The Atomic Age

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As the twentieth century neared its end and pundits began to compile their lists of significant moments in history, it was hardly surprising to find that the development of the atomic bomb ranked high amidst the top ten turning points. 1 With the destruction of Hiroshima, it seemed, the world had changed in an instant. The power of the bomb had obliterated a city, killed many thousands, and brought the end of the war suddenly near. But the bomb also wrought changes in politics and culture, as an unwary humanity was suddenly confronted with the possibility of its own apocalyptic demise. The Atomic Age had begun.

Delivering the 1956 Dyason Lecture, historian Arnold Toynbee reflected on the meanings of both democracy and the Atomic Age. They were, he argued, ‘portmanteau words’, whose contents had to be carefully unpacked. 2 The Atomic Age comprised intellectual and technological elements, Toynbee noted, but the factor that loomed largest was apprehension inspired by the prospect of atomic war. The Atomic Age was a label, a period of time, an index of technological development, and a feeling. It is a phrase that conjures still a range of familiar images, from missile silos to ‘duck and cover’, from bad sci-fi to the prospect of a technological utopia. Where do we begin in a study of the Atomic Age—with the scientists? the technology? And what do we mean when we talk about the Atomic Age in Australia, a country whose involvement with the atomic energy has been largely as an exporter of uranium and testing site for British bombs? For something that seems so familiar, so obvious, so central to an understanding of the twentieth century, the meaning of the Atomic Age remains elusive.

Alwyn McKay seems untroubled by such questions in his 1984 account of ‘how the atomic age came into being’. 3 For McKay, the Atomic Age simply represents a stage of scientific development. His is a story of pioneering scientists labouring to expand the boundaries of knowledge. The work of atomic scientists, including a number of prominent Australians, has been similarly documented in biographies, memoirs, institutional studies, and numerous histories of the bomb. 4 But as scientists themselves quickly realised, the Atomic Age revealed the political context of their research more clearly than ever before. As the bomb entered the realm of international diplomacy and nations began to quibble over the ownership of ‘atomic secrets’, scientists joined the political fray as experts, activists and, sometimes, victims. 5

The politics of the Atomic Age have provoked much lively historical debate, especially since Gar Alperovitz focused critical attention on Truman’s decision to use the bomb against Japan. 6 As Alperovitz demonstrates, the bomb was perceived by US policymakers as a political as well as a military weapon. Its dramatic revelation provided an effective first strike in the burgeoning superpower struggle with the Soviet Union. The possibilities of the Atomic Age were framed against an increasingly tense and divided world, its origins and implications entwined with those of the Cold War. 7 The early history of the Atomic Age is thus dominated by questions of control, as scientists, politicians, religious leaders, and the public, all sought to imagine a system that would disarm the threat of atomic annihilation, while hastening the use of the new energy for peaceful purposes. 8 Nations like Australia sought to balance their commitment to international cooperation with a pragmatic acceptance of the American atomic monopoly. 9

The struggle for the scientific know-how necessary  to fuel the Atomic Age provides a potent theme in the history of Australia’s frustrated atomic development. As Britain pushed ahead with its own atomic program, Australia hoped for some form of collaboration. But the British themselves hoped to renew their partnership with the US, and so remained wary of the ambitions of their eager Commonwealth colleagues. 10 In my study of the participation of Australian scientists in the British atomic tests, I argued that Australian hopes for useful information were thwarted by the prospect of ‘unfortunate repercussions in Washington’. 11 This theme has been elaborated within Alice Cawte’s Atomic Australia and Wayne Reynolds’ Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb, which chart the nation’s quest for atomic enlightenment through a web of personalities, politics and super-power suspicions. 12 Reynolds focuses too much on the bomb, rather than the broader field of atomic development, but he usefully explores the way in which the influence of atomic policy was expressed through a wide variety of government initiatives—from the Snowy Scheme, to the restructuring of Australia’s security apparatus.

