Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Race for the Superbomb Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Interview Transcripts | Bibliography | Primary Sources

Elaine Tyler May on: American Nuclear Fears
Q: There was also great fear not just of panic, but also a breakdown of morals if indeed the country was involved in a nuclear exchange. Tell me about that.

ETM: Well, there were a lot of fears after World War II that became caught up in fears of a possible nuclear war. Fears that were there, that had nothing really to do with the Cold War as an international conflict, but fears of changes in American society itself. And certainly the fear of social chaos and family breakdown and the unraveling of social order was very present after World War II. That experience had been one of tremendous upheaval. Families were separated. Women took men's jobs. Men lost their jobs and went to war. A lot of people, certainly a lot of men in the armed services, were killed. A lot of people were uprooted from their homes. And there was really this terrible fear that the country would never settle down, and that the key to settling down was that women would be willing to return to their domestic roles and take over the helm of the home, as they had allegedly done in the past. And there were ways in which the culture expressed fears that this might not, in fact, happen. And we find that in very odd ways, where fears of nuclear attack became very much associated with fears of sexual and social chaos.

In one case in particular, in the Journal of Social Hygiene, which was a journal of what came to be the American Public Health Association later on, a Harvard physician and scientist by the name of Clark had written an article. And Dr. Clark's article was about what might happen in the event of a nuclear war, and what is the medical and social health response to such a situation. And he wrote a very long, detailed article saying that the thing that Americans had to worry about was that the dropping of a bomb would unleash sexual promiscuity across the land, and Americans had to be careful to make sure that they could provide not only counselors and clergy who would be on hand to settle people down so that they wouldn't go out of control with their sexual impulses; and that there was also a great fear that there would be an epidemic of venereal disease. So as part of the preparedness plan, not only did there have to be centers of civil defense that had food and water and other basic supplies for living, but they had to have adequate supplies of penicillin so that they could inoculate people immediately who were at risk of, or perhaps spreading, venereal diseases as a result of this explosion of sexual promiscuity in the aftermath of an attack. And the article went on in great seriousness and great detail, to estimate on the basis of how many people in a community, how many vials of penicillin should be in each emergency center. And all of this, you know, quite straightforward and quite serious, as if one of the first things one might have to worry about in the event of a devastating nuclear attack was that people were going to be having sex randomly and promiscuously, and had to be protected against that eventuality.

And I think what that expresses is that there was a feeling that we were on the edge of sexual chaos in the United States, and that anything could really bring us to really over the edge, into an era of sexual chaos and sexual promiscuity, and the decline of the family and the unraveling of the social order as a result. And so you have here a respected Harvard physician who quite seriously is making the suggestion that to prepare against the socially destructive eventuality of a nuclear attack, we had to prepare against sexual chaos.

back to Interview Transcripts

Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference