The Atomic Café is a fabulous piece of film history and I really wanted to bring it into my Cold War unit, but I couldn’t quite figure out how. Made late in the Cold War, it mixes newsreel footage, military training films, advertisements, popular music and other primary sources to show the depth of American Cold War paranoia and how the Cold War was a part of everyday life for Americans. The film is 88 minutes long, and while I know some teachers who showed the entire film, I showed a long clip from the middle (chapters 3-11) to take up most of a block class.
Positives: The actual footage is fabulous. Students doing bomb drills, families creating bomb shelters, and actual footage of nuclear tests are images students will not easily forget. It is also a great piece of dark humor, showing the absurdity of the times and the destructive power of the bomb.
Negatives: It is made with a very particular political aim and basically makes Cold War-era Americans look crazy and misguided—it will need to be accompanied by a lot of explanation to put it in perspective. It is also not divided up into clear chapters, so deciding what to show and what not to show can be difficult. Finally, it is black and white footage, which many students find off-putting and inherently boring.
Description of the Chapters:
1. (00:00 – 04:52) Trinity test, dropping the bomb on Japan (description by pilot, over newsreel footage)
2. (04:52 – 10:23) Pres. Truman on the atomic bomb, US determination to use the bomb to force a Japanese surrender, pilot describes dropping the bomb as a “thrill,” US reaction, devastation of Japanese cities, why Hiroshima & Nagasaki were chosen, graphic images of bomb victims & their injuries (warning: brief frontal nudity at 09:30 to show a woman’s radiation burns)
3. (10:23 – 16:45) Montage showing peace after WWII, testing the bomb on the Bikini atoll, risks of using the bomb & myths about the bomb
4. (16:45 – 20:49) Newsreel explaining the Cold War situation 1947; small town communist takeover “experiment” to show that “it can happen here” too (very bizarre, but funny), ad linking shopping centers to resist communism
5. (20:49- 27:04) Soviets get the bomb; bomb shelters and precautions in a montage with 1950s music; beginning of the Korean War and deciding whether or not to use the atomic bomb (great song on MacArthur & the atomic bomb)
6. (27:04 – 35:36) Let your congressman know how you feel about using the bomb; military training film about communist propaganda on the home front; trial & sentence of the Julius & Ethel Rosenberg including descriptions of the executions
7. (35:36 – 41:57) Flashback to 1950: public opinion on the H bomb; scary cartoons about communism; Eisenhower’s rise to power; 1950s lifestyle juxtaposed with Eisenhower speech; H Bomb testing
8. (41:57 – 50:46) Third World War? US military cannot stop an atomic attack; life when both Super Powers have the bomb; after-effects of atomic tests on people living in the Pacific; US army film on rumors & myths about atomic bombs; army footage of testing on pigs (note: this testing on pigs freaks some students out)
9. (50:46 – 1:01:20) Soldiers preparing for atomic bomb training exercises in the desert & actual test; clearing up misconceptions about the effects of an atomic bomb explosion and presenting the risks of atomic testing as minimal (very shocking & bizarre)
10. (1:01:20 – 1:10:21) bomb drills in school & explaining it to students, 4-H preparation for a bomb shelter; building bomb shelters; Khrushchev & Nixon argue on TV; how to protect your family with a shelter
11. (1:10:21 – 1:19:00) emerging from your bomb shelter; atomic bomb song (Billy Haley & the Comets?); atomic bomb shelters; applause for Nixon’s willingness to use the bomb; mental health & the bomb; what if an attack happened tomorrow? Procedures for an atomic attack (from this part on is very Dr. Strangelove, with classical music & montages of an attack)
12. (1:19:00 – 1:21:08) atomic bomb detonates; total destruction; credits roll at 1:21:08
Here is the worksheet I gave students for watching the video. We read the introduction as a class to reinforce to students that the film is indeed comprised of actual primary sources, but that it is very one-sided and presented with a particular point of view. Some of my students had trouble getting the big picture, but with a lot of careful discussion and occasionally pausing the movie to talk about it at key points, students can definitely glean from it what they need to.
Name: US History II
Atomic Café Questions
This film combines authentic newsreels, military training films, advertisements & other footage from the Cold War era, juxtaposed with speeches, radio broadcasts and actual music produced during that era, some of which was fairly controversial. Keep in mind that this film was made to convey a specific political and social message. Some of the events are portrayed in such a way as to make the people of the 1950s seem foolish—we can learn from this film, but we must remember that these events are taken out of context and exaggerated.
1. What was surprising to you in this film?
2. How did the fear of atomic bombs affect ordinary people’s lives?
3. Do you think efforts to prepare and protect people from the atomic bomb did them more harm or more good?