The labours of scientists and policymakers have been crucial in defining the key moments of the Atomic Age. In Australia we can catalogue a series of events and institutions such as the British atomic tests, the appointment of Mark Oliphant to the Australian National University, the establishment of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, the development of uranium mining, and the controversy surrounding the handling of atomic secrets. 13 All of these have received some attention from historians and together they contribute to our broad understanding of the terrain. But what is it that links such events? This question seemed crucially significant in the early 1980s with the escalation of Cold War tensions and the renewed possibility of nuclear war. How was it that the bomb could remain such a threat?

Theorists began to argue that the bomb was not merely a political weapon, but that it fostered a new type of politics altogether—the ‘nuclear state’. EP Thompson described the development of ‘exterminism’, a political configuration, like militarism or imperialism, ‘whose institutional base is the weapons system, and the entire economic, scientific, political and ideological support-system to that weapons system’. 14 In cultural studies the new field of ‘nuclear criticism’ similarly sought to probe the bomb’s ideological underpinnings, inspired by Jacques Derrida’s colourfully-titled paper, ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)’. 15 Concerns were fuelled further in Australia by continuing controversies over uranium mining and the legacies of the British atomic tests. Australia’s role in the global nuclear network was subjected to critical analysis. 16

Such studies drew attention to the state formations that structured our engagement with nuclear technology, and gestured towards the ideological assumptions that continued to hold us in the bomb’s deadly grasp. Joel Kovel made a compelling case for the significance of fear, arguing that the nuclear state intimidates its citizenry through the orchestrated terror of the bomb. 17 Others stressed the importance of language, demonstrating how nuclear technology had been naturalised by the manipulation of words and images—a process one group of authors described as ‘nukespeak’. 18 By drawing attention to the practices of a nuclear elite, arguments like these provide a useful basis for political critique and resistance. But they are less satisfactory as tools for historical analysis. There is a certain deft functionalism in the image of the nuclear state commanding allegiance through its control of our feelings and our words. There is a tendency to portray fear as some sort of all-purpose explanatory mechanism, capable of gripping a people, or being diverted—turned on and off like a tap. Language too is a convenient culprit, but like fear it has its own history and context. To understand the Atomic Age as something lived, we have to examine its culture, not as the expression of idealised state formation, but as something with its own historical integrity.

Paul Boyer provided the first detailed examination of the culture of the Atomic Age in his 1984 book, By the bomb’s early light : American thought and culture at the dawn of the Atomic Age. 19 Boyer documents American reactions to the bomb, examining how the implications of the new technology were explored through debates over control, morality, religion, progress and science. His ground-breaking study has been the inspiration for many others, charting variations in the bomb’s cultural expression through literature, film and elsewhere. 20 Australian press reactions to the bomb have been surveyed in an article by Prue Torney-Parlicki, though the emphasis is on the portrayal of its Japanese victims. 21 A broader study of atomic imagery in Australian art and media has been undertaken by Rodney James. 22

The cultural history of the Atomic Age is now the subject of a substantial body of work, revealing many of the ways in which atomic energy has become integrated into our ways of seeing, of thinking, of living. Yet there remains a certain hesitancy in probing the origins of this influence. Commenting on the upsurge in anti-nuclear activism in the early 1980s, Boyer admits a depressing sense of déjà vu—it all seemed to have happened before. 23 Elsewhere he observes that early responses to the bomb were ‘uncannily familiar’. The arguments and outrage, fear and fantasy, had been recycled again and again in the decades after the war. ‘All the major elements of our contemporary engagement with the nuclear reality’, he argues, ‘took shape literally within days of Hiroshima’. 24 In tracing these ‘continuing cycles of activism and apathy’, Boyer hopes that a sense of history might free us at last from the ritual of nuclear forgetting. But why stop at the bomb?

If we are looking at the way images and arguments are regularly recycled as immediate and new, then surely we should look beyond the turning-point of Hiroshima to see whether there are deeper continuities. One of the most compelling features of the Atomic Age was the sense of newness—it was a ‘new era’, promising revolutions in almost every aspect of life. But was this sense of newness new? Boyer, and much of the cultural history of the Atomic Age, takes it for granted that the bomb provides a unique starting point. And yet the discussions about science, progress and morality that followed in its wake, drew upon well-established themes.

