War and Postwar: a look at LIFE and technology

Part three in a series.

In an age and a culture dominated by scientism, the word “sample” tends to invoke the adjectival “representative,” and I cannot begin to imagine culling a meaningful representative sample from LIFE’s 400-plus issues. Still, it seems important to devote a few pages to what happened with LIFE and technology between the Fort Peck Dam and Apollo 17. I will center this discussion on innovations and events that, from our perspective here at the end of the century, appear to have left significant marks on history.

The Medical Morality Play

LIFE’s coverage of medical technology began early and covered, through the decades, the research, development, and application of treatments for a variety of diseases and disorders afflicting humanity. Vivid, often grotesque photography illustrated everything from cancer treatment to brain and open heart surgery, and the magazine’s 1937 photo-essay on cancer demonstrated the optimism with which LIFE viewed technology of the medical sort.

Entitled “U.S. Science Wars Against an Unknown Enemy: Cancer” (3/1/37, 11-17), the essay establishes in the first page both the scientistic themes described above and the lush photographic techniques that would become the magazine’s trademark method of illustrating those themes in the succeeding years. A 7″x9″ photo of “Crocker Laboratory’s 1,250,000-Volt X-Ray Machine” dominates the center of the page; like much of the emerging technology of the day, nothing in its design visually signals the exact method or purpose of its use. A huge, barrel-shaped machine with several cannon-like appendages extending in all directions, the “Biggest Gun in the War Against Cancer” could have been selected by the editors for the technomystical impact of its appearance alone.

The title of the essay itself reflects the status accorded science — “U.S. Science” personified is the subject, the agent of action. Science itself marches off to war against the enemy, cancer. Reinforcing the agency of inanimate science is LIFE’s mention, in the second sentence of the text, of the American Society for the Control of Cancer’s U.S. Cancer Week motto: “Fight Cancer With Knowledge” (11). The photo-essay describes the work of human scientists, of course — LIFE wasn’t consciously bent on dehumanizing the process — but the editorial decision to lead with the archetype, couched in a metaphor of war, lends a certain epic character to the struggle, the language implying a timeless quality that transcends the mortality of human agency. The outcome of the battle is foreshadowed in the duality of the enemy, cancer, which is described both in terms focusing on its effectiveness as a killer and in terms emphasizing its curability, if found and treated in the early stages of development. Viewed from this perspective, LIFE’s portrayal of medical progress takes on the aspect of a morality play. The triumph of Good/Science is prefigured, but the audience, socialized to the cultural beliefs and practices of the community, understands what awaits those who stray from the path of righteousness.

In the following pages LIFE runs the gamut, valorizing the “Captains in the Cancer War”; showing microscopic photography of both healthy and cancerous cells; depicting scientists at work; describing (and photographing) the role of mice in laboratory research; illustrating the effectiveness of x-rays in finding cancer; and reinforcing the earlier assertion that cancer is curable if detected early. This last element is the key to the essay. Cancer, like science, has been personified — it is “the enemy.” Explicitly clear in the morality play is a convention of the culture: the Evil/Cancer enemy cannot stand against the ingenuity and integrity of the Good/Science hero. This is the moral end of the tale. But the intervening pages of illustration, explanation, and detail are essential means to the end, for it is in these characterizations that the utopian essence of science is to be found. Science was a highly technical thing, and microscopic photographs of diseased cells would, alone, have denoted nothing to the lay reader. Contextualized within the struggle of science against an unknown enemy, however, the technicality and clinicality of the photographs and accompanying text reassured the reader, socialized as he or she was into a culture that had for centuries deified science and technology.

Perhaps most important is the moral of the story, implicitly prescribed for the reader, who most certainly didn’t want to be afflicted by a disease like cancer. If early detection equaled curability, then the reader was well advised to get routine cancer checkups. Science could, and would, save the faithful from the unknown enemy within.

WWII and the Dawn of the Atomic Age

The war years and the coming of the atomic age present a special problem for analyses of technology and culture, especially this one. As suggested in the introduction, the messianic view of technology is countered by a persistent demonic view, which I have elsewhere termed “The Frankenstein Complex” (Smith 1995), and which is closely bound up with one strand of our science fiction tradition. We generally concede that science fiction began in 1818 with publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. In the intervening 175-plus years, the genre has largely evolved around variations on the central theme of the uses and abuses of science. Inducing terror was Shelley’s intent, albeit in a way distinct from the “mere ghost stories” of the Gothic tradition. One of Frankenstein‘s most notable achievements was its success in conjuring the “pleasing terror” which Burke and others called the “sublime” without resorting to the unreality of the supernatural (Alkon 1994, 1-2; Smith 1995).

This series has attempted to focus on LIFE and the messianic view of science, but even the briefest examination of the publication during the war years necessitates acknowledgment of the Frankenstein Complex, for during these tense years technology simultaneously represented both demon and messiah, apocalypse and salvation. Technology manifested in the German and Japanese war machines threatened the well-being, if not the very existence, of America; the same sort of technology — guns, ships, planes, tanks — at the same time signified the hope of the nation, for it was through such machines that we would survive the foreign threat to the American way of life. In a very real sense technology had transcended questions of good and evil, had escaped human control as predicted in Shelley’s cautionary from the previous century.

