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Michael A. Jacques
Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Department of History
During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons as tools of warfare and diplomacy. Immediately following the Second World War, American attitudes toward the atomic bomb were overwhelmingly positive. Once the Soviet Union developed their own atomic bomb and the United States lost the atomic monopoly, attitudes started to shift. After the first hydrogen bombs tests, public sentiment, as demonstrated in film, became markedly negative. To counter these negative attitudes and portray their nuclear weapons as peaceful tools instead of weapons of mass destruction, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed programs for peaceful applications of nuclear weapons called operation plowshare and nuclear explosions for the national economy respectively. Two particular peaceful nuclear explosion projects, the sedan test at the Nevada test site and the Chagan test at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test range in Kazakhstan, were developed to test the feasibility of creating artificial lakes with atomic bombs. Both countries detonated nuclear weapons underground to make craters large enough for a lake, but the Soviet Union diverted a river to fill theirs while the United States left theirs dry.
They then made dangerously misleading propaganda films based on an incomplete, or even poor, grasp of the consequences of residual radioactivity and fallout to promote those programs. Hollywood’s reaction to the propagation of nuclear weapons was to make films with either overt or subtle anti-nuclear messages, screening one or more of the genre approximately two years after a seminal nuclear or disconcerting political event. Those efforts, both pro-nuclear Soviet and American propaganda as well as anti-nuclear propaganda in the form of popular culture, specifically film, conformed to theories of propaganda as outlined by the sociologist Jacques Ellul. This thesis utilizes Jacques Ellul’s theories of propaganda and primary sources such as film, posters, newspapers, government documents, and scientific findings, as well as some secondary source material, to demonstrate what the various sides were trying to do in terms of swaying public opinion toward a particular image of nuclear weapons. It also grants some perspective on current “us” versus “them” mentalities.
St. Jacques, Michael A., "Their swords, our plowshares: "Peaceful" nuclear weapons, propaganda, and Cold War memory expressed in film: 1959-1989" (2016). Masters Theses. 102.
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