When Two Tribes Go to War: ‘The Perfect Machine: Television and the Bomb’

Reviews / January 10, 2019

The Perfect Machine: Television and the Bomb
By Joyce Nelson
New Society Publishers, 1992

Broadcast television and nuclear fission: two technologies with their origins in the early 20th century study of particle physics, two technologies whose early development was situated in the years before the outbreak of World War II, and two technologies whose global prominence and predominance rose in the years immediately following the war. The other commonality between TV and the bomb: they were both expertly deployed during the Cold War as instruments of American geopolitical hegemony.

Or at least that’s the central argument of scholar Joyce Nelson’s 1992 book The Perfect Machine: Television and the Bomb (originally published under the title The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age in 1987). Nelson considers television as both a physical and a social technology. In a similar way, nuclear weapons loom over the book—not only as the pinnacle of a Western scientific method that learned to unleash the fearful power at the center of an atom, but also as a cultural technology that the U.S. used in its existential struggle for global dominance over the Soviet Union. Furthermore, and most intriguingly, Nelson’s study of television and the bomb offers a larger examination of the intersections between the Cold War American military-industrial complex and the American entertainment industry, which are deep and manifold. Reading this late-Cold War critique of American cultural hegemony—America’s “carrot” being television and its “stick” being its nuclear arsenal—offers many surprisingly pertinent lessons for an audience in the post-Cold War environment of 2019.

Nelson’s work is a product of the academic field of media studies, which in the 1980s was mainly focused on how mass media, especially television, had forever changed the American domestic political and social fabric. In offering postmodernism as a theoretical framework for how to understand how the postwar soul of the West dealt with the nihilistic meaninglessness of possible nuclear annihilation, media studies scholars often found themselves lost, their work lacking in explicit real-world political viewpoints and examples. Nelson, however, never allows this to happen in The Perfect Machine. Her materialist analysis demonstrates solid grounding in the history of the development of the technological side of both TV and the bomb, offering startling peeks at the more explicit overlaps between the two and how that intertwined development fed into the wider culture.

A large part of the nuclear bomb’s initial impact was its value as a spectacle. In confronting the hitherto unmatched power of atomic technology, its developers often resorted to poetry to convey its destructive fury. At the same time, the monumentality of the Manhattan Project and its associated technologies inspired scientists, for reasons both personal and political, to excel and succeed. Nelson takes note of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s idiosyncratic use of the phrase “technically sweet” to describe the pursuit of the science behind the bomb; in Oppenheimer’s words, “you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.” Nelson associates this rather hubristic, Promethean, and (most importantly to Nelson) patriarchal outlook about technological advancement for its own sake with Mary Shelley’s depiction of Victor Frankenstein in her epochal 1818 novel. Later in The Perfect Machine, she associates Oppenheimer’s “sweet” delight in science with the “sweetening” of sitcoms with laugh tracks, a technology very different from the A-bomb but one engineered under a similar cloak of secrecy.

While the production of the A-bomb was undertaken in secrecy, once it was dropped, a multimedia onslaught made sure the world knew the destructive power of America’s new arsenal. President Truman’s ominous August 6, 1945 statement on the Hiroshima bombing (“It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe”) was just the beginning. “Embedded” journalists with the U.S. armed forces hyped the power of the dual bombs dropped on Japan, while the military offered a sanitized view of the damage from the air. Nelson notes that images from the ground at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, showing the horrific effects of radiation on the human body, were heavily censored by the U.S. government. In the United States, postwar propaganda controlled the flow of knowledge about the bomb and portrayed it in a singularly positive light.

The U.S. military-industrial complex would demonstrate hand-in-hand the atomic bomb’s destructive power through mass media spectacles such as Operation Crossroads and the later Nevada test detonations (seen on television thanks to the sponsorship of the Ad Council, which was devised during World War II for propaganda purposes and later much better known for its public service television advertisements). The “peacetime” benefits of nuclear science were not ignored on the new medium of television; in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appeared on television to open construction on a nuclear power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. He did this while in Denver, Colorado by waving a “neutron wand” over a Geiger counter; the clicks activated a remote-control bulldozer that symbolically began construction. Here, the ceremonial, quasi-hieratic mass media power of the Cold War Presidency is bound together (“ritualistically,” Nelson notes) with the American advancement of technology: through the new mass medium of television, cybernetics, automation, and of course nuclear power.

Why all this spectacle? As the involvement of the Ad Council demonstrates, America learned in World War II that controlling the figurative battlefield of public relations was as important a war posture as logistics or supply. In the Cold War, this control apparatus turned inward, onto American territory, both literal and psychological. Nelson here is worth quoting in full:

Thus, if the agenda of the Cold War depended upon a permanent war economy fundamentally based on the expansion of atomic weapons and the nuclear industry, this in turn generated certain socio-political necessities. First, public concern about atomic radiation would have to be dissipated and deflected. Second, a major enemy would have to be delineated as the justification for systematic military-industrial expansion. Third, the public itself would have to be remobilized according to the specific needs of an expanding American dynamo. Clearly, these necessities called for particular kind of postwar public.

Enter television.

