Nuke Opera 2020: Upcoming Plans

Chances are good I’m not going to have an actual Nuke Opera 2020 article up today, but I wanted to post something so I can maintain my streak. So, here is my planned posting schedule for the first part of June. These are in no particular order, except where they are.

  • Generation Gap article — comparing the childhoods, war experiences and post-war experiences of a GI Generation father and a Baby Boomer son. The purpose being to try and make sense of the social and cultural changes of the late 60s/early 70s.
  • Detente & Malaise 1962-1979 — An article on the history of the period between the end of the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
  • A Boy and His Dog — review of the 1969 story by Harlan Ellison
  • Farnham’s Freehold review of the 1964 novel by Robert Heinlein. This one is going to be several articles because a) it’s a novel so there’s a lot more to cover; b) I’m a wordy thing when I get a head of steam going; c) Farnham’s Freehold is a book full of a lot of toxic ideas that deserve a good, close look. Expect a few side articles throughout this as well.

And for now, I need to head to work. Wherever you are, stay safe.

Nuke Opera: Golden Age, New Wave, It’s Still Science Fiction to Me:

Nuke Opera: Golden Age, New Wave, It’s Still Science Fiction to Me:

The 1960s was a time of great polarization in American society due to conflicts over the Vietnam War, Civil Rights for African Americans, the rise of feminism, student protests, drug culture, rock and roll, and so on and so forth. This polarization is often simplified as “Young Hip Kids” versus “Old Fogey Parents” but the divisions weren’t so clearly drawn by age group. Case in point: the schism among members of the Science Fiction Writers of America[i].

In June 1968, a set of dueling ads was published in Galaxy Science Fiction, with one side featuring a list of science fiction and fantasy authors in favor of US involvement in Vietnam and the other, a list of those authors opposed to the war in Vietnam. The lists represented not only a division based on feelings about the war but also a growing division within the genre itself between New Wave and Old Wave science fiction writers.  This Old vs. New Wave microcosm is rather like the tail that Ouroboros eats, with the greater polarization of American society at the time being the snake’s devouring head[ii]

It’s also a very helpful way to illustrate the schism in American society in the late 1960s/early 1970s. But, of course, to get into the meat of the issue, first we need to cover some history.

Back To the (Literature of the) Future!:

Science fictional elements have been part of human storytelling since, well, since always. If you throw your net wide enough, you can find flying machines, trips to outer space and mechanical men and beasts in literature dating back to the classic period. Most of these early stories, however, don’t make any attempt to link these fantastic elements to the actual science of their day. Instead, they rely on what we’d consider to be fantasy tropes or simply fall back on ‘it’s just a story, you should really just relax.’  This is as opposed to modern science fiction stories where real-world, period-accurate science or the speculation about where real-world, period-accurate science might lead to, was essential to the story and could not be removed without drastically altering it into some other form.

We start seeing that by the time of the early 19th century with the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817) – while the science in the novel has long-since been discredited, it was based on then-current knowledge. Later that century, the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells would continue combining science, speculation and storytelling.

In the early 20th century, the pulps – magazines printed on cheap paper and therefore available to readers at low prices – were incredibly popular and often incredibly niche[iii]. In 1926, Hugo Gernsback, published the first science fiction pulp: Amazing Stories, which reprinted older stories by Wells and Verne as well as stories by newer writers like Philip Francis Nowlan[iv], E. E. “Doc” Smith[v], Edmond Hamilton[vi] and John W. Campbell, who would become a highly influential science fiction editor in his own right.

In 1937, Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories – later Astounding Science Fiction and even later, renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact. As editor, he championed stories that focused on scientific accuracy[vii] and logic. Isaac Asimov, one of the writers Campbell discovered and whose career he helped foster and guide, had this to say about Campbell’s influence on the genre:

By his own example and by his instruction and by his undeviating and persisting insistence, he forced first Astounding and then all science fiction into his mold. He abandoned the earlier orientation of the field. He demolished the stock characters who had filled it; eradicated the penny dreadful plots; extirpated the Sunday-supplement science. In a phrase, he blotted out the purple of pulp. Instead, he demanded that science-fiction writers understand science and understand people, a hard requirement that many of the established writers of the 1930s could not meet. Campbell did not compromise because of that: those who could not meet his requirements could not sell to him, and the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, while silent movies had given way to the talkies[viii]

As a writer and an editor, Campbell’s influence on the genre of science fiction is still being felt today. His short story, “Who Goes There?” was made into two classic films, both titled “The Thing[ix].” He also influenced the careers of several writers who themselves went on to become acknowledged masters of the genre: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Lester del Rey, Robert A Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, A E van Vogt,  L Sprague de Camp, Murray Leinster, Clifford D Simak and Jack Williamson, Henry Kuttner and C L Moore.[x] Without Campbell’s influence, science fiction as we know it today might never have existed.

Which may not have been entirely a bad thing, considering Campbell’s influence as an editor wasn’t entirely positive.  On the one hand, Campbell did demand good stories out of his stable of writers and he helped show that the genre could be more than just gimmicky dreck aimed at kids.  There is a reason there were[xi] two awards dedicated to him, after all.

On the other hand…

Once he became an editor, Campbell never wrote fiction again — instead, over the next thirty-two years, he would often give ideas to writers in his stable as well as selecting stories that fit his idea of what science fiction should be.  Which, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Campbell was, essentially, building a brand and wanted material that suited that brand. While his magazine was highly influential, it wasn’t the only magazine in town. Writers who couldn’t sell to him could try to sell to other magazines.

However, this branding can become a bottleneck if the editor uses their subjective preferences as objective criteria for determining whether a story or idea is worthy of inclusion. This can be seen as harmless/amusing – Campbell refused to publish stories where humans were shown to be in any way inferior to aliens – but it can also be infuriating/bigoted – Campbell believed women could not write science fiction[xii]; in 1967, he refused to serialize Samuel Delaney’s award-winning novel Nova because it featured a biracial character[xiii].  Campbell also wrote editorials for Astounding/Analog, including ones in which he expressed opinions like, only rich people should be allowed to vote, that slavery had been better for Africans than not being enslaved, and that African-Americans would be better off if they’d just discipline their kids better so they wouldn’t riot over police brutality and institutional racism[xiv].

In addition to espousing racist and sexist ideas, Campbell also beat the drum for pseudoscientific ideas like ESP, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (until he and Hubbard had a falling out in 1952), and the Dean Drive, a reactionless space drive that violated Newton’s Third Law of Thermodynamics.  And he promoted these ideas not simply as springboards for stories but as genuine science. As Isaac Asimov put it:

Campbell championed far-out ideas … He pained very many of the men he had trained (including me) in doing so, but felt it was his duty to stir up the minds of his readers and force curiosity right out to the border lines. He began a series of editorials … in which he championed a social point of view that could sometimes be described as far right (he expressed sympathy for George Wallace[xv] in the 1968 national election, for instance). There was bitter opposition to this from many (including me – I could hardly ever read a Campbell editorial and keep my temper).

Catch a Wave:

The New Wave of science fiction was characterized by “a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, a “literary” or artistic sensibility and a focus on “soft[xvi]” as opposed to hard science[xvii].” The term, borrowed from the French nouvelle vague film movement, was first coined in terms of science fiction in an essay by Judith Merrill that appeared in the January 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that used the term in order to comment on experimental fiction beginning to appear in the UK magazine New Worlds under the reign of editor Michael Moorcock:

“They call it the New Thing. The people who call it that mostly don’t like it, and the only general agreements they seem to have are that Ballard is its Demon and I am its prophetess—and that it is what is wrong with Tom Disch, and with British s-f in general. … The American counterpart is less cohesive as a “school” or “movement”: it has had no single publication in which to concentrate its development, and was, in fact, till recently, all but excluded from the regular s-f magazines. But for the same reasons, it is more diffuse and perhaps more widespread.” (Source: New Wave Science Fiction @ TV Tropes)

By comparison, Old Wave science fiction can be characterized by this quote from Frederik  Pohl from an editorial in the October 1965 issue of Galaxy magazine – a precursor to the New Wave movement:

With negligible exceptions (WellsStapledon and who?), nearly every science-fiction writer up to a very few years ago made one very hidden—and indefensible—assumption. They assumed that science changed; that the world changed; that everything you could imagine changed, except one thing. They assumed that the human race did not change at all.[xviii]

Or, to put it another way, Old Wave sci-fi had a much easier time picturing technological changes than societal ones. For example, the Tom Corbett: Space Cadet novels are set in the 24th century, in the year 2350 and are centered around what is essentially West Point or the Naval Academy In Space. Of course, the student body is entirely male except for one woman who is on the staff and she’s only there because she’s the one who developed the hyperdrive the Space Patrol uses to travel the galaxy.

Because, of course, in 350 years no woman has ever wanted to serve on a rocket ship – and, ok, granted that at the time these books were written, women weren’t allowed to serve on combat ships, but were allowed on hospital ships by 1953. And by 1979, the restriction against women on combat ships was lifted. It didn’t take centuries for things to change.

I’ve read – and honestly enjoyed – the Tom Corbett books; personally, I think Heinlein’s Space Cadet did a better job with the concept, but the Tom Corbett stories are quick, fun reads. They’re also aimed exclusively at boys – oh, I’m sure girls read them and that some probably were thrilled by the character of Dr. Dale, but the books aren’t for them in the same way they’re for boys. Girls aren’t given a way to immerse themselves in the stories; sure, Dr. Dale’s in them but she doesn’t get to go adventuring. She shows up periodically, does some cool science and could be replaced by a smart lamp.

Appealing to girls wasn’t considered important so extrapolating a future where women were equal to men wasn’t considered. Women can be replaced with any other minority demographic you care to name – people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ+, etc. And Tom Corbett: Space Cadet wasn’t the only culprit.

Even beyond the lack of representation for those who weren’t white, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered men, the genre of science fiction was becoming stale. By 1968, the year the dueling Vietnam War ads were published, science fiction was 42 years old[xix] and the well of ideas was beginning to run dry. Some people wanted find new sources – thus the New Wave began.

The New Wave was never an official movement; instead it was a loose collection of writers who wanted to create something new and different, to experiment with different ways of formatting stories as well as reacting against genre exhaustion. The movement began, but wasn’t exclusive to, the United Kingdom in the magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock.  Another writer associated with the early stages of the movement, J. G. Ballard, outlined his ideas for how the genre should change:

Science fiction should turn its back on space, on interstellar travel, extra-terrestrial life forms, galactic wars and the overlap of these ideas that spreads across the margins of nine-tenths of magazine S-F. Great writer though he was, I’m convinced H. G. Wells has had a disastrous influence on the subsequent course of science fiction … similarly, I think, science fiction must jettison its present narrative forms and plots[xx].

Not everyone enjoyed the changes New Wave writers embraced. Some writers took their inspiration from the Beat Poets, playing with typography and narrative structure as well as with ideas previously taboo in mainstream science fiction magazines.  The SF fan/critic, Kingsley Aims described the New Wave thusly:

The new mode abandoned the hallmarks of traditional science fiction; its emphasis on content rather than style and treatment, its avoidance of untethered fantasy and its commitment instead to logic, motive and common sense … [instead] in came shock tactics, tricks with typography, one-line chapters, strained metaphors, obscurities, obscenities, drugs, Oriental religions and left-wing politics[xxi].

The New Wave never took over science fiction, but then, it wasn’t really supposed to. Instead, the writers who took part in the New Wave mostly just wanted to tell different kinds of science fiction stories, to stretch the boundaries of the genre and explore the limits of what science fiction could be  Even some “Old Wave” writers experimented – Robert Heinlein, who was in favor of the war in Vietnam in particular and overall rather hawkish in general, was also the author of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), a New Wave style book that introduced the word “grok” to the English language and helped inspire the neopagan religious group the Church of All Worlds[xxii].

In much the same way, the changes sought by the various counterculture movements of the 1960s – improved civil rights for African Americans and other people of color, women, the disabled and the LGBTQAI+ community, among others – filtered into the mainstream society and became accepted by it. The world didn’t end, it just changed.


Harlan Ellison’s anthology, Dangerous Visions (1967) is a good place to start for some quick bites of New Wave science fiction – the stories included were chosen because they would have been unpublishable in the science fiction magazines of the day. It should be noted, however, that while some of the stories are still considered classics, what was shocking in 1967 isn’t necessarily going to be shocking in 2020. Or might be shocking for reasons the author didn’t originally intend – even innovative, genre-challenging writers can be sexist or racist or some horrific mix of the both.



[i] The schism wasn’t officially within the SFWA organization itself, but did involve many members of the group.

[ii] For more information on this, I recommend H. Bruce Franklin’s “The Vietnam War as American Science Fiction and Fantasy

[iii] In addition to the traditional pulp genres of adventure, mystery, westerns, and science fiction & fantasy, there were pulp magazines dedicated to aviation (still a New Hot Thing at the time) and railroads. Source: Pulp Magazine @ Wikipedia

[iv] Author of Armageddon 2419 AD, which was the origin story for Buck Rogers, who in addition to being a classic pulp science fiction character, would become so associated with science fiction that the genre would sometimes be referred to as ‘that Buck Rogers stuff.’

[v] Author of the Lensman and Skylark series; sometimes called the father of the space opera.

[vi] Another space opera author probably better known to most for creating the Captain Future series but to me, he’ll always be known as the guy who wrote the Starwolf series which is a rollicking good read in its own right and has actually held up pretty well for a space opera series from the late 1960s. The books were also the inspiration for a Japanese TV series that ended up on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 as Star Force: Fugitive Alien where it inspired the “He tried to kill me with a forklift!” song. I could honestly go on about the Starwolf series at length but this footnote’s long enough.

[vii] Campbell’s insistence on scientific accuracy led to a confrontation with the FBI in 1944, when he attempted to publish a short story called Deadline that described the workings of an atomic bomb – then still being developed by the ultra-secret Manhattan Project – to a T, using publicly available  information from scientific papers published before World War II began. Campbell persuaded the FBI not to pull the magazine, saying that doing so would essentially be admitting that there was a secret project working on developing just such a device.

[viii] Source: John W. Campbell @ Wikipedia

[ix] Ok, the original, 1951 film was titled The Thing from Another World, while the 1982 John Carpenter version was just The Thing.

[x] [x] Catherine L. Moore, that is. She was a prolific writer, having gotten her start in Weird Tales with the short story, ‘Shambleau’ featuring rugged space adventurer, Northwest Smith. She used initials rather than her full name because she didn’t want to jeopardize her day job during the Great Depression – even for men, writing science fiction was seen as a bit ‘woo-woo’ in the early 1930s.  (source: The Future Is Female!: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. LeGuin.)

[xi] In August 2019, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, sponsored by Dell Magazines, the company that publishes Analog Science Fiction and Fact, was renamed the Astounding Award for Best New Writer due, in part, to the acceptance speech made by the 2019 winner, Jeanette Ng, in which they called out Campbell’s fascist and racist beliefs.  You can read more about the decision here: Dell Magazines is Changing the Name of the John W. Campbell Award.

[xii] In 1948, science fiction writer and actual female-girl-type woman Judith Merril, made a bet with Campbell that she could write a story that he would be willing to publish. She succeeded, writing the classic and much-anthologized story “That Only A Mother” (link leads to a review, spoilers guaranteed) that is among the first stories to discuss the effects of nuclear radiation on childbirth.  Though, when Merril wrote another story for Campbell, this one about space colonization, he rejected it, saying ‘There are no mothers in it. I don’t really want this from you. You should be writing more about mothers.” Men are too headache…

Note: If you want to read “That Only A Mother,” which I’m likely to end up reviewing, I recommend the anthology The Future is Female!: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin.

[xiii] As someone who has lived her entire life in America’s Heartland, the argument ad heartland is spurious bullshit. Even in 1967, we weren’t that naïve.

[xiv] This editorial was written after the 1965 Watts Riot, which was sparked by a confrontation between police and onlookers over possible police brutality during the arrest of a black motorist pulled over for driving while intoxicated. The riot, really a series of riots, lasted for six days and was fueled by longstanding grievances and discontent among the African American community, due to high unemployment, substandard housing and inadequate schools among other issues. 

[xv] Four-time governor of Alabama, probably best known for his 1963 inaugural address where he said he stood for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’  In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. called Wallace “perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today.”

[xvi] “Soft” sciences being fields like psychology, sociology, anthropology or political sciences as opposed to the “hard” sciences of chemistry, astrology, physics, or biology.  There’s a misconception that ‘soft’ sciences aren’t “real” science since they generally deal with things that aren’t easily measured or quantified, but – in terms of science fiction – that can be chalked up to the same kind of fannish gatekeeping that’s best ignored.

[xvii] Source: New Wave Science Fiction @ Wikipedia

[xviii] Source: New Wave Science Fiction @ Wikipedia

[xix] Dating the beginning of modern (i.e. 20th century) science fiction to the first issue of Amazing Stories, published in June 1926. Even if we go by Campbell’s assuming full editorial duties over Astounding Stories in 1938, the genre was at least 30.

[xx] Source: The History of Science Fiction (Palgrave Histories of Literature), Second Edition by Adam Roberts, c. 2016

[xxi] Source: The History of Science Fiction (Palgrave Histories of Literature), Second Edition by Adam Roberts, c. 2016

[xxii] Heinlein also wrote Starship Troopers – a book which is very pro-military service (though, oddly enough, not overly concerned with depicting battles so much as discussing the military mindset).  Heinlein was…complicated, to say the very least.

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Nuke Opera 2020: Presidents of the Cold War


Term began

Term ended

Total Days in Office

Soviet Counterpart

1st Cold War President; 32nd POTUS

Franklin D. Roosevelt


March 4, 1933

April 12, 1945


Joseph Stalin January 21,
1924-March 5, 1953

2nd Cold War President; 33rd POTUS

Harry S. Truman (Democrat)

April 12, 1945

January 20, 1953


3rd Cold War President; 34th POTUS

Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican)

January 20, 1953

January 20, 1961


Georgy Malenkov March 5,
1953-September 14, 1953

Nikita Khrushchev September 14,
1953-October 14, 1964

4th Cold War President; 35th POTUS

John F. Kennedy (Democrat)

January 20, 1961

November 22, 1963


5th Cold War President; 36th POTUS

Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat)

November 22, 1963

January 20, 1969


Leonid Brezhnev

6th Cold War President; 37th POTUS

Richard M. Nixon (Republican)

January 20, 1969

August 9, 1974


October 14, 1964-November 10, 1982

7th Cold War President; 38th POTUS

Gerald Ford (Republican)

August 9, 1974

January 20, 1977



8th Cold War President; 39th POTUS

Jimmy Carter (Democrat)

January 20, 1977

January 20, 1981



9th Cold War President; 40th POTUS

Ronald Reagan (Republican)

January 20, 1981

January 20, 1989



Yuri Andropov

November 10, 1982-February 9, 1984

Konstantin Chernenko February 9,
1984-March 10, 1985

Mikhail Gorbachev March 10, 1985-December 26, 1991

10th Cold War President; 41st POTUS

George H. W. Bush (Republican)

January 20, 1989

January 20, 1993


 A strong case could be made for FDR not technically being a Cold War president since the US and Soviet Union were allies at the time and it wasn’t until after the end of World War II that the US/Soviet rivalry that became the Cold War went into effect. I’m including him as the first because his decision to authorize the Manhattan Project helped create the Cold War.



Nuke Opera 2020: Some Words about Warnings — On Spoilers and Triggers and Content Warnings

Nuke Opera 2020: 1500 Word Warning — — On Spoilers and Triggers and Content:

Back when I began this project, in the far-off, pre-pandemic times of January 8, 2020[1], it was with the following stated goals about what this blog series would be about:

  • First and Foremost:is to review several books and stories that are linked by a common theme, including some that I feel haven’t gotten the kind of critical attention they really should have.
  • Secondly:To talk about the history of nuclear weapons, civil defense and popular culture’s responses to the possibility of World War III.

Looking back on the articles I’ve finished over the last three months, it’s abundantly clear I’ve managed to knock the second goal out of the park. In fact, the science and history articles ended up being the main focus, mostly because I thought it was necessary to get some of this background information out so that I could refer to it during the reviews.  Also, researching history and science is addictively fun, not going to lie.

But, I’m finally to the point where I think I’ve filled in enough background that I can safely start talking about the fictional works that are themselves part of the groundwork for the larger discussion of the “Nuke Opera” subgenre. So, that’s going to be the focus for the next several articles, with a few detours back to touch on history and science as necessary.

However, there are some things I want to talk about before we get started with the media criticism. Specifically, about spoilers, historical context and content/trigger warnings:


It could probably go without saying that my reviews are going to be full of spoilers. Part of the purpose of this project is to dive deeply into these works and that means discussing these stories in great detail. Still, I’m going to give a spoiler warning before each review.

Granted, the works I’ll be looking at are between 28 and 67 years old, so it’s not as if people haven’t had a chance to get around to reading them.

But, with a few exceptions, most of these works are not exactly well-known outside of some relatively niche circles.

So, with that in mind: if you would like the pleasure, however dubious it might be in some cases, of reading these works without spoilers, please, feel free to seek out the source materials, read them and come back for the commentary and discussion.

The Past is a Foreign Country:

Part of the reason for the long essays on the history of the Cold War years is because all of these works are products of their times and the real-world responses to the fear/threat of nuclear war impacted the fictional depictions of post-nuclear survival that we’ll be looking at.

The other reason for the essays on history is that, for a lot of us in the present-day, the Cold War years are kind of a muddled blur. We tend to mock certain aspects of Cold War history, in part because we lack an understanding about why those things were done. I’ve mentioned the misconception about “Duck and Cover” being a useless strategy[2] – which is true, if you’re considering it against ICBMs carrying multi-megaton warheads with a maximum flight time of 30-minutes from silo to target site.  But it was still potentially effective in the days when it was created, a time when nuclear weapons were still in the kiloton range and delivered by bombers that allowed for several hours’ worth of warning.

Additionally, there’s the chance for confusion because some things that we take for granted today weren’t so commonplace back then. In at least two of the works we’ll be looking at, a whole slew of problems for the main character[3] could have been solved if he had simply gotten a divorce before the story started – except, at the time the stories were written, divorcing was difficult, not to mention being divorced was highly stigmatized.

More importantly, we’re going to be running into a lot of material related to the bog-standard, mainstream prejudices that were previously accepted by the majority because they could easily and safely ignore the protests of the minority. Racist attitudes toward blacks in specific and people of color in general, sexist ideas about women, homophobic prejudices about people who are LGBTQ+ will all show up to greater or lesser extent throughout the works we’ll be looking at. Some of the worst offenders will, it may surprise you, will come from some of the more recent examples of what I’m calling “Nuke Operas”, published in the late 80s-early 90s, near the very end of the Cold War.

This is because the books that make up the “Nuke Opera” genre were an offshoot of the “Men’s Action-Adventure” super-genre of paperback originals that began roughly in 1969 with the publication of Don Pendleton’s The Executioner #1: War Against The Mafia[4]. Like other genre categories such as “Romance” or “Western,” “Men’s Action-Adventure” encompassed a wide variety of sub-genres, of which post-apocalyptic adventures[5] were but a single thread.

Something most of these various series had in common was an emphasis on a kind of masculinity that can be best described as “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche[6]” meets “Soldier of Fortune.”  Guns and other forms of weaponry often get more description than some characters do, while the heroes are macho badasses straight out of Central Casting, ranging from the exaggerated-but-still-kinda-realistic Rated M for Manly to full-bore you-hope-its-a-parody-but-it’s-probably Testosterone Poisoning in the most extreme/obnoxious cases.

A lot of these books rely heavily on the idea that a post-apocalyptic society would be a lawless hellscape where might (in the persona of a man[7] with superior firepower) would make right, so there’s a lot of violence. And because these books were being aimed at adult men[8] there is often more than a bit of sex in some of these titles.  On the other side of the sexual content coin, rape is often depicted for all the wrong reasons – either to motivate the hero or to demonstrate just how truly eeeevil the villain/s of the piece are.

Trigger/Content Warnings:

Out of respect for my readers, I will be issuing content and/or trigger warnings on my reviews. While I’m aware there are those who think such things are unnecessary, I’m of the opinion that they allow people to prepare themselves and decide when/how they want to engage with something. I feel this is especially important when it comes to things that, when you get down to it, are meant to be entertaining rather than traumatizing.

For those who might be unaware of the differences between a content warning and a trigger warning, the following definitions are taken from the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts’ “An Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings”:

  • Content Warnings: are “notices that precede potentially sensitive content” and “flag the contents of the material that follows” so the audience can “prepare themselves to adequately engage or, if necessary, disengage for their own wellbeing.”

An example of a general content warning might be a title card prior to a TV show that reads:  The following program contains adult situations and strong language and may not be suitable for all viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

  • Trigger Warnings: are a subset of content warnings, that “attempt to forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders.”

An example of a trigger warning might be something like: The following article will discuss rape and domestic abuse or TW: contains references to homophobia, racism and eating disorders. This allows a potential reader who may have PTSD or other anxiety issues related to either rape or domestic abuse to decide how and when they will engage with the article.

Or, to think of it another way, content warnings are like the nutritional information on the side of a candy bar – they’re there to help you make an informed decision about what you’re about to consume. Trigger warnings are like allergen information on the side of a candy bar – they’re there to let you know that there’s one or more ingredients that could cause you serious harm[9].

For my purposes, I’m going to use content warnings for situations where the problematic materials are more sub-textual or implied and trigger warnings for blatant/graphic depictions.

  • For more information I highly recommend Here’s What Trigger Warnings Are – And What They’re Not by M. Slade – an essay in the form of a comic strip about how and why trigger warnings can be helpful. (Note for those who may use screen readers: the article does have a transcript of the content available near the bottom of the articles).


[1] The next day, January 9, 2020, would be when China would finally publicly identified a new “pneumonia-like” virus as a novel coronavirus and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidance for other countries to detect and respond to it.

[2] It’s particularly annoying when people say that ‘ducking and covering’ would be useless at ground zero. Not because they’re wrong – it would, but then so would just about anything else – but because it wasn’t intended for people at or near ground zero. It was for people further away, to protect against being flash blinded or hit by flying debris from the aftereffects of the shock-wave.

[3] Not to mention the main character’s wife…possibly especially the main character’s wife…ok, definitely the main character’s wife…

[4] Because, as with history, there is no clear-cut beginning with literary genres, this is another one of those arbitrary starting points chosen because it’s near enough to the beginning to suit our purposes.

[5] Not every post-apocalyptic series used nuclear war as the reason why the world went to hell, though it does seem to be the majority cause between 1980-1992 for some reason…

[6] “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was intended as a tongue-in-cheek satire and was written in part to counter the rise of the quiche-eating “Sensitive Man” as embodied by men like Alan Alda.

[7] Generally speaking, a cishet, able-bodied, white (usually WASP) man of the “all women want him; all men want to be him” variety.

[8] Not that there was much of anything stopping kids, including your humble blogger, from buying them but the intended audience was indeed adult men.

[9] The allergen comparison isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think it works well enough for our purposes. Some people are so sensitive to, say, peanuts that being in an enclosed space with an open packet of trail mix can cause a reaction; others can safely consume a food they’re sensitive to in small quantities. The decision to consume or not to consume is one that should be made by the person who is allergic, not by someone else who thinks they know better (and yes, there are people who think food allergies aren’t a ‘big deal’ — there’s a word for people like that, but it’s a bit rude).

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Boilerplate Links:

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. If you want to join, you can at any time. Set the goals you want to accomplish and get and give encouragement to fellow ROWers. Feel free to join us on Facebook at ROW80 or follow us on Twitter at #ROW80.  Or you can do all of the above!

Nuke Opera 2020: Panic at the Apocalypse:

Nuke Opera 2020: Panic at the Apocalypse:

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.Agent Kay, Men In Black (1997)

It’s generally accepted that people – specifically the masses — will panic in disaster situations. I mean, just look at any disaster movie and you’ll see people running madly about, trampling each other, fighting tooth and claw to save themselves and only themselves. Sometimes they’ll pause long enough to help themselves to whatever items are in the nearest store, taking advantage of the temporary suspension of societal norms to get that big-screen TV they’ve been eyeing.

Usually to underscore the utter ruthlessness of the maddened crowd, there’ll be a shot of some vulnerable individual such as a child or an elderly or disabled adult, who needs help but who is being ignored by the fleeing masses. Maybe the hero will rescue this individual to help underscore what a good guy he is or, if the director wants to really emphasize the whole ‘every man for himself’ thing, maybe the innocent victim won’t be saved. Because as everyone knows, when the thin veneer of civilization peels away, humans reveal themselves to be animals, red in tooth and claw, ready to do whatever it takes to survive.

Except, that’s not really true. It works well in fiction, especially in visual media like movies and TV because it allows for dramatic visuals, but it’s not necessarily reflected in reality. By and large, people don’t panic en masse when disaster strikes.

How do we know? Because sociologists have studied how people react in disaster situations, looking at reactions to things like the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake,  the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, the alleged panic created by Orson Wells’ 1938 broadcast of the War of the Worlds, the 1977 fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club, the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, and the impact of Hurricane Katrina 2005 on New Orleans, among other disasters.

Studying the sociology of disasters began in the 1940s and 1950s, in part because the US government wanted to know how people would react in the event of a nuclear war. Would people panic, would society be able to rebuild after a nuclear war or would the nation die? Research into historical disasters, emergencies and catastrophes led to the conclusion in the 1960s that panic was actually rare in disasters, at least among the general public.

Rather than turning into a ruthless, rampaging mob focused only on their own survival, people react to disasters by becoming more altruistic and willing to help. Instances of the general public panicking during a disaster are, thankfully, rare.

This isn’t to say that mass panic doesn’t ever happen. It can and does, but it isn’t a given in every single disaster situation. Instead, panic is caused by specific circumstances, such as:

  • A perception of immediate great threat
  • The belief that you may be trapped – a feeling that can occur even in a wide-open space.
  • A feeling of helplessness. (source: Disaster Psychology: The Myths of Panic)

Panic, in this case, is an emotion that will affect individuals.  It can then spread from an individual or individuals into a larger group. Especially if the other members of the group believe the panicking individual knows something they don’t. Humans are social animals, like our great ape cousins, and as such we tend to want to stay with the group, looking to others for confirmation about how to react when things are uncertain or unsettled.

This tendency can be beneficial: if people see that others are calm, they’re more likely to remain calm themselves. However, following the crowd too closely can lead to ‘groupthink’ – a psychological phenomenon that happens when a group of people put getting along with the group over questioning decisions or assumptions that might be irrational, ill-conceived or even immoral.  In a groupthink situation, people become hyper focused on not rocking the boat and therefore become reluctant to question the group’s decisions, even when those decisions are clearly misguided or even potentially fatal.

The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 was a case of groupthink occurring at the highest levels of the US government. The invasion plans, originally drawn up during the Eisenhower administration, were accepted without question by the Kennedy administration as right and just. When some in the Kennedy administration tried to question some of the assumptions behind the plans, such as the belief that Castro wouldn’t be able to quell internal uprisings, they were ignored.  The invasion, as a result, was a disaster that led to 114 deaths and the capture of over 1,000 American-backed Cuban exiles who’d been recruited by the CIA for the ill-fated attempt to overthrow Castro[1].

But, Wait…

If mass panic is rare, why does the belief in it persist?

Partly because the idea that the masses are potentially dangerous animals is a fear shared by society’s elites. ‘Elite’ in this case meaning those with power and/or authority over groups of people. This concept is highly dependent on context; the mayor of a city is an elite in relation to the population of their city, but not in comparison to the President of the United States.[2]

If we think of society as a whole as a pyramid, the elites are those at the very top of the pyramid and the masses are the rest of us at the base. By their very nature, the elites are a much smaller group in comparison to the rest of society, but they have a disproportionate amount of power over society.

However, while the elites have the power, the masses have them outnumbered and can, potentially, easily overpower the elites should they decide to rebel or otherwise break the social contract that gives the elites their power.

Not-So-Jolly Old England:

To better understand why elites fear masses, we need to go back about three hundred years to the reign of England’s King George I. This was a time when the vast majority of British citizens had no real representation in their government – only about 3% of the population was eligible to vote. Members of Parliament were elected from the aristocracy[3], by the aristocracy, and to make laws to benefit the aristocracy.

As Oliver Goldsmith, a novelist of the time put it, “Laws grind the poor and rich men rule the law.”

