The Atomic Cafe

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

I hadn’t ever watched The Atomic Cafe all the way through until recently, but I’d seen enough to know the tone and the basic message — look at those naive fools, thinking they could survive a nuclear war!

Watching it confirmed that it makes a splendid Rorschach test. If you want to see civil defense and nuclear deterrence as absurd, you will see that in the film. Otherwise, not so much…

In fact, what stands out to me now is how easy it is to compile footage of profoundly unfashionable people — fat farmers’ wives, Leave it to Beaver suburbanites, Richard Nixon — supporting certain ideas — in this case, civil defense, deterrence, anti-Communism, etc. — and to let that alone speak volumes to your hip audience.

The other rhetorical tool that stands out is the constant conflation of surviving a direct hit from an ICBM-delivered nuclear warhead with surviving fallout from a nearby bomber-delivered atomic weapon.

The people preparing for an atomic-bomb attack in the 1950s were preparing to survive another Hiroshima-style attack on the nearest city center, not a 20-megaton blast over their house. In Hiroshima, people survived just two or three hundred yards from ground zero, in solid structures that weren’t even formal bomb shelters.

If you read the credits, you’ll come across this list of groups who provided  Foundation Support:

  • Arca Foundation
  • Bydale Foundation
  • Cricket Foundation
  • CS Fund
  • Evergreen Fund
  • Film Fund
  • Funding Exchange
  • Fund for Tomorrow
  • Institute for World Order
  • Pacific Alliance
  • Pioneer Fund
  • Vanguard Public Foundation

Some of those names are great. I decided to look up the Institute for World Order, which is now the World Policy Institute:

Founded in New York City in 1961 as the Fund for Education Concerning World Peace through World Law, the World Policy Institute has its origins in the post-World War II movement of moderate internationalists. Its founders — the banker Harry B. Hollins, and the banker and public servant C. Douglas Dillon inspired by the World Federalist thinker Grenville Clark — sought to develop international policies to prevent future carnage and devastation like what the world had just experienced. In 1963, the Institute’s name was shortened to World Law Fund. In 1972, it merged with the Institute for International Order, founded in 1948 and run by Earl D. Osborn. The combined organization adopted a new name, the Institute for World Order. In 1982, the World Policy Institute adopted its current name to reflect a shift from a primarily educational focus to incorporating a strong policy element, and founded World Policy Journal. From 1991-2007, the Institute was part of The New School, a university in Greenwich Village, New York City. In 2007, the World Policy Institute was re-incorporated as a free-standing institution, which works in active collaboration with like-minded organizations around the world.

You can watch the movie via Amazon Prime or YouTube:


  1. I blame the word “nuclear”. This conflates firecrackers (atomic fission bombs) with high explosives (fusion bombs set off by atomic fission bombs). There was a wide range of outcomes for atomic war between 1945-c. 1953 and early thermonuclear war c. 1949-1964 that only disappeared with the onset of true mutual assured destruction with mature ballistic missiles and Soviet thermonuclear parity in the mid-1960s.

  2. Todd says:

    You should get a kick out of watching “Trinity and Beyond”; my favorite clip: the howitzer-delivered A-bomb test that radically changed their thinking on low altitude blast waves.

    Also curious about your take on McNamara’s “The Fog of War”.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I suppose we have a similar situation with guns, which can be anything from matchlock arquebuses to water-cooled machine-guns or an assault rifles with red-dot optics.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I’ll definitely have to add Trinity and Beyond to the queue. It appears to be on Hulu.

    I found Fog of War fascinating — especially his life leading up to his days as Secretary of Defense.

  5. Fug says:

    Odd that the Pioneer Fund was involved. Was it someone’s practical joke to get a Thought Criminal org to provide part of the funding?

  6. Isegoria says:

    I’m assuming it’s not that Pioneer Fund. Perhaps it’s the Denver-based charity founded by Helen M. McLoraine.

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