May 04, 2004

Nuclear TV: Atomic Café

Last Friday I located a VHS copy of Atomic Café (1982, directed by Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty) at the Harold Washington library, a feature many call the "atomic version of Reefer Madness". The film compiles a stunning array of archival footage segments - ranging from military training films and Civil Defense tutorials, to 4-H meetings and scenes from atomic bomb testing at the Trinity site, the Bikini Atoll, and Marshall Islands.

Between snippets of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executions, the McCarthy Hearings and hawk Congressmen advocating preemptive military strikes on China during the Korea War, the viewer may come away relieved (and surprised) that the world did in fact manage to survive this utterly hell-bound period of history. In summary, Atomic Café is an engrossing (if somewhat disorganized) depiction of the nature of America's postwar double-edged obsession with the atom, and fortunately it's not out of print, but available for sale in both DVD and VHS formats. Frankly, "surreal" is a bit mild a term to describe views of children riding tricycles in homemade "radiation suits," still-twitching hogs burnt alive to a crisp after being exposed to nuclear blast testing, and Army films designed to reassure servicemembers (and the public) that radiation sickness is a mild, temporary and harmless side effect:
(A young, dark-haired man gazes worriedly into a mirror with a full head of hair, fearful of losing his looks to radiation sickness. As the narrator sanctimoniously reassures him, the man's reflection fades into a healthy example of "horseshoe" male-pattern baldness, supposedly from nuclear fallout)

"they may call you 'baldy' or 'chrome dome' for a while, but in no time you'll be back to your old self again!"

(Bald man dissolves back into his smiling fully-haired self)
No mention of hair falling out by the fistful, vomiting and diarrhea, blistered peeling skin and gangrenous sores anywhere. How did the public swallow all this hook line and sinker? I believe the reason is that the vast majority of audiences didn't know much better back then, and before Watergate and the Kennedy assassination Americans were far more trusting of the government's declarations at face value. Atomic energy promised not only victory over "the Hun," but domestic energy production so cheap it couldn't be metered. One interview with a Cold War-era man shown in Atomic Café underscores the public's general misapprehension of the Nuclear Threat:
Interviewer: "Sir, what do you plan to do, if upon emerging from your family's fallout shelter, you discover that only 5 to 10 percent of the people have survived the attack?"

Man: "Well, I guess that would be fine - with fewer mouths to feed, there would be a lot more to go around for the folks that are left!"
Today, we have easy access to images of the horrific damage radiation can inflict; during wartime, no doubt the government thought better than to alarm a still-innocent populace with the grand scope of the Bomb's potential destruction. "Duck and Cover" made a fine catchy bromide for the masses. Let them build shelters and fishing-sinker-filled "radiation suits"; what they don't know can't hurt them. (part of Wayback Project) has a great collection of downloadable films and videos from our nation's nuclear past, such as Radiation Safety in Nuclear Energy Explorations. You can even download and watch the entire "Duck and Cover" short film from's Prelinger Archives Collection; it's one of their most-viewed features.

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