In 1723, the rich men of Parliament decided to grind the poor even finer, when they passed the Black Act of 1723.  This act strengthened Britain’s criminal code heavily in favor of the aristocracy, raising the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty from fifty to 200. Most of these offenses were crimes against property – poaching, pickpocketing, stealing anything valued at more than a shilling (approximately eight dollars in 2017 money) and looting from shipwrecks, to name a few examples.

These stronger laws against property crimes came at a time when the economic disparities between rich and poor were heightened, leading to an increase in crimes like highway robbery and muggings.  The wealthy, who already had nearly unlimited power to protect their property, made already harsh laws even more draconian in an attempt to prevent crime through fear.

It should be noted, at this point the United Kingdom didn’t have an actual police force – nor did it have prisons as we understand them today. People were jailed or imprisoned only if they were waiting to go to trial or if they’d already been sentenced to death. Courtroom trials were a form of entertainment, as were executions which were also used to demonstrate the penalty for violating the king’s law.

These strict punishments were also due to the fact that the elite of the Georgian Era feared not only losing their property but also the poor in general. Riots weren’t uncommon during this period since the poor had no real recourse to change unjust or unfair laws.

Add to this the economic and cultural changes that industrialization had brought to the United Kingdom beginning in the 1770s.  Thousands of rural workers moved into big towns and cities to work in newly opened factories, leading to a population explosion. Low wages and overcrowding meant hundreds and even thousands of people were packed into slums, where squalor and disease ran rampant. These conditions led to an increase in crime and a decreased fear of the noose, which in turn made those in power even more nervous about what could happen if the unwashed masses decided to revolt against the nobility.

La Revolution:

And then came the French Revolution, wherein as common knowledge tells us, the unwashed masses of France overthrew the nobility and guillotined anyone of noble birth, washing the streets of Paris in blood.

Except, that’s not exactly what happened. The French Revolution wasn’t started by the downtrodden and poor, though they got involved as time went on. Nor was every person of noble birth subject to being executed – some high-profile nobles were executed and those who fled France and became exiles in England or elsewhere were subject to execution if they returned home, but that was because many of them conspired against the Revolutionary government and were considered traitors[4].

This isn’t to say that the French Revolution wasn’t a bloody mess or to try and downplay the atrocities that did happen. Because atrocities did happen.  As many as 40,000 people were killed over the course of the Reign of Terror (September 5, 1793-July 27, 1794) – most of whom were peasants, not nobles. Additionally, thousands of peasants who’d remained loyal to their local nobility, if not to the monarchy itself, were killed in fighting that took place outside of Paris in other regions of France.

French Revolution: Additional Information:

While the majority of those executed during the Reign of Terror were peasants[5] we tend to focus on the deaths of the noble classes[6], especially people like Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. After all, we know about them as people – we can read their letters and diaries, we can see them depicted in portraits, we’re able to make a connection with them that we’re not able to make with a random, nameless and faceless peasant.

In the early days of the French Revolution, there were those in the United Kingdom and America, which was only about ten years out from its own revolution, who initially supported the French Revolution[7]. This changed when the King and Queen of France were executed; even in America there were those who thought that beheading the monarchs was a step too far.

In the UK[8], the idea of the monarchy being overthrown and nobility beheaded was definitely terrifying. Especially for the elites. This fear of the mob has carried down throughout the years and is still with us today, resurfacing any time a disaster occurs. These days, those who study the sociology of disasters refer to this as ‘elite panic.’

Elite Panic:

The term ‘elite panic’ was coined by Lee Clarke and Caron Chess, sociologists from Rutgers University. In their 2008 article, Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself, they identified three specific areas associated with members of the elite and panic:

  • Elites can fear panic – specifically, they fear mass panic, which can lead to them reacting with excessive authoritarianism or violence.
  • Elites can cause panic – for example, by hoarding information that might assist the public in making decisions regarding their own safety.
  • Elites can themselves panic – which happened in 2007 when police in Boston closed highways and bridges out of fear of a ‘suspicious device’ that turned out to be part of a viral marketing campaign for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force

In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit quotes disaster sociologist Kathleen Tierney’s definition of elite panic:

Fear of social disorder, fear of the poor, minorities and immigrants; obsession with looting and property crime; willingness to resort to deadly force; actions taken on the basis of rumor. (Solnit, p. 235)

Tierney was, in this instance, speaking shortly after Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst instances of elite panic in US history. Reports of looting were overplayed by the media, as were supposed incidents of violence at evacuation points like the Superdome. This led to instances where those hit hardest by the storm were seen as a menace to be controlled rather than victims to be helped.

For many of the tens of thousands stranded there for the better part of the week, trauma was not merely the terrible storm and the flooding of their city,  the waters in which bodies floated and poisonous snakes swam, the heat that blistered skin and killed many,  the apocalyptic days in which people gave birth and died on freeway overpasses surrounded by unclean waters, in which many despaired of ever being taken from a city that had utterly collapsed into a wet and filthy ruin, or hat people tried to give away their children so that they might be evacuated first. It was being abandoned by their fellow human being and their government. And more thant aht, it was being treated as animals and enemies at the moment of their greatest vulnerability.” (Solnit, p 245-246)

Worse, the mayor of New Orleans[9], Ray Nagin and the city’s chief of police Eddie Compass helped fuel unfounded and untrue rumors about the savagery supposedly taking place at the Superdome, where 20,000 people were sheltering without air conditioning, adequate power and failed plumbing.

The vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees – mass murders, rapes and beatings – have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law-enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.” – Newhouse News Service, September 26, 2005

These rumors were used to confirm preconceived notions about marginalized groups, particularly the city’s poor and minority populations, and to blame them for the governments’[10] inadequate response in the aftermath of the storm. As Michael Eric Dyson put it in his book, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster: “The message seemed to be: ‘If this is how they act, if this is who they are, then their inhumanity is a justification for not rushing to their rescue.” (Dyson, p. 174).

When elites do panic, this can cause a cascade of negative behaviors to radiate downward from the top of the social pyramid. In the aftermath of Katrina, the continued repetition of myths about violence at the Superdome and uncontrolled looking led to the formation of vigilante groups in areas of New Orleans that had escaped significant damage.  One such area was Algiers Point, community on the West Bank of the Mississippi River which had escaped flooding.

These vigilante groups, predominately white, responded to false rumors of marauding blacks by arming themselves and preparing to do battle. As Michael Lewis observed:

These men also had another informational disadvantage: working TV sets. Over and over and over again, they replayed the same few horrifying scenes from the Superdome, the Convention Center, and a shop in downtown New Orleans. If the images were to be reduced to a sentence in the minds of Uptown New Orleans [the area of the city near Algiers Point] that sentence would be ‘Crazy black people with automatic weapons are out hunting white people, and there’s no bag limit!” (“Wading Toward Home”)

In reality, the reverse was true – white vigilantes were hunting black people[11]. In her research for A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit interviewed a medic who worked with a volunteer relief group in the 15th Ward, where Algiers Point was located.  The medic, Aislyn Colgan, said that more than one vigilante reported having shot and killed people, including one woman who said “they” were “coming for our TV and we had to shoot them” because otherwise “they would have come back with their brothers and killed us.”

  • Welcome to New Orleans – a 2006 documentary about the aftermath of Katrina and the efforts of Malik Rahim to organize community relief efforts. At 5:47 minutes in, there is a brief scene of several white vigilantes from the Algiers Point community gleefully discussing shooting at “looters” followed immediately by the reaction of a young black man who was threatened by white vigilantes despite himself being a resident of the neighborhood.  Content warning for racist ideology, sexist language and discussions of violence. Also some adult language.

Actions Have Consequences:

Elites, like the general public, don’t panic often but because they are often in charge of the response to a disaster, their panic can have a greater immediate impact as well as long-lasting consequences.

Going back to the example of Katrina, the mistakes made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) not only led to people suffering in the aftermath of the storm but also to long-term economic and cultural effects for the city of New Orleans and tarnished the agency’s reputation for years to come.

In Conclusion:

As we start looking at the predecessors of the Nuke Opera genre and particularly once we begin looking at examples of Nuke Opera, we’ll see that Agent Kay’s belief that people are dumb, panicky dangerous animals will be held up again and again as gospel. Primarily, this is due to the misconception being so deeply ingrained into our society but also because dumb, panicky, dangerous animals make for a more proactive villain and are, therefore, more exciting and help to shore up the informed attributes of the Nuke Opera hero.



[1] Fortunately, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy administration had learned its lesson and avoided falling into the groupthink trap. The willingness to learn from previous mistakes doubtlessly helped save millions, if not billions of lives.

[2] Likewise, a school principle is an elite in relation to the students and teachers who are under them, but not in comparison to the mayor or the President.

[3] Aristocracy in this case meaning members of the ruling class – which here includes not only hereditary nobles, but also landed gentry and wealthy businessmen.

[4] The relatives of some nobles executed by guillotine formed a fashionable club after the end of the Terror, dressing in outré fashions to annoy their elders and thumb their noses at the leaders of the Revolution.

[5] At least four thousand people, again mostly peasants, were executed in a series of mass drownings in Nantes, France between November 1793 to February 1794. Some of the ‘enemies of the Revolution’ executed in this fashion were children, including at least five infants. There was also the War in the Vendee, a region of France that was loyal to the King and nobility.

[6] This includes members of the clergy, who were often members of the nobility shunted off to a cushy church jobs in order to keep them from mucking up the lines of succession.

[7] Which, considering France’s support of the American Revolution was a large part of why we won our freedom, we kinda owed them.  Unfortunately, that support helped add to the economic downturn that helped spark the French Revolution.

[8] The fact that, at the narrowest point, it’s only about 21 miles across the English Channel and that, during this period, a crossing by sailboat could take as little as 3 hours probably added to these fears.

[9] Note: while Hurricane Katrina’s impact hit the entire Gulf Coast of the United States, the researchers I’m quoting focused primarily on responses to the disaster in New Orleans since that was the situation that received the most media attention at the time.

[10] Note: yes, I mean ‘governments’ as in more than one government, since there were failures to assist those who were hardest hit by Katrina at the city, state and federal levels and across political parties.  While George W. Bush gets a deserved share of the blame for his mishandling of the disaster, it’s worth nothing the governor of Louisiana at the time, a Democrat, gave members of the Louisiana National Guard a ‘shoot to kill’ order for ‘hoodlums’ before deploying them to assist police in New Orleans with maintaining order. (Dyson, p. 114)

[11] Malik Rahim, organizer of the Common Ground Relief, a community-initiated volunteer organization formed in September 2005 to provide disaster relief in the New Orleans area, stated in an October 2005 interview with Democracy Now that approximately 18 black men were killed in Algiers, either by the police or by white vigilante groups that had been allowed to operate unchecked.

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Boilerplate Links:

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. If you want to join, you can at any time.Set the goals you want to accomplish and get and give encouragement to fellow ROWers. Feel free to join us on Facebook at ROW80 or follow us on Twitter at #ROW80.  Or you can do all of the above!

Nuke Opera 2020: “World-Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less” — Missile Types and Speeds

“World-Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less”: Missile Types and Speeds:

Note: Article title is in reference to this mural, painted on the blast door of the command center at Delta-01, a Cold War era nuclear weapons control facility for the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron that is now a national historical site. It’s located about 76 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Prior to 1957, the primary way to deliver a nuclear weapon was by dropping a gravity bomb from a plane. Gravity bombs, also known as ‘dumb bombs’ are released over a target and fall to earth – see the scene in Dr. Strangelove where Major “King” Kong (played by Slim Pickens) rides a bomb into the Earth for an example.

Early gravity bombs, like Fat Man and Little Boy, required planes like the B-29 Superfortress, B-36 Peacemaker and B-52 Stratofortress that were specially designed to be able to lift the bombs.  The Soviets reverse-engineered a B-29 to create their own heavy bomber, the Tupolev Tu-4. As designs became smaller, it became possible to deploy gravity bombs using fighter-bombers, such as the F-104 Starfighter.

While bombers were a more than credible threat, they were relatively slow and easy to detect compared to the next stage of nuclear weapons delivery systems: missiles.

With the coming of the Space Race, both the United States and Soviet Union began working on missile-delivery systems. Both countries took advantage of the chaos after World War II to snatch up (in some cases literally) Nazi rocket scientists. While their nuclear program was a fizzle, the Nazi rocket program was a great success, particularly weapons like the V-2 rocket, one of the first modern ballistic missiles, which was first launched in 1944. The Soviet Union developed the first intercontinental ballistic missiles based, in part, on the German V-2 design. The first successful launch of the R-7 Semyorka occurred on August 21, 1957.

Ballistic missiles can carry conventional and nuclear warheads. The difference between a missile and a rocket according to the White Sands Missile Range’s FAQ, is this:

Range employees usually simplify the discussion by saying a missile has a guidance system or brain to get it to its destination and a rocket just goes where it is initially pointed.

The guidance system can be fairly simple like the infrared seeker on the small, shoulder-fired, Stinger missile. The missile detects the heat emitted in the exhaust of a jet and guides itself to the hottest spot – right up the tailpipe.

A rocket, on the other hand, like the Black Brant goes straight up in the air carrying scientific payloads for NASA and others. It is fired out of a tower or from a rail, both of which can be tilted to compensate for wind conditions so the rocket flies fairly straight and stays on the missile range.

Missiles can be divided into categories based on where they’re launched from and what they’re launched at. These include but aren’t limited to:

  • Surface-to-air – fired from the ground toward the air, usually to shoot down airplanes
  • Surface-to-surface – fired from the ground toward another ground target
  • Air-to-air – fired from one aircraft against another
  • Air-to-surface – fired from the air to attack ground-based targets

A ballistic missile is powered, initially, by a rocket or a series of rockets fired in stages. Once the rockets are exhausted, the missile follows an unpowered trajectory that arches it upward to a peak point. Once it reaches that peak point, the missile begins to fall back to earth, toward its intended target. Ballistic missiles cannot alter course once their fuel supply has been exhausted.

Ballistic missiles undergo three stages of flight:

  • Boost – occurs when the missile is launched until its rocket(s) stop firing. This stage can last for 3-5 minutes and takes place mostly in the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Midcourse – begins when the missile’s rocket(s) stop firing. The missile continues to the highest point in its trajectory, then begins its descent toward Earth. This is the longest stage of a missile’s flight; for an ICBM, it can last up to 20 minutes at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour.
  • Terminal Phase – begins with the missile’s warhead(s) reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and ends with detonation. This phase can last for less than a minute.


Missile Type Range Speed Flight Duration
Tactical ballistic missile 150-300 km Over 1.5 km/second N/A
93-186 miles 3,400 mph
Theatre ballistic missiles – includes short and medium-range missiles

Short-range ballistic missile

300-1,000 km 3 km/second 3-9 minutes
186-621 miles Under 7,000 mph

Medium-range ballistic missile

 1,000-3,500 km 4.5 km/second 9-19 minutes
621-2,175 miles 10,000 mph
Intermediate-range ballistic missiles 3,500-5,500 km Under 5 km/second 19-26 minutes
2,175-3,418 miles 11,000 mph
Intercontinental ballistic missiles Over 5,500 km 7 km/second Over 26 minutes
Over 3,418 miles 16,000 mph

Note: These distinctions are primarily used for US missiles. The Soviet Union classified their missiles differently:

  • Strategic – ranges over 1,000 km (621 miles)
  • Operational-Strategic – ranges from 500-1,000 km (311-621 miles)
  • Operational – ranges from 300-500 km (186-311 miles)
  • Operational-Tactical – ranges from 50-300 km (31-186 miles)
  • Tactical –ranges up to 50 km. (up to 31 miles)

Out Cruisin’:

Cruise missiles, on the other hand, are unmanned vehicles propelled by jet engines. Since jet engines need air to work, they stay in the atmosphere.  They can be launched from ground, air and sea platforms. They are self-guided and can fly as low as a few meters above the ground. Like ballistic missiles, cruise missiles can carry conventional explosive or nuclear warheads.

Cruise missiles can be classified by their speed in relation to the speed of sound (approximately 767 mph or 1,235 km/hour)

  • Hypersonic missiles travel at least five times the speed of sound (aka Mach 5) or more.
  • Supersonic missiles travel at speeds between Mach 2-3
  • Subsonic missiles travel at less than Mach 1 (the speed of sound), usually in the range of 0.8 Mach (approximately 614 mph or 988 km/hour)


Nuke Opera 2020: Atomic Era Begins (1949-1962) — Part Two: 1954-1962

Atomic Age Begins – Part Two: 1954-1962:

For this portion of our history of the Cold War, we’re going to focus less on dates and more on three areas that heavily impacted this period in history: civil defense, the modern Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race.

Civil Defense:

Civil defense is the effort a nation makes to protect its citizens – specifically non-combatants – from military attacks and/or natural disasters. Naturally, the practice of defending cities and towns predates nuclear war, but the modern practice dates primarily back to World War I and fully came into its own during World War II.

After World War II, the question of civil defense for the nuclear age was raised. A study by the Provost Marshal General, 3B-1 “Defense Against Enemy Action Directed at Civilians” found that effective civil defense could still be possible in the nuclear age. It recommended a national shelter program as well as evacuating civilians from urban areas and the developing of early warning systems among other strategies.

The National Security Act of 1947 set the National Security Resources Board the task of planning for the strategic relocating of critical industries and government functions in order to ensure continuous operation.

Under Truman, not only was the Federal Civil Defense Administration created in 1950, but so was America’s first air raid early warning system, which would have given Americans three to six hours of warning that Soviet bombers were on the way. [(1)]

In order to supplement this early electronic warning systems, 150,000 civilian volunteers were recruited across 27 states to the Ground Observer Corps. These volunteers received training to help them identify various aircraft. They would keep watch at some 6,000 observation stations across the nation.  At the GOC’s peak in the mid-1950s, 400,000 volunteers worked at 16,000 outposts. The work was deathly dull, since it consisted primarily of watching the skies for hours on end, but members could receive ceremonial pins for completing a certain number of hours.

Enrollment in the GOC dipped with the Korean War armistice and by 1957, with the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line becoming operational, it was decided to phase out the program entirely by January, 1959.

As well as programs like the Ground Observers Corps, films like Our Cities Must Fight (1952) and traveling educational campaigns like Alert America, there were national civil defense drills. One such drill, Operation Greenlight, occurred in Portland, Oregon on September 27, 1955 and involved the practice evacuation of one thousand city blocks (about 4 square miles) of downtown Portland. The population of downtown Portland was estimated to be about 200 thousand people, of whom approximately 101,000 actually evacuated. A dramatization of the drill, “A Day Called X” was produced and aired on CBS in 1957.

Beginning in 1954, the US government began a series of nation-wide civil defense drills called Operation Alert. In the first year, the drill was limited to Washington D.C. and involved members of the federal government as well as civilians. The next year, on June 15, 1955, the drill went national, with 200 cities participating. These drills required citizens in the “target cities” to take cover for fifteen minutes while civil defense officials tested their own readiness and the effectiveness of their communication systems. In Washington DC, federal officials practiced evacuating from the city.

Even President Eisenhower took part in Operation Alert (OPAL) drills, though he himself wasn’t a particular fan of post-nuclear war planning, feeling that no nation, not even the United States, would be able to exist after World War III. As Department Executive Secretary Everette Gleason recorded during one meeting, Eisenhower felt:

The President said that, of course, his imagination as to the horrors of a third world war might be overdeveloped, but he believed that every single nation, including the United States, which entered into this war as a free nation would come out of it as a dictatorship […] This would be the price of survival.”  (Raven Rock, c. p 56).

Eisenhower wasn’t the only person who disliked the drills. Starting in 1955, anti-war protesters began defying orders to take cover during the Operation Alert drills. A group of pacifists, including Catholic Worker Dorothy Day, began their protest in response to the state of New York making refusal to participate punishable by a fine of up to $500 and a year in jail, the group of 27 sat on benches in Manhattan’s City Hall Park. They explained to reporters that they were protesting the very idea that civilians could be protected during a full-scale nuclear war. They were arrested but their sentences were suspended.

The protesters distributed pamphlets that included the following quote:

We will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. In view of the certain knowledge the administration of this country as that there is no defense in atomic warfare, we know this drill to be a military act in a cold war to instill fear, to prepare the collective mind for war. We refuse to cooperate. (Civil defense protest leaflet, 1955)

Protests against the Operation Alert drills continued until the drills themselves were stopped in 1962.  The largest protest took place on November 1, 1961 and involved roughly 50,000 women in 60 cities. The protest was organized by Women Strike for Peace, under the slogan “End the Arms Race not the Human Race.

Gimme Shelter:

In the early days of civil defense, the emphasis was on community efforts – mass evacuations from cities and larger towns and community shelters, as well as dispersing the federal government.  Home shelters and personal protection became more popular over time, particularly when it became clear that the Soviet Union was not only surpassing the US in terms of nuclear weapons, but also in civil defense. Not only did we have a missile gap, we also had a shelter gap. This information, was released in the Gaither Report in 1957, along with calculations that it would cost $25 billion dollars (roughly 230 billion in 2020) for the government to provide shelters for the American population.  This high price tag helped spur the US government to begin promoting the idea that Americans should build home shelters in basements and backyards.

Oddly enough, most Americans didn’t build their own shelters. In 1962, only 1.4% of Americans had a nuclear fallout shelter. Additionally, most Americans – according to a May 1962 study by Michigan State University’s Department of Communications – over 70% of Americans hadn’t received (78%) or read (73%) any governmental literature on fallout shelters. And 95% said they’d never been contacted by a fallout shelter salesman.

Of course, this study was conducted five months before the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ironically, a little over a year prior to the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba, on October 6, 1961, President Kennedy urged Americans to build bomb shelters because of increased tensions between the US and Soviet Union due to the events of the Berlin Crisis of 1961. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Americans did rush to build fallout shelters in their homes or to at least gather supplies just in case the worst did happen.

According to the University of Michigan study, one reason why Americans didn’t build shelters was due to cost – 67% of those surveyed said a shelter cost more than most families could afford.  Additionally, building a home shelter was also predicated on the idea that a family actually owned a home, particularly one that either had a basement and/or spare land where the owner could dig a hole or build an above-ground shelter.

But simply owning a home wasn’t a guarantee that a family could afford to build a shelter. In 1961, the median family income was $5,315 while the cost of a bare-bones shelter was around $2,500. (One Nation Underground, p. 190) For many Americans, building a shelter wasn’t economically feasible.

While the government did publish materials aimed at helping apartment dwellers take shelter from fallout – presuming their apartment buildings weren’t destroyed in the initial blast – most plans were aimed at suburban homeowners, a group that was predominately white due to discriminatory real estate practices such as redlining, racial steering and exclusionary covenants wherein homeowners would agree not to sell to buyers who weren’t white, Caucasian or Aryan (depending on the preferred language of the covenant).

In the years after World War II, 90% of housing projects built used exclusionary covenants to racially restrict homeownership, including in the original suburban housing developments known as Levittowns.  The developer, William Levitt, refused to sell homes to blacks because, as he said, “If we sell one house to a Negro family, 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”

In 1957, the first black couple, Bill and Daisy Myers purchased a home in the Levittown, Pennsylvania suburb.  Unable to buy directly from Levitt, they purchased their home from a white couple, the Wechslers, a Jewish couple looking to get out of the suburbs. While Levitt wouldn’t sell directly to a black couple, he wasn’t able to prevent owners from reselling to whomever they would like.

The reaction to a black family moving into the previously all-white suburbs was typical of other desegregation efforts that occurred throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Their white neighbors made death threats against the Myers and the Wechslers; a cross was burned on the Myers’ lawn and their neighbors hung Confederate flags in their windows – and no, it wasn’t because they were big believers in states rights. A mob was waiting for the Meyers when they moved in, rocks were thrown through windows and bomb threats were made.

And this was in Pennsylvania, in the supposedly egalitarian North. In the South, the reaction to desegregation was more widespread, but no less reactionary.

The Civil Rights Movement:

Once again, I’m going to be declaring arbitrary boundaries in order to keep from falling down the rabbit hole of history. As with the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement in the United States doesn’t have a clear-cut beginning.  The fight for equality for blacks in America can be said to have begun as early as 1619, with the first arrival of enslaved Africans to the British colony of Jamestown[(2)]. As with the first use of nuclear weapons, the leaders of the time made a choice that their descendants and the descendants of their victims are still grappling with 400 years later.

The modern Civil Rights Movement has its roots in the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, but for our purposes begins in 1954 with the Supreme Court’s decisions in Hernandez vs. Texas (May 3) and Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (May 17). Both decisions ruled against segregation in schools, with the first case handing down the decision that all races were entitled to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The second and better-known decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, struck down Plessy vs. Ferguson, ruling against the doctrine of “separate but equal” (which was neither). This decision also declared the segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional.

The reaction to Brown vs. Board of Education was immediate, with school districts in Southern states generally refusing to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision[(3)]. In September 1954, Mississippi went so far as to amend its constitution to abolish public schools, creating private segregation academies for white students; in April 1955, they penalized white students with fines and/or jail time if they attended classes with black students.

In May 1955, the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation of schools must occur with “all deliberate speed.” Southern states continued to drag their feet, refusing to comply with the federal government’s instructions to desegregate schools. Protests in several areas become violent, requiring intervention the authorities. The most well-known case of this occurred on September 24, 1957, when President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent it along with 1,000 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School.

On November 14, 1960, Ruby Bridges became the first black child to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. She and her mother were escorted to the school by four federal marshals, who would continue to escort Ruby for the rest of the school year. During that first year, Ruby Bridges received death threats from white adults, including one white woman who threatened to poison her every morning. IT was a threat deemed credible enough that the U.S. Marshals guarding her wouldn’t let her eat any food she didn’t bring from home.

Ruby Bridges was a first-grade student in 1960. She was six years old.

Emmett Tillwas fourteen when he was abducted, tortured and murdered for having allegedly whistled at and flirted with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant[(4)]. Bryant’s husband Roy became enraged when he learned of the allegation and, along with his half-brother J. W. Milam, went to Till’s great-uncle’s home and abducted him

on August 28, 1955.  Bryant and Milam beat and brutalized Emmett, allegedly meaning only to scare him. Instead, because Till refused to back down, refused to show the fear his killers wanted, Milam shot him in the head.  Then, he and Bryant tied a heavy weight to his body and threw Emmett Till into the Tallahatchie River. Till’s body was discovered and retrieved three days later.

Till’s mother insisted on holding an open casket funeral, so that people could see what had been done to her son. The images of the boy’s bloated and mutilated body sparked outrage across the country.

Bryant and Milam were brought to trial in September 1955 and after a five-day trial, the all-white jury found the two not guilty of kidnapping and murder despite copious evidence to the contrary. Because the two were protected by double jeopardy and couldn’t be tried again for their crime, they publicly admitted in a 1956 interview in Look magazine. In the interview, they not only described the murder in blatant if not graphic detail, they also attempted to justify the killing by claiming that Till had been ‘ruined’ by Northern ideas about racial equality and that they had killed Till to make an example of him about the importance of African Americans staying in their “place.”[(5)

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery Alabama.[(6)] Her arrest helped to spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956. The success of the boycott helped inspire other peaceful, nonviolent protests, many of which were met with violent countermeasures by whites.

Case in point, the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins that began on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Sit-ins had been used to protest segregation prior to this; in August, 1939, Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized a sit-in to protest the segregation of the Alexandria, Virginia library, which refused to issue library cards to African Americans. And In 1958, separate sit-ins in Wichita, Kansas and Oklahoma City led to two different drug store chains ending segregation in their stores.

What the Greensboro sit-ins did was spark a larger sit-in movement that spread from Greensboro, to other cities in North Carolina and later, to other states like Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. The movement also helped spark the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a student-led organization that helped coordinate and assist direct-action campaigns against segregation and discrimination in the South. In addition to the sit-ins, the SNCC also helped with voter registration, the integration of interstate bus lines (Freedom Rides), and the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Additional info:

While it’s fairly common to associate racism with the South, discrimination based on race was found throughout the United States. Bigotry didn’t end at the Mason-Dixon Line or at the Mississippi River. What does this have to do with nuclear war? Directly, not much; instead, the Civil Rights Movement and the reaction to it by whites who opposed changes in the status quo so vehemently that they reacted to something as a lunch counter sit-in with disproportionate levels of violence reveals a gaping flaw in the very idea of civil defense.

In my research, I haven’t found any direct references to segregation playing a factor in any civil defense planning – no mentions of “separate but equal” shelters in official documents, for example[(7)]. But, it’s also not difficult to see white-led state and city governments making decisions without bothering to consider the impact those decisions would have on black populations, simply because it would never occur to them to think of those populations as important. It’s not a stretch to think that, oh, the same people who showed up to hurl racist invective at the Little Rock Nine or who threatened to poison a six year old child or who violently attacked the students who staged lunch counter sit-ins would turn black people away from fallout shelters.

People who would rather shut down every public school in their state rather than allow them to be integrated or who would willingly let admitted murderers walk free aren’t suddenly going to stop being virulently racist when the civil defense sirens start to blow. The bigotry doesn’t even have to be as overt as physically barring people from a shelter; it can be done as easily as placing all the shelters in the white part of town.

The writer, Langston Hughes brought up the issue of segregation and civil defense in one of his Jesse B. Semple stories, “Radioactive Red Caps” published in 1961 [(8)]:

“If I was in Mississippi, I would be Jim Crowed out of bomb shelters, so I would need some kind of protection. By the time I got the N.A.A.C.P. to take my case to the Supreme Court, the war would be over, else I would be atomized.”

“Absurd!” I said. “Bomb shelters will be for everybody.”

“Not in Mississippi,” said Simple. “Down there they will have some kind of voting test, else loyalty test, in which they will find some way of flunking Negroes out. You can’t tell me them Dixiecrats are going to give Negroes free rein of bomb shelters. On the other hand, come to think of it, they might have to let us in to save their own skins […Simple goes on a long aside about the dangers of radioactive garbage possibly contaminating stray cats who might then contaminate Simple’s wife if she pets one and then if Simple were to pet his wife, he might get contaminated.]

“You are stretching the long arm of coincidence mighty far,” I said. “What is more likely to happen is, if the bombs fall, you will be radioactive long before the garbage will.”

“That will worry white folks,” said Simple. “Just suppose all the Negroes down South got atomized, charged up like hot garbage, who would serve the white folks’ tables, nurse their children, Red Cap their bags, and make up their Pullman berths? Just think! Suppose all the colored Red Caps carrying bags on the Southern Railroad was atom-charged! Suitcases would get atomized, too, and all that is packed in them. Every time a white man took out his toothbrush to wash his teeth on the train, his teeth would get atom-charged. How could he kiss his wife when he got home?” (Source: The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 8:  The Later Simple Stories, (p. 50-53; accessed via Google Books on March 31, 2020)

Atoms for Peace:

In a later Simple story, “The Atomic Age,” Hughes referenced President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech, delivered on December 8, 1953[(9)]. As Simple saw it:

I read in the papers where the President done issued a statement that it won’t be long now. […] Till them atoms will be doing the work of men. They gonna stop making bombs in the United States and stat making all kinds of little old small machines for peace that will do more work than a thousand big machines like we got now. (Source: The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 8:  The Later Simple Stories, (p. 69-72; accessed via Google Books on March 31, 2020)

Simple got the basic idea behind the “Atoms for Peace” speech right – Eisenhower’s speech was delivered to the United Nations General Assembly and was part of a larger propaganda campaign called Project Candor, intended to inform Americans about the risks and potential benefits of a nuclear future. Together with the speech, Operation Candor launched a media campaign aimed at “emotion management” – an effort to balance peoples’ fears of nuclear weapons with optimistic promises of peaceful uses of the “friendly atom.” This campaign lasted for years, leading to research into non-combat uses for nuclear weapons.

Project Plowshare was one of the efforts associated with the overall “Atoms for Peace” campaign. It was a series of nuclear tests conducted by the United States to find civilian applications for nuclear explosives. Some of the successful uses included rock blasting, chemical element manufacture and simulating the flow of natural gas from “tight” formation gas fields.   The first test, codenamed Gnome, occurred on December 10, 1961 and the last, the Rio Bravo series of tests, occurred on May 17, 1973. All in all, the United States detonated a total of 31 nuclear warheads in 27 separate tests.

An example of the kind of testing done was Project Sedan, done as part of the Storax nuclear testing series. The test occurred on July 6, 1962 and created the largest human-made crater in the mainland US. It also managed to contaminate more US residents with fallout than any other test. Other ideas that never left the drawing board were blasting a new Panama Canal and using underground nuclear explosions to generate electricity.

The Soviet Union also had a similar program, called Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy.  Like the United States, they explored potential peaceful uses for nuclear explosives including excavating canals and mining.

