Family, Gender, and Society in 1950s American Fiction of Nuclear Apocalypse: Shadow on the Hearth, Tomorrow!, the Last Day, and Alas, Babylon

By Schwartz, Richard A. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2006 | Go to article overview

Family, Gender, and Society in 1950s American Fiction of Nuclear Apocalypse: Shadow on the Hearth, Tomorrow!, the Last Day, and Alas, Babylon


Schwartz, Richard A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 terminated World War II, by far the most costly war in human history in terms of lives lost and destruction of facilities and resources. For a very brief period, the bombings inaugurated a period of peace and triumph over the fascist empires that terrorized the world from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s. However, within just two years the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began, and it quickly became apparent that the bombings had also introduced a new, even more dangerous period in human history. In this new era ordinary citizens as well as military planners and politicians could, for the first time, contemplate the destruction of the entire human race as a plausible, short-term scenario for humanity. Apart from visions of divinely inflicted apocalypse found in the Bible and other mystical writings, or from fears that a comet or some other celestial body might crash into the Earth, the annihilation of the entire species had never before presented itself as a real and present danger. The introduction of vastly more potent hydrogen bombs (so-called H-bombs), first by the United States in 1952 and then by the Soviet Union in 1953, made the prospect of worldwide nuclear annihilation even more likely, and the successful firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) by the Soviets in August 1957about a month before they launched the first space satellite, Sputnik I -meant that by the end of the decade essentially every location on Earth could potentially be struck by thermonuclear weapons capable of inflicting unimaginable destruction. The United States successfully launched its first ICBM four months later, in December.

Although the threat of nuclear apocalypse certainly shaped 1950s military and foreign policies and promulgated angst throughout the world, it received surprisingly little direct treatment in American arts and letters and the popular culture of the decade. It is likely that the prospect of impending apocalypse added intensity and urgency to the teenage rebellions of the 1950s and 1960s, but it rarely appears in the foreground of entertainment directed to either adults or teens. Moreover, apart from news coverage and occasional documentaries, 1950s television programming included few direct references to the Bomb or even to the Cold War itself. Television Westerns routinely played out a subtext in which American heroes like Gttnsmoke's Matt Dillon, Wyatt Earp, Roy Rogers, Jim Bowie, or the Cartwright family on Bonanza all interposed themselves against those who would violate the law, greedily grab power and wealth for themselves, terrorize the weak and unprotected, and upset all norms of established social order, just as the United States was perceived to be standing tall against the expansion of a communist empire that advocated worldwide revolution and used its Red Army to seize territory for itself and oppress the powerless.

But television sitcoms and dramas rarely even alluded to the Cold War as a presence in the lives of ordinary Americans; nor did they imagine the outcomes that might ensue from nuclear war. Family-centered sitcoms like The Honeymooners, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and The Donna Reed Show rarely acknowledged politics or world events, and even venues for more innovative television drama, such as General Electric Theater, rarely addressed the Cold War or other political issues, although General Electric Theater did provide national exposure to its host and sometimes star, Ronald Reagan, thereby advancing his political career. The general absence of Cold War politics from 1950s television programming may have been a response to the horrifying nature of the subject, which would not appeal to viewers interested in escaping the stress of their daily work day, especially when there was so little they could do to eliminate the nuclear threat even if they thought about it.

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