Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold War
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Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold War

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by John O'Brian, Jeremy Borsos
     
 

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Atomic postcards played an important role in creating and disseminating a public image of nuclear power. Presenting small-scale images of test explosions, power plants, fallout shelters, and long-range missiles, the cards were produced for mass audiences in China, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan and link the multilayered geographies of Atomic Age

Overview

Atomic postcards played an important role in creating and disseminating a public image of nuclear power. Presenting small-scale images of test explosions, power plants, fallout shelters, and long-range missiles, the cards were produced for mass audiences in China, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan and link the multilayered geographies of Atomic Age nationalism and tourism. From the unfailingly cheery slogans – 'Greetings from Los Alamos' – to blithe, handwritten notes and no-irony-intended 'Pray for Peace' postmarks, these postcards mailed from the edge of danger nonetheless maintain the upbeat language of their medium. With 150 reproductions of cards and handwritten messages dating from the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the end of the Cold War, Atomic Postcards offers a fascinating glimpse of a time when the end of the world seemed close at hand.

Editorial Reviews

Rain Taxi

"O'Brian and Borsos have added a valuable chapter to the cultural artifacts of the atomic age."—Rain Taxi

imprint
"Atomic Postcards documents a treasure trove of Cold War relics, some which need to be seen to be believed."—imprint

 

Slate

"Atomic Postcards fuses the almost inherently banal form of the canned tourist dispatch with the incipient peril, and nervously giddy promise, of the nuclear age. Collected within are two-sided curios spanning the vast range of the military-industrial complex—'radioactive messages from the Cold War,' as the book promises. . . . Taken as a whole, the postcards form a kind of de facto and largely cheery dissemination campaign for the wonder of atomic power."—Tom Vanderbilt, Slate

University of Toronto Quarterly

“O’Brian and Borsos confront readers with jarring perspectives of the Cold War. Their collection of postcards—drawn from more than a dozen countries and spanning 1945 to 1989—shows how the nuclear industry, and the weapons it generated, somehow came to be an accepted part of everyday reality and one that was reflected in the most mundane aspects of popular culture. . . . The reader is forced to ponder the extent to which nuclear threats became normalized and simply an accepted aspect of everyday life during the Cold War.”
College & Research Libraries News

“O’Brian and Borsos write in the introduction that the postcards are strange hybrids of tourism and terror, of nationalism and pacifism, where ‘the extraordinary keeps company with the ordinary, the excessive with the banal.’ . . .  From Army photos of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a set of real photos of a 1953 mushroom cloud from the Nevada Test Site as an advertisement for a Las Vegas hotel and casino, the images speak volumes about the Cold War era and its fears”
Journal of Canadian Art History

“’Wish you were here’ takes on a dark and unsettling irony when discovered on the reverse side of a postcard depicting an atomic blast. In Atomic Postcards, readers are presented with an opportunity to reflect upon the ways in which Cold War nuclear experience is visualized, commented, or left unsaid through the recto/verso of postcard images.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781841505275
Publisher:
Intellect
Publication date:
10/10/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
18 MB
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This product may take a few minutes to download.

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Read an Excerpt

Atomic Postcards

Radioactive Messages from the Cold War


By John O'Brian, Jeremy Borsos

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-527-5



CHAPTER 1

RECTO | VERSO

JOHN O'BRIAN


The title of a Chinese postcard from the 1980s, Ground-to-Ground Long-Range Missiles, is printed on the reverse side of the card. Like the titles given to most modern postcards it is matter-of-fact, but the photographic image on the front of the card is less straightforward. Taken from an elevated viewpoint high above street level, it depicts three nuclear missiles being wheeled through Beijing in a military parade. The missiles are in a horizontal position — un-cocked and functionally inert — and might almost be mistaken for giant pencil crayons, sharpened to a fine red point. They are pulled by trucks containing soldiers lined up in tight rows, a contrast to the uneven groupings of on-lookers at the top of the image. A wide crosswalk with zebra-stripes cuts underneath the trucks at right angles. The photographer responsible for the image, ZHOU Wan Ping, is concerned with the æsthetic elements of his composition as much as with the atomic hardware (capable of destroying cities) he has been commissioned to photograph. The painted bands around the missiles align precisely with the painted stripes of the crosswalk, and the white tires of the trucks rhyme visually with the white globes of the streetlight in the foreground.