Additional information:

Space Race:

One peaceful use for nuclear weapons was as a method of propulsion for space ships. Project Orion was a plan to use atomic bombs to propel ships into low Earth orbit and beyond. The original idea of using explosives to fuel rocket propulsion was first proposed back in 1881 by Nikolai Kibalchich and was used as a bit of worldbuilding by Robert Heinlein in a 1940 story, “Blowups Happen.”  The initial proposal for using nuclear explosions was first made by Stanislaw Ulam – one of the designers of the Teller-Ulam style thermonuclear bomb – back in 1946.

The concept for Project Orion was this: a series of small nuclear devices (in the 5-kiloton range) would be dropped out of the back of a spaceship and detonated at the rate of 2-4 per second. Most of the force of these explosions would be directed toward a 1,000-ton steel pusher plate and would thus ‘push’ the ship up into the sky.  While nuclear explosions were never used for reasons that should be obvious, tests with conventional explosives did prove that the concept would work.

Due to a combination of factors, including potential environmental issues due to fallout[(10)]>  and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban treaty of 1963 outlawing everything except underground nuclear testing, Project Orion ended up being cancelled in 1964.

Project Orion was only one aspect of the Space Race, which itself served as something of a propaganda war between the US and the Soviet Union – one in which the Soviet Union took several early victories:

  • August 21, 1957 – The Soviet Union tests the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka. With an effective firing range of 5,000-5,500 miles, missiles launched from fields in the Soviet Union could reach US cities on the East and West coasts.
  • October 4, 1957 – Sputnik-1, launched using an R-7 Semyorka missile, becomes the first artificial satellite in Earth orbit. In his examination of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King discusses where he was when he first learned about the Sputnik launch and how the event inspired real horror in him for the first time (he’d have been about ten at the time).
  • November 7, 1957 Laika, the first dog in space, was launched with Sputnik II, the second spacecraft launched into Earth orbit.
  • April 12, 1961 – Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human to fly in space aboard the Vostok I.

Additional Sources:

Cuban Missile Crisis:

During Eisenhower’s presidency, the Cuban Revolution occurred beginning in 1953 and ending on December 31, 1958 when rebel forces led by Fidel Castro ousted the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

Initially, Castro had promised a democratic Cuba, but after meeting with Cuban communists, he became more interested in Marxism-Leninism. Additionally, worsening relations with America, including an embargo imposed by the Eisenhower administration led to Castro seeking out the Soviet Union for support. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, Castro declared himself a communist and turned Cuba into a one-party communist state with himself as the sole leader until ill health caused him to officially step down in 2008.

In October 1962, the US and Soviet Union came as close as they ever did to a full-out nuclear war over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted from October 16-28, 1962 and began when an American U-2 spy plane detected several nuclear missiles in Cuba.

On October 16, President Kennedy met with advisors to discuss how to respond to the presence of missiles in Cuba – missiles that could easily reach any location within the Lower 48 states.  The options discussed include three options: diplomacy; a naval quarantine[(11)] of Cuba; or, destroying the missile sites with an air attack – an option that would most likely have triggered a Soviet counterattack on a target like Berlin.

Kennedy rejected the idea of an attack, instead favoring the idea of using the US Navy to quarantine Cuba in the hopes of buying time to negotiate a diplomatic solution to get the missiles out of Cuba.

By October 17, the first of three Soviet SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) sites was discovered in Cuba. The next day, October 18, Kennedy met with the Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko, who denied the existence of missiles in Cuba.

Between October 19-21, Kennedy met with the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussing the options available to him. Ultimately, he decides to go ahead with the naval quarantine.

In an eighteen-minute speech on October 22, 1962, Kennedy addressed American on national television, outlining the crisis in Cuba. The US military goes to Defcon 3, while Castro mobilized his own military forces.

Photographs reveal that the missiles in Cuba were ready to launch as of October 23; adding to the tensions, the first Soviet ships reached the US naval quarantine on October 24.  Fortunately, they did not attempt to break through, but instead held position.

On October 25, US forces were taken to Defcon 2, one step away from full-out nuclear war.

Things begin to speed up on October 26 as Kennedy and Khrushchev work to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Khrushchev offers to remove missiles from Cuba if Kennedy publicly guarantees that the US will never invade Cuba. During this time, the CIA reports that work on the missile bases in Cuba is not only continuing, it’s accelerating. Robert Kennedy, the President’s brother and US Attorney General, meets with the Soviet Ambassador and guarantees that the US is willing to remove its missiles from Turkey as part of a potential settlement.

Meanwhile, Castro sends a message to Khrushchev, urging a nuclear first strike against the US if the Americans attempt to invade Cuba.

Two mishaps with American spy planes occur on October 28, 1962 – in the first incident, an American U-2 play accidentally flies into Russian airspace, while a second U-2 is shot down over Cuba.  Khrushchev sends a second letter to Kennedy, saying that in addition to America making a public promise to not to invade Cuba, the US must also remove its missiles from Turkey.

On October 28, the Crisis ends with Khrushchev making the announcement that the Soviet missiles in Cuba will be dismantled. He does not publicly insist on the removal of US missiles from Turkey, since while Kennedy did agree to this condition, he wanted to keep it secret from Turkey for diplomatic reasons.

While the worst of the tensions were over, the US naval quarantine of Cuba didn’t officially end until November 21, after Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet IL-28 nuclear bombers from Cuba.

Technically, while the Soviets did remove their medium and intermediate-range missiles from Cuba, they left roughly 100 tactical nuclear weapons for possible use if America decided to renege on their agreement not to invade Cuba.[(12)] However, due to concerns about trusting Castro with the weapons, the Soviets removed the last of the warheads from Cuba on December 1, 1962.

In keeping with our side of the bargain, the US did remove its Titan missiles from bases in Turkey.

Some good did come out of the Cuban Missile Crisis – specifically, the US and the Soviet Union realized they needed to be able to communicate directly with each other.  As a result, the so-called “red phone” hotline – more accurately known as the Moscow-Washington hotline – was installed.  However, the “phone” line has never used phones, red or any other color. Instead, it relied on Teletype equipment until 1986, when the system switched to fax machines.

This willingness for both nations to talk – as well as both sides having seen just how easily nuclear war could have started – led to a lessening of tensions that allowed for a period of détente.


  • [1]This might not sound like much in the way of warning, but by 1983, with the advent of ICBMS, the warning time was reduced to 30-35 minutes for land-based Soviet missiles and 8-15 minutes for submarine-launched missiles. Source: NYTimes
  • [2]Which ignores the presence of enslaved Africans in Spanish and Portuguese colonies prior to that, but Colonial American history is very Anglo-centric. For the record, the first enslaved Africans in what would become the United States was an unknown group of African slaves in the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in Florida in 1565.
  • [3]The exception to this was the Charleston, Arkansas school district, which unanimously voted on July 27, 1954 to end segregation for first through twelfth grade.
  • [4]In 2008, Bryant admitted in an interview that she fabricated some of her testimony. Namely, that Till hadn’t grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities as she’d claimed at the time. She may have lied at the time out of fear of her abusive husband, Roy Bryant.  She said in that interview that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
  • [5]You can read the article from Look online, thanks to Professor Douglas O. Linder’s Famous Trials site. The article, The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi, was written by William Bradford Huie and appeared in the January 1956 issue.  Please Note: the article uses racist language, specifically a slur aimed at blacks, and discusses the cold, calculated murder of a child by two adults. It’s not graphically described but it doesn’t have to be in order to be disturbing and sickening.  If you want to read reactions to the article, American Experience added those on to the end of their transcription of the Look The Murder of Emmett Till: Killers’ Confession (same advisory about racist language holds; plus some of the letters are essentially the 1950s version of “Don’t Read the Comments.”)
  • [6]Nine months prior to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old girl also from Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white woman. She was one of five plaintiffs in the first federal case, Browder v. Gayle, that challenged bus segregation in Montgomery. That case would later be heard by the Supreme Court, which would rule in favor of the order ending bus segregation in Alabama and the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • [7]Though, since much of civil defense planning was left to the states rather than the federal government, checking every plan developed would take a lot more time and effort to research.
  • [8]Langston Hughes, an American poet, writer and social activist, wrote a series of short stories commenting on various aspects of African-American life using the character of Jesse B. Semple (“Simple”) as the second half of a conversation with an unnamed narrator (probably Hughes himself).
  • [9]At least, I’m fairly certain that’s what’s being referred to. Finding a date for the story was less than productive.
  • [10]It was calculated that lifting a pulse rocket into low Earth orbit (roughly 1,200 miles up) would require at least 800 bombs, with interplanetary travel requiring many more.
  • [11]Technically, what was suggested was a naval blockade of Cuba – US ships would prevent Soviet ships from reaching Cuba, but because a blockade can be considered an act of war, the phrase “naval quarantine” was used to help reduce an already tense situation.
  • [12]Considering America’s tendency to violate treaty agreements, it’s hard to blame Khrushchev for wanting an edge, just in case.


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A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. If you want to join, you can at any time.Set the goals you want to accomplish and get and give encouragement to fellow ROWers. Feel free to join us on Facebook at ROW80 or follow us on Twitter at #ROW80.  Or you can do all of the above!


Nuke Opera 2020: The Next Round

Today marks the beginning of the second round for 2020 of A Round of Words in 80 Days, “The Writing Challenge That Knows You Have a Life.”  As is traditional with the beginning of a new round, today is a day for the stating your goals/plans for the round ahead.

I took yesterday off from posting because I figured I’d earned a bit of a lazy day. It actually felt okay to take a break and I’m glad I did. I’m actually thinking of making it a regular thing — taking off the Sunday before a new round starts and using it as a day to reflect about what goals I want to work on.

Luckily, my goals for this round are pretty straightforward: continue posting essays in the Nuke Opera 2020 series I started during the last round. I’ve decided on a few additional criteria, meant to help me keep to my goal but also to allow for some flexibility, since between changes in my schedule at work and changes wrought by COVID-19, I want to keep this blog as stress-free (and therefore sustainable) as possible.

  • I’m going to post at least once a week, preferably either on Sunday or Wednesday, with the optimal goal being to continue posting twice a week on Sunday and Wednesday. I’m planning on making use of the fact that WordPress allows you to schedule posts to keep to this schedule as necessary.
  • I’ll be continuing the history and science articles because they provide background I think is necessary for looking at the stories and books I want to start talking about. Also, the history articles in particular are meant to be a series and the thought of leaving the series unfinished makes me shudder.
  • But, I also want to start delving into the books and stories that have helped shape my idea of what the Nuke Opera subgenre is.  For one thing, I’m getting to a point where I’ve provided enough context to be able to begin talking about some of the earlier stories. For another, since writing about stories/books involves expressing my subjective opinions, I’m hoping that writing those articles will be relatively easier and faster than the research-heavy history and science pieces. Part of this is going to involve defining what a Nuke Opera is — which I’m really excited about.
  • Another goal is going to be engaging more with my fellow AROW80 members. I’ve been lacking in that and I think getting out and reading other peoples’ articles will help me feel more connected to the community.

Nuke Opera 2020: Round Two — Tentative Schedule: Round Two will run from April 6 through June 24, 2020. I’ve got the first couple months planned out and I’m leaving some wiggle room in case I decide to add some supplemental materials.

  • April 6 — Round Two Goals Post
  • April 8 — Part Two of Atomic Era Begins — 1954-1962
  • April 12 — What Is A “Nuke Opera”
  • April 15 — Elite Panic
  • April 19 — Lot
  • April 22 — Lot’s Daughter
  • April 26 — Detente 1962-1979
  • April 29 — A Boy and His Dog
  • May 3, 6, 10, 13, 17 — Farnham’s Freehold — multiple posts because Farnham’s Freehold is a novel so it’s a longer work but also because there’s a lot of ground to cover.
  • May 20 — Tensions Flare, then Fade (1980-1991)  —  history article about the Reagan Era of the Cold War, a time when things got heated but ultimately cooled down for good.
  • May 24, 27, 31 — The Survivalist #1: Total War — the first (literally and figuratively) of the books I’ve dubbed Nuke Operas. Since this is also a novel, this will likely also require several articles.

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Nuke Opera 2020: Breathing Space

There’s not going to be a substantial post tonight. I’ve been working on one for the last several days but like everyone else on the planet, I’m juggling trying to do normal things with the fact that the world is even less normal and more chaotic than usual.

Oddly enough, working on articles and doing research related to nuclear war is at one and the same time oddly comforting while also occasionally a source of stress (usually in cases where the parallels between then and now are just a little too similar — like, say, fallout shelters and self-quarantining).

I’m still going to continue with Nuke Opera 2020, but I may be making changes into how/when I post — part of the stress is that I want to stick with the Sunday/Wednesday schedule, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to maintain that and that’s making the part of my brain that likes seeing posts line up in neat little rows on the calendar go “but, nooooo!”

For right now, I’m using this post as a way to satisfy orderly-calendar-loving brain and to cut myself some slack. I hope you’re all finding a way to do something similar. Be gentle with yourselves.


Nuke Opera 2020: What’s Coming Next?

I’ve been writing these articles as part of my goals for A Round of Words in 80 Days (The Writing Challenge That Knows You Have a Life). As the name suggests, AROW80 lasts for eighty days. The first round of 2020 started back on Monday, January 6 and ended on Thursday, March 26.  I set myself the goal of posting at least one article related to my Nuke Opera series a week and I’m really happy to say that I’ve managed to meet that goal, having posted at least two articles related to Nuke Opera 2020 every week.

By the Numbers:

  • Total Articles Posted: Twenty-five
  • Most Articles Posted in a Week: Four (January 19-22, 2020)
  • Total Words Written: 58,599
  • Total Pages Written: 131 page
  • Longest Article: 6,330 words (Nuke Opera 2020: Opening the Pot – 1945-1949)

What’s Next?:

I’m going to be continuing the Nuke Opera series in the next round of AROW80, shifting the focus from the history and science of the Cold War/nuclear weapons to the literary precursors of Nuke Operas, starting with Ward Moore’s stories Lot and Lot’s Daughter, moving on to Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog and finishing up with Robert A. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold. I’ll likely be touching on some other works along the way.

Until then, stay safe, stay inside, wash your hands.

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A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. If you want to join, you can at any time.Set the goals you want to accomplish and get and give encouragement to fellow ROWers. Feel free to join us on Facebook at ROW80 or follow us on Twitter at #ROW80.  Or you can do all of the above!

Nuke Opera 2020: Atomic Era Begins (1949-1962) — Part One: 1949-1954

Atomic Era Begins — 1949-1962, Part One (1949-1954):

On September 24, 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic weapon. The test itself, nicknamed “First Lightning” by the Soviets and “Joe 1” by the Americans, had occurred on August 29, 1949.

Surprisingly, the news didn’t incite a panic among Americans – partly due to the government instructing reporters not to overplay the significance of the news. Additionally, panic didn’t appear because this news wasn’t unexpected. After all, Americans had had four years to imagine the possibility of their cities being atom bombed. Not to mention, the idea that the Soviets would develop their own bomb was widely regarded as simply a matter of time.

Instead, the primary reaction was the desire to see America increase its lead by stockpiling more nuclear weapons. The Hearst newspapers called for the US to stockpile four bombs to every Soviet bomb [(1)] while Life magazine said America should maintain a “clear, unchallenged, demonstrable” nuclear supremacy (Bomb’s Early Light).

In addition to increasing the US stockpile in terms of numbers, there were also calls to make weapons that were significantly more powerful.  The idea of a ‘superbomb’ had been being discussed for years, with Edward Condon warning in early 1946 about the possibility of bombs a thousand times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On January 31, 1950, President Truman authorized the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to begin work on the hydrogen bomb, also known as “the Super.” [(2)] The program for building the Super dwarfed the Manhattan Project and led to the AEC tripling in size from 55,000 to 142,000 employees and from a handful of sites to over a score. The project used 7% of the United States’ electrical output and exceeded the combined market capitalization of Bethlehem Steel, US Steel, Alcoa, DuPont, Goodyear and General Motors.

The American public’s reaction was largely favorable. According to a Gallup poll conducted in February 1950, 69% of Americans favored building the hydrogen bomb with another 9% expressing reluctant approval. Only 14% of those polled expressed disapproval of the hydrogen bomb.

While the world celebrated the end of World War II, there was still the fear that there would eventually be another war. In October 1945, for example, a poll found that 59% of Americans believed there would be another war within the next twenty years; this figure grew to 77% by late 1947. By 1948, a Gallup poll found 57% of Americans expected another war within a decade and 43% thought it would happen within three or four years.

It happened in two, when on June 25, 1950, Communist North Korea invaded Capitalist South Korea, capturing the South Korean capital of Seoul three days later. The United Nations responded by assembling an international force of 16 nations to combat the invasion. These forces were led by US General Douglas MacArthur. US-led UN forces landed in South Korea in July 1950, beginning the Korean War.

For more information on the Korean War, I recommend the following videos

Welcome to Korea:

For our purposes, the Korean War is important because it was the first shooting war of the Atomic Age and it came at a time when there were two nuclear powers instead of one. There were calls to use nuclear weapons against the North Koreans and the Chinese, not only from within the military but also among the American people.

According to an August 1950 Gallup poll, 28% of Americans were in favor of using the atomic bomb in Korea. A year later, when the war was becoming more costly and frustrating, 51% supported the atomic bombing of military targets.[(3)]

General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United Nations forces fighting in the Korean war, requested authority to employ nuclear weapons in December 1950, going so far as to submit a list of “retardation targets” in Korea and China, which would require 34 atomic bombs.[(4)]

In April 1951, Truman did make arrangements with the AEC to transfer nine nuclear bombs into military control, though there was some concern about both MacArthur’s lack of technical knowledge about the weapons and their effects as well as fear that he might use the weapons prematurely. Rather than place the bombs under MacArthur’s direct control, authority to deploy the weapons was given to Strategic Air Command, which planned to bomb industrial cities in North Korea and China rather than air bases and depots.

While the option was still being discussed as late as 1953, ultimately, nuclear weapons were not used during the Korean War. Work on the hydrogen bomb, however, did begin at this time and continued on throughout the war and beyond.

Despite favorable polls, not everyone in either America or the rest of the world was in favor of the H-bomb. In March, 1950, members of the Permanent Committee of the Partisans of Peace (an extension of the World Peace Congress) met in Stockholm, Sweden. In a meeting led by Frederick Joliot-Curie, son-in-law of Marie Curie, the members adopted a resolution aimed at banning nuclear weapons. The resolution, officially the Stockholm Peace Appeal, was dubbed the “Ban the Bomb” pledge. In addition to demanding a ban on all nuclear weapons, the pledge also called for holding those who refused to comply accountable for that refusal.

The Appeal was widely circulated, collecting 1.5 million signatures in the United States, 10 million in France, 60 million in China and 115 million in the Soviet Union. In Brazil, 3.75 million people signed, including 2,000 illiterate peasants who used their thumbprints to sign.

There were those who looked on the early nuclear disarmament movement as subversive, even treasonous. This led to some activists retreating from the cause, while others continued to fight against what they saw as a rising threat of nuclear war.

Some who denounced the Stockholm Peace Appeal did so out of a rejection of the Appeal’s connection to communism. Representative Peter Rodino, Jr, (D-NJ) called for members of the clergy of all faiths to reject the petition due to “the insidious danger of atheistic communism” that he felt the petition exemplified. He also decried the Appeal as “a war petition calculated to give Soviet Russia time to stockpile atomic weapons while we are lulled into a false sense of security.” (Intondi, p. 36).

Across the aisle, Representative Bernard Kearney (R-NY) denounced the petition as an attempt to “confuse and divide the American people and paralyze their resistance to Communist aggression.” (Intondi, p. 36)

Red Scare II: The New Batch:

“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down.”Senator Joseph McCarthy.

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. In that speech, he announced that he had a list of 205 (or 57, or 81 or…) men in the State Department who were not only members of the Communist Party but also members of a spy ring.

There was one problem: the list didn’t actually exist– hence the ever-changing number of supposed Communists in the State Department. However, because of growing fears of the Communist Soviet Union, the press jumped on McCarthy’s statement and ran with it. This catapulted the junior senator from Wisconsin into the national spotlight and helped begin the second Red Scare.

While Senator McCarthy is often linked with things like the blacklisting of writers and actors in Hollywood and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he wasn’t actually involved with either of those things. They were happening concurrently with McCarthy’s investigations into the alleged communist infiltration of the US government. In actuality, McCarthyism became the point where both elite and public opinion turned against the Red Scare – likely because McCarthy went so far as to alienate other anti-communists by overreacting and overreaching himself. [(5)]

By the time McCarthy began attacking the Army, in trials broadcast on national television between April and June 1954, his fifteen minutes of fame were beginning to wind down. His bullying of witnesses helped turn public opinion against him, leading to the US Senate voting on December 2, 1954 to censure McCarthy. A move McCarthy ignored, but that no one else did – then-President Eisenhower quipped that McCarthyism was now “McCarthywasm” (TV Tropes Useful Notes, Joseph McCarthy)

For more information on McCarthyism:

Spies Like Us:

It’s easy to characterize the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1950s as simple, baseless hysteria. But there were Communists working within the US to funnel information about the US nuclear program to the Soviet Union. Granted, not as many as some feared, but those who were doing the spying were well-placed.  In fact, there had been spies within the US nuclear program from the beginning of the Manhattan Project.

Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British theoretical physicist who was part of the British delegation at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.  He’d begun spying for the Soviet Union while working on the British Tube Alloys program (predecessor to the Manhattan Project).  Fuchs voluntarily confessed to being a spy in January 1950, with some of his statements being used to implicate other spies.

Among those Fuchs implicated was Harry Gold, an American who himself confessed to acting as a courier for Fuchs and David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Rosenberg. Gold was a key witness against Greenglass, who in turn also gave evidence against his sister and his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg.

The Rosenbergs were tried and convicted for their role in coordinating and recruiting members of an espionage network that included Greenglass.  Since the US and Soviet Union were allies at the time, they couldn’t be charged with treason but were convicted of espionage in 1951. They were executed on June 19, 1953, despite an international movement that demanded clemency and which included appeals from leading European intellectuals and even the Pope. Eisenhower justified the execution of Ethel Rosenberg — who many felt had not been involved in atomic spying — by explaining to his son that if he spared her, then the Soviet Union would use that as an excuse to recruit female spies.

While the Rosenbergs were involved in espionage, their trial and conviction occurred under less than ethical conditions. Greenglass originally testified that his sister had nothing to do with his atomic espionage, placing the blame solely on Julius’s shoulders – however, ten days before the start of the Rosenbegs’ trial, Greenglass changed his testimony, including Ethel in his accusations. This new testimony was in exchange for a deal that would protect Greenglass’s wife, Ruth, who some scholars believe may have been more involved in the atomic espionage than Ethel was.

The H-Bomb:

Note: the terms ‘hydrogen bomb/weapon’ is synonymous with ‘thermonuclear bomb/weapon’ and ‘fusion bomb/weapon.’

When all was said and done, despite protests and petitions and debates, work on the hydrogen bomb began with the Operation Greenhouse tests at Eniwetok Atoll  [(6)] in the Marshall Islands. This series of tests assessed design principles that would be pivotal for the first hydrogen bomb design.

On November 1, 1952, the US conducted its first hydrogen bomb test at Eniwetok Atoll.  The test was designated Shot Mike, of Operation Ivy (aka Ivy Mike). The weapon was nicknamed “the Sausage” because its cylindrical shape was, well, sausage-like. You can watch video footage of the test.  You can watch a longer video, with additional footage and context at OPERATION IVY 1952 HYDROGEN BOMB TESTS at ENEWETAK ATOLL 80294

Due to its size, Ivy Mike wasn’t dropped on Elugelab, but was instead built on the island and detonated from the ground. The blast destroyed the island of Elugelab, leaving behind a crater over a mile in diameter and roughly 16-17 stories deep. You can still see the crater on Google Earth images of the atoll.

Additional Info:

Stop Copying Me!:

Whatever advantage was gained by being the first to build and test the H-bomb was short-lived. The Soviet Union tested what it claimed was its first thermonuclear device, RDS-6 (nicknamed Joe-4  by the Americans) on August 12, 1953. While the test’s yield wasn’t in the megaton range (it was “only” 400 kilotons), the Soviets still took the win, in part for propaganda purposes. In particular, they drew attention to the fact that their fusion weapon was deliverable by air, something the Americans wouldn’t accomplish for another six months.

Castle Bravo:

On March 1, 1954, during the Operation Castle series of tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, test shot Bravo was dropped. This test represented the most powerful nuclear device detonated by the United States and was our first lithium deuteride fueled thermonuclear device. Until the Soviet Tsar Bomba test in 1961, Castle Bravo was the most powerful artificial explosion in human history.

It was also one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. Due to unexpected additional reactions within the explosion, the yield was nearly three times stronger than what had been expected. Instead of being “only” six megatons, the blast’s yield was 15 megatons, meaning the blast’s effects reached higher and further than expected.

Fallout, primarily in the form of pulverized coral fell on the islands of the Rongelap and Utirik Atolls. At the time, it was dubbed “Bikini snow” and led to the inhabitants of the islands suffering from radiation sickness – something exacerbated by the fact none of those inhabitants were evacuated until three days after the explosion. Twenty-three crew members of the Japanese fishing vessel, Daigo Fukuryuu Maru (Lucky Dragon #5) were also contaminated by heavy fallout and experienced acute radiation sickness. One member of the crew, Aikichi Kuboyama, died on September 23, 1954 and is considered the first victim of the hydrogen bomb [(7)]

Additionally, fallout in the form of gases and finer particulate matter spread around the world, and was detected in Australia, India, Japan as well as in the United States and even in parts of Europe.  The Southwestern United States received the greatest amount of fallout of those areas outside the South Pacific.

The Castle Bravo tests ended up sparking international incidents, especially in Japan, who reached a settlement with the United States, wherein each of the surviving victims of the Lucky Dragon received $5,500 ($52,800 in 2020 money).

The effects of the Castle Bravo tests are still impacting the people of the Marshall Islands to this day. In addition to being forced from their homes and exposed to radiation (albeit inadvertently), radiation related cancers and birth defects are still major problems faced by the Marshallese. While the Marshall Island Claims Tribunal exists to award compensation for these health effects, there are things that money cannot buy.

Lani Kramer, a Marshallese councilwoman has said, “As a result of being displaced we’ve lost our cultural heritage, our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation.”

Nuclear Strategy:

Additionally, now that there was a second nuclear power in the world, the US military had to develop strategies and plans for fighting a nuclear war.

The 1950 war plan, OFF TACKLE, stated that in case of nuclear war, SAC was to expend all of its bombers, crews and weapons within the first three months of war being declared. The thinking was that a nuclear war would either be over in 90 days or there would simply be nothing left to fight over. Unlike earlier war plans, in OFF TACKLE plan, SAC was to ‘destroy’ targets rather than ‘direct’ bombs against them.

It’s also at this point in time when we begin to see the first efforts at what would come to be known as “Continuity of Government” – basically, the ability for the (in this case) US government to continue working after a nuclear war.

The first bomb shelter intended to protect against atomic bombs was built during Truman’s presidency. Construction was authorized on August 1, 1950 though word of the shelter didn’t reach the public until April 18, 1951. The shelter cost roughly $881,000 in 1950 money, though despite authorizing the cost, Truman had no intention of using the shelter when the day came. As he told his naval aid, Robert Dennison:

Of course, you’ve got to go ahead with all this planning and all of these arrangements, but  I want to tell you one thing. If a situation ever develops where execution [of the evacuation order] seems to be indicated, I don’t intend to leave the White House. I am going to be right here. (Raven Rock, p. 29)

Truman further told Dennison: I would like to be as sure as I can that there’s some way that I can get on the air to talk to the people of the United States, to assure them that I am here, that I’m not up in the hills some place, and to tell them what I can of the situation. (Raven Rock, p. 29)

As well as providing for his own safety (despite his unwillingness to use it), Truman also created the Federal Civil Defense Administration on December 1, 1950. He later explained his reasoning: So long as there is any chance at all that atomic bombs may fall on our cities, we cannot gamble on being caught unprepared. (Raven Rock, p. 31)

The FCDA would later produce dozens of films, pamphlets and other materials, including a traveling show, “Alert America” that traveled via tractor-trailer to 70 cities in 1952. Among the films FCDA created were Survival Under Atomic Attack, What you Should Know About Biological Warfare, and the infamous Duck and Cover.

Truman left office on January 15, 1953, delivering a farewell address that included the following:

Now, once in a while, I get a letter from some impatient person asking, why don’t we get it over with? Why don’t we issue an ultimatum, make all-out war, drop the atomic bomb? For most Americans, the answer is quite simple: We are not made that way. We are a moral people. Peace is our goal, with justice and freedom. We cannot, of our own free will, violate the very principles that we are striving to defend. The whole purpose of what we are doing is to prevent world war III. Starting a war is no way to make peace. But if anyone still thinks that just this once, bad means can bring good ends, then let me remind you of this: We are living in the 8th year of the atomic age. We are not the only nation that is learning to unleash the power of the atom. A third world war might dig the grave not only of our Communist opponents but also of our own society, our world as well as theirs. Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Truman as President, inheriting not only the Korean War but also the Cold War. A war hero and a former general who had served as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe– a position that included being the commander of NATO’s Allied Command Operations in Europe, Eisenhower had never actually faced combat as a soldier. He was however intimately familiar with the damage and destruction that World War II had caused in Europe.

During the first months of Eisenhower’s first term of office, Joseph Stalin died of a stroke on March 5, 1953. He was temporarily succeeded by Gregory Malenkov, who was ultimately succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who would be the primary adversary of the United States until his “voluntary” retirement in 1964.

Eisenhower was, in the words of Garrett M. Graff, a man who “loved soldiering, but hated war.” (Raven Rock, p. 44)  Having become president at a time when nuclear weapons were becoming more powerful as well as easier and cheaper to make, Eisenhower valued taking his time and making decisions carefully. He had campaigned on a “New Look” for US foreign policy, one that emphasized greater focus, strength and clarity than Truman’s ‘erratic” and “militaristic” policies.

Of the US presidents who served during the Cold War, Eisenhower’s term in office was one of the longest[(8)] — lasting from January 20, 1953-January 20, 1961 and helped shape America’s response to the Soviets. We’ll be discussing more of his impact in our next article.


[1] By 1950, the US had a stockpile of 299 nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union’s five, so to get this ratio, we would have had to stop producing until the Soviets built another seventy bombs.
[2] At this point in time, the AEC had full authority over nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.
[3] Which sounds good, but remember that Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not to mention Tokyo and Dresden – were considered military targets during World War II, despite being civilian cities that happened to contain military bases or industrial centers.
[4] This doesn’t necessarily mean there were 34 targets, as some nuclear strategies call for using multiple bombs on a single location.
[5] Something similar happened during the Salem Witch Hunts, wherein public opinion began to turn against the witch hunts as they continued on and more and more people began to be accused, including members of the elite classes.
[6] Eniwetok Atoll is an alternate spelling of Enewetak Atoll. From April 14, 1948 to August 18, 1958, 43 nuclear tests occurred there, for a yield of roughly 31.8 megatons or about 6% of the total test yield of ALL nuclear tests conducted worldwide.
[7] During treatment for acute radiation syndrome, the crew of the Lucky Dragon were given transfusions with blood infected with hepatitis. Kuboyama died from cirrhosis of the liver that was compounded by this hepatitis infection.
[8] Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan both served a total of 2,922 days in office. Reagan served from January 20, 1981-January 20, 1989.



Nuke Opera 2020: Cool Links

Because I can’t get my brain to giddy-up and work on an actual article, I figured I’d share some cool links of early Atomic Age films, articles, manuals and comics. Most of these were found at the Internet Archive. Please note, since these are for the most part primary sources, there will be presumptions that reflect the prejudices and bigotries that were commonly accepted at the time. Read/watch at your own risk.

Adventures Inside the Atom — A 1948 comic book released by General Electric to educate the kids about the exciting new world of atomic energy.

Dagwood Splits the Atom (1949) — an educational pamphlet aimed at making the atom more understandable by having characters from King Features Syndicate comic strips, like Blondie, Dagwood and Mandrake the Magician, explain concepts.

Nuclear War Self Preservation In An Atomic Bomb Attack 1950 — aimed at members of the US military, this training film about what to do in case of a nuclear attack has some pretty accurate advice.

Survival Under Atomic Attack — a film produced in 1951 by the Office of Civil Defense and aimed at civilians. There’s also a manual from the same time with the same title.

