conclusions of both A is for Atom and Our Friend the Atom reinforce this optimism, with the latter depicting the expansion of the nuclear utopia across the globe. In the final frames of the film, a series of gleaming atomic power stations materialise as if summoned from the ether. Beginning in the United States and radiating outwards across the surface of the earth, these incandescent citadels immediately evoke the exceptionalist language of John Winthrop’s assertion that the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem must never fail to consider that “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” (qtd Brogan 44). For, just as Winthrop’s emblematic city was conceived of as an exemplar for all mankind, so too would America’s nuclear utopia function as a beacon for the world, leading humanity towards a brighter tomorrow.
In this way, the dream of a utopian future which filtered down through the history of American thought is one which emanates from a distant source in the nation’s past, an intractable echo of the early quasi-mystical discourses out of which the U.S. forged its earliest identificatory framework. The linguistic and textual discourses deployed in these films, in concordance with a surfeit of comparable texts, work to reconfigure this utopian legacy in accordance with the techno-centric desires of the early Cold-War period, thus creating an alternative mythology which attempts to efface the destructive potential of the atom. Indeed, despite the apparent simplicity with which both Our Friend the Atom and A is for Atom appear to engage with the issue of nuclear proliferation, these texts emerge from a complex web of cultural discourses. In an effort to create a singular unifying cultural consensus, both films re-appropriate the language and imagery of America’s most powerful foundational discourse, a process which Leonard Rifas argues was instrumental in producing a generation who, until the anti-nuclear movement consolidated amidst the growing social unrest of the late 1960s and 70s, harboured largely positive hopes for the dawning Atomic Age. As such, the pedagogical policies that informed post-war discourse about the atom were informed by president Harry S. Truman’s assertion that, “Education is our first line of defense” (Browne 74). Although Truman was more directly referring the need to inculcate civil defense techniques amongst U.S. school children in order to anticipate a potential nuclear attack, the primacy of educational techniques in constructing an optimistic vision of the American future embodies the central role occupied by ideologically-inflected pedagogies in creating a single, cohesive narrative about the atom during this period. Moreover, the widespread proliferation of such an idyllic cultural mythology was viewed not only as possessing the power to unite the American populace in anticipation of a brilliant atomic future, but also to defend the American socio-political consensus against corrosion or subversion by alien ideologies.
Ultimately, the success of these educational materials in generating a decidedly pro-nuclear narrative which could exist contemporaneously with the anxiety of the early Cold War period and the omnipresent terror evoked by regular “duck and cover” drills, stems from the fact that utopianism rather than existing, as Howe suggests, solely as a feature of some perennially demonised totalitarian Other functioned as an integral facet of the American self of those times. As a nation initially born out of spiritual yearning and later still liberated by a revolution conceived of by its instigators as a means of creating a new and better society, America endures as the progeny of ideology and rhetoric, her respective nationhood determined less by geographical boundaries than by grandiose philosophies and utopian desires. Moreover, because American identity has always been closely allied with the construction of such idealised conceptual spaces, the ostensibly naïve optimism of early Atomic Age educational materials such as A is for Atom and Our Friend the Atom, can perhaps be more accurately viewed as highly effective propaganda due in large part to the manner in which they manipulate the desires and fantasies that have always resided at the heart of the American self.
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1 Despite the exceptionalist rhetoric that defines America’s post-war vision of itself as sole legitimate guardian of the peaceful atom and the only nation capable of responsible custodianship of nuclear power, a similar narrative emphasising the wonders that could be achieved through careful, ideologically-correct utilisation of atomic power permeated the cultural and educational discourses of other nations. Most notably, numerous Cold War-era Soviet pedagogies “stressed the peaceful uses for atomic energy being developed in the USSR, as opposed to the military uses being planned in the United States” (Josephson 174). ↩