The design of the streetlight pictured in Ground-to-Ground Long-Range Missiles reflects a Cold War fashion in furnishings and fixtures for "atomic" lighting. The trend received a major impetus from the Atomium, a colossal aluminum structure more than 100 meters high representing the revolving atoms of an iron crystal that was built for the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. The Atomium quickly became an iconic tourist symbol. Images of it circulated internationally, many on postcards (p. 60), and it became a marker of Belgian national identity. The Atomium united the geography of tourism with the exigencies of nationalism under the sign of peaceful nuclear advancement, notably the technology of fissile-produced energy.

The Chinese card also links tourism and nationalism, but less in the name of peaceful advancement than of nuclear threat and deterrence. Soviet and American postcards during the Cold War period oscillated between the two positions; some promoted peace, others fire-power. Occasionally, they tried to promote both on the same card. The legend on an American postcard depicting a B-52H bomber in flight states that the aircraft is "equipped with four GAM-87 nuclear missiles plus its regular bombs" and concludes that it is "the world's most powerful weapon for peace" (p. 117). The attempt to have it both ways is located in the last three words.

The atomic postcards collected in this book date from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to the end of the Cold War in 1989. The majority are from the 1950s and 1960s. The cards were produced in a dozen countries — Belgium, Britain, Canada, China, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Philippines, Soviet Union, Switzerland, and the United States — for sale to mass audiences. Not all have been "postally used" (stamped and mailed), but those that have often show the marks of their travels. They have been creased or "slogan cancelled," which is to say, postmarked with a printed phrase. The slogan "Pray for Peace" — no irony was intended — appears on the backs of three American postcards illustrated in the book (pp. 96, 104, 156). A sizeable proportion of the cards, known in the trade as "chromes," were manufactured using new color processes, including Kodachrome. They offer hold-in-the-hand pictures of atomic test explosions, nuclear power plants, radiation laboratories, submarines, aircraft, short and long-range missiles, nuclear reactors, fallout shelters, and museums promoting "atoms for peace," not to mention images of the ruined cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Cold War atomic postcards came in two standard sizes, regular and jumbo. To order the jumbo version of Atomic Explosion: Frenchman's Flat, or Yucca Flats, Nevada (p. 42–43), manufactured in the first half of the 1950s by Mike Roberts Color Production in Berkeley, California, distributors used the stock number J563, in which the "J" stood for jumbo. What can be said about the hopes and desires this postcard fulfilled for its senders and receivers? This is a beginning: the card was considered desirable for framing, or so a handwritten message on the back of a mailed version of it says:

Dearest Freda,

Knowing you like I do, I know that you will have this picture framed. That is why I am sending it to you. I have said most of what I wanted to say in a letter. Suffice it to say that we miss you and the rest of the family. God bless and keep you all.

Love & kisses, Fiord & family


This note to Dearest Freda from Fiord & family represents an act of intimacy that cannot be readily deciphered as either for or against nuclear weapons and testing. A postcard mailed to family and friends requires a handwritten message to be complete — without a supplemental written narrative it is a homeless object rather than an item of memory and desire that marks an experience — but what does the message on this card convey? That the picture should be framed as a source of pleasure, or that it should be framed as a source of caution?

Another message, on the back of a different copy of the same postcard, refers obliquely to the community of soldiers, workers, scientists, and photographers employed in the vicinity of ground zero: "where this was set off is where Elmo use[d] to work when they were here in Las Vegas." In atomic photography we rarely see Elmo, unless he is a soldier with his back turned to an explosion. Images are not released of scientists designing the weapons or of workers manufacturing them. Like the bomb's potential victims, or the radiation produced by a detonation, they are invisible.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Atomic Postcards by John O'Brian, Jeremy Borsos. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John O’Brian is professor of art history at the University of British Columbia. Jeremy Borsos is a visual artist whose exhibitions have been reviewed in Art in America and Canadian Art.

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