TV and the Bomb

By Reba A. Wissner | August 13, 2018

nuclear weapons and pop cultureGilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd do a 1977 "Saturday Night Live" skit that lampoons old "I Love Lucy" episodes and chirpy upbeat film clips about surviving a nuclear weapon's blast. Image courtesy SNL.

Television is an amazing thing: It can give you the news, express opinion, and entertain. During the 1950s and 1960s, it often did all three simultaneously, and often on fictional television shows. While we tend to think of mid-century television as an escapist medium, it frequently included contemporary political issues in the narrative. No television topics were more pervasive—and influential—than nuclear weapons (“the Bomb”) and nuclear fear.

Most people think about television—especially the mid-century version—as a medium that people used to cast away their fears and immerse themselves in the fictional on-screen story.

To a certain extent, this was, and still is, true.

But contrary to what many people might think, fictional American television shows featured serious topics such as nuclear weapons pretty frequently—as of this writing, I have counted 150 episodes mentioning the Bomb from 1950-to-1969. This number does not include the television shows that were written or produced abroad and shown on American television, such as episodes of The Invisible Man; if those were included, the number would be much higher.

Part of the portrayal of nuclear anxiety in popular culture during the Cold War stemmed from the issues surrounding the hard, cold facts. The media helped to disseminate nuclear anxiety, especially given the numerous television specials and newspaper and magazine articles dedicated to civil defense, fallout shelters, and the potential for nuclear attack. Part of this may have been for altruistic civil defense measures, but partly it was because fears of nuclear destruction offered plenty of grist for provocative news headlines and imaginative apocalyptic scenarios for television documentaries and movies. Unsurprisingly, fictional television episodes also followed suit, giving Cold War American television a legacy like no other.

Nuclear anxiety, then and now. Though we often don’t think of it this way, the way in which nuclear fear was portrayed on mid-century American television has a lot to do with the way that it is portrayed on television now. In the midst of Americans’ fear of the North Korean government’s possession of nuclear weapons, the rhetoric used to discuss nuclear fear on television is reminiscent of civil defense commercials, public service announcements,  documentaries, and short television films from 50 years ago, as well as fictional TV series such as The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and even The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

Even children’s shows and cartoons such as Felix the Cat, Looney Tunes, and Space Patrol had episodes dedicated to the Bomb. The portrayals of all of these shows ranged from fatalist to satirical and everything in-between, sometimes even dramatizing how Americans should deal with nuclear fear in their daily lives. (It is probably no coincidence that at the height of the recent saber-rattling against North Korea, advertisements for bomb shelters began to appear again.)

How nuclear fear was portrayed in mid-century television was directly a product of its time, and it ebbed and flowed throughout the Cold War. Television often dramatized nuclear issues in the 1950s and 1960s and this became a popular topic in multiple genres, especially science fiction. In the first season episode of The Twilight Zone, Time Enough at Last” (CBS, 1959), bookworm bank teller Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) goes down to the vault daily during his lunch hour because his wife will not let him read at home. While locked in the vault, a hydrogen bomb detonates, destroying everything and everyone except Henry.

After perusing the wreckage, Bemis realizes that he does not want to live alone on this decimated planet and points a gun to his head—until he spots the public library. Upon realizing that he can spend the rest of his life reading undisturbed, Henry thwarts his suicide plan. But while reaching for a book on the ground, he drops his thick glasses, breaking them, rendering him blind and destined to live as the lone survivor in a graveyard of mass nuclear destruction.

Rod Serling’s teleplay for “Time Enough at Last” is the first of the series’ clear protests of nuclear war—and one that is the first teleplay from the era to show life after the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. It aired during the Second Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1962, one of the most tumultuous parts of the Cold War. But as the 1950s ended and the 1960s began, the rhetoric about nuclear weapons began to shift from a period of constant anxiety to one that was less alarmist. Not surprisingly, television mirrored this rhetorical shift. “Time Enough at Last” would not be the only episode of the series to deal with nuclear holocaust and its implications; later episodes penned by Serling such as “The Shelter” (1961), “One More Pallbearer” (1962), and “The Old Man in the Cave” (1963), and those written by others such as “Two” (1961), would feature scenarios ranging from mass hysteria to mental breakdown. In each of these episodes, the plot revolved around the various dangers of nuclear annihilation, many of which were not limited to fallout and radiation poisoning but also considered the social effects.

Fatalism in conjunction with the Bomb could sometimes take a comedic spin on television. The 1961 episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,Eat, Drink, and Be Merry… for Tomorrow: Ker-Boom!” focuses on Dobie’s friend, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver), and his paranoia that nuclear war will kill them all. Nuclear paranoia is everywhere, on television and the front page of the newspaper, and Krebs spends the episode trying to warn everyone that the Bomb might kill them, often running around and shouting “boom boom ker-boom!”

