Why is Radiation Green?

Ask someone what color they normally associate with radiation and they’ll almost universally answer “green.” From TV shows such as “The Simpsons”, comic books, and even video games, whenever anything radioactive or nuclear is a key plot element, it is almost always incorrectly depicted as an bright, glowing green substance . In reality, elements such as uranium and plutonium are grey or silver, and radiation itself is invisible. So why green? While there’s no “set” answer to the popular depiction of radioactive items as a green, glowing substance (after all, wouldn’t red be more sinister?), the most probable answer can be traced to radium.

Radium was first discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie.[1] Initially, radium had no practical application. However, it was soon discovered that radium, while naturally a grey-brown color, glowed bright green in the dark. Upon this realization, many realized the new potential that radium represented-both in civil and military applications. Pilots could now see their instruments in the dark without any difficulty. Instrument panels on machines no longer needed to be illuminated by electric lights. The average person would now be able to see what time it was at any time of day. In 1917, the U.S. Radium Corporation was founded, which hired young women to paint watches and instrument dials with  radium paint, named “Undark” by the company.

A collection of various clocks and watches with radium dials (Photo credit: EPA.gov). 

In order to paint the detailed designs on porcelain, it was necessary that the tip of the paintbrush be licked to create a fine point. This same procedure was used with radium paint, which caused the workers to ingest massive amounts of radium. Over time, these women began to develop “radium jaw,”- causing their gums to bleed and teeth to fall out. Some workers, unaware of the dangers of radiation, and enticed by its eerie green glow, painted their nails and lips with radium paint as well.[2]

However, as more and more of the “radium girls” fell ill, they soon began to suspect that the radium paint was the culprit, and that their employer, the U.S. Radium Corporation, was concealing the true danger. Initially, their claims of radiation poisoning were dismissed. In an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the workers, the company blamed their sickness on syphilis.[3]

Partially contributing to this dismissive response was the naïve attitude that many Americans held towards radiation during this time. Radium and radiation were viewed as having an unlimited potential. Some predicted that radium could be used to paint the insides of homes, thereby eliminating the need for electric lights. Radium-infused consumer goods, such as patent medicines, hair tonics, and even toothpastes were rampant, and while it is debatable if all of these items actually contained radium or not, the idea of the curative properties of radiation still remained.[4]

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One of the many radium-infused “health tonics” of the early 20th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

In 1928, however, this attitude drastically changed. Grace Fryer, an employee of U.S. Radium, finally managed to find a lawyer who was willing to take on her case. At the start of the trial in January, the five workers who joined Fryer were so ill that they were not able to raise their arms to swear an oath in court. Finally, by the autumn, the “Radium Girls” won their case. Each worker was paid $10,000 ($138,000 in 2015), along with $600 ($8,300 in 2015) per year. In addition, U.S. Radium would pay for all legal and medical expenses incurred.[5]

Grace Fryer from Wiki.jpg
Grace Fryer painting a watch face (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

The lawsuit against U.S. Radium illustrated to many members of the public that radium and radiation was not a “cure-all” that they had been led to believe. Many of the radium-based consumer goods were taken off the shelves and radiation began to be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, rather than a cure.

This fearful attitude towards radiation remains to this day, along with the depiction of radioactive elements and radiation as green.  While this depiction is incorrect, the association of “radiation = green” is one that shall remain in popular culture for years to come.


[1] Royal Society of Chemistry, “Radium,” Accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/88/radium.

[2] Denise Grady, “A Glow in the Dark and a Lesson in Science,” New York Times, October 6, 1998, accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/06/science/a-glow-in-the-dark-and-a-lesson-in-scientific-peril.html?pagewanted=all.

[3] Ross Mullner, Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy (Washington, D.C: American Public Health Association, 1999), 20.

[4] Jean Matricon and Georges Waysand, The Cold Wars: A History of Superconductivity (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 113.

[5] “Newark Pathologist Shows Part of Miss Maggia’s Jaw,” Star Eagle, October 18, 1927.

“Hitting A Bullet With Another Bullet”

Warfare has always been a continuous cycle of “challenge and response.” The invention of the tank immediately caused the development of anti-tank rifles and armor-piercing ammunition to counter this new threat. This same phenomenon occurred with the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) along with missiles to shoot it down.

In 1953, the U.S. military’s first surface-to-air guided missile, named Nike Ajax, entered service. However, the military quickly realized the other potential uses that this missile would have. Within two years, the U.S. Army undertook a program to upgrade the Nike Ajax into a missile which would be able to intercept incoming ballistic missiles. The program took on a new urgency in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched their first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka. Due to great interservice rivalry, the new missile, the Nike Zeus, did not enter service until 1962.[1]

The Nike-Zeus missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

It soon became clear that the Nike Zeus only worked on paper. Two issues were apparent. First, the Nike Zeus was too vulnerable to decoys from enemy missiles, and second, the growing number of Soviet ICBMs meant that the system would quickly becoming too expensive for practical use. Some predicted that it would take twenty Nike Zeus missiles to shoot down a single Soviet ICBM.[2] The military quickly returned to the drawing board, and in 1967, the U.S. military announced the Sentinel Program. It utilized a system of radars along with the Spartan missile interceptor to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. However, the issue of placing nuclear-armed anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) in American cities became highly politicized. Many argued that it made American cities an even greater target for Soviet missiles along with concerns that one of the ABMs would detonate accidentally. In other words, “H-bombs would be in the backyard.”[3] Due to this negative public reception, Sentinel was cancelled.

Two years later, Sentinel was replaced by Safeguard. Instead of building ABM sites in American cities, this time, the missiles were clustered around missile bases to act as a defense. In theory, if a nuclear attack were to occur, U.S. defense planners figured that the Soviet Union would attempt to target American missile silos first. The program utilized a two-tier system: the Spartan interceptor would shoot down incoming missiles at a distance, and a second missile, named Sprint, would shoot down any other warheads that Spartan failed to hit.[4] The need for a second set of interceptors reflected the primary fear of the U.S. military at the time: that there would not be enough time to successfully intercept incoming enemy missiles.

A Sprint missile after firing (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

With the introduction of laser technology in the 1960s, many began to realize their potential for missile defense. Rather than attempting to fire an ABM at precisely the right moment and hope that it intercepts the incoming missile, a laser was potentially far more accurate and faster. Extensive testing was conducted primarily at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico during the 1980s which evaluated the potential application of lasers in missile defense. In 1983, President Ronald Regan formally announced the start of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, popularly known as “Star Wars” due to its futuristic nature). SDI used a complex system of space-based lasers, satellites and ground based interceptors to provide a layered system of defense.

An artist’s rendering of the SDI System (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

However, in the eyes of the Soviet Union, SDI was inherently destabilizing. From the Soviet perspective, a system such as SDI-which the Soviets had no direct competitor to-made the United States invulnerable to a nuclear attack. In other words, the United States could launch a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union without any fear of a retaliatory strike.[5] For this reason, along with the high cost and ambitious nature of the program, SDI was cancelled.

During this time, the U.S. Army also realized that their current surface to air missiles, such as the Hawk, were aging rapidly. In 1975, the military conducted the first successful test fire of the Patriot missile at White Sands Missile Range.[6] Initially, the Patriot served exclusively as a surface to air missile to shoot down enemy aircraft. With the failure of SDI and the need for a replacement ABM system, the Patriot began to replace the Spartan missile. By the late 1980s, an ABM version of the Patriot, the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2, entered service in time for the Persian Gulf War.

A Patriot missile battery (Photo credit: japantimes.co.jp).

The missile’s performance in the First Gulf War remains controversial. Initially deployed to defend against SCUD missiles fired from Iraq, Army records indicate that the missile engaged enemy targets forty times, however, some have argued that no enemy missiles were actually shot down. Further criticism was leveled at the system in the aftermath of a successful Iraqi SCUD attack on a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.[7]

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the system underwent a massive overhaul. Many analysts have theorized that the missile’s performance problems stemmed from the Patriot’s original design as an anti-aircraft missile, rather than an ABM.[8] In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a third upgrade to the Patriot system, the PAC-3, also known as the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) entered service.

The most recent addition to the U.S. military’s missile defense is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile. Entering service in 2008, THAAD is meant to be used against high altitude, rather than low and medium altitude missiles. Recent debates have erupted regarding the deployment of THAAD to South Korea as a defense against potential North Korean ballistic missile launches.[9]

Wiki Thaad.jpg
A THAAD missile firing (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

In conclusion, as technology advanced throughout the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a massive technological and military arms race while one country always tried to outpace the other. Thankfully, the United States nor the Soviet Union has never seen the need to utilize their ballistic missile defense system to its full capacity. While the upgraded Patriot system may be effective against SCUD missiles, a tactical ballistic missile such as the SCUD is not an ICBM. While the utilization of this system in an operational manner is certainly not desirable, it remains critical that a capable ballistic missile defense remains operational.



[1] Barry Leonard, History of Strategic and Ballistic Missile Defense, Volume II (Collingdale, Pennsylvania: Diane Publishing Company, 2011), 329.

[2] Leonard, 180.

[3] Spencer Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 311.

[4] Federation of American Scientists, “Safeguard,” Special Weapons Monitor, accessed July 14, 2016, http://fas.org/spp/starwars/program/safeguard.htm.

[5] Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013), 447.

[6] Tim Weiner, “Patriot Missile’s Success A Myth, Israeli Aides Say,” New York Times, November 21, 1993, Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/21/world/patriot-missile-s-success-a-myth-israeli-aides-say.html.

[7] R. W. Apple, “War in the Gulf: Scud Attack; Scud Missile Hits a U.S. Barracks, Killing 27,” New York Times, February 26, 1991, Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/02/26/world/war-in-the-gulf-scud-attack-scud-missile-hits-a-us-barracks-killing-27.html.

[8] Kari Hawkins, “Patriot Missile System Reaches 50 Years of Service,” Redstone Rocket, August 19, 2015, Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.theredstonerocket.com/military_scene/article_e3803476-4678-11e5-aa6a-77952ed8b5ff.html.

[9] Jung Sung-Ki, “U.S. Anti-Missile Plans With South Korea Spark Fresh Backlash,” DefenseNews, July 14, 2016, Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2016/07/13/us-antimissile-plans-south-korea-spark-fresh-backlash/87044222/.

A Walking Tour of Los Alamos

Drive up the mountain that leads to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the first thing you will see upon entering the town is a sign that proudly states “Where Discoveries Are Made!” This small city in northern New Mexico played a pivotal role in the Manhattan Project, and continues to function as a critical component in nuclear weapons and scientific development.

