In Honor of Ray Bradbury – Essay “An Age of Atomic Paranoia”

Yesterday one of my most favorite authors passed away at the age of 91, Ray Bradbury.  Next to Kurt Vonnegut, he was one I held in high esteem for speculative Science Fiction, and I read religiously when I was younger.  During the 2011 school term, I took a class offered by Dr. Stearns in which we explored the 1950s.  My research paper brought in the cultural effect of Bradbury’s novel “The Martian Chronicles” which expressed in fiction how Americans viewed the introduction of the Atom Bomb.  So, in honor of Mr. Bradbury, I am posting it here today.  Please don’t feel that you have to read it, because it’s somewhat long.  This is just done in Memory of him. 

An Age of Atomic Paranoia

        “Doesn’t an old thing always know when a new thing comes?”[i]  This sentence from Ray Bradbury’s novel, “The Martian Chronicles,” is a poignant introduction to the year 1950.  This year was a turning point from postwar America to the beginning of America’s Cold War with Russia, as America emerged from its isolationist position into one which placed her as a world leader.  By the issuance of NSC-68, the old American gave way to a new America, just as the sentence from Bradbury’s novel states.  The year 1950 was the beginning to a crazy decade of paranoia and fear for Americans, as they were constantly aware of the threat of an atomic war, and this apprehension materialized in everyday life. Looking at NSC-68, Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” and the politics of the government in position in 1950, the ever-present fear of nuclear extermination was always the thesis.

An official report to the President, NSC-68 was conducted per President’s Truman’s request from a Presidential directive dated January 31, 1950.  As the Soviet Union reached atomic ownership, America saw a potential for world atomic war, and the government needed to make an assessment of the potential calamity.  Released in secrecy on April 14, 1950, NSC-68 addressed certain issues like “Background of the Present World Crisis” and “Stockpiling and use of Atomic Weapons.”[ii]

NSC-68 was a document which was “intended to elaborate the overriding objectives of the US national security policy.”[iii]  The authors of NSC-68 asserted that Soviet government viewed America as the only threat to them and because of this, America was their principal enemy, and therefore the Soviet Union would face off with America on a missile to missile bases.

The government document stated that America’s primary task would be to transition herself from the preceding policy of isolationism, and participate actively in world events.  NSC-68 went even further to suggest that America, as the center of the free world, should shoulder the responsibility of world leadership.[iv]  The main reason NSC-68 called for this intervention, is because America was so paranoid about nuclear war.  The government believed as a safeguard for American society to survive, she must be the one controlling, organizing and consolidating a global environment which was conducive to her stability.[v]

President’s Truman’s view of NSC-68 was one of reservation.  While not afraid at the increasing expansion of his foreign policy, from the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan to NATO, he was hesitant to feed into the paranoia which gripped America’s government in 1950.  Having already dismantled the huge World War II military giant, he was reluctant to re-build it again as NSC-68 suggested.[vi]

America’s policies in the home front were enough for Truman to deal with.  Some politicians took advantage of the moment to utilize the fear of the unknown Soviet agenda, and its acquisition of atomic superpower, to their own advantage.  One of these individuals was Joseph McCarthy.  Playing a game against American society in 1950, McCarthy sent President Truman a telegram stating his resolve against the State Department.  At a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy emphasized that the American government was a “nest of Communists” and sympathizers.  Holding a piece of paper up, he said it was a list of names of the Communists who worked in the State Department.[vii]

President Truman also understood where American politics was headed.  As the country held on to the words of the Senator who was determined to capitalize on America’s apprehension in order to preserve his term in Washington, D.C., President Truman seethed.  In the private collection of Truman’s papers, there is a letter addressed to McCarthy, which was written in Truman style, as a rebuttal to the telegram McCarthy sent to him.