North Korean nuclear weapons, 2024

In reality, Maynard’s paranoia was warranted. Several surveys and interviews were conducted among teenagers about how the nation’s nuclear fear affected their lives. It was common for teenagers to say that they were not going to bother to save their money to go to college because it was more than likely that they would not be alive to go to college. There was a fatalistic sense among teens during the 1950s and 1960s that spread even into Bomb preparedness. Many of the teens polled noted that they didn’t think it was necessary to prepare for nuclear war or build shelters because even if they did survive, they said that they would be surviving to face mass death, famine, and having to rebuild society from nothing.

Dark humor. But public perception of the atomic bomb and the Cold War began to shift in the late 1960s, something which was mirrored on the small screen. After the excesses of the Vietnam War and Watergate, distrust of government set in among the American public—including distrust of the incongruously upbeat and ill-informed “Duck and Cover” government public service announcements, with their claims that all a schoolchild needed to do to survive a multiple megaton atomic blast was crawl under a desk. Consequently, a rhetorical shift began during the ‘70s, in which television shows began to deal with the bomb humorously. (Though there had always been a streak of dark humor on the big screen: Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was released in 1962, and the movie’s subtitle was How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.)

The 1977 Saturday Night Live skit, “Lucy A-Bomb,” also known as “Lucy’s New Job,” was a parody of the I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching” (1952) in which Lucy and Ethel go to work as assembly line wrappers in a chocolate factory. In the parody, Lucy (Gilda Radner) is working in an atomic bomb factory when her boss, Mr. Witherbottom (Dan Aykroyd), explains her job: “Now, this, Mrs. Ricardo, is a nuclear warhead. Your job is to take a can of whipped cream, spray the nuclear warhead like so… [demonstrates] … put a cherry on the top of the nuclear warhead, and place it on the top of this shelf like so. Do you understand so far?”

But this humor is turned on its head when Mr. Witherbottom tells her that under no circumstances should the bombs hit the floor because they are dangerous. At first, things go smoothly and Mr. Witherbottom leaves the room. He soon returns and upon calling her name, she is startled, screams, and throws an armful of bombs into the air where they hit the floor and detonate. The scene cuts to stock footage of a bomb exploding with its resulting mushroom cloud. Lucy asks if she will be fired and Mr. Witherbottom told her not to worry—anyone can make a mistake. This treatment of the atomic bomb also illustrates the general feeling that nuclear disaster was being overly anticipated without just cause.

The year 1977 also saw the broadcast of the Barney Miller episode “Atomic Bomb,” which bore a remarkable similarity to a real-life incident in which a Princeton engineering student named John Aristotle Phillips spelled out, on paper, the intricate details of the design of an atomic bomb for his thesis project, gleaned from assembling declassified documents from a variety of public sources. In the episode, a college student builds a functional, portable atomic bomb prototype for his master’s thesis in physics, which Barney Miller (Hal Linden) and the precinct obtain, unsure exactly what it is but they believe that it is harmless. The episode begins when an apartment manager calls the police because one of his tenants, James Thayer (Will Seltzer), has an apartment that, according to one of the detectives, looks like Frankenstein’s laboratory.

In the apartment, the squad sees the bomb prototype but believe that it is either only a stereo or a ham radio, and they take it back to the station to show the Bomb Squad. Once there, only Detective Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) recognizes that it is an atomic bomb and tries to warn everyone; his first reaction is “Where the hell’d he get the atomic bomb?” but the squad finds his assumption incredulous. Thayer comes down to the station to retrieve his project and confirms Dietrich’s suspicions, noting that the only thing that the bomb would need to detonate is plutonium. After some discussion and investigation, the FBI confiscates the bomb from Thayer for classification.

What is striking about this episode is the discourse between the engineering student, Thayer, and the detectives about the Bomb. According to Thayer, he chose to build an atomic bomb for his thesis in order to prove that it is now all too easy for such a weapon to be built, and that anyone could obtain the proper materials to do so. As such, he says, the Bomb could easily fall into evil hands bent on destruction. Moreover, there is some ambiguity as to the background of one of the scientific experts sent to investigate the device, with the implication that he may have worked for the Nazis—especially given his convictions that inventions must continue in the name of science, regardless of the destruction that may ensue from that invention. One of the biggest debates is between Thayer and the FBI agent on the psychological mindset of someone capable of building an atomic bomb, with the former arguing that such a classification is impossible.