The city of Los Alamos itself was not founded until 1942, during which General Leslie Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist, agreed on a location for a new secret laboratory to build the world’s first atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, who had spent numerous years in New Mexico, liked the site because it combined his two loves: physics and the West. For General Groves, it was isolated, and its location at the top of a mountain was perfect if any experiments went awry. [1] Almost immediately, roads were paved, buildings were constructed, and pre-fabricated government housing was erected as fast as possible. Senior personnel, such as Oppenheimer, received their own houses, located on “Bathtub Row,” named for the fact that these houses were the only ones with bathtubs in the entire town.[2]

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The sign for “Bathtub Row” today (Photo credit: T. Backus). 

As the Manhattan Project continued, the “Hill” expanded even more, but secrecy was paramount. Scientists coming to work on the Manhattan Project were first directed to an office at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From there, they received their security badges and were given final directions to Los Alamos from Santa Fe. However, the scientists and security personnel could not disclose their new location. Any mail which was sent to Los Alamos had to be addressed to “P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico.” This secrecy did not stop those on “the Hill” to try and tell their loved ones where they were. A young military policeman sent his girlfriend a letter saying, “Oh, how I wish you were here with me in Box 1663.”[3]

The commemorative plaque at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Photo by T. Backus). 

By the early 1950s and with the nuclear threat of the Soviet Union looming, Los Alamos National Laboratory began to take on a more permanent status. As the town expanded, many of the original buildings which were involved in the Manhattan Project were torn down to make room for more permanent buildings, along with growing concerns about radioactive contamination. Eventually, the laboratory itself was moved to the south, and the town of Los Alamos remained to the north.

Today, several historical buildings remain in the town. “Bathtub Row” remains as one of the primary streets, along with the houses of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. As both houses are currently private residences, tours are very rarely conducted. The current Los Alamos Community Building sits in the location of the old Tech Area, where many of the original Manhattan Project experiments were conducted. Across from the community building is the Ice House Memorial, where the cores for the bombs were stored temporarily during the Manhattan Project.[4]

Perhaps the best preserved and publicly open building is the Fuller Lodge, which was originally used as the main building for the Los Alamos Ranch School, an elite private boy’s school. During wartime, the structure functioned as a meeting place for the scientists and as housing. After the completion of the Manhattan Project, the military awarded the prestigious Army-Navy Excellence Award to all Manhattan Project personnel outside the lodge.[4] Across from Fuller Lodge is the Guest House, the private residence of General Groves and the current location of the Los Alamos History Museum.

fuller lodge outside-location of the excellence award.jpg
The Fuller Lodge today (Photo by T. Backus). 

In November 2015, the National Park Service officially established the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. Plans currently exist to incorporate two other historical sites into the park: “Gun Site” and “V site.” During the Manhattan Project, these two buildings were some of the most secretive sites at Los Alamos, as they were the final assembly sites for both bombs.[5] However, these buildings exist on Los Alamos National Laboratory property and are therefore currently not accessible to the public (For a virtual tour of Gun Site and V Site, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axkQ4UjTc8M).

Currently, Los Alamos is both a historical site and one that critically supports the mission of national defense. The Manhattan Project structures remain as ones that tell the story of a scientific marvel, which brought an end to the costliest war in human history, and the establishment of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park will ensure that these structures remain preserved for future generations.




[1] Jon Hunner, J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Cold War and the Atomic West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), 83.

[2] Jon Hunner, Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 32.

[3] Hunner, Los Alamos, 41.

[4] Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, “Los Alamos Historical Walking Tour,” Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.visitlosalamos.org/historic-walking-tour/.

[5] Los Alamos National Laboratory, “Los Alamos History in Images,” Accessed July 14, 2016, https://lanl.gov/about/history-innovation/history-images/index.php.

[6] U.S. Department of Energy, “V-Site Assembly Building and Gun Site,” Accessed July 14, 2016, http://energy.gov/management/v-site-assembly-building-and-gun-site.


Albuquerque’s Atomic Museum: A Walking Tour

Ask the average person on the street if they would like to go to a museum. Now ask that same person if they would like to go to a museum that is about nuclear weapons. The amount of people who would say “Yes,” to the questions above could probably be counted on one hand, however, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (formerly the National Atomic Museum) in Albuquerque, New Mexico rests upon this very premise.

In 1969, Kirtland Air Force Base in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories founded the “Sandia Atomic Museum” in an unused building on Kirtland Air Force Base.[1] It was aimed at preserving the history of the base along with tracing the role of Sandia National Laboratories in the development of nuclear weapons. The museum was initially aimed at Air Force and Sandia personnel as a study center, and featured several mock ups of nuclear weapon cases and several aircraft. While the museum was open to the public, it was not “family friendly,” as there were no interactive exhibits or sections specifically for children.

With the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, security concerns forced the museum to move off Kirtland Air Force base to a temporary location in Old Town Albuquerque.[2] Due to space restrictions, the exhibits at the museum were greatly reduced and many large objects, such as the museum’s B-29, could not be displayed.

The museum’s temporary location in Old Town Albuquerque (Photo credit:


Finally, in 2009, the museum re-opened at a new, permanent location in southeast Albuquerque and was re-named the “National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.” In an attempt to increase the number of visitors, the museum included a new section for children, along with sections on the peaceful applications of the atom, such as nuclear medicine and atomic power. The changes were successful and within years, the museum saw thousands of guests from across the nation to visit.

