Today is the anniversary of the Trinity test detonation in New Mexico. Therefore, a nuclear themed post seems appropriate. This is an excerpt from a paper delivered at the June 2017 conference of the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth, in which I talked about how nuclear toys sought to manage kids’ (and especially white boys,’ but that’s for another post) engagements with atomic technology during the early Cold War.
Nuclear Rhetorics: Overview
In his 1994 work on postwar American nuclear culture, By the Bomb’s Early Light, historian Paul Boyer writes of a little girl, “who, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, replied ‘alive.’” Meanwhile, the principal of Sumner High School in Kansas City wrote to students, in the 1949 yearbook: “you have the responsibility of taking account of a new world – that which will be created by atomic power … There has been nothing so far in history that can be compared with the changes that will come shortly … Will your generation prepare for these? If so, CONGRATULATIONS. If not, God help you.” [emphasis in original] Both quotations powerfully demonstrate the “larger uneasiness that seeped through the culture in the weeks after August 6, 1945,” and in particular how this anxiety extended to children. However, the sense of anxiety and fear that came with the dawning of the atomic age was tempered in the American mind. The Truman administration was acutely aware that unchecked fear among the citizenry could turn to panic, rendering the nation vulnerable. Therefore, alongside efforts to harness and direct nuclear power itself toward goals of national security, there were concerted efforts to harness and direct public affect to the same end. This enterprise was perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the Civil Defense program, which aimed to train citizens in quasi-military rote activities, such that they could act quickly and efficiently to defend their families, homes, and neighborhoods in the event of nuclear attack. However, there were also significant, and highly visible initiatives, by both state and private parties, to demonstrate the potential of nuclear power to bring about abundance and prosperity. These efforts were rooted in notions of scientific progress, and the almost utopian society that promised, should nuclear technology be tamed and controlled appropriately.
Children’s toys, too, invoked rhetorics of atomic power, and even when military applications were the primary focus of the toy, scientific ideals provided a supporting narrative, inducing children to associate nuclear technology, even that employed in national defense, with scientific progress, and the importance of maintaining it within the control of the “right” side of the Cold War struggle. Toys allowed kids’ engagements with and responses to nuclear power to be calibrated, legitimating the American pursuit of nuclear hegemony in their eyes, drawing on the “same stock of familiar images,” and imitating a common language of nuclear culture, as initiated by journalist William Laurence in his official, government commissioned, reporting on the Trinity detonation in New Mexico in 1945. In The Rise of Nuclear Fear, Spencer Weart notes that in the early Atomic Age, “98 per cent of all Americans had heard about atomic bombs. [And that] surveys found ordinary people speaking much like the journalists.” Thus were children, particularly boys, drawn into state-driven projects whereby they could be assimilated into defensive programs in the name of national security, while the tactile nature of the objects brought children into a performative mode whereby they could be encouraged to appreciate the scientific nature of nuclear technology through participation, thereby allowing the augmentation of the American nuclear program to be legitimated as both protective and progressive. A wide variety of toys and other children’s items relied on the excitement of the atomic age to engage children, including, perhaps misguidedly, several that linked the phenomenon with foodstuffs, and in this post, I focus on the (in)famous Kix Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring.
Cold War Calibration of (Children’s) Anxiety
Although the goals of Civil Defense as a form of national security, and the promotion of nuclear technology as progressive were ostensibly quite different, the rhetorics of both were closely linked to the burgeoning domesticity and consumerism of the postwar period, which was in turn linked to citizenship. Both explicitly included children within their remit, promoting a suspicion of hostile uses of the bomb while simultaneously minimizing panic, optimizing an understanding of nuclear technologies, and highlighting the importance of their economic applications. This approach meant that, for youngsters, the United States would be cemented as the preeminent global power, militarily, scientifically, and economically.
The commercial sector bombarded children, particularly through popular culture artifacts such as comic books, bubblegum cards, movies, and television shows, with images of the dangers of communism and the threat to American security that arose from the Soviet development of nuclear weaponry. In the public sphere, too, children were subjected to narratives of fear, being put through repeated drills in schools of how to react to nuclear attacks, most famously through the short 1951 movie Duck and Cover, which was shown in schools nationwide, but also through outreach to groups like the Boy Scouts, whose motto, “be prepared” fit the preparedness narrative well, and who added merit badges for emergency preparedness that reflected contemporary fears. Evidence suggests that constant drills, especially taken as part of a wider cultural preoccupation with national defense in the face of potential atomic attack, rather than inculcating children with an ability to carry out their preparedness training calmly and efficiently, actually served to heighten their fears. In the early 1960s, researchers conducted surveys of children to ascertain their perceptions of “the presence of nuclear weapons looming between themselves and their imagined futures.” In these surveys, children reported pessimistic outlooks as to their futures, providing answers such as “I am young and want a future … even if I survive, what will there be worth living for, with millions dead?” Even so, it was widely believed that repeated exposure to the possible effects of atomic bombs, along with comprehensive preparedness training, and the inculcation of a scientific understanding of nuclear technology, would make children less fearful. In this respect, the children of Indian Springs Public School, in Nevada, were considered models of behavior. These children witnessed weapon tests on a regular basis, and were, according to the Atomic Energy Commission, “getting the same type of psychological indoctrination as we are giving some of our combat troops. … If all the schoolchildren in the nation could witness an A-bomb blast, it would do much to destroy the fear and uncertainty which now exist.” Civil Defense education, while retaining the requisite elements to arouse children’s anxiety to productive ends, also took steps to normalize nuclear technology, an approach that often took on a scientific bent. Schoolchildren were taught about how to protect themselves and others, but also about the ways in which international policy intersected with the technicalities of nuclear development, as well as the science of contamination, fire, and physiological responses to various kinds of “dirty” attack.