Oppenheimer’s second coming

Other Cold War television portrayals in the 1970s feature the atomic bomb as an item of disaster that focuses the plot on the heroic deeds of the episodes’ protagonists. One of the most frequent fears about the atomic bomb in the 1970s was that of nuclear blackmail, one that began in the late 1960s. Under this scenario, a terrorist organization would publish instructions for the manufacture of nuclear weapons while instructing other nations that if they did not follow their directions, the Bomb would be built and detonated on them. In the Hawaii Five-O episode, “Anybody Can Build a Bomb” (1973), Dr. Elias Haig (Lew Ayres) is a professor at the University of Hawaii and is part of a nuclear blackmail conspiracy. He teaches Detective Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) and his entourage how to build an atomic bomb. They soon find out that the Mercury which they seek is not a mineral at all but rather the name of a terrorist group. Mercury threatens to detonate an atomic bomb in Honolulu unless they are paid the $100 million for which they are asking; they never do apprehend Mercury.

The more things change… So, how do these portrayals of nuclear fear on television during the Cold War affect how television during the first and second decades of the 2000s portray nuclear fear? One only need turn to contemporary television series such as Jericho (CBS, 2006-2008) and Manhattan (WGN America, 2014-2015) and the news to see these varying influences from the Cold War. Most recently, in Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired on June 25, 2017, David Lynch posits that the being responsible for all of the evil in the town of Twin Peaks was born out of the Trinity atomic bomb test. Clearly, given current events, atomic bombs are having a moment on television. Nuclear weapons were—and still are—often considered to be evil themselves.

Comedy is not exempt from this pattern of rhetoric. On July 27, 2014, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver tackled the ever-present issue of nuclear bombs in the episode “Nuclear Weapons and the United States.” Oliver opened his story with a clip from the civil defense film… Duck and Cover. There is a long history of television reporting on contemporary nuclear weapons issues and this episode is no exception, melding the perfect blend of information, comedy, and satire, pointing out absurdities and incongruences along the way.

This was not Oliver’s only take on nuclear weapons; he also discussed the nuclear waste problem that resulted from the building and testing of nuclear weapons in a later episode, “Nuclear Waste,” which aired on August 20, 2017. While juxtaposing comedy with serious information and political critique, neither of Oliver’s segments were that far off from “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry… for Tomorrow: Ker-Boom!,” “Lucy A-Bomb,” or “Atomic Bomb.”

But we are also entering into a new stage of how nuclear fear is being portrayed on television, one that mixes the apathy of Americans during the Cold War with anxieties similar to those that represent foreigners as “the enemy”—only the enemy nation is different from 40 years ago. We also are more aware of the damage that a nuclear weapon can cause—and it doesn’t make nuclear attack look any less frightening now than it did back then.

Some things have not changed, however, such as the instructions of what to do should an atomic bomb fall on our soil. These instructions, which first appeared in pamphlets, television public service announcements, and commercials during the Cold War, are still mostly the same as they were before, except for few variations: For example, we now know that being in a car during a nuclear detonation is not as safe as we once thought. One California television news program even aired an instructional video on what to do should a nuclear weapon explode. Ventura County even created a public service announcement for increasing nuclear awareness, while Fox News ran a story that advised that anyone caught outside during a nuclear explosion should: “…[R]emove the clothes you were wearing and take a shower immediately.”

It is remarkable to think that we are giving very similar advice now as we did 50 or even 60 years ago, but it only demonstrates that the way that nuclear fear is presented on television—fictional or not—is a direct descendant of these portrayals during the Cold War.

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Lonnie W Cavenee
Lonnie W Cavenee
5 years ago

Good job! My first introduction to the concept of nuclear fear was the opening scenes of the Outer Limits episode The Architects of Fear. People panicking and running in the streets really got my attention and I felt their terror! Of course there was nowhere to run, same as today.

Sam Colombino Jr.
Sam Colombino Jr.
5 years ago

Lonnie,How truly fortunate you are.My introductions to the specter of nuclear annihilation was either sheltering under my desk on the orders of the good nuns at St.Timothy’s or marching two by two in straight lines to the Air Raid shelter under our school during test runs by Civil Defense.Although, in retrospect, I believe the underlying fear that my parents tried to hide from me was the most unsettling-I never let on that I knew why they were worrying,by the way.

Joe Askew
Joe Askew
5 years ago

Two very thought provoking programmes to also consider (for the UK) Viewer discretion is advised The War Game – Peter Watkins. Based on the information at the time (1966) showed in a Docudrama style, the buildup, process & procedures and after effect of a nuclear war in the UK. It was initially shown and then banned, by the then government as being too horrific. Threads – Barry Hinds – this came out in 1984 and caused a right issues to the government of the day, as it portrayed two families in Sheffield (England) and concentrated on the after effects of… Read more »