By the Bomb's Early Light

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Paul S. Boyer. By the bomb’s early light : American thought and culture at the dawn of the atomic age. 1985. Reprint, Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1994. xxii, 440 p. $21.95



Shortly after the first atomic bombs had been dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans began their effort to explain and defend the massive loss of civilian life that had been brought about by these twin blasts in Japan. Not truly understanding at first the immense power that these weapons possessed, American society rapidly began to fear the very weapon that they had hailed as a means to bring World War II to a quick end with little loss of America life an invasion of the Japanese islands may have required. Many of the cultural institutions within America felt that it was their responsibility to educate the people to the true dangers the atomic bomb possessed.

In By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, Paul Boyer examines these institutions and the information that they released to the public shortly after the bombing of Japan in an attempt to find a pulse on America’s reaction to the atomic weapons that had just been deployed. Boyer believes that within a short period of time, a feeling of fear and helplessness arose with the American people as to their future as this age of the atom began to take hold on the nation. As a result of his research, Boyer sees that this fear of the future was rapidly exploited by various groups in an attempt to convince the American people of the uncertainty of a world that included atomic weapons.

Boyer focuses on the period from 1945-1950, showing how American cultures changed after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945. The bomb represented a new technical capability with both positive and ominous implications, which Americans had to come to terms with. Most Americans did not recoil from the idea of using this tremendously destructive weapon because, as Boyer points out, the strategic bombing of both Germany and Japan, including the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, had inured people to the idea of targeting civilian populations for mass destruction. Boyer states that according to early polls, “upwards of 80% of Americans approved the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” (p. 183) While some people were dismayed by the new weapon, Boyer says, “After the shock, Americans simply rallied and took the atomic bomb in stride.” (p. 10)

Through a detailed examination of materials including newspaper articles, literature, scientific societies, church sermons, government documents and various polls and questionnaires, Boyer argues that for a five-year period beginning with the close of WWII through to roughly the start of the Korean conflict, many of these cultural and societal organizations within the United States attempted to convince Americas that unless a solution to the atomic question was developed, the world was doomed to be destroyed by these bombs. While numerous solutions were developed, the overwhelming majority of these groups believed that international control of atomic technology was the only proper and safe method to assure these weapons were to be never used again. To successfully achieve this technological control, most believed that a world government needed to be created where every nation would give up its national sovereignty to assure the survival of the human race. While these notions may seem esoteric in today’s post-cold war environment, to American living during this time period, this fear of death from an atomic war was very real. As Boyer states, however, “Even when the movement for international control was at its apogee, in short, the idea never won more than lukewarm popular support.” (p. 57)

Boyer's study ends in the early 1950’s. He finds, “By 1950, the obsessive post-Hiroshima awareness of the horror of the atomic bomb had given way to an interval of diminished cultural attention and uneasy acquiescence in the goal of maintaining atomic superiority over the Russians.” (p. 352) During the Cold War, the Bomb became wrapped up in the civil defense system that emphasized safety over ethics. Unlike in earlier years, the voices that questioned the ethics of the Bomb were reduced to those “dismissed as ‘pacifist’ and thus by definition out of touch with the hard political realities” (p. 348) that necessitated sophisticated defense weaponry. As Boyer states, “The dread destroyer of 1945 had become the shield of the Republic by 1950” (p. 349) but without the hope that had surrounded atomic innovation in 1945.

Throughout his book, Boyer does a superb job of examining at length as many varied examples of American culture and society as possible. Starting with the very scientists that created these atomic weapons, one quickly sees that America changed its mood from one of exultation to that of angst; this new weapon and its massive power left a lasting impression upon even the most rugged of Americans – death from radiation simply was incomprehensible. Because of the incredible sense of fear that arose, Boyer also looks at how psychologists dealt with the issue of instantaneous death of hundreds of thousands of people. Many feared that Americans would become lethargic while refusing to leave the security of their homes. City planners believed that the modern American city as it existed in 1945 had to be redesigned in an attempt to allow the maximum number of people to survive an atomic attack. Finally, most of the major religious institutions in America chimed in on the use of atomic weapons, most believing that the instantaneous death of hundreds of thousands of people could never be defended. In the eyes of must churches, society had become morally unclean and needed another revival to assure its survival.


