The Bikini and the Beast

Nuclear means much more than atomic power. Since World War II it has inspired thoughts of Utopia and destruction, but most of all in trying to link objects with the ideas around the atom, popular culture around the world has produced icons.

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was enough to have Japan surrender before even a 3rd bomb could be dropped. Within a week the Smyth Report was released by the United States government, explaining the basics of the Manhattan project, and 3 days later Japan signed the final documents of its surrender. To those on the opposing side, bombs brought peace.

It was then, in 1945 that ‘nuclear’ entered the common tongue. The idea of nuclear and the post war relief led to an explosion of products and ideas that found ways to link themselves to the nuclear ideal. The most famous of these was probably some Parisian swimwear.

Small and Devastating

The first nuclear bomb to be dropped after the war was ‘Able’ on 1 July 1946, in the remote Pacific area known as Bikini Atoll. Previously unknown, the tests made the area famous, and 4 days after the first test the Bikini was born.

“like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating” – Louis Réard

5 July, the Bikini was first revealed to the world at Piscine Molitor, Paris. The 2 piece swimwear was so shocking that its designer, Louis Réard couldn’t convince any models to wear it. The only new feature was that it left the bellybutton uncovered, but it was enough that in the end he had to employ a naked dancer to do model it. It was not a mild mannered event.

Louis Réard named it after Bikini atoll with the idea that it would blow away all who saw it, and usher the fashion world into a new era – and it certainly made an impact. Micheline Bernadini, the stripper who modelled it received 50,000 pieces of fan mail, and fashion magazines widely reported on it – helped by Reárd’s provocative claims.

It wasn’t entirely new though, either in design or theme. Only a few months before another French designer had introduced the Atome (Atom) swimsuit, then labelled the ‘World’s Smallest Swimsuit’ – a nod to the size of atoms. The Bikini was slightly smaller, leaving the belly button uncovered and cheekily marketed as ‘smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit’.

Despite the Vatican claiming it as sinful, and being banned from the beaches of many European countries the Bikini eventually became commonplace and outgrew its link with nuclear cheer, though to this day it draws controversy in many countries.

8 years later, in a turn of events Bikini Atoll helped inspire new creations, this time made in fear.

The King of Monsters

The United States was still merrily obliterating Pacific islands in 1954 when they began a new set of tests. Hydrogen bombs, a more powerful, but entirely new technology which started detonation with fusion, not the typical nuclear fission of older bombs. The project was to be entirely secret.

The first hydrogen bomb, Ivy Mike, entirely obliterated the small island of Elugelab, leaving a smoking, radioactive crater in the Pacific Ocean, but it was the second bomb which let the genie out of the bottle. It was named Bravo, and in preparation a generous safety distance of 50 miles was set. Military helicopters and ships hover around the perimeter, and 9 officers safely squatted in a thickly walled control bunker. To capture useful data, a battery of instruments was set up to watch the explosion and relay the information back.

It went wrong. The bomb was 3 times more powerful than expected, posing a threat to everything within 100 miles. All the scientific equipment was vaporised along with the data, and 90 miles from the detonation site the Japanese fishing ship Luck Dragon No. 5 met some unexpected snow.

The Japanese name for the creature is actually 'Gojira' - a combination of the japanese words for whale and gorilla.
Original 1954 Poster | Public domain

Radioactive ash, also known as Bikini Snow, fell across the ship. The unsuspecting fishermen gathered it in piles, pushing it around on deck with their bare hands, being thoroughly irradiated by the warm flecks. Then they returned to Japan. By the time they reached shore they were noticeably ill, experiencing hair loss and vomiting. The last straw was the fisherman who soon died from radiation poisoning and caused a panic.

Knowledge of radiation was often more rumour than fact, people believed radiation was contagious and that a nuclear plague might savage the nation. The death of the 200,000+ individuals during the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still fresh to many. The panic led to some dubbing it as ‘a second Hiroshima’.

As this news was reported worldwide, the first giant insect film ‘Them!’ was released in the United States. It featured ants, made giant by nuclear testing, who now threaten the existence of humanity. It was successful and a few giant creature films were made in a similar style, but it was Japan which made the iconic nuclear creature. 8 months after Lucky Dragon No.5 Japan produced the iconic Godzilla – King of Monsters.