Today, the museum hosts an impressive array of permanent exhibits. Extensive coverage is devoted to the role of New Mexico during the Manhattan Project along with the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Highlights of the collection include an American flag which was flown at Trinity site, a mockup of the Trinity bomb, and photographs from Hiroshima.

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The American flag that flew at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945 (Photo credit: T.Backus).

A second section is devoted entirely to the Cold War. The exhibit hall includes a mock-up of a fallout shelter, a section on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a display detailing the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash. The museum also maintains an extensive display of nuclear weapons casings, which were transferred from the museum’s original location.Moving through the museum, visitors also encounter a section on atomic popular culture. Featuring artifacts such as “radium infused water,” and atomic-themed comic books, this section details the cultural effects that the Cold War had on the American public. Visitors can view how the cultural representations of the atom changed from one of a limitless source of energy to a fear of the Soviet Union, and finally a celebratory attitude once the Cold War had ended.

The exterior of the museum also boasts several outside exhibits, including aircraft and missiles. Among the displays is a B-29, a Nike Hercules surface-to-air missile and the M65 280mm atomic cannon (nicknamed “Atomic Annie”). In addition, the museum holds the unique distinction of owning one of the only B-52s to ever drop a nuclear weapon in history.[3]

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B-52, tail number 52-0013 on display outside the museum (Photo credit: T. Backus).

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is unique. Despite the difficult subject matter, the museum is able to successfully attract thousands of visitors in a way that is both educational and entertaining.

The museum is located at 601 Eubank Boulevard Southeast in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is open daily, 9AM to 5PM. Admissions are $12 for adults and $10 for children.

[1] http://www.nuclearmuseum.org/, Accessed July 13, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Associated Press, “Albuquerque Museum to Restore Historic B-52 Bomber,” kob4.com, April 4, 2016, accessed July 13, 2016.

“The Cold War: The Game”

The cultural effects of the Cold War were far reaching: movies, music, theater, books, and perhaps most recently, video games. However, it was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s when consumer technology was able to be effectively utilized in a personal, entertainment role. Previously, computers had been too large and unwieldy for home entertainment use. However, with the release of video games such as Pac-Man and Asteroids, dedicated video game systems and the idea of computers-as-entertainment began to gain momentum.

In 1980, the arcade game Missile Command was released. The objective of the game was to shoot down as many enemy missiles as possible before the player was destroyed, which would inevitably happen as the missiles came at the player faster and faster. In other words, there was no way to “win” Missile Command. While the idea of an “un-winnable” video game seems strange by today’s standards, it acted as an accurate representation of the philosophy of Mutually Assured Destruction.

A screenshot from Missile Command. Note the Statue of Liberty in the right hand corner (Photo credit: gamesdbase.com).

By the end of the Cold War, a drastic cultural shift occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union. No longer was the “Evil Empire” targeting American suburbia with multi-megaton nuclear warheads. As a result, a new, younger generation “had not grown up in a world where talk of nuclear war, radiation, reactors and so forth showed up frequently in the news, and even in personal conversation, within a context drenched with anxiety. Often their first encounters with nuclear topics took place in the tedium of the school room.”[1]  In addition, movies and television shows that featured nuclear war treated the threat as a “cheesy plot device, not a viscerally felt reality.”[2]

In other words, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new, younger generation viewed the threat of nuclear war as a Cold War relic and caused many to view the nuclear culture of the 1950s and 1960s as farcical. As the years passed, and the threat of the Soviet Union continued to diminish, video games such as Goldeneye 007 or Command and Conquer often trivialized the threat of the “Evil Empire.” In many cases, the game’s primary antagonist was a highly caricaturized Russian, complete with a fur hat and greatcoat. Furthermore, video games allowed for the player to freeze the action while they went to refill their soda or use the restroom. Unlike in a real conflict, a player could be fighting off endless waves of computer-generated Soviet tanks one second and pause it the next. With the rise in popularity of video games by the late 1990s, the nuclear threat became as threatening as pixels on a computer screen.

The primary antagonist from Command and Conquer: Red Alert (PC, 2008. Photo credit: cncwika.com)

However, the events of September 11, 2001 acted as a brutal wake-up call to many Americans. A new threat thrust itself onto the forefront of the American consciousness: that of the radicalized Islamic terrorist. Many video games, such as Battlefield 3 and the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series (first released in 2007) capitalized on this new fear, with the new antagonist hailing from an “unspecified Middle Eastern country.” In games such as these, players often take the role of a Special Operations soldier who is tasked with stopping the next terror attack (often involving a so-called “dirty bomb”) on American or European soil. In the 2000s, countless video games were released based on this premise. It could be argued that these video games acted as a coping mechanism: in a time which a terror attack could come at anytime and anywhere, video games allowed for the feeling that the player was able to control an otherwise uncontrollable situation. In a video game such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the player could be a hero-they could stop the terror cell and save the world.  It allowed the temporary feeling that the player was “doing something” to stop what was otherwise unpredictable violence.

