Peter Bacon Hales

Chapter Seven--The Incredible Exploding House, Yucca Flat, Nevada, March, 1953:  Color Images, Out-take Illustrations and New Observations  

Outside the Gates of Eden:  The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now

Most of this chapter focused on the heavily promoted, first-on-national-live-tv test at Yucca Flat in 1953, and the botched campaign to instill and then manage atomic terror.  But as I said in that chapter, one of the off-script themes turned out to be the general sense of disappointment by the eyewitnesses-- "everyday people-- ranchers, waitresses, housewives..."-- to the supposedly overwhelming sight of an atomic explosion. 

Yet that reaction was, in some ways, the salvation of the enterprise, a counterweight to the articles that appeared in magazines like Science Digest and Popular Mechanics that described, in exquisite detail, the horrors that came in the aftermath of an atomic bomb dropped on an America community. 

Still, the urge to manage, and to exploit, the clash of terror and the fade into normalcy that recurred throughout the atomic age, continued to motivate everyone from the Civil Defense Administration and the Army and Air Force, to the news media and even American corporate interests. 

These are the artifacts that seem most unbelievable to us now, though they were common enough at the time.  Here, for example, is a cult favorite:  The House In The Middle​, co-produced by the National Clean Up- Paint Up- Fix Up Bureau and the Office of Civilian Defense. In actuality, the corporate sponsors were the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association, an industry trade group.  

You might wonder:  Where would these short movies be shown?  Who would see them?  The answers again seem alien to 21st-century readers. Most were available as "shorts" to moviehouses, and in smaller communities they were staples of the Saturday matinee; either because they were extremely cheap filler, or because they appealed to the local moviehouse manager's sense of local civic duty. They were also common as special events, often accompanied by panel discussions or lectures, at local public libraries and public schools.  They were used as material for school assemblies, where, in the '50s and early '60s, I saw my share of them.

 As importantly, these industry-funded shorts competed with a wide variety of other official and quasi-official movies, in all those venues. What they share, however, is an admixture of three esential themes:  the monumental place of the United States as keeper of the atomic shield and, later, as adversary to an implacable, alien enemy; the reliability and preparedness of government and quasi-governmental institutions (trust!); and the need for obedience, patriotism and purchase (support civil defense! build a fallout shelter! paint up!) in the face of terrifying and perhaps inevitable atomic holocaust. 

​"Nevada Learns to Live With the Bomb," National Geographic​, 1953

The last major above-ground atomic test was to have taken place in the summer of 1962.  Clearly visible from the beaches of Hawai'i, it was something close to eye-candy, at least as Life presented it in a cover and multi-page spread.