The Most Panic-Prone People

In “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War”, author Matthew Farish argues that the fear of atomic weaponry did in fact contribute to the decentralization of post-World War II America. The process of suburbanization in the early Cold War era was further aided through a mix of the publication of images from the aftermath of the bombings on Hiroshima & Nagasaki, depictions of potential destruction of urban centers in the American media, and the publication of scientific studies. “The postwar climate was responsible for ‘feeding, not breeding’ the landscapes of fear, violence and misogyny already present in noir progenitors such as prewar hardboiled fiction and tabloid street photography,” states Farish. “Yet both Jean-Paul Sartre’s oft-quoted description of Manhattan as ‘the great American desert’ and Albert Camus’s noir vision of New York as ‘a prodigious funeral pyre at midnight’ seemed to take on additional valence after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the fallen American city became a common media image, and even more so after the first Soviet atomic test in 1949.”

The urban center, as the main destination of immigrants, was viewed as a possible “breeding ground for communists”; furthermore, because of the dense population in most older American cities, places such as New York City were considered to be at immediate threat of an atomic attack from the Soviet Union. Neither option considered at the time for dealing with an attack was considered viable: public shelters were thought to be too costly, and experts feared the lack of containment by the government of urban populations that a widespread evacuation would lead to. Based on an opinion from an article by Federal Civil Defence Organization (FCDA) head Val Peterson that argued that Americans were “the most panic-prone people”, the FCDA worried about the consequences of large groups of refugees overwhelming the American countryside. Furthermore, it was believed that the breakdown of racial barriers that would occur during an evacuation would be disruptive. By moving the American public away from urban centers, already considered areas of corruption, the risk of such a possibility would be lowered.

Images from the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima kept the fear of the possibility of an atomic attack occurring on American soil in the public mind. Furthermore, fictionalized depictions of the possible destruction of American cities fed on the anxiety of the American people. Fear of scenes that described the results of an atomic attack were depicted in periodicals of the time and only increased this anxiety. Additionally, publicized reports of scientific studies, such as the Project East River, reinforced the image of potential disaster now present in the American public.

Use of the imagery of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center has had a similar effect of reinforcing fear in the modern American consciousness. Calls to “never forget” have kept the tragedy in the forefront of American mind; furthermore, it has kept the American public malleable to pressure to conform to whatever standards impressed upon them as necessary for public safety, such as increased airport security or a lack of privacy, as a part of their patriotic duty as citizens.

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