The mid and late-2000s also saw the rise of a new genre: that of the post-apocalyptic game. Games such as Metro 2033 and the Fallout series rested on the premise that a nuclear World War III had already occurred. Instead of preventing a global thermonuclear war, the player was tasked with surviving in a Mad Max-esque world: one with rivaling factions that acted as the last vestiges of a civilized society.



Fallout 3
A post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. in Fallout 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

Currently, the release of video games such as Fallout 4 in 2015 illustrate that the Cold War is alive and well in the American consciousness. Admittedly, while historical accuracy is not the priority-after all, their very premise is entertainment rather than educational-atomic and Cold War-themed video games still remain highly popular amongst a younger generation. It remains to be seen how current geopolitical events in countries such as North Korea will shape our cultural perceptions of the potential atomic threat.




[1] Spencer Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 259.

[2] Paul Boyer, “Sixty Years and Counting: Nuclear Themes in American Culture, 1945 to Present,” in The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives, ed. Rosemary Mariner (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009), 14.

The Battle at the Smithsonian

In the early 1990s, public attention concerning nuclear affairs was scant. The Soviet Union had fallen and the threat of nuclear destruction seemed to temporarily disappear. Awareness of the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki diminished greatly. However, as the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II drew near in 1995, interest over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki renewed. This occurred for three reasons. First, many veterans who had served in the war were still alive, but realized that they were aging quickly. For some, the fiftieth anniversary would be the last time that they would be able to record their stories. Secondly, enough time had passed for these veterans to come to terms with their actions during the war. Finally, unlike previous years, “the late 1980s and 1990s did not see the emergence of such all-consuming issues such as the Vietnam War, urban riots, or Watergate, which had earlier diverted attention from nuclear issues.”[1] Coinciding with this anniversary, the Smithsonian Institution planned an exhibit that would showcase the fuselage of the Enola Gay, along with several other World War II-era aircraft. The Enola Gay had been in storage for several years because the Smithsonian had no room for the airplane and was in dire need of restoration.

The Enola Gay fuselage in a storage warehouse at the Smithsonian Institution (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

The director of the museum, Martin Harwit believed that the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan was so significant in the context of the fiftieth anniversary that the full debate of the bombings should be explored. However, by the summer of 1993, Robert Adams, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and senior curator Tom Crouch, began to disagree over the portrayal of the Japanese in the exhibit. Crouch eventually wrote the now-infamous words to Adams in July 1993: “Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don’t think we can do both.”[2]

In January 1994, the first draft of the proposed exhibition “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War” was completed (See the book Judgement at the Smithsonian: The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki edited by Philip Nobile for the full exhibit text). The exhibit extensively detailed the Manhattan Project, along with the after-effects of radiation and the continuing debate regarding the bombings. Publically, Harwit stated that criticism regarding an unbalanced exhibit was “unfair”; however, in an internal memo, he called for a revision.[3] After several more revisions, the script eventually became “The Last Act.”

The revised Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian (Photo credit: National Air and Space Museum). 

Throughout 1994, criticism regarding the Enola Gay exhibit continued to mount. Veterans of World War II did not want their memories challenged by an exhibit that called into question their actions during the war. For these veterans, World War II was the “Good War” and the atomic bombs brought a good end to the “Good War.”[4] Additionally, for the veterans who had been scheduled to invade Japan, many argued that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved their lives. However, some historians and other critics argued that the proposed exhibit had “abandoned history with all its uncomfortable complications in favor of feel-good national myths.”[5]  Historians did not want an exhibit that only told one side of the complex debate to drop the bomb. For children of World War II veterans, their displeasure stemmed from what has been dubbed “Vietnam Syndrome.” They had been raised to examine historical events, especially American wars, under a much more critical lens. They argued that the exhibit perpetuated the myth of World War II as the “Good War.”

The debate also became highly politicized. For conservatives, the Enola Gay symbolized an American military triumph over an inferior enemy and criticized the Smithsonian Museum for falling prey to “liberal revisionism”.[6] In contrast, those on the political left argued that the exhibit represented a “woeful catalog of [American] crimes and aggressions against the helpless peoples of the earth.”[7]

On January 30, 1995, the Smithsonian announced the cancellation of “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War.” By May, the debate still showed no signs of abating and Harwit was compelled to resign. One month later, the revised exhibit went on display at the Smithsonian. After the unveiling of the revised exhibit, American conciseness regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to fade gradually until the exhibit closed in May of 1998. When the complete Enola Gay went on display in 2003, the Smithsonian Institution took great pains to report only the objective facts concerning the airplane, with only one sentence devoted to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.[8]

In conclusion, even fifty years was not long enough to settle the Hiroshima debate. While the decision may remain forever unresolved, only time will tell how the 100th anniversary will shape perceptions of this momentous act.

The current Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).


[1] Paul Boyer and Eric Idsvoog, “Nuclear Menace in the Mass Culture of the Late Cold War Era and Beyond,” in Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half-Century Encounter with Nuclear Weapons, ed. Paul Boyer (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998), 204.

[2] Edward Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 35.

[3] John Correll, “Air and Space Museum Director Resigns,” Air Force Magazine 78, no. 6 (June 1995): 13.

[4] Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (New York: The New Press, 1984).

[5] Linenthal and Engelhardt, 161.

[6] Michael Kilian, “Smithsonian Puts Enola Gay Exhibit on Hold,” Chicago Tribune, January 21, 1995, accessed April 12, 2016, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1995-01-21/news/9501210185_1_enola-gay-space-museum-smithsonian-institution.

