This article originally appeared at Curationist.
The American development of the atom bomb heralded a new chapter in the human power to destroy. These images document the invention, use, and dangers of the first nuclear weapons during World War II and the postwar period. American propaganda attempted to erase the experiences of Japanese victims.
The United States government fastidiously documented the development, use, and aftermath of the first atomic bombs. Engineers saved momentos from nuclear experiments. Documentarians photographed the preparation for and brutal results of the U.S. nuclear bombings of Japan. Propagandists made popular illustrations depicting American government ideology as the U.S. entered the Cold War.
These artifacts of U.S. nuclear testing often depict the bomb as a proud accomplishment. In contrast, documentary photographs attest to the horrific effects of the bombing on Japanese people. In order to support American propaganda efforts after World War II, the U.S. government tightly controlled which of these images it released to the public. Decades later, the U.S. government preserves many of these objects and images in archives, and at least one image of nuclear testing hangs in an art museum. Artists have used nuclear artifacts to create works challenging the American narrative and honoring the Japanese victims of the bomb.
The visual culture surrounding the atomic bomb helps us understand how the bomb’s creators, and U.S. society at large, understood this indescribably brutal new power. They inspire us to ask: Where is the line between documenting the horrors of the bomb and aestheticizing or ennobling its development? Can human beings accurately and ethically represent this vast capacity for destruction?
Testing the Bomb
On July 25, 1946, the U.S. government detonated a nuclear bomb 90 feet under the ocean at the Bikini Atoll Lagoon, in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific.1 The test was part of what the military dubbed Operation Crossroads. It took place mere months after the United States military used two nuclear bombs to kill an estimated 200,000 people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.2 It was one of 67 nuclear bombs the U.S. military detonated on or above the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958.3
The photograph above, Operation Crossroads: 21 Kiloton “Baker” Bomb Detonated Ninety Feet Underwater, taken by a member of the U.S. Photographic Signals Corps, documents the immediate aftermath of the nuclear explosion. The Department of Defense developed special cameras, which could shoot up to 500 frames a second, to record bomb blasts like this one during testing.4
The blast produced a 2,000-foot-wide column of nine million liters (two million gallons) of water that leapt 2.4 kilometers (a mile and a half) into the air. It created a mushroom cloud 12.8 kilometers (eight miles) high.
Witnesses to the event lost their capacity for speech. “Few eyewitnesses could afterwards recall the full scope and sequence of the phenomena,” physicist William A. Shurcliff later wrote in his official Operation Crossroads report. “The explosion phenomena abounded in absolutely unprecedented inventions in solid geometry. No adequate vocabulary existed for these novelties.”5
A print of this image hangs in a 20th century photography gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While initially produced as a military document, the photo’s display in a venerable art institution invites viewers to see it as an aesthetic object.
To a museum visitor, the image may appear beautiful. The upward surge of water forms a column connecting ocean and sky. The mushroom cloud billows outward, framed by natural clouds. The liquid and gaseous textures—crimped, glassy ocean; misty mushroom cloud; cotton sky—are almost painterly.
This impression of a frozen moment is misleading. Within milliseconds, waves 28.6 meters (94 feet) high will shoot outward. Nine uncrewed aircraft carriers and submarines will sink, and 65 other vessels will be severely damaged. Dozens of animals, placed aboard these ships to research the effects of radiation, will die.6
The U.S. testing program left tons of radioactive material in the archipelago. More than seven decades later, the Marshallese people are still fighting the slow poison of American nuclear waste. The United States has refused to take responsibility for the remaining waste.7
The U.S. violence against the Marshallese people makes this photograph a colonial record. Since the nuclear tests, Marshall Islanders have endured heightened rates of cancer, especially thyroid cancer. Among other injustices, this has permanently harmed many Marshall Islanders’ vocal cords, damaging their traditional musical expression.8
Considering this context, what does it mean for viewers to see this print in the Metropolitan Museum, where it is arguably transformed into a valuable art object? Does the image help the public comprehend the incomprehensible scale of the bomb? Or does it aestheticize a legacy of brutal colonial violence?
In 1976, artist Bruce Conner asked similar questions when he knit together government research footage of the explosion in the film Crossroads. The piece emphasizes the eerie contrast between the visual beauty and moral horror of the bomb.
