In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nuclear Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overview Texts
  • Local Nuclear Cultures
  • Civil Defense
  • Scientific Nuclear Cultures
  • Operational Cultures
  • Political Cultures
  • Religious Cultures
  • Anti-Nuclear Cultures
  • Approaches
  • Oral History
  • Gender
  • Body/Radiation
  • Family
  • Images/Symbols
  • Concepts
  • Nuclear Criticism
  • Nuclear Sublime
  • Politics of Vulnerability
  • Nuclear Uncanny
  • Nuclear Anthropocene
  • Containment Culture
  • Risk
  • Emotions
  • Psychology

Military History Nuclear Culture
Harry Roberts, Emily Gibbs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0187


Over the last forty years, there has been an academic shift within nuclear scholarship, with attention diverting away from military, political, and scientific approaches, and alternatively favoring social, cultural, and psychoanalytical histories of the Cold War. This perspective has moved away from “top down” histories of the nuclear age, instead tracing the social and cultural changes instigated by the development of nuclear technologies. This scholarship originated in America in the 1980s, and this pioneering research foregrounded cultural studies of the nuclear, without specifically addressing nuclear culture as a concept. This research inspired and influenced a series of international scholars who considered nuclear culture in greater detail. This movement coalesced with the “cultural turn” of the 1980s, and by the turn of the century there had been a large expansion of historical work examining the approaches, applications, and methods of “nuclear culture.” A key aspect of this expansion was a movement away from American perspectives, with many historians across the world producing research on nuclear cultures in Britain, Europe, and Japan. As nuclear historians have continued to move away from political, military, and scientific narratives and toward an understanding of the sociological, cultural, psychological, and ontological resonance of nuclear technology, the concept of nuclear culture has been repeatedly disputed, interpreted, defined, and redefined. Indeed, numerous scholars from a variety of disciplines have interrogated the terms “nuclear” and “culture,” pushing the ever expanding theoretical and methodological frames of the field in their attempts to produce and refine a coherent definition of the topic. Eschewing the monolithic treatment of individual national contexts, cultural scholars have attested to the pluralism of cultural life within the atomic era, outlining the competing attitudes and ideologies that dominated the period. Taking inspiration from this content, this bibliography presents the existence of multiple nuclear cultures within global societies, outlining the varied realms in which nuclear attitudes have manifested themselves. Here, we draw together the disparate strands of nuclear scholarship, outline the key subcategories within the field, and highlight specific readings within each subsection to provide a concise yet comprehensive overview of the many facets that scholars have conceived under the moniker of “nuclear culture.” Subsequent sections shall outline the varied theoretical and methodological approaches that have been employed by nuclear scholars, with a final section focusing on key conceptual elements within the field and the relevant scholarship that concerns them.

General Overview Texts

The works contained within this section describe the influential ideas, observations, and debates made by scholars on the topic of “nuclear culture.” The earliest work of this nature, and perhaps the most influential within this field, was Boyer 1994 (first published 1985), which argued that nuclear weapons shaped society, culture, and politics in America in an irreversible manner. Shortly after, other historians began to develop this emerging field of nuclear culture, as seen in Winkler 1993. More recently, historians have begun to also examine the international existence of nuclear culture, specifically looking at the British context, as in Willis 1995 and Hogg 2016. Notably, the prominent scholar Gabrielle Hecht has recently begun to question the parameters of what it means to be nuclear, and how we can use and define the term (see Hecht 2012). These developments have seen the field of nuclear culture broaden in scope while also becoming increasingly nuanced, with scholars engaging not only with the national as a frame of reference, but also with the regional and local variants of nuclear cultures. In particular, Hughes 2012 argues that the definition of nuclear culture is too generalized and should be deconstructed and applied to local experiences and contexts. Likewise, scholars have begun to look at specific communities and clusters of nuclear cultures. For example, Stonor Saunders 2000 examines the ways in which nuclear weapons have influenced political cultures. Other historians of the literature have reexamined, reinterpreted, and criticized popular theories surrounding nuclear culture. Michael Messmer in particular has been at the front of this subfield, arguing for new ways of utilizing ideas surrounding nuclear culture (see Messmer 1988a and Messmer 1988b). The increasingly popularity of nuclear culture has resulted in a number of historiographical literature reviews of the concept, reviewing the current scope and use of nuclear culture, such as Hogg and Laucht 2012. More recently, Hogg and Brown 2019 provides an extensive and interesting introduction into a special collection of articles examining nuclear culture.

  • Boyer, Paul S. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. 2d ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

    A pioneering study examining American reactions to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the nascent vulnerabilities felt within the immediate aftermath and onset of the new “Atomic Era.” One of the first histories to utilize an array of cultural sources, such as books, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, films, and popular music, as historical markers that trace “the nation’s mood” during the latter half of the 1940s.

  • Hecht, Gabrielle. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.