Tom Demharter, fall 2005

--Tdemharter 21:27, 13 Sep 2005 (EDT)

While the author obviously put a tremendous amount of time and effort into researching this book, there were a number of questions that I believe still need to be addressed. For example, the author does an excellent job of explaining why this anxiety and paranoia arose in America after the bombing of Japan, but gives little detail as to why it ended almost as rapidly as it began. Next, the main point of the book is to attempt to make better sense of what Americans were thinking at the dawn of the atomic age, yet ordinary Americans are rarely discussed. While the diaries and journals of scientists and politicians are used to help bolster his argument, little effort is made by Boyer to show what the average citizen had made of this incredible change that had just occurred. Surely there are thousands of diary entries that exist. What did those 18,000+ citizens that had found out they had been somehow part of the creation of the first atomic weapons think about what they had just created? Again, while a tremendous amount of research was done, the true pulse of America was missed. Finally, too much time is spent reviewing the same issues over and again. Points that were made earlier in the book somehow find their way back into the work later – information that did not need to be discussed again. This was especially true with the religious argument. Too often, I found myself re-reading a quote or concept that had already been discussed in detail – Boyer needs to make his point and move on.

Overall, I found Boyer’s book an excellent read that provided a tremendous amount of information on an important topic that had really not been researched in-depth. I believe that this book would fit nicely into a survey course as the part of a case-study on the origins of the Cold War. The book, while it could be used in an AP US History class, would be too complex for a high school classroom. Finally, in a graduate class on the Cold War, this book should be considered required reading – what a better way to get a true sense of American culture at the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Ray Clark, spring 2006

--Ray Clark 14:06, 8 Feb 2006 (EST)

By the Bomb’s Early Light is subtitled American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. A proper subtitle should be the Origins of the Anti-Nuclear Movement in America. Boyer clearly identifies himself as a member of the anti-nuclear movement in both the introduction and the epilogue. He states that the purpose of the book was to inform the younger generation of anti-nuclear activists of the history of the movement and to make another attempt to counteract “what seemed a profound public apathy toward the threat of nuclear war. (p. xvii)” Boyer attempts to portray the anti-nuclear activists as mainstream, influencing every aspect of American life and culture. He claims in his introduction that there were so many references that he had a hard time picking best ones and still could not keep the book under 350 pages. Yet at closer look his references are not all that mainstream nor representative of the total culture.

Boyer’s treatment of the subject is one sided to the extent he emphasized criticisms of things nuclear while ignoring or marginalizing the pro-nuclear aspects of American thought and culture. One example is how he uses two commentaries from August 1945 by H.V. Kaltenborn, the anchor reporter of the NBC evening news program. These commentaries were critical of nuclear weapons but they are the only Kaltenborn commentaries used by Boyer. Excerpts from these two commentaries are use over and over creating the impression that Kaltenborn was using his broadcast to present anti-nuclear opinions to the general public. But since nothing else from Kaltenborn over the five year period under study is quoted by Boyer this probably wasn’t the case.

A second example comes from the section where Boyer attempts show that the science fiction from the period evidenced a broad anti-nuclear sentiment. He chooses a dozen or so stories with nuclear war or disaster themes that have bad out comes. There were just as many stories where the nuclear catastrophe was averted and society ends up better in the end than it was in the beginning. The best of this group was probably Robert H. Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen” published in 1946. The story concerns the engineers working at a very large nuclear power reactor nicknamed “the Bomb” and how they react to the news that the mathematical equations that predicted the reactor was safe to operate were flawed and an explosion is possible. Management would rather believe the old equations and not loose money from shutting down the reactor. The plant manager must decide between shutting down the reactor against orders or risking blowing up most of the western United States. Not only does the manager do the right thing by shutting down the reactor but in the end his job is saved when two of his researchers discover a new method to get the energy out of uranium that is safer and cheaper than a fission reaction. By not even mentioning the existence of positive treatments of atomic power in literature Boyer further compromises an possible objectivity he have sought.

Boyer’s greatest problem and that of the anti-nuclear movement in general is that the general public never adopted the level of fear they thought appropriate. On page 304 when he mentions atmospheric testing in Nevada Boyer tries to create the impression that what was going on was all hush-hush and mysterious that no one knew what the AEC was doing in the desert. In fact the AEC had a good public relations operation in place. While they didn’t announce detonations ahead of time they did provide after the fact newsreel footage along with some general information about what kind of test were being conducted. Among other things they were conducting blast effect tests on mock-up structures. These were widely publicized. The whole thing was well enough understood that a mock-up neighborhood could be used to set up the plot of the 1954 Mickey Rooney movie The Atomic Kid where Rooney’s character gets lost in desert just before a bomb test. One could not use Yucca Flats as a movie backdrop if the general public didn’t know what it was and get the joke of the poor smuck lost in the desert in a fully furnished house populated with mannequins.

