What If Cold War Consumerism Never Ended?

In Fallout, the Bomb Scared Americans Underground. In Reality, Nukes Sold Everything But Shelters

What If Cold War Consumerism Never Ended? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Fallout plays atomic advertising for laughs—but in real life, the bomb sold cocktails, detergent, and more. What it didn’t sell: fallout shelters, writes historian Thomas Bishop. A Vault-Tec commercial features Cooper Howard selling survival. Courtesy of Prime Video.

Amazon’s new series Fallout starts with the end of the world: News reports of an international crisis interrupt a children’s birthday party, mushroom clouds appear outside, and chaos ensues. The year is 2077, but it feels like the 1950s. In this world, the Cold War never ended, and neither did the consumerism that defined mid-century America.

Two centuries after the opening sequence—when the plot of Fallout shifts into gear—cities are devastated, and communities have descended into violence. But brands endure. Advertisements for “Nuka-Cola” and “Super Duper Mart” litter the new American wasteland. Meanwhile, deep underground, a parallel society of Vault Dwellers live in high-tech shelters, cooking with “Atomic Queen” ovens, watching movies on “Radiation King” VHS players, and snacking on “Sugar Bombs.”

What If Cold War Consumerism Never Ended? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Lucy and Hank MacLean enjoy some relaxation in Vault 33, where it feels a lot like 1950s America. Courtesy of Prime Video.

The show, which might easily be dismissed as suburban nostalgia, is rooted in messy historical reality. In mid-century America, conspicuous acts of consumption defined a society facing the end, spurred in large part by the macabre influence of the bomb—evincing fascination and discomfort.

Today, trotting out the bomb to advertise goods might seem misguided at best and exploitative at worst. But in the 1940s and 1950s, the dawn of a new technological age promised an unleashing of scientific potential, and audiences were entranced. Walt Disney produced the 1957 television special for schoolchildren “Our Friend the Atom,” and President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched a very public pro-nuclear campaign called “Atoms for Peace” to reassure the public that the nuclear future was not just about destruction. Meanwhile, atomic advertisers tapped into the excitement of technological modernity while trying to sidestep the true horrors of nuclear war.

What If Cold War Consumerism Never Ended? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Still from a 1950s U.S. Army information film, which appears in the documentary Atomic Café.

So, just as the fictional characters in Fallout sip on Nuka-Cola, real-life Americans of the era sipped a popular cocktail inspired by the atomic bomb. On August 6, 1945, less than an hour after reports of the successful attack on Hiroshima, members of the Washington Press Club mixed gin, Pernod, and vermouth, charging 60 cents a pour for the “Atomic Cocktail.” It was a smash hit with members of the press—and went on to become particularly beloved in Las Vegas, where atomic tests were a 1950s tourist attraction.

Fallout’s soundtrack features hits such as the Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” (1941) and Five Stars’ “Atom Bomb Baby” (1957), harking back to a time when songs about the end of the world routinely climbed the Billboard charts. And its reimagined advertisements for “atom powered” wind-up robots and washing detergent that’s as “tough on dirt as a nuclear blast” refer to genuine Cold War-era products that stocked shelves at Macy’s and Sears.

But sometimes marketers weren’t successful in striking a balance between sensationalizing their products and terrifying their audience. Such was the case with a product central to both Fallout and the real-life Cold War home front: the fallout shelter.

One of the show’s main characters is Cooper Howard, “star of stage and screen” and “pitchman for the end of the world.” In advertisements for Vault-Tec, he sells shelters “strong enough to keep out the rads and the Reds.” His pitches close with a promise, made directly to the camera: “You can be a hero, too. By purchasing a residence in a Vault-Tec vault today. Because if the worst should happen tomorrow, the world is going to need Americans just like you to build a better day after.”

What If Cold War Consumerism Never Ended? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

A 1951 prototype basement fallout shelter sits on a New Jersey boardwalk. Courtesy of the National Archives.

In real life, a similar directive came from an even bigger celebrity. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a nationwide address encouraging ordinary citizens to build their own fallout shelters. Speaking to around 25 million viewers, Kennedy argued, “We owe that kind of insurance to our families and to our country.” That September, President Kennedy opened an entire issue of Life magazine dedicated to fallout shelters with a letter that made the remarkable claim that “97 out of 100” citizens might survive the next war if they took survival into their own hands. Outsourcing survival to the private sector gave rise to swarms of local businesses. Newsweek estimated that in one week in October 1961, over 31 shelter companies applied for business licenses in Atlanta. In the same month companies like Peace-O-Mind Shelter Corporation in Texas, Survival-All Incorporated in Ohio, Survival Construction Specialist in Denver, and Diamond Blocks in Boston all opened their doors for business.

Driving profit was no afterthought in the development of the Cold War home front; it was central to its social function. Historian Lizabeth Cohen describes America immediately following the end of World War II as a “consumers’ republic” defined by the rise of powerful new political language that equated good citizenship with effective consumerism. Shelter businesses, then, attempted to marry two eminently successful ideological constructs of the era: national security and the self-made, individualistic, suburban consumer family. But there were limits to even the best salesman’s pitch. Fallout depicts a nation duped into life underground. But many real-life American households were not so easily convinced—and shelter salesmen routinely went bust, even as the atomic clock ticked close to midnight.

Take James Byrne, a Detroit-based plywood businessman who described the shelter trade as a “can’t miss proposition,” with every political statement from the Oval Office a “million-dollar free advertisement.” As international tensions rose in the summer and fall of 1962, Byrne went door to door trying to make a buck—and failed miserably. “People listen to the sales pitch, take all the literature,” Byrne’s best salesman, Sal George recalled, “ask questions and then just walk away.”

Getting desperate, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Byrne and George loaded up a flatbed truck with their model shelter, drove it around town, dropped the price by $100, and posted a sign reading “FALLOUT SHELTERS—WHILE THEY LAST.”  There was not even a “nibble of a sale.” Eventually, they offered it up free of charge, and a Michigan family hauled the shelter away. “Last I heard from them they were having trouble assembling it. But I’m not asking questions,” said Byrne.

His experience was not unique. Between 1961 and 1963 an estimated 600 shelter companies across the United States filed for bankruptcy. Given the opportunity to purchase their families’ safety, most citizens rejected the salesmen’s pitch.

“The future, my friend, is products,” a fellow actor tells Cooper Howard in Fallout. “You’re a product. I’m a product. The end of the world is a product.” Maybe in their world. But history shows us that when faced with the prospect of total annihilation, Americans never really embraced the idea that survival should be a consumer choice.


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