Whose Afraid of a Little Atom Bomb?

“Automobiles can be dangerous too. They sometimes cause bad accidents…Now, we must be ready for a new danger, the atomic bomb.”

Duck and Cover, Federal Civil Defence Administration (1951).


This is the terminology and the outright deceptive message that was being depicted to their people by the American government on a daily basis regarding the atomic bomb and the peoples concerns in the 1950’s. The atomic bomb was only as harmful as other luxuries in life such as car accidents and house fires, so they were told. Yet, the real footage of atomic testing repeatedly displayed on television, to possibly demonstrate America’s strength and capabilities, contradicted the calm and smoothing message that something like “Duck and Cover” brought to the American people, especially their children.

Knowing this, “Nothing to fear, it’s only a little atom bomb” asks the question of how the fear of the atomic bomb unfolded within different contexts of American life. It attempts to look at the constant fear and anxiety that Americans, especially American children, faced in everyday life, in politics, and in the arms race from more than a top layer view. To examine a fear in greater depth that was constantly ignored, or at the very least compressed, by the American government and many areas within its society.



World War II came to an end with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States of America (USA). This over zealous conclusion to the world’s bloodiest war triggered the start of a new “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and USA. The Cold War revolved around different ideologies and the thirst for power, mainly through atomic armament. With the build up of both countries atomic armaments and the clear friction between the two countries in every encounter, including Olympic games and alike, the realistic possibility of atomic annihilation was unmistakable. With each country attempting to out do each other and prove to be the strongest power, it was the citizens and every day lives of the people of each of these countries that were affected the most.

Some historians such as Stefan Possony actually believe that it was the American government themselves and their act of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that caused the uprising of fear in the American people (Possony, 1946). The government ultimately causing this rhetoric fear themselves.


This study does not just look at the works by historians of the time. It endeavours to incorporate civil defense films presented to the American people, Official parliamentary and presidential documents to understand how the government viewed this issue within the public eye and behind closed doors. This study also looks into the Strategic Defence Initiative That came to be known as “Star Wars”, named after the famous movie, and the extreme lengths that the American government were willing to go to eradicate the fear within its people and themselves.

Lets ask a question though. Would you not be afraid if something like below was a potential reality within your world, could destroy it at any minute without warning and your government continuously reminded you of this, even if their intentions were to provoke security?

American Atomic Testing, 1951, www.warhistoryonline.com

Source from: American Atomic Testing, http://www.warhistoryonline.com (1951)

And being that you have a fear of the above impeding on your world, would a cartoon defence film such as this put your mind at ease?

Federal Civil Defense Administration (1951).

Source from: Duck & Cover, Federal Civil Defense Administration (1951)

Although something like Bert the Turtle above may seem comical to you (any to many others within todays society), this was a serious part of the American governments initiative to stamp out social fear throughout the Cold War. It was initiatives like this and other failing governmental attempts to eliminate fear that in fact assisted in heightening it throughout this period.

The anxiety that the atomic bomb caused was apparent in many aspects of an Americans life from their school and constant bombing drills, similar to fire drills, all the way to the entertainment that American’s watched at the cinema, within their home or the comics they read. “Nothing to fear, it’s only a little atom bomb” proposes that it was apparent that this atomic fear had affected every aspect of an American’s life and had scared all those who grew up throughout the Cold War period, with lasting effects. Was it due to the American governments own actions that caused this fear? Was the government simply reacting defensively to scare tactics of the USSR and protecting their own people, therefore it’s the USSR who is to blame?


So how did the fear of the atomic bomb play out within different contexts of American society and government throughout the Cold War? Did it play out how you think or where there a few surprising facts in there that you weren’t aware of? Read “Nothing to fear, it’s only a little atom bomb” and find out.


Further Viewing

Duck and Cover, Federal Civil Defence Administration (1951).

A is for Atom, John Sutherland Productions (1953).

Culver City, Calif. Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learnt to Stop Worry and Love the Bomb. Colunbia, TriStar Home Entertainment, 2004.