I read your telegram of February eleventh from Reno, Nevada, with a great deal of interest and this is the first time in my experience, and I was ten years in the Senate, that I ever heard of a Senator trying to discredit his own Government before the world.  You know that isn’t done by honest public officials.  Your telegram is not only not true and an insolent approach to a situation that should have been worked out between man and man but its shows conclusively that you are not even fit to have a hand in the operation of the Government of the United States.  I am very sure that the people of Wisconsin are extremely sorry that they are represented by a person who has as little sense of responsibility as you have.[viii]  Truman never sent it, and there is no mention why, but it accentuates his feelings about what McCarthy was trying to do.

In another letter to Nellie Noland, his cousin, he tears apart the Republicans and Dixiecrats, a southern party offshoot from the Democrats.  This letter reflects the influence the directive of NSC-68 had on politics, with respect to America being a world leader.  It also allows a brief glimpse of fear, on the part of the President, that should America not protect her environment, the Soviet Union would conquer the world with atomic power.

“So I have to start out on May 7 for a cross-country trip to Washington State to dedicate a big dam and incidentally damn the two above named gentlemen?[sic] at the same time, all due to the fact that the Republicans and the Republicats (Dixiecrats) can’t find an issue.  They’ve been whipped on “Statism,” “Welfare State,” “Socialism” and the budget.  So they are trying to dig up a very dead and a very malodorous hoss called “Isolationism.”  I must throw some more dirt on his grave or let Russia conquer the world.  So my personal affairs just have to go to grass.”[ix]

America’s culture in 1950 was extensively influenced by the new atom science.  With the testing at Los Alamos and the development of the atomic bomb and H-bomb, the obsession of the excelling science of splitting atoms was also exhibited in the imaginations of writers and film producers, as they attempted to represent what was perceived as a unrepresentable power.[x]

In 1950, Ray Bradbury published his novel, “The Martian Chronicles,” a book filled with “what-if” theories and questions as to what would happen should an atomic war encompass Earth.  Set in a futuristic vision of Mars, the book follows four separate missions to the planet.   The first three missions fail because of retaliation of the Martians, but the fourth mission succeeds.  The group of the fourth mission land on the red planet, and as they explore the beautiful deserted cities, the crew discovers that the majority of the Martian population died from chicken pox.  Now a desolate planet, Mars is ripe for colonization.

The book itself is filled with overtones of Bradbury’s thought about war, as Mars was always referred to an escape from atomic unrest on Earth.  He also emphasizes, through his characters, how he felt about the atomic bomb and what he surmises it did to the culture and society of people. Using the words of the character Spender, we see Bradbury’s view of the atomic age and politics during this time.

“What could I do? Argue with you? It’s simply me against the whole crooked grinding greedy setup on Earth.  They’ll be flopping their filthy atom bombs up here, fighting for bases to have wars.  Isn’t it enough they’ve ruined one planet, without ruining another: do they have to foul someone else’s manger? The simple-minded windbags.  When I got up here I felt I was not only free of their so-called culture, I felt I was free of their ethics and their customs.  I’m out of their frame of reference, I thought.  All I have to do is kill you all off and live my own life.”[xi]

At the end of the novel, Earth is annihilated.  Only a few families who managed to stash away rockets from the government were able to escape to Mars.   In the last few pages of the book, the author sums his expectation of what would become of Earth should the atomic age end futility. The character “Dad” tells his three sons as he burns certain documents he brought with them from Earth:

“I’m burning a way of life, just like that way of life is being burned clean of Earth right now.  Forgive me if I talk like a politician.  I am, after all, a former state governor, and I was honest and they hated me for it.  Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good.  Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines.  Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth.  That’s what the silent radio means.  That’s what we ran away from.”[xii]

So how do all three of these areas connect: NSC-68, American politics and Ray Bradbury’s novel “The Martian Chronicle?”  The general theme is intense fear of atomic annihilation. The character Spender expresses Bradbury’s feelings about the government, capturing the pulse of the country at the time NSC-68 was issued, and why politics headed into the absurd.

