Book Review Dr. Strangelove's America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age

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Book Review

Dr. Strangelove's America:
Society and Culture in the Atomic Age

Margot A. Henriksen, Dr. Strangelove's America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 392 pp.

For many Americans, especially those who were not alive in the 1950s, that decade beckons as a halcyon era of innocence and affluence. From Happy Days to American Graffiti to Grease, popular culture, especially as portrayed in television and movies, has helped ingrain 1950s mythology by fostering the warm and fuzzy image of a time when the war was over, the country was booming, and almost everyone liked Ike, loved Lucy, and left it to Beaver.

Some people did, however, question this mythology and rebel against the pervasive Cold War conformity. Margot A. Henriksen, studying what she calls the "culture of dissent" that foreshadowed the angry 1960s, takes up the cause of the dissenters. From Hollywood noir movies to slyly subversive science fiction epics to the novels and essays of self-conscious hipsters and beat writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Mailer), artists and creators of popular culture articulated the angst and anxiety of a supposedly placid age. They exposed the fears brought about by menaces like Communism, nuclear bombs, World War III, and McCarthyism, which hovered around the edges of, and sporadically threatened to shatter entirely, an American dream that seemed to assure material comforts and spiritual and national security.

While it was impossible to miss the explosion of dissent that accompanied the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the mid-1960s--an era whose opening Henriksen symbolically dates to Stanley Kubrick's 1964 anti-nuclear black comedy, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb--she contends that scholars and other commentators have failed to appreciate the important antecedents of that rebellious decade. By tracing and dissecting the key literary, cinematic, theatrical, musical, and other influences that raised or voiced doubts about American Cold War and nuclear policies in the late 1940s and the 1950s, or even gave vent to or nurtured emotions and apprehensions that ran counter to the period's repressed [End Page 123] ethos, Henriksen argues that this avant-garde "radical culture of dissent," like a pesky guerrilla army, developed alongside, attacked the flanks of, and finally helped undermine the dominant Cold War consensus. The dissenters challenged the order symbolized by America's use and possession of, and reliance on, nuclear weapons--thus laying the groundwork for the far more dramatic protests of the 1960s.

Henriksen creatively interprets, or reinterprets ("reconstructs" in postmodernist lingo), a wide array of familiar and less-familiar movies, plays, novels, poems, art, and other cultural expressions to underpin her thesis that the sixties cannot be properly understood without examining the antecedents in the previous postwar years. In doing so, she is to some extent reinventing the wheel, for others before her have covered most of these issues, and made most of the same points. Dr. Strangelove's America follows in the footsteps of, among other works, Stephen J. Whitfield's Culture of the Cold War, Paul Boyer's By the Bomb's Early Light, Spencer Weart's Nuclear Fear, Michael Yavenditti's essays, Allen Winkler's One World or None, and Peter Biskind's Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties.

But it is equally true that no one has previously tied these various strands together so well or in such a lively and coherent narrative. Although readers may disagree with some of her interpretations, part of the fun is using Henriksen's lens to review or recreate past classics (The Naked and the Dead, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lolita, Psycho, Rebel Without A Cause, Howl) and to learn about more obscure, comparably revealing works. As a teen-aged science fiction fan, I watched 1950s B-movie epics thinking they were about invading aliens, giant monsters, futuristic conflicts, and creepy adventures. Little did I realize that films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, Godzilla, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were craftily using images and metaphors to communicate political ideas that violated Cold War verities, delivering sophisticated encoded messages about "atomic apprehension" and McCarthyism too risky to state explicitly.

Or were they? Well, sometimes a banana may just be a banana, but Dr. Strangelove's America makes a compelling case that these and myriad other cultural productions merit consideration beyond their narrow genres. Henriksen attempts to persuade us that these were fundamentally linked to the broader political and intellectual currents of the time. Even when their meanings were ambiguous (as in the case of The Manchurian Candidate which both mocked and reflected the most extreme paranoia of the McCarthy years), or when a reader might disagree with Henriksen's interpretations, these works help explain America's response to the startling, frightening, and sometimes bewildering changes and challenges of the early postwar era. They tried to render comprehensible not just the bomb and the Communist menace, but explosions of consumer culture, suburbia, and the blandly happy affluence typified in the decade's cheerful sitcoms.

Cold War triumphalists, who view the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism as an across-the-board vindication of American policies since 1945, might scoff at Henriksen's admiration and sympathy for these dissident voices, their critiques of Washington's foreign and nuclear policies, and their handwringing and agonizing over fears of a nuclear World War III. Perhaps they might wish to suspend their instinctive skepticism and give Dr. Strangelove's America a look. For a little-noticed irony accompanied the end of the Cold War: Popular culture (including consumer culture), spirited [End Page 124] nonconformism, individuality, and the "counterculture" of the West, and specifically of the United States--all generally associated with the "left," "softness" on Communism, and the movement against the Vietnam War--had seeped through the Iron Curtain (via television, radio, movies, music, radio, and later fax, compact disks, etc.) and influenced millions of those who lived under Communism to rebel, resist, and ultimately, in 1989, to foment revolution with swiftness and certitude and on a scale that exceeded the expectations and imagination of even the most ardent anti-Communists.

James G. Hershberg
Cold War International History Project

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