My "Art as Activism" class is in the middle of studying the 1950's. We've been watching the terrific 1982 documentary, The Atomic Cafe, a collection of army training and civil defense films, contemporary interviews, and speeches, which really gives my Millenials a sense of the what living with during the Cold War was like. Those of us who remember "Duck and Cover" drills will also remember Burt the Turtle. Here's the original 1950 film, shown to school children all over America.
This civil defense film, "Survival Under Nuclear Attack," was directed at adults. (I was horrified to discover that it is narrated by Edward R. Murrow.)
What is most appalling about both of these films is how inaccurate they are. The likelihood of surviving a nuclear blast under a school desk is, well, minimal. Not to mention the outright lies of the Murrow film, which among other things claims that most people who suffered radiation sickness in Hiroshima and Nagasaki went on to have normal, healthy lives.
The United States in the 1950s was a country with a bad case of cognitive dissonance. This was a generation that had grown up during the Great Depression and survived World War II, so they embraced the actuality of enormous prosperity and the sense of "good times are here again;" on the other hand, they were building fallout shelters in their basements and scouring the woodwork for Communist rat holes. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness.The Civil Rights and Women's Movements were beginning to bubble -- but very much under the surface of a society that demanded conformity and complete adherence to the status quo.
Allen Ginsberg was one of those who stood up to say the Emperor had no clothes. In his poem, "America," he points out the hypocrisy and foolishness of trying to pretend away the dangers of a world in which we are capable of destroying ourselves a hundred times over.
by Allen Ginsberg
America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can't stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don't feel good don't bother me.
I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I'm sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don't think he'll come back it's sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I'm trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsessions.
America stop pushing I know what I'm doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven't read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there's going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I'm perfectly right.
I won't say the Lord's Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven't told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came
over from Russia.
I'm addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It's always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious.
Movie producers are serious. Everybody's serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
Asia is rising against me.
I haven't got a chinaman's chance.
I'd better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals
an unpublishable private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour
and twentyfive-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live
in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I'm a Catholic.
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles
more so they're all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings
they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket cost a nickel and
the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about
the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing
the party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real
mensch Mother Bloor the Silk-strikers' Ewig-Weibliche made me cry
I once saw the Yiddish orator Israel Amter plain. Everybody must
have been a spy.
America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader's Digest. Her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black
niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Berkeley, January 17, 1956