Entrance to the END OF AN ERA section of the exhibit.

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.

Americans Who Felt Nuclear Was The Country's Most Urgent Problem
1959 64%
1964 16%

[Source: Gallop Poll]


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.

Dairyland Current Matters (1962), magazine cover
This magazine cover, from June 1962, depicts a hand holding a mushroom cloud. 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.
DELTA to Battle Viet Cong (1966), photo
This photograph depicts 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 on February 17, 1966. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Visual Materials
Police Subduing Anti-Vietnam War Demonstrators (1967), photo
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. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Visual Materials
Father Groppi Marching with the NAACP Youth Council (1968), photo
In this photograph Father Groppi and members of the NAACP Youth Council marching to protest Martin Luther King's assassination in 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. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Visual Materials
Astronaut Edwin ('Buzz') Aldrin on the Moon (1969), photo
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. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Visual Materials