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The Dragon's Tail

Americans Face the Atomic Age

Robert A. Jacobs

Publication Year: 2010

When President Harry Truman introduced the atomic bomb to the world in 1945, he described it as a God-given harnessing of “the basic power of the universe.” Six days later a New York Times editorial framed the dilemma of the new Atomic Age for its readers: “Here the long pilgrimage of man on Earth turns towards darkness or towards light.” American nuclear scientists, aware of the dangers their work involved, referred to one of their most critical experiments as “tickling the dragon’s tail.” Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most Americans may not have been sure what an atomic bomb was or how it worked. But they did sense that it had fundamentally changed the future of the human race. In this book, Robert Jacobs analyzes the early impact of nuclear weapons on American culture and society. He does so by examining a broad range of stories, or “nuclear narratives,” that sought to come to grips with the implications of the bomb’s unprecedented and almost unimaginable power. Beginning with what he calls the “primary nuclear narrative,” which depicted atomic power as a critical agent of social change that would either destroy the world or transform it for the better, Jacobs explores a variety of common themes and images related to the destructive power of the bomb, the effects of radiation, and ways of surviving nuclear war. He looks at civil defense pamphlets, magazines, novels, and films to recover the stories the U.S. government told its citizens and soldiers as well as those presented in popular culture. According to Jacobs, this early period of Cold War nuclear culture—from 1945 to the banning of above-ground testing in 1963—was distinctive for two reasons: not only did atmospheric testing make Americans keenly aware of the presence of nuclear weapons in their lives, but radioactive fallout from the tests also made these weapons a serious threat to public health, separate from yet directly linked to the danger of nuclear war.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Culture, Politics, and the Cold War


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

In Doris Lessing’s second Canopus book, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, the children born in Zone Three were all considered to have many, even a dozen, parents. This book, like a child in Zone Three, has countless parents and even a few siblings. The greatest debt of gratitude is to Lillian Hoddeson, without whose guidance and criticism...

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Introduction: At the Core of the Bomb, Narratives

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pp. 1-11

Of the thousands of experiments conducted at the Los Alamos lab during the Manhattan Project, one has become emblematic of our encounter with nuclear weapons. It was called “tickling the dragon’s tail,” and it was critical to the successful construction of the first atomic bombs, the one tested at Trinity in New Mexico in July 1945 and the two dropped on...

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1. Atomic Familiars on the Radioactive Landscape

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pp. 12-28

On what appears to be a normal day off the Pacific coast of California, Scott Thomas is relaxing on his boat and enjoying a peaceful day of leisure. His wife has just gone below to grab two beers when he notices a strange fog approaching. He stands up, and for a moment the fog envelops him. The cloud passes, and when his wife returns, she sees that Scott...

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2. Fallout Stories

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pp. 29-41

Nuclear radiation was one of the most potent icons of the atomic age. At first an abstraction associated with the horrors of a nuclear war, during the atmospheric testing era (1945–1963) radiation became a very real part of the lives of Americans, carried into their homes and minds by wind and rain in the form of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapon...

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3. Nuclear Approach/Avoidance: Social Scientists and the Bomb

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pp. 42-60

As the radioactive mushroom clouds from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to drift across the Pacific Ocean, concerns about the future of human society were already in the air. On August 10, 1945, radio station WNEW in New York ran a special program titled “The Atomic Bomb—The End or Rebirth of Civilization?” In the...

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4. Survival of Self and Nation Under Atomic Attack

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pp. 61-83

On the night of July 25, 1961, President John Kennedy spoke to the nation about the Berlin crisis, a situation in which the United States and the Soviet Union tiptoed toward nuclear confrontation. “In the event of an attack, the lives of families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved—if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is...

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5. Good Bomb/Bad Bomb

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pp. 84-98

This comfort level—“it’s only an atomic bomb”—was a feeling that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) encouraged among those who lived near the Nevada Test Site (NTS).² The dark visions that typified narratives of an atomic attack in popular culture stood in stark contrast to images promoted by the federal government to certain groups of...

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6. The Atomic Kid: American Children vs. the Bomb

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pp. 99-117

As the United States embarked on a furious program of weapons testing in response to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union in late 1949, there was one group of model citizens who had a more specific understanding of what to expect from the frequent detonation of atomic bombs in the Nevada desert: the students of the Indian Springs School in...

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Conclusion: The Magical and the Mundane

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pp. 118-121

Nuclear weapons have a unique history: introduced to humanity by Harry Truman, arguably the most powerful person in the world, as a harnessing of the “basic force of the universe” to human will, a force that would end war and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, they threatened futures and haunted nightmares. In a single day they renamed ...


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pp. 123-143


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pp. 145-151

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760260
E-ISBN-10: 1613760264
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497269
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497269

Page Count: 176
Illustrations: 20 illus.
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Culture, Politics, and the Cold War
Series Editor Byline: Christian Appy See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700508
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Dragon's Tail

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • War and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Civilization -- 1945- -- Sources.
  • United States -- Civilization -- 1945-.
  • Nuclear warfare -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Social change -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • War and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Atomic bomb -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Social change -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Atomic bomb -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Nuclear warfare -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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