[7] Linenthal and Engelhardt, 160.

[8] For the current exhibit text, see https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/boeing-b-29-superfortress-enola-gay.

The Cold War on the Silver Screen

In previous posts, I have described the strategy, tactics and military policy of the United States during the Cold War. But how did the cultural effects of the Cold War percolate into cinema?

From the period of 1945 to the early 2000s, three distinct phases of Cold War movies are evident. First, the period of the early Cold War, from the 1950s to the early 1960s. The second phase manifests itself after the American exit from the Vietnam War from the early 1970s to the 1980s. The immediacy of American involvement in Vietnam from the period 1965-1975 took priority over the nuclear threat of the Soviet Union. Finally, the period from the end of the Cold War in 1991 to shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, represented a drastic shift in the representation of the nuclear danger.

During the first of these phases, movies such as Fail Safe, and the now infamous Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb acted to represent early American cultural perceptions regarding the Cold War. In many of these movies, such as Fail Safe, the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) played a predominant role. This section of the Air Force controlled all of the nuclear-armed, long range bombers, and in the years prior to ballistic missiles, represented the only nuclear deterrent that the United States possessed.

Dr. Strangelove’s movie poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

Both Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove made many Americans brutally aware of a new fear. What if a nuclear war was started by mistake? The two movies pointed out that in a crisis, if SAC bombers passed a “point of no return,” there was no way to communicate with the crew to call off the attack. In addition, SAC procedures were often so complex that even if communication was possible, it would not reach the bomber crews in time.[1] These two movies painted a much darker picture than the rosy image of Civil Defense. Suddenly, the infallible safety of the U.S. military was called into question. Could the end of the world really happen by a simple human mistake?

At the end of American military involvement in Vietnam, fears of a Soviet attack began to gradually replace concerns over the Vietnam War. Two films released in 1983 epitomized American cultural concerns regarding a Soviet attack: Wargames and The Day After. By the early 1980s, computer technology had reached a point in which many predicted that robots and automated systems would replace humans. Wargames took this to a new level. Instead of a nuclear war being started by human error, as in Fail Safe, an amateur high school computer hacker inadvertently accesses the computer mainframe of NORAD. The computer, unable to differentiate between a simulation and reality, nearly launches all of the American nuclear arsenal at the Soviet Union. After the main character (played by Matthew Broderick) is able to avert the crisis, the movie concludes that the “only winning move in global thermonuclear war is not to play.”[2] Wargames illustrated that a nuclear Armageddon was now possible due to a computer’s miscalculation.

The movie poster for “The Day After” (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

The Day After, also released in 1983, was the first movie to graphically depict the after effects of a nuclear strike. Up to this point, video footage of the casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had largely remained classified or otherwise unavailable to the American public.  Films which graphically depicted the human effects of nuclear weapons were not readily available. Rather than emphasizing the sterilized, computer-generated simulations of nuclear war, The Day After examined a Soviet nuclear attack from the perspective of the average citizen. In addition, the film demonstrated that nowhere in the United States was safe from an attack. Previously, it was believed that the Soviet Union would only target installations of strategic and tactical significance, such as military bases and missile silos. However, due to the sheer explosive power of nuclear weapons, The Day After illustrated that even the average American suburb was a target for a nuclear warhead.

Finally, the movie emphasized the mass panic which would occur during a nuclear attack. Many of the casualties were not caused by nuclear weapons; rather they were caused by people attempting to evacuate the city in a mass exodus. Regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film made only one small, but powerful reference to the bombings:

As the superpower conflict intensifies, but before the bombs actually hit, a physician reveals that residents were already fleeing Kansas City-but did they really think that they would be safe outside the city? “We are not talking about Hiroshima anymore,” [the main character] declares. “Hiroshima was peanuts.”[3] The Day After acted as a sobering revelation to the American public. Suddenly, the threat of nuclear war was no longer an abstract concept which only Pentagon generals and strategists concerned themselves with.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it seemed as though the menace of nuclear war temporarily evaporated. Suddenly, the threat of the “Evil Empire” no longer existed, and both Americans and Russians alike breathed a collective sigh of relief. However, by the mid to late 1990s, it soon became apparent that the danger posed by nuclear weapons was still very real. This became brutally evident with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Suddenly, a small group of rogue terrorists were just as dangerous as a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union.

One year later, the film The Sum of All Fears, was released. In it, a terrorist group obtains a nuclear device and detonates it in a crowded football stadium. The movie’s tagline, “27,000 Nuclear Weapons: And One is Missing” exemplified the new fears of many in the aftermath of September 11.[4] The combination of lax security measures concerning nuclear weapons (largely in former Eastern Bloc countries) and a highly motivated extremist terror group stealing a nuclear device was a very real concern of many Americans.

The theatrical release poster for “The Sum of All Fears” (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

This new threat of a radicalized terror cell stealing a nuclear device and detonating it in a city was radically different from the previous nuclear threat that the Soviet Union represented. A nuclear attack from the Soviet Union had the potential to be predictable or even defended against. With a terror group, such as al-Qaeda or more recently, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), predictability is much more difficult. The Sum of All Fears demonstrated an ancient military axiom by Sun Tzu: “Kill one, terrorize a thousand.” A low-yield nuclear device detonated in a city became just as fear-inciting as a full-scale nuclear attack.