    Hecht asks important questions about what it means to be nuclear, how certain processes in the plutonium production are classed and identified as such, while others such as uranium mining are labeled otherwise—highlighting the distinctly colonial element within these procedures. She presents radiation as a physical phenomenon and introduces the term “nuclearity” to denote the techno-political process through which politics, culture, and science coalesce to (de)politicize technologies implicated within the nuclear fuel cycle.

  • Hogg, Jonathan. British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the Long 20th Century. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

    Building upon previous work, Hogg traces the multitude of public responses to nuclear technologies during the “long” 20th century. He argues that the interaction between the “official” narratives of the nuclear state and the more “unofficial” narratives of everyday citizens had far-reaching consequences for national culture, as the British public confronted official government narratives with attempts to control, respond, resist, and represent the nuclear nation-state.

  • Hogg, Jonathan, and Kate Brown. “Introduction: Social and Cultural Histories of British Nuclear Mobilisation since 1945.” In Special Issue: Social and Cultural Histories of British Nuclear Mobilisation since 1945. Edited by Jonathan Hogg and Kate Brown. Contemporary British History 33.2 (2019): 161–169.

    DOI: 10.1080/13619462.2018.1519425

    This article argues that scholars have broadened the term “nuclear culture,” and that the subsequent permanence of nuclear infrastructure and nuclear politics is often regulated into broad contextual assumptions or journalistic metaphors. Hogg and Brown argue that such phrases have been used to explain away the emotions and experiences of a generation, and they produced this special issue of Contemporary British History to contribute to a growing understanding of the complexities of the British nuclear story.

  • Hogg, Jonathan, and Christoph Laucht. “Introduction: British Nuclear Culture.” In Special Issue: British Nuclear Culture. Edited by Jonathan Hogg and Christoph Laucht. British Journal for the History of Science 45.4 (December 2012): 479–493.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007087412001008

    Part of a special edition of the BJHS that highlighted the lack of coherence regarding definitions of “British nuclear culture.” It sought to redefine the term as the “rich, complex, and contestable . . . interactions between nuclear science, technology, and British life.” While considering the specifics of British nuclear culture, the article also considers the field of nuclear culture more broadly.

  • Hughes, Jeff. “What Is British Nuclear Culture? Understanding Uranium 235.” In Special Issue: British Nuclear Culture. Edited by Jonathan Hogg and Christoph Laucht. British Journal for the History of Science 45.4 (2012): 495–518.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007087412001021

    Appearing in the BJHS special edition on British nuclear culture, this article highlights the existence of multiple nuclear cultures within Britain during the Cold War and exposes the pluralistic nature of British experiences, with an emphasis on their cultural and geographic variables.

  • Messmer, Michael W. “Nuclear Culture, Nuclear Criticism.” Minnesota Review 30.0 (1988a): 161–180.

    Reexamining Paul Boyer’s work, Messmer assesses the cultural turn within nuclear studies, conceiving the field of “nuclear culture” in 1988. In this article, he suggests that the bomb became embedded within public awareness and culture. However, this article also argues for the development of “nuclear criticism” as a way to criticize, counter, and assess nuclear culture.

  • Messmer, Michael W. “‘Thinking It Through Completely’: The Interpretation of Nuclear Culture.” Centennial Review 34.0 (1988b): 397–413.

    This article is an example of an early study emphasizing the importance of nuclear weapons in shaping American culture. Similar to his other article (Messmer 1988a), Messmer attempts to further conceptualize the notion of nuclear culture.

  • Stonor Saunders, Frances. Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta, 2000.

    This innovative text discusses the ways in which culture was influenced and infiltrated by American government agencies, such as the CIA, to “fight the cultural war of the Cold War.” Stonor Saunders argues that the Cold War was fought with culture and influence, rather than weapons. Although she does not look at nuclear culture specifically, she skillfully demonstrates the ways in which culture was manipulated and controlled by government bodies to “fight” the ideological Cold War.

  • Willis, Kirk. “The Origins of British Nuclear Culture, 1895–1939.” Journal of British Studies 34.1 (1995): 59–89.

    DOI: 10.1086/386067

    This article is the foremost work on British nuclear culture. It focuses on the emerging relationship between atomic science, its foremost practitioners, and the British public during the early 20th century. Willis examines “the knowledge, imagery, and artefacts of applied nuclear physics” of the British Cold War. This text provides an insightful context from which to situate later developments in both nuclear science and public perceptions of the nuclear-military complex.

  • Winkler, Allan M. Life under a Cloud: American Anxiety about the Atom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    This text presents an account of the impact of nuclear weapons on American political and cultural life. Published at the same time as Weart’s and Boyer’s studies, this book contributed to the early generation of scholarship on “nuclear culture.” Predominantly focusing on cultural, military, and civilian aspects of the nuclear age, Winkler also traces feelings of fear, anxiety, irony, and insanity in these cultures, beginning a very early emotional study on nuclear weapons and nuclear culture.

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