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The Cold War, Nuclear Technology, and the Threat of Mass Death: The Hydrogen Bomb & Government Control of Knowledge

Dying and the Dead module

This post continues our series from students on ‘Death, Dying and the Dead’, an MA history module at the University of Leeds. This post, by Rebecca Illidge, continues our theme on fears of nuclear war and how they were managed.

Are you scared of the threat of nuclear war? When America tested the first hydrogen bomb in November 1952, the world likely would have been terrified. The new weapon revolutionised war; it was one thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan, ending the Second World War. The hydrogen bomb was capable of death on a mass scale, and consequently the British government were reluctant to share information with the public.

Poster from the Ministry of Information about the Hydrogen Bomb, detailing the potential impact of the bomb, with accompanying images of a bomb exploding and images of the likely impact zone.

Ministry of Information poster, taken from

The Ministry of Information was established when World War Two broke out, and was responsible for publicity and propaganda, as well as censoring information deemed to be of military value. It issued various pamphlets and posters, like this one, pictured, ran public meetings, produced films, and organised radio broadcasts. This was government communication ‘on unprecedented scale’. The above poster was published in 1965 which was three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest America and the Soviet Union came to nuclear war. This would have brought the threat of mass death to the forefront of people’s lives considering that the media could not hide how close war was.

The Ministry of Information, and government more broadly, did not communicate everything they knew about the Cold War to the public. This was especially the case for the hydrogen bomb. There were several reasons for this: after the Second World War there was not enough money or resources to fully protect the British people, a fact which the government would not have wanted to publicise. The government would have wanted to keep morale high, and prevent civil unrest. As such, the government only told people what they believed they needed to. Historian Jonathon Hogg has argued that the militarised and secretive nature of the bomb and nuclear power meant that the dissemination of information from the government was always partial. We can read this not as a solely malicious attempt to control knowledge, but an attempt to mitigate the risks of sharing the full depth of harmful knowledge. Scholar Claire Langhamer has claimed that the development and use of atomic bombs led British people to feel that they had entered a new ‘atomic age’. This feeling was different from that of World War Two as war now seemed to threaten civilians in a new and extremely destructive way. The government was perhaps aware that releasing the full extent of the danger of nuclear war would overwhelm the population not long after World War Two.

This poster from the Ministry of Information tells British citizens what a hydrogen bomb is, some of the effects, and what can be done to prevent death or injury. The central and largest image is of a hydrogen bomb explosion, which is grand in scale and demonstrates the destruction such a weapon would cause. Considering the British government were careful in what they shared, it is interesting that the Ministry used such an image. Next to the picture, the source reads a stark description of a hydrogen attack:

The hydrogen bomb’s power is reckoned in millions of tons of high explosive; its searing fireball, white and blinding, is as hot as the sun’s interior. It can gouge a crater in the earth a mile wide and up to 200 feet deep; and its dust can cause death or sickness hundreds of miles away if proper precautions are not taken.

The poster was published in 1965, when the Cold War was still very much ongoing and the threat of a hydrogen attack was still very real, and seeing such an image at this time would have likely evoked fear in those looking at it. Conservative politician Harold Macmillan noted at this time that the government’s aim was:

on the one hand, to avoid giving such a pessimistic picture that the public would feel ‘what is the use of doing anything’ and, on the other hand, to guard against over-optimism which might give the impression that there was no real importance or urgency in the matter

This objective represents a tension between emotion versus risk-management. The government was aware that to prevent all information distribution on the hydrogen bomb would have risked alarmist news and sensationalist stories attracting attention, consequently creating mass panic. At the same time, they recognised that releasing too much distressing information would have, again, alarmed public opinion and created pressure for the government to act when they had little resources to do so. The government, through posters such as this, therefore attempted to strike a balance between over-optimism and over-pessimism and they did so by controlling information.

This tension can also be seen by attempts to stress personal actions in protecting against nuclear war. The poster includes instructions which are succinct and to the point, which could be an attempt to remove any emotion and avoid scaring readers, but it can also be read as quite jarring and unnerving. This demonstrates the difficulty in sharing information about the threat of mass death.

One suggestion from the poster is to:

remove curtains, furniture and anything flammable from windows and doorways

After such a vivid photograph and description of destruction, such precautions seem almost trivial. Historian Melissa Smith has argued that it is tempting to dismiss government guidance such as this as propaganda, however extensive planning and research lay behind the information in pamphlets as it drew on the knowledge of the Home Office Scientific Advisers Branch. It is likely that such precautions may have mitigated risk for those living far away from the fallout zone, but this information is not included on the poster. Such exclusion of knowledge demonstrates, again, the British government controlling information likely to reduce the possibility of panic at the insinuation of mass death. The recommendation that the public could take personal action to mitigate injury and death would have, at least slightly, reduced the fear of the hydrogen bomb as it insinuated that it was not wholly destructive.

This poster contributes to our understanding of what impression the government wanted the public to have when confronted with the very real possibility of mass death. They were willing to communicate to some extent how bad the effects of hydrogen warfare would be, but they deliberately controlled some knowledge. Furthermore, they pushed a narrative that there were precautions people could take to save themselves, likely to stop feelings of powerlessness and allow people to think that personal action could mitigate risk.

It is interesting to consider how far the British government would control information today if we were again on the brink of a hydrogen attack.