Nuclear Citizenship at the Grassroots: Public Safety, Antinuclear Activism, and American Democracy, 195063

Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:50 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago)
Sarah Robey, Idaho State University
In 1960, nearly 2000 New York City residents risked public arrest to protest the annual Operation Alert civil defense drill. Countless more ignored the exercise and carried on with their everyday activities indoors. A decade earlier, New Yorkers had been vociferous advocates for the establishment of a nuclear civil defense program. The change of heart in New York was characteristic of a broader shift in American attitudes through the 1950s. In just ten years, public opinion about nuclear policies--civil defense included--reversed from general support for Cold War nuclearization to profound concern over nuclear fallout and the riskiness of deterrence based on mutually assured destruction. Grassroots organizations of activist scientists, concerned mothers, and pacifists all contributed to an antinuclear critique that identified two dovetailing concerns. First, new scientific studies argued that fallout from nuclear testing endangered the public. Even if war never came, activists charged, Americans would suffer pathological and hereditary consequences. Secondly, activists began to doubt the efficacy of civil defense against increasingly destructive weapons technologies. Critics came to see civil defense as a public palliative, not a program designed to save lives. In questioning the legitimacy of nuclear testing and civil defense, opponents suggested that the state was actively endangering its own citizens.

This paper examines this often-overlooked episode in American antinuclear protest through the lens of cultural citizenship. Antinuclear activists in the 1950s framed critique as an expression of healthy democratic dissent and loyalty to their nation. The state had fallen short of its sovereign duty to protect its citizens, they claimed, but the fracture could be rectified by a renewed commitment to disarmament, peace, and public safety. The language of citizenship rights and responsibilities thus stands as an essential framework for understanding how the public negotiated the challenges of the Atomic Age.