Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age. By Margot A. Henriksen. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1997. Notes. Index. xvi + 388 pages. $34.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Norman Rosenberg, Department of History, Macalester College, St. Paul, MN
Cold war culture has become a hot historical topic. Dr. Strangelove’s America joins a rapidly growing list of histories about how issues and events of the cold war era came to be represented in television, literature, motion pictures, and other cultural texts. Although focusing on the relationship between atomic weaponry and cold war culture, it inevitably touches on other aspects of the years between 1945 and about 1975 such as youthful rebellion, civil rights, and family life.
Previous histories, Margot Henriksen argues, underestimate the extent to which “the bomb” affected domestic culture. While not disagreeing with Paul Boyer’s claim, in By the Bomb’s Early Light (1985), about the paucity of explicit, policy debates over nuclear questions during the early cold war years, Henriksen’s book seeks evidence of broader cultural concerns about the bomb. Dr. Strangelove’s America, after a far-ranging survey of diverse cultural texts, finds an “atomic age culture whose revolutionary forms of expression matched the revolutionary technological changes represented by the atomic bomb” (p. xix).
A binary framework anchors Henriksen’s analysis. On one side, there is a “culture of atomic consensus” that “adapted to the bomb by stressing the American tradition of optimism and its secure belief in progress and technologyÉ”(p. xvi). The opponent is an “atomic age culture of dissent,” the primary interest of Henriksen’s book, that updates the “traditional moral qualms and doubts that had long accompanied America’s political and cultural development” by using the atomic bomb to highlight postwar signs of “chaos, disorder, and disjunction” within American life. This book sees indications of discontent in films such as Vertigo (1958), books such as Catch-22 (1962), and rock anthems such as “Great Balls of Fire” (1958).
Dr. Strangelove (1964), by subjecting the atomic consensus to withering satire, emblemizes the culture of dissent. “The ultimate irrationality of living with the bomb dictated the temper of the film, thereby challenging the cherished seriousness and rationality America’s nuclear ethos and establishment” (p. 318). This film drew on the dissenting spirit that proceeded it and, in turn, helped to inspire the counter-culture of the 1960s.
Dr. Strangelove’s America concludes by arguing that the culture of dissent, after flowering during the late 1960s and 1970s, continued to influence events. It contributed to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the resignation of Richard Nixon. The end of the Vietnam War and of Nixon’s presidency, “paramount symbols for America’s system of death and violence’ (p. 387), demonstrated the impact of this culture of dissent. Ultimately, it even deserves credit for limiting the foreign policy options of Ronald Reagan and for “keeping a tenuous balance between American dreams and myths of life” and the “American nightmares and visions of apocalypse” that were embedded in “the atomic age political status quo” (p. 388).
Any interpretive history as broadly conceived as Dr. Strangelove’s America invites dissent, even from readers sympathetic to its political judgments. No author can rummage through so many different cultural attics, for example, without raising the specter of counter-examples. If Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve” (1964) represents a musical genre that “registered the fascination that death had in the cultural consciousness of America, and especially in young America” (p. 197), what about all of the upbeat auto-anthems, such as the Beach Boy’s “409” (1962), from the same era? Why should “The Eve of Destruction”(sung but not written by Barry McGuire, who had earlier fronted the saccharine sound of the New Christy Minstrels) merit more attention than any musical text by Bob Dylan? And in what sense did the 1969 mud-bash at Woodstock “become a symbol of hope not just to the youth culture but to the nation as a whole?” (p. 383).
In addition, some readers may believe that doing cultural history requires more than sorting texts according to a consensus-or-dissent framework. Can High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953), whose gunfighter imagery and reverence for phallic weaponry (arguably) presage films such as Top Gun (1986), be located only within a culture of dissent? With these films, as elsewhere, Dr. Strangelove’s America might have benefitted from a better grasp of approaches that emphasize conflict within as well as between cultural texts.
Overall, though, Dr. Strangelove’s America offers a provocative introduction to the culture of the early cold war period. It helps to focus attention on the domestic meanings of the bomb and, more important, to remind historians that cultural texts can matter every bit as much as power politics and social movements.