Part 3: The Making of The Atomic Revolution

Finally, for the the half dozen people who are as intrigued by The Atomic Revolution, the Cold War propaganda comic Ethan Persoff put online, here is at least part of the story of its origins.

Mushroom cloud, The Atomic Revolution, image: www.ep.tc Mushroom cloud, from The Atomic Revolution, image: www.ep.tc

The comic itself is copyrighted 1957, by Mr. M Philip Copp, an artist nearly subsumed in an Eisenhower-era Establishment. At a time when comic books were being attacked in Congress and the popular media for contributing to juvenile delinquency, in an denigrated-yet-promising medium populated largely by second generation Lower East Side Jews, the Connecticut WASP Copp sold leased his artistic soul to custom-publish public relations comics for the government and major corporations, quaintly remembered as the Military Industrial Complex.

According to a Sept. 1956 profile of "industrial comics," which annointed Mr Copp as the go-to guy for American Business Interests' comic needs, TAR, which was "largely devoted to the peacetime uses of the atom," was designed as a resource for those "interested in learning something about the fundamentals of atomic life." [emphasis mine.]

M Philip Copp-R and artist Samuel Citron - L, reviewing The Atomic Revolution, image: nytimes 1956 M Philip Copp, right, reviews artwork for The Atomic Revolution with artist Samuel Citron. image: NYTimes, 1956
More than a year in the making, Copp farmed out the creation of the book to "no fewer than eleven free-lance artists and four writers. (The artists and writers are frequently replaced until the combination jells.)" Oliver Townsend, a one-time aide to Gordon Dean (ex-Chairman of The Atomic Energy Commission) is credited with the "basic text," and Life's science editor Warren Young turned in the final script. The only artist mentioned is Samuel Citron, shown reviewing the artwork for page 30, the "spotless" domed Antarctic mining city and "complete control over our environment" that the atom would soon make possible.

But where did the grand vision for TAR come from? Not from Copp, a self-proclaimed "catalyst," whose real talent seems to be his eye, and whose own "creations" were limited to fawning profiles in the Times of the more accomplished members of his Connecticut shore yacht club. But ships do factor into the story.

TAR was the brainchild of John Hay Hopkins, the chairman of Groton-based Electric Boat, a WWII submarine manufacturer, which, under Hopkins' leadership, became General Dynamics. According to the corporate history, Hopkins "saw that the need for defense was a permanent need, and not one that could be satisfied by improvisation in a time of crisis. 'Grow or Die' were words by which Hopkins lived..."

Hopkins turned General Dynamics from a shipbuilder to a diversified one-stop-shop for the Cold Warrior, and the atom was a major part of GD's offering. It built the Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, and launched its General Atomic Division in 1955. Do the math. A year in the making, profile in late '56, TAR could've been conceived on the deck of a vermouth-soaked General Atomic after-party.

Or perhaps it was part of a much more comprehensive media strategy. Hopkins turned to his slipmate M. Philip Copp for a $50,000, 500,000-copy run of an atomic comic, but to make "Grow or Die" the operating principle for military expenditures would require a multimedia lobbying public education campaign. You know, get that Disney fellow on the phone.

Check out Prof. Marc Langer's amazing AWN article, "Disney's Atomic Fleet." After keeping his studio afloat during WWII by making animated training and propaganda films for the US armed forces, Walt Disney was asked to participate in Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program in 1955. The result: a multi-year, multi-channel atomic edutainment extravaganza that reminds us that skilful collaboration between the media's and military's big guns didn't start with embedding Jessica Lynch on MTV.

Disney began producing a live-action/animation program, Disneyland, for the emerging ABC TV network. In turn, ABC was asked to invest, alongside Western Publishing, in the new theme park the show would promote. In 1957, Disney aired My Friend The Atom as a Tomorrowland segment on the show. The program, along with millions of copies of the accompanying book, went into schools. When Tomorrowland actually opened at Disneyland, it featured a fleet of "nuclear powered" submarines. Vice President Richard Nixon accompanied Disney on the sub's maiden voyage on June 14, 1959; the event was broadcast live on ABC.

My Friend The Atom promised a future where "'clean' nuclear reactors will replace grimy coal and oil power plants. Radiation will be used to produce better crops and livestock. People will zoom from place to place in atomic cars, trains, boats and planes. 'Then, the atom will become truly our friend.'" If that future sounds familiar to you, it's because it's almost an exact frame-for-frame description of the contents of The Atomic Revolution.

Like TAR, My Friend, The Atom was produced in collaboration with General Dynamics Corporation. John Hay Hopkins passed away in 1957, and while he never got to visit Disneyland, and it's unlikely that he saw the completion of MFTA, he surely got to see a final proof of The Atomic Revolution, thanks to the tireless work of Mr M. Philip Copp.

Related links:
from the Eisenhower Library, a 1953 report by the [William Hay] Jackson Committee on international information warfare
Part 2: M. Philip Copp, State Dept. Info-warrior

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: June 23, 2003.

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