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"Living Under a Mushroom Cloud: Fear and Hope in the Atomic Age"


The Atomic Age came to an end in the mid-1960s, as new events and concerns drove the fear of nuclear war from the minds of many Americans. The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 represented the peak of anxiety about nuclear war, but afterward the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to take the first steps toward nuclear disarmament. While this action allowed many Americans to breathe a sigh of relief, other concerns, such as the civil rights movement and the escalating Vietnam War, occupied center stage. At the same time, increased interest in the space race, which had started with the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, made images of space exploration the new symbols of modern technology.

Despite international agreements about nuclear testing, the United States and the Soviet Union continued to build up their atomic arsenals into the 1980s. Concerns about nuclear warfare resurfaced as the government emphasized the development of 'Star Wars' technology during the Reagan administration. At the same time, accidents at nuclear power plants renewed public anxiety about the safety of atomic energy. Protests against nuclear plants and atomic weapons demonstrated that although the so-called 'Atomic Age' had passed, its legacies lived on.

Percentage of Americans who felt nuclear war was America's most urgent problem:

1959 64%
1964 16%

(These statistics are from Gallop polls.)

The beginning of the end of the Atomic Age occurred in October 1962. The Soviet Union installed atomic missiles in Communist Cuba and pointed them toward the United States. President Kennedy placed a naval blockade around the island, and for about a week the world held its breath waiting for World War III to start. On October 29th, the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba and the crisis came to a quiet end. Less than a year later, in July 1963, Khrushchev and Kennedy signed a treaty to prohibit above-ground atomic testing. Once a third world war had been averted and mushroom clouds became an image of the past, fewer Americans considered nuclear war to be on the horizon.

End of an Era panel.

Cover of Dairyland Current Matters depicting a hand holding a mushroom cloud, June 1962.

By the mid 1960s the first nuclear energy plants were under construction. Americans were finally seeing the fruits of the "Atoms for Peace" plan, and atomic power began to seem less threatening.

The 9th infantry regiment of the Vietnam army and the 13th "DELTA" aviation battalion of the United States Army on their way to battle the Viet Cong February 17, 1966. Courtesy of the Visual Material Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. (Lot 3238)

Police subduing anti-Vietnam war demonstrators University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, 1967.

By the mid-1960s, anti-war activists who once had protested nuclear proliferation found their attention drawn to America's increased presence in Vietnam. The Vietnam War became more urgent because it was not hypothetical; American soldiers were dying there. Courtesy of the Visual Material Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. (Whi(X3)44296)

Father Groppi and members of the NAACP Youth Council marching to protest Martin Luther King's assassination Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1968.

Members of the New Left, perhaps the most important political force in the 1960s, were more interested in the civil rights movement, third world revolutions, and the lives of the "oppressed poor" and "alienated workers" than in atomic bombs, which many felt were in competent hands. They were more likely to be found at civil rights events such as the one pictured here, than protesting the possibility of nuclear war. Courtesy of Visual Material Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. (Whi(X3)36107)

Astronaut Edwin ('Buzz') Aldrin on the moon 1969.

President Kennedy announced in 1961 that an American would be on the moon by the end of the decade. With the space race underway, Americans became enthralled with space exploration. Children saw astronauts as heroes, and toy rockets and space ships now stimulated their imaginations as atomic disintegrator guns and atomic bomb rings had once done. On July 20, 1969, Kennedy's prediction came true when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Courtesy of Visual Material Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. (Lot 4023)

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