Recent movies which depict nuclear attacks often rest on this same premise-that of a terror group or even a “rogue nation” such as North Korea as the prime antagonist, rather than Russia. However, due to recent bellicose rhetoric from Russian President Vladimir Putin, some have begun to predict that the nuclear threat posed by Russia is not a relic of the Cold War. Only time will tell how future geopolitical events will influence our perception of the nuclear threat.


[1] Doctor Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, DVD, Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1964; Los Angeles, California: United Artists, 2003).

[2] Wargames, DVD, directed by John Badham (1983; Burbank, California: United Artists, 2008).

[3] Robert Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (New York: Putnam Books, 1995). 372.

[4] The Sum of All Fears, DVD, Directed by Phil Alden Robinson (2002; Los Angeles, California: Paramount Pictures, 2002).

How to Win A Nuclear War

Eastern Europe: A not so distant future. Columns of Russian tanks supported by artillery and air support suddenly shatter the calm morning and quickly overwhelm the unsuspecting NATO forces. The United States scrambles its troops to push the Russian units back, however it soon becomes evident that conventional weapons are not enough. To save the remaining American and NATO forces, a lone B-52 bomber takes off from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, armed with a single nuclear-armed cruise missile. It flies the long trans-Atlantic flight, finally reaching Europe, and fires the missile into the enemy troop formations. It detonates with a force slightly larger than the Hiroshima bomb. The Russians realize that Pandora’s Box has been opened, and decide not to risk a further nuclear war. Negotiations immediately take place.

An AGM-86 cruise missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

Or do they?

The scenario described above is not as far-fetched as many would believe. In previous posts, I have described the numerous types of weapons which were intended to be used in the event of World War III. This post will discuss the implications these weapons would have on  the potential for further escalation.

For many years, it was believed that an American “limited nuclear strike” with a tactical nuclear weapon as previously detailed would result in the Soviet Union backing down. Similar to the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, which some historians have argued acted as a show-of-force, a tactical nuclear strike on an advancing tank column would force the Soviet Union to the negotiating table. After all, American defense planners figured that not even the Soviets would be willing to further escalate the conflict, and potentially risk a full scale war. While a tactical nuclear strike would break the “nuclear taboo,” it would send a message along the lines of “America has nuclear weapons, and we’re not afraid to use them!” to the Soviet Union.

Not until 1983 was this plan put to the test. The exercise, code named “Proud Prophet,” was radically different than previous simulations. First, instead of using professors or analysts to play the roles, for example of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the Director of the CIA, this time, the real Chairman participated. Second, actual top secret war plans were incorporated into the simulation, rather than using declassified or otherwise redacted versions.[1] Finally, secrecy and incomplete intelligence was incorporated. No one person was aware of the entire situation at any given time-just like in a real conflict.

A scene from the 1983 movie Wargames depicting global thermonuclear war (Image credit: Wargames, United Artists, 1983). 

The attempts at making “Proud Prophet” as realistic as possible paid off. As professor and defense advisor Paul Bracken, in his book The Second Nuclear Age, writes: “The Soviet Union team interpreted the [American] nuclear strikes as an attack on their nation, their way of life and their honor. So they responded with an enormous nuclear salvo at the United States. The United States retaliated in kind. The result was a catastrophe that made all the wars of the past five hundred years pale in comparison….NATO was gone. So was a good part of Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union.”[2]

“Proud Prophet” came as a shock to the policymakers at the Pentagon and other civilian think tanks. A nuclear war didn’t happen because the American or Soviet leaders were crazy: it happened because the leadership faithfully executed the proposed war plan. To put things in perspective, pretend you are a Russian general. You’ve just learned that one of your armored divisions was destroyed by an American nuclear strike. Radioactive fallout is now blowing towards your rear-echelon troops and staging areas. You have been trained to incorporate nuclear weapons into your own war plans. How do you respond?

So, the exercise showed that the thinking behind a “limited nuclear war” with “tactical nuclear weapons” is completely absurd and the war plan was discarded, right?


A training version of a B61 bomb (Photo via Wikipedia). 

In the past few years, the United States has spent billions of dollars upgrading its nuclear arsenal, especially tactical nuclear weapons. The most recent of these, named the “B-61 Life Extension Program (LEP)”, upgraded the current B-61 free-fall nuclear bomb to increase its accuracy and capability to penetrate underground complexes (such as those in Iran or North Korea). Most prominently, former General of the Air Force’s Strategic Command, James Cartwright, made this striking remark: “If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, etc, does that make it more usable in the eyes of some- some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable.”[3]

Cartwright’s comment is highly disturbing. Even if the yield of a nuclear weapon is decreased, it is still hundreds of times more powerful than any conventional weapon. Additionally, plans for a new cruise missile, the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon, illustrate that the doctrine of “limited nuclear war” is alive and well.[4] In a wartime scenario, both the B61 and the LRSO are intended to be utilized in a scenario similar to the one described at the beginning of this post.

In the past 71 years, nuclear weapons have only been used in wartime twice. No global superpower wants to risk the escalation of a conflict to the point of a nuclear exchange, however, tactical nuclear weapons increase the risk of intensifying the conflict exponentially. The risk of nuclear war can perhaps be summed up best in a quote from the 1983 movie Wargames, in which the film concludes that, “The only winning move in global thermonuclear war is not to play.”[5]


[1] Paul Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger and the New Power Politics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 84.

