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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Our Atomic Heritage


This weekend marked the 60th anniversary of the birth of the atomic age. On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was exploded at the "Trinity Site" on the White Sands Proving Grounds, 20 miles east of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and 45 miles north of El Paso, Texas. Three weeks later, on August 6th over Hiroshima and August 9th over Nagasaki, Japan, similar bombs were used for the first time against human populations. Within four years the Soviet Union had developed its own atomic weapons. The Cold War had become more than a competition of economic systems between a pair of World War Two allies.

These events dramatically changed life for people in Wisconsin and around the nation. School children rehearsed how to "duck and cover" under their desks in the event of an attack. Families laid up stocks of "Multi Purpose Food" in case commerce was disrupted. Many, such as the Sobel family of Racine, even constructed home fallout shelters in which they hoped to survive a large-scale attack.

As Cold War stakes grew higher, so, too, did public fears. Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy capitalized on this and played a central role in escalating the tension by asserting that Soviet agents and sympathizers were spread throughout the U.S. government and social institutions. A new film genre, science fiction, spawned dozens of cheap horror movies that featured nuclear war, mutants, or symbols of hostile creeping ideologies that threatened "freedom, justice, and the American way." Many of these are now preserved in the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research collections.

Read about the Cold War in Wisconsin and the nation at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. If you're old enough, try to recall how you coped with the ubiquitous fear of nuclear holocaust that formed the relentess baseline beneath the 1950s and 1960s, when tens of thousands of nuclear missiles were aimed at cities on either side of the Atlantic. The world certainly faces horrific threats today, but nothing on the scale of the Cold War policy of "mutually assured destruction" which, many believed, could have eliminated life on Earth entirely.
:: Posted in Curiosities on July 17, 2005

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