The film was simple, nuclear tests off the coast of Japan manage to enrage the peaceful underwater Godzilla. It first attacks a fishing boat, and slowly moves on to Tokyo as the Japanese struggle to decide what to do in the face of it. Eventually it rises, covered in scars, and destroys Tokyo using its atomic breath. After the best efforts of the military it remains unharmed and returns to the ocean. A scientist comes up with a device to destroy it, but fears what the military would do with it, so uses it to kill both himself and Godzilla. His last words warn his comrades that if nuclear testing continues, more Godzilla might one day emerge.

Godzilla was very much a bomb made flesh, as director Ishirō Honda made clear in later interviews:

“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”

The film is now considered a classic by many, and really helped capture the fear Japan felt in the wake of Lucky Dragon No.5. Like the new of Lucky Dragon, the film was also spread over the world, and eventually Godzilla even received a lifetime achievement award. As the cold war ground on the world’s opinion on nuclear began to become muddled. For America, the fear came home.

A Falling Out

In 1951 the United States moved its smaller nuclear tests to the Nevada Desert, from 1952 you could watch them on TV. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the United States founded promoted the notion of ‘Atoms for Peace’ – talking of nuclear pacemakers, easier mine excavation, and giving nuclear power to developing nations. Then the Bravo incident turned it around, and a new word entered the common tongue.

Fallout – before only ever referred to as lingering or residual radiation, it suddenly became important enough to be discussed on its own. The Bravo test showed that fallout was if anything, more damaging than the initial explosion. As well as reporting on Lucky Dragon No. 5, papers reported that 264 islanders, living 100 miles from the explosion had been evacuated, but were still harmed by the fallout. 3 years after the fact, a newspaper revealed the story of military officers trapped in the control bunker on the day of the Bravo test.

Very soon after the detonation their equipment showed serious spikes in radiation. Any possible rescue had begun retreating to avoid radiation. Just outside the bunker, radiation was at lethal levels. With no near rescue they found which room had the least radiation, and huddled in there. Not long afterwards, the generator failed and they had to wait it out in darkness.

12 hours later the radiation had abated, and a rescue was attempted. The ash lying about was still dangerous, and they needed to avoid it touching their skin during the run to the helicopter. So they wrapped up in bed sheets, cut eye holes and shuffled to the helicopter.

In 1957 it was revealed how harmful the fallout from the Nevada test site was for the people and animals living nearby. Cancer cases had risen, children had contracted leukaemia and livestock died after grazing on fields these radioactive clouds had passed over.

It was an unpleasant time, but the Atomic Energy Commission made efforts to separate the weapons from the rest of the capabilities of nuclear power. Saying that the peaceful use of nuclear would bring a new age of prosperity. Disney helped.

‘Our Friend The Atom’ was a part animated and part live-action piece which explained the history of nuclear energy, and the peaceful future of the technology. The spirit of the atom was represented by an animated tale of a powerful genie discovered by a fisherman who at first feared it, then managed to make it an ally. The other parts had Walt Disney and Dr. Heinz Haber calmly explaining the process and applications of nuclear power, showing how chain reactions worked in terms of ping-pong balls and mousetraps. It ended with a return to the story, and wondering what wishes the spirit of the atom could grant us. Power, food and health, and peace – but only if we had the wisdom to use it well.

The telefilm was wildly successful, and shown to almost all the children of the baby boom, played in science classes or school halls. This, and a beautifully illustrated accompanying book were wildly successful and helped future generations feel much more positively about nuclear power.

Opinions clashed on both sides while the Cold War reached its peak 1960s before finally settling. The mix of pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear camps after the war left many unsure of what to think. The debate still goes on in many countries, just as the bikini still courts controversy and Godzilla still features in films. The icons persist, but perhaps the most persistent idea is that of Disney’s Genie. The atom could be friend or foe. Will we have the wisdom to wield it correctly?

We don’t know.

All images used for educational purposes under Fair Use

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