Autumn 2003

A terrible beauty

The atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud has become the logo of annihilation

Spectators described the first atomic bomb blast, on 16 July 1945 at the Trinity Site in Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico, as ‘unprecedented’, ‘terrifying’, ‘magnificent’, ‘brutal’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘stupendous’. Yet such ordinary words failed to adequately describe the spectacle because, as Thomas F. Farrell, a Los Alamos Laboratory official, later explained to the press, ‘it is that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately.’

What the inarticulate scientists and military personnel in attendance had witnessed was an unparalleled event: a thermal flash of blinding light visible for more than 250 miles from ground zero, a blast wave of bone-melting heat and the formation of a huge ball of swirling flame and mushrooming smoke climbing majestically towards the heavens. While the world had known devastating volcanic eruptions and man-made explosions – and throughout history similar menacing shapes had risen into the sky from catastrophes below – this mushroom cloud was a demonic plume that soon became civilisation’s most foul and awesome visual symbol: the logo of annihilation.

The mushroom cloud was nightmarishly ubiquitous, especially for children growing up during the late 1940s and 1950s – the relentless testing period of the nuclear age when the us and the ussr ran their arms race on deserted atolls and in underground caverns. Newsreel accounts of Pacific Ocean test sites and Cold War films warning of atomic attacks were not the only source of trepidation. The US government issued scores of official cautionary pamphlets, and the mass media published countless histrionic paperbacks, pulp magazines, comic books and other periodicals that fanned the flames of thermonuclear anxiety. For this child of the atomic era, who was never totally accustomed to the frequent Conelrad (emergency network) warnings on TV and duck-and-cover drills at school, mushroom cloud patterns wallpapered my dreams for much of my early life.

Dreading the unthinkable was underscored by knowing the real. Everyone was taught about the historic shock launched on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively when two A-bombs destroyed the Japanese cities and incinerated citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was not some H. G. Wellsian prediction or pulp science fiction apparition. The furies unleashed by these weapons left indelible scars on conscience and consciousness – just as the blast’s scorching heat etched dark shadows of vaporised humans on the naked ground.

Paradoxically, though, the world’s first atomic bomb, christened Little Boy, was as inauspicious as its name was innocuous. It looked like an ‘elongated trash can with fins’, said a crew member of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that carried the Hiroshima bomb. To force Japan into accepting unconditional surrender, Little Boy and Fat Man (the plutonium implosion bomb dropped on Nagasaki) each deposited the power of more than 12,500 tons of TNT and left a residue of radiation for years to follow.

The Hiroshima mushroom, small when compared to subsequent hydrogen blasts, looms large in the litany of terror because it was the first. ‘The city was hidden by that awful cloud, boiling up, mushrooming, terrible and incredibly tall,’ recalled Col. Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay. ‘If you want to describe it as something you are familiar with, [you could say it was like] a pot of boiling black oil,’ related one of his crew. ‘The mushroom itself was a spectacular sight, a bubbling mass of purple-gray smoke and you could see it had a red core in it and everything was burning inside,’ said the tailgunner, Robert Caron. ‘As we got farther away, we could see the base of the mushroom and below we could see what looked like a few-hundred foot layer of debris and smoke.’ Another witness described the mushroom as ‘this turbulent mass. I saw fires springing up in different places like flames shooting up on a bed of coals. It looked like lava or molasses covering the whole city.’ Japanese accounts from the ground told of a blinding flash of light (pika in Japanese) and a deafening roar of sound (pikadon or flash boom), yet outside the city limits the sky was a beautiful golden yellow.

Americans greeted the bombings as a necessary means towards an inevitable end. Notwithstanding, when told of the bombing Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist directly responsible for the Los Alamos A-bomb development teams, expressed guarded satisfaction, for he understood the power of what was unleashed. A month earlier after watching the triumphal first blast at the Trinity Site he quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds . . .’ and was plagued by guilt until his death in 1967. Nonetheless, the bombs were made, the atom was weaponised, and uranium and plutonium were being stockpiled. Days after the first blasts, an additional Fat Man was being shipped to a US airbase for its final Tokyo destination until President Harry S. Truman, citing despair over the enormous number of casualties, decided to spare the city and its inhabitants.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, propagandists did not wait long to put a happy face on the ghastly new weapon and incorporate the mushroom cloud into popular iconography. The bomb itself (in its various unexceptional physical manifestations) was not iconic enough for widespread use as a modern emblem, but the mushroom cloud was monumentally omnipotent. Since the US could smash and harness the atom (and with it smash and harness Imperial Japan), the mushroom cloud initially represented superhuman accomplishment. It symbolised righteousness rather than wickedness.