“Anything that’s strange is no good to the average American.  If it doesn’t have Chicago plumbing, it’s nonsense.  The thought of that! Oh God, the thought of that!  And then-the war.  You heard the congressional speeches before we left.  If things work out they hope to establish three atomic research and atom bomb depots on Mars.  That means Mars is finished; all this wonderful stuff gone.  How would you feel if a Martian vomited stale liquor on the White House floor?”[xiii]

NSC-68 also exhibits an underlying fear of atomic war.  In the very beginning of the document, it states: “With the development of increasingly terrifying weapons of mass destruction, every individual faces the ever-present possibility of annihilation should the conflict enter the phase of total war.”[xiv] This statement in itself was an effect on politics, as those in the government used the apprehension of the American to their advantage, advocating their own agenda.

This twist in politics is also captured in Bradbury’s novel.  A character named Stendahl is addressing a government man, named Bigelow, who came to tear down a house Stendahl had built on Mars. Named the House of Usher, Stendahl built it purposely, in direct violation of laws which censored against certain types of icons of literature.  Talking about a great fire, which was a book burning of fantasy and horror, Stendahl is stating why he built the house.

“They passed a law. Oh, it started very small.  In 1950 and ’60 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures, there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.”[xv]

Reading this text provides the author’s perception of what was happening to the American society, by way of politics.  Bradbury was already keen to what was transpiring, as his words reflect upon the fevered pitch of the path, which the Wisconsin Senator, McCarthy, was headed in his battle with the State Department.  He could foresee that McCarthy would bring to politics censorship and prejudice, and this was allowed because of the paranoia of the American people, afraid of something dark and unseen in the future; the possibility of entering into an atomic war which would annihilate all civilization.

The situation in 1950 can be summed up by a reply from Mr. Bigelow, the government official facing off with Stendahl, “Sorry. Don’t know what you’re talking about.  Just names to me.  From what I hear, the Burning was a good thing.”[xvi]  Not many people fully understood what was transpiring, except that a powerful weapon was created which could destroy whole cities with an intense heat, hot as the sun, melting your shadow onto whatever stood behind you, as your body disintegrated into nothing.  While told it was a good thing in World War II, the mental image was horrifying to the American people of the damage it caused.  NSC-68, the politics of America during the 1950s, and Ray Bradbury’s novel, “The Martian Chronicles,” incorporate this ever-present fear.

[i] Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (Garden City,
Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958), 73.

[ii] NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, (March 2011)

[iii] Efstathios T. Fakiolas, “Kennan’s long telegram and NSC-68: A comparative theoretical analysis,” East European Quarterly 31 (1997): 423, accessed April 19, 2011, Proquest, doi:195172536.

[iv] Fakiolas, Ibid, 424.

[v] Fakiolas, ibid.

[vi] Robert L. Beisner, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War (New York, Oxford University Press, 2006), 236.

[vii] Robert H. Ferrell, Ed., Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York, Penguin Books, 1980), 171-172.

[viii] Ferrell, Ibid, 172.

[ix] Ferrell, Ibid, 177.

[x] Cyndy Hendershot, “Paranoia and the delusion of the total system,” American Imago 54 (1997): 1, accessed April 19, 2011, Proquest, doi:197188672.

[xi] Bradbury, Ibid, 85.

[xii] Bradbury, Ibid, 220-221.

[xiii] Bradbury, Ibid, 84.

[xiv] NSC-68, Ibid, I. Background of the Present Crisis.

[xv] Bradbury, Ibid, 134.

[xvi] Bradbury, Ibid, 135.


Beisner, Robert L. Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958.

Council, National Security. “NSC-68 United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.” (accessed March 24, 2011).

Fakiolas, Efstathios T. “Kennan’s long telegram and NSC-68: A comparative theoretical analysis.” East European Quarterly (East European Quarterly) 31, no. 4 (1997): 415-433.

Harry S. Truman, edited by Robert H. Ferrell. Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

Hendershot, Cyndy. “Paranoia and the delusion of the total system.” American Imago (John Hopkins University Press) 54, no. 1 (1997): 15-37.


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