Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wait! Don't push that bu- ...oops.

Mistakes happen. For those of us who have lived our entire lives in the shadow of a potential nuclear war I suppose we've become a little blasé about that. But back in the 50's the possibility of an atomic accident must have been absolutely nerve wracking!

In July 1954, Collier's chose Fred Freeman to illustrate how the U.S. Navy had dealt with a real accident: when some of its ships where mistakenly positioned within fallout range of a H-bomb test, they quickly got the world's biggest car wash (or boat wash, I guess). Whew!

That same month, The Saturday Evening Post ran this fiction piece where a tiny, stupid mistake puts four sailors in danger of slow death by radiation at another nuclear test zone. Happily, they are rescued in the nick of time by a U.S. sub which has drifted off course due to - yup - a silly little mistake.

Five years later, Arthur Lidov illustrated this story of how bad weather over the Arctic caused a half dozen domestic aircraft to be misidentified as a Russian attack. Only through the determination of the commanders at NORAD to avoid making the ultimate mistake is a nuclear holocaust avoided. But the message to the 1950's reader is clear: we are, every minute of every day, on the brink of no return.

Stories like these were not nearly as prevalent as the usual romantic, western or crime stories that regularly filled the pages of the mainstream magazines. Still, they must surely have added to the general air of angst and dread that people had to live with in the early days of the atomic age.

Tomorrow: Cheer Up!

* All these images can be viewed at full size in my Atomic Age Flick set.

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