Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold Warby 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 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.
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Radioactive Messages from the Cold War
By John O'Brian, Jeremy Borsos
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
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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:
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.
Excerpted from Atomic Postcards by John O'Brian, Jeremy Borsos. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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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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