The Dragon's Tail

The Dragon's Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age

Robert A. Jacobs
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    The Dragon's Tail
    Book Description:

    When President Harry Truman introduced the atomic bomb to the world in 1945, he described it as a Godgiven harnessing of “the basic power of the universe.” Six days later a New York Times editorial framed the dilemma of the new Atomic Age for its readers: “Here the long pilgrimage of man on Earth turns towards darkness or towards light.” American nuclear scientists, aware of the dangers their work involved, referred to one of their most critical experiments as “tickling the dragon’s tail.” Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most Americans may not have been sure what an atomic bomb was or how it worked. But they did sense that it had fundamentally changed the future of the human race. In this book, Robert Jacobs analyzes the early impact of nuclear weapons on American culture and society. He does so by examining a broad range of stories, or “nuclear narratives,” that sought to come to grips with the implications of the bomb’s unprecedented and almost unimaginable power. Beginning with what he calls the “primary nuclear narrative,” which depicted atomic power as a critical agent of social change that would either destroy the world or transform it for the better, Jacobs explores a variety of common themes and images related to the destructive power of the bomb, the effects of radiation, and ways of surviving nuclear war. He looks at civil defense pamphlets, magazines, novels, and films to recover the stories the U.S. government told its citizens and soldiers as well as those presented in popular culture. According to Jacobs, this early period of Cold War nuclear culture—from 1945 to the banning of aboveground testing in 1963—was distinctive for two reasons: not only did atmospheric testing make Americans keenly aware of the presence of nuclear weapons in their lives, but radioactive fallout from the tests also made these weapons a serious threat to public health, separate from yet directly linked to the danger of nuclear war.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-026-0
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: At the Core of the Bomb, Narratives
    (pp. 1-11)

    Of the thousands of experiments conducted at the Los Alamos lab during the Manhattan Project, one has become emblematic of our encounter with nuclear weapons. It was called “tickling the dragon’s tail,” and it was critical to the successful construction of the first atomic bombs, the one tested at Trinity in New Mexico in July 1945 and the two dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month. The experiment claimed lives in Los Alamos and enabled the taking of hundreds of thousands more in Japan.

    Tickling the dragon’s tail was a means of determining what quantity of plutonium or uranium-235...

  6. 1 Atomic Familiars on the Radioactive Landscape
    (pp. 12-28)

    On what appears to be a normal day off the Pacific coast of California, Scott Thomas is relaxing on his boat and enjoying a peaceful day of leisure. His wife has just gone below to grab two beers when he notices a strange fog approaching. He stands up, and for a moment the fog envelops him. The cloud passes, and when his wife returns, she sees that Scott seems to be covered with glitter. The couple thinks nothing of the phenomenon until the impossible begins to happen: Thomas begins to shrink; he has been transformed intoThe Incredible Shrinking Man.¹...

  7. 2 Fallout Stories
    (pp. 29-41)

    Nuclear radiation was one of the most potent icons of the atomic age. At first an abstraction associated with the horrors of a nuclear war, during the atmospheric testing era (1945–1963) radiation became a very real part of the lives of Americans, carried into their homes and minds by wind and rain in the form of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapon testing. As testing increased in the 1950s, and as thermonuclear weapons began to be tested, higher and higher levels of fallout reached deeper and deeper into the lives, and bodies, of Americans, and of people all around the...

  8. 3 Nuclear Approach/Avoidance: Social Scientists and the Bomb
    (pp. 42-60)

    As the radioactive mushroom clouds from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to drift across the Pacific Ocean, concerns about the future of human society were already in the air. On August 10, 1945, radio station WNEW in New York ran a special program titled “The Atomic Bomb—The End or Rebirth of Civilization?” In the presentation, the sociologist Harvey Zorbaugh made a powerful and insightful plea to the listeners: “The problem we face is this: During the years we must wait for science to harvest atomic energy in the interests of civilization, can we prevent atomic energy...

  9. 4 Survival of Self and Nation under Atomic Attack
    (pp. 61-83)

    On the night of July 25, 1961, President John Kennedy spoke to the nation about the Berlin crisis, a situation in which the United States and the Soviet Union tiptoed toward nuclear confrontation. “In the event of an attack, the lives of families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved—if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families—and to our country,” he said. Kennedy’s linking the destiny of individuals and the family with the national fate gave...

  10. 5 Good Bomb / Bad Bomb
    (pp. 84-98)

    In the fall of 1953,Reader’s Digestbrought the voice of Mrs. L. F. van Hagan to a nation adjusting to the regular testing of atomic weapons in the continental United States:

    My son and his family, who live in California not too far from the atomic-bomb testing grounds in Nevada, are becoming used to seeing a flash and some minutes later feeling their house rock. One night recently he woke from a sound sleep and asked, “What’s that?”

    “Oh, go back to sleep,” said his wife. “It’s only an atomic bomb.”¹

    This comfort level—“it’s only an atomic bomb”...

  11. 6 The Atomic Kid: American Children vs. the Bomb
    (pp. 99-117)

    As the United States embarked on a furious program of weapons testing in response to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union in late 1949, there was one group of model citizens who had a more specific understanding of what to expect from the frequent detonation of atomic bombs in the Nevada desert: the students of the Indian Springs School in Indian Springs, Nevada.Collier’smagazine showed Americans into the two-room schoolhouse that was located in “a converted supply room at the Indian Springs Air Force Base, a security area attached to the closely guarded atomic testing grounds....

  12. Conclusion: The Magical and the Mundane
    (pp. 118-122)

    Nuclear weapons have a unique history: introduced to humanity by Harry Truman, arguably the most powerful person in the world, as a harnessing of the “basic force of the universe” to human will, a force that would end war and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, they threatened futures and haunted nightmares. In a single day they renamed an era. The sheer force of their existence cast doubt on the inevitability of a human future.

    This mythic, almost supernatural framing was the way most Americans first encountered the bomb, and it would remain their primary experience of...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 123-144)
  14. Index
    (pp. 145-151)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 152-153)