Some assume that the term “nuclear family” refers to the American household as conceived of in the 1950s: a working father, stay-at-home mother, and 2.3 kids under one suburban roof. This is a misconception — “nuclear” simply implies an exclusion of extended family members — but nevertheless an evocative one. For in American popular culture, the zenith of that family arrangement coincided with the zenith of nuclear weaponry. Nukes, one heard, that had won the war, at least against Japan, and nukes that would thenceforth secure the free world against the Red Menace.
Instilling this perception required the production and distribution of no small amount of propaganda, especially in the Cold War. It is out of just such propaganda, drawn from newsreels, television broadcasts, and other forms of media, that Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty, and Jayne Loader made their acclaimed documentary The Atomic Café.
It came out in 1982, when the public’s assumptions of American military benevolence — and its patience with the country’s seemingly permanent arms race against the Soviet Union — were running low. These decades-old clips of strenuously pious politicians, drawling bomber pilots, rambling Babbitts, and civil defense-ready nuclear (in both senses) families could hardly have met with more intense cynicism.
“I was an exact contemporary of those kids in this old documentary footage,” writes Roger Ebert in his review The Atomic Café. “Life magazine ran blueprints for fallout shelters, and Estes Kefauver barnstormed the nation with warnings about strontium 90 in the milk supply.” In one scene “girls in home ec classes display their canned goods designed for nuclear survival, and it is clear from their faces that they have no clue of how they would survive nuclear war, and little hope of doing so.” The film as a whole evokes a time when the United States “spent a good deal of its resources on addressing the possibility of nuclear war, however uselessly.” We no longer hear much about that possibility, perhaps because it has genuinely diminished, or perhaps because — as viewers of The Atomic Café will suspect even today — the propagandists are busy convincing us of something else entirely.
The Atomic Café has been put on YouTube by the New York film distribution company Kino Lorber.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.