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The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror

The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror

by Joseph Masco
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822358060
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/01/2014
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 1,164,062
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Joseph Masco is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post–Cold War New Mexico, winner of the J. I. Staley Prize from the School for Advanced Research and the Rachel Carson Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science.

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The Theater of Operations

National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror

By Joseph Masco

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7599-9



Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America

Has any nation-state invested as profoundly in ruins as Cold War America? Although many societies have experienced moments of self-doubt about the future, perhaps even contemplating the ruins that might be left behind as testament to their existence, it took American ingenuity to transform ruination into a form of nation building. In this regard, the invention of the atomic bomb proved to be utterly transformative for American society: it not only provided the inspiration for a new U.S. geopolitical strategy—one that ultimately enveloped the earth in advanced military technology and colonized everyday life with the minute-to-minute possibility of nuclear war—but it also provided officials with a new means of engaging and disciplining citizens in everyday life. For U.S. policy makers, the Cold War arms race transformed the apocalypse not only into a technoscientific project and a geopolitical paradigm, but also a powerful new domestic political resource.

Put differently, a new kind of social contract was formed in the first decade of the nuclear age in the United States, one based not on the protection and improvement of everyday life but rather on the national contemplation of ruins. Known initially as civil defense, the project of building the bomb and communicating its power to the world turned engineering ruins into a form of international theater. Nuclear explosions, matched with large-scale emergency response exercises, became a means of developing the bomb as well as of imagining nuclear warfare (see, for example, Vanderbilt 2002; Glasstone and Dolan 1977; Kahn 1960). This test program would ultimately transform the United States into the most nuclear-bombed country on earth, distributing its environmental, economic, and health effects to each and every U.S. citizen. By the mid-1950s it was no longer a perverse exercise to imagine one's home and city devastated, on fire and in ruins; it had become a formidable public ritual—a core act of governance, technoscientific practice, and democratic participation. Indeed, in early Cold War America it became a civic obligation to collectively imagine, and at times theatrically enact, the physical destruction of the nation-state.

It is this specific nationalization of death that I wish to explore in this chapter, assessing not only the first collective formulations of nuclear fear in the United States but also the residues and legacies of that project for contemporary American society. Today we live in a world populated with newly charred landscapes and a production of ruins that speaks directly to this foundational moment in American national culture (see Stoler with Bond 2006). The notions of danger, preemption, and emergency response that inform the U.S. War on Terror derive meaning from the promises and institutions made by the Cold War security state. Indeed, the logics of nuclear fear informing that multigenerational state- and nation-building enterprise exist now as a largely inchoate, but deeply embedded, set of assumptions about power and threat. How Americans have come to understand mass death at home and abroad has much to do with the legacies of the Cold War nuclear project, and the peculiar psychosocial consequences of attempting to build the nation through the contemplation of nuclear ruins.

What follows is largely a study of visual culture, and specifically the domestic deployment of images of a ruined United States for ideological effect. I argue that key aspects of U.S. security culture have been formed in relation to images of nuclear devastation: the constitution of the modern security state in the aftermath of World War II mobilized the atomic bomb as the basis for American geopolitical power, but it also created a new citizen-state relationship mediated by nuclear fear. This chapter considers the lasting effects of nation building through nuclear fear by tracking the production and ongoing circulation of nuclear ruins from the Cold War's balance of terror through the current War on Terror. It is not an exercise in viewer response but rather charts the development and circulation of a specific set of ideas and images about ultimate danger. I begin with a discussion of the early Cold War project known as civil defense and track how the specific images created for domestic consumption as part of that campaign continued to circulate as afterimages in the popular films of the 1980s and 1990s. I show that the early Cold War state sought explicitly to militarize U.S. citizens through contemplating the end of the nation-state, creating in the process a specific set of ideas and images of collective danger that continues to inform American society in powerful and increasingly complex ways. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the affective coordinates of the Cold War arms race provided specific ideological resources to the state, which once again mobilized the image of a United States in nuclear ruins to enable war. Ultimately, this chapter follows Walter Benjamin's call to interrogate the aestheticized politics that enable increasing militarization and that allow citizens to experience their own destruction as an "aesthetic pleasure of the first order" (1969, 242).