Spencer Weart also documents detailed reactions to the bomb. But instead of starting with the news from Hiroshima, he looks back to a combination of images that have long surrounded science and mysticism. The bomb, he argues, merely serves as a ‘receptacle for projections’ of pre-existing cultural myths and images—‘hidden thoughts’—themselves born of fundamental psychological needs. 25 ‘Modern thinking about nuclear energy’, he concludes, ‘has less to do with current physical reality than with old, autonomous features of our society, our culture, and our psychology’. 26 Weart travels further and deeper than Boyer, probing our collective unconscious for the inchoate fears that were ultimately to find expression in responses to nuclear energy. But while he does highlight some of the connecting threads that belie the bomb’s sense of newness, Weart robs the Atomic Age of its own context and meaning. The Cold War is incidental in Weart’s account; place and personality are of limited interest. We gain a much expanded sense of time, but lose our sense of history.

Boyer’s bomb is compelling and immediate, demanding humanity’s attention, while Weart’s bomb is a pastiche of ancient images. Such opposing characterisations prompt Jeff Smith to ask, ‘Is the bomb basically a very new thing, or a very old thing?’ In his book, Unthinking the unthinkable, Smith concludes that the bomb is ‘neither wholly new nor timelessly old, but historically old’. ‘The “presentness” of nuclear weapons is no reason to see the world as basically changed’, he adds, ‘and their “pastness” is no reason to see it as never able to change’. 27 Both the continuities in our forms of cultural expression and the feeling of dramatic change are themselves topics for historical reflection rather than defining the boundaries of our study.

This thesis begins from the assumption that a cultural history of the Atomic Age should not take the parameters of its topic for granted. Beginnings and ends are fashioned as carefully as bombs and reactors. But once we begin to question the nature of the turning point at Hiroshima, a turning point that seems so critical to our understanding of twentieth century history, we are left with no clear starting point, no well-defined boundaries. Having unpacked the portmanteau we find the suitcase itself has vanished. What began as a history of the Atomic Age in Australia has thus become something different. The focus of this thesis has shifted from the implications of a moment, to the experience of a journey. This is the journey that runs through our revolutions and ages, a journey that gives the turning point its power and significance—a journey we call progress.