Dropping the Bomb
On August 6th, 1945, the United States, through white Air Force pilot Paul Tibbets, dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It was the first use of a nuclear bomb in war. The blast immediately killed an estimated 80,000 people. A 1998 study found that 62,000 more Hiroshima residents ultimately died of the effects of radiation.9
On August 9th, the U.S., through white Army Air Forces pilot Charles W. Sweeney, dropped a second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki. That blast instantly killed around 74,000 people, with 40,000 individuals dying instantly and others perishing from the effects of radiation.10
U.S. government photographers documented the preparation and aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This extensive record, which still exists in archives, is a haunting contrast to the thousands of people whose bodies were incinerated by the blast, leaving no trace.
Signatures on the Bomb
Soldiers have long left graffiti. Medieval warriors often signed the swords they captured in battle. In World War II, U.S. soldiers commonly lifted Nazi flags from defeated Germans and added their names to them. Signatures turn captured objects into trophies and yearbooks, creating records of the victors.11
But American soldiers didn’t just sign the weapons they captured. Engineers and soldiers also signed weapons they produced and launched.
Engineers working at the University of Chicago, headed by Italian exile Enrico Fermi, drank a bottle of wine to celebrate the first controlled nuclear chain reaction on December 2nd, 1941. The engineers signed the empty bottle as though it were a sculpture and they were artists. It is now held in the U.S. National Archives in Chicago.
Their signatures imply both celebration and ownership of the nuclear chain reaction. This contrasts with the horror the engineers actually unleashed: the eventual murder of hundreds of thousands of Japanese people as a result of U.S. nuclear war.
Engineers and soldiers also signed the bombs themselves. Military photographers took this image of Dr. Norman Ramsey, the lead physicist overseeing the nuclear bombing of Japan. He proudly signed “Fat Man,” the bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki, shortly before the military used it.
The sense of celebration and pride contrasts horrifically with the mass death these soldiers were about to cause. Their claim of an almost godlike power recalls the famous words of nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.12
For seven years after the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. government forbade dissemination of images of the destruction.13 This allowed the United States to promote its own propaganda.
Two group photographs present a stark contrast between American propaganda and the reality on the ground for Japanese civilians. In one, Photograph of Men at Tinian Island, U.S. soldiers who worked on preparations for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings pose for a picture. The group of young, shirtless men beams with pride, as though they’re a sports team. Their athletic bodies and light skin evoke the idealized white masculinity of the American imperialist project.
In contrast, Survivors moving along the road after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan presents the reality on the ground.
The image evokes other wartime photographs of fleeing survivors, such as Children fleeing an American napalm strike. These images of brutalized Asian civilians contrast with the pride of the American soldiers, illustrating the racist reality of American imperial violence.
Motherhood and the Bomb
The U.S. military dubbed the bomb they dropped on Hiroshima “Little Boy”. The compartment that secured the bomb was called a “cradle.” Soldiers named the plane that carried it “Enola Gay” after the mother of the pilot, Paul Tibbets.
The image of a bomb nicknamed like a child contrasts with this photograph of an actual mother and child, depicting a Japanese family receiving food rations in the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki.
The Cold War and Commodified Fear
After the U.S. massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American officials feared the same power could be used against the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. grew increasingly wary of Russian power in Europe. Thus, the Cold War era began.
The U.S. Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization began disseminating propaganda with the goal of “educating” U.S. citizens about the atomic threat. These images combined U.S. militarism with 1950s-era consumer culture and gender ideologies. They constructed ideals of the post-war nuclear family—in both senses of the word.
This image, created by a U.S. government illustrator, has a strikingly similar composition to the photograph of the Japanese mother and child above. But instead of a Japanese survivor, the American illustration depicts a threatened white woman.
Even in the midst of imagined nuclear devastation, the woman presents an image of idealized white motherhood, complete with a stylish, unrumpled dress. In placing a white woman at the center of this apocalyptic scene, the propagandist distorts reality. Far from being a victim, the United States is the only country to have ever used a nuclear bomb in war.
This image of a model bomb shelter depicts the shelter as a coveted design feature within a well-kept middle class home. Commodities like ready-to-eat canned foods were equally at home in a bomb shelter or a Betty Crocker recipe. Both homemaking and nuclear preparedness became tasks for the modern housewife.
Making Art with What’s Left Behind
Around the world, many joined the global anti-nuclear proliferation movement to protest American militarism and imperialism. Activists fought for denuclearization in their own countries.
Artists seeking to protest the bomb and memorialize its victims faced a dilemma. How could they honor memory and inspire action in response to a threat almost too big to comprehend? They used common objects to spark empathy, inspire protest, and remember the dead.
Feminist artist Ellen Lesperance riffed on the idea of wearable protest in her 2011 piece, Cardigan Worn by One Woman of the Boeing Five, Tried for Entering the Boeing Nuclear Missile Plant on September 27th, 1983, Sentenced to Fifteen Days in the King County Jail for Defending Life on Earth.
The piece responds to an incident in which five protesters from the Puget Sound Women’s Peace Camp entered a Boeing facility to protest the manufacture of nuclear bombs.
Lesperance creates knitted garments based on sweaters worn by historical women activists. Lesperance chose to protest the masculinist domain of war by creating a useful, everyday object traditionally made by women. This contrasts with the male engineers and soldiers who signed their names on the nuclear bombs.
Photographer Isiuchi Miyako similarly uses everyday women’s objects to memorialize the Japanese victims of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima. She photographs women victims’ possessions, especially clothes. They are frayed with age and radiation, some still singed and bloodied.
Like Lesperance, Isiuchi responds to the enormity of nuclear war by focusing on the daily textures of women’s lives. The photographs restore individuality and dignity to people who otherwise may have literally disappeared in the blasts. Yet they also contain a sadness as vast and powerful as the wall of water the bomb raised at Bikini Atoll.
Isiuchi’s work demonstrates that the aftermath of nuclear trauma is as interminable as the radiation from the blasts itself. It devastates whole physical and cultural ecosystems, even as traces. It doesn’t end, at least not on a human time scale. Can it be transformed?
Searle, Adrian (15 June 2015). “Horribly compelling: Bruce Conner’s nuclear test film still holds us in rapture.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/15/bruce-conner-crossroads-1976-nuclear-test-film-rapture. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
Morris, Seren (3 August 2020). “How Many People Died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/how-many-people-died-hiroshima-nagasaki-japan-second-world-war-1522276. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
Ivana Nikolić-Hughes, Glenn Alcalay, and Hart Rapaport (30 April 2021). “The US Should Apologize to the Marshall Islands for Nuclear Tests.” The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2021/04/the-us-should-apologize-to-the-marshall-islands-for-nuclear-tests. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
Shurcliff, William A. and the United States Joint Task Force One. Bombs at Bikini: The Official Report of Operation Crossroads. William H. Wise and Co., 1947, pp. 73. https://books.google.com/books?id=5S1rAQAACAAJ.
Rust, Susanne. “How the U.S. betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster.” Los Angeles Times, 10 November 2019. https://www.latimes.com/projects/marshall-islands-nuclear-testing-sea-level-rise/. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
Raj, Ali. “In Marshall Islands, radiation threatens tradition of handing down stories by song.” Los Angeles Times, 10 November 2019. https://www.latimes.com/projects/marshall-islands-radiation-effects-cancer/. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
Gattuso, Reina. “What Should You Do With a Captured Nazi Flag?” Atlas Obscura, 19 July 2021. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/captured-nazi-flags. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
Temperton, James. “’Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ The story of Oppenheimer’s infamous quote.” Wired, 8 September 2017. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/manhattan-project-robert-oppenheimer. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
Ives, Mike. “After Atomic Bombings, These Photographers Worked Under Mushroom Clouds.” The New York Times, 6 August 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/06/world/asia/hiroshima-nagasaki-japan-photos.html. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
Cultural Effects of Nuclear Testing
Raj, Ali. “In Marshall Islands, radiation threatens tradition of handing down stories by song.” Los Angeles Times, 10 November 2019. https://www.latimes.com/projects/marshall-islands-radiation-effects-cancer/.
Art Documenting Nuclear Violence
Maddox, Amanda. “Inside the Photography of Ishiuchi Miyako. Getty, 6 August 2015. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/inside-the-photography-of-ishiuchi-miyako/.
Searle, Adrian. “Horribly compelling: Bruce Conner’s nuclear test film still holds us in rapture.” The Guardian, 15 June 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/15/bruce-conner-crossroads-1976-nuclear-test-film-rapture.
Signing Weapons and Spoils of War
Gattuso, Reina. “What Should You Do With a Captured Nazi Flag?” Atlas Obscura, 19 July 2021. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/captured-nazi-flags.
U.S. Censorship of Bombing Effects
Rosenwald, Michael S. “The U.S. Hid Hiroshima’s Suffering. Then John Hersey Went to Japan.” The Washington Post, 6 August 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/08/06/john-hersey-hiroshima-anniversary-japanese-suffering/.
Ives, Mike. “After Atomic Bombings, These Photographers Worked Under Mushroom Clouds.” The New York Times, 6 August 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/06/world/asia/hiroshima-nagasaki-japan-photos.html.