The United States of America developed the atomic bomb for use in the Second World War, and after it was dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war ended. But where one ended a new one sprang up: The Cold War, where both the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union convinced its citizens that the only way to protect themselves from either superpower was the nuclear bomb.
As far as Americans were concerned, the bomb would be survivable if dropped on their heads, whereas Communists would suffer defeat, and the propaganda films shown here illustrate why they thought that. It starts with footage of the Enola Gay and its attack on Hiroshima, with the head of the project explaining what happened in reasonable tones. However, something is not right here: he admits that these two targets were chosen because they had never been bombed before and were a perfect "experiment" to see how the bomb would affect a major city. Then we see the results: devastation, dead bodies and diseased victims.
Each minute of The Atomic Cafe throws up a new lunacy. We see the island paradise of Bikini Atoll being evacuated, bungled bomb tests contaminating unwary Pacific natives and getting irraditated fish and tea into the food chain, first pigs and then U.S. soldiers being used as guinea pigs to gauge the effects of radiation, and heavy handed anti-Communist films justifying the destruction. (Why do the Communists wear glasses in these films? Is it an anti-intellectual thing?). Also worth mentioning are the ridiculous instructional shorts about how to survive nuclear attack, with unreliable "facts" and ill-disguised political messages.
A few contemporary reviews said that this documentary would have you laughing at the attitudes on display, and it's true that the mocking tone encourages a feeling of superiority over the people we see. There are funny moments, such as the anti-Communist information film that turns into a commercial for shopping centres, but most of the footage is likely to leave you disturbed - and it's not as if there was a lack of pro-nuclear bomb feeling at the time this was assembled, even if we did have Threads and The Day After on TV, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood singing "Two Tribes" in the pop charts.
Some would say that the threat of mutually assured destruction brought by the Cold War gave us peace, and it is better to live in fear than die in fear. But at what cost? The hostility and paranoia bred by these information films is chilling; one of the most unsettling sequences depicts the reaction to spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and instead of thinking they deserved what they got you feel revolted at the bloodthirsty attitudes of the public.
Having said all that, the fifties and perhaps The Atomic Cafe itself are in love with all those nuclear explosions which punctuate the story - it even finishes with a depiction of the nuclear war that never happened. By the end, the apparent naivety of the authorities looks more and more like outright lies disseminated amongst the credulous citizens, and anyone who disagrees with them is labelled Anti-American. The belief that they have God on their side is pretty hard to take with all the "do it to them before they do it to us" views of the experts we see. Music consists of pro-bomb country and rock and roll records of the time.