Atomic Alert (Elementary version) — this 1951 film was aimed at school-age children.

Duck and Cover (1952)— the infamous video, featuring Burt the Turtle, who was very alert. Good luck getting the song out of your head.

Atomic War comic books — a series of comic books produced in 1952 by Junior Books, Inc. Follow the link and you can read issues 1-4.

A is for Atom (1953) — an educational animated short about the atom.

Atomic Attack comic books — issues 5-8 of this 1953 series that seems long on action and short on facts.

How Nuclear Radiation Can Change Our Race — This magazine article from Mechanix Illustrated is stunningly inaccurate, even for the time. But the pictures are kinda cool.

“Let’s Face It” (1954) — Discusses the threat of Russian thermonuclear bombs and how important it is to be prepared for the possibility of attack.

Atomic Attack — Produced by Motorola, this teleplay dramatized an H-bomb attack and aired on May 18, 1954.

Civil Defense Home Preparedness Workshop — this is a 1960 series of filmstrips, produced by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, was aimed at educating homemakers and housewives in the necessity of preparing for nuclear war:

  1. Why Family Action?
  2. Family Fallout Shelters
  3. Family Fire Safety
  4. Family Health
  5. Family Action

Classics Illustrated: The Atomic Age — a 1960 comic focusing on the atomic age.

Fallout Shelter: What Is It?— a 1963 movie about fallout and fallout shelters.

Operations in Public Fallout Shelters (1963) — a film intended to show the correct method for operating a public fallout shelter.

Rural Civil Defense (1965) — a series of TV spots aimed at educating farmers and other rural dwellers about civil defense for their unique situation. No clue why it uses marionettes… The pamphlet mentioned in the first spot, “Your Livestock Can Survive Fallout from Nuclear Attack” is also available at the Archive.




Nuke Opera 2020: Bomb, Bomb, Who’s Got The Bomb: Members of the Smoking Crater Society

Nuke Opera 2020: Bomb, Bomb, Who’s Got The Bomb: Members of the Smoking Crater Society

Note: This is a bit of a filler; between the changes wrought by the pandemic and by changes in my work schedule, my schedule of articles has been altered. I’m hoping to get back in the swing of things soon. 

When we talk about countries with nuclear weapons, particularly during the Cold War, we’re usually focused on the United States and the Soviet Union.  Which makes sense since they had and continue to have the largest stockpiles. But other countries developed nuclear capabilities between 1945-1991. Here’s a bit about them.

Honorable Mentions:

Germany and Japan both had nuclear weapons programs during World War II, but neither country came close to producing an actual bomb. In fact, the Nazi nuclear weapons program had more of an impact because it sparked the Manhattan Project. Concern over Hitler getting The Bomb was the main reason Szilard and Einstein wrote President Roosevelt and asked him to begin America’s nuclear program. Einstein later said in an interview in 1947 that if he’d known the German program would be a failure, he never would have urged Roosevelt to begin the Manhattan Project.

Post-World War II, Nazi scientists who’d been recruited/conscripted by the Allied Powers would play crucial roles in the US and Soviet Union’s rocketry programs, assisting in both countries’ space and missile programs.

Japan’s nuclear weapons project never amounted to much, though Tohoku University professor Hikosaka Tadayoshi’s “atomic physics theory” published in 1934 pointed out the huge energy contained in atomic nucleus and the possibility that nuclear power and/or weapons could be created using this energy. In 1939, Dr. Yoshio Nishina, became worried that America was working on a nuclear weapon that might be used against Japan. During a chance meeting with Lieutenant-General Takeo Yasuda, Nishina was able to discuss the possibility of Japan building nuclear weapons with him. Japan began its nuclear program in April 1941, with Nishina leading the project at his Nuclear Research Laboratory.

The Imperial Japanese Navy also pursued separate research into nuclear weapons, forming a committee that was chaired by Nishina. This committee determined that while atomic bombs were feasible, they would probably be difficult to create, even for the United States, particularly in the middle of a war. The Japanese Navy therefore switched its focus to radar. The Japanese Army, on the other hand, continued research into atomic weapons, but ultimately this research came to naught. These days, Japan is considered a paranuclear power because while they don’t have nuclear weapons themselves, they could easily produce them if they chose to do so.  For reasons that should be obvious, Japan has opted to restrict their use of nuclear power to peaceful energy production.

Members of the Cold War Nuclear Arms and Marching Society:

United States – the first nation to successfully test a nuclear weapon and the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons during wartime.

  • First nuclear test (A-bomb): Trinity, Trinity Site, near Socorro, New Mexico, July 16, 1945
  • First nuclear test (H-bomb):
    • Ivy Mike, Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands on November 1, 1952
    • Castle Bravo, Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954 – first test of a deployable thermonuclear weapon.
  • First nuclear test (Neutron bomb): Possibly at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in 1963, tested 70 miles north of Las Vegas, also in 1963. First added to US arsenal in 1974. ( The US has never actually deployed a neutron weapon.
  • Last nuclear test: Shot Divider, part of Operation Julin, Nevada Test Site, Nevada, USA on September 23, 1992.
  • Total nuclear tests by number: 1,032 tests of 1,132 devices
  • Total nuclear tests by yield (kilotons): 196,514

The United States placed nuclear weapons in allied countries during the Cold War, including at bases in Germany, Italy, Turkey and the UK, among others.

Soviet Union – the second nuclear superpower; had a bit of a leg up due to spies within the Manhattan Project. During the Space Race, the Soviet Union carried a brief early advantage both technologically and psychologically by achieving several firsts. These included th first intercontinental ballistic missile, first artificial satellite, and first human in orbit around the Earth (among others). The Soviet Union holds record for largest nuclear detonation in history, Tsar Bomba, October 30, 1962 with a yield of 50 megatons.

  • First nuclear test: Operation First Lightning/RDS-1 (Joe 1 in the West) at Semipalatinsk, Kazakh SSR (present-day Kazakhstan) on August 29, 1949.
  • First nuclear test (H-bomb):
    • RDS-6s (Joe 4 in the West) at Semipalatinsk, Kazakh SSR on August 12, 1953
    • RDS-37 at Semipalatinsk, Kazakh SSR, November 22, 1955 – first “true” Soviet H-bomb
  • First nuclear test (Neutron bomb): 1978 nuclear test series, Kazakhstan on November 17, 1978 (allegedly)
  • Last nuclear test: 715-8 at NZ Area B, Matochkin Shar, Novaya Zemlya, Russia on October 24, 1990
  • Total nuclear tests by number: 727 tests of 981 devices
  • Total nuclear tests by yield (kilotons): 296,837

United Kingdom – Partnered with the United States and Canada during the Manhattan Project, the UK went on to develop its own nuclear program.

  • First nuclear test: Operation Hurricane, at Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia, on October 3, 1952
  • First nuclear test (H-bomb): Short Granite (part of Grapple 1 series), at Malden Island, Republic of Kiribati
  • Last nuclear test: Julin/Bristol at Nevada Test Site, Nevada, USA on November 26, 1991
  • Total nuclear tests by number: 88 tests of 88 devices
  • Total nuclear tests by yield (kilotons): 9,282

France – One of the countries that pioneered nuclear research, thanks to scientists like Marie Sklodowska Curie and Henri Becquerel. Bertrand Goldschmidt, Madame Curie’s last assistant and later father of the French nuclear weapons program, assisted in the Manhattan Project, developing what is now the standard method for extracting plutonium.  France developed its nuclear weapons program almost entirely from scratch, accelerating the program after the Suez Crisis in 1956.

  • First nuclear test: Operation Gerboise Bleue (Blue Jeroboa), at Reggane, Algeria, on February 13, 1960. It was the most powerful and largest first test bomb at that point, at 70 kilotons – more powerful than the US, UK and Soviet Union’s first tests combined.
  • First nuclear test (H-bomb): Canopus, as part of Operation Aldebaran, at Fangatafua Atoll in French Polynesia on August 28, 1968.
  • First nuclear test (Neutron bomb): Performed an early test of neutron bomb technology in 1967 and tested an actual neutron bomb in 1980.
  • Last nuclear test: Operation Xouthos, at Fangataufa Atoll in French Polynesia on January 27, 1996
  • Total nuclear tests by number: 217 tests of 217 devices
  • Total nuclear tests by yield (kilotons): 9,282

China – The Chinese began their nuclear weapons program after the First Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954-1955. The Soviet Union provided assistance by sending advisors to assist in fissile material production and in 1957, provided prototypes of a bomb, missiles and related technology. Test 27 on October 16, 1980 at Area D (Drop Area), Lop Nur, China was the last atmospheric test in the world.

  • First nuclear test: Project 596, Area D, Lop Nur, China on October 16, 1964
  • First nuclear test (H-bomb):
    • CHIC-6, Area D, Lop Nur, China on June 17, 1967
  • First nuclear test (Neutron bomb): 31, at Area C (Beishan), Lop Nur, China on October 3, 1984 – fifth neutron bomb test, first successful test of the principles of the design. The bomb was successfully tested in 1988.
  • Last nuclear test: #45, at Area A (Nanshan), Lop Nur, China on July 29, 1996
  • Total nuclear tests by number: 47 tests, 48 devices fired
  • Total nuclear tests by yield (kilotons): 24,409 – 4.5% of all nuclear testing.

India – India began its nuclear program in March of 1944, when the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was founded. They began investigating nuclear weapons after a brief border war with China in October 1962, in hopes of deterring future Chinese aggression. India rejected the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, stating that they would not accede to international control of their nuclear facilities unless all other countries unilaterally disarmed their own nuclear weapons.

  • First nuclear test: Smiling Buddha, at Pokhran, India on May 18, 1974
  • First nuclear test (H-bomb): Shakti 1 (first stage), at Pokhran, India on May 11, 1998
  • First nuclear test (neutron bomb): As of August 1999, India disclosed that it was capable of producing a neutron bomb.
  • Last nuclear test:
  • Total nuclear tests by number: Three tests, of six devices
  • Total nuclear tests by yield (kilotons): 68-70

Pakistan – Developed their own nuclear weapons program due to the fact India had nukes. The rivalry between these two nations has led to fears of a regional nuclear war – which would still potentially be disastrous to the rest of the planet, since the environmental effects of nuclear war don’t give a wet slap about political boundaries.

  • First nuclear test: Chagai-1 at Ras Koh, Pakistan on May 28, 1998
  • Last nuclear test: Chagai-2, at Kharan Desert, Pakistan, on May 30, 1998
  • Total nuclear tests by number: Two tests of six devices
  • Total nuclear tests by yield (kilotons): 51

Alleged Members:

IsraelIt’s believed that Israel has had nuclear weapons since at least 1967 but officially, Israel will not confirm or deny the existence of their nuclear stockpile. If they have nuclear weapons, they are the only nation in their region that does. Estimates of their stockpile, should it exist, range between 75 to 400 weapons.  Israel assisted France and (allegedly) South Africa with their nuclear programs.

Former Members:

South Africa The only nation to develop nuclear weapons and then abandon them, South Africa assisted with US nuclear weapons production by providing uranium. They developed their first weapons in the early 1980s but ultimately, ended their program in 1989, dismantling their stockpile of seven weapons.

Post-Cold War Members:

North KoreaThe North Korean weapons program began in 1956 when the Soviet Union first began training North Korean scientists and engineers. Their first nuclear weapons test occurred on October 9, 2006 at Hwaderi near Kilju City.


Nuke Opera 2020: Pandemic Interlude

I started something short to post today but it’s not done and I’m too tired to try and finish it, so instead I’m going to ramble a bit about recent events. I’m counting this as part of the Nuke Opera series because, well, because I can since I’m the one who gets to define what is and isn’t on topic.  And a global pandemic is within the scope of what I’m wanting to look at when we start getting into the fiction pieces I want to cover.

Some personal stuff, for posterity’s sake: I first heard about the coronavirus around the same time everyone else in the US did, back in December (I want to say? Not looking it up right now because I want to preserve my memories, faulty as they might be).  Back then, I didn’t think much about it since it wasn’t happening here. I remember being sympathetic to the folks who were sick but, again, wasn’t happening here, wasn’t directly affecting me, so wasn’t really on my radar. No, I’m not particularly proud of that.

Gradually (or so it seemed to me), the virus became more and more of a big deal, more people in China were getting sick, there were concerns about it spreading, and so on and so forth. I started paying a bit more attention to the situation, but it was more out of curiosity than anything else. Again, the virus was still “over there” and I had other things to worry about — again, I was sympathetic to the folks in Wuhan but in the abstract.

Then the virus spread, first to cruise ships and then reports of it in countries outside of China. Still more of an abstract concern, but realer now since some of the worry was hitting closer to home. Fast-forward to this week, with cases being reported in every state (except, last I heard, West Virginia, though that could have changed by now). In Ohio, the number of cases has gone from five to 13 to 26 to 37 in just under six days. Now, instead of being a world away, the virus has appeared a little over fifty miles from where I live.

Okay, that sounds really dramatic for all that its accurate. Yes, there are cases in the Greater Cincinnati area which is less than an hour from where I live. But, honestly? There are probably cases a lot closer to me than that. The Ohio Director of Health is guesstimating that there are at least 100,000 people infected in the state, so the 37 cases we know about are just the very tip of the Sword of Damocles that’s hanging over us right now.

I went out and got groceries today since the governor of Ohio has ordered all dine-in restaurants and bars to close, starting at 9 pm tonight. It wasn’t bad. There was no panicking, no hysteria, no fights or arguments. Yes, the shelves were bare in spots (forget about getting toilet paper, eggs or bottled water), but I managed to get enough food for my girlfriend and I to be able to eat for the next week or so. And since drive-thrus and carryout places are still open, maybe even a bit longer than that.

I am worried about what’s going to happen when the first case hits *really* close to home.  My personal worst-case scenario is someone getting sick at my job, but we’re on top of things in terms of making hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available (it’s something we’ve been doing since long before COVID-19 was even a concern). But, for right now, there’s nothing to do but wait and see what happens. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, just as people have done in every disaster situation since the dawn of mankind.

This has been a bit of a ramble and I’ll likely circle back around to talk about this in relation to nuclear war and Nuke Operas but for now, I need to sleep ’cause work comes early tomorrow. I hope you are all safe and sound and well.

And remember: wash your hands! And if you can’t wash, use hand sanitizer. If you need something to sing for 20 seconds, how about “Duck and Cover”? Here’s a couple handy posters, made using “Wash Your Lyrics.”

Nuke Opera 2020: Pictures of History, Part Two

Since I’m a bit behind in my writing, I figured I’d share a few more pictures that are relevant to the theme:

It probably goes without saying that the National Museum of the United States Air Force has an exhibit on the Berlin Airlift.  This diagram shows how the planes managed their deliveries.

Berlin Airlift flight patterns

From the National Museum of the United States Air Force’s exhibit on the Berlin Airlift: an illustration of how they kept the planes flying.

Berlin Airlift Cartoonist

Technical Sergeant John H. “Jake” Schuffert was an aircraft radio operator during the Berlin Airlift as well as a cartoonist for the Airlift Times, a newspaper published for Airlift Personnel.

Above: examples of “Jake’s” comics for the Airlift Times; in the last comic, Celle and Fassberg were air bases used during the Airlift.

If you’d like to learn more,  you can visit the National Museum of the United States Air Force Exhibit: Berlin: City Held Hostage (online exhibit)

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I took a trip today to the Mounds Cold War Discovery Center, in Miamisburg, Ohio.


And here’s its namesake: the Miamisburg Mound, the largest conical burial mound in Ohio. It was built by members of the Adena Culture, roughly between 1000 and 200 BCE

Miamisburg Mound 2

Picture of the back of the Miamisburg Mound, showing the steps you can use to climb to the top; the Mounds Cold War Discovery Center is behind the Mound and across the street from it. 

Inside the discovery center, you can learn about the work that went on at Mound Laboratory from 1948-2003. Mound Laboratory was the first post-Manhattan Project site built by the Atomic Energy Commission. The site was intended to continue the Manhattan Project era work done in the Dayton area, including the polonium research done at the Runnymede Playhouse (which, unfortunately, was torn down decades ago and has since been converted into lots for private houses).  The work done at Mound Laboratory aided the US nuclear weapons program and the space race as well as research efforts into nuclear energy.

Radithor Radioactive Water

Radithor water bottle from the 1920s.  It was snake-oil medical quackery. 

Another exhibit discussed the uses of radioactive materials in other products, such as the patent medicine above.


Nuke Opera 2020: A Hard Rain’s Comin’: The Basics on Fallout

A Hard Rain’s Comin’: The Basics on Fallout

In a nuclear explosion, most of the damage and injuries are caused by the detonation’s blast wave and the resulting fires. Some radiation injuries are caused by the initial release of neutrons and gamma rays, but the intensity of these effects diminish rapidly due to the radiation spreading out over a larger area as it moves away from ground zero. [(1)]

The blast and thermal effects will, except for any fires sparked by the explosion, dissipate within seconds. The ionizing radiation effects will last longer but will be limited to the immediate area around ground zero. The effect with most potential for long-lasting effects is the residual radiation that is propelled into the atmosphere by the blast, bonds to particles of dust, ash and soot and that ‘falls out’ minutes to decades later, oftentimes far from the target site.

These particles became known as “fallout” – because they “fell out” of the sky after the explosion. While “fall out” in the sense of a quarrel or of gathering in a military formation dated back to the 15th century, the use of the term for radioactive particulates became common in 1946.

There are two varieties of fallout: global and local.

Global Fallout: a small amount of carcinogenic material with a long-half life that occurs with any nuclear explosion. This version of fallout is produced from the fission products, un-fissioned nuclear material and weapon residues that are vaporized by the weapon’s fireball. The amount of this long half-life fallout is limited to the pre-detonation mass of the device. If a weapon’s fireball doesn’t reach the ground, this is the only fallout produced.

Particles of global fallout are between 10 nanometers and 20 micrometers in diameter; these particles are small enough to rise into the stratosphere where they can take months or years to settle. Because of this, they can settle anywhere in the world. Global fallout increases the statistical cancer risk. Atmospheric radioactivity levels remain measurably elevated from the atmospheric nuclear tests of the 1950s.

Global fallout can be subdivided by how long it takes for the particles to settle out of the atmosphere. Tropospheric fallout will land between 1 and 30 days after detonation, while stratospheric fallout will take longer than 30 days to reach the ground. (Source: Radioactive Fallout /)

The second variety, local fallout, is the much larger amount of radioactive dust and sand drawn up into the detonation’s mushroom cloud as it forms after the explosion. In the cloud, this material becomes radioactive by combining with the isotopes generated by the explosion. These particles can range in size from under 100 nanometers to several millimeters in diameter. The larger the particle, the more likely it is to land closer to ground zero, usually within an hour after the detonation. Local fallout makes up more than half of the total bomb debris that lands on the ground within 24 hours after detonation. Less volatile elements land first. This form of fallout tends to have a shorter half-life than global fallout.

Local fallout can spread further than blast and thermal effects, especially if the detonation was a high-yield surface burst. How fast and how far local fallout travels depends on the weather in the area at the time of detonation. Strong winds can carry fallout farther, spreading it out over a larger area – though this will dissipate the fallout, since the particles will fall out of the sky at the same rate.

Underneath That Mushroom Cloud:

While they’re mostly associated with nuclear explosions, mushroom clouds can appear with any sufficiently large explosion.  The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE generated clouds that contemporary observers described as resembling the local Mediterranean pine trees – which look rather like a mushroom. (source: l; ) The 1917 Halifax Explosion, the accidental detonation of a French cargo ship carrying high explosives in Halifax Harbor, also generated a mushroom cloud.

We’ve previously discussed the differences between surface bursts and air blasts, in actuality, all nuclear weapons are detonated above the ground in order to maximize the explosion’s effects in terms of fireball and blast wave as well as to avoid losing some of the explosion’s energy into the earth. (This means that ‘surface burst’ is something of a misnomer; it’d be more accurate to call it a ‘near the surface burst.’)

When a nuclear device explodes, the fireball forms and begins to rise into the air, much in the same way that a hot-air balloon rises. This occurs within the first twenty seconds after the weapon detonates. As the fireball rises, air is drawn upwards like the updraft in a chimney. This creates strong air currents, also called afterwinds. Inside the mushroom’s head, these hot gasses begin to rotate in a toroidal shape (like a donut). In the case of surface bursts, where the bomb is detonated closer to the ground, the afterwinds pull up dirt and debris into what will become the cloud’s stem.

As they rise, these particles mix with the fission products created by the explosion and become radioactive. Within the first ten minutes after the explosion, large pieces of early fallout begin to fall, landing close to ground zero.

Once the cloud reaches its maximum height, it begins to flatten out into the mushroom shape. During this time, from ten minutes after detonation and continuing for up to two days later, particles of local fallout are blown about and distributed by winds

Between ten minutes post-detonation and up to two days later, particles of local fallout are distributed at the speed of the prevailing winds. These particles will eventually fall from the sky of their own accord or will be washed out of the sky by rain or snow. [(2)]

Particles of global fallout, meanwhile, remain in the sky and may not fall for weeks or months or even decades later.

Why Do Nuclear Bombs Make Mushroom Clouds or you can read the article What Creates the Mushroom Cloud When an Atomic Bomb Blows Up?

Blow, Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks!:

Local fallout is carried on the prevailing winds – but what the heck are the prevailing winds? According to Wikipedia, they are “a surface wind that blows predominately from a particular direction.” These winds circle the earth in belts that run east to west.

Broadly speaking, the prevailing winds of the planet run like this from the North Pole to the Equator: [(3)]

  • Polar Easterlies: from the North Pole (90 degrees North) to 60 degrees North.
  • Prevailing Westerlies (also known as just the Westerlies): from 60 degrees North to 30 degrees North
  • Tropical Easterlies (aka the Trade Winds): from 30 degrees North to the Equator (0 degrees latitude).

Because winds can and do vary from day to day or even from hour to hour, it was very important to know which way the prevailing winds were blowing, especially from potential target sites.  Starting in June 1955 and running until the program was shut down in 2010, the US Weather Bureau (which later became the National Weather Service) began calculating “fallout forecasts.” These twice-daily reports calculated how winds and atmospheric conditions might direct fallout from seventy-two critical target sites across the country. These reports were generated at 0735 and 1935 Greenwich Mean Time and traced and predicted how fallout might spread twelve, eighteen, and twenty-four hours after an attack. (Source: Raven Rock)

Dangers of Fallout Exposure:

It’s difficult to predict the threat fallout poses because several factors play into the amount and radioactive levels produced. These include:

  • The yield and design of the weapon
  • The height of the explosion
  • The nature of the surface under the burst
  • The weather and other meteorological conditions including wind direction and speed Radioactive Fallout (

As early as 1940, Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch, the scientists responsible for determining the process for generating an atomic explosion, wrote of the potential risk of the explosion spreading “radioactive substances with the wind” which meant “the bomb could probably not be used without killing large numbers of civilians.” (source: A Field Guide to Radiation, p. 90)

Most of the danger from fallout comes from radioactive isotopes which have half-lives of seconds to a few months. While these particles decay rapidly, there will be areas contaminated by long-lived isotopes like strontium-90 or cesium-127 which could present a threat for as long as 1-5 years post-attack.

Fallout can cause injuries directly and indirectly. Direct injuries occur when fallout lands on someone and causes radiation burns, usually through the release of beta radiation. Indirect injuries occur when fallout is inhaled or ingested. In the long term, fallout can contaminate food and water supplies that humans consume. For example, if fallout gets into the soil, it can contaminate grass, which if it is eaten by livestock such as cattle, can contaminate the animal’s meat and milk. Fallout can also contaminate crops such as berries and mushrooms.

Fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 caused contamination of livestock and crops across Europe, leading to restrictions against the transportation, production and consumption of certain products. In the case of sheep in certain parts of the UK, the mandatory radioactivity testing for animals that grazed on open land weren’t dropped until 2012. In parts of Sweden and Finland, restrictions are still in place on stock animals that graze in natural and near-natural conditions.

In the United States, fallout from the Nevada Test site contaminated land from Nevada to New York state. In Idaho, fallout including iodine-131, dusted fruit trees and dairy farms in several rural counties. At the time, locals thought the strange substance was frost, except that it wasn’t cold. It wasn’t until decades later, in 1997, that studies showed the extent of the contamination. And even then, some of the hardest hit counties in Idaho didn’t learn of their exposure until 2004.

Protection Against Fallout:

The best way to protect yourself from fallout is not to get caught out in it. This is easiest to do if you have advanced warning of a nuclear attack and/or time to prepare a safe place to wait out the worst of the fallout.

For most of the Cold War, the assumption was that any nuclear war wouldn’t happen out of the blue – there would be advanced warning in the form of increased tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, allowing people time to prepare for the worst.  We’ll talk more about civil defense planning in another article, but for now suffice it to say that fallout shelters are predicated around the idea of getting inside and staying inside until the threat of fallout has diminished enough that you’re not risking death or serious injury by going outside.

With a fallout shelter, you’re most concerned with protecting against gamma radiation, since it’s the form of radiation that is most capable of penetrating materials. You’re not going to be able to keep gamma radiation out entirely but you can slow it down to a safer level. You do this by using dense materials like lead or concrete. The denser the material, the less you need of it, but even air can be used as a shielding material – but you’re going to need a heck of a lot of it.

Whatever you’re using, you’re going to want enough of it to reduce the amount of gamma radiation roughly 1,000 times. You’ll do this by layering at least ten halving thicknesses of your chosen material to create your shield. A halving thickness is the amount of a given material that will reduce gamma radiation by half. When you stack these halving thicknesses, each added layer further reduces the remaining radiation by half, so ten layers reduces the initial radiation by 1,024 times (2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 1,024).

Or, to put it another way, ten halving thicknesses (also known as the tenthing thickness) reduces the amount of gamma radiation that enters your shelter from 100% to 0.09%

The halving thickness of lead, a nice dense material, is 0.4 inches so you’d need about 4 inches of lead for your shelter’s walls, roof, and floor – not exactly something you can call over to the local Home Depot for, not to mention the fact that one cubic foot of lead weighs over 700 pounds so a a square foot slice, 4 inches thick would weigh about what your humble blogger does.

Most early Cold War plans for personal fallout shelters called for using concrete (halving thickness 2.4 inches; tenthing thickness 24 inches) or burrowing underground. Or for using a combination of the two by building a bunker out of concrete blocks, then piling dirt over the top of it. Or, better yet, digging a nice deep hole, building your bunker in it and covering the top with a nice, thick layer of dirt, since packed earth has a halving distance of 3.5 inches, you’ll achieve a tenthing thickness with just under a yard’s (as in the unit of measurement) worth. [(4)]Then, when the alarm sounds, you get inside your shelter and settle in to wait for the radiation levels to drop.

But, how long do you wait?

And You Thought the Wait at the DMV Was Long…

Expect to be in your fallout shelter for at least two weeks, since that’s about how long it will take for the radiation levels outside to decrease a thousand-fold. The rule of thumb to go by is the Seven Ten Rule, which states that for every seven-fold increase in the amount of time (specifically hours) since a nuclear detonation, the radiation level from fallout will decrease ten-fold. Let’s walk through the math:

Assume that at time of detonation, the radiation levels outside are at 1,000 rems/hour – basically a fatal dose. Seven hours later, that dose will have decreased to 100 rems/hour – still not great for your personal health. Two days later (7 x 7 = 49 hours), the dose will be down to 10 rems/hour – if you have to risk it, don’t be out for long. After two weeks, (49 hours x 7 = 343 hours; roughly 14 days and seven hours), the dose will be down to 1 rem/hour, which is safe enough to be outside for an extended period of time.

Of course, the Seven-Ten Rule is a rule of thumb and is based on estimates; in reality, radiation levels can vary, depending on where you are, the yields and amounts of weapons that hit upwind of you (most strategies, particularly in the era of missiles, called for using multiple bombs/warheads per target), and dozens of other variables.

The best way to protect yourself against fallout is for there to never be a nuclear war or another major nuclear disaster (disasters and bombs produce essentially the same types of isotopes as fallout, but nukes create a different mix of isotopes due to a faster time scale).

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[1] This decrease follows the inverse-square law which states that “the intensity of an effect such as illumination or gravitational force [or in this case, radiation] changes in inverse proportion to the square of the distance from the source.” (source: Inverse-Square Law @

Specifically, the effect diminishes the further one gets from the source, such that the amount of radiation at one meter from the source will be one-quarter the amount two meters away and one-ninth at three meters. (source: Inverse-Square Law (scroll down to see Radiation)

[2]Within 30-40 minutes after the atomic bombs were detonated at Hiroshima a “black rain” began to fall. This “rain” was water mixed with dust, ash and soot from the fires raging in the city. In addition to darkening the rain, this particulate matter was also radioactive. The black rain that fell was sticky, dark and dangerously radioactive.  It stained the clothing and skin of survivors and, in some cases, was consumed by people desperate for water to drink. Those who drank this water as well as those who ate food contaminated by the rain.

Black rain also fell after the Nagasaki bombings. In both cases, the rainfall occurred because the heat of the blasts created pyrocumulus or fire clouds, which in turn led to rain. Similar fire-induced weather systems occurred during the 2019-2020 wildfires in Australia and can also occur during volcanic eruptions.

The sea floor can also become fallout – during the Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll, coral was turned into a radioactive white dust that was nicknamed “Bikini snow” by the scientists witnessing the test. It fell for several hours and caused radiation burns and exposure to people living on nearby atolls and to the crew of the Lucky Dragon fishing boat.

[3]Once you reach the Equator, the order reverses with the Southern Trade Winds running from the Equator to 30 degrees South latitude, the Southern Westerlies from 30 to 60 degrees South latitude, and the Southern Polar Easterlies from 60 degrees South latitude to the South Pole (90 degrees South). (Source: Global Winds)

[4]The halving thickness for air is 150 meters or about 500 feet. The tenthing thickness of air would be 5,000 feet. Or just under a mile.  Or, figuring you’d want walls in your hypothetical fallout shelter and that you’d want to be in the middle of the building to maximize the protection of the air, you’d want a building that’s at least 55,756,800 square feet (figures a building that covers an area of 2 square miles). (source: Fallout Shelter @ Wikipedia)

Just as an example, the Beijing Daxinng International Airport terminal building is 7,500,000 square feet. To reach the square footage we’re talking about above, you’d need a building large enough to house the first ten buildings on the “Largest Footprint” list.

Books Consulted:

Nuke Opera 2020: Opening the Pot: Cold War History 1945-1949:

Nuke Opera 2020: Opening the Pot: Cold War History 1945-1949:

Welcome to the Atomic Age. From this point forward, we live in a world where nuclear weapons exist. There will be no going back.

The World After Trinity:

Once the atomic bomb had been successfully tested, it was time to move on to the next step: deploying the weapon.

By this point in the war, Germany had already surrendered, bringing an end to the war in Europe. The war in the Pacific, on the other hand, was still in full swing and didn’t seem likely to end. While the atomic bomb had originally been designed with the intention of using it against Nazi Germany – either as a deterrent or to retaliate if Germany dropped atomic bombs on Allied targets.

We’ll never know if the Allies would have used the atomic bomb against the Nazis because of two things: firstly, the Allies learned by mid-1944 that the German atomic bomb program was a bust, removing the fear of a Nazi atomic first strike. Secondly, by this same time it was becoming clear that Germany was fighting a losing battle and that victory in Europe was imminent.

Even before Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, the Manhattan Project’s targeting committee was focusing entirely on Japanese targets.  During this time, Truman was told that atomic weapons might also be a good way to intimidate the Soviets into curtailing their more expansionist tendencies.

The list of potential Japanese targets was finalized on May 28, 1945 and included the cities of Kokura, Hiroshima, Niigata and Kyoto – though Kyoto was dropped from the list and replaced with Nagasaki because Truman was reluctant to attack Japan’s former capital city. Tokyo wasn’t on the list because, by this point, it had already been hit hard by conventional bombing raids, particularly during Operation Meetinghouse on March 9/10, 1945.

There was some debate among the Manhattan Project scientists as to whether the first atomic bomb should be dropped on one of the targeted cities or whether it should be dropped on an uninhabited island as a demonstration. Even the Undersecretary of the Navy, Ralph A. Bard said that dropping the bomb on a populated area without warning was contrary to “the position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation” particularly since Japan seemed close to surrender.

