“Atomic Cafe”

Commonplace fifty years ago, nuclear metaphors are rare these days. When the term “nuclear option” popped up in the news a couple of weeks ago it stuck out like a sore thumb. It refers to a procedural option in the Senate (to sidestep a supermajority vote required to end an expected filibuster during the upcoming Supreme Court nomination) that is apparently so daring and politically explosive that it warrants the ultimate metaphor of utter annihilation. That makes this a good time to revisit the documentary film Atomic Café.

Back when the Cold War was young and fresh, A-Bomb talk was all the rage. Locked into an arms race and a space race with the Soviet Union, Americans were vaguely aware of the dangers that came with superpower status. Rocket science wasn’t generally dinner table conversation, but a schoolchild could draw a mushroom cloud and a roadside diner could advertise atomic onion rings. The popular nuclear motif was augmented by government propaganda designed to raise civil defense awareness, while reassuring Americans that they had nothing to fear. The government justified building up the nuclear arsenal by asserting that only nukes could protect Americans from Soviet invasion and the imposition of Communism. Fear and reassurance were frequently paired on the Cold War menu.

Released in 1982, Atomic Café uses government-issued films and other archival material from the 1940s and 50s to show how naïve we were. The documentary provides no commentary on the material or analysis of its use and impact, but packs a powerful editorial punch by juxtaposing the selective film clips with horrific visuals of actual nuclear bomb explosions and the effects of radiation poisoning. From our lofty modern perch it’s easy to laugh at the old military training films, civil defense newsreels, and “Bert the Turtle” cartoons illustrating how children should “Duck and Cover!” All manner of ridiculous protection devices – including the iconic image of a boy encased in a lead suit wobbling down the street on his bike – are on display. A sunny picnic is interrupted by a flash, but no worries: pitch those deviled eggs into the grass and use your picnic blanket for a shield! The dark humor becomes strained sometimes, but the point is clear.

I’m old enough to remember the duck-and-cover drills at school and the bomb shelter my folks fixed up in our basement. The defense drills called for A) hiding under one’s desk and B) lining up and walking in single file into the hall to crouch against an inside wall with heads covered. Care was taken that we know which was a fire drill (outside) and which was defense (inside). Our home bomb shelter was under the stairwell, equipped with canned goods and flashlights. I don’t have a firm memory of the space: we weren’t allowed to play in it and never had to use it for, you know, bombs. In Atomic Café, a civil defense clip depicted a serious pair of 4-H ladies stocking a shelter with home-canned peas; another clip shows a dad weighing the merits of keeping a gun in the shelter.

So the Cold War ended and we never needed the peas or picnic blankets (and had long since slacked off on the drills and shelters anyway), but how smart have we been to replace Cold War gullibility with post-Cold War apathy? Is no plan better than a dumb plan? According to the Federation of American Scientists the worldwide inventory of nuclear warheads has been reduced from the all-time high of about 70,000 in 1986 to about 15,000 in early 2017 (and a third of those are slated for dismantlement), but consider what damage just one could do. The nuclear triad capability, which only the US and Russia have among the nuclear powers, provides launch flexibility and coordination among delivery (and deterrence) systems by land, sea, and air. Both nations are committed to the New START treaty, which allows monitoring of strategic nuclear deployment. Since I wrote the post on Nuclear Disarmament in May 2014, the Obama Administration issued plans for a 30-year $1 trillion nuclear modernization program. It warrants some serious public discussion, but, like most things nuke, we just put it off for later.

The “nuclear option” that is being bandied around in the Senate is indicative of the highly-charged partisan divide in Congress. The cycle of political vengeance is getting increasingly difficult to escape and using a nuclear metaphor doesn’t help. Then we hear the new president urging the Senate majority leader to go ahead and “Go nuclear!” Easy for him to say. And that’s really the scary thing.