Be Afraid but Don't Panic!

The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.... To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it. —Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster

Nuclear ruins are never the end of the story in the United States—they always offer a new beginning. In the early Cold War period, ruins become the markers of a new kind of social intimacy grounded in highly detailed renderings of theatrically rehearsed mass violence. The intent of these public spectacles—nuclear detonations, city evacuations, duck-and-cover drills—was not defense in the classic sense of avoiding violence or destruction but rather a psychological reprogramming of the American public for life in a nuclear age. The central project of the early nuclear state was to link U.S. institutions—military, industrial, legislative, academic—for the production of the bomb, while calibrating public perceptions of the nuclear danger to enable that project. As Blanchot suggests, this effort to think through the ultimate crisis colonized everyday life as well as the future, while fundamentally missing the actual disaster. The scripting of disaster in the imagination has profound social effects: it defines the conditions of insecurity, renders other threats invisible, and articulates the terms of both value and loss. In the United States, civil defense was always a willful act of fabulation, an official fantasy designed to promote an image of nuclear war that would be above all other things politically useful. It also installed an idea of an American community under total, immediate, and unending threat, creating the terms for a new kind of nation building that demanded an unprecedented level of militarism in everyday life as the minimum basis for collective security.

After the Soviet Union's first nuclear detonation in 1949, U.S. policy makers committed themselves to a new geopolitical strategy that would ultimately dominate American foreign policy for the remainder of the twentieth century. The policy of containment, as formalized in a report to the president by the National Security Council, known as NSC 68, proposed as a response to the Soviet bomb a total mobilization of American society based on the experience of World War II. NSC 68 articulates the terms of a permanent wartime posture funded by an ever-expanding domestic economy, transforming consumerism into the engine of a new kind of militarized geopolitics. The report identifies internal dissent as perhaps the greatest threat to the project of the Cold War and calls for a new campaign to discipline citizens in preparation for life under the constant shadow of nuclear war. Thus, in the White House, nuclear fear was immediately understood to be not only the basis of American military power, but also a means of installing a new normative reality in the United States, one that could consolidate political power at the federal level by reaching into the internal lives of citizens. Nuclear danger became a complex new political ideology, both mobilizing the global project of the Cold War (fought increasingly on covert terms internationally) and installing a powerful means of controlling domestic political debates about the terms of security. By focusing Americans on an imminent end of the nation-state, federal authorities mobilized the bomb to create the Cold War consensus of anticommunism, capitalism, and military expansion.

Defense intellectuals in the administrations of presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, however, worried that nuclear terror could become so profound under the terms of an escalating nuclear arms race that the American public would be unwilling to support the military and geopolitical agenda of the Cold War. The immediate challenge, as U.S. nuclear strategists saw it, was to avoid both an apathetic public (which might just give up when faced with the emerging destructive power of the Soviet nuclear arsenal) and a terrorized public (which would be unable to function cognitively) (Oakes 1994, 34; see also George 2003). For example, a highly influential civil defense study from 1952, Report of the Project East River, argued that civilian response to a nuclear attack would be all-out panic and mob behavior: American society, the report concluded, would not only be at war with the Soviets but also at war with itself as society violently broke down along race and class lines (Associated Universities 1952). A long Cold War consequently required not only a new geopolitics powered by nuclear weapons, but also new forms of psychological discipline at home. One of the earliest and most profound projects of the Cold War state was thus to deploy the bomb as a mechanism for accessing and controlling the emotions of citizens.

