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


America's post-World War II period is often portrayed as a time of affluence and contentment, but fear of atomic war and Communist infiltration also marked the era and affected the decisions Americans made about their lives and futures. Fear of atomic bomb attacks on the nation's cities helped motivate people to move to the relative safety of the suburbs. Some Americans built fallout shelters to protect their families while others, shocked by the prospect of nuclear annihilation at any moment, sought to live for the present.

Entrance to the
FEAR! section.

Scene from the motion picture, Kiss Me Deadly, 1955.
This film graphically illustrated Americans' fear of atomic energy and their hope that it only would be used against evil. In the movie, the villainess, played by Gaby Rogers, insists on seeing the contents of a box filled with nuclear material, despite warnings that it is dangerous. Upon opening it, she screams and bursts into flames. The hero and his secretary narrowly escape before the box explodes in a powerful atomic blast. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.


Once the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Americans realized a new era in history, one defined by the ability of humans to destroy their world. Fear of nuclear warfare and the adverse effects of atomic radiation pervaded popular film, literature, and other forms of mass culture.


Atomic Age fears provided science fiction writers with the inspiration for hundreds of stories, many of which conveyed political and moral messages as they shocked and entertained American readers and movie audiences. Three story types had emerged by the mid-1950s: the first dealt with atomic warfare; the second showed dinosaurs or fantastical beasts awakened or created by atomic blasts; and the third type depicted human deformities resulting from atomic experiments gone awry.

Nuclear Warfare

Some science fiction writers dramatized the horrors of atomic war in the hope that public awareness of nuclear annihilation would help prevent Armageddon. Others supported the growth of an American nuclear arsenal as a way to discourage foreign attack. They portrayed the Soviets as aggressors who force Americans into a position of nuclear retaliation against the evil Communist empire.

Nuclear Warfare
(first panel).

Poster for the motion picture, 1000 Years from Now and Invasion U.S.A., 1952.
Made at the time the hydrogen bomb was being developed, both films illustrate the public's fear of this powerful weapon. The first shows a frightful future world of mutants and monsters created by radiation from an H-bomb. In the second film, a visitor to New York City convinces patrons at a bar that the Soviets have dropped H-bombs on American cities. Most of them panic, some to the point of suicide, before realizing that the bombings never occurred and that the stranger had hypnotized them. They all vow to prevent the vision from becoming reality. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Nuclear Warfare
(second panel).

Poster for the motion picture, The Day the World Ended, 1956.
This film depicts seven survivors of an atomic holocaust, including a scientist and his daughter. While the scientist decides which male survivor will mate with his daughter, the others fight among themselves. All petty concerns are forgotten, however, when cannibalistic mutant monsters attack the group and force them to work together. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Fantastic Beasts

These science fiction stories almost always included a creature who is created and then destroyed by nuclear power, graphically illustrating both the fear and hope inspired by atomic energy. Besides the octopus and dinosaur shown here, other mutants were made from ants, grasshoppers, crabs, alligators, and spiders. Some scholars believe the creatures also may have been metaphors for the Communists.

Fantastic Beasts

Poster for the motion picture, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953.
This movie, which features an arctic dinosaur awakened by an atomic explosion, was the first of the mutant monster films. It inspired more famous movies such as Them! and Godzilla. After attacking and destroying much of New York City, this movie's beast is killed with a radioactive isotope. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Atomic Experiments Gone Awry

The majority of these stories dealt with radioactive experiments that deformed humans, usually scientists. Some atomic accidents benefited those affected, but others led to death. A few stories looked at the possibility of nuclear accidents destroying the world in a way no different from an atomic war.

Atomic Experiments
Gone Awry panel.

Poster for the motion picture The Fly, 1958.
In this movie, a scientist accidentally switches heads with a housefly after inventing a matter-transmitting device which can rearrange atoms. By the end of the movie, both he and the housefly are killed for their own good. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.