Some Manhattan Project researchers, many refugee scientists from Germany, were reluctant to see the bomb used against Japan. Leo Szilard, the man responsible for the concept of both the chain reaction and the atomic bomb as well as the author of the Einstein-Szilard letter that persuaded FDR to begin the Manhattan Project, was an early critic of the military use of atomic weapons. In July 1945, he drafted a petition to be sent to President Truman, calling for him to not use atomic weapons against the Japanese. He circulated his petition among his fellow Manhattan Project scientists at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgic Laboratory. On July 17, 1945, the petition, with 70 signatures, was submitted to the President but was never seen by either Truman or the Secretary of War prior to the bombing of Hiroshima.

Szilard’s petition wasn’t the only one. Two petitions, inspired by Szilard’s, circulated at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and garnered a total of 85 signatures between them. Szilard was also a signatory of the Franck Report, which had been issued in June 1945 and requested that the bomb be demonstrated prior to being deployed against Japan. The report suggested, in part:

From this point of view a demonstration of the new weapon may best be made before the eyes of representatives of all United Nations, on the desert or a barren island. The best possible atmosphere for the achievement of an international agreement could be achieved if America would be able to say to the world, “You see what weapon we had but did not use. We are ready to renounce its use in the future and to join other nations in working out adequate supervision of the use of this nuclear weapon.”

This may sound fantastic, but then in nuclear weapons we have something entirely new in the order of magnitude of destructive power, and if we want to capitalize fully on the advantage which its possession gives us, we must use new and imaginative methods. After such a demonstration the weapon could be used against Japan if a sanction of the United Nations (and of the public opinion at home) could be obtained, perhaps after a preliminary ultimatum to Japan to surrender or at least to evacuate a certain region as an alternative to the total destruction of this target. (The Franck Report, June 11, 1945)

Not all Manhattan Project scientists were opposed to military first use of atomic weapons. In response to the Franck Report, the Interim Committee which had been formed to serve until a more permanent committee could be established to deal with the issues nuclear weapons were creating, met to discuss the issue. The Committee, made up of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton and Ernest Lawrence, found in favor of military first-use without demonstrations. Their report stated:

The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender. Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon. We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use. (Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons, June 16, 1945)

Ultimately, the decision was made to use atomic weapons against Japanese cities. Hiroshima was chosen as the first target because, in part, it hadn’t already been targeted for the US conventional bombing raids which had already destroyed over sixty Japanese cities, including the capital of Tokyo. Hiroshima was also home to an “important army depot and port of embarkation” and the surrounding hills meant that the blast damage would likely be focused and increased.  There was also the psychological impact of the new weapon to be considered.

Conventional Bombing vs. Atomic Bombings:

The most destructive single bombing raid of World War II wasn’t either of the atomic bombings of Japan. Instead, that dubious honor falls to Operation Meetinghouse, a US conventional bombing raid that occurred on the night of March 10, 1945. During this raid, 279 Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers dropped 1,665 short tons[(1)] of bombs over Tokyo while another 19 that weren’t able to reach Tokyo bombed targets of opportunity or of last resort.

During the raid, over 100,000 Japanese civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed in the resulting fires. One million people were left homeless and over 16 square miles of Tokyo burned.  The raid lasted over two and a half hours; within the first half hour Tokyo fire departments were overwhelmed by the flames.

By comparison, Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima from a single plane at 8:14:17 local Hiroshima time. It fell for 44.4 seconds before detonating at 8:16:02 local time.

At one-tenth of a second, Little Boy’s fireball had expanded to 100 feet in diameter and had reached a temperature of 500,000 degrees Fahrenheit[(2)]Neutrons and gamma rays were released and reached the ground, causing most of the radiological damage to all exposed people, animals and other organisms.

After two- and three-tenths of a second, there was a release of infrared (heat) energy that caused burns to exposed skin for miles in every direction. Additionally, the intense heat caused roofing tiles to fuse together, melted a bronze Buddha statue and evaporated the internal organs and viscera of humans and animals. By this point, the blast wave was moving at 7,200 miles per hour (2 miles/second).

At one second, the fireball was 900 feet in diameter and the blast wave had slowed to roughly the speed of sound (about 768 miles per hour). The temperature at ground level at the hypocenter of the blast is 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  It’s at this point that the mushroom cloud begins to form.

Within this first second, 60,000 of the city’s 90,000 buildings were demolished by the combined effects of wind and the firestorm.

It’s estimated that the initial blast killed between 70,000 and 80,000 people in Hiroshima. Another 90,000-166,000 people are believed to have died in the four-month period following the bombing.

The bombing of Nagasaki resulted in the destruction of roughly half the city and the immediate deaths of between 40,000 and 75,000 people. Total deaths by the end of 1945 might have been as high as 80,000.

On August 9, 1945, President Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima to the nation as part of a larger speech delivered via a radio address. By the time of the address, 10 pm Washington D.C. time, Nagasaki had already been bombed and destroyed as well. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s intention of surrender on August 15, 1945 referring to the atomic bomb in his remarks:

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. (source: Surrender of Japan (Wikipedia))

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have contributed to the end the war in the Pacific, but they were not the sole reason Japan surrendered. In fact, in 1946 the United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded the Japanese would have surrendered without the use of the atomic bomb or without the Soviet Union entering the war or its invasion of Manchuria.  A full exploration of this debate is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ve included some links of interest for those interested in researching more on their own:

Reactions to the Bombings:

According to a Gallup poll conducted the week of August 24-29, 1945, 69% of Americans felt the development of the atomic bomb had been a good thing; only 17% felt it was a bad thing and 14% were of no opinion. Regarding the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, 85% of Americans polled approved versus 10% who disapproved.

The callousness of this attitude needs to be seen in the light of two points. Firstly, a devastating, meat-grinder of a war was finally over. Secondly, no civilians knew anything about the aftermath of the bombings until August 1946, when The New Yorker dedicated an entire magazine to John Hersey’s report on Hiroshima, which personalized the events by focusing on the personal accounts of six survivors[(3)].

On the other hand, many Americans wanted revenge for Pearl Harbor – as borne out by the results of a Roper poll conducted two months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which 22.7% of respondents said that the US should have quickly used as many more of the bombs before Japan had a chance to surrender, essentially killing as many Japanese as possible. (source: Intondi, p 11)

This thirst for revenge was driven at least partly by racial prejudice – throughout the war, the Japanese were referred to as gorillas, subhumans, beasts and otherwise conflated into a monolithic group mindlessly following the orders of their leaders. This is in sharp contrast to how we referred to the Axis powers in Europe, where distinctions were made between the Nazis and Italian Fascist leadership and the German and Italian people.

The case could be made that some of this rage against Japan stemmed from the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to seeming underhanded, it also demonstrated very clearly that America’s geographical distance from the rest of the world was no protection from what was going on in the rest of the world.  Additionally, Americans were quick to demonize Germans (and German-Americans) after the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915.

That said, “We were bigoted and abusive to those guys too!” is a terrible justification.  The fact that there’s an entire Wikipedia article about American mutilation of Japanese war dead and a fairly famous picture of a young lady posing with the trophy skull of a Japanese soldier that her sweetheart sent to her says a lot more to me about why nearly 25% of Americans in that Roper poll thought we should have nuked Japan until we ran out of bombs. Especially since there are no reports of German or Italian skulls having been taken as trophies in Europe[(4)].

The Japanese military and government did do some absolutely horrible things during (and before) World War II both to their enemies and to their own people. There’s an entire Wikipedia article about war crimes the Japanese committed before and during World War II (please, read at your own risk – and keep in mind that there’s a list of American war crimes during World War II as well).  And to this day, there are deplorable attempts by some in Japan, mostly right-wing nationalists, to revise this history, to sanitize it and sweep atrocities and abuses under the rug of history. These attempts don’t negate the fact that revenge played some part in the United States’ decision to drop atomic bombs on civilians.

Not every American was pleased by the bombings. We’ve seen already that many Manhattan Project scientists were opposed to the use of atomic weapons and after the war ended, a group of them formed the Federation of Atomic Scientists in November 1945 (renamed Federation of American Scientists in December of that year). The group distributed educational materials, including the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which became the definitive source for anti-nuclear information.  As the world learned first about the existence of the atomic bomb, but also about the effects it had had and the dangers it posed, other voices joined the scientists in protest. Not many, not at first, but the anti-nuclear movement would grow over time.

Some other early condemnations came from members of traditional peace groups, like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and religious organizations like the American chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group formed in 1915 in opposition to the US entry into World War I. In December 1945, the FAS created the National Committee on Atomic Information (NCAI) as an umbrella group, intended to bring together labor, religious, educational and professional organizations to help educate the general public about atomic weapons and, later, science in general[(5)].

Surprisingly, some of the opposition to nuclear weapons came from within the United States military. In 1946, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who had commanded the US Third Fleet during the American offensive against the Japanese home islands in the last months of the war, stated publicly that “the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment” because the Japanese had “put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before [the bomb was used].” Dwight D. Eisenhower, an American 5-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe before he became the second US President of the Cold War era, told Secretary of War Henry Stimson in July 1945 that he was opposed to using the atomic bomb against Japan. As he recalled in 1963, “I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”

Admiral William Leahy, who’d been the White House chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II, wrote in his diary in 1950 that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Additionally, he wrote, “in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

But, whatever regrets or remorse might have been felt after the bombings, the fact of the matter was that atomic weapons existed and had to be dealt with – not just by the United States but by the world as a whole.

Old Man Atom: when Einstein’s scared, I’m scared: 

It didn’t take long for people to start being worried about what the atom bomb meant for the world in general and the United States in particular. The world was still reeling from the impact of World War II which had devastated huge swaths of Europe and Asia. While American had escaped relatively unscathed – a position that gave us an economic advantage in the post-War years and led to the boom times of the 1950s and 60s – our allies and our enemies weren’t so lucky.

In Europe alone, there were at least 11 million people who’d been displaced from their homes by the war, with about seven million of them in what was now Allied-occupied Germany. The European economy lost 70% of its industrial infrastructure, leading to its collapse at the end of the war. Millions died during the war on both sides, both civilians and military personnel.

The Fallen of World War II, an animated video by Neil Halloran, illustrates the toll World War II had in human lives and compares the death tolls to past and previous wars. The video is animated and not graphic but might still be disturbing to some. You can find it on vimeo by following the link above.

In the aftermath of World War II, there was tension and chaos as countries struggled to deal with the decline of European colonial empires in Latin America, Africa and Asia with India becoming one of the first nations to throw off colonial rule in the post-World War II era. It wouldn’t be the last – something that would contribute to later Cold War tensions as the US and USSR became involved in proxy wars.

One of the outcomes of World War II was the formation of the United Nations. The hope was that the UN could serve as a more effective version of the League of Nations and help prevent future wars. Some called for the United Nations to be given complete control over all the world’s nuclear weapons – which, at this point, meant the United States’ nuclear weapons, of which there were about 9 in 1946, the year the UN General Assembly met for the first time[(6)].

During the early post-War years, there was a call for the formation of a world government, based on the belief that there was no place for nationalism in the atomic age. This idea was supported by Manhattan Project scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Jasper Jeffries, as well as Albert Einstein, who argued: “A World Government is preferable to the far greater evil of wars, particularly with their intensified destructiveness.”  (source: Raven Rock, p. 12). Carl Spaatz, head of the forerunner to the Air Force, the US Army Air Forces, also favored a world government, as did President Truman, who said during remarks at the University of Kansas City on June 28, 1945:

We live… in an age of law and an age of reason, and age in which we can get along with our neighbors. …It will be just as easy for nations to get along in a republic of the world as it is for you to get along in the republic of the United States. Now, if Kansas and Colorado have a quarrel over a watershed they don’t call out the National Guard in each state and go to war over it. They bring suit in the Supreme Court and abide by its decision. There isn’t a reason in the world why we can’t do that internationally. There were two documents signed at San Francisco. One of them was the charter of the United Nations. The other was the World Court. It will require the ratification of both of those Charters, and the putting of them into effect, if we expect to have world peace for future generations. This is one of the tasks which have been assigned to me. I am accepting the responsibility. I am going to try to carry it out. (source: “World Government” at Wikiquote)

While the idea of a single world government had supporters, it was ultimately seen as impractical to implement. The first resolution passed by the United Nations on January 24, 1946 established “[A] Commission to Deal With the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy” which had as its goals extending basic atomic science information among nations, controlling atomic energy’s use for peaceful purposes and eliminating atomic weapons from national stockpiles (which, again, at this point meant only the United States) and establishing safeguards such as inspections and other means to enforce the prohibition against nuclear weapons or the militarization of atomic power. (source:

The resolution didn’t succeed, in part because while the United States claimed to be willing to give up nuclear weapons, we wanted everyone else to give them up first while we’d stop producing weapons and disassemble the ones we had…later.

On June 14, 1946, Bernard Baruch, an American financier and political consultant, who’d been appointed to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) by President Truman, presented his plan for the control and regulation of atomic energy and weapons.  The Baruch Plan was a modified version of the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, which had called for placing the world’s uranium and thorium mines under international control in order to prevent anyone wanting to develop a nuclear bomb from getting the necessary fissile material to fuel it. The Acheson-Lilienthal plan also called for the US to abandon its monopoly on atomic weapons and reveal what it knew to the Soviet Union on the condition that both sides would agree not to create additional atomic bombs.

Baruch’s plan proposed extending the exchange of basic scientific information between all countries and implementing control of nuclear power to the extent necessary to ensure it could only be used for peaceful purposes. It also called for the elimination of atomic weapons and all other major weapons of mass destruction from national arsenals and for the establishment of effective safeguards such as inspections or other means necessary to ensure compliance.

The Soviet Union objected to the Baruch plan on the grounds that the United Nations was dominated by the United States (again, the only country at this time that possessed actual working nuclear weapons) and its fellow capitalist allies in Western Europe. The Soviets felt that this meant the UN couldn’t be trusted to fairly exercise any authority over atomic weapons, particularly against Communist nations like itself and the members of the Eastern Bloc.

A Little Piece of Poland, A Little Piece of France…:

In 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which ensured neutrality between the two countries (something that ended when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1942). This agreement also included a secret secondary agreement that divided Eastern Europe between the two countries, establishing Nazi and Soviet “spheres of influence” in the region.

During the war, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania until Operation Barbarossa when the Nazis invaded and took these territories for themselves. Once the Nazis were defeated, however, the Soviets were able to re-occupy these territories and others in Eastern and Central Europe, taking advantage of post-war chaos to overthrow non-communist governments in Albania (1944), Poland (1944), Bulgaria (1946), Romania (1947), Czechoslovakia (1948), East Germany (1949) and Hungary (1949).  These nations would go on to form the Warsaw Pact in 1955 but that’s for another article.

While the capitalist West and communist Soviets fought together toward a common end during World War II, once the war was over, the old divisions sprang back up. Stalin’s first major post-War public speech to the Soviet Union on February 9, 1946 effectively ended this truce. In his remarks, Stalin announced that another war was inevitable, since communism and capitalism were mutually incompatible. Because of this, Stalin said, the USSR would have to concentrate on national defense in preparation for this future war with the West.

Twenty-four days later, on March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The speech is titled “Sinews of Peace” but is more commonly known as the “Iron Curtain Speech”:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “iron curtain” has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.” (Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech)

Ultimately, the hopes of a single, world-wide authority with control over nuclear weapons were crushed like ants under the feet of the warring elephants of Capitalism and Communism.

Berlin Blockade and Airlift:

At the end of World War II, the territories Germany had seized during the war were returned to the countries they’d been taken from.  Germany itself was divided into four occupation zones, with the US, UK, France and USSR each taking control of a section for administrative purposes.  The German capital, Berlin, was entirely inside the zone controlled by the Soviet Union. While it was divided into four sections, the occupying nations controlled the city jointly.

Under the Allied occupation, Germany would split into what would come to be known as West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). This split came about due to increased tensions between the occupying forces, due to philosophical differences and the burgeoning Cold War between the US and the USSR[(7)].

The tensions came to a head on June 24, 1948 when Stalin closed all land access (roads, barges and rail traffic) to the areas of Berlin that were under Western control. The Berlin Blockade was the first international crisis of the post-World War II era. The Soviets offered to drop the blockade, but only if the newly introduced Deutsche Mark was removed from circulation in West Berlin.

Instead, the Western Allies organized the Berlin airlift to carry supplies to the people of West Berlin. The airlift ran from June 28, 1948 to May 12, 1949, when Stalin ended the blockade.

During the Blockade, which lasted a total of 323 days, 2.5 million tons of supplies were dropped over Berlin. Aircrews from the United States, the UK, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa flew over 200,000 missions. At their peak, they were able to deliver 12,941 tons daily, exceeding the original expectation of 3,475 tons a day.

Despite having superior numbers, not only in Berlin but also in Germany, the Soviet Union allowed these supply drops for fear of starting another shooting war at a point when they were struggling to rebuild their own war-ravaged nation.  While the blockade of land travel into Berlin was lifted on May 12, 1949, the Berlin Airlift didn’t officially end until September 30, 1949.

Atomic Testing in the Pacific:

On February 10, 1946, Commodore Ben Wyatt, the Military Governor of the Marshall Islands, told the 167 residents of Bikini Atoll that they were being relocated so that the United States could conduct atomic bomb tests.  They were told their sacrifice was “for the good of mankind and to end all wars.”

The people of Bikini Atoll agreed withnine out of eleven families relocating to nearby Rongerik Atoll which was a sixth the size of Bikini and had inadequate water and food supplies. It was also believed to be haunted by demon girls. While the US Navy left supplies, those soon proved to be inadequate as well. You can see a 1946 film, Bikini – The Atom Island, though be warned that the narrator’s tone is patronizing in the extreme.

The first US nuclear test in the Marshall Islands occurred on July 1, 1946 and was part of Operation Crossroads. The first test, code named Able, was the first nuclear test since Trinity and the first nuclear detonation since Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. The bomb, nicknamed Gilda after Rita Hayworth’s character from the movie Gilda (1946). The second test, Baker, was an underwater test with the bomb, Helen of Bikini, being detonated 90 feet underwater on July 25, 1946. Radioactive sea spray contaminated the ships being used as targets, which led to the cancellation of a third test, Charlie, because the ships couldn’t be decontaminated.

All told, the United States conducted over 100 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1963, when the Partial Test Ban Treaty barred signatories from conducting atmospheric and underwater detonations. Taken as a percentage of the total number of nuclear tests conducted by the United States from July 7, 1945 through to September 23, 1992, the Marshal Islands tests represent barley a tenth of the weapons detonated. In terms of the yield represented by these weapons, however, the Marshall Islands tests represent seventy-seven percent of US nuclear tests (150,732 kilotons out of a total of 196,514 total kilotons).

The effects of the tests in the Marshall Islands are still being felt by the people of the area to this day, over 70 years after they were told they were the “children of America” and that we would take care of them.

And Then There Were Two…:

The Manhattan Project began due to fears of the Nazis getting the atomic bomb first. During World War II, members of both the Allies and the Axis worked on developing nuclear weapons but only the Manhattan Project was successful.

However, post-war fears of a second nuclear state were quick to spring up, with most predicting that the next member of the Nuclear Arms Club would be the Soviet Union. When exactly they’d join was a matter for some debate. General Leslie Groves, who’d headed the Manhattan Project, testified before Congress that it would take the Soviets 20 years to develop atomic weapons and some scientists predicted it would be at least 1970. Others were less optimistic, with predictions ranging from within “five to ten years” (of 1948), while others were downright pessimistic, speculating the Soviets would have the bomb by 1952 or 1954. (Source: Estimating when the Soviets could produce a nuclear weapon)

The problem with keeping the making of an atomic bomb a secret was, first and foremost, that the science behind how the bomb worked simply wasn’t a secret. Nuclear fission was established science and relatively common knowledge in physics circles. Add to that the fact that the Soviet Union had spies well-placed within the Manhattan Project, who’d fed them information on how the US bombs were designed.  And, while obtaining fissile material was considered to be the biggest obstacle to any non-American nation wanting to create its own atomic weapons, the Soviet Union not only possessed roughly 40% of the world’s uranium stores, it was also able to make use of captured German uranium supplies. And German scientists[(8)].

The Soviets exceeded expectations and managed to test their first atomic bomb – based largely on the Fat Man design – on August 29, 1949 in Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan (then the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic). The test, known in the Soviet Union as RDS-1, Device 501 or First Lightning, was nicknamed Joe-1 (after Stalin) by the Americans. Work on designing First Lightning began at the Kurchatov Institute, then known only as “Laboratory No. 2” in April 1946. The plutonium for the bomb was produced at an industrial complex then designated Chelyabinsk-40 but now known as Mayak[(9)].

The detonation had a yield of 22 kilotons, comparable to the Trinity and Fat Man bombs. It was an implosion-style weapon with a solid plutonium core. Radioactive debris from the test was collected by a WB-29 US weather reconnaissance aircraft that flew from Misawa Air Base in Japan to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and when this data was crosschecked with data from other flights, it confirmed that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic weapon.

President Truman announced the Soviet Union’s entrance into the Nuclear Arms Club on September 23, 1949 – which surprised everyone, including the Soviets who didn’t know the US had created a test-detection system.

First Lightning was a turning point in the Cold War, not only because it destroyed the American monopoly on nuclear weapons but also because it led to increased pressure within the US military to develop the first hydrogen bomb, code named “the super.”

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  1. Approximately 1.5 kilotons; also, the planes that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car, were also B-29 Superfortresses)
  2. By comparison, the hottest star yet discovered, WR 102, in the constellation Sagittarius, has a temperature of 378,000 degrees Fahrenheit
  3. Hersey’s essay was published as a book later that same year. It was a best seller at the time and has never gone out of print. My high school history teacher, the pseudonymous Mr. Herodotus, allowed people to do a book report on Hiroshima as extra credit in his world history class.
  4. While the practice was officially condemned, it wasn’t uncommon for for American soldiers to mutilate Japanese war dead and take body parts for trophies.. To this day, trophy skulls are still occasionally turned in by the relatives of soldiers who fought during World War II.

Note: Links above contain racial slurs against the Japanese; the slurs are referenced in quotes from sources at the time; links also contain images of dead bodies and parts of dead bodies – mostly skeletonized.)

  1. As part of their educational efforts, FAS published a collection of essays by atomic scientists, One World or None, and also released a movie of the same title.
  2. By the time construction began on the UN’s New York City headquarters in September 1948, the US nuclear stockpile had grown to roughly 50 bombs. When construction was completed in October 1952, that number had increased nearly 17-fold to approximately 841 bombs, while the Soviet stockpile was approaching 50. (source Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2010)
  3. From here on out, despite it being overly simplistic to refer to the two sides of the Cold War as if it was only between the US and USSR, I’m going to do just that because it might be inaccurate but it’s also a heck of a lot easier.
  4. And that was in addition to making use of captured German scientists, since the Soviet Union, like the United States, engaged not so much in a game of chess but more one of Pokémon Go after World War II, wherein each side tried to capture as many Nazi scientists as they could in order to help give them the a post-war edge against the other side. In the United States, this recruitment scheme was called Operation Paperclip and mostly involved sanitizing the backgrounds of Nazi scientists to make them seem like “good Germans” who’d been caught up in a bad situation. The Soviet Union’s scheme, Operation Osoaviakhim, occurred on October 22, 1946 and involved rounding up German specialists and their families at gunpoint from Soviet-occupied Germany and taking them to the Soviet Union.
  5. It was also known as Chelyabinsk-65; both designations were based on the site’s postal code. No word on whether or not there were any birth certificates with “Chelyabinsk-40” listed as the place of birth.

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Additional Resources:

Books Consulted: 

Nuke Opera 2020: Pictures of History

A few snapshots from my last trip to the National Museum of the United States Air Force back in October 2019. The museum is located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, though you don’t have to pass through security to get there. If you have any interest in airplanes or in the military history of flight, it’s very much worth a visit. Admission is free, but be warned that the place is absolutely HUGE, since it holds over 360 full-size aircraft and missiles as well as other exhibits.

One of the historic planes at the Museum is Bockscar, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It’s located in the World War II gallery at the Air Force Museum, one of the first galleries you come to after entering the museum.


Bockscar, the plane that dropped the “Fat Man” bomb on Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.

The picture doesn’t really do the size of the plane justice — like the Enola Gay, Bockscar is a B-29 Superfortress. It’s about 99 feet long with a wing span of 141 feet and is 27 feet, nine inches high. It’s imposing to look at but if you didn’t know its history, you wouldn’t think there was anything special about it.

On the other hand, there’s definitely something off-putting about the model of Fat Man that sits next to Bockscar.

Fat Man

Full-size model of “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. 

Again, you can’t tell from the picture, but Fat Man lives up to its name: the bomb was 10 feet, eight inches long and five feet in diameter. It weighed 10,300 pounds (about 5.15 US tons). And, yes, it was painted that bright yellow color to make it easier for the bomb to be tracked as it fell.

The creepiest thing about the model is just how innocuous it looks. It looks like a cartoon conception of a bomb, like it shouldn’t be as dangerous as it was.

Bockscar crew (Nagasaki raid)

The crew of Bockscar on the day of the Nagasaki bombing raid.

There’s also a model of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, near the display for Bockscar. 

Little Boy

Model of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. 

Little Boy was comparatively smaller than Fat Man — it was about as long (around 10 feet), but narrower, being only 28 inches (2 feet, 4 inches) and weighed 9,700 pounds (4.85 US tons).

The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped Little Boy, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the World War II gallery, the Air Force Museum also has galleries dedicated to the Cold War and the Space Race. I’ll be sharing more pictures from those galleries as we move further along in our timeline.

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Boilerplate Links:

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“One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day”: Health Risks, Radiation and You – Part Two:

“One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day”: Health Risks, Radiation and You – Part Two:

The Least You Need to Know About Radiation:

If you’ve already read my earlier article, INTRODUCING OUR ACQUAINTANCE, THE ATOM, you can either skim this section for a refresher or simply jump down to the next bit (though you might want to stop off at the bit about Neutrons). If you haven’t read my earlier article, this section should serve as enough of an introduction to keep you up to speed.

Radiation, at its most basic, refers to energy being emitted or transmitted through either space or a material – light moving through air or microwaves moving through a chicken sandwich are both forms of radiation. Some forms of radiation are dangerous – ultraviolet radiation can cause sunburns and even acoustic (sound) waves can kill, if they’re strong enough.

But we’re not here to talk about sunburns and really, really loud noises. We’re here to talk about nuclear war and nuclear weapons, so we’re going to be talking about a very specific, very narrow type of radiation namely, ionizing radiation.

Ionizing radiation is produced when unstable elements undergo radioactive decay in an effort to become stable elements[(1)]. To do this, unstable elements shed parts of themselves in an effort to change forms.  These parts can come in the form of waves or particles which can strip electrons from other atoms and can disrupt chemical bonds. In humans, this can destroy or damage cells and can even damage our DNA, causing mutations that will affect future generations.

We’ll be discussing four forms of ionizing radiation: alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays and neutrons. From this point forward, unless otherwise mentioned, the terms radiation and radioactivity will specifically and solely refer to ionizing radiation.

Particle Man, Particle Man, What’s He Like? It’s Kind of Important…:

Alpha Particle: is made up of two protons and two neutrons; essentially, they’re the same thing as the nucleus of a helium atom, except an alpha particle is out running around doing its own thing, rather than staying at home with its electrons. It is the largest radioactive particle, averaging about 1 femtometer in diameter (one femtometer is one-quadrillionth of a meter; it would take 25.4 trillion femtometers to make up one inch). An alpha particle moves relatively slowly compared to other particles, leaving the nucleus of an atom at about 16,000 kilometers/second or roughly 36 million miles per hour. Think of it as the slow-moving, lazy bumblebee of ionizing radiation.

The Good News Is: alpha particles cannot penetrate unbroken human skin and can be stopped by a sheet of paper. Doesn’t even have to be a special kind of paper; a sheet of regular copy paper will protect you. But you’re going to want to wear a face-mask and not eat or drink anything that might have been contaminated since inhaling or ingesting count as ‘penetrating human skin’.  So long as the alpha particles stay outside your body, you’re going to be fine – just make sure you’re wearing a facemask (breathing counts as ingesting), don’t eat anything until after you’ve had a shower because…

The Bad News Is: alpha particles cannot penetrate unbroken human skin. They can penetrate broken human skin just fine – and when you’re the size of a helium nucleus, a paper cut is to you what the Solar System is to a very large beach ball. If alpha particles do get inside a person, they can cause severe damage that can significantly increase a person’s long-term cancer risk.

Beta Particle: is either an electron or a positron (a positively-charged electron[(2)]). Like the alpha particle, the beta particle is not attached to an atom and is out going its own way. It’s smaller than an alpha particle, about a thousand times smaller. At its largest, a beta particle is about 1 attometer in diameter (one attometer is one quintillionth of a meter; you’d need 25.4 quintillion attometers to make up one inch). Beta particles are faster than alpha particles, leaving the nucleus of an atom at about 270,000 kilometers/second or approximately 604 million miles per hour[(3)].

Content Advisory: the links in this section lead to a description of the kind of damage beta radiation can do to human skin, with a picture of an actual beta radiation burn and to a diagram of the structure of human skin. While the picture isn’t overly graphic, some may find it disturbing.

The Good News Is: less good, since beta particles can penetrate unbroken human skin – but they can’t go very deep into it. A high energy beta particle might get as far in as the subcutaneous layers (where our fat and connective tissues are) – but beta particles with lower energy levels might not even get past the outermost layer of skin (the epidermis). Beta radiation can be stopped by 3-4 millimeters of aluminum foil[(4)].

The Bad News Is: like alpha particles, beta particles are more dangerous if they get inside of you. They’re significantly less dangerous than alpha particles, but can still increase a person’s long-term risk of cancer. They can also cause external burns.

Gamma Rays: are photons, which are particles of light that share properties with waves – which is how we’ll be talking about them.  The size of a photon is determined by its wavelength, which is a measurement of the distance from the peak of one wave to the peak of another.  The shorter the wavelength, the higher its frequency or how many times it happens in a given time period (usually a second). The higher the frequency, the more energy in the wavelength.

The average gamma ray has a wavelength of less than 10 picometers. A picometer is one trillionth of a meter; one inch would be equal to roughly 25.4 billion picometers – which makes the wavelength of a gamma ray positively huge by comparison to alpha or beta particles. However, the average gamma ray’s frequency is on the order of 10 exahertz (10 EHz) – or 10 quintillion times per second.

Because a gamma ray is for all intents and purposes, light, it leaves the nucleus at the speed of light – which is 299,792 kilometers/second or about 671 million miles per hour. In our insect metaphor, a gamma ray is the (not at all literally) dragonfly of the atomic particle world.

The Bad News: gamma rays are extremely dangerous, in part because they can penetrate pretty much anything and anyone that isn’t properly shielded. Gamma radiation is what causes radiation sickness. A high enough dose of gamma rays will be 100% fatal, regardless of how healthy the victim is.

The (Sort of?) Good News: if you’re close enough to a nuclear explosion to be in area of 100% fatalities from radiation exposure, the blast and/or heat probably killed you first.

The Actually Kind of Good News: gamma rays can be shielded against. You’re going to need either a very dense material like lead or a lot of a less-dense material, like water or concrete. The amount of the material you need varies. For example, you can get the same shielding effects from 13.8 feet of water as you can from 6.6 feet of concrete or 1.3 feet of lead.

The Disappointing News: Exposure to gamma radiation will not give you superpowers. You won’t turn big and green when you get mad nor will you reform into a blue nekkid version of yourself that exists in all times at once. Comics have misled us. Dangit.

A Brief Note on X-Rays: X-rays are also produced in nuclear explosions; they’re found in the thermal radiation released in the initial explosion. For our purposes, consider them similar to gamma rays, though they have longer wavelengths and shorter frequencies and are less likely to have short-term effects (for the reason that if you’re close enough to get a big dose of X-rays, you’ve probably been incinerated or crushed and are likely already dead).

Neutrons: Along with protons, neutrons make up the nucleus of an atom. Unlike protons and electrons, neutrons have no charge and are neutral particles. They are able to bind with protons and while the number of protons in an atom will always remain the same, the number of neutrons will vary. For example, a uranium atom will always have 92 protons, but can have anywhere between 123 to 150 neutrons.  These variations are called isotopes and are what can make an atom stable or unstable.  Uranium-235, the isotope commonly used as fuel in nuclear weapons, has 92 protons and 143 neutrons.

