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  • The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives
  • Michael D. Gordin
The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives. Edited by Rosemary B. Mariner and G. Kurt Piehler. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-57233-648-X. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliographical essay. Index. Pp. xxxi, 447. $42.00.

Atomic bombs both as a fact of military arsenals and as a feature of public consciousness were so ubiquitous to the American experience of the Cold War that it is only now that scholars are truly beginning to get a sense of how strange that cultural phenomenon was. That strangeness is accentuated by the fact that the military stockpiles have not changed, even increased, yet the public consciousness has. The Atomic Bomb and American Society, edited by Rosemary B. Mariner and G. Kurt Piehler, the fruit of a conference held in July 2005 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee––one of the central nodes in America’s nuclear archipelago––gathers some recent scholarship on a huge diversity of topics to “explore the social swath of the atomic sword in the context of the Cold War” (p. xix). The overall quality of the volume is superior (although there is the inevitable internal variation), and many of the articles ought to be read with profit by specialists. The question, though, is whether this all hangs together. Is there a way to gather “the atomic bomb” and “American society” into a single conversation?

The contributors have tried valiantly, but one is left with no consistent picture of the interaction of a culture with a military technology. Consider just some of the best essays in this volume. Megan Barnhart examines the collaboration of atomic scientists with the Ad Council to “sell” international control to the American public. Tracy Davis explores the dynamics of civil defense before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis to show that, rhetoric and memory aside, the U.S. policymakers sidelined civil defense in October 1962 in a manner inconsistent with people who believed war was not imminent. Edward Lollis chronicles the debates over the Oak Ridge International Friendship Bell, a protracted duplicate in miniature of the 1994–95 Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian. Todd Hanson’s biographical study of William Ogle excavates the history of an “ordinary” nuclear scientist. It must have been extremely difficult for the editors, or for Paul S. Boyer in his useful survey of the “cycles” of cultural attention (the keynote to the original conference), to knit together a unified set of questions.

Atomic historiography in America has gone in two major directions since the end of the Cold War. The first has been to internationalize the bomb, exploring the ways in which American nuclear culture and policy shaped and was shaped by developments in Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere. This approach is not in evidence here. Mariner and Piehler instead emphasize the other strand: filling in gaps in the traditional atomic historiography (the role of women, movies, local variation, etc.), and revisiting old questions with better evidence and more nuance (atomic scientists, fears of war). The annotated bibliography (by Piehler), though somewhat incomplete, is helpful to orient beginners to the massive historiography. But even that bibliography is divided into disconnected segments, with nothing to hold it together but the [End Page 1382] intersection of the atomic bomb and American society. Twenty years after the Cold War began to end, we are still searching–productively–for a synthesis.

Michael D. Gordin
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey