The images in John O’Brian and Jeremy Borsus’ Atomic Postcards (Intellect, 2011) fall into three categories: There are the military-patriotic images of missiles, aircraft, and submarines; the pictures of ‘technological sublime,’ with factories and reactors; and the truly surreal: a man having his cigarette lit by a remote control arm, atomic blasts over Las Vegas, or the Farmington, New Mexico Chamber of Commerce’s “Bustin’-Out Like an Atomic Bomb,” complete with a real sample of uranium ore. The postcards aren’t exclusively from the US, though they predominate. There are examples from the UK, Soviet Union, China, Israel, and Japan.
In his introduction, O’Brian interprets the cards as examples of the “fearful domestication” of the Bomb – in which nuclear apocalypse is a surreal combination of horror and cheerful nostalgia: a sort of “wish you were here, under the Sword of Damocles.” It’s hard to imagine how else to interpret a postcard of post-disaster Three Mile Island.
It’s unfair, though, to look back on the cards solely with the benefit of hindsight. Coming from the 1950s and early 1960s, many are about a perfectly (perhaps blithely) unfearful domestication. They feature power plants and industrial projects rather than weapons of war. (The only image from the 1980s is straight up fearmongering about Soviet weapons.) They reflect a brief moment when the world looked as likely to be on the verge of a bright atomic age as a nuclear catastrophe, and the fact we know better shouldn’t demand that we sneer at them.