U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From Atomic To Nuclear: Denotations And Connotations

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. Truman-atomicThe 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.

25 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Tim, very interesting post. This very question came up last year in a class I audited, though I can’t remember if we were discussing Pells, Schlesinger, or somebody else. Come to think of it, I think I asked the question.

    My riff, as I vaguely recall, was on the association of the “atomic” age with the perception that society was becoming increasingly “atomistic,” and I wondered if the anxiety about “atomism” was informed by anxiety about “the atomic age.”

    I will try to dig up the notes I took (and look through my marginalia) to see when/in what context the question came up, because I think we did discuss it and come to some kind of consensus (!) about it.

    So does the rise of “the nuclear age” in our discourse track right along with the rise of “the nuclear family”?

    [added] P.S. Every time I come across the word “denotations” in your post, in both the title and the text, my brain automatically reads it as “detonations.”

    • LD: If I’m remembering my Elaine Tyler May correctly, I believe that nuclear family does indeed track closely with the rise of the term nuclear. It’s not that the term ‘nuclear’ wasn’t around or in use. Rather, my post is about the most prominent public usage.

      And I’m with you on the associations between anxiety, atomism (or even atomized contained families, per E.T. May), and notion of atomic. It all makes too much sense. – TL

  2. Thanks for this Tim.
    Speaking merely from common usage I would guess with the creation of the hydrogen bomb and as discussions regarding nuclear fusion and fission for serving general power requirements for the nation the use of the word nuclear provided a broader more encompassing term.

    I agree with L.D. I was reading detonations as well.

    I also think that there is something about the forming of the question “Does this change matter?” This can read as a physics question and now I’m wondering if there is some analogy wandering around there.

  3. Speaking as a historian of science, I don’t think “atomic” was significantly less scientific, or more childlike, than “nuclear”. Phrases such as “smashing atoms” and “splitting the atom” were already used before the war, so it was natural to refer to “atomic energy,” even if that energy originated in the atomic nucleus and was not the preferred term of many scientists. I tend to agree with Alex Wellerstein (not Wallerstein, btw) that the rise of nuclear energy power stations probably had something to do with it, as there was never such a term as “atomic reactor”.

    • Will: Thanks for the note on Wellerstein. I corrected the spelling in the post. On the literal interpretation, the denotation, of atomic, it is by no means childlike. I only meant that descriptor in relation to society, our culture, viewing this new creation, the atomic age, through the eyes of children beholding the beast under the bed. Our raw terror was childlike. That’s it. – TL

    • Your comment about “atomic reactor” as a term intrigued me, so I did some quick searches, and it was a rather popular term, especially in the 50s, with over a thousand mentions in the Proquest newspaper trinity (Chicago Tribune, LA Times. NYT) for that decade. But indeed, as it waned, “nuclear reactor” took hold, with a huge jump in usage in the 80s, by which time “atomic reactor” was a thing of the past.

      My associations with the Atomic Age seem fairly opposed to many mentioned here. “Atomic” was used as a vernacular descriptor for an enormously broad range of promises of science, and was not necessarily associated with bombs. Wellerstein’s image of the Atomic DIning Room and his caption (“Would anybody want to eat in a Nuclear Dining Room?”) are right on target: atomic implied progress, excitement, discovery, while nuclear implied conflict, dread, and destruction.

  4. Interesting post, Tim! I don’t have an answer for you, but I’d add Spencer Weart’s Nuclear Fear (reissued last year as The Rise of Nuclear Fear) to your list of secondary literature that might yield an answer.

  5. I found your comments very interesting. But I would, as you might expect, take issue with the notion that the intellectuals of the 1950s were “depressing” because they didn’t indulge in the sort of structural criticism found in previous or future decades. In fact, one of the points of The Liberal Mind is that writers like David Riesman, William Whyte, C. Wright Mills, J.K. Galbraith, Dwight Macdonald, Richard Hofstadter, etc. were far more critical of American society than the predecessors in the 1930s or their successors in the 1960s. Also (though I develop this point in subsequent books) the 1940s/1950s were among the most creative decades in the history of American culture—especially if you consider the novels, plays, and movies that appeared during these years.
    I’m not sure why I evolved from atomic to nuclear. But I suspect that I and other writers began to use nuclear once the hydrogen bomb and other “thermonuclear” devices were developed by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
    In any case, I’m reminded of Tom Lehrer’s hilarious song in the 50s about nuclear annihilation: “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.” And, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, with Slim Pickens writing the bomb to oblivion while Peter Sellers says, at the end of the movie, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk.”
    Anyway, thanks for your essay

    • Professor Pells,

      You got me. I should’ve been more clear about that. The ‘depressing’ intellectuals were those you covered in chapter three of LMCA–specifically Schlesinger, Lipset, Bell, Boorstin, etc.—the consensus era intellectuals. Otherwise, you’re absolutely right about the the fact many others you cover are, in fact, engaging in some deep, even profound criticism. And I do reference your reflections on Macdonald in my larger project about the history of the great books idea. So I should’ve been more specific. Thanks for calling me out on that. I apologize for not explaining myself more thoroughly.