Nelson offers many astute observations on how American television throughout its history has acted as a prescriptive setter of cultural mores rather than a passive, descriptive reflection of same. Individual chapters in The Perfect Machine discuss issues as seemingly picayune as the dichotomy of television’s early self-sorting into half-hour sitcoms vs. hour-long “cop dramas,” or the trade rules for worldwide syndication of American TV in the 1980s, but always with an eye as to how the medium was shaped by the needs of the advertisers, networks, and governmental authorities involved in its development and regulation.

For example, in television’s early years, daring live dramas and teleplays were the order of the day. They were cheap to produce and there was a surplus of creative talent available in the years immediate following the war. Writers, actors, and producers, some of whom were veterans of prewar social democratic programs like the WPA and now back from a war in which they fought against genocidal fascism, felt a sense of social responsibility and sought to understand the postwar social turbulence through these early television drama anthologies. But, according to Nelson, these shows “contained the seeds of a threat to the status quo, not just in raising controversial issues, but in the narrative form itself.” The low-budget structure of television drama did not offer spectacle, but rather a sense of active political engagement. This would not do. Advertisers were much more comfortable hitching their wagon to situation comedies, cop shows with a moral sense of right and wrong, and variety shows. Not only did they not expose the social ills as the teleplays did, but they were easier to produce on film (and later videotape), a packaged and factory-made product rather than a bespoke item. Television, as much else produced in America in the 1950s, would be plastic, disposable, and attractive to the eye.

In other chapters, Nelson looks at television’s role in our domestic politics. Reagan’s campaigns for governor of California and the Presidency loom large here, given his career as a product of American mass media himself. Here Nelson cannily uncovers the secret behind political polling and focus groups in the Cold War era: it all goes back to advertising, and specifically advertising on television. Nelson looks at the history of the A.C. Nielsen rating system that determined advertising spends on television and the “audimeter” technology that allowed Nielsen to see the real-time television habits of a select group of families. Nielsen’s nationwide cybernetic focus-grouping laid the groundwork for further and deeper computer-aided analytics of popular opinion and political demographics, which Reagan used in both his gubernatorial campaigns in California and in his 1980 ascent to the Presidency. In Reagan’s second term in the White House, Nelson notes he was fêted constantly on television with no interaction or interrogation from America’s free press: “From the Christmas season of 1985 through the Shuttle-disaster of January 1986, Reagan appeared (unfiltered) on prime time regularly, including such programs as ‘A Tribute to Dutch Reagan‘ and ‘Christmas In Washington’ —guest appearances that seemingly endeared him to the viewing public and removed him from the realm of politics.”

Television’s early technical and stylistic choices didn’t just leak into politics; they affected the way that Cold War-era Americans consumed and even worshipped (Nelson offers a brief but very punchy chapter on American televangelists, who were going through a morass of moral and financial scandals in the late 1980s). America’s foreign relations and diplomacy depended on television: just as countries were encouraged to join “the Nuclear Club” with American help, they were also encouraged to become consumers of television. RCA (then-parent company of NBC and an early innovator in TV technology) equipped U.S.-friendly nations in the Cold War battlegrounds of Central America, the Middle East, and Asia with television infrastructure such as transmitters and production facilities in the 1950s and ’60s, which encouraged these nations to purchase the content to broadcast from American producers (with the explicit help of the State Department). American television’s global domination and cultural hegemony was, by the 1980s, unquestioned. The reason why global audiences clamored for The A-Team, Dallas, and Dynasty in the 1980s wasn’t because these shows were works of art on their own merits: it was much more the result of a decades-long plan of American technical and cultural colonization.

In the final portion of The Perfect Machine, Nelson concentrates on this unprecedented global reach, pausing briefly to observe how early televisions themselves spewed unshielded radiation on viewing audiences across America and the world. In her conclusion, Nelson looks at how nuclear war was depicted on television in the early 1980s, arguably the hottest years of the Cold War since the Korean War. Nelson examines how the spate of nuclear war films and documentaries released in the early 1980s were consumed globally: dramas like 1983’s The Day After, which showed a survivable and (most importantly for television) “spectacular” nuclear exchange, were encouraged. Overtly anti-nuclear documentaries such as the British 1984 production Threads or Canadian Terre Nash’s Oscar-winning If You Love This Planet (1982) appeared with grim viewer advisory warnings on American television, or, as Nelson notes in the case of Nash’s film, with a warning from the U.S. Justice Department that the film was considered “political propaganda” because of its use of those long-censored images of the victims of the American bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

Nelson’s book is a time capsule now, but with the internet taking the place of broadcast and satellite television in the 21st century, similar trends can be seen in American technical and cultural colonization online (and, of course, the internet itself was a Defense Department project). The nuclear arms race may also be nominally over, but the legacy of America’s Cold War political and military intervention across the globe remains with us well into the 21st century, from Syria to Central America. Nelson’s explicitly materialist and feminist analysis of a patriarchal war machine that gave us the authoritarian fear of nuclear annihilation on the one hand, and the narcissistic “love” of television on the other, demonstrates that while the technology and the battlefield may have changed, American geopolitical ambitions still abide by the same playbook.


Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

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