When we’re talking about neutrons in terms of radiation, what we’re talking about are free neutrons, which like our alpha and beta particles, are no longer in residence in their home nucleus and are out making trouble for the establishment. They’re roughly the same size of a proton, having a radius of about 800 attometers (0.8 of a femtometer) but are heavier than protons. Like alpha and beta particles, neutrons move relatively slowly between 14,000 and 52,000 kilometers per second. Despite this, neutron radiation is extremely dangerous because, like gamma radiation, neutrons can penetrate almost anything – especially human beings. In our insect comparison, a neutron is like a mosquito – small, easily shielded against but potentially deadlier than its looks would suggest.

The Bad News: neutrons can penetrate materials (like humans) more deeply than alpha or beta particles. Neutrons are also more dangerous than gamma rays. Neutrons can also make other materials radioactive. Inside the human body, they are 10 times more dangerous than beta or gamma radiation and can be particularly damaging to soft tissues, like the corneas of the eye.

The No, Really, This is Good News: but neutrons can be slowed down by the nuclei of light (as in not-heavy) elements such as hydrogen. As they pass through a substance, like concrete or gravel, they will collide with hydrogen nuclei and get captured by them.

Radiation: How Scared Should I Be?:

It depends. We live in a radioactive world – every day, we’re all exposed to varying amounts of radiation from natural and man-made sources, albeit in doses that are miniscule and unlikely to cause immediate sickness. While the consensus seems to be that there isn’t actually a safe dose of radiation, there are doses that are riskier than others. You can actually calculate your yearly radiation dose using this calculator from the US EPA.

What we’re primarily looking at in this article is the danger from exposure to radiation in doses that can cause significant and immediate sickness. The sorts of doses that you’d expect to get after, say, a nuclear war.

When it comes down to it, if your cells take enough damage from radiation they will die. If too many of your cells die, you will die. But, short of an irrevocably fatal dose, survival is not only possible but, in some cases, likely.

What type of radiation you’ve been exposed to.  Additionally, how much of that radiation you’ve been exposed to and whether that exposure was internal or external. Gamma radiation exposure is most dangerous because it can cause extensive short-term damage and can even be instantly fatal in high enough doses. Beta radiation can cause external burns and, if it gets inside the body, can destroy or damage cells, potentially increasing a person’s long-term cancer risk. Alpha radiation can’t do external damage, but if it’s inhaled, ingested or otherwise gets inside the body, it can severely damage or destroy cells. And, like beta radiation, can increase long-term cancer risks. Neutron radiation can do soft tissue damage, increasing a person’s risk of developing cataracts.

What type of cells were exposed – As a rule of thumb, cells that reproduce quickly are more vulnerable to radiation than cells that reproduce slowly or not at all. Cells reproduce by making copies of themselves. Ideally, each copy is a perfect and exact replica of the parent cell. Since this isn’t an ideal world, imperfections can happen even during the normal copying process.

A dose of radiation that damages a cell’s DNA but doesn’t kill the cell outright can increase the odds of a mutation occurring. These mutations can lead to the formation of cancers or, if they occur in sperm and egg cells, they can be passed on to one’s offspring. We’ll talk more about that later.

Note: just like there are weighting factors for different types of radiation, each type of tissue has its own weighting factor due to how sensitive it is (or isn’t) to radiation. Cells from least to most vulnerable to radiation include (link includes potentially (mildly) disturbing photos):

  • Lymphoid cells – these are a kind of white blood cell that are part of the immune system and include our T cells, B cells and natural killer cells – collectively known as lymphocytes. They’re found in lymph, a fluid similar to blood plasma that helps the body fight infection.
  • Germ cells – specifically, the sperm and egg cells that make sexual reproduction possible. Sperm cells are more vulnerable than egg cells, due to reproducing quickly and being located externally. Egg cells, both the mature and immature varieties, are less vulnerable since they’re shielded by the body.
  • Bone marrow cells – bone marrow produces blood cells (red, white and platelets) at a rate of 200 billion, ten billion and 400 billion per day.
  • Intestinal epithelial cells – these form the lining of the small and large intestine and allows for the absorption of nutrients and other useful substances while preventing the absorption of harmful substances.
  • Epidermal stem cells – the cells that make it possible for the skin to heal from damage; they’re found at the basal layer of the epidermis and can regenerate any layer of the epidermis.
  • Hepatic cells cells that help the liver regenerate and recover from damage
  • Epithelium of lung alveoli and biliary passages – the cells that line the respiratory tract, helping to moisten and protect the airways and serve as a barrier to infectious pathogens and foreign particles.
  • Kidney epithelial cells – a layer of cells that line the nephron, or the tiny tubules inside the kidneys that filter waste. An adult human has between 800,000 and 1.5 million nephrons per kidney.
  • Endothelial cells (pleura and peritoneum) – Endothelial cells line the interior surfaces of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels. The pleura and peritoneum are membranes that protect the lungs and the internal organs respectively.
  • Connective tissue cells – the cells that make up the tissues such as bones, ligaments, tendons, cartilage and body fat.
  • Bone cells – ‘Nuff said. Well, no, this is referring to the surface of the bones.
  • Muscle, brain, and spinal cord cells – this includes the cells of the heart (since it’s a muscle) and the brain and spinal cord, which reproduce slowly or not at all.

If you want to see how quickly a particular type of cell reproduces, here’s a handy chart.

 How much of the body was exposed? – Rule of thumb, the more of you that’s exposed, the greater the chances you’re going to die or get sick. Or get sick and then die. This aspect is closely linked to our next criteria, namely How the dose was received? Was it received all at once, over a short time (within minutes or hours) or was it parceled out over time (years or decades)?

For example, a single dose of 100 rem over the course of a few minutes is enough to cause nausea and vomiting in the average person. But stretch that dose out over twenty years at 5 rem per year[(5)], and there’s going to be no outward sign of radiation sickness – though in either case, the chances of developing cancer is the same.

How well (if at all) the individual’s body can repair the radiation-induced damage – a healthy person will have a better chance of survival than someone who is not healthy. For our purposes, I’m using the World Health Organization’s official definition of health, meaning “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Though, it should be noted, that at a high enough dose of radiation, all the good genetics, positive thinking and supportive family members won’t do bugger all to save you.

When it comes to long-term radiation effects – such as an increased risk of cancer – the older you are, the better your chances of survival (or, more exactly, of not living long enough to have to worry about any increased cancer risk) because a) your cells divide more slowly than a younger person’s (reducing the chances of them making ‘bad copies’ and b) you might not live long enough to develop cancer at all.  This is why the Skilled Veterans Corps, a group of Japanese senior citizens, volunteered to help clean up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant back in 2011.

Playing the Odds: Radiation Exposure and Cancer:

Most of what we know about cancer risks from radiation comes from studies done on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. These studies found that radiation increases the risk of some forms of cancer, but not all of them. These studies also found that those most at risk were people who’d been exposed to radiation as children – though those exposed while they were still in the womb had lower risks than individuals exposed as children.

The studies also found that there is no safe dose of radiation – even being exposed to a low dose of radiation can potentially increase an individual’s chances of eventually developing cancer. Of course, that situation would be like being hit and killed by a foul ball the first time you go to a major league baseball game. Yes, it could happen, but it’s not necessarily likely to happen.

Your chances of getting cancer is about 40-50%— this is the chances of getting any kind of cancer from any source, so that’s why the percentages are so high. Exposure to 100 rem of radiation increases your long-term cancer risk by about 2.5%, so instead of your risk being 40-50% it’s now 42.5-52.5%.

Your odds of dying from cancer, and again we’re talking about all forms of cancer, is about 25%. Exposure to 100 rem increases your risk of a fatal cancer by 1.25% or from 25% to 26.25%.

When the cancer will show up depends on a variety of things, but in the case of the atomic bombing victims, an increase in deaths from leukemia appeared 2-3 years after exposure and peaked after about a decade, then fell off.  An increase in deaths from lung cancer among the survivors, on the other hand, began to appear about 20 years after exposure.

Am I Going to Glow In the Dark?:

Short answer? No. Radioactive things, despite what Hollywood has told us, don’t glow in the dark. High-energy particles being emitted from a radioactive substance can sometimes cause other things to glow or to fluoresce (like, watch dials) but only in certain circumstances. None of which will cause any living thing to glow.

Measuring Exposure:

When it comes to health effects, you can be exposed to radiation in one of three ways:

  • Irradiation: occurs when you’re exposed to penetrating radiation from a radiation source, such as the detonation of an atomic bomb or standing next to a chunk of uranium. This form of exposure is external and does not make a person radioactive.
  • Radioactive Contamination: can be either external (if radioactive atoms land on skin, clothes, etc.) or internal (if radioactive atoms are inhaled, ingested or absorbed). An environment can also be contaminated with radiation and will remain so until the source of radiation is removed (which is oftentimes easier said than done). Fallout is a likely source of radioactive contamination.
  • Incorporation of radioactive material into the body: can only occur if contamination happens first. In this situation, parts of the body have collected radioactive atoms and made them a part of themselves. The bones, liver, thyroid and kidneys are particularly prone to incorporating radioactive materials. The thyroid specifically readily absorbs radioactive iodine, which can lead to thyroid cancer up to 25 years after exposure. The horizontal scar left after thyroid cancer surgery has been nicknamed the “Chernobyl necklace” because of this.

When it comes to measuring a dose of radiation, we’re concerned with three things:

  • Absorbed Dose: the amount of energy deposited by radiation in a substance, which could be water, rock, people, a cheese sandwich, etc. This is a measurable, physical quantity as opposed to the equivalent and effective doses, which are calculated specifically for radiation protection purposes.  The absorbed dose is measured in grays.
  • Equivalent Dose: is calculated for individual organs and is based on the absorbed dose multiplied by the weighting factor for the type of radiation the organ was exposed to. As we’ve seen, some organs and tissues are more sensitive to radiation effects than others.
  • Effective dose: is calculated for the whole body. It’s the sum of the equivalent dose for all affected organs multiplied by the appropriate tissue weighting factor.

Radiation Sickness:

Content Advisory: in this section we’re going to be discussing the symptoms of radiation sickness from their mildest through to those that are associated with a 100% fatality rate. We’re also going to be discussing the effects of radiation on embryos and fetuses. Because of this, there will be mention of miscarriage and the death of children. These references are kept as minimal as possible, but readers should follow their own best instincts as to whether or not they wish to engage with this material. Links in this section were chosen for a lack of photographs or diagrams, but readers are advised to follow links at their own discretion.

What we call radiation sickness is also known as “creeping dose,” “radiation poisoning” or “acute radiation syndrome” (ARS). The symptoms for radiation sickness were first established in 1897 and the Radium Girls contracted radiation poisoning from radium exposure in the 1910s and several early radiation researchers died of illnesses related to their exposure to radiation. Despite that, the first extensively studied case of radiation sickness was that of the Japanese stage actress Midori Naka, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima only to die 18 days later on August 24, 1945. Hers was the first death to ever be officially certified to be caused by acute radiation syndrome (then known as “Atomic bomb disease”).

Acute radiation sickness happens in stages, from mild through severe. In the interests of simplifying things, we’re going to look at the various stages using rem and assuming that we’re talking about an effective dose of gamma radiation to the whole body (thereby ignoring the various weighting factors). We’ll also be assuming that the doses received will occur within a few minutes or a few hours. So, in summary, we’re looking at short-term, whole-body doses of gamma radiation.

Between 20-50 rem – will cause white blood cell, platelet and sperm counts to drop for a short time, usually within about 24 hours of exposure. While it will increase your long-term risk of cancer, it won’t cause ARS.

Between 50-150 rem – this will cause damage to cells in the bone marrow, skin and in the lining of the stomach and the intestines, which will produce a prodromal syndrome or a set of symptoms that are common to radiation sickness. These symptoms develop within hours of exposure and include: redness of the skin, fever, nausea, vomiting, weakness, cramps and diarrhea. These symptoms usually clear up within two days and the odds of survival are virtually 100%, provided there aren’t other injuries or illnesses complicating the issue.

Between 150-400 rem – You’ll experience the same initial symptoms as above, but they will be more severe and in addition to more severe and potentially fatal symptoms such as: severe damage to the bone marrow, impairing the production of platelets and red and white blood cells. This will impact the ability of the body to heal wounds, fight off infection and keep the body oxygenated.

After a latency period, during which you’ll have apparently recovered from the prodromal symptoms and appear to be on the mend, you’ll get sick again. Much sicker. Three to four weeks after exposure, you’ll develop the hematopoietic syndrome which will manifest itself in a marked drop in your blood cell counts, putting you at risk of anemia, a lessened ability to heal wounds and an increased risk of secondary infections.

At this stage, even with the best treatment including the potential for bone marrow transplants (Footnote: Which will likely be thin on the ground in a post-nuclear war situation), your chances of dying range between 5%-50%, depending on the size of the dose you received.

This is also the level where hair begins to fall out, particularly at the higher doses, due to damage to your hair follicles. Hair loss begins to appear between 2-3 weeks after exposure and, should you survive, will grow back in most circumstances.

Between 400-800 rems – You’ll experience the prodromal symptoms, with more severity (incapacitating vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration). If you survive this, you’ll undergo a worse case of the hematopoietic syndrome within a few weeks. Your chances of dying, even with optimal medical care, is up to 90% in the first six weeks. This is the hematopoietic-gastrointestinal syndrome.

Between 800-2000 rems – You have a very small chance of survival at the lower end of this dose range, but that’s with intensive treatment. Otherwise, doses in this range are all eventually fatal.  You’ll experience all the previous symptoms, like some kind of hellish version of Kickstarter, only faster and with more severity. Within 4-6 days after exposure, you’ll develop gastrointestinal syndrome, with bloody diarrhea, loss of appetite, infections caused by bacteria released from your own damaged intestines, and eventually, septic shock. Death occurs within two weeks of exposure.

2000 rem and above: These doses are 100% fatal with no chance of survival. You’ll experience the prodromal symptoms occurring within minutes or hours after exposure but will skip the hematopoietic and gastrointestinal syndromes and go straight to central nervous system syndrome. Basically, at this level, you’ve received a dose so high you don’t have time to get sick. Instead, you’ll experience a variety of symptoms as your central nervous system dies. These include headaches and tremors as well as apathy, difficulty thinking, convulsions, coma and death, which can take several days to a week.

At 5000 rem and above, you’ll be dead within 24-48 hours.

Source: Time Phases of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) and “Chapter 6:” Danger! Radiation!” in Using Medicine in Science Fiction: the SF Writer’s Guide to Human Biology, G. Stratmann, Springer: Cham, Switzerland, (2015), p. 187-210.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stranger – Mutations and Radiation:

Germ cells are, as we mentioned earlier, those cells that are essential for sexual reproduction. They include sperm cells and egg cells[(6)] which, when combined become — eventually — people.

Both sperm and egg cells are vulnerable to radiation damage, though in different ways. Because the testicles are external to the body, sperm are more vulnerable to lower doses of radiation than egg cells are. A dose between 25-50 rem is enough to induce temporary sterility in most cases. The ovaries, on the other hand, are internal to the body and are further shielded by other bodily tissues so are less vulnerable to acute radiation damage.

On the other hand, sperm are constantly being produced at a rate of several hundred million per day. While this leaves them vulnerable to radiation-induced copy errors, it also means that a temporary dip in production doesn’t mean the factory’s shutting down for good. In fact, a less-than-lethal dose of radiation might not cause permanent sterility.

Egg cells, on the other hand, are with a person from the day they’re born, waiting for puberty to start the menstrual cycle. While they’re less sensitive to radiation than sperm cells, if egg cells are damaged or destroyed, they cannot be replaced.  Once the available stock is exhausted, the shop is closed.

Ok, But How Many Heads Will My Kids Have?:

Radiation can and does cause cells to mutate and, if those mutations occur in sperm or egg cells, they can be passed on to one’s offspring. Usually this happens because the cell in question received a dose of radiation that damaged it but didn’t interfere with its ability to reproduce itself. Or with its ability to successfully fertilize/be fertilized. If this happens, the mutation will be passed on to the resulting offspring.

In most cases, this mutation will not be beneficial and will result either result in an unsuccessful implantation or miscarriage later in the pregnancy. If the child is born, they may have developmental defects to the brain or other organs and/or an increased risk of cancer in their lifetime. Studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, specifically of survivors who could and did conceive children after the atomic bombings, found the rates of birth defects/abnormalities were no higher than the Japanese average.

Beneficial mutations do occur – though, when they do they’re generally something along the lines of “your body is now X% more efficient at creating/utilizing this protein” than “you can shoot lasers from your eyes!”

On the other hand, if an embryo or fetus is exposed to radiation in the womb, the chances for damage are increased, though it depends on how long after conception the exposure occurs. In general, if the dose received is below 10 rem, the chances of non-cancer related health effects are not detectable regardless of when the exposure occurs.

Within the first two weeks after conception, radiation doses between 10-50 rem may prevent the embryo from implanting in the uterus. Surviving embryos will likely have no significant non-cancer related health effects. During this time, even doses over 50 rem will simply increase the chances the embryo will fail to implant without increasing the chances of non-cancer related health effects.

From the third week after conception through the 13th, doses between 10-50 rem will likely result in stunted growth, though only about 4% shorter than the average. Doses over 50 rem will increase the chance of miscarriage during this time and potentially lead to stunted growth for surviving embryos. During this time there is an increased probability of major birth defects, including developmental disabilities that can result in lowered IQs or severe intellectual disabilities. The fetus is most vulnerable between the 8th and 15th weeks after conception. During this time, severe intellectual disabilities are possible with a dose of 50 rem.  An exposure of 100 rem raises the prevalence of intellectual disabilities 40%.

From the 14th week through to birth, a dose of 10-50 rem is unlikely to cause non-cancer related effects. Doses over 50 rem may increase the probability of miscarriage or the death of newborn child. Stunted growth is still possible but much less likely during this time.  During this time period, an exposure of 100 rem raises the prevalence of intellectual disabilities 15%.

What About The Children?:

Children are at greater risk from radiation exposure than adults are because for one, they’re still growing so their cells are dividing faster than adult cells are. Also, they’ve got a longer life-span during which long-term effects of radiation can appear. Beyond these considerations, the general principles of protecting oneself from radiation are the same for kids and grownups.

How Do I Protect Myself?:

The short answer for this is to minimize the amount of time you are exposed to radioactive materials, maximize the distance between yourself and the source of radiation and get as much shielding between yourself and the radiation source as you possibly can.

The longer answer will be the subject of another article on another day.


Additional Links:


[1] You can think of an unstable element as the protagonist in a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie who is trying to go from “unhappy big city lawyer” to “happy small-town chocolatier”. Only with less ‘life lessons learned’ and more ‘potentially deadly radioactivity.”

[2] Positrons are also the anti-matter form of an electron.

[3] To continue the insect speed theme, a beta particle is (entirely metaphorically and in no way literally) comparable to a Hawk Moth, which have been clocked flying at 33.7 miles per hour.

[4] Or, you could use 3 centimeters of lead, but speaking for my inner ten-year-old, if I’ve got the chance to make myself a heavy-duty aluminum foil suit, I’m going for it!

[5] This is the annual whole-body dose recommended for US radiation workers.

[6] This includes the oocytes, which are the immature form that everyone with a uterus is born with and the ova, the cells that mature during the menstrual cycle in hopes of becoming a baby.

Nuke Opera 2020: Coming Attractions & Best Laid Plans

I was hoping to have a full article done today but due to a variety of circumstances — specifically the Manhattan Project article turning out to be longer than I’d expected and Part Two of “One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day” needing a bit more research as well as some revision. I tried coming up with something short — like, actually short, not “seems short but isn’t” — but couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t throw off my timeline.

But, I want to keep my Sunday/Wednesday posting schedule, so I figured I’d give an update as to what I’m planning on posting over the next few weeks. These are, of course, subject to change depending on circumstances within and beyond my control.

  • Wednesday, February 26, 2020 — One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day:  Health Risks, Radiation, and You — Part Two — wherein we’ll talk about the effects of radiation on human health in short-term, long-term and generational circumstances.
  • Sunday, March 1, 2020 — Opening The Pot — 1945-1949  — Covering Cold War history from the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki through to the Soviet Union’s first successful nuclear test, plus a bit more history along the way.
  • Wednesday, March 4, 2020 — Atomic Era Begins — 1949-1962, Part One — Since this covers such a long period of time, I’m breaking it in half; Part One will cover 1949-1954
  • Sunday, March 8, 2020 — Elite Panic  — An article about the sociology and psychology of disasters and why the ‘thin veneer of civilization’ is thicker than we’ve been led to believe.
  • Wednesday, March 11, 2020 — Atomic Era Begins — 1949-1962, Part Two — Covering the second half of the period, 1954-1962
  • Sunday, March 15, 2020 — [Untitled] –If all goes well, by this point, I’m going to be in a place where I’m going to start reviewing stories; before that, I want to lay some ground rules and get some definitions straight. I’ve got a couple articles in mind that (*fingers crossed*) will be posted on the same day.
  • Wednesday, March 18, 2020 — Defining the Nuke Opera — On this blessed and much to be anticipated day, I will explain what it is I mean by a “nuke opera” and why all of the science and history work I’ve done up until this point is probably a moot point (but it’s been fun!)

This is as far out as I’m willing to speculate/schedule — I do have plans out through the end of this round and into the interim period.  Again, plans are subject to change, but God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be sticking as close to this as I can.

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Completely Unrelated Aside (sort of): I’ve recently started watching the Murdoch Mysteries on Ovation and via Acorn TV.  I wasn’t sure about the show at first, but it’s quirky mix of anachronisms and genuine historical elements has grown on me in a major way. And, considering that Detective Murdoch makes use of the fascinating new technology of Roentgen rays, the show’s a bit on topic for me.

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Boilerplate Links:

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Nuke Opera 2020: The Manhattan Project – 1942-1945:

Nuke Opera 2020: The Manhattan Project – 1942-1945:

First Things First: Why Was It Called the “Manhattan Project?”: Before I started researching this article, I thought “Manhattan Project” was a code name, like Operation Neptune for the D-Day invasion at Normandy in 1944 or Operation Mincemeat, a British intelligence mission that used a dead body to spread misinformation to the Germans. I assumed that since I’d never heard of anything connected with the Manhattan Project actually happening in Manhattan that the name was meant to misdirect the attention of enemy agents.

Well, you know what happens when you assume, right?


Turns out, it was called the Manhattan Project in part because it was originally headquartered in Manhattan at 270 Broadway – about four-tenths of a mile from New York’s City Hall. But then, it wasn’t called the Manhattan Project.

The Project’s original name was “Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials,” but General Leslie Groves, the Project’s head, fearing this name would draw unwanted attention, changed it to “Manhattan Engineering District.” In turn, this name was shortened to the Manhattan Project and the nickname stuck even after the Project’s headquarters were moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1943.

While it seems strange that such a top-secret project would have been located in the middle of a big city, it does make a certain kind of sense when you think about it.  Manhattan was a central location, allowing for access to military personnel and workers as well as refugee scientists who’d fled Europe. Not to mention much of the United States’ uranium stockpile was being warehoused in Manhattan, having been shipped there from the Shinkolobwe mines in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Second Things Second: How Much Did It Cost?: All told, the Manhattan Project cost 2 billion dollars in 1945 money or (as of this writing) about 28.7 billion dollars. Which sounds like a lot, but isn’t when compared to how much America spent on World War II as a whole. In 1945 money, the US spent a little under 300 billion dollars on the war, which translates to over 4 trillion dollars in 2020 money. Taken as a percentage of the total spending, the Manhattan Project’s budget equaled about 1% of what was spent on the war. Or, to put it another way, if the US spent $100 on World War II, the Manhattan Project cost about 67 cents.

Over 90% of the total cost of the project went into building factories and producing the fissile material needed to fuel the bombs. The rest went into researching and developing the bombs themselves.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work:

We generally refer to the Manhattan Project as the United States’ nuclear weapons program, but in actuality it was a group effort between the US, the United Kingdom and Canada. Prior to the establishment of the Manhattan Project, the United Kingdom was doing its own research into feasibility of nuclear weapons and it was at the University of Birmingham where the first technical extrapolation of a practical nuclear weapon was written.

In March 1940, two German refugee scientists, Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch (who had confirmed the existence of nuclear fission in 1938), were tasked with determining if an atomic bomb was feasible[(1)].

Peierls and Frisch not only determined that atomic weapons were indeed possible, they also calculated that instead of requiring tons of fissile material, as little as 1 to 10 kilograms (2.2-22 pounds) would be enough to create an explosive yield in the kiloton range. This meant that atomic weapons could be produced much more quickly than originally believed. As in within a couple of years, making them a potentially viable option for use during World War II.  [(2)]

Because of Peierls and Frisch’s work, in April 1940, the United Kingdom formed the MAUD Committee to further investigate the feasibility of atomic bombs. The committee issued its final report on July 10, 1941 and passed an advanced copy on to the Americans. However, the report wasn’t brought to Roosevelt’s attention until October 9th of that year. Roosevelt approved of a project to confirm MAUD’s finding and asked that a letter be drafted to arrange for him to speak officially with the British government.

Ordinarily, I’d do a timeline here but unfortunately, a lot of the history of the Manhattan Project seems to boil down to either:  “and on this day, a committee was formed to look into the feasibility studies created by this previous committee, after which a new committee was formed to verify the findings of the second committee…” or “a site was chosen in a remote area, a great chunk of land was purchased and construction began on the basic infrastructure needed to support the workers who would be building the necessary factories to produce fissile material.”

Considering how new the science behind atomic reactions was, this makes sense. Almost everything necessary for the project had to be created, often from whole cloth. Calculations had to be checked and rechecked to be sure the science could actually work.  And, once the feasibility of a nuclear weapon was confirmed, factories for the refining of uranium ore and reactors for creating plutonium had to be built, as did a location for the designing and testing of the bomb. In addition, because the work being done was so secret, places had to be built to house the workers who were refining the ore, running the reactors and designing the weapons.

From 1942 through 1944, the Manhattan Project’s main efforts were on gathering necessary materials, particularly uranium ore, selecting locations for uranium refining and enrichment, plutonium production and weapons design. During this time, two cities were built – Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington – to house the workers and the plants necessary for creating fissile material. A third facility, Los Alamos, New Mexico, was built to serve as a weapons laboratory.

It’s not until the latter half of 1944 and into 1945 that researchers become confident that the bomb will probably succeed. On April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman assumed the role of President of the United States after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death due to cerebral hemorrhage. It’s also the first Truman learns of the existence of the Manhattan Project, having been kept in the dark while he was serving as FDR’s vice president. He authorizes the continuation of the project and becomes the only US president – for that matter, the only leader of any nation – to authorize the use of atomic weapons during wartime.

On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon was tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The test, code-named Trinity, was of an implosion-style plutonium-based nuclear weapon nicknamed the Gadget. Its design was the same one used for the “Fat Man” bomb that would be dropped over Nagasaki. Its yield was 22 kilotons.

Twenty-one days later, “Little Boy” would be dropped over Hiroshima, Japan.

Who Worked On It?: The Manhattan Project itself employed hundreds of thousands of people – at its peak, it was employing about 130,000 people. But as this article by Alex Wellerstein at points out peak employment is not cumulative employment.  In other words, like any other employer, the Manhattan Project had to deal with employees quitting or being fired and having to hire replacements. By his figures, it’s possible the Manhattan Project employed as many as 600,000 people due to fluctuations in employment.

While the scientists at Los Alamos get much of the attention, much of the necessary work was done by other researchers working at dozens of sites, such as Oak Ridge and Hanford, the University of Chicago. Additionally,  people worked in more mundane jobs at many Manhattan Project sites, all of which needed people to build the facilities and equipment needed for the bomb project, to serve as secretaries and administrative staff and even as janitors.

A large number of the people employed by the Manhattan Project were women. They worked, not only as secretaries, nurses and librarians, but also as equipment technicians, scientists and “human computers” who performed calculations that helped with the complex mathematical formulas related to nuclear fission. [(3)]

Cool Link: I found a coloring book of Women of The Manhattan Project.

People of color, particularly African Americans, also assisted with the Manhattan Project – likewise at all levels. On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited ethnic or racial discrimination in the defense industry and set up the Fair Employment Practice Committee. While it wasn’t a law, it was the first federal action intended to promote equal opportunity and prohibit employment discrimination in the US. Oak Ridge and Hanford employed substantial numbers of black workers in a variety of jobs.

African American scientists and technicians worked at several Manhattan Project sites, including the University of Chicago’s Metallurgic Laboratory (the “Met Lab”), Columbia University and the Ames Laboratory at the University of Iowa. They were physicists like Jasper Jefferies and Carolyn B. Parker; chemists like Harold Delaney and Moddie Taylor; and research assistants like James Forde and Blanche J. Lawrence, who was also the widow of a Tuskegee Airman who’d been killed on a strafing run in Greece.

African Americans also worked as construction workers, laborers, janitors and domestic staff at Oak Ridge and Hanford. While they faced discrimination at both sites, the prospect of doing their part for the war effort and working in jobs that were well-paying and offered chances for advancement were opportunities not to be scorned.

Where Was It Located?: Three of the main sites associated with the Manhattan Project were located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (Site X), Hanford Washington (Site W) and Los Alamos, New Mexico (Site Y).  Oak Ridge and Hanford were sites where fissile materials (uranium at Oak Ridge and the newly discovered plutonium at Hanford) were created and refined. Los Alamos was where the nuclear weapons were developed and, ultimately, tested.

Originally known as the Clinton Engineering Works, Oak Ridge, Tennessee was built in 1942 as a production site for the Manhattan Project. The site, known as the Clinton Engineering Works until 1949, had previously been primarily farmland.  It was chosen because the area’s low population meant land would be cheaper to buy but also the area was accessible by highway and rail. Additionally, the recently completed Norris Dam meant water and electricity were readily available – a big selling point, since Oak Ridge would be using a lot of electrical power once it was fully operational.

The remote location meant that it was easier to keep Oak Ridge a secret, even though the population ballooned up from 3,000-4,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 by 1945.  The name “Oak Ridge” was chosen because it sounded rural and boring and would hopefully keep curiosity seekers away.

The land for Oak Ridge was acquired by condemning necessary properties rather than simply purchasing them – the rationale being that land could be obtained more quickly than by directly purchasing it from the owners.

So quickly, in fact, that many locals only found out they were being evicted when a representative of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Ohio River Division (ORD) showed up to tell them the government was acquiring their land.  Some people came home from work to find eviction notices tacked up on their door or on a tree in their yard. For some local residents, this would be the third time the government would have seized their land, having been forced to relocate for both the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the 1920s and again for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Norris Dam project in the 1930s. Some were forced out before they were properly compensated for their land; others had to leave possessions behind, being unable to transport them due to wartime shortages in vehicles, gas and tires.

At least two hamlets, Elza and Robertsville, were rendered extinct. A third, Scarboro, was given over to African American residents in the 1950s and is still highly contaminated by radioactive waste.

The Hanford Site in Washington state was selected because it possessed the right combination of isolation, a long construction season, access to ready labor, suitable transportation and ready power thanks to the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams.

As in Oak Ridge, locals were given eviction notices, giving them between 30 and 90 days to vacate. Most of Hanford’s buildings, with the exception of the local high school, were destroyed. Some landowners took the government to court in order to get better appraisals of their property – which included not only their homes but also their land, crops and equipment. Colonel Franklin T. Matthias, the officer in charge of construction of the Hanford Site decided on settling out of court in these cases, due to time constraints. The plutonium reactors needed to be built and they needed to be built fast.

Additionally, local Native American tribes like the Wanapum were removed from their homelands along the Columbia River and resettled in Priest Rapids. They also lost access to their traditional fishing areas. At the time, they were told that this removal was only temporary but, well, the US government’s track record with keeping promises to Native Americans is nonexistent. A 2012 interview with Rex Buck gives more detail on how this removal affected the tribe over the years.

Acquiring the land for Site Y, the weapons design laboratory/research facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico was slightly cheaper than it was for the other sites since the majority of the land needed was already owned by the federal government. Like the other sites, Los Alamos was chosen because it was isolated and easy to secure – particularly important for bomb design. It would also allow the scientists and technicians to talk more freely amongst themselves.

Hanford and Oak Ridge were secret cities, but they were at least on the map. Los Alamos wasn’t, not during the time of the Manhattan Project, at least. It was not only kept off the maps and workers were forbidden from telling family or friends where they were going, but the entire facility shared the same address (top secret sites still need to get mail, after all).

Everyone at Los Alamos received mail at P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Babies born at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project [(4)] had the post office box listed as their birthplace– and the fact that everyone shared the address led to some confusion and concern when Sears and Roebuck delivery drivers received a dozen orders for baby bassinets from one address [(5)].

