By Fred Pearce
Insensitive much? Texas-based Manhattan Project Beer Company—yes, you read that correctly—named one of their cold ones “Bikini Atoll” after the nuclear testing site in the Marshall Islands. Marshall Islanders are rightfully incensed, as it trivializes the impacts of the high-level radiation they’re still living with to this day. The company said the name was meant to raise awareness of the implications of nuclear research. Needless to say, it seems like they knocked back too many before thinking this through, and their name isn’t helping.
America’s love affair with all things atomic goes further back. In Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age, environmental journalist Fred Pearce explains why nuclear technology looms like a kaiju in American culture. Call it a serious problematic fave. This excerpt is on the house.
America’s iconic nuclear landscape is the Nevada National Security Site, a fenced-off and largely deserted tract of sand, cactus, and Joshua trees that is bigger than Rhode Island. Once, when America was testing its atomic bombs here, it was the site of high jinks and revelry. Everything new and exciting in America was labeled “atomic,” and Nevada was the place to experience the cutting edge of the new age.
The flashes could be seen 350 miles away in San Francisco. But in the up-and-coming desert resort of Las Vegas, less than seventy miles from the test site, the bombs were a weekend tourist attraction. The Chamber of Commerce tagged Las Vegas “Atomic City, USA” and distributed calendars giving detonation times. Staying up all night drinking atomic cocktails and then driving down Highway 95 for a closer look at the dawn blasts was the height of fashion. Or you could see the mushroom clouds and feel the ground shake from your hotel room. They charged premium prices for suites facing the test site.
Even the stars felt the allure of the atomic. When a young Elvis Presley took the stage, Vegas billed him as “America’s only atomic-powered singer.” To add to the glitz, the city for several years crowned a Miss Atomic Bomb. Nuclear bombs, Elvis, and showgirls—what could be more Vegas? What could have been more emblematic of modern America?
There were four Miss Atomic Bombs. They reigned through the heyday of the desert tests, from 1952 to 1957. First was Candyce King, a dancer at Vegas’s Last Frontier Hotel “radiating loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles,” as one caption writer put it. Technically, she was Miss Atomic Blast, and there was no actual beauty contest. It was just a publicity shot of her wearing a mushroom cloud as a cap.
Next came Paula Harris, who sat on a parade float beside a mushroom cloud to depict the Oscar-nominated movie The Atomic City. Released in 1952, the film told the story of the kidnapping of a scientist’s son in the secret bomb-making town of Los Alamos. She was followed in early 1955 by Linda Lawson, a singer at the Sands Hotel. She was said to have been crowned “Miss Cue” in ironic honor of the much-delayed Operation Cue, a series of blasts that year that tested the impact of atomic bombs on buildings, bridges, and other urban infrastructure.
Finally, and most famously, in 1957 there was another showgirl from the Sands Hotel who went by the name of Lee Merlin. She was photographed in a swimsuit largely consisting of a cotton mushroom cloud. That was the picture that did it. Blond curls in the breeze, arms spread high, red lips—and a white mushroom cloud. Oddly, to this day nobody knows what happened to her or whether that was her real name. She disappeared almost as quickly as the cloud itself.
So sexy was the bomb that, just as women got named after bombs, so bombs got named after women. A blast in June 1957—during which seven hundred pigs were deliberately exposed to massive radiation burns and flying glass to see how they got on—was called Priscilla. That was reputedly the name of a favored prostitute from Pahrump, a small town near the testing ground where many site workers were billeted.
Kids were brought into the celebrations too. In 1954, St. George, a Mormon town in Utah downwind of the test that later suffered high cancer rates, crowned a young girl with a mushroom cloud on her skirt “Our Little A-Bomb.” But bizarrely, says Robert Friedrichs, a radiation safety technician at the time who later researched the phenomenon for the test site’s oral history project, the first Miss Atomic Bomb was not in Nevada at all. Not even in America. She was crowned after a beauty contest organized by the occupying US military forces in Nagasaki in 1946, just months after an American bomb had destroyed that city. Pictures published in a women’s journal of the day showed four finalists, all wearing kimonos rather than swimsuits, with a bunch of GIs standing behind them grinning.
After [World War II], bomb makers initially decided not to besmirch the American landscape with atomic tests. To conduct their continuing tests into ever larger bombs, they headed for the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, which had been recently liberated from Japan, and to one of its most remote atolls, Bikini Atoll. That’s how we got the bikini. The first two-piece swimsuit began as the “Atome,” excitedly marketed by French fashion designer Jacques Heim in early 1946 as “the world’s smallest bathing suit.” But after the first US atom test at Bikini that summer, a French automobile engineer named Louis Reard, who had just taken over his mother’s lingerie business, brought out his own even smaller two-piece, named the Bikini. The Vatican called it “sinful”—not the bomb test, but the swimsuit.
After the Soviet Union went nuclear in 1949, the pace of testing heated up, and the convenience of the Nevada desert brought the atomic bombardiers back home. From January 27, 1951, when the ABLE “device” was detonated at Frenchman Flat, a dried-up lake bed in the middle of the new Nevada Test Site, the early-morning skies were regularly illuminated by the tests, which often received live national TV coverage.
That’s when the whole nation became enthralled by the atomic spectacle. Everything from clocks to lamps to corporate logos soon adopted “atomic” designs, such as a mushrooms cloud or the nucleus of an atom circled by electrons. High school football teams were renamed the Atoms. (One school team near the Hanford plutonium complex still has a mushroom cloud as its symbol.) The thrall was spiced with fear. This was the McCarthy era, when public hearings chaired by Senator Joe McCarthy into suspected Communist infiltration of the government led to a period of political paranoia. But there were real spies, too, such as the recently imprisoned Fuchs. And the fear of an all-out nuclear war between America and the Soviets led to scarily methodical preparations.
About the Author
Fred Pearce has reported on environmental, science, and development issues from eighty-five countries over the past twenty years. Environment consultant at New Scientist from 1992 to 2018, he also writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper and Yale University’s prestigious e360 website. His many books include The New Wild, When the Rivers Run Dry, With Speed and Violence, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, The Coming Population Crash, and The Land Grabbers.