      In my (mild) defense, however, that wasn’t really the point of my post. You addressed that point in the last two paras of your comment. It’s enlightening to hear that the drift in terminology wasn’t a conscious one. I’m sure you’re familiar with Boyers work. Do you recall whether he addresses the atomic-nuclear shift? I don’t have a copy of that book (and can’t get one without an extraordinary effort), so I can’t answer my question in a timely fashion.

      Thanks again for making me clarify my comments. Sincerely, Tim

  6. Hmmm. What’s so depressing about the “consensus” intellectuals? That is not my read of them (or Pells on them). I know that Pells had some heroes in his narrative, and the threshold there seemed to be the degree of resistance to HUAC shenanigans. But I don’t know that I would characterize the “non heroes” or the intellectual environment of Schlesinger and Bell et al as depressing. What is your main complaint?

    • LD: Pells doesn’t make heroes out of anyone in his text. I have no deep problems with his portrayals. The depressing part is personal—it’s me speaking about own normative assumptions and commitments in relation to the role of intellectuals.

      That said, Pells provides some ammunition for an intersection of my personal beliefs and the actions of certain 1950s figures when he wrote the following in the context of speaking about consensus intellectuals like Schlesinger, Bell, and Lipset (pp. 134-135):

      “At bottom, the dismissal of socialism, the hosannas to capitalism and the New Deal, and the emphasis on the labor movement’s inherent conservatism all permitted these writers to deal with American as they thought it was rather than as they might have once wished it to be. They could not breathe life into the corpse of the Old Left, or hold on to radical doctrines that no longer bore any relation to postwar life. In their estimation, the times called not for revolution but for realism.”

      Now Pells goes on to discuss how these same intellectuals did in fact criticize some aspects of liberalism. Fine. I agree with a lot what Pells relays. But the consensus era intellectuals’ avoidance of “extremism” and “advocacy of political compromise” (p. 141) left a lot of folks out in the cold (and literally left to the caprices of the Cold War state). The “dynamics of social change” (p. 144) escaped the attention of consensus intellectuals. The largely “sympathetic” portraits of of American life (p. 130) caused them to praise democracy, capitalism, and a superficial pluralism (p. 142) that couldn’t anticipate the strength and depth of the Civil Rights Movement.

      Do I need to go on? Is this sufficient to explain my depression—how the story is depressing to me? – TL

  7. As one who has used the phrase “nuclear age” in a book subtitle, I confess that I have wrestled with this one. And at some point I even got into a discussion that was embarrassingly close to argument with a physicist who was irritated that I referred to anything at all as “atomic.” He thought that because the nucleus was where the action was, everything should be called nuclear. A physicist’s perspective! I disagreed, saying that it made more sense to a historian to use the terms that were employed at the time, rather than impose a later word, less the writing seem anachronistic, akin to calling St. Francis of Assisi an animal rights activist (doesn’t really work, does it?). The historian in me wants to say “atomic” for everything prior to the development of thermonuclear weapons–and more importantly, to the widespread understanding that they were very different in magnitude (and controversy, i.e. the fallout controversy) than the plain old atomic bomb. Which, as Alex Wellerstein has noted, led to the use of “nuclear” increasingly by the late 1950s. However, “nuclear” does not simply describe thermonuclear weapons (i.e. hydrogen bombs), but is a catch-all phrase that describes them all. Strangely, even though fusion (thermonuclear) reactors for electricity generation did not come into use, we have called them nuclear reactors too (though they were “atomic” reactors and piles first).

    Having said that, there were plenty of institutional throwbacks to the original terms, so there’s plenty of wiggle room on this. The Atomic Energy Commission didn’t get a brushing-off until it was abolished in the 1970s and its missions went to the Department of Energy and the *Nuclear* Regulatory Commission. At the international level, we’re stuck with the old names, as the un-pronounceable acronym IAEA attests (just listen to El Baradei try to say it again and again, it’s hilarious). The UK and France both retain “atomic” in their agency names, as do many countries, including Iran.