In July 1946, the United States government dropped two atomic test bombs on the tiny islands of the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The first was detonated in the air and caused relatively little damage. The limited impact of this explosion received much press coverage and calmed many Americans. The second bomb test, exploded below water, caused tremendous damage and made at least those involved more aware of the destructive power of radiation.

Atomic tests at the
Bikini Atoll panel.

"Death Fog at Bikini" Illustration published in Popular Mechanics, September 1946.

Two months after the Bikini tests, Popular Mechanics described the effects of the second bomb test, including the "death fog" of radioactive fallout that contaminated thirty-six square miles of water. The article emphasized the deadliness of the radiation and the Navy's inability to wash it off "hot" ships.

No Place to Hide by David Bradley, published by Bantam Books, New York, New York, 1949.

David Bradley, an army doctor from Madison, Wisconsin, was present at the atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll. He found the results of the tests disturbing and believed the public should be informed of them. His best selling book, first published in 1948, aroused fear about the long lasting effects of radiation. Courtesy of Bowling Green State University Popular Culture Library.


While "atomic fiction" depicted possible fearful scenarios using atomic bombs and radiation, documentary sources illustrated the reality. Newspapers, magazines, books, and pamphlets described in vivid detail the effects of nuclear bombs on the Bikini Atoll, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, kept Americans abreast of the latest atomic developments and their destructive forces, and explained the devastating results if a bomb were to be dropped on the United States. All combined to reinforce the fear Americans had about anything atomic.

Atomic Reality
(first panel).

"What an Atomic Bomb Would do to the Heart of Milwaukee" Illustration published in The Milwaukee Journal, August 8, 1945.

This illustration brought home to Wisconsinites the effect of the Hiroshima bombing by showing how the same blast would have obliterated the "whole heart of Milwaukee."

The Atomic Age Opens Published by Pocket Books, New York, New York, 1945.

In the weeks after the bombing of Japan, the editors of Pocket Books attempted to come to grips with the event's meaning and consequences. In this book they discussed the atomic bomb's destructive force, how President Truman came to the decision to use the atomic bomb, how atomic energy is created, and whether the bomb's existence will lead to the end of the world or "a veritable Utopia."

Atomic Reality
(second panel).

Blast wave passing over house and dog
Illustration published in Radiological Defense Textbook, March 1963.

A number of people must have been upset by the dog's death because in later versions of this illustration, the dog was replaced by a garbage can.

"Probable acute effects of gamma radiation on humans"
Illustration published in Fallout Shelter Surveys: Guide for Executives, first printed in October 1959.

Hiroshima by John Hersey, published by Bantam Books, New York, New York, 1948.

An instant bestseller when first published in 1946, Hiroshima gave the American public a vivid description of the atomic bomb's destruction to that Japanese city and its people, as seen through the eyes of six survivors. Courtesy of Bowling Green State University Popular Culture Library.

Atomic Reality
(third panel).

"Life or Death: 'Baby play with nice ball?'" Editorial cartoon, drawn by David Low and published in Time, August 20, 1945.

Englishman David Low captured people's worries about atomic science in this widely published cartoon of a scientist holding out an atom labeled "Life or Death" to a baby representing "humanity."

"U.S. Has Exploded World's First H-Bomb, AEC Reveals" Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Wisconsin, November 17, 1952.

After much discussion among scientists and federal government officials about whether a stronger atomic bomb should be created, President Truman gave his approval to have the hydrogen bomb built. As the headline of this newspaper proclaims, the first H-bomb was detonated on November 16, 1952. Its explosive power was 1000 times that of the bombs dropped on Japan. Once again the United States had nuclear weapon superiority over the Soviet Union. Courtesy of Paul Boyer.

"Will the Atom Drive Us Underground?" Illustration published in Popular Mechanics, October 1946.

As fear of atomic explosions and radioactive fallout grew, editors of Popular Mechanics suggested that people may be forced to live underground. At the same time, other authors considered this move to underground living a step toward Utopia.


