Do not fear the atomic bomb! (1958)
Do not fear the atomic bomb! (1958)
The dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 changed the world forever (or at least for a long time). Not only did the event end the Second World War in the Pacific. It drove home the horrors of nuclear weapons and set the stage for one of the most central issues of the emerging Cold War: the nuclear arms race. The explosion of the bombs in Japan worried the Soviet Union. The country already had its own nuclear program, but it would only possess its own a-bomb in 1949. The reason was that the SU had begun research on nuclear weapons in earnest only one and a half years after the United States, in October 1942 (the origins of the Manhattan Project went back to February 1940) (Craig and Radchenko 2008, 4, 50). Soviet science funding at the time had emphasized application-oriented research, and for a long time, according to Craig and Radchenko, the atomic bomb had seemed too futuristic and unrealistic – not application-oriented enough. This attitude changed in 1942, and by 1945 the a-bomb possessed by the United States and the development and improvement of the Soviet Union’s own nuclear weapons were hot topics (Craig and Radchenko 2008, 38–50). As part of the Eastern Bloc, the People’s Republic of China was engulfed in the same Cold War frenzy about the atomic bomb in the 1950s. By now, China is a nuclear power. But it had only started its own nuclear program in 1955, with the help of the Soviet Union (Horsburgh 2015, 42), and it would detonate its first atomic bomb in 1964. In light of the Korean War and the United States’ support of the Guomindang on Taiwan, the Western superpower’s nuclear capabilities were an urgent topic for the People’s Republic and a frequent theme in its propaganda of the 1950s.
What is fascinating about this propaganda was that it was quite dichotomous: On the one hand, it claimed that the atomic bomb (and the American ‘imperialists’, in this parlance, who possessed it) was a terrible thing, with horrible destructive capabilities and the harbinger of World War III. But on the other hand, the propaganda claimed that the bomb was not to be feared after all and the United States were nothing but a ‘paper tiger’ (Chen 1994, 18; Gittings 1964, 106). Contemporaries at the grassroots, of course, noted these sorts of contradictions and ‘wondered … “we know that imperialism will be defeated in the end and that the people will ultimately be victorious. What’s the emergency now?”’(Diamant 2010, 130)
Nevertheless, the propaganda and its contradictions were quite visible, and the Document of this Month is part of this. It is taken from a series of ten booklets with the title ‘Collections of military knowledge’ (軍事知識叢書), published in September 1958. The title of this booklet was ‘Nuclear Weapons and Protection against Them’ (原子武器及其防護). Its introductory text located it within the ‘Everyone a Soldier” (全民皆兵) campaign during the Great Leap Forward (Yuanzi wuqi ji qi fanghu 1958, 1), designed to turn the people into an ‘ocean of soldiers’, who would be capable of defending the country against any enemy (Gittings 1964, 100, 106).
Why was the booklet part of the dichotomous propaganda about nuclear weapons? On the one hand, the very publication and distribution of a booklet on ‘Nuclear Weapons and Protection against Them’ pointed, and arguably even contributed, to the fear of the atomic bomb. But on the other hand, the booklet also promoted the ‘paper tiger’ theory, in that it claimed that ‘protection against’ the bomb was possible.
How did such a proposed ‘protection against’ the a-bomb look like? After the ‘explosion’ (爆炸) of an a-bomb, the booklet claimed, there were a few seconds until the ‘shock wave’ (衝擊波) reached one, allowing one time to reach a ‘shelter’ (掩蔽地) (Yuanzi wuqi ji qi fanghu 1958, 10). Seeking protection could include lying in ‘a ditch’ (溝渠) (figure 13), sitting in a car in crash position, the face ‘below the glass of the front window’ (低於前窗的玻璃) to avoid the shattering glass (figure 14) (Yuanzi wuqi ji qi fanghu 1958, 12) or in a house ‘falling flat near a window’ (靠近窗臥倒), again to avoid the shattering glass (figure 14). If none of these ‘shelters’ were available, it was recommended to lie on the floor face-down, ‘both hands curved under the body’ (雙手彎曲置於身下) (Yuanzi wuqi ji qi fanghu 1958, 13). The danger of radiation was not unknown, and it was discussed in the booklet. But these recommendations made the a-bomb look quite manageable.
This rhetoric about nuclear weapons was just enough to make the people never forget the danger posed by the American ‘imperialists’ and the necessity to build China’s own atomic bomb, while avoiding to paralyze them into too much fear to lose optimism in the Socialist project and its victory.
Chen, Jian. 1994. China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation. New York: Columbia University Press.
Craig, Campbell, and Sergey Radchenko. 2008. The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Diamant, Neil Jeffrey. 2010. Embattled Glory: Veterans, Military Families, and the Politics of Patriotism in China, 1949 – 2007. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.
Gittings, John. 1964. ‘China’s Militia’. China Quarterly, no. 18: 100–117.
Horsburgh, Nicola. 2015. China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Yuanzi wuqi ji qi fanghu 原子武器及其防護 (Nuclear Weapons and Protection against Them). 1958. Junshi zhishi congshu. Guangzhou: Keji weisheng chuban she.
Elisabeth Forster (Universität Freiburg)