Miller Center

Sarah Robey

History, Temple University

The Atomic American: Citizenship in a Nuclear State, 1945-1963

Robey photo

Robey has been selected as the Ambrose Monell Foundation Funded Fellow in Technology and Democracy .

Nuclear weapons altered the relationship between the American state and its citizens in the early Cold War. From the Trinity Test forward, Americans grappled with the consequences of the nuclear weapons revolution. Among other challenges facing the nation, it was clear that military defense against a nuclear strike was nearly impossible and civilian preparation programs could cost billions of dollars. Should deterrence peacekeeping fail, Americans would face an attack without military protection, making large-scale civilian casualties unavoidable. “And yet,” Senator Brien McMahon puzzled in 1950, “the first duty of a sovereignty is to protect its people.” Nuclear weapons unsettled Americans’ ideas about federal protection, individual responsibility, and public safety. Under the threat posed by nuclear weapons technology, these conflicting concerns shaped domestic and international policy and framed national identity in the Atomic Age.

“The Atomic American: Citizenship in a Nuclear State, 1945-1963” explores the ways American policymakers, civilians, and scientists understood nuclear survival to be a product of the democratic relationship between the citizen and the state. Many new voices of authority emerged at the intersection of nuclear science and American civic culture: scientists became policy experts, science fiction marshaled moral critique, politicians assumed unpopular platforms for disarmament, and housewives became environmental advocates. By examining how nuclear survival was both a grassroots phenomenon and a top-down federal project, this dissertation demonstrates that the state, its citizenry, and science were interconnected agents of change in American Cold War society.

Fellowship year: 2016

Mentor: Brian Balogh, University of Virginia

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