I’ve been rereading Richard Pells depressing* tome, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age. This comes after finishing up George Nash’s big book on the conservative intellectual movement early last month. As such I’ve been immersed in the minds of all sorts of Cold War intellectuals.
In reading Pells and Nash in succession I noticed something that I had taken for granted in prior readings on the Cold War period. Namely, that both authors (and other historians) use ‘atomic’ when describing the advent of the new age that ensued after August 1945. But then both shift, after some imprecise year, into using ‘nuclear’ to describing those same weapons and the post-war age.
In relation to Pells and Nash, the former uses ‘nuclear’ more as the narrative progresses into the late 1950s. I’m not sure if that’s because Pells’ own voice becomes more prominent, or if he switches because he’s prompted by a change in the language of his historical actors. I’ll have to look more closely at how those usages (e.g. ‘nuclear weapons’, ‘nuclear arms’, ‘nuclear war’, ‘nuclear holocaust’, ‘nuclear balance’) are cited. In Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, he uses ‘atomic’ early and then switches to ‘nuclear’ later in the text, near his conclusion.
No matter the precise point of change and quantity of appearances in these texts, the phrase ‘Atomic Age’ seems to be used both as a synonym for the early Cold War and as signifying something that seems entirely different and more sinister. The benign denotation seems intuitive: authors tire of using ‘Cold War’ to describe the 1945-1960, early Cold War period. The other, darker connotation implies fear, alienation, and a sharp break from the past, both technological and otherwise. This links up with literature that appeared after World War I on the dark side of progress. That literature intensified after the 1960s.
This work may have been done elsewhere (e.g. by Paul Boyer, or Stephen Whitfield?**), but I would add that, while signifying a break from the past, the term ‘atomic’ also implies continuity with the Western history of ideas. The notion of an atom is familiar to Western intellectuals who are also not scientists. One could even argue that, courtesy of Democritus, the notion of the atom is, from a certain standpoint, intimately related with the idea of democracy. Courtesy of Western history, the term ‘atom’ puts the unimaginable destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a familiar frame—the phrase ‘atomic age’ somehow helps one grasp the new. The term ‘atom’ and the phrase ‘atomic age’ are fitting for the childlike, early Cold War understanding of the forces released.*** And those terms are fitting because it would take awhile (at least a year or two, courtesy of the work of John Hersey) for the full horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to reach more American citizens.
As a newer term originating in the mid-nineteenth century, nuclear serves both more recent denotative and connotative purposes. Nuclear is more scientifically descriptive. In the modern spirit, it signals the precise place where the energy originates. By way of connotation, it signals technical complexity and a frightening plurality of post-WWII developments (missiles, shells, power, etc.). Where the atomic age was bipolar (U.S. and U.S.S.R.), the nuclear age is global. It’s a new development within the Cold War umbrella.
A short essay by Alex Wellerstein, posted at the blog Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog****, discusses the terminological shift from atomic to nuclear. Courtesy of a quick-and-dirty search using Google’s Ngram program, Wallerstein found that the shift occurred in the 1958-1960 range. If Ngram can be believed, two usage peaks for ‘nuclear’ occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis and during a hot point of Reagan-era Cold War rhetoric (1985).
Dear readers—what say you? Have I just reproduced a bunch of thoughts already covered by Boyer, or is this a new wrinkle? Does this change matter? Should it matter in our post-war history texts? – TL
*It’s depressing to see how myopic 1950s liberals were in relation to larger structural criticisms—how they both appeared conservative and, in fact, were more conservative than American liberals in most other eras of the twentieth century
**I did a quick search of Boyers’ classic, By the Bomb’s Early Light (which I hurriedly read for my doctoral exams MANY years ago), but couldn’t see, electronically, whether Boyer *explicitly* discusses the terminological shift from atomic to nuclear, or whether he simply uses the words interchangeably.
***Even if scientists knew better, it appears that President Truman may have set the trajectory for using the word ‘atomic’ with addresses and announcements pertaining to using the atomic bomb.
****Wallerstein, “The End of the Nuclear Age,” August 17, 2012.