Depiction of Cold War Fears

The early 1950s were marked by a mood of diminished awareness and acquiescence in the developing nuclear arms race.1 However, by the mid-1950s the issue of nuclear weapons had surged dramatically to the forefront of people’s minds.2 The main reason was due to fear of radioactive fallout. Fears had surfaced after the Bikini test of 1946, however when the United States and Soviet Union began atmospheric testing of thermonuclear bombs, these fears increased dramatically.3 In 1954 a series of tests aroused alarm when radioactive ash was spread over seven thousand square miles of the Pacific and forcing the emergency evacuation of nearby islanders. In 1955, radioactive rain fell on Chicago and in 1959, deadly strontium-90 began to show up in milk.4 The Saturday Evening Post even ran a feature called “Fallout: The Silent Killer.”5 Potential health hazards led to a group of scientists and physicians warning the populace of the hazards of fallout, including leukemia, bone cancer, and long-term genetic damage. As a result of these factors and concerns, the nation was soon gripped with fear over the possible consequences of the nuclear age.

These revived nuclear anxieties were also fed by an emphasis on civil defense. Radio alerts and wailing warning sirens became a part of everyday life. A practice test in 1956 caused ten thousand government workers scattered to secret relocation centers and President Eisenhower was flown to an underground command post in Maryland.6 Civil defense was also an integral part of President Kennedy’s administration. Kennedy himself appeared on television, warning of the dangers of nuclear war, and called for a massive fallout-shelter program.7 Soon “Fallout Shelter” signs were adorning schools and public buildings across America. It also became common practice for school children to hide under their desks in air-raid drills. One of the most famous civil defense films features Bert the Turtle teaching schoolchildren to “Duck and Cover.”8

“Duck and Cover” featuring Bert the Turtle is one of the most famous examples of the Federal Civil Defense Administration’s films from the 1950s.9

American culture in these years was pervaded by the nuclear theme. Many of these fears came to a head in 1962 with the development of the Cuban Missile Crisis.10 Just as abruptly as these fears had set in, they abated. In 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union went to the nuclear brink and pulled back. It was widely hoped that they would cooperate to avoid such confrontations in the future. These hopes came to fruition in 1963 when the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed a treaty banning atmospheric nuclear testing.11 Almost overnight, the nuclear fear that had been building since the mid-1950s seemed to dissipate.

Dr. Strangelove plays on the fears felt by many Americans during the nuclear age. At the film’s release in 1964, the threat of total nuclear destruction was still a possibility, but less so than it had been two year previous. The United States and Soviet Union had already shown their willingness to cooperate, which meant the events of Dr. Strangelove could be taken for political satire. Arguably, Dr. Strangelove was made at the most opportune moment in history. While very dark in its storytelling, the film offered audiences a look into a possible future that the United States and Soviet Union could have embarked upon once upon a time.

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  1. Paul S. Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 1994), 352.[]
  2. Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light, 352-353.[]
  3. Boyer, 353.[]
  4. Boyer, 353.[]
  5. Boyer, 353.[]
  6. Boyer, 353.[]
  7. Boyer, 353.[]
  8. Reading Through History, “Duck and Cover: Bert the Turtle,” YouTube, October 2, 2012,[]
  9. Reading Through History, “Duck and Cover: Bert the Turtle.”[]
  10. Boyer, 355.[]
  11. Boyer, 355.[]