As Guy Oakes has documented, the civil defense programs of the early Cold War were designed to "emotionally manage" U.S. citizens through nuclear fear (1994, 47). The formal goal of this state program was to transform "nuclear terror," which was interpreted by U.S. officials as a paralyzing emotion, into "nuclear fear," an affective state that would allow citizens to function in a time of crisis (Oakes 1994, 62–63; see also Associated Universities 1952). By militarizing everyday life through nuclear fear, the Cold War state sought to both normalize catastrophic danger and politically deploy an image of it. Rather than offering citizens an image of safety or of a war that could end in victory, the early Cold War state sought instead to calibrate everyday American life to the minute-to-minute possibility of nuclear warfare. In addition to turning the domestic space of the home into the front line of the Cold War (see McEnaney 2000; Elaine May 1990), civil defense officials argued that citizens should be prepared every second of the day to deal with a potential nuclear attack. The civil defense program thus shifted responsibility for nuclear war from the state to its citizens by making the enemy public panic, not nuclear war itself. It was, in other words, up to citizens to take responsibility for their own survival in the nuclear age.

Val Peterson, as director of the new Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), argued:

Ninety percent of all emergency measures after an atomic blast will depend on the prevention of panic among the survivors in the first 90 seconds. Like the A-bomb, panic is fissionable. It can produce a chain reaction more deeply destructive than any explosive known. If there is an ultimate weapon, it may well be mass panic—not the A-bomb.... War is no longer confined to the battlefield. Every city is a potential battleground, every citizen a target. There are no safe rear areas. Panic on Main Street can be as decisive as panic in the front lines. (1953, 1–2)

Panic is fissionable. Indeed, Peterson argued that Americans were particularly "susceptible to panic" and offered a checklist on how citizens could become "panic stoppers" by training themselves for nuclear attack and becoming like "soldiers" at home (V. Peterson 1953, 17; see figure 1.1). Thus, the official message from the early Cold War state was that extreme self-control was the best way for citizens to fight a nuclear war, revealing a national project to both colonize and normalize everyday life with nuclear fear. By declaring a war on panic, as Jackie Orr (2006, 14) has so powerfully shown, the national security state remade the individual as a permanently militarized, if insecure, node in the larger Cold War system. Civil defense planners sought ultimately to saturate the public space with a specific idea about nuclear war, one that would nationalize mass death and transform postnuclear ruins into a new American frontier, simply another arena for citizens to assert their civic spirit, fortitude, and ingenuity. At the heart of the project was an effort to install psychological defenses against the exploding bomb, as well as a belief in the possibility of national unity in a postnuclear environment—all via the contemplation of nuclear ruins.

Indeed, as the Eisenhower administration promoted an Atoms for Peace program around the world to emphasize the benefits of nuclear energy and provide a positive vision of atomic science, it pursued the opposite emotional management strategy within the United States (Osgood 2006; Craig 1998; Hewlett and Holl 1989). The domestic response to the growing Soviet nuclear arsenal was a new kind of social engineering project, pursued with the help of social scientists and the advertising industry, to teach citizens a specific kind of nuclear fear while normalizing the nuclear crisis. The goal, as one top-secret study put it in 1956, was an "emotional adaptation" of the citizenry to nuclear danger, a program of "psychological defense" aimed at "feelings" that would unify the nation in the face of apocalyptic everyday threat (Panel on the Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons Development 1956, 10–11). This took the form of the largest domestic propaganda campaign to date in American history. Designed to mobilize all Americans for a long Cold War, the civil defense effort involved town meetings and education programs in every public school; it also sought to take full advantage of mass media—television, radio, and particularly film. By the mid-1950s, the FCDA saturated newspapers and magazines with nuclear war advertisements and could claim that its radio broadcasts reached an estimated audience of 175 million Americans each year.

