Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow: Living with the Atomic Bomb, 1945-1965 explores the ways that Americans experienced the atomic threat as part of their daily lives. Curated by Michael Scheibach and ExhibitsUSA, the exhibit features more than 75 original objects from the era.
Americans were flooded with messages about the dangers of atomic weapons and attack from foreign powers through pamphlets, household objects, media, and film. Although the threat of atomic annihilation eventually drifted to the background of American consciousness in the late 1960s, the Atomic Age left a legacy of governmental response and civic infrastructure that remains relevant today.
The exhibition first presents a timeline and overview of the story, explaining the three main chronological phases of America’s Atomic Age. The Blast, 1945–1950 covers the years immediately following Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the American response split between popular consensus that the bomb had helped win World War II and a growing realization that this weapon could destroy the earth. Under the Mushroom Cloud, 1951–1956 shows how the situation changed after the Soviets acquired atomic capabilities in 1949. This new threat ushered in the Cold War and the age of Civil Defense. Nuclear Fallout, 1957–1965 describes the American response after the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957. The best Americans could do was build a fallout shelter or keep an evacuation map in their car, ready to get out of harm’s way.
With the timeline established, Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow then looks more closely at the way Americans actually received these “atomic messages.” The exhibition encourages audiences to explore four spheres of daily life and learn how civic, commercial, and government agencies targeted different groups with different kinds of media and messages. Taken together, these four thematic areas—at home, at school, in the community, and at play—show how the messages permeated every aspect of society.
The thematic journey begins in At Home with “The Bomb,” where federal pamphlets, radio announcements, and newspapers brought a steady stream of warning and words of encouragement to families. In contrast, mass merchandisers found new opportunities for using atomic imagery to add excitement to products and packaging. Children’s experiences are the special focus of “Atomics” at School. From textbooks to “duck and cover” drills, the impact of the Atomic Age in the schoolyard is one of the most indelible memories of childhood for many Baby Boomers. Civil Defense and Community includes a closer look at the activities of the Civil Defense agency and the Ground Observer Corps. The extension of atomic messages into the workplace, city or country, and into the nation’s transportation infrastructure is also explored. In contrast to the other thematic areas, the final section—At Play in the Atomic Age—takes a more lighthearted look at how the country reacted to atomic threats through leisure activities. From comic books to monster movies and ray guns, we see that consumer culture created an alternate set of coping mechanisms for a nation constantly under siege from messages of pending atomic annihilation.