PRINT April 1989


Nuclear Fear

Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, by Spencer R. Weart, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, 535 pp.

NUCLEAR FEAR IS BOMB SHELTERS in middle-class neighborhoods. It’s a year’s supply of canned food and hunting rifles to keep the neighbors out—if it should come to that. Nuclear fear is staged in Doom Town, a row of mannequin-filled houses set up near a test site. After the nuclear blast, the living rooms are photographed to show twisted plastic bodies covered with glass. Nuclear fear structures our social space. Even suburbia can be understood as a response to the 1950s notion that new cities must stretch out along narrow strips for easy evacuation. For Spencer R. Weart, nuclear fear is most of all the fear that the nuclear imagination can create war, as anxious fantasies affect policy and push people to make decisions they wouldn’t ordinarily make.

In Nuclear Fear, Weart attempts to analyze the fantasies and anxieties inspired by nuclear technology. He sets out to excavate as many levels of culture and systems of representation as possible, making no distinction between popular culture and “high” culture, the psychological and the political, e visual and the verbal. He uses everything, or so it seems. An image in this book (which, curiously enough, has no illustrations) is very broadly defined as “a simple rental representation such as a picture or description” or a “cluster of such things combined with their associated beliefs and feelings.” Weart’s history of images crinkled, overlapping causation. The demon of causality but nowhere fixed: boys read magazines about mad and grow up to be scientists; science-fiction mov presidential speeches (from Hoover to Reagan); em the lab tables at Los Alamos. Scientists don’t just and testify in Congress; novelists set the plot lines for scientific research and inspire the public, who in turn support funding for the lab;. There’s no single villain in the construction of nuclear fear, but public figures who escalate our anxiety are partly to blame, as in the science reporter looking for the dramatic quotation, or the general enraptured with his own phallic metaphors (Curtis LeMay: “electronic snakes packed into every inch of a bomber’s body”). The scientists portrayed in this book come in many flavors: sometimes they are more cautious than the reporters; sometimes they speak out to refute distorted popular fantasies, and sometimes they create them. Weart does some hit-and-run psychoanalysis of figures such as Oppenheimer, Teller, and Wylie, the movers and shakers of nuclear policy. They are a disturbed bunch with family problems and absent mothers. They are supremely alone, dangerously charming, and often suicidal Weart’s account of nuclear fear follows closely along the lines of the classic structuralist paradigm for myth. Nuclear energy represents both the best and the worst of forces, the white city and the Holocaust, death and rebirth. And public policy frantically shuttles from the negative pole to the positive, building nuclear power plants way too fast, in a desire to counteract BAD NUKE with GOOD NUKE.

Weart’s characteristic move in Nuclear Fear is to disarm nuclear mythologies with less dramatic truths. He argues that there have been worse slaughters than nuclear ones by old-fashioned means. That Hiroshima was a moral test case, but no one seemed to care about the immorality of the American blockade that preceded it. That the wild mob scenes of fictional nuclear disasters are a rarity in real ones: people at Hiroshima stood stunned, or tried meekly to help one another. That the accidents at Chernobyl had less to do with nuclear toxicity than with routine errors, bad design, and poor management. And, Weart argues, coal burning is probably more catastrophic for the environment than reactors.

Are coal and reactors our only choices?

The enemy, for Weart, is ultimately not real nuclear energy itself but the notion of an ultimate, centralized causation. Other social problems are going to get us while we’re worrying about the bomb. And because we’re worrying about the bomb, we’ve made it the only option, even for peace: hence the idea that only weapons capable of destroying the entire globe can insure national security.

Weart’s nuclear images aren’t just pictures in people’s minds, they are the catalysts of nuclear plot lines. Wherever there is nuclear fission, in movies and novels and newspaper speculation, a modern-day apocalypse is sure to follow. At the start of his book, Weart proposes a story that condenses all the aspects of nuclear fantasy into one plot. A man tries to take creation into his own hands. Alone, abandoned by his woman who has fled to an underground shelter, he dons a robotic shell and propels us through a world of ality is everywhere in this book, scientists destroying the world e plots show up as allusions in i-of-the-world novels lie around do science but talk to reporters blows up the world with atomic rays. His mate comes to find him, and as she reaches out for him the ashen shell cracks, revealing a new man. A new world rises on the ashes.

This vocabulary of rebirth, embedded in theoretical descriptions of chain reactions and in magazine depictions of fallout shelters, provides a key to the representational structure of nuclear fear. While there aren’t any actual women in the corridors of nuclear power, women’s bodies are constantly abstracted and figured there. In fact, the history of nuclear images as Weart describes it is astonishingly similar to the history of misogyny: “woman” as concept, not person, is tied to creation and destruction, split into good and evil. Nuclear scientists wrest from symbolic woman the capacity to create life forces and make the world anew.

The conflation of woman and destructive technology is ironic: many more women than men oppose nuclear power and weapons. While Weart himself seems dissatisfied with essentialist explanations for women’s antinuclear activism (i.e., women are more fearful than men, women like to protect while men like to destroy, etc.), he claims not to understand the phenomenon. And yet his whole history of images, from the alchemists on, symbolizes matter as female and master as male.

Weart’s puzzlement seems somewhat disingenuous in view of the glaring reality that lies behind the history of nuclear fear. In a book that quotes and mentions dozens of policy makers and scientists, 14 women are listed in the index. Most of them are writers; two are scientists. While symbolic “woman” and “mother” are terribly important to the history of nuclear fear, half the real world is usually missing from nuclear research and decision making. Surely women’s nuclear protest is related to their social exclusion from the back rooms, not to some essential “goodness” or “badness” of the sort that Weart himself eschews in the rest of his book. I’m certainly not calling here for a recruitment program to increase the quotas of women in the nuclear power industry. What is necessary is a much more complicated analysis than Weart offers of why women bear the burden of the imaginary. Men work with the stuff; women write about it. What difference does it make? 0

Alice Yaeger Kaplan teaches French literature at Duke University. She is the author of Reproductions of Banality.