But not everyone embraced this view. Only a few months after the end of war one early opponent, former US Navy Lieutenant Robert Osborn, an artist whose wartime assignment was drawing cartoons for training and safety brochures, published a cautionary manual of a different kind. This time, rather than teach sailors and pilots survival techniques under battle conditions, his book titled War is No Damn Good tried to save lives through condemnation of all armed conflict – especially the nuclear kind. While in the Navy, Osborn believed he had witnessed all the carnage imaginable and supported the end result. But after seeing pictures from Hiroshima and its atomic aftermath, he realised the means were not beyond reproach and as an artist he could not remain silent. Thus he created the first protest image of the nuclear age – a drawing of a smirking skull face on a mushroom cloud, which transformed this atomic marvel into a symbol of death. Although it was not the most profound statement, it was the most poignant of the few anti-nuclear images produced in the wake of the Second World War. For its prescience it has earned a place in the pantheon of oppositional graphics.

But even Osborn’s satirical apocalyptic vision pales before actual photographs and films of A-bomb and H-bomb blasts that were prodigiously made of the many tests over land and under sea. One is remarkable for the real-time eruption from a gigantic plasma bubble (like an enormous womb) into a gaseous fireball from which the mushroom cloud emerges. Others are incredible for the sheer enormity of the cloud compared to nearby buildings or ships. Detonations at sea routinely produced the best photo-opportunities because the immense upward thrusting water column, the base of the mushroom, was so surreal. Seen from the air, the blast produced undulating surf that radiated for miles, churning up the otherwise calm sea. These images are horrific and hypnotic, and like cosmic fireworks they were as fascinating as they were terrible.

Early on in the atomic age, the mushroom cloud devolved into kitsch. Government and industry promoted ‘our friend the atom’ with a variety of molecular-looking trade characters and mascots. By 1947, there were 45 businesses listed in the Manhattan phone book alone that used the word ‘atomic’ in their name, and none had anything to do with making bombs. In 1946 cereal-maker General Mills published an ad in comic books illustrated with a mushroom cloud that offered children an ‘Atomic “Bomb” Ring’ if they sent in a Kix cereal box top. The ring featured a secret compartment and a concealed observation lens that allowed the holder to look at flashes ‘caused by the released energy of atoms splitting like crazy in the sealed warhead atom chamber.’ A savvy French bathing suit designer, Louis Réard, took the name ‘bikini’ from the Marshall Islands where two American atom bombs were tested in 1946, because he thought that the name signified the explosive effect that the suit would have on men. Another designer, Jacques Heim, created his own two-piece bathing suit, called the Atome which he described as ‘the world’s smallest bathing suit’. Designers of everything from alarm clocks to business logos soon adopted an ‘Atomic’ style.

Comic book publishers made hay out of mushroom mania. Atomic blasts, like car accidents, caught the eye of many comic readers and horror aficionados. Just as real photos and films of atomic tests seduced viewers, fantastic pictorial representations of doomsday bombs blowing up large chunks of earth tweaked the imagination. The sheer enormity of these fictional blasts, especially when seen on earth from space, raised the level of terror many notches. Similarly B-movies in the nuke genre, with all those empty cities laid barren by radioactive poison, exploited the ‘what if’ voyeurism that people still find so appealing. Books and magazine stories covered a wide nuclear swath. Novels such as Fail Safe and On The Beach (both made into films) speculated upon the aftermath of nuclear attack and thus triggered fear (and perhaps secretly promoted disarmament, too). To sell these books, paintings of mushroom clouds were used in ridiculous ways. The cover for On The Beach, for example, shows a woman standing on a seaside cliff directly facing a mushroom cloud while waiting for her lover to return from his submarine voyage to no-man’s land.

An intelligent, though more frightening, mushroom cloud display is the montage of nuclear blasts at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s satirical film Dr Strangelove – accompanied by Vera Lynn’s wartime hit ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (‘don’t know where, don’t know when’). In quick succession, a dozen or so detonations, taken from real test film footage, flash by to illustrate a fictional ‘Doomsday’ machine triggered when only one bomb falls to earth. Although this chain reaction is not real, it plays to fears of many lay people and some scientists that the US and the USSR had each created such demonic devices. In that spirit, Atomic Scientists of Chicago and the Federation of American Scientists during the 1950s in their magazine titled the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists adopted a ‘Doomsday Clock’ that they intended to symbolise the world’s proximity to self-destruction – a surreal but reasonable presumption.

Absurdity reigned during the nuclear age and afterwards. In 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the United States Postal Service planned to issue a postage stamp showing the Hiroshima atomic mushroom cloud with the caption: ‘Atomic bombs hasten war’s end, August 1945.’ The Japanese government protested, and the stamp was cancelled. For the mushroom to be so commemorated would be an affront to the memory of those killed and injured, but would also serve to legitimise this endgame trademark rather than underscore the role of the mushroom cloud as the world’s most wicked icon.

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 49 vol. 13 2003

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