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

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 antiVietnam 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
Cold War triumphalists, who view the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism as an acrossthe-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 littlenoticed 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