    • Jacob: Thanks a million for your comment. Agreed, absolutely, on *trying*, as best we can, to use the language of context while making arguments about people in those contexts. Then again, the need to translate actions and events for present day readers often necessitates shifts in terminology. For instance, I found it difficult to explain all the actions and intentions of great books promoters without resorting to the “democratic culture” convention—a phrase that no promoter I know of actually used (they spoke all around the idea but never used the phrase itself). The phrase pithily captures the unstated goal of the group—bringing ‘culture’ (esp. critical thinking directed to good citizenship) to the masses.

      And then there are the institutional considerations of which you speak—shifts that either post-date intellectual uses or remain stubbornly anachronistic due to institutional conservatism. – TL

      • Great historiographical questions here! How much should historians feel bound by the self-understandings of their subjects, and how free are historians to “point” toward the logical trajectories of their subjects–in this instance, “democratic culture.” I’ve struggled alot with this in reference to catchphrases like “participatory democracy” and “Christian Realism.”

  8. Meself & Mrs. TVD just tried Dr. Strangelove out on the new megaTV, the closest to seeing it in the movie theater back in 1964. Even awesomer, yo.

    I’d be interested in when “nuclear winter”–the end of everything–became a possibility and a common perception: In “Strangelove,” it was only the secret Commie doomsday machine that turned atomic weapons from tactical to strategic to unthinkable, i.e., that The Bomb could be used without killing everyone and everything.


    Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?


    It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

    I think we misunderestimate the existential callowness of this post-Sovietism generation, what with their mellow crises of iPhones, student debt and #DamnIGotNobodyToSellOutTo, growing up without the focus of the mind that comes from the imminent possibility of getting your ass nuclearly blown up, concerned scientists setting their atomic clock to 2 Minutes to Midnight.

    An appreciation is in order–or at least some absolution–for those who fought the Cold War as just the next extension of the last war that brought the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust. Until the Berlin Wall falls, the history of the 20th century is one of the march of tyranny and murder.

    There was no way of knowing that until that march ended.

  9. Tim, you had better look again — Pells absolutely has heroes in his book, and he calls them by name:

    There were some who did not believe in cooperation [with McCarthy/HUAC], who did know better. In their books and essays they resisted not simply the tactics of but the rationale for McCarthyism. And when it sometimes became necessary, they refused in person to serve the state. They were not especially ideological or heroic. [A very interesting disclaimer indeed!] Maybe they were just instinctively recalcitrant, as if they found the mixture of orthodoxy and vindictiveness in their fellow writers physically distasteful. But regardless of their motivations or their disagreements on other political and cultural issues, they thought and acted like genuinely free intellectuals when it counted most. So the members of this small band among the intelligentsia — Dwight Macdonald, Henry Steele Commager, I.F. Stone, Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Michael Harrington — deserve more than praise or respect. They deserve our thanks. (Pells, 265)

    That sounds like a tribute to heroism to me. I’m not disagreeing with the admiration Pells expresses here, but I do think it’s important to recognize it for what it is: the historian “taking sides” within the history he is writing. People will differ on whether/when/how that’s appropriate — objectivity is not neutrality, we know — but surely no one would argue that Pells’s perspective represents “the view from nowhere.”

    • Okay. I stand corrected. I overlooked that because, well, I guess I agree with him on the fact that they deserve our thanks. But, when I was said Pells wasn’t making heroes, I should’ve specified that he didn’t make heroes of the consensus intellectuals that depressed me.

      • Still I tend to think the conservative backlash of the 50’s affected liberals like Schlesinger who defended U.S. entry into Vietnam and conducted a fervent anti-communist rhetoric. The emphasis changed from New Deal cheerleader, idealist to realist, anti-communist. The McCarthy hearings made an impact.

      • Paul: Most certainly. The actions of consensus intellectuals is most certainly explainable. And Pells does a *more than fine* job explaining what they did and didn’t do. But the larger question is whether those acts and omissions were just and right. Did they do the best they could? Could they have done more as writers to show that there were lots of things to protest, understand, and dissent. – TL

    • Kevin Mattson’s Liberals in Action might be a more useful guide to the 1950s liberal public intellectual than Pells, or at least a necessary compliment.

  10. I’m late to this post, but I remember seeing phrases like “atom war” and “atomic war” in 1950s fiction, though the only cases I remember distinctly were in some Ray Bradbury stories. I don’t remember if he shifted to “nuclear war” later on, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t.* Which is to say that I suspect that the shift in terminology covered a wide range of cultural contexts.

    *It’s difficult to check this with a book search, though, because of all the later reprints of his stories.

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