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Elaine Tyler May on: Oppenheimer and Hiroshima
Q: Scientists like Robert Oppenheimer were very outspoken very quickly after Hiroshima about the dangers that they had helped bring into the world. How long does it take for this skepticism about scientific progress to spread?

ETM: Most scholars who've looked at this have found that there was a period of about five years when this unsettled feeling about the atomic age really kind of took form and settled down. Robert J. Lifton talked about the concept of nuclear numbing: that after the shock and horror of what these bombs had wrought in Japan, Americans gradually just came-became numb to what atomic power could actually do. It became part of the national consciousness, but somewhere in the back of people's minds it went into sort of the nightmare realm. People went about their day-to-day lives, and even though you would see -- You'd walk into a building and you would see the signs of where you would go for the fallout shelters and for the, you know, the protection, there was still this sense that life is normal. These are weapons that are out there, but, uh, presumably they're only going to be there for deterrence. And that the nation begins to lull themselves into a kind of numbness about the whole issue.

Paul Boyer's work similarly looks at how the whole idea of the atomic age finds its way into American culture and settles. And by 1950, after half a decade of living with the bomb, Americans had largely come to accept it. The bomb was part of your life. It was there, just like any other part of your -- of your culture.

You taught children about how to protect themselves in a nuclear attack, much as you would teach them not to cross the street unless you have a green light and you're standing at a crosswalk. It became part of the lexicon of training. Children in school would find themselves having not only the fire drills, where the bells would go off and they would file out in an orderly fashion if their building was on fire; but they would have the famous drop drills where in the middle of a math lesson suddenly a teacher would turn to them and quickly, suddenly say, "Drop!" And immediately the children knew (because they had been trained) to drop under their desks, cover their heads and their ears and their eyes, and not look toward a window because they might go blind, and protect their heads from any flying debris, and get in the sort of fetal position (what other image of security could you have, other than that curled up fetal position?) with the kind of calming notion that this would protect them in the event of a nuclear attack.

Now, of course, all you have to do is see the footage of any real nuclear test or even the dropping of the bombs in Japan, to know that the drop drills were useless if a bomb actually dropped. But these were always cast as a means of preparedness and security, a way to make people believe, at least, that there were proper responses that could provide protection and security even in the nuclear age. You know. You learn how to cross the street safely; you learn how to handle yourself in a fire drill; you know not to talk to strangers or to take candy from adults you don't know, or get into cars with people who might kidnap you; and you know to dive under your desk if there's a nuclear attack. These were the messages children were brought up with of how to remain safe in a dangerous world. And there was a kind of lulling effect that came from all of that.



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