Like the Hanford Site (and Oak Ridge), some of the land for Los Alamos was acquired from locals who didn’t necessarily want to have their land taken from them. In Los Alamos, the two populations affected in this way were local Hispanic homesteaders, some of whom had been in the area since the late 1800s, and Pueblo Indians, whose ancestors had settled the area in the year 1000 BCE.

As in other sites, properties the government deemed necessary to their efforts were acquired by condemning the land and paying the owners set prices for their land, equipment and, in this case, livestock. Though, in this situation, language barriers may have played a role in some people not receiving compensation for their property.

One of the things that was very hard for them to understand is that everything – maybe they wrote letters to them in English, but there was nobody to translate these letters for them. There were all men, you know, and they did not understand most of the stuff. They just agreed, “Sí, sí, sí.” What could they do? The language problem there.Rosario Martinez Fiorillo.

Los Alamos, like other Manhattan Project sites, provided employment opportunities for the people it displaced, particularly the people of the San Ildefonso Pueblo.  Native Americans and homesteaders were hired on as truck drivers, construction and maintenance workers, carpenters, gardeners, maids and child-care providers.  Additionally, researchers at Los Alamos became enamored with local artwork, particularly the pottery of artists like Maria Montoya Martinez.

Reliance on local workers was so profound that every year on January 23, the feast day for Saint Ildefonso, the lab would shut down due to a lack of maintenance workers.

And The Rest:

Other sites might not be as well-known but were just as crucial to the Manhattan Project. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The University of Chicago where the first ever nuclear reactor went critical and achieved a self-sustaining reaction on December 2, 1942.
  • Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana did nuclear research using a cyclotron during the early part of the war. Many of the researchers who worked there eventually were moved to Los Alamos.
  • Morgantown, West Virginia; Newport, Indiana and Sylacauga, Alabama — heavy water production sites for cooling nuclear reactors (then called atomic piles).
  • Dayton, Ohio – The Runnymede Playhouse was used to house research facilities working on polonium initiators meant to serve as triggers for the atomic bomb.
  • San Antonio de Los Baños, CubaMembers of the 509th Composite Group, activated in December 1944, went Batista Field to train for the flight between Tinian Island (being prepared as the staging area for the atomic bomb runs) and Japan. They worked on long-range, over-water flights and flying solo. In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets would use this same field as a staging ground for their own planes.

Want to See More?: The Alsos Digital Library has created a Google Map that contains the locations of offices, mines, mills, plants, labs and test sites used by the US nuclear weapons program from World War II through to 2016.

Getting Down to Business:

The lion’s share of the work done for the Manhattan Project was the lengthy, highly involved, process of obtaining enough fissile material to be useful.

This process began with mining uranium – literally digging it out of the ground.  when the Manhattan Project began, there were only four known sources of uranium ore: Colorado, northern Canada, Czechoslovakia and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1940, three out of the four sites were in Allied hands. The richest source of ore was in the Shinkolobwe mine in the DRC. Unfortunately, at this point the mine was not in operation — though the US was able to buy stockpiles of Shinkolobwe ore that were in storage in Staten Island (another reason why Manhattan made a good location for the early nuclear project). Ore was also obtained from mines in Uravan, Colorado and the Eldorado Gold Mines in Port Hope, Ontario.

Once the ore was obtained, it had to be processed to remove impurities and create pure uranium dioxide — which would then be refined into the metallic form of uranium.

The purified uranium would then be enriched to separate out the naturally fissile uranium-235. This could be done in a variety of ways, though the method believed to be the most promising, the centrifuge, was abandoned due to technical difficulties caused by vibrations created by high rotational speeds. Other methods used included electromagnetic separation, gaseous diffusion (developed, in part, by the Chinese-American chemist, Chien-Shiung Wu (also known as the Queen of Nuclear Research) and thermal diffusion.

In addition to being enriched to create uranium-235, uranium ore was also used to create plutonium. This process involved bombarding natural uranium (usually the isotope U-238) with neutrons. This will cause the U-238 to be transmuted into uranium-239, which decays rapidly into first neptunium-239 and then into plutonium-239. The plutonium-239 needs to be chemically separated from the U-238 ore.

All of this is potentially dangerous, not only short-term while people are doing the work but also over the long-term, since uranium and plutonium are long-lasting elements that can contaminate areas for very, very long times.  Several Manhattan Project sites are still contaminated and in need of remediation.

Aren’t We Forgetting Something?: Weapons Design:

The work of building the atomic bombs took place at the Los Alamos Laboratory, code named Site Y. It was established by the Manhattan Project and operated by the University of California, with Robert J. Oppenheimer serving as its first director from 1943-1945. A site was chosen in rural New Mexico as a way to preserve security and to allow scientists to be able to discuss their work freely.

Initial work on a design for an atomic bomb focused on the gun-type fission weapon. But instead of using uranium, this one was intended to use plutonium.  The design was nicknamed “Thin Man” and was scrapped when it was determined that the bomb would pre-detonate, undergoing a chain reaction before it could be fully assembled.

The next design was an implosion-type bomb that still used plutonium. This would be the design used for “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  The gun-type design would be recycled and altered to use uranium-235; this is the design used for the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The “Fat Man” design was also used for the bomb tested on July 16, 1945 in the Trinity nuclear test. The bomb itself was nicknamed “the Gadget.”

Careless Talk Costs Lives: Atomic Espionage and the Manhattan Project:

What You See Here,
What You Do Here,
What You Hear Here,
When You Leave Here,
Let It Stay Here

(Sign from Oak Ridge, Tennessee warning against loose talk)

The United States and the United Kingdom agreed to work together on the atomic bomb, collaborating with each other and sharing research, with Canada also assisting with research and providing uranium from the Port Radium mines in their Northwest Territories. The US was ideally suited to doing certain research since even after Pearl Harbor, we were still largely unscathed by the war.  Britain, in addition to waging war in Europe, had also suffered through the Blitz, an eight-month bombing campaign by the Germans meant to destroy British morale and infrastructure.

The British were, however, worried about the security of American atomic sites, fearing that they could be easily infiltrated by spies.  Ironically, the British intelligence service had already been compromised by a group of Soviet double-agents known as the  Cambridge Five, including one, John Cairncross, who would later pass the MAUD reports and other documents to the Soviet Union.

Additionally, Klaus Fuchs, one of the British delegation of scientists who worked at Los Alamos and was sympathetic to the Communist cause, was a Soviet spy. He provided the Soviets with information on the UK’s atomic program before coming to the US in 1943. It’s believed by some that the information he passed on from the Manhattan Project may have given the Soviet Union the bomb one to two years sooner.

Though, as it turned out, the British were right to be concerned about American security. Several American ‘atomic spies’also operated within the US Manhattan Project, feeding information about the design and building of atomic weapons to the Soviet Union.  These included David Greenglass, the brother and brother-in-law of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. While working as a machinist at Los Alamos, he passed secrets about the bomb on to his brother-in-law Julius, who in turn passed them to the Soviets. Later, he would testify against his sister and brother-in-law in an effort to protect his wife, Ruth, who was also a Soviet agent.

During the Potsdam Conference, on July 24, 1945, Truman informed Stalin that the Manhattan Project has successfully tested an atomic bomb – something Stalin was already aware of thanks to Soviet double-agents working within the program. By this point, the Soviet Union had been fighting with the Allies for nearly three years, having switched allegiances after the events of Operation: Barbarossa.

Trinity Test:

The world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated at 05:30 am local time on July 16, 1945 at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, 230 miles south of Los Alamos (about 78 miles from Alamogordo, New Mexico and 50 miles from Socorro, New Mexico). The site is located in the Jornada Del Muerto Desert and was chosen, like most other Manhattan Project sites, because it was isolated but also because it was flat and there was little wind [(6)].

By July 1945, 250 people lived and worked at the Trinity site; during the test, that population ballooned to 425.

The test was originally scheduled for 04:00 but was postponed due to rain. Prior to the July 16th test, a “dry run” of sorts occurred on May 7, 1945. This test, called the 100-ton test, detonated 100 tons of TNT and was meant to insure that the actual atomic test would go smoothly.

The 100-ton test’s fireball was visible 60 miles away, but there was little or no shock wave felt at the base camp, which was only ten miles away. This dress rehearsal revealed some scientific and technological issues, such as the need for more test vehicles as well as better roads, and more radios and telephone lines to insure good communication. They also added a teletype machine to insure better communication with Los Alamos and upgraded the mess hall.

In the two weeks prior to the test, preparations were made to evacuate the civilian population if things went wrong. If it had been necessary, they could have evacuated 450 people, with the Alamogordo Army Air Field having been selected as the evacuation site. General Groves went so far as to warn John J. Dempsey, then governor of New Mexico that marital law might need to be declared in the area.

On the day of the atomic test, the Trinity Gadget was hoisted to the top of a 100-foot tower rather than being dropped by plane. The bomb was hauled up the tower with an electric winch – and a truckload of mattresses was placed underneath, just in case the cable broke.

The test was observed at the site from shelters established 10,000 yards from the tower at each of the cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west. Other observers were stationed 20 miles away, with still more scattered at different distances from the site.

A group of VIPs, including General Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, watched the test from Compania Hill, around 20 miles northwest of the tower. They set up a betting pool about the results with Edward Teller predicting a yield of 42 kilotons and Oppenheimer choosing 0.3 kilotons. Enrico Fermi offered to take bets on whether or not the blast would ignite the atmosphere and if that happened whether it would only destroy New Mexico or if it would incinerate the world.  This outcome had been determined to be almost impossible (but, y’know, that almost…) which the scientists knew the guards didn’t, not having the scientific background to understand that this was (hopefully) a joke.

Fermi wasn’t the only funny one among the observers – Edward Teller showed up wearing sunglasses and brought suntan lotion, which he shared.

At 5:10 am, the final 20-minute countdown to detonation began. The rain ended at 5:30 and the bomb was dropped.

It exploded with a yield of about 22 kilotons, melting the desert sand and turning it into a mildly radioactive glass later named trinitite. It left a crater 5 feet deep and 30 feet wide.  For one to two seconds, the area was lit up brighter than daylight and the heat was reported as being “hot as an oven” at the base camp – which, remember, was ten miles away.

The roar of the shock wave took 40 seconds to reach the observers and was felt over 100 miles away. The mushroom cloud reached 7.5 miles in height.

The reaction among the scientists and other observers was one of elation – the project they’d been working on for over three years, the project that nobody was really sure would actually work until it did, had succeeded[(7)].

In 1965, J. Robert Oppenheimer shared this reminiscence of the Trinity test:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all felt that one way or another.” (source: Trinity Test Eyewitnesses at Atomic

There were some unintended observers as well – civilians up to 250 miles away from ground zero heard, saw or felt the explosion. Houses shook and windows were blown out as far away as Gallup, New Mexico (235 miles away). The FBI was brought in to suppress any local news stories that might raise unwanted questions about the blast. A cover story about an ammunition storage site blowing up and was largely accepted in the Southwestern US, though it never made it into Eastern papers or radio broadcasts. (source: The Scientific Conquest of New Mexico: Local Legacies of the Manhattan Project 1942-2015, p. 199)

Of the eyewitness reports we have of the time, I think the best and easily the most poetic, belongs to Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell, second-in-command of the Manhattan Project.  He wrote this description of the Trinity test in a report to the Secretary of War:

“The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.”

Now that the bomb has been built, tested and determined to be a success, the question of using it came to the forefront. The world has now entered the nuclear age.

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[1] Ironically enough, they were given the job because, since they were considered enemy aliens, they couldn’t be given security clearances to work on the project then attempting to develop radar.

[2] The low estimate was around 12 metric tons (about 13 US tons or 26,500 pounds); the high was 40 metric tons (44 US tons, or 88,200 pounds).

[3] Some of these women were the wives of researchers at Los Alamos, others were women who had degrees in mathematics and still others had no mathematical training beyond what they received on the job. They used early mechanical calculators to assist them.  The job of “human computer” predated the Manhattan Project and was, traditionally, a job performed by women. They were particularly useful to astronomers, assisting with the stellar classification system that is still in use today and the 1969 moon landing (as depicted in the book and movie “Hidden Figures“) among other accomplishments.

[4] By some estimates, as many as 800 babies were born during the Manhattan Project; all of whom would be members of the Silent Generation.

[5] this is yet another example of how difficult it can be to keep government secrets; granted, the Sears and Roebuck delivery drivers had no way to make the leap from “ok, we got a dozen baby bassinets going to one PO Box, what the heck is going on there?!” to “I bet they’re working on an atomic bomb!” but the anomaly had to have led to talk.  One of the reasons the Soviets figured out that other countries were working on atomic bombs was because suddenly, researchers who’d been publishing on nuclear research, had suddenly stopped publishing. Later, when the US was working on continuity of government sites, the locals around one site, Raven Rock, easily guessed that some kind of nuclear war shenanigans were going on.

[6]– The site is currently known as the Trinity Site, which is probably the easiest way to look it up, if you’re curious. These days, it is possible to visit the site – though it’s only open to tourists one day a year.

[7]: Fearing that the bomb would fizzle, plans were made to transport the plutonium leftover from the fizzle. The containment system, nicknamed “Jumbo”, survived the Trinity test, but the tower it was on didn’t. You can still see it at the site today.

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Recommended Reading:


Nuke Opera 2020: Talkin’ About Our Generations

Talkin’ About Our Generations:

Posting this in hopes of helping people to get a grip around the passage of time as relates to the Cold War – personally, I find it easier to “get” modern history if I think about it in more human terms. Like, “That happened X number of years before I was born” or “My dad would have been X years old when this happened” and so on.

So, for my own reference and in the hopes that this will help make the history of the period feel more tangible, here’s a quick look at the last six generations.

Some Quick Caveats:

  • These generational cohorts are almost exclusively American; other nations do have generational names of their own, usually centered on important events in their own history/culture. In South Africa, for example, children born after the fall of apartheid are referred to as the Born-Free Generation. In Singapore, people born between 1950 and 1959 are called the Merdeka Generation, as a reference to the political turbulence they experienced during their formative years. And in Vietnam, people born in the 1990s are called the 9X Generation. But, in the interests of keeping this article as brief as possible, I’m sticking to my home country.
  • Different sources define these generations differently – this is because, as with anything related to history, there’s no way of clearly defining boundaries between groups. As such, there’s the potential for overlap. Again, think of the different generations as interlocked Venn diagrams with fuzzy borders, not rigidly defined blocks of time.
  • Members of a generational cohort are not a monolithic group. Different individuals are going to have differing experiences based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, family makeup, where they grew up and a whole host of other factors.
  • When I use the phrase “came of age,” I’m referring to turning 18 – this is an entirely arbitrary line based on concepts of adulthood that didn’t necessarily exist when these generations grew up.

Generational cohorts are a lot like a school’s graduating class, in the sense that they’re groupings of people who were born at roughly the same time and who have shared similar experiences. But, because generational cohorts are writ large across decades, there’s going to be a lot more room for variations among individual members.

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The Lost Generation: 1883-1900 – This is the generation that fought in World War I and jitterbugged through the Roaring Twenties. The term is also used to describe a group of writers and artists, particularly a group of American expatriates living in Paris. The name was coined by Gertrude Stein and popularized by Ernest Hemingway who used it as an epigraph in his novel, The Sun Also Rises.

This generation is believed to have gone extinct, with the death of its last member, Nabi Tajima, who lived from August 4, 1900 to April 21, 2018.

  • US Presidents Who Served During This Period:
    • #21 Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) — assassinated
    • #22 Grover Cleveland (1885-1889)
    • #23 Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
    • #24 Grover Cleveland (1893-1897)
    • #25 William McKinley (1897-1901) — assassinated
  • Came of Age: between 1901 and 1918
    • Age at beginning of Cold War (1945): 62-45
    • Age at time of Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): 79-62
    • Age at the end of the Cold War (1991): 108-91

Cultural Components: This generation grew up at a time when radio was first becoming a means of communication and when the first moving pictures (kinetoscopes) were being made. They played with one of the first mass-produced stuffed toys in America and listened to music on gramophones. The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Eiffel Tower, Coca-Cola and aspirin came about during this time period. Their fathers and older brothers might have fought in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars or helped with the annexation of Hawaii.  (

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The GI Generation: 1900-1924 – Also known as “The Greatest Generation” after the title of Tom Brokaw’s book. This is the generation that produced most of our World War I and World War II veterans. The older members of this cohort experienced World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920 and partied during the Roaring Twenties; younger members grew up during Prohibition and the Great Depression

  • US Presidents:
    • #26 Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
    • #27 William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
    • #28 Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) – President during World War I
    • #29 Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) – Died in office
    • #30 Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
  • Came of Age: between 1918-1942
    • Age at beginning of Cold War (1945): 45-21
    • Age at time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): 62-38
    • Age at the end of the Cold War (1991): 91-67es

Cultural Components: This is the generation that grew up with movies, though they had to read them rather than listen. The automobile became a mass-produced phenomenon thanks to the assembly line method of production; the first Zeppelin airship and first motor driven plane (created by the Wright Brothers) are launched during this time. The Titanic sank. The Boxer Rebellion happened in China; Queen Victoria died; the Commonwealth of Australia is established.

Kids of this era were the first to color with Crayola Crayons, beg their parents for a nickel for the nickelodeon, and to join the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They were also the first generation to grow up expecting to see (if they lived in New York City) or at least hear about the ball being dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

And, of course, as a proud (if relocated) Hoosier, I have to mention that this generation was the first to grow up with the Indianapolis 500 as a thing. Also, pop-up toasters, air mail, and US citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico.

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The Silent Generation: 1925-1945 – It’s probably easiest to think of them as the elder siblings of the Baby Boomers, though some of the younger members of this cohort would have very much grown up with the same cultural context as the older members of the Baby Boom.  Those born in 1925 would have turned 18 around 1943 and might have seen service during World War II.

They were called the Silent Generation as early as 1955, based on their tendency to be more cautious and sedate than their elders.

  • US Presidents:
    • #31 Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
    • #32 Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) – died in office. Longest serving president of the United States.
    • #33 Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) – first Cold War era President. Only US president to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in wartime.
  • Came of Age: between 1943-1963
    • Age at beginning of the Cold War (1945): 20 to newborn
    • Age at time of Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): 37-17
    • Age at the end of the Cold War (1991): 66-46

Cultural Notes: The biggest influences on this generation during these years are the Great Depression and, for the older members of the cohort, World War II. This generation grew up listening to radio serials and soap operas, going to the movies and seeing newsreels, cartoons and at least one feature film. They listened to jazz and big band music. After 1927, their movies could talk. They’re the first generation to get the luxury of frozen food and handheld hair dryers. TV was invented during this time but wouldn’t be come widespread until the time of the Baby Boomers. They listened to a wide variety of musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Bessie Smith, Gene Autry, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller and Rosemary Clooney – among many, many, many others.

Kids in this era were the first American kids to play with yo-yos and go mini-golfing. They got the first comic books and saw the origins of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and most of the rest of DC’s stable of characters. They were the first to fight over Monopoly and Scrabble.

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Baby Boomers: 1946-1964 – The first generation of the Cold War and the largest generational cohort in American history – until the Millennials came along. Their influence over everything from politics to pop culture has been staggering. Between 1946 and 1964, over 76 million children were born. This generation is so big, you can actually break it into two cohorts:

  • Baby Boomers born 1946-1955: Also called the “Leading-Edge” Baby Boomers, this group came of age between 1964-1973; like the younger members of the Silent Generation, this group helped shape the cultural changes of the 1960s. This is the group that served in and protested against the Vietnam War.
    • Key Historical Events: The Cold War and the concurrent Red Scare; the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Baby Boomers born 1956-1964: Also known as “Late Boomers” or “Trailing-Edge Boomers,” this group came of age between 1974-1982 and were mostly too young to serve in Vietnam. On the other hand, they lived through the oil embargoes, rising inflation and economic recessions, gasoline shortages, and a lack of opportunities after graduation from high school or college as well as America’s late 70’s malaise.
  • US Presidents:
    • #33 Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
    • #34 Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
    • #35 John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) Assassinated; president during Cuban Missile Crisis
    • #36 Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
  • Came of Age: between 1964-1982
    • Age at Beginning of the Cold War: Not present, except for anyone conceived between April 1st 1945 and August 9th 1945, and even then they weren’t reading the papers.
    • Age at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis:
      • First Cohort (1946-1955): 16-7
      • Second Cohort (1956-1964): 6-0
    • Age at the end of the Cold War:
      • First Cohort (1946-1955): 45-36
      • Second Cohort (1956-1964): 35-27

Cultural Notes: Go listen to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” from “Harry Truman” through “JFK blown away” – or, better yet, go to the Wikipedia article for the song and follow the links. In addition, this generation saw most of the stereotypical things we associate with the Cold War: Duck and Cover and similar safety films, public and private fallout shelters (though the private ones were never as popular as people think); and the creation of thermonuclear weapons, ICBMs and fears of a Missile Gap.

Additionally, this was the era of the Civil Rights Movement, early feminism, and the counter-culture movement.

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Generation X: 1965-1980 – This is the generation that I belong to. We’re the children of the Silent Generation and the Leading-Edge Boomers. We were the first generation that was expected to do worse than our parents and we’ve been largely overlooked since the Millennials came along, though we have a lot in common with them. Our pop-culture is helping fuel nostalgia and to shape the media of the younger generations.

We used to be called twentysomethings— after that show thirtysomething — which was about Baby Boomers.

  • US Presidents:
    • #36 Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
    • #37 Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
    • #38 Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
    • #39 Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
  • Came of Age: between 1983-1998
    • Age at the beginning of the Cold War (1945): We weren’t there, but our parents might have been toddlers at the time (my dad was born in 1941, so he’d have been about 4).
    • Age at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): Still not there, but our parents are hitting their teens or starting elementary school.
    • Age at the end of the Cold War (1991): 26-11 (I was 21).

Cultural Notes: Go and listen to the rest of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from “Birth Control” through “Russians in Afghanistan” and you’ll hit most of the events that happened while Gen-Xers were being born; continue the song out and you’ll have hit the high notes of what we experienced as we began to come of age.

We were the generation where the home video recorder (either VHS or Betamax) became commonplace, along with video rental stores. We were also the generation that was going to rot its brains out playing video games – either at the local arcade or on our home consoles (my cousins had an Atari 2600) – or by watching too much TV. We were the generation of the half-hour syndicated cartoon/toy commercial (GI Joe, Transformers, He-Man, She-Ra, and Jem and the Holograms, among others).

We were the first generation to grow up in a time of no-fault divorce. We were latchkey kids (though we weren’t the first) and the kids of single parents (again, nothing new) and we were the generation where people began to worry about things like child abuse and driving drunk and just saying “No” to drugs. We grew up under the specter of AIDS and nuclear war. But we had some rockin’ good music, that’s for sure.

# # # # #

Millennials: 1980-1996 – The younger siblings of Generation X and currently, the Marsha to our Jan. They’ve killed a lot of industries and taken a lot of flack from their elders, but they’ve given as good as they’ve gotten. The younger members of this cohort are the first to grow up in a post-Cold War world while the older members experienced its last gasps. The generation of grunge and flannel, they were the first to grow up with the internet.

  • US Presidents:
    • #40 Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
    • #41 George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)
    • #42 Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
  • Came of Age: between 1998-2014
    • Age at the beginning of the Cold War (1945): Like Gen-X, they weren’t around for the beginning, though their parents (and even their grandparents) were.
    • Age at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): Same; no Millennials’ were around for the Cuban Missile Crisis, but their parents and grandparents were.
    • Age at the end of the Cold War (1991): 11-0

Cultural Notes: These kids were entering school/hitting puberty around the time the Cold War ended and suddenly, America found itself desperately in need of a focus for its energies. This was the time of the first Gulf War, known then as Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm and featuring several key players who would come back to prominence when Gulf War II started a decade later. The end of apartheid in South Africa brought hope of a more multicultural world, while the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the officers who’d done it, showed us how far we still needed to go.  The Oklahoma City bombing brought the presence of domestic terrorists within the United States into the mainstream.

The Millennials continued to play with video games, though they had better systems than their Gen-X siblings. They saw the rise of cable TV and were the first generation to know the joy of having five hundred channels and the bitter regret of nothing being on.

# # # # #

Generation Y: 1996 to the present?? – If we go by the ‘twenty years makes a generation thing” Generation Y ended in 2016, but I’m extending it through 2020 for convenience sake. These are the kids who grew up entirely in a post-Internet/post-911 world. The oldest members of this group are in their early 20s now, the very youngest are about four or potentially still being born, depending on where future researchers draw the line.

These kids are the first entirely post-Cold War generation, though sadly, the threat of nuclear weapons hasn’t fully left their world, only changed.  They are the first fully digital generation, growing up as comfortable with texting as their parents were with passing notes.

  • US Presidents:
    • #43 George W. Bush (2001-2009)
    • #44 Barack Obama (2009-2017)
    • #45 Donald Trump (2017-Incumbent)
  • Came of Age: between 1998-2014
    • Age at the beginning of the Cold War (1945): Their grandparents – possibly even great-grandparents for some of the youngest members – were toddlers when Trinity was tested.
    • Age at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): Their grandparents would have been getting ready for the first grade or for their last years of high school.
    • Age at the end of the Cold War (1991): Their parents were hitting the legal drinking age by this point.

Cultural notes: The biggest events of this generation’s childhoods would be the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror as well as the election of the first African-American president in the country’s history. They also saw a new member join the Nuclear Arms Club when North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon on October 9, 2006.  This is the generation of cat macros and viral videos and memes and aps.

# # # # #


Nuke Opera 2020: Before the Beginning: The Basics of the Pre-Atomic Era: 1895-1942:

Before the Beginning: The Pre-Atomic Era: 1895-1942:

A Note: My goal in subdividing the Cold War into smaller, loosely organized sections was to make it easier to look more closely at the history of the period. The problem is, history is, to paraphrase the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, “beautiful, damn hard, increasingly useful.” Looking at any historical period opens the researcher up to discovering nooks and crannies that can lead to new areas of discovery.  Despite quoting Mandelbrot, I can’t even say that history is fractal because fractals simply stay the same as you look at them more and more closely, their patterns repeating endlessly into infinity. History does that too but it also varies the patterns and adds new bits.

All of this is a long and somewhat whingy way of saying that each of these subsections of the Cold War could easily be a book all on their own. Heck, they have been, so in order to keep myself from attempting to write those books, I’m going to hit the high notes of these periods, adding in a few extra bits that I feel are important to understanding the complexities of any historical period.

I’ve also scattered a few links to videos on the relevant historical periods, most from a YouTube channel called Crash Course, which does a great job of summarizing history and making the complexities easier to understand.

If a subject strikes me of particular interest, I’ll likely expand upon it in an article at a later point.

Content Note: This article discusses, among other things, the Nazis rise to power and the beginnings of World War II. As such, references will be made to the early stages of the Holocaust and there are links to sites providing supplemental information. Some of those links may include images or descriptions of events that may be disturbing to some readers. Please, tread carefully.

In addition, this article also briefly touches on the “Radium Girls” – young women who were made ill and even died from exposure to radioactive paint used to illuminate watch dials. Some links in this section include photographs of these injuries. They’re not very good photos but they still might be disturbing to those who dislike looking at medical photos.

# # # # #

The Pre-Pre-Atomic Era: From the Iron Age to the Enlightenment:

The idea that everything can be broken down into tiny, indivisible components called atoms predates the discovery of the atom by about 2,250 years. Back in the 5th century CE[0], a Greek philosopher named Leucippus put forth the idea that all matter is made up of extremely small, indivisible particles. He called them atoms and his theory is known as atomism.

Other Greek philosophers expanded on Leucippus’s ideas. In addition, atomism appeared in other areas of the ancient world, such as India, where Buddhist philosophers created their own theories, possibly having learned about the ideas of Leucippus and other Greeks, due to extensive cultural contact and exchange between Greece and India before and during this period.

Leucippus’s ideas fell by the wayside for several thousand years – there would be those who would pick up the idea of atoms and atomism, toy with them, but nothing really came of these ideas until around 1800 AD when John Dalton, a British chemist, revived the ancient ideas and developed the first modern atomic theory which became widely accepted. Some aspects of his theory are still accepted today. Others, such as the idea that atoms cannot be created or destroyed, have been disproven.

It’s from Dalton’s revival and expansion on the ancient theories of atomism that we get our modern atomic science.

To Me, My X-Rays!: the Discovery of (Ionizing) Radiation:

Humans have known about non-ionizing radiation, such as thermal or heat radiation, for thousands of years, if not longer. According to archaeological evidence, we figured out how to control fire anywhere from 1.7 million to about 200,000 years ago  Even before that, even the dimmest archaic human could have figured out that the big shiny ball in the sky made things warm. Heck, even cats have figured out thermal radiation.

In modern times, the existence of non-ionizing radiation in the forms of infrared radiation and radio waves were confirmed in the 1830 and 1888, respectively.  Microwaves were first generated in the 1890s.

Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, is almost impossible to detect without specialized equipment.  Which is why it wasn’t until November 8, 1895 when William Konrad Roentgen was experimenting with producing cathode rays [(1)] – only to see a fluorescent material glowing from exposure to the rays. Roentgen knew that cathode rays couldn’t penetrate lightproof materials and theorized that the fluorescence he was seeing was due to some new kind of radiation. Not knowing what the rays were, Roentgen named them “X” for “unknown.”[(2)]

Roentgen experimented with his new rays and learned that they would pass through things, leaving “shadows” on photographic plates. He even used his unknown rays to take a picture of his wife’s hand, which lead to a medical revolution as doctors around the world began using Roentgen’s rays to look inside the human body.

This lead to positive side benefits: doctors could look inside patients and see broken bones and kidney stones, as well as find bullets still lodged inside a person, without increasing the patient’s risk of infection from doctors probing wounds with unsterilized fingers and/or instruments (which is likely what caused the infection that killed US President James A. Garfield after an assassination attempt in 1881).

On the negative side, people being people, there became something of a craze for X-rays (also known as Roentgen rays). They were widely used, oftentimes indiscriminately, with no consideration of potential side effects from radiation exposure. Something researchers like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla tried to bring to peoples’ attention after both had mishaps during their researches.

One of the more outrageous examples of the misuse of X-rays in the early 20th century is the fact that shoe stores used to have fluoroscopes (x-ray machines) where the customer could x-ray their feet to see how well their shoes fit.

X-rays weren’t the only form of radiation people misused for faddish reasons. There was an entire craze for so-called ‘health cures’ that used radium, uranium, thorium and even radon as their active ingredients. While it’s easy to sneer at the foolishness of the people of the past, most of this occurred at a time when the dangers of radiation were still poorly understood, even by researchers.  Marie Curie died in 1934 due to aplastic anemia caused by her years of exposure to radioactive materials. Her exposure rates were so high, her papers from the 1890s are kept in lead-lined boxes. Henri Becquerel’s death was caused by unknown causes, but he did receive serious burns from handling radioactive materials, as did Pierre Curie, who died from injuries received in an automobile accident.

In addition to researchers, radiation killed members of the general public, including Eben Byers, 1906 US Amateur golf champion, who died from consuming a patent medicine made of radium dissolved in water. And the “Radium Girls,” young women who painted watch dials and hands with radium paint, brushes they used to ‘point’ their brushes with their mouths. This led to them ingesting hundreds of microdoses of radium every day. Some of the girls also would paint their nails, teeth and faces for fun, having been told by their employers that the paint was safe. Many of them became ill, but how many died of radiation exposure is unknown.

What we do know is that a group of them sued their employers, ultimately winning their case and helping to strengthen the rights of workers in the United States and enhancing industrial safety standards for decades by helping to establish occupational disease laws, requiring safety equipment and proper training for employees as well as limitations on exposure to toxic substances.

Further information on the Radium Girls (note: some links contain photographs of the after-effects of radium exposure; most of the images are blurry but some might still find them off-putting.)

Timeline: 1895-1918

  • 1895 – Willhelm Konrad Roentgen discovers the existence of X-rays.
  • 1896 – Henri Becquerel discovers that uranium is radioactive.
  • 1897 – British physicist J. J. Thompson discovers the electron.
  • 1905 – Albert Einstein develops his theory of relativity (E=mc2), which equates matter and energy.
  • 1911 – Ernest Rutherford discovers the majority of the energy in an atom is inside the nucleus.
  • 1912 – J. Thompson discovers isotopes by experimenting with neon.
  • 1915 – English geologist Robert Rich Sharp discovers a uranium deposit in Shinkolobwe, in the Katanga province of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo after following up on a story about a particularly colorful mud the local people rubbed on their skin (for much the same reason the “Radium Girls” painted their fingers and faces with radium: it looked pretty). Sharp believed this mud might contain copper but instead found it contained a particularly pure form of uranium pitchblende – itself a source for the newly discovered element radium, which was being widely touted as a new, wonder element.
  • 1914-1918 – World War I

Key Historical Events and Why They Matter:

World War I: Began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in 1914 by a Serbian nationalist. This led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. Other countries joined in the war, aligning behind Serbia or Austria-Hungary, depending on pre-war alliances and treaties. The main sides were the Allied Powers of the British Empire, France and Russia versus the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. All told, 135 countries took part in World War I, involving troops from every continent except Antarctica.