In the domestic arena, atomic narratives were also contradictory, with Civil Defense being explicitly linked to domesticity and the family unit. According to Guy Oakes, the family was required to become “a domestic civil defense unit. All family members – fathers, mothers, and children – had to be ‘fortified with every possible training and plenty of practice, prepared to do everything [they] can to protect [themselves] in an emergency with assurance and without panic.’” However, alongside intensive and repetitious training for disaster, families were reminded daily of the potential of nuclear power to change their lives for the better. The word “atomic” was attached to all kinds of products, whether or not they had much to do with atomic technology, to signify, variously, power, speed, progress, efficiency, and futurity. In 1948, Norge Ovens produced an Atomic Oven, proclaiming that it would provide “greater safety and efficiency,” while between 1946 and 1950, M. L. Kalich and Co., of Watsonville, Ca., sold carrots under the name “Up n’ Atom.” This kind of marketing was even directed at kids, with several sets of bubblegum cards of the period reminding children of the dangers faced by the United States since its loss of the nuclear monopoly, and other candies labeled atomic to give them a veneer of excitement. These included the Ferrara Pan Candy Company’s Atomic Fireball candies which were launched in 1954, and billed as having “the red hot flavor.” In 1947, Topps Bazooka bubblegum was promoted as Atom Gum, with a mascot called “atom bubble boy” featuring extensively in story strips and commercials in boys’ comic books and magazines, along with associated send-away offers for toys, sporting memorabilia, and other items. As noted in the blog, The Topps Archives, “the idea being promoted was that [the gum] had powerful bubble blowing capability,” with the blowing up of the atom bomb itself being rhetorically invoked so that consumers could make the connection.
Citizen militarization was seen as a way of ensuring national defense and instilling ideals consistent with the role of the United States as a moral leader and global peacekeeper. Therefore toys such as guns and bombs provided a link through which children could play at being soldiers, rehearsing for their current role as civilian defenders of national security and their future role as members of the military, to be formalized by their mandatory participation in Universal Military Training as they came of age. Because these toys were also marketed as harmless, they aided in the normalization of the bomb, exposing children to idea of nuclear weapons, and their military applications, in such a way as they could come to see them as no different from conventional weapons.
Some military-themed toys added science to the experience of play. The Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb ring, available between 1947 and 1950, could be obtained by sending a box top from a carton of “that winning corn-tasty breakfast cereal, KIX” along with an order form culled from an advertisement for the toy, and 15¢, to Post Office box, presumably operated by Kix’s manufacturer, General Mills. The toy’s association the Lone Ranger, an extremely popular contemporary western during which the product was advertised, located the toy within a rhetorical culture familiar to children, and minimized the anxiety that may have been induced by its “atomic” status; this toy was merely one more in a lineage of weaponry with which boys were already familiar. The toy also invoked contemporary ideas about vigilance for the potential infiltration of American society by “enemy agents,” presumably Soviets or other Communists, and reminded boys that they could play a part in the execution of this surveillance. Advertisements for the toy featured a comic strip in which a young boy, armed with the ring, thwarts the attempts of nefarious agents to steal atomic secrets from his father, who is depicted alongside scientists in lab coats, by concealing the “new secret formula” for atomic energy within the ring’s secret message compartment. The message is clear; it is through the cooperation of the mastery of technology and science, and vigilance against enemy infiltration, that children, with the help of “this astounding atomic miracle,” can potentially “help make a better world.” A further element of scientific knowhow, in a quite literal sense, is added to the toy, because, concealed by the secret message compartment, its innermost section contains a spinthariscope, loaded with polonium, allowing children to view nuclear reactions. Boys were told they would “witness a seething, swirling light show of individual atoms going out in a blaze of glory.” Despite the highly dangerous nature of polonium, Kix insisted that the “atomic materials in the Atom Chamber are harmless.”  The Kix ring aimed to teach boys that atomic science was exciting, but harmless under controlled conditions. In highlighting how thrilling scientific observation could be, it may have served to interest boys in a career in the sciences. Meanwhile the dangers of atomic power are minimized, and children are inured to the fear associated with atomic technology. Nevertheless, the advertisements for the ring featured a drawing of a mushroom cloud positioned behind and underneath the image of the ring itself. Therefore, despite the benign facets of the ring, its promotional material also reminded children of what Masco refers to as “nuclear ruin,” ensuring that, in addition to realizing the benefits of atomic science, children playing with the toy were never far from the underlying anxiety of the nuclear age. The toy is, after all, a bomb, and as Masco points out, “[t]he central project of the early nuclear state was to link U.S. institutions — military, industrial, legislative, academic — for the production of the bomb, while calibrating public perceptions of the nuclear danger. … the Cold War state sought to both normalize catastrophic danger and politically deploy an image of it.” The link between the military and the scientific academic presented to children by the Kix ring, brought kids into this project.
 Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, 1st ed. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 16.
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