As the campaign evolved, the FCDA turned increasingly to film, creating a library of short subjects on nuclear destruction and civil defense that were shown across the country in schools, churches, community halls, and movie theaters. The FCDA concluded: "Each picture will be seen by a minimum of 20,000,000 persons, giving an anticipated aggregate audience of more than half a billion for the civil defense film program of 1955" (Federal Civil Defense Administration 1956, 78). Thus, a key to winning the Cold War was to produce the bomb not only for military use but also in cinematic form for the American public. It is important to recognize that the circulation of these images relied on a simultaneous censorship of images from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. U.S. authorities made available images of destroyed buildings from Japan but withheld the detailed effects of the atomic bomb on the human body, as well as some firsthand accounts of the aftermath of the bombings. Thus, an immediate project of the nuclear state was to calibrate the image of atomic warfare for the American public through the mass circulation of certain images of the bomb and the censorship of all others. In this way, officials sought to mobilize the power of mass media to transform nuclear attack from an unthinkable apocalypse into an opportunity for psychological self-management, civic responsibility, and, ultimately, governance. Civil defense officials sought to produce an "atomicbomb–proof society" in which nuclear conflict was normalized alongside all other threats, making public support for the Cold War sustainable.

Civil defense theorists argued that citizens could achieve this contradictory state of productive fear (simultaneously mobilized and normalized) only by gaining intimacy with nuclear warfare itself, by becoming familiar with the language of nuclear effects from blast, heat, and fire to radioactive fallout. Irving Janis, a RAND analyst, concluded that the goal of civil defense was ultimately an "emotional inoculation" of the American public (1951, 220). This inoculation, he cautioned, needed to be finely calibrated: the simulated nuclear destruction in civil defense exercises, as well as the film footage of atomic tests released to the public, had to be formidable enough to affectively mobilize citizens but not so terrifying as to invalidate the concept of defense altogether (a distinct challenge in an age of increasingly powerful thermonuclear weapons, which offered no hope of survival to most urban residents). A central project of civil defense was thus to produce fear but not terror, anxiety but not panic, and to inform the public about nuclear science but not fully educate it about nuclear war. The goal was a micro regulation of a national community at the emotional level. In other words, alongside the invention of a new security state grounded in nuclear weapons was a new public culture of insecurity in the United States: figuring the United States as a global nuclear superpower was coterminous with a domestic campaign to reveal the country as completely vulnerable, creating a citizen-state relationship increasingly mediated by forms of inchoate but ever-present nuclear fear.


Excerpted from The Theater of Operations by Joseph Masco. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction. The "New" Normal 1

1. "Survival Is Your Business": Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America 45

2. Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis 77

3. Sensitive but Unclassified: Secrecy and the Counterterror State 113

4. Biosecurity Noir: WMDs in a World without Borders 145

5. Living Counterterror 193

Acknowledgments 211

Notes 213

References 233

Index 261

What People are Saying About This

Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism - Elizabeth A. Povinelli

"Joseph Masco's brilliance lies in his ability to make visible the complex affective and discursive technologies that emerged from the long history of the Cold War, and to illuminate their effects on our everyday perceptions of security and harm. This much-anticipated book will be read widely in cultural anthropology and cultural studies. It is beautifully written and argued. That one leaves The Theater of Operations a bit paranoid is a tribute to Masco's rhetorical skill."

Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time - Peter Galison

"We know that in the Cold War transportation infrastructures boomed, electronic infrastructures had to be hardened. We know about weapons and counter-weapons; we even have learned about the astonishing proliferation of security mechanisms put in place during the War on Terror. What Joseph Masco shows us in The Theater of Operations is an entire affective structure—the management of anxiety, resilience, steadfastness, sacrifice—that is demanded of every citizen. Alert to liquid containers above 2.4 ounces, hypervigilant to abandoned bags, suspicious loitering, or the detonation of a thermonuclear weapon—we learn to live our lives aware of tiny and apocalyptic things. With an anthropologist's eye long attuned to life in the para-wartime state, Masco is the perfect guide to the theater of our lives in the security state."

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