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TV and the Bomb

Television is an amazing thing: It can give you the news, express opinion, and entertain. During the 1950s and 1960s, it often did all three simultaneously, and often on fictional television shows. While we tend to think of mid-century television as an escapist medium, it frequently included contemporary political issues in the narrative. No television topics were more pervasive—and influential—than nuclear weapons (“the Bomb”) and nuclear fear.

Most people think about television—especially the mid-century version—as a medium that people used to cast away their fears and immerse themselves in the fictional on-screen story.

To a certain extent, this was, and still is, true.

But contrary to what many people might think, fictional American television shows featured serious topics such as nuclear weapons pretty frequently—as of this writing, I have counted 150 episodes mentioning the Bomb from 1950-to-1969. This number does not include the television shows that were written or produced abroad and shown on American television, such as episodes of The Invisible Man; if those were included, the number would be much higher.

Part of the portrayal of nuclear anxiety in popular culture during the Cold War stemmed from the issues surrounding the hard, cold facts. The media helped to disseminate nuclear anxiety, especially given the numerous television specials and newspaper and magazine articles dedicated to civil defense, fallout shelters, and the potential for nuclear attack. Part of this may have been for altruistic civil defense measures, but partly it was because fears of nuclear destruction offered plenty of grist for provocative news headlines and imaginative apocalyptic scenarios for television documentaries and movies. Unsurprisingly, fictional television episodes also followed suit, giving Cold War American television a legacy like no other. ...

Read entire article at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists