"Survival is Your Business": Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America

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"Untitled ." November 2, 2012 via blogspot.

In the May 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Joseph Masco tracks the production of nuclear fear in America, and how this has shaped and disciplined citizens and the national community.  Continual contemplation of nuclear ruins, Masco writes, “installed an idea of a U.S. community under total and unending threat, creating the terms for a new kind of nation-building that demanded an unprecedented level of militarism in everyday life as the minimum basis for ‘security.’”

To understand how nuclear ruins have shaped national consciousness since the early days of the Cold War, Masco looks to movies and television, examining, for example, how civil defense initiatives launched after the first Soviet atomic blast in 1949 included a widely distributed film of an actual test on a model desert town. The films show scenes of houses and mannequins, whom human volunteers rush in to “rescue” after the blast. Masco goes on to describe how images of a “bomb proof society” gave way in the 1980s to grim visions of nuclear holocaust. A decade later, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, apocalyptic imagery of national destruction and heroic self-sacrifice reappeared in Hollywood movies. Asteroids and other natural calamities displaced nuclear threats but dramatic portrayals of catastrophe that required discipline and sacrifice continued.

“We live not in the ruins produced by Soviet ICBMs,” Masco argues, “but, rather, in the emotional ruins of the Cold War as an intellectual and social project. The half-century-long project to install and articulate the nation through contemplating its violent end has colonized the present. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001 may have produced a political consensus that “the Cold War is over” and a formal declaration of a counterterrorism project. But American reactions to those attacks were structured by a multigenerational state project to harness the fear of mass death to divergent political and military industrial agendas… The affective coordinates of the Cold War arms race provided specific ideological resources to the state, which once again mobilized the image of a United States in nuclear ruins to enable war.”

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published many essays on American culture and politics. See, for example, George Lipsitz's 2006 essay "Learning from New Orleans: The Social Warrant of Hostile Privatism and Competitive Consumer Citizenship" and also his 1986 essay "The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television Programs." Also see Joseph Masco's 2006 essay, "Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico."

Cultural Anthropology has also published extensively on media, culture and politics. See, for example, Charles Brigg's recent essay "Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence" (2007), Paul Manning's "Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia" (2007) and Laura Kunreuther's "Technologies of the Voice: FM Radio, Telephone and Nepali Diaspora in Kathmandu" (2006)

About the Author

Joseph Masco is Associate Professor of Anthropology and of the Social Sciences in the College at the University of Chicago.

Links From the Article

National Security Council 68 

Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" Address 

Operation Cue Video (1955) 

Test Ban Treaty, 1963 

Elugelab Island 

Physicians For Social Responsibility 

Nuclear Posture Review, 2002


"Duck and Cover" - Federal Civil Defense Administration(1951)

"The House in the Middle" - Federal Civil Defense Administration (1954)

"Daisy Girl" - Lyndon Johnson political ad (1964)

"The Day After" - ABC movie (1983)

Related Links

CONELRAD: All Things Atomic, The Golden Age of Homeland Security 

The American Experience: Race for the Superbomb - PBSWebsite supplement for the 1999 film "Race for the Superbomb", including interview transcripts, maps, and other teaching tools

Missile Wars - PBSWebsite supplement for the FRONTLINE program "Missile Wars", including the video and teaching tools 

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project, Brookings 

Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, University of Nevada 

The Atomic Testing Museum 

Nuclear Files 

Atomic Veterans History Project 

Civil Defense Museum

Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation

The National Security Archive - George Washington University

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Related Readings

Garrison, Dee. Bracing for Armageddon: Why Civil Defense Never Worked. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Orr, Jackie. Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. 

Masco, Joseph. (2004) "Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post–Cold War New Mexico." Cultural Anthropology 19(4):517–550. 

Robb, David L. Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2004. 

Scheiback, Michael. Atomic Narratives and American Youth: Coming of Age with the Atom, 1945–1955. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003. 

Vanderbilt, Tom. Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 

Grossman, Andrew. Neither Dead nor Red: Civilian Defense and American Political Development During the Early Cold War. New York: Routledge, 2001. 

FitzGerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 

McEnaney, Laura. Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

In Class Activity

Have students reflect on and discuss how the Cold War nuclear arms race has affected them personally, focusing on images, movies, or other cultural representations that may stand out from childhood. Are they paired with key political events or moments? Are “ruins” present? Use these remembered images to create a class timeline that documents how these representations have changed over recent years, illustrating continuity between the Cold War and today’s culture from student memory.

In small groups, have students envision and write-up alternative forms of “civil defense”. How could we shift the meaning of civil defense using media? What kinds of representations and messages would you use to promote civil defense, on television, in movies, the radio, elsewhere? What should “civil defense” mean? Should we throw out the term or remediate it, and if so, how could it be replaced or transformed?

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