[2] Bracken, 88.

[3] Hans Kristensen, “General Cartwright Confirms B61-12 Bomb ‘Could Be More Useable’”, FAS.org, November 5, 2015, https://fas.org/blogs/security/2015/11/b61-12_cartwright.

[4] Aaron Mehta, “Feinstein Takes Aim at Nuclear Cruise Missile Funding,” DefenseNews.com, April 14, 2016, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/air-space/strike/2016/04/14/feinstein-lrso-nuclear-cruise-missile-alcm-replacement/83003490/.

[5] Wargames, DVD, directed by John Badham (1983; Burbank, California: United Artists, 2008).

“Bombs in the Backyard”

Until the 1970s and 1980s, many Americans viewed nuclear power as a promise, rather than a peril. Many predicted that power from nuclear reactors would be so cheap that it would not require monitoring.[1] Some even hoped for nuclear-powered cars and airplanes.However, this image of the “peaceful atom” was shattered with two infamous accidents at nuclear power plants.

The first of these occurred in 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.  Due to a stuck valve in the reactor, significant amounts of coolant escaped, causing the reactor to overheat and release radiation. The containment vessel around the reactor, however, kept the majority of the radiation contained inside and very little was released into the atmosphere. In an eerie twist of fate, a movie that had been released weeks prior, named The China Syndrome, depicted a fictional accident at a nuclear power plant, with one of the characters warning that “an area the size of Pennsylvania” would become irradiated.[2]

The promotional poster for “The China Syndrome” (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

Despite the assurances of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, the successor to the Atomic Energy Commission) the American public remained skeptical. The ensuing evacuation of residents near the Three Mile Island plant and the extensive press coverage further contributed to this doubt.  Perhaps the most fear-inciting commentary was made by Dr. George Wald, Nobel Prize laureate and professor emeritus at Harvard, who stated that “Every dose of radiation is an overdose.”[3] The local inhabitants questioned why they were being evacuated if the radiation levels were not high enough to cause harm. The evacuation had the opposite effect than what the NRC was trying to achieve. Rather than keeping the public calm, it caused many to panic. Many inhabitants of nearby Middletown, including the mayor, Robert Reid, did not believe the official statements made by the NRC. This distrust is evident in an interview with Reid, who clearly hesitated when asked if he was satisfied with the NRC’s assertions.[4]  (Go to 10:05 to see the interview with Reid).

Many newspapers made references to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and compared radiation doses in Pennsylvania to those in Japan after the bombings. The Chicago Tribune covered the numerous protests nationwide criticizing the atomic bombings of Japan along with American reliance on nuclear power. The newspaper quoted a protester who proclaimed, “Radiation from nuclear power plants can do the same things to you as the kind from a bomb.”[5] The protester’s sentiments acts as an accurate representation that many members of the American public held regarding radiation.

The second event that drastically shifted American public opinion against nuclear power occurred in 1986, with the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.  On the night of April 26th, reactor number four overheated, rupturing the reactor vessel and starting the graphite reactor on fire.  The fire blew radioactive fallout and debris for miles, and claimed the lives of hundreds. The Soviet government, however, did not evacuate the nearby town of Pripyat until the next morning, and did not announce that the accident had occurred until April 28th.[6] The accident sent radioactive fallout across large portions of Europe, which led to the cancellation of several proposed nuclear power plants. Because of the Soviet Union’s secretive nature, many people viewed the delay in the announcement of the accident as a cover-up and an underplaying of the true threat, similar to the case of Three Mile Island.

The first photograph taken of the Chernobyl reactor after the accident. The graininess of the photograph is due to the high levels of radiation in the air (Photo credit: 


In the aftermath, many newspapers made several comparisons between the atomic bombings of Japan and Chernobyl. For many, the accident acted as a powerful representation of the effects of radiation on humans. In the Chicago Tribune, a reporter wrote that “A single nuclear bomb dropped on a large city would injure hundreds of thousands. As it was, the Soviet medical system was overwhelmed by the relatively few radiation victims…In a nuclear war, there would be 20,000 Chernobyls across the world.”[7] For the author, Andrew Davis, the Chernobyl Disaster acted as a microcosm of the effects of a full-scale nuclear war.

The two nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl drastically changed the American public’s image of nuclear power to a peril, rather than a promise. With these two accidents, nuclear power plants became “bombs waiting to happen,” instead of a promise of limitless energy, a perception that largely remains to this day.


[1] Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 110.

[2] Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, “The Jane Fonda Effect,” New York Times Magazine, September 16, 2007, accessed March 15, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/magazine/16wwln-freakonomics-t.html?_r=0.

[3] Costandina Titus, Bombs in the Backyard: Atomic Testing and American Politics (Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1986), 113.

[4] Public Broadcasting Service, “American Experience: Meltdown at Three Mile Island,” YouTube video, 51:16, August 22, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0J7kHfBBBmk.

[5] “1st A-Bombing Hit in U.S. Protests,” Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1979, 18.

[6] World Nuclear Association, “Sequence of Events,” November 2015, accessed March 23, 2016, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/appendices/chernobyl-accident-appendix-1-sequence-of-events.aspx.

[7] Andrew Davis, “A First-Hand Lesson from Chernobyl,” Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1986, 10.