Our Friend the Atom: Disney’s 1956 Illustrated Propaganda for Nuclear Energy
By Maria Popova
Walt Disney was no stranger to propaganda, from his wartime anti-Nazi animations to his 1955 eulogy for space exploration, and even his internal company culture. In 1956, a little more than a decade after the atomic bomb showed the world the devastating power of nuclear weapons, Disney partnered with German physicist Heinz Haber, a professor at USC and personal science consultant to the legendary animator, to produce Our Friend the Atom (public library) — a gloriously illustrated 165-page tome extolling the promise of atomic power as a generative rather than destructive force. The illustrations, representing twenty-two Disney artists — twenty-one men and one woman — with a vibrant mid-century aesthetic somewhere between Saul Bass’s posters, The Provensens’ children’s books, and the anatomical illustrations of The Human Body, cover everything from the Ancient Greeks’ philosophies of matter to Curie and Einstein to the splitting of the atom and its promise for the future.
Walt himself writes in the foreword, with a nod to how science fiction pioneer Jules Verne presaged modern technology and the gender-biased pronouns typical of the era:
Fiction often has a strange way of becoming fact. Not long ago we produced a motion picture based on the immortal tale 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, featuring the famous submarine ‘Nautilus.’ According to that story the craft was powered by a magic force.
Today the tale has come true. A modern namesake of the old fairy ship — the submarine ‘Nautilus’ of the United States Navy — has become the world’s first atom-powered ship. It is proof of the useful power of the atom that will drive the machines of our atomic age.
The atom is our future. It is a subject everyone wants to understand, and so we long had plans to tell the story of the atom. In fact, we considered it so important that we embarked on several atomic projects. … Of course, we don’t pretend to be scientists — we are story tellers. But we combine the tools of our trade with the knowledge of experts.
The story of the atom is a fascinating tale of human quest for knowledge, a story of scientific adventure and success. Atomic science has borne many fruits, and the harnessing of the atom’s power is only the spectacular end result. It acme about through the work of many inspired men whose ideas formed a kind of chain reaction of thoughts. These men came from all civilized nations, and from centuries as far back as 400 B.C.
Atomic science began as positive, creative thought. It has created modern science with its many benefits for mankind. In this sense our book tries to make it clear to you that we can indeed look upon the atom as our friend.
The prologue sets the stage for the duality of atomic energy and the book’s choice to focus on the positive:
Deep in the tiny atom lies hidden a tremendous force. This force has entered the scene of our modern world as a most frightening power of destruction, more fearful and devastating than man ever thought possible.
We all know of the story of the military atom, and we all wish that it weren’t true. For many obvious reasons it would be better if it weren’t real, but just a rousing tale. It does have all the earmarks of a drama: a frightful terror, which everyone knows exists, a sinister threat, mystery and secrecy. It’s a perfect tale of horror!
But, fortunately, the story is not yet finished. So far, the atom is a superb villain. Its power of destruction is foremost in our minds. But the same power can be put to use for creation, for the welfare of all mankind.
Published February 18, 2013