Carnegie Mellon University

This is Crossroads: How Newsreels Made the 1946 Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll Public 

Author: Nathan S. Atkinson
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2009

At the dawn of the Cold War a joint US Army/Navy task force called Joint Task Force One (JTF-1) detonated two atomic bombs at Bikini Atoll, a small island chain in the South Pacific. The tests, dubbed "Operation Crossroads," were by many accounts the most reported on, and the most photographed event in history.

Histories of Operation Crossroads rarely fail to remark on the efforts of JTF-1 to put a positive spin on the proceedings. And many of these histories note that JTF-1 enrolled the newsreels in these efforts.  Nevertheless, these histories treat newsreels, and the public relations effort in general as window dressing designed to distract the public from what actually happened at Bikini. None of these histories, that is to say, attend to how JTF-1 coordinated the newsreels with its public relations effort, or to how the newsreels themselves promoted the military's long-term interest in making palatable its bid for an unprecedented expansion in power to a public that had, since war's end, been suspicious of its motives and competence.

In this dissertation I draw on records maintained by JTF-1, and the production files for Universal Newsreels to craft a detailed account of the working relationship between JTF-1 and the five major newsreel producers. This account leads me to argue that JTF-1 effectively co-produced the Crossroads newsreels. Having established the character of the relationship between JTF-1 and the newsreel producers, I provide a visual rhetorical analysis of the newsreels leading up to and covering the detonations at Bikini. Through this analysis I track a subtle evolution in how the newsreels portray JTF-1, and by extension the military, as managers of this new technology. The newsreels initially portray the military as good stewards of nuclear technology, answerable to the bomb's citizen owners. As coverage progresses, however, the promise to remain answerable is withdrawn slowly and subtly over the course of the newsreels. This withdrawal of the promise to answerability, I argue, quietly ushers in the guardianship model of management, wherein the public abrogates its authority over nuclear policy to an unelected, technocratic elite.    

This dissertation contributes both to the ongoing exploration of rhetoric's role in the history of the Cold War, and to recent scholarship in visual rhetoric. It reveals how JTF-1 used the resources of visual culture to invite interpretations of events at Bikini consistent with its motives, and how in so doing it argued for and ultimately justified certain policies at the expense of others. It suggests that the public was not cowed into accepting the authority of a technocratic elite, but was instead eased into doing so by a military careful not to overplay its hand. In so doing it reveals the importance of the newsreel, and by implication visual rhetoric, in shaping the course of the Cold War, and the relationship between the military and the public in the nuclear era.