There are pictures in the exhibit "Atomic City: Southern California in the Nuclear Age" that speak far, far less than a thousand words. In a corner devoted to civil-defense programs, along with the obligatory scene of schoolchildren learning to duck and cover in the event of a nuclear attack, there are several photos of bomb shelters. The shelters range in size from a cavernous one built in East LA to protect the county's records during a nuclear war to the crypt-like backyard model that the Stone family of Reseda proudly showed the Valley Times in October 1955.
The photos are touching because we know what these people—each beaming with misplaced confidence—didn't: the bomb shelters wouldn't have saved anyone.
In case you hadn't already realized that, the exhibit explains why the shelters would never have worked. But the exhibit doesn't offer a far more important piece of information: as far as civil-defense planners were concerned, it was never really important whether the shelters worked.
It's a telling example of the exhibit's preference for quaintness over useful context. "Atomic City" advertises itself as "a photographic exhibit composed of over 100 photographs and collectibles . . . revealing our region's curious relationship with nuclear technology." It's an extremely understated presentation, giving the visitor just enough information on most items to identify what they are seeing but rarely enough to understand why.
Take the bomb shelters. It's worth knowing what the exhibit doesn't tell you: that Herman Kahn, working for the Santa Monica-based think tank the Rand Corp., was largely responsible for developing the rationale underlying the national civil-defense program. Kahn was among the earliest proponents of the first-use doctrine of nuclear weapons; his goal in civil defense was not to help people survive a nuclear attack but to instill public discipline. The ducking and covering and backyard shelters were intended to dull Americans, to create acceptance of the idea that our leaders might one day start a nuclear war. In one of his more grandiose moments, Kahn suggested that full-scale urban evacuations be included in civil-defense drills.
Things never went that far, but they came terrifyingly close. What nearly played out as a Wagnerian opera under John F. Kennedy (with the president calling on everyone to build a backyard shelter as he recklessly confronted the Russians over the fate of Berlin and missiles in Cuba) became low farce under Ronald Reagan. In one desperately stupid moment, Reagan's deputy undersecretary for defense, T.K. Jones, infamously said, "If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it." The plan, Jones said, was to dig a hole, place a door over the hole, and then shovel two or three feet of dirt on top of the door. "It's the dirt that does it," explained the helpful Mr. Jones, although he never explained how you were supposed to pile that life-saving dirt on top of the door if you were already in the hole.
Someone like Jones richly deserves ridicule, but by making him the most prominently featured spokesman for civil defense, the exhibit reaches for easy laughs. The laughter may obscure the fact that the Reagan administration—like the Kennedy administration—viewed nuclear war as winnable. It would not be an unthinkable catastrophe; it would be essentially the same as any other war, only more sudden and destructive. The Reagan administration thought so little of the potential consequences of a nuclear war that the Postal Service was ordered to draw up plans for the quick re-establishment of regular mail delivery in its aftermath.
This grim history is passed over in favor of a presentation that focuses on how ludicrous all those civil-defense efforts now appear. We are invited to view the civilians in the pictures as well-meaning innocents. If the curators had offered a little more information, it would be possible to see those people as they really were: lambs being trained to lead themselves to the slaughter.
Only in contrast to the possibility of nuclear war could nuclear power plants be considered mundane. It is mind-boggling to realize that we use a sustained atomic chain reaction to boil water, but that's what happens: atoms are split, producing steam to drive turbines—and producing waste that will remain toxically radioactive for centuries. We ought to give careful attention to the location of such plants; the exhibit demonstrates that we don't by showing what can be found just over the county line in northern San Diego County. On a bluff overlooking a state beach and more or less directly on top of the Cristianitos fault line sits the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). Its proximity to the Cristianitos fault has been the central worry of critics and some nearby residents since the plant opened in the mid-'70s. SONGS, which is what the public-relations people at Edison wish to God you would call the plant, has published a good deal of geological data to try to bolster their claim that the Cristianitos fault is "dead." Since all the available evidence suggests that the fault has not moved in at least 125,000 years, this claim seems reasonable. What neither SONGS nor the exhibit tell you, however, is that geophysical data suggests that an offshoot of the still-very-much-alive Newport-Inglewood fault may lie a few miles offshore from the San Onofre Bluff. That fault was responsible for the magnitude 6.3 Long Beach earthquake of 1933. If the offshoot is there, it might provide an unwelcome opportunity to discover whether "the San Onofre Bluff" is an accurate description of the plant's much-touted earthquake-proof engineering, as well as its location.
"Atomic City" does provide the visitor with some lasting images. Downtown Los Angeles is shown illuminated by the flash of bombs exploded at the Nevada Test Site, 70 miles north of Las Vegas. A photo from November 1997 shows a truck carrying radioactive waste overturned on the 5 freeway. Then there's the plan by LA's Department of Water and Power to build a nuclear power plant on an artificial island off Huntington Beach.
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But the exhibit's commentary is so understated that those images are likely to leave visitors with only a vague sense of nostalgia. This isn't just disappointing —it is surprising. The exhibit is curated by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), an organization in the vanguard of the campaign against nuclear weapons since the 1950s. But then again, perhaps the exhibit's extreme reticence is a wise tactic for dealing with a controversial topic in Orange County. There have been recent, painful lessons in curatorial politics: when the Orange County Museum of Art's satellite branch in the South Coast Mall displayed silk-screens of Mao by Andy Warhol, they received phone calls demanding the removal of the Communist icon. And a show featuring contemporary Vietnamese paintings brought an angry mob of protesters to the Bowers Museum last year.
But PSR has an admirable record of standing up to red-baiting, so discretion may have nothing to do with how the show was assembled.
Whatever the reason, it's a shame. Orange County is home to many people who work for weapons manufacturers (or defense contractors, if you prefer the political vernacular). It is bookended by a large naval weapons station and a rather worrisome nuclear power plant; it is precisely the sort of place whose people need to examine "our region's curious relationship with nuclear technology." "Atomic City" is, at best, a first tentative step.
PANEL DISCUSSION OF "ATOMIC CITY: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA IN THE NUCLEAR AGE" at OLD COURTHOUSE MUSEUM, 211 W. SANTA ANA BLVD., SANTA ANA, (310) 458-2694. FEATURED SPEAKERS INCLUDE UC IRVINE PROFESSOR JON WIENER, ACTIVIST TIM CARPENTER, PSR'S JONATHAN PARFREY AND CAL STATE FULLERTON PROFESSOR DAN BROWN. SUN., 4 P.M. FREE. EXHIBIT HOURS, MON.-FRI., 8 A.M.-6 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 11.