"Trinity", the first atomic explosion, Alamagordo, New Mexico, July 16, 1945 Illustration published in Classics Illustrated: The Atomic Age comic book, 1960.

Positive portrayals of atomic bomb blasts, along with toys and games that made light of atomic bomb destruction like those in the case below, may have helped diffuse some of the fear the American public felt about the bomb by desensitizing them to the devastation an atomic bomb could cause.

Atomic Games panel.

Atomic Games case.

Atomic Bomb Puzzle Made by A.C. Gilbert Company, New Haven, Connecticut, 1945- 1949,
and 1950-1960.

The Gilbert Company produced all sorts of puzzle boxes, usually sold in sets of six. One of these was the atomic bomb puzzle box which let players reenact the bombing of Japan. By the 1950s, the Gilbert Company had changed this puzzle box to represent a generic target. Courtesy of John Wickland.

Nuclear War Card Game Made by Douglas Malewicki, Los Angeles, California, 1965.

The object of this game was to annihilate your enemies or convince them to join your superior forces. Players withdrew from the game when their nations lost their entire populations. Courtesy of Alex Malloy.

You have finished the

Entrance to


Although Soviets and Americans were allies during World War II, relations quickly deteriorated once the war ended. A mistrust of Soviet Communism pervaded the American consciousness. At first, people feared that Soviets were infiltrating American society and converting the gullible and weak to Communism. Once the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, fear of Communist Russia escalated. Many Americans now believed that an atomic war was on the horizon and that they would be among the victims.

The Red Threat
(first panel).

Joseph Jack Kornfeder pretending to be the Chief Commissar of Mosinee, Wisconsin, May 1, 1950.

In the year following the Soviet Union's development of the atomic bomb, fear of Communist takeover was especially high. The American Legion, a leader in anti-Communist sentiment, believed that staging a "Day Under Communism" would educate Americans about the pending threat. Mosinee, Wisconsin, a small paper mill town, was chosen for the event. Kornfeder, a former Communist who had been trained in Moscow's Lenin School in "methods of political warfare," helped bring an aura of believability to the spectacle. Photo by Francis Miller, LIFE Magazine, Time Warner Inc. Set 32002.

The Red Star

Printed by the Mosinee Times, Mosinee, Wisconsin, May 1, 1950.
As part of the American Legion's "Day Under Communism," the editor of the Mosinee Times was "forced" to print this pink-hued newspaper that praised the virtues of Communist leader Joseph Stalin. Courtesy of the Library Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

The Red Threat
(second panel).

Scene from the motion picture, I was a Communist for the F.B.I., 1951.

The plot of this movie was loosely based on the memoirs of Matt Cvetic, a Pittsburgh steelworker who had been recruited by the F.B.I. to infiltrate his union, a Communist organization. While his family worries that he has "gone pinko," Cvetic, played by Frank Lovejoy, learns about the evil duplicity of the Communist leaders and successfully saves a naive schoolteacher from their clutches. Produced by Warner Brothers to placate Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Pressbook for the motion picture, Walk a Crooked Mile, 1948

Walk a Crooked Mile is one of several Atomic Age movies whose plot involved Communist spies trying to steal America's atomic secrets. Done in a documentary style, it details the efforts of the F.B.I. and Scotland Yard to defeat a Communist spy ring trying to get information from American nuclear scientists. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Lobby card for the motion picture, The Thief, 1952.

In this film, Ray Milland plays a nuclear physicist who works for the Atomic Energy Commission and is persuaded by enemy agents to steal atomic secrets for the Russians. In this scene, he is taking photographs of secret documents, which are later found in the hands of a dead Russian spy and traced back to him. After accidentally killing an F.B.I. agent, Milland's character regrets his actions and turns himself in to the F.B.I. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

The Red Threat
(third panel).