The best take away is that despite the anti-nuclear movements best efforts the public has refused to remain fearful of any use of atomic energy. Yes, a specific event can generate a fair amount of fear but it just won’t sustain itself. Boyer acknowledges this problem and presents five reasons for it in the epilogue. Of these the fifth, the Vietnam War diverting 100 per cent of the effort of the liberal activist is the least plausible. His first and second reasons, lack of immediate risk and loss of immediacy are closer to the mark. To these two reasons must be added the Loss of Novelty, Americans quickly loose interest in things and move on to the next wonder. (This Way to the Egress!). Everyone watched Apollo 11 buy the time Apollo 13 blasted off going to the moon was old news and it was only the disaster that drew attention back to that flight. The same effect applies to nuclear destruction, that’s old news, scare us with something new.

Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Boyer’s book is well researched using both primary and secondary sources, but it does seem overly long and repetitive. Boyer makes the same point over and over again in many chapters. His choice of sources seems slanted toward his own clearly anti-nuclear view. Nonetheless, his book is a worthwhile study of the impact of nuclear weapons on American culture immediately after WW II.

Boyer describes at length the effort of scientists to create an awareness of the dangers of the atomic bomb and the need to have cooperative international efforts to control it and expresses his disappointment at the failure of these efforts. He says, “The scientists’ endless insistence on the awesome destructive potential of the atomic bomb had left the American people “half educated:” the lesson of the bomb’s terrible power had been well learned, the lesson of international control and cooperation as a means of escaping the terror had not, leaving a net effect of “despair and confusion.”” (p. 93) The onset of the Cold War placed the atomic bomb at the center of American efforts to oppose communism. As a result, Boyer says, “the strategic planning and bomb-making that would embed atomic weapons at the very center of all American military and diplomatic calculations were moving inexorably forward.” (p. 102)

Boyer comes down on the side of those who believe the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan was not justified. He says, “The argument that the atomic bomb saved hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese lives is, of course, speculative.” (p. 186) Of course, numerous historians, including Gerard Weinberg in A World at Arms, have found otherwise. In his zeal to cast the bombing of Japan in the worst possible light, Boyer goes to the extreme of equating it with the Holocaust. He states, “What one sees in this early postwar period is a divergence in the ethical response to the two events of World War II that did most to undermine humanity’s fragile ethical tradition: the mass extermination of the Jews, and the mass extermination of city dwellers, culminating at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” (pp. 225-26) While the immorality of mass bombing of cities may be asserted, it does not rise to the level of depravity involved in the organized, deliberate mass executions of targeted population groups carried out in the Holocaust.

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

By the Bomb’s Early Light is a valuable tool for historians of various concentrations. While Boyer’s focus is on the social and cultural impacts of the Atomic Bomb between 1945 and 1950, he provides insight from diverse sources and perspectives. Boyer offers sources and analysis useful to historians of American literature and film at one end of the spectrum to material for political and diplomatic historians at the other end. For example, in describing the scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s guilt he confessed in a meeting with President Truman, we see a Truman who is vituperative and sarcastic in contrast to the forgotten president after FDR that so often appears (193). While overall a political historian would have a collection of literature more specific to matters of policy and administration regarding the nuclear age, Boyer offers a succinct cultural context in which to place that understanding with appropriate primary sources and sound analyses of those sources.

Further, Boyer is an historian in complete control of his extensive research. While there are more direct quotations and paraphrasing than many other history texts, these additions are seldom overbearing and support the argument Boyer is making. The fact that there are so many sources here with few weak selections illustrates how extensively Boyer had to dig to discover the appropriate sources. As a lesson in how to write history, Boyer demonstrates the importance of targeted research to support a thesis. Despite his apparent comfort with his subject, Boyer does not talk down to his reader or display the ostentatious intellectualism that a reader may have been more willing to accept given his clear competence. Instead, By the Bomb’s Early Light is a clearly written, compellingly argued analysis of a complex topic. It is easy to imagine a worse treatment of the topic, but hard to suggest improvements on Boyer’s model.

The primary weakness in By the Bomb’s Early Light, though, is that given the wide ground it seeks to cover, many pieces of the argument are circumscribed to accommodate the breadth of Boyer’s argument. For the most part, Boyer handles this issue but some sections seem redundant or comparatively weaker. For example, in discussing Atomic literature, Boyer seeks to draw distinctions between fiction and science fiction. Ultimately, however, his point is that fiction’s response was subdued while science fiction’s was more shrill, but takes two chapters to make the argument. He could have been more selective in his examples, reduced them, and covered these issues in a single chapter. Also, the psychology of living in Atomic America (his weakest chapter), could have been included with the chapter on experts or social science, as Boyer admits that evidence is sparse and says comparatively little. These changes would have left room for further discussion of race, an issue that crops up throughout and is discussed only briefly, and class, a broad concept that is not explicitly addressed but needs to be given the breadth of sources, from the “Anatomic Bomb” pinup (12) to the rise of the “Great Books” college curriculum (160).

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