Nguyen,  Bich-Tram

Boys building bomb shelter Boys Building Bomb Shelter (1952)

After World War II, life in America was at a high: the middle class was growing, unemployment was low, and the United States, as the only country with a nuclear bomb, became the most powerful country in the world. This advantage didn’t last long, however. In 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon and by the 1950s, the United States and USSR were in an arms’ race as they tried to outdo each other in nuclear rearmament and the development of long-range weapons. The two nations were in a constant state of tension.

As a result, life in America became characterized by duality, a time of contrasting attitudes that existed side by side. On the surface, it was a period of prosperity, where the “American Dream” was prominent and actualized. Deep down, however, Americans were also living in a time of paranoia and fear, with the constant threat of nuclear war in the back of their heads. “Nuclear preparedness,” then, became a way of life. Air raid sirens were installed in different communities as ordinary citizens would build and stock makeshift bomb shelters in their suburban backyards. Duck-and-cover drills were taught and practiced nationwide. Construction of an interstate highway system was initiated, with President Eisenhower securing its approval by pointing out its advantage in mobilizing troops if the United States was ever invaded.

The threat of nuclear war added a new sphere of culture to American society. News became dominated with information about the nuclear threat as federal pamphlets, radio announcements, and newspapers brought a steady stream of warnings and words of encouragement to citizens. In schools, the impact of the nuclear threat was evident in the safety courses and drills that became standard. The country also reacted to nuclear threats through leisure activities. From comic books to monster movies and ray guns, consumer culture created an alternate set of coping mechanisms for a nation constantly under siege from messages of pending annihilation. Because it was coupled with positive postwar effects, the threat of nuclear war created an interesting time of contrasts. American society during the Cold War was indeed a period of fear and paranoia, but it was also a period of optimism. While citizens were very much aware of the threatening situation they were in, they were also determined to be actively fighting against it.