Atoms for Peace

Thom Yorke’s supergroup, Atoms for Peace, are releasing their first album on February 25th. Here’s a bit of information about the history behind the name.


In December 1953, then-President of the United States of America, Dwight D. Eisenhower, gave a speech of the same title: Atoms for Peace. The speech, what it represented, and the following program was a key indicator of Eisenhower’s personal belief in the effectiveness of psychological warfare as an integral tactic in the Cold War. It was catalysed by a change in propaganda tactics of the USSR following the death of Josef Stalin in March 1953. Whilst the Eisenhower administration had already been talking keenly of the need to step up the scale and seriousness of America’s propaganda offensive as part of the wider Cold War, the USSR’s actions after Stalin’s death prompted the implementation of these ideas. Overtures of peace from Georgy Malenkov on the part of the Soviet Union raised concerns in the USA that the Soviet image would be softened by this “peace offensive”. As America sought to prevail without resorting the full-blown nuclear warfare, and thus to coerce the peoples of the world to conform to the way of life they were propagating, peace-based rhetoric from the Soviet Union threatened the removal of the very demonic enemy they had set themselves up in opposition against. Thus began Eisenhower’s campaign of psychological warfare.

The Atoms for Peace speech was initially portrayed as stemming from Eisenhower’s genuine concerns over the escalation of the use of atomic technology for destructive ends. The propaganda campaign itself, however, hinged on the domestication of the atom in order to normalise its use in everyday life and thus justify America’s continued build-up of nuclear armaments on the side.

The speech itself was given at the United Nations General Assembly on December 8th, 1953, which provided America with the ideal forum to portray itself as the champion of peaceful progress in science and technology – in contrast to images of Soviet militarisation and refusal to co-operate in arms control deals. Atoms for Peace proposed a global effort to investigate peaceful uses for fissionable material, which served to justify there continued use of atomic energy in experimental science for the foreseeable future, whilst shrouding such research in the language of peace and progress. The United Nations forum gave Eisenhower’s words the maximum global impact – it was reported at the time that “Never before in history have the words of the President of the United States been so widely disseminated to all people of the earth”. Thus, the world was sent an image of the United States working diligently towards cultivating atoms for peaceful means.

The speech itself was however just the initial offensive in a much broader psychological warfare campaign centred around the concept of Atoms for Peace, and directed by the United States Information Agency. Building hype around  the concept of a peaceful atom took a number of forms: film, press releases, editorials, travelling exhibits, etc. It was highly effective: images of peaceful atomic energy drew public attention away from atomic weaponry whilst the United States continued to increase its arms supplies. Positive images of hope, peace and progress are obviously much more appealing than those of fear and apocalyptic destruction, and the Atoms for Peace campaign utilised this to its fullest, rebranding the atom, for example, by Walt Disney in the film Our Friend the Atom.

The domestic campaign to promote the atom as a ‘friend’ began with the distribution of 15,000 copies of an “information booklet” to editors of newspapers, magazines and television stations, manipulating mass media as a weapon of psychological warfare on the home front. By creating consent within American society to the image of the peaceful atom, it was easier to project a unified vision as the campaign expanded internationally. Ongoing, the campaign placed great emphasis on new and exciting discoveries about atomic technology; visual manipulation was also used in photographic illustrations of stories about the peaceful atom. One photograph’s caption read:

The advancing atomic age is mirrored on the face of this young girl. The scale model of the atomic energy plant which holds her attention is forecast of future plants which could be constructed under the Eisenhower plan for peaceful use of atomic energy.

Concurrent to the cultivation of domestic consensus, the message of Atoms for Peace was broadcast throughout the Western world in order to ensure the continued compliance of American allies to the US Cold War campaign. Travelling exhibits were produced, showcasing (predominantly American) scientific advancement in peaceful uses for the atom. The United States Information Services in Belgrade reported that it “achieved a greater impact… than any other project undertaken”, and the French newspaper Le Figaro exclaimed, “One leaves the exhibit with a great desire to live… in peace with work made easier, in conditions of social wellbeing”. Further to this, The United States Information Agency deployed fourteen news articles relating to the friendly atom every week.

These “peace offensives” worked to increasingly ease the concerns of the outside world about the extent of America’s arms race; by bringing the Western world firmly on side, the Atoms for Peace campaign also cemented the Cold War division of East and West, and entrenched the idea that the continuation of the Cold War struggle was an unavoidable necessity in the face of the warmongering intentions of the Soviet Union, which stood in stark contrast to the projected image of the peaceful United States.

Peace, therefore, was an essential weapon.

Corke, S., ‘The Eisenhower Administration and Psychological Warfare’, Intelligence and National Security 24:2 (2009), pp.277-290
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, ‘Atoms for Peace’
Hixson, W. L., Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture and the Cold War 1945-1961 (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997)
International Atomic Energy Agency, ‘Atoms for Peace’,
Medhurst, M. J., ‘Atoms for Peace and Nuclear Hegemony: the Rhetorical Structure of a Cold War Campaign’, Armed Forces and Society 23:4 (1997), pp.571-593
Osgood, K., ‘Form Before Substance: Eisenhower’s Commitment to Psychological Warfare and Negotiations with the Enemy’, Diplomatic History 24:3 (2000), pp.405-432
Osgood, K., Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2006)
Tobia, S., ‘Introduction: Europe Americanized? Popular Reception of Western Cold War Propaganda in Europe’, Cold War History 11:1 (2011), pp.1-7
Winkler, A. M., ‘The “Atom” and American Life’, The History Teacher 26:3 (1993), pp.317-337

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Miriam Dobson

PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Soil, urban food, allotments, ecosystem services.

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