While fighting was primarily centered in Europe, specifically along the Western Front in France and Belgium where losses were heavy (13 million military casualties and roughly one million civilians killed), battles were fought in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the islands of the Pacific as well as at sea in open ocean.

World War I was, in some respects, the first modern war. It’s during this time that we see the first military use of tanks, airplanes, and submarines as well as chemical weapons such as chlorine and mustard gases.

For our purposes, World War I is primarily important for what happened after it ended. Specifically, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles helped create conditions that made it possible for the growth of fascism in Europe, Hitler’s rise to power and the events of World War II.

The Treaty of Versailles, one of the treaties that ended World War I, required Germany to pay war reparations, drastically reduce its military in terms of personnel and materials (ships, planes, artillery pieces) and accept responsibility for its actions during the fighting. Unfortunately, a mistranslation of Article 231, also called the War Guilt Clause, outraged many Germans who saw it as an attempt to force Germany to accept full responsibility for causing the war. This led to post-war resentment among many Germans at all levels, who saw this clause as part of a humiliating and ignoble defeat.

Article 231 was intended by the Allied Powers simply as a way of creating a legal basis for which to require Germany to pay reparations for the damages and suffering caused by the war.  The full liability for all of the Central Powers was placed at 132 billion gold marks, of which Germany was required only to pay 50 billion (about $12.5 billion dollars). This was less than Germany itself had originally offered for peace terms. Reparations were not popular among the Germans and did strain their economy. Between 1919 and 1931, when the reparations ended, Germany paid less than 21 billion gold marks – or about 2 percent of their national income during the reparations period.

The resentment sparked by reparations and their defeat by the Allied powers merged with economic hardships in the post-war period, anti-Semitism [(3)] and distrust of communism to help fuel the rise of fascism in Germany.

The Russian Revolution: Or, more correctly, the Russian Revolutions. Specifically, the February Revolution and the October Revolution. In a nutshell, the February Revolution ousted Tsar Nicholas and his family and led to the formation of a socialist provisional government.  This provisional government was, in turn, overthrown during the October Revolution by a communist faction led by Vladimir Lenin. This group creates the Soviet Union. The United States refuses to acknowledge the Soviet Union as an official country until 1933.

 Fear of the spread of communism was found not only in Germany but also in the United States, where anti-radical hysteria was exacerbated into an anti-foreigner sentiment aimed at European immigrants who were seen as little better than ‘hyphenated-Americans’ who were polluting America with radical and anarchistic ideas. Many of these immigrants were Eastern Europeans, many Catholic or Jewish, which further incited fear among American bigots who were already riding high on jingoistic sentiments left over from the end of World War I.

In the United States, these anti-communist sentiments led, among other things, to the First Red Scare of 1917-1919, during which anti-sedition and anti-anarchist laws were passed, specifically targeting radical sentiments believed to be a threat to the integrity of the United States.

Anti-communist sentiments in Germany had equally dire and long-lasting consequences, as we’ll see as we discuss The Rise of Fascism:

Fascism is a totalitarian form of government, usually far-right wing, usually a one-party system, usually a dictatorship and usually militaristic, racist, and autocratic. It’s a political system that, in the 20th century, first appeared in Italy in the 1920s. Italy’s fascist party led the country from 1922 to nearly the end of World War II. In theory, a fascist “grand council” led Italy during this time, but in actuality, it was led by Benito Mussolini.

Fascism is named after the fasces, an old Roman name for a bundle of sticks tied together, often with an axe blade at the top.  The idea behind the fasces is that just as a single stick can be easily broken, but a bundle of sticks is much harder to snap, if a nation’s people stand together behind a single ideology, they will be harder to defeat.

Which is a lovely idea – except that fascism does not tolerate dissension in the ranks. If you are not for the fascist government, you are by default, against it.  And if you are against the government, you are an enemy of the state and you can expect to be dealt with severely.

For a fictional example of life in a fascist state, George Orwell’s 1984 (written in 1948), is a good starting point. For a book that is set in this pre-atomic time period and which shows how slowly and how easily a previously democratic country can become fascist, I highly recommend It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis. It was written in response to the rise of Hitler in Germany and touches on fascist sentiments that were present in the United States at the time.

Fascism took hold in post-World War I Germany, fueled by resentment about reparations and their losses in the war which many on the far-right tried to justify through the adoption of a conspiracy theory that held that Germany lost because of sabotage from within. This “stab-in-the-back” myth, which held that Germany lost World War I because socialists, communists and Jews worked to prevent Germany’s victory in order to seize power for themselves, gained acceptance even among some members of Germany’s High Command.

Between 1918 and 1923, Germany was highly politically unstable with attempted coups and political assassinations being frighteningly common.  Right-wing and left-wing groups fought each other, literally, in the streets – to the point that apparently it was possible to tell who was fighting who based on the post-fight injuries. Communists, it seems, preferred using clubs and beer bottles while the Nazis preferred knives.

 In 1923, the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, a failed attempt to take over the German state of Bavaria, led to Adolph Hitler being arrested and charged with treason.  His arrest helped bring Hitler to the attention not only of Germany but also of the wider world, since the event was front-page news worldwide.

Hitler was put on trial and, after a twenty-four day trial, was sentenced to five years in prison, of which he ended up serving less than nine months. During the trial, he used his testimony to help polish his image for the newspapers. He ended up serving about nine months. While in prison, Hitler wrote his manifesto, Mein Kampf, in which he laid out his political ideology and future plans for Germany. He also outlined how he came to be an anti-Semite.

The failure of the Putsch also taught Hitler the lesson that he should work toward overthrowing the system politically rather than violently. He spend the next ten years working toward that goal and ultimately succeeded in 1933 when he was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. In August 1934, Hitler would be declared the head of both the German state and the German government, when a plebiscite vote overwhelmingly agreed to merge the offices of the President and Chancellor of Germany into one office.

In the time between when he was named Chancellor and when the offices of Chancellor and President were merged, Hitler’s government managed to enact legislation meant to attack those he felt were Germany’s enemies. Laws and policies against homosexuals, Jews and Germans with Jewish ancestry, the Roma and Sinti, the disabled and others were enacted. The first concentration camp, Dachau, was opened on March 22, 1933.

By July 14, 1933, Hitler had banned all other political parties, making the Nazi party the only party. Also on that day, the first law allowing for the compulsory sterilization of the disabled is enacted. Later, sterilization will be used against other groups, including alcoholics, vagrants, the unemployed and homeless (who were also sent to concentration camps during these early days).

Unfortunately, Hitler’s policies would become worse as time went on. Jews were forbidden from certain jobs, including the judiciary, the arts, journalism and even farming – in which case, their lands were taken from them and given to “proper” Germans.  By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws declared Jews were no longer citizens of Germany and could not marry German citizens. The first mass arrests of Jews began in June 1938.

In July 1938, Fascist Italy put forth its own Manifesto of Race, stripping Italian Jews of their citizenship as well as removing them from any governmental or professional positions. This led to Italian physicist Enrico Fermi leaving the country in order to protect his Italian-Jewish wife, Laura Fermi.

All of this is horrific in and of itself and while I could go on to outline the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis, it is not within the scope of what I’m here to talk about, which is nuclear weapons. Instead, I recommend the following sources (all of which may contain images that some may find disturbing):

However, because history is a strange and bendable thing, Hitler’s genocidal policies did have a broader impact on the Manhattan Project – and quite possibly led to its ultimate success, since Germany decided to remove anyone who wasn’t ideologically or racially pure by their standards from any aspect of public life. Including scientists and researchers who might have been useful for the German war effort.[(4)]

On April 7, 1933, a law was passed barring anyone who either opposed the Nazi party or who had one Jewish grandparent, from government service. Thousands of people lost their jobs with a pen stroke, including scientists and researchers, some from Germany’s top universities.

A list of “displaced scholars” published in 1936 by a group that sought to help them find jobs in other countries, listed 1,800 scholars in a variety of fields, including 129 physicists. These included people who would be crucial to the development of the atomic bomb, such as Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Stanislaw Ulam.

Further Information on Refugee Scientists:

Timeline: 1918-1938:

  • January 1918-December 1920 — The Spanish Flu pandemic sweeps the globe, killing 50 million out of the 500 million infected.  While it became known as the “Spanish Flu,” evidence seems to suggest that it may have originated in either China, France or Kansas.  The link above leads to a review of Pale Rider by Laura Spinney, a fascinating history of the epidemic.
  • 1920 – Rutherford theorizes the existence of the neutron, which is confirmed by James Chadwick in 1932. This discovery leads to experiments in which various elements are bombarded with neutrons.
  • 1920Prohibition begins in the United States.
  • 1921 – Uranium mining begins at Shinkolobwe, the ore being exported to Olen, Belgium where radium and uranium were extracted.
  • October 24, 1929 — The Wall Street Crash of 1929 begins the Great Depression, a global economic depression that lasted
  • 1933 – Leo Szilard deduces the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, a concept otherwise unknown at the time. Later this same year, he invents the idea of an atomic bomb while crossing a street in London’s Russell Square. He later patents the idea.
  • 1933 — Prohibition is repealed.
  • March 4, 1933 –– Franklin D. Roosevelt is sworn in as President of the United States.
  • 1934 – Enrico Fermi, while experimenting with uranium and thorium, creates the first synthetic elements, also known as trans-uranium elements – or, elements on the other side of uranium. In 1938, Fermi fled Fascist Italy for the United States, due to anti-Semitic racial laws that threatened the safety of his wife, Laura Capon, an Italian Jew.
  • 1934 – Professor Hikosaka Tadayoshi’s ‘atomic physics theory’ is published, pointing out the enormous amount of energy contained in an atomic nucleus and that both nuclear power and nuclear weapons could be created.
  • 1938 – in December, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman bombard uranium with neutrons, detecting barium as a by-product. Their colleagues, Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch interpret this as nuclear fission.

In December 1938, nuclear fission was discovered German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman after they bombarded uranium with neutrons and detected barium as a by-product of their experiment. Their findings were interpreted by Lise Meitner and her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, as nuclear fission. Frisch confirms that Hahn and Strassman discovered nuclear fission in January 1939.  By April 1939, Nazi Germany begins working to build a nuclear reactor, as a first step toward creating a nuclear weapon.

In August 1939, Leo Szilard, after consulting with colleagues Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, writes a letter to American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning him that Germany might be working on an atomic bomb and suggesting that America begin a nuclear program of its own. Albert Einstein co-signs Szilard’s letter, though in 1947, Einstein told an interviewer that, “had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing.”

In September 1939, World War II begins in Europe,with the German invasion of Poland, which causes Great Britain and France to declare war against Nazi Germany. Prior to this, with the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, both Great Britain and France had attempted to appease Hitler in an attempt to avoid another war.

On October 11, 1939, the Szilard-Einstein letter is finally given to Presidents Roosevelt, who authorizes the creation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium, beginning America’s nuclear program.

During this time, Great Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union all also began investigations into the feasibility of atomic weapons. Great Britain would ultimately shelve its program during World War II, instead opting to assist with the Manhattan Project. Japan’s nuclear program, begun in part due to fears of an American nuclear program, never came of anything. The Soviet Union’s nuclear program, on the other hand, did ultimately succeed – though it was delayed in June 1941 by the events of Operation: Barbarossa.

When war was declared in 1939, the Soviet Union stayed out of the hostilities, and even went so far as to sign a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany in August of that year. The treaty stated that neither side would ally itself with or aid the other’s enemies. It also allowed Hitler and Stalin to define their “spheres of influence” in Eastern Europe, dividing up countries like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.  In fact, while Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded from the other side on September 17, 1939.

The treaty, which was supposed to last until August 1949, ended on June 22, 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union as part of Operation Barbarossa.  The invasion was part of an effort to obtain natural resources (specifically oil reserves in the Caucasus) and farmlands. The farmlands would be given to Germans who would settle the area as part of the German Lebensraum or “Living Room” policy. The local populations, particularly the Slavic people, would be used as slave labor and ultimately killed off, just as the Nazis did with other groups they deemed inferior.

Operation: Barbarossa did several things – first, it ended the Soviet Union’s neutrality and ultimately brought them into the war on the side of the Allies. Secondly, it opened up the Eastern Front which became World War II’s largest and bloodiest theatre of operations. Over four years of fighting, the Soviet Union’s losses were 26 million people, including 8.6 soldiers, as well as the loss of 1,710 towns and 70,000 villages. Thirdly, this sneak attack and Germany’s ultimate defeat divided the world into Eastern and Western political blocs once the war ended. The Soviet Union was able to slide into the post-war power vacuum in Eastern Europe and placed troops in the countries that would become Soviet satellite states for much of the Cold War.

Additionally, Operation Barbarossa left the Soviet Union with a long-lasting distrust of treaties and a wariness of the potential for being attacked by surprise again.  This would cause problems in the early 1980s when Reagan’s strong, anti-communist rhetoric sparked concerns of an American nuclear sneak attack.

Speaking of Americans and sneak attacks, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States and Great Britain declare war on Japan the next day, with Germany and Italy declaring war on the United States (and vice versa) on December 11, 1941.

On January 19, 1942, Roosevelt formally authorizes the US atomic bomb program, though it won’t be formalized as the Manhattan Project until August 13, 1942.

The Takeaway:  During this period in history, humanity discovers radiation, figures out that it is both potentially very, very useful and also very, very dangerous. We essentially go from, “Ooh, this is cool!” to “Let’s use it to blow stuff up!” in almost the same amount of time that we went from the dropping of the first atomic bomb to the end of the Cold War. History is weirdly symmetrical at times.

Timeline: 1939-1942:

  • 1939 – Britain and France express interest in Belgium’s inventory of Shinkolobwe uranium.
  • January 1939 – Otto Robert Frisch confirms Hahn and Strassman’s discovery; in Copenhagen, he shares this discovery with Niels Bohr, who reports it to his colleagues in America. Later that year, Bohr and John Archibald Wheeler determine through experiments at Princeton University that uranium-235 could produce a nuclear explosion.
  • April 1939 – Nazi Germany begins its nuclear weapons project.
  • August 2, 1939 – the Einstein-Szilard letter is sent to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The letter was written by Szilard, after consulting with Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, and warned that Germany might develop an atomic bomb. It suggested that the United States should begin its own nuclear program. Einstein co-signed the letter, a decision he would later come to regret. In 1947, he would tell Newsweek magazine that “had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing.”
  • 1939 – Yoshio Nishina, leading figure in Japan’s atomic program, recognizes the military potential of nuclear fission and worries about the United States creating a nuclear weapon they might use against Japan.
  • 1940 – Nazis occupy Belgium, gaining control of uranium ore still in the country. Also that year, 1,200 tons of stockpiled uranium ore were sold to the United States, who entered into an arrangement with the African Metals Corps. From September 1942 on, an average of 400 tons of uranium oxide were shipped every month to the United States.
  • 1940 – April – The Military Application of Uranium Detonation (MAUD) Committee is established in the UK to study the feasibility of an atomic bomb.
  • July 1940 – the Soviet Academy of Sciences begins investigating the development of a nuclear bomb.
  • In early summer of 1940, Professor Nishina meets Lieutenant-Genral Takeo Yasuda, then director of the Japanese Army Aeronautical Department’s Technical Research Institute. The two discuss the possibility of building nuclear weapons. Despite this, Japan’s fission research project didn’t begin until April 1941.
  • February 1941 – Plutonium is discovered by Glenn Seaborg and Arthur Wahl at the University of California, Berkley.
  • June 22, 1941 – Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, begins. In the short-term, this delays Soviet nuclear research. In the long-term, this will affect future Soviet/US relations, particularly during the 1980s.
  • June 25, 1941 — Roosevelt signs Executive Order 8802, prohibiting racial and ethnic discrimination in the US defense industry; this is the first federal action to promote equal opportunities in employment.
  • December 1941 – United States enters World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Germany declares war against the United States on December 11, 1941.
  • 1942 – Rather than pursue their own nuclear program, the United Kingdom opts to support the United States’ efforts instead. This decision was, in part, due to economic damage the UK had sustained prior to this point.
    • April – Stalin is informed of the efforts to develop nuclear weapons via a letter from Soviet physicist Georgil Flerov, who deduced the existence of these programs due to the fact that, after the initial discovery of nuclear fission, no other papers were being published on the topic – not even by physicists likely to be involved in the research. This sparked the Soviet Union to begin its own nuclear weapons program.
  • August 1942 – The Manhattan Project is established by the US Army Corps of Engineers under the command of General Leslie Groves.

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Note on Terms I’m using CE for Common Era because, honestly, it’s how the date was referenced in the source I used for this. My personal preference is BC/AD because that’s what I grew up using and it’s a weird area where I am slow to change.

[1] Cathode rays are streams of electrons that can be observed in vacuum tubes.  If you’re of a certain age, like myself, you remember the days when cathode-ray tubes were used in TVs and computer monitors. These tubes were large vacuum tubes that contained electron guns that fired beams of electrons at a phosphorescent screen to create the images.

[2] “X” in the sense of the unknown is actually a reference to the Greek letter “chi” – which looks like a small letter x. It’s also why we abbreviate “Christmas” as “X-mas” since it was used as an abbreviation of Christ.

[3] Germany, like much of Europe, has a long history of anti-Semitic prejudice. During the Crusades, several Jewish communities in Germany were destroyed by German Crusaders who figured, why go all the way to the Holy Land to kill non-believers when they had some living in their backyard?

During World War I, the German army actually took the time to do a census of their troops to try and prove that Jews were underrepresented in the army. And that those who were in the army were over-represented in non-fighting positions (i.e. weren’t risking their lives on the front like “Real” Germans).  The census ended up proving the exact opposite, so the army suppressed the results, because of course they did.

[4]  Heck, there was even a movement to eliminate “Jewish physics” (i.e. the physics of Einstein) in favor of “German” or “Aryan Physics” by some German physicists who wanted to be extra-special-super-duper pure.


  • Date Duration Calculator —  Not a source, per se, but a really cool Date Calculator that works for BC and AD dates.  Bless the person who created this.
  • And, as always, massive thanks to the folks at Wikipedia and the Simple English Wikipedia for their supremely useful sites.

Nuke Opera 2020: Exchange Rates: Measuring Radiation:

Exchange Rates: Measuring Radiation:

Radiation can be measured, just like chalk or cheese or how many miles to the nearest gas station. There are even specialized units specifically used for measuring various aspects of radiation and radioactivity.

Specifically, we’re measuring how radioactive something is, how much radiation is absorbed by an object or a person, and how much radiation someone is being exposed to at a given moment.

Note: as always, when we’re talking about ‘radiation’ or ‘radioactivity’ we’re referring specifically to ionizing radiation.

When we measure radioactivity, we want to find out how much ionizing radiation is emitted, regardless of what type of radiation it is. This is done by counting how many atoms are decaying in a given amount of time. Radioactivity is measured by the Becquerel (Bq) or the curie (Ci)

  • A becquerel is the equivalent to one nuclear decay every second, which makes it a very, very, very small unit of measurement. Because of this, becquerels are often ‘prefixed’ to create larger units, such as the kilobecquerel (kBq), which is thousands of becquerels or the megabecquerel (MBq) which is millions of becquerel (much like kilotons and megatons are thousands and millions of tons, respectively).
    • Note: the megabecquerel is equivalent to 1 rutherford, which equals 1 million decays per second.
  • The curie, on the other hand, is the equivalent of 37 billion becquerels (though, originally, it was based on the decay rate of radium-226)

Absorbed Dose – measures how much radiation an object/person absorbs as radioactive particles/waves pass through it/them. This measurement doesn’t take into consideration the type of radiation being absorbed or the material doing the absorbing.  Absorbed doses are measured by the gray (Gy) or the rad (radiation absorbed dose)

  • One gray is equal to one kilogram of matter that has absorbed one joule of radiation energy. One joule is equal to the amount of energy needed to heat one gram of dry, cool air by 1 degree Celsius. Grays are used to measure large amounts of radiation exposure, generally of the fatal or potentially fatal variety.
  • One rad is equal to the dose of radiation that causes 100 ergs of energy to be absorbed by one gram of matter. An erg is equal to 100 nanojoules; it would take about 10 million ergs to equal one joule. As radiation doses go, one rad is very, very small.

Dose Equivalent – also known as the effective dose, this is a combination of the amount of radiation a person absorbs and the medical effects of the type of radiation absorbed. This is measured using the Sievert (Sv) or the rem (radiation equivalent man). These units specifically measure human exposure.

  • A sievert is equal to the absorbed dose of ionizing radiation multiplied by a weighting factor (formerly called the quality factor) that’s determined by the type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron) a human being (or other living creature) is exposed to.
    • Speaking in general, the weighting factor for both beta particles and gamma rays is equal to 1; for neutrons it can vary between 5-20, depending on the neutron’s energy; for alpha particles, it’s 20.
      • Note: different body parts have different weighting factors as well, since different tissues are more or less sensitive to the effects of radiation. That, however, is something we’ll be talking about in another article.
    • The rem, like the sievert, requires a bit of math. It is, effectively, the amount of rads an individual receives in a given time multiplied by the weighting factor. The weighting factors are the same as for sieverts, so the number of rems received from beta or gamma radiation is equal to the same amount of rads, but the rem dose from neutrons or alpha particles can vary in severity.

Exposure – the amount of how much radiation is traveling through the air at any given time. This is measured by either the coulomb/kilogram (C/kg) or the Roentgen (abbreviated as R).

  • The coulomb/kilogram is equal to the amount of radiation required to create one coulomb of charge in one kilogram of matter. One coulomb is the amount of electricity transported in one second by a current of one amp. It’s roughly equal to 6.24 quintillion electrons. One kilogram is approximately 2.2 pounds.
  • The roentgen is currently defined as the dose of ionizing radiation (generally X-rays or gamma rays) that will produce one electrostatic unit of electricity in one cubic centimeter of dry air.
    • Historically, exposure to 1 roentgen of X-rays equaled both 1 rad and 1 rem.

In addition, rads, rems, grays and sieverts can be divided into smaller units, each 1/1,000th of the base unit:

  • The millirad has mostly been replaced by the gray.
  • The millirem, on the other hand, is used for measuring smaller doses of radiation, of the sort we usually encounter in day-to-day life, both from the natural background radiation that surrounds us and from things like x-rays, life at high altitudes (1 millirem is equal to living in Denver, Colorado for 2 days), or
  • The millisievert (mSv), which is defined as: “the average accumulated background radiation dose to an individual for one year, exclusive of radon, in the United States.”
    • 10 millisieverts equal 1 rad or 1 rem
    • The sievert can also be reduced even further to the microsievert, which is a millionth of a sievert.
  • The milligray (mG) is amount of radiation exposure that will produce a dose of 1 millisievert.
    • 10 milligrays equal 1 roentgen or 1 rad.

Why two different forms of measurement? – the curie, rad, rem and roentgen are older terms that are, for the most part, considered to be non-standard units of measurement and somewhat outdated – though they still show up in reference materials. The becquerel, gray, sievert and coulomb/kilogram are more modern units of measurement that are considered part of the International System of Units, the modern version of the metric system.

The Very Least You Need to Know:

For our purposes, we’re going to be primarily concerned with radiation’s effects on human beings, which means we’re going to be mainly concerned with the gray, the sievert, and the rad and rem. Some of my sources will also refer to roentgens/hour. Since radiation measurements can be confusing, even to experts, here are some dosages based on health effects:

Dosage in rem Effects Sieverts millisieverts Gray rads
25 rem Lowest level where short-term health effects appear. 0.25 250 0.25 25
50-100 rem No significant illness 0.5-1 500-1,000 0.5-1 50-100
100-200 rem Nausea, vomiting; 10% fatal within 30 days. 1-2 1,000-2,000 1-2 100-200
200-300 rem Vomiting; 35% fatal in 30 days 2-3 2,000-3,000 3-2 200-300
300-400 rem Vomiting, diarrhea; 50% fatal in 30 days 3-4 3,000-4,000 3-4 300-400
400-500 rem Hair loss, fever, hemorrhaging in 3 weeks 4-5 4,000-5,000 4-5 400-500
500-600 rem Internal bleeding; 60% die in 30 days 5-6 5,000-6,000 5-6 500-600
600-1,000 rem Intestinal damage; 100% fatal in 14 days 6-10 6,000-10,000 6-10 600-1,000
5,000 rem Delirium, coma; 100% fatal in 7 days 50 50,000 50 5,000
8,000 rem Coma in seconds; death in an hour 80 80,000 80 8,000
10,000 rem Instant Death 100 100,000 100 10,000

Note: grays and rads doses are based on gamma ray exposure, with the weighting factor of one. As an example of what a difference the weighting factor can make, at the Instant Death level, a lethal dose would be:

Neutron radiation Alpha radiation:
10 gray 5 gray
1,000 rad 500 rad

Sources for table:

A Who’s Who of Radiation Measurement:

Several units for measuring radiation are named after key figures in the study of radioactivity. These include:

  • Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), the first person to discover evidence of natural radioactivity in 1896.
  • While the curie, was originally named for Pierre Curie (1859-1906), it’s also considered to honor his wife and fellow researcher Marie Curie (1867-1934). Working together, the Curies discovered radium and polonium. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 along with Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie also coined the term ‘radioactivity’ in 1898.
  • Harold Gray (1905-1965), an early contributor to the field of radiobiology, who studied the effects of radiation on biological systems.
  • Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895. This discovery is generally considered the beginning of the history of nuclear weapons.
  • Rolf Maximillian Sievert (1896-1966), was a major contributor to the study of the biological effects of radiation
  • Charles-Augustin Coulomb (1736-1806), was the discoverer of Coulomb’s law, which describes the electrostatic force of attraction and repulsion. The coulomb itself measures electric charge.
  • Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, was a New Zealand-born British physicist who discovered the concept of the radioactive half-life, the element radon and differentiated between alpha and beta particles.

Article Sources: 

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Nuke Opera 2020: Time Flies Like An Arrow; Fruit Flies Like A Banana: An Introduction to Cold War History:

Nuke Opera 2020: Time Flies Like An Arrow; Fruit Flies Like A Banana: An Introduction to Cold War History:

When it comes to historical periods, there is almost never a clearly defined beginning and end – mainly because, to quote Mystery Science Theatre 3000, “Space is warped and time is bendable!” Human history isn’t so much a series of organized boxes as it is a group of loosely interlocked Venn diagrams that sometimes break Euclidean geometry just for giggles.

I mean, how else can you explain the fact that President John Tyler, who was born in 1790, has two grandsons who are still living as of this writing (February 5, 2020).  Not great-grandchildren. Grandchildren. Granted, both of them are in their 90s, but they are the actual grandsons of America’s 10th president

On top of that, woolly mammoths were still around when the Pyramids of Giza were being built. I mean, they weren’t in Egypt, but they were still slouching around in Russia.

Also: there’s the fact that the name Tiffany is actually a medieval name — but anyone using it in a medieval story would be sneered at for inaccuracy.

Al of this just reinforces what Mark Twain said:  “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” In light of the fact that history is as slippery as a bucket of greased eels, the best we can do is make peace with that fact and do what we can to set up what boundaries we can.

Okay, by “we”, I really mean “me” and while I haven’t exactly made complete peace with the slipperiness of time, I have managed to create a few loosely defined areas of fuzzy certainty that satisfy my purposes well enough.

For our purposes, we’ll be defining the Cold War as having occurred between the Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991.

The Cold War lasted nearly 46 and a half years. Which isn’t a particularly long time as far as historical periods go. Heck, it’s not even a particularly long war, as far as that goes (the Spanish Reconquista lasted 774 years and isn’t the only multi-century war out there).

But, even so, 46 years covers a lot of historical ground. The world changed repeatedly during this time, as the United States and the Soviet Union fought their ideological battle, with each using proxy wars, propaganda and the nuclear arms race to try and dominate the other side into submission. There’s a lot to unpack in those 46 years and in order to make the job a little easier, I’ve divided the Cold War into the following six phases :

Pre-Atomic Era: 1895-1942 – Because time is an illusion and history is a contortionist eel dipped in 40-weight, there must be a beginning before the beginning. This period covers the time from the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Konrad Rontgen through to the establishment of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ program to develop the atomic bomb. This time period is best characterized as when humanity discovered the structure of the atom and how to break it apart.

During this time, a lot of events occur that will help shape the Cold War – World War I, the Communist Revolution, the rise of Nazi Germany and the beginning of World War II. These will all cast long shadows over the Cold War.

Runs from: November 8, 1895 to August 13, 1942, the date the Manhattan Project was established by the US Army Corps of Engineers. I may also refer to some relevant events that occurred prior to 1895.

The Manhattan Project: 1942-1945 – While technically, this is part of the Pre-Atomic Era, the work of the Manhattan Project is of a particular and especial significance, since this is the time during which atomic weapons go from theory to reality. As such, it deserves some more individualized attention.

Runs from: August 13, 1942 to July 16, 1945, date of the Trinity nuclear test at Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Opening the Pot: 1945-1949 – From the Trinity test to the first and (hopefully) last uses of nuclear weapons during wartime, this period starts with the United States as the world’s only nuclear power. It ends with the Soviet Union’s first nuclear weapons, sparking the Cold War in earnest. This is also the time period in which the first Baby Boomers are born (I’m using the definition of Baby Boomers that covers from 1946-1964).

Runs from: July 16, 1945 to August 29, 1949, date of the Soviet Union’s First Lightning test (nicknamed Joe 1 by the United States).

Atomic Era Begins: 1949-1962 – When people think about the Cold War, most often this is the time period they’re thinking of: the age of Duck and Cover drills in schools, science fiction movies featuring giant ants, private and public fallout shelters, etc. The majority of the Baby Boom generation is born during this period, with 4.3 million being born in 1957 alone.

This is the longest period of the Cold War, it represents the period during which the US and the Soviet Union were racing to build bigger, better, more destructive weapons with faster delivery times.  It also encompasses the early Space Race (itself an offshoot of nuclear weapons development) as well as significant cultural changes and shifts in the United States, including but not limited to the Civil Rights Movement.  In addition, during this period, other countries begin to join the Nuclear Powers Club, including the United Kingdom and France. This period ends with the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which served as a wake-up call not only to the US and the Soviet Union, but also the world.

Runs from: August 29, 1949 to November 20 1962, which marks the end of the US blockade of Cuba, effectively ending the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Détente: 1962-1979 – During this time, tensions cooled between the US and Soviet Union as the two nations pulled back from the brink of World War III and found other ways to resolve their issues.  Tensions didn’t entirely dissipate, as witnessed by the Vietnam War and a variety of conflicts around the world, but it was during this time that the first attempts at scaling back the world’s nuclear arsenals began.  Covers from the end of the Cold War to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

Runs from: November 22, 1962 to December 25, 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Tensions Flare, then Fade: 1980-1991 – Some scholars designate this period as the Second Cold War, the New Cold War or Cold War II. It’s best characterized by an increase in tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, that coincide with the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and sparked, in part, by Reagan’s more aggressive stance against the Soviet Union. This stance as well as the Soviet response to it brought us closer to open war than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Fortunately, times were changing and, due to a variety of circumstances, tensions eased during Reagan’s second term. This was in part due to an increased willingness by both sides to talk openly with each other as well as changes within the power structure of the Soviet Union. The Cold War ended with the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

It’s during this period that most of the nuke operas we’ll be talking about were written. In fact, they began with this period and, with a few exceptions, faded away once it ended.

Runs from: the inauguration of Ronald Reagan on January 21, 1981 to December 26, 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

I’ll be dedicating a longer article to each of these periods, fleshing out important events related not only to nuclear weapons and the Cold War, but also key events related to the cultural and concurrent historical events that will have bearing on some of the works we’ll be looking at.

Sources: Primarily from Wikipedia

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Boilerplate Links:

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. If you want to join, you can at any time.Set the goals you want to accomplish and get and give encouragement to fellow ROWers. Feel free to join us on Facebook at ROW80 or follow us on Twitter at #ROW80.  Or you can do all of the above!