Photographic still from the motion picture, Invasion U.S.A., 1952.

Although the Soviet takeover of the United States is just a dream in this movie, the film did bring to life the worst fears of many Americans. In this scene, the Soviets study a map of America plotted with intended atomic bomb targets. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Photographic still from the motion picture, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, 1963.

In a deliberate contrast from movies like Invasion U.S.A., Dr. Strangelove presents renegade Americans planning to bomb the Soviet Union. Considered anti-establishment at the time, the film was meant to be an indictment of the United States government and its policies. In this scene, President Muffley (played by Peter Sellers) and other government officials study a map of the U.S.S.R. that shows the paths of American atomic bombers. All but one of these planes are shot down before they reach their intended target. The last plane drops its bomb, which sets the Russian "Doomsday Machine" into motion and brings about the end of the world. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

The Red Threat
(fourth panel).

Photographic still and lobby card for the motion picture, My Son John, 1952.

This film was an effort by Paramount Pictures to demonstrate its patriotism and denounce Communism. The story centers around John Johnson, a federal agency worker who becomes a Communist spy. John lies to his mother when she has him swear on a Bible that he is not Communist, but in the end, John cannot betray his country and confesses his guilt to the F.B.I. Shortly afterward, he is shot and killed by Russian agents on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Photographic still from the motion picture, The Iron Curtain, 1948.

Based on the true story of Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk at the Soviet embassy in Canada who had defected to the West, The Iron Curtain was the first politcal spy film after World War II to center around Russian espionage. In this scene, Gouzenko, played by Dana Andrews, is threatened by a Russian. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Photographic still from the motion picture, The Red Menace, 1949.

This film illustrates in a documentary style how the Communist party recruits gullible Americans with promises of sex and money. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.


You will see film clips of atomic blasts that will SCARE!, scenes of life immediately after an atomic attack that will FRIGHTEN!, and information on the Communist plot to take over America that will leave you PARALYZED WITH FEAR!

Operation Ivy (bomb test at Bikini Atoll).

Operation Cue (effects of A-bomb on everyday items).

Medic (dramatization of life immediately after an A-bomb from doctor's point of view).

(NOTE: This text has been included for completeness in documenting this exhibit. The films cannot be viewed. However, this capability may be added at a later time for this or other 'virtual exhibits'.)

kiosk for the
FEAR! section.

Illustration from the pressbook for the motion picture, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956.

Although there is no mention of Communism in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this film was seen as an anti-Communist attack. In the movie, alien creatures use plant-like pods to produce zombie-like replicas of people who have no individual identity and are integrated into a mindless group, a description many felt aptly described Communism. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

The Red Threat
(fifth panel).

Promotional pamphlet for the book, Communist-Socialist Propaganda in American Schools
By Verne P. Kaub, 1955.

Verne Kaub argued that the National Education Association endorsed principles based on "anti-American atheistic philosophies." He believed he had proof, gleaned from NEA publications, that the NEA was indoctrinating children with Communist ideology. Courtesy of the Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

How Red is the National (Federal) Council of Churches?
Published by the American Council of Christian Laymen, Madison, Wisconsin, ca. 1950.

Founded by Madison, Wisconsin resident, Verne P. Kaub, the American Council of Christian Layman sought to remove Communism from the pulpit. This pamphlet listed members of the Federal Council of Churches presumed to have Communist affiliations and called for Christian Americans to protect their churches from becoming "wings of the Communist-Socialist movement." Courtesy of the Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Reds Threaten U.S. Youth Published by the National Research Bureau, Chicago, Illinois, 1960.

The group of businessmen who wrote this pamphlet felt that too many American students did not understand the difference between capitalist and Communist economies, and that this lack of education would make it easier for "Reds" to control young Americans' minds. Courtesy of the Library Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Second Report: How the Milwaukee Sentinel Exposed Milwaukee Communists Published by the Milwaukee Sentinel, 1946.