Further Reading

Mastny, V. “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: A Missed Opportunity for Déétente?” Journal of Cold War Studies 10 (2008): pp.3-25 doi: 10.1162/jcws.2008.10.1.3

Bochin, H. The senate deliberations on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, September 9-September 24, 1963. 1967.

Jacobs, B. “Atomic Kids: Duck and Cover and Atomic Alert Teach American Children How to Survive Atomic Attack.” Film and History 10 (2010): pp.22-44.

Kaur, R. “Atomic Comics: Parabolic mimesis and the graphic fictions of science.” International journal of Cultural Studies 15 (2012): pp.329-347.

Bonnell, J. S. “Mastering Atomic Fear.” Pastoral Psychology 4 (1953): pp.19-22.

Sherwin, M. J. “The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War: U.S. Atomic-Energy Policy and Diplomacy, 1941-1945.” The American Historical Review 78 (1973): pp.945-968

Weart, S. R. & Hobson, A. “Nuclear Fear: A History of Images.” American Journal of Physics 57 (1989): pp. 186-187. doi: 10.1119/1.16098

Henriksen, M. A. Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Field, D. American Cold War Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Possony, S. T. “The Atomic Bomb: Political Hopes and Realities.” The Review of Politics 8 (1946): pp.147-167 doi: 10.1017/S0034670500040377

Boyer, P. By the Bombs Early Light. London: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Whitfield, S. J. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991.


11 comments on “Whose Afraid of a Little Atom Bomb?

  1. amywaymq says:

    What an interesting topic and great inclusion of primary source imagery. It does seem a bit comical for us, looking back on characters like Bert the Turtle. Have you found any examples of children who were comforted by these government initiatives? Or were they all aware that the atomic bomb was pretty serious, that their fear was grounded in something very real?

    • Hi Amy, I didn’t find any examples of any primary sources where children were by these government initiatives but there are still a few primary sources discussing the topic. There were a few secondary sources that I found which were of people retelling their stories of when they were children and the fear they faced. Their were many articles that I read how the children viewed life without a tomorrow because they were in such fear that the atom could come at any moment but I honestly believe that everyone in this era, children and adults alike would have been feeling the same.

  2. esilk90 says:

    It is hard to imagine living in that context, especially being a child during that era where cartoons no longer provided entertainment, they educated their audiences on the realities of modern warfare and reiterated the threat of the atom bomb. It would be interesting to research the anxiety instilled into these children and compare it to their perceptions of the world as adults, post the cold war era. A great read, well done Scott!

  3. davidjacka says:

    Great post! It sure does make me want to read your paper, “Nothing to fear, it’s only a little atom bomb”. I remember watching the video of ‘Bert the Turtle’ during your in-class presentation and thinking to myself how comical it was. But as you point out, during the 1950’s, it was a serious attempt to reduce the fear surrounding the potential of nuclear war. I also agree with your point that the American government did make it worse for themselves and its people by subconsciously acknowledging the threat in popular culture and everyday life. The question I have is, do you think there was any other way that the American government could avoided the widespread anxiety of nuclear war (after they dropped the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki)?

    • Hi David,
      One of the things that the American government did was constantly play their nuclear armament testing on television, mostly during prime time. This was on every channel and was something the government did to show security to their people. The first time that the government actually started this was the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so they advertised the bombings and after effects that ended World War II. This was a situation that was viewed as a great success to the American government as they had saved many soldiers lives, yet the American public…not sure they viewed it the same way.

  4. fraserbrowne says:

    You argue that the approach of trivialising the treat of atomic war through cartoons and comics was ineffective in elevating the fear of the atomic bomb within American society; in fact you argue that it assisted in heightening fears and concerns. But would a more serious campaign have had a different effect? I would suggest that it would not have made much of a difference, and the government in fact was sensible in adopting the lesser of two evils when conveying the concerns relating to the atomic bomb, as a more serious campaign would have likely heighted fears further then the slightly more trivial campaigns they used.