  1. Daily Telegraph, 25 February 1999, p. 26. The Newseum website conducted polls of journalists and the public, and both nominated the bomb as the most significant event of the twentieth century. See: <>.
  2. Arnold J. Toynbee, Democracy in the Atomic Age, The Dyason Lectures, 1956, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1957, p.1
  3. Alwyn McKay, The making of the atomic age, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1984, p. vii.
  4. Lennard Bickel, The deadly element: the men and women behind the story of Uranium, Macmillan, London, 1979; Ronald W Clark, The birth of the bomb: the untold story of Britain’s part in the weapon that changed the world, Phoenix House Ltd, London, 1961; Ronald W Clark, The greatest power on earth: the story of nuclear fission, Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1980; Lansing Lamont, Day of Trinity: the dramatic story of the men who opened the nuclear age, Hutchinson, London, 1965; Richard Rhodes, The making of the atomic bomb, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1986; Richard Rhodes, Dark sun : the making of the hydrogen bomb, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995; Spencer Weart, Scientists in power, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979.
  5. For example, see: Alice Kimball Smith, A peril and a hope: the scientists’ movement in America 1945-47, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970; Greta Jones, Science, politics and the Cold War, Routledge, London, 1988; Greta Jones, ‘The mushroom-shaped cloud: British scientists opposition to nuclear weapons policy, 1945-57’, Annals of Science, vol. 43, no. 1, January 1986, pp. 1-26. For Australian ‘victims’, see: Phillip Deery, ‘Scientific freedom and postwar politics: Australia, 1945-55’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 13, no. 1, June 2000, pp. 1-18; Jean Buckley-Moran, ‘Australian scientists and the Cold War’, in Brian Martin, C.M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell and Cedric Pugh (eds), Intellectual suppression: Australian case histories, analysis and responses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1986, pp. 11-23.
  6. Gar Alperovitz, Atomic diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, expanded and updated ed., Penguin, New York, 1985; Gar Alperovitz, The decision to use the atomic bomb and the architecture of an American myth, Harper Collins, London, 1995.
  7. Greg Herken, The winning weapon : the atomic bomb in the cold war, 1945-1950, Knopf, New York, 1980.
  8. See, for example: Joseph I Lieberman, The scorpion and the tarantula : the struggle to control atomic weapons, 1945-1949, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1970; Lawrence S Wittner, The struggle against the bomb, vol. 1, One world or none: A history of the world nuclear disarmament movement through 1953, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1993.
  9. Tim Sherratt, ‘A physicist would be best out of it: George Briggs and the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission’, Voices, vol. 3, no. 1, 1993, pp. 17-30; Meredith Burgmann, ‘Hot and cold: Dr Evatt and the Russians, 1945-1949’, in Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (eds), Australia’s first cold war, 1945-1953, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984, pp. 80-108.
  10. The politics of Britain’s nuclear ambitions is extensively examined in Margaret Gowing, Independence and deterrence: Britain and atomic energy, 1945-1952, 2 vols, Macmillan, London, 1974.
  11. Tim Sherratt, ‘A political inconvenience: Australian scientists at the British atomic weapons test, 1952-3’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 1985, pp. 137-52. See also: Tim Sherratt, ‘Australian scientists at the British atomic weapons tests’, in Robyn Williams (ed.), Science Show II, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 216-9.
  12. Alice Cawte, Atomic Australia: 1944-1990, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1992; Wayne Reynolds, Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000. See also: Tim Sherratt, review of Wayne Reynolds, Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 13, no. 4, December 2001, pp. 536-8.
  13. In addition to Cawte and Reynolds cited above, see, for example: Robert Milliken, No conceivable injury: the story of Britain and Australia’s atomic cover-up, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986; Stewart Cockburn, and David Ellyard, Oliphant: the life and times of Sir Mark Oliphant, Axiom Books, Adelaide, 1981.
  14. Edward Thompson, ‘Notes on exterminism, the last stage of civilisation’, in New Left Review (ed.), Exterminism and Cold War, Verso, London, 1982, pp. 1-34.
  15. The field is surveyed in Ken Ruthven, Nuclear criticism, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1993.
  16. Jim Falk, Global fission: the battle over nuclear power, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1982; Jim Falk, Taking Australia off the map, Penguin, Melbourne, 1983; Michael Denborough (ed.), Australia and nuclear war, Crook Helm, Canberra, 1983; Harry Redner, and Jill Redner, Anatomy of the world, Fontana, Melbourne, 1983.
  17. Joel Kovel, Against the state of nuclear terror, South End Press, Boston, 1984.
  18. Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C Bell, and Rory O’Connor, Nukespeak, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1982.
  19. Paul Boyer, By the bomb’s early light : American thought and culture at the dawn of the Atomic Age, Pantheon Books, New York, 1985.
  20. For example: Margot A Henriksen, Dr Strangelove’s America: society and culture in the atomic age, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997; M Langer, ‘Why the atom is our friend: Disney, General Dynamics and the USS Nautilus’, Art History, vol. 18, no. 1, March 1995, pp. 63-96.
  21.   Prue Torney-Parlicki, ‘“Whatever-the-thing-may-be-called”: the Australian news media and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 31, no. 114, April 2000, pp. 49-66.
  22. Rodney B James, ‘Representation of the Bomb in Australian art and culture, 1945-1959’, MA, Monash University, 1990.
  23. Boyer, By the bomb’s early light p. 364.
  24. ibid., p. xix.
  25. Spencer Weart, Nuclear fear: a history of images, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988, p. 424
  26. ibid., p. 421.
  27. Jeff Smith, Unthinking the unthinkable: nuclear weapons and western culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1989, p. 18.

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