Between September and November of 1946, the Sentinel reported almost daily on Communist attempts to take over Milwaukee unions. After their expose was done, they printed the articles in two reports. This one includes the articles from late October to late November. Courtesy of the Library Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Your Part in the Fight Against Communism By D.F. Moran, published by Liguorian Publications, Liguori, Missouri, 1962.

In this little booklet, Dr. Moran described the evils of Communism, explained how "unrestrained intellectual and religious liberals" had popularized Communist philosophies in America, and outlined rational steps the reader could take to report a suspected Communist. Courtesy of the Library Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

"Stalin over Wisconsin" Editorial Cartoon published in the Milwaukee Sentinel, September 23, 1946.

Frank Marasco's cartoon illustrated the Milwaukee Sentinel's belief that the Communists were interested in controlling Wisconsin (supposedly called "District 18" by the Soviets) and were infiltrating Milwaukee labor organizations such as the United Automobile Workers (CIO) Local 248 at the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company.. Courtesy of the Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

"Education NEA Style: Why Johnny can't read, write, or think for himself." (Depicts teacher pouring a bottle of 'communist, socialist propaganda' into a child's head while a bottle of 'American history, tradition, and heritage' sits on the shelf.)
Probably published in the Milwaukee Sentinel, ca. 1955.

During the 1950s, teachers and other academics were viewed as being especially vulnerable to Communist propaganda. Many believed the teacher's organization, the National Education Association, to be a Communist front. Foes of Communism considered NEA teachers dangerous because of their close proximity to children with impressionable minds. Courtesy of the Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

The Red Threat
(sixth panel).

"Rosenbergs Die in Chair" Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Wisconsin, June 20, 1953

Although much of the anti-Communist rhetoric to which Americans were exposed during the Atomic Age was based on fiction or conjecture, actual cases of Soviet espionage intensified fears of Communism and atomic warfare. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of being part of a spy ring that stole American atomic secrets. They were found guilty of espionage, sentenced to death, and executed on June 20, 1953. Recently released Soviet documents have shown that Ethel was innocent. Courtesy of Paul Boyer.

Memorial Service for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, June 20, 1956
Courtesy of the Visual Material Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. (Lot 3288)


United States Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a name to the hysteria of anti-Communism that took hold of America in the 1950s. After his election to the Senate in 1946, McCarthy decided to make a name for himself by mounting a crusade against Communism. He achieved national fame in February, 1950 when he announced that he knew the names of 205 Communist spies in the Truman administration. This announcement shocked the American public, who only months before had learned that the Soviet Union possessed atomic bombs. For the next four years, McCarthy tried to ferret out Communists in the federal government and the entertainment industry. He destroyed careers and reputations, and few were willing to challenge him until his ruthless behavior and unethical tactics were exposed in televised hearings in 1954. McCarthy's search for traitors has been described as a witch hunt because the people he accused were never proven to be Communists or spies.

McCarthy's Wisconsin roots were not a factor in his decision to lead the nation's anti-Communist crusade. Wisconsin, unlike neighboring states, did not pass any anti-Communist legislation during the McCarthy era, nor did the State of Wisconsin harass those with possible Communist connections.

McCarthyism panel.

Joe McCarthy and his chief counsel Roy Cohn, Washington D.C., 1954.

From April through June 1954, McCarthy and the United States Army fought a public and televised battle in the chambers of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. The Army accused McCarthy of exerting improper pressure on its officers in an attempt to win preferential treatment for a member of McCarthy's staff who had been drafted into the Army. McCarthy accused Army officials of using blackmail and bribery to prevent him from exposing Communists in its Signal Corps. For the first time, many Americans got to see McCarthy's frightening outbursts, crude personal attacks, and windy speeches. Even Wisconsin newspapers which had supported McCarthy called his behavior "brutal" and "inexcusable." The Army-McCarthy hearings led to the senator's downfall. He died three years later in 1957.Courtesy of the Visual Material Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

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