    • Hey Fraser,
      I do see what you mean by would there have been a difference if another approach was adopted however, choosing or even allowing to have the nuclear bomb as the centre focus of almost everything within an adults and child’s life…I believe that there had to be a better way than also showing live footage of nuclear activity on television. There had to be a better way than causing a child’s focus to be almost entirely on whether they’ll live to see tomorrow or not. I don’t have all the answers but to cause such stress on the American public, there had to be a better way, while still presenting the truth if that was the intended goal.

  5. edmorgo12 says:

    Love it Scotty. I did a paper on the necessity for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a level 2 subject as it is something that always plagues me. The facts are that the bombs were dropped after the American Navy had surrounded Japan and letters of surrender were being drafted. So they drop a bomb… see the devastation and horror… then drop another one? “The Japs would have never surrendered”, “it was necessary after Pearl Harbour”, “we needed to show power to avoid another world war”. Frankly I don’t buy any of those as the image of Good V Evil was purported and Good just doesn’t do that. The consequences of these actions lead into your topic I think: They scared themselves with their power and actions and hoped to justify it to themselves and thus we have the images above. That’s the way I see it, but I’ll just have to read your paper to get the full story!!!

    • I completely agree. I wasn’t aware of the full scope of the quotes above but knew the basic outline. There are so many reasons why the American government decided to drop those bombs but the simple fact of “its our only reasonable option”, is absolutely rubbish. As you quoted with the necessity after Pearl Harbour…REVENGE! The American people needed to be seen as the victors at all costs…and it did cost them, as much as they didn’t know it at the time.
      They decided to show the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing of television to show how “successful” America has been, that backfired! It just struck fear into their own people and dug their own grave.
      I agree and don’t think it is a simple as “Good vs Evil”, there is always two sides to the story, and each side always has its own bias. When it comes to a government, they generally create a heavy bias in their own favour. Same as the “creating legends” like we discussed in our tutorials.

  6. efungg says:

    Hey Scott! Awesome work! The atomic bomb played such a dominate role during the Cold War period- I do think the Bert was pretty comical and when you showed it in class- i don’t think any of us took it seriously, but looking back, if I was living in this heightened period of the arms race- i think it would probably scare the living daylights out of me.I like how you included Bert and the different ads that the US government used back then, helped me visualize what it could have been like if i was a child growing up in the US during the 1950s and how I would feel coming across this ad. I like how you posed questions which I found helpful as it really captured and engaged with the reader- it would be awesome if i could read your full paper! I have a quick question tho: i am not sure if its related and it might be abit out of your research topic- but do you think that the American government used this fear of the atomic bomb that already existed within American society to further pursue their containment policy and maybe in a way legitimize their involvement in the Korean War or the Vietnam War? I can’t remember where I came across this argument/idea, but the US government highlighted the importance of the American norm and the nuclear family during the 1950s- which was stemmed from this fear which was created by the atomic bomb. Anyway, top stuff 🙂

  7. Good work Scott!

    I’m a little offended after all that build up your bold and underlined title for your essay didn’t link directly to it! The whole trivial nature of the education regarding the threat of atomic warfare does, as you said, seem ludicrous. Although i’m not entirely sure what the alternative would be, especially considering the era of that turtle was also the time of the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ et al, i have the uneducated opinion that hyper-seriousness would have been much, much worse. As to the discussion over the use of the atomic bomb and its justification, I think taking a look at the work of Robert Mcnamara might give useful insight: He was part of a statistical unit that reduced the notion of air warfare over Germany to a numbers game factoring in number of munitions, strength of target, average losses etc. If such removed thinking was involved in the use of regular bombing, the use of the atomic bomb to weigh japanese versus american lives seems entirely within the realms of ‘normalcy’. Interestingly enough he was the longest serving Defence secretary for the US during the 60s.

    Still good paper, I’m glad someone tried to ask the question about the US nuclear safety policy: “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”

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