BY THE BOMB'S EARLY LIGHT: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age by Paul Boyer
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BY THE BOMB'S EARLY LIGHT: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A kaleidoscope of images of what Americans thought and said about The Bomb from 1945 to 1950. Almost every conceivable stance that could be taken was taken during those five years--from the pie-in-the-sky forecasts of atomic cars to the foreboding of the end of the human race. Such cultural fallout stands in marked contrast to the spate of books glorifying the science and scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. Later, the themes of these books changed to the politics of the arms race and the controversies surrounding Oppenheimer or Teller. Boyer's approach is unique in presenting a panoramic view. By immersing himself deeply in all the records--the newspapers and popular magazines, the literary critics and religious thinkers, the radio and TV commentators and comedians, the science fiction writers and anonymous Americans everywhere--he evokes vivid images and memorable names. There was, of course, William Laurence, whose New York Times article scooped the world and led to an initial euphoria. The pendulum soon swung, however. The scientists were among the first to proclaim impending doom. Movements quickly formed espousing worldwide controls or disarmament. Max Lerner, Raymond Gram Swing, Norman Cousins, A.J. Muste were among the liberal voices arguing against atomic weapons. In condemning the bomb, liberal Catholics lined up in the pages of Commonweal. Dwight MacDonald shouted his damnations fortissimo. To little avail. For, as Boyer notes, ""By 1950, the obsessive post-Hiroshima awareness of the horror of the atomic bomb had given way to an interval of diminished cultural attention and uneasy acquiescence in the goal of maintaining atomic superiority over the Russians."" Sound familiar? Boyer's well-taken point is that since 1950 America has seen a second wave of activism followed by apathy, and now 40 years later we are at another junction. The alarms of nuclear horror once again sound even as Star War strategies move ever closer to being put in place. Will there be a difference this time? That is the thoughtful question Boyer leaves to readers in a book that should stir consciences and stimulate debate.

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1985
Publisher: Pantheon