For this reason, the war years perhaps best exemplify the complex contradictions and tensions inherent in LIFE’s presentation of science and technology. Machines had come to occupy a vastly more important place in human society, but society seemed confused about what this meant. As noted earlier, the utopian view was older and more publicly acceptable. Hope generally precedes fear in the public imagination, and where the engines of war were concerned, the United States simply had never before encountered technology that threatened our existence. It must therefore have been with great puzzlement that American readers viewed LIFE’s pictures of Germany’s mechanized military might.

LIFE had been hinting at war, in both words and pictures, since 1937, but they began depicting Hitler’s armaments in earnest in the Spring of 1939. The March 6 issue featured a head-on, full-page shot of the launch of the Bismarck, “the biggest thing in battleships ever built by the Germans” (3/6/39). Swastikas flutter in the foreground as the assembled throng, arms extended forward in salute, reverence the awesome display of German engineering. The August 28 issue featured a photo-essay on Germany’s artillery, “The Most Modern in Europe” (8/28/39, 11). Significant in this essay and a companion piece in the September 4 issue is the repeated assertion that technology had, so far, enabled Hitler to win without even fighting. So awesome was Germany’s amassed might that none to date had dared even to challenge it.

The September 4 essay almost seemed designed to scare Americans witless: row after row, column after column of goose-stepping, jack booted infantry equipped with advanced weaponry; hundreds of tanks parked in perfect lines stretching toward the horizon; a “secret” airfield, which the reader is informed is only one of the more than 700 scattered about the Reich; and one of LIFE’s all-time most amazing photographs, the motorized parade through Berlin’s Tiergarten, in which Germany arrayed its technological supremacy before the world with a mortifying sense of inevitability. In these pictures the reader is impressed with the scale of Hitler’s destructive technology, but even more unsettling is the way in which the symmetry and regularity of the technology imposes upon the human element present — indeed, the German army almost seemed to have accomplished the mechanization of flesh and blood.

In these essays, and several others depicting the German military, we are seeing technology at its most problematic. The pictures convey sublime awe at the possibility of human creation (not entirely unlike the awe conjured by pictures of the Fort Peck and Grand Coulee Dams, in fact) and the stark terror over the threat this technology represented for American culture. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was alive and well and looking sharp in his new brown shirt and shiny jack boots. LIFE was doing its best to alert America to the threat of the monster run amuck.

The United States’ entry into the war seems to have relieved LIFE’s editors. For three or four years technology had been a troublesome subject, as indicated above. But once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor America could once again get back to the business of technological superiority, and LIFE could get back to the business of portraying science in salvational terms.

What is striking about the photos from the early days of the war is how completely mechanized the landscape was. The January 5, 1942 issue offers the “First War Pictures in Pacific,” and while the dozen or so pages that follow sought to highlight the preparations and activities of the heroic young sailors, what is inescapable is the omnipresence of machinery. At one level we can acknowledge that navies are inherently technological, and have always been. But LIFE had depicted land forces, even infantry units, in predominately technological terms since before the war even began. What emerged was a cybernetic view of the warrior — war was not fought by men, it was contested by the harmonious admixture of man and machine, and the pictures LIFE published, from the outset, reflected a merging of flesh and technology first intimated in the 1939 pictures of Hitler’s mechanized military, and which had been echoed in an August 14, 1939 pictorial on motorization and mobility in “The New U.S. Army Division” (8/14/39, 46-52).

Industry and technology remained central to discussions of the war effort throughout the conflict. Industrial chemistry’s role in winning the war was examined in great detail (3/23/42, 68-80), and LIFE routinely noted how far behind Japan the U.S. was in war readiness. It described how Japanese industry was geared toward war (1/5/42, 42-44) and devoted numerous pages to American industry’s retooling for war production (1/19/42, 18-19; 2/16/42, 19-25). In these photo-essays and their accompanying editorial comment, one conclusion was inescapable: World War II would be won or lost by technology.

Even the wildest expert guessers never credited Nazi Germany with capacity to make more than 4,000 planes a month. Last week the U.S. learned from its President that this country must produce 5,000 planes a month in 1942 and more than 10,000 a month in 1943. “It will not be sufficient for us . . . to produce a slightly superior supply of munitions,” said he. “The superiority of the United Nations . . . must be overwhelming.” His figures were overwhelming, but they were not beyond the reach of a united, determined America (1/19/42, 19).

LIFE was right, although not in the sense they might have expected in early 1942, when everybody from the President to LIFE’s editors to, one presumes, most members of the citizenry, seemed to pin American hopes on its industrial capacity — we would simply outproduce the enemy, attacking on the ground with a column of tanks that would stretch from New York to Salt Lake City, and pounding them from the air with a blanket of bombers a mile wide and 117 miles long. To be sure, the U.S. did these things, but in the end it wasn’t technology’s industrial manifestation that finished the Japanese off, but rather its R&D wing’s innovation in engineering and delivering two comparatively small atomic bombs.

LIFE’s coverage of the war’s end trumpeted science’s triumph over our enemies. Again, the editors’ language assigns agency to technology, at times to the point where finding the hand of human action at all is difficult. In “The War Ends” (8/20/45, 25-29), the “Burst of Atomic Bomb” resulted in the Japanese surrender.

The cataclysmic bursts of two atomic bombs brought the war against Japan to a sudden end. The first bomb fell Aug. 5 on Hiroshima, the second Aug. 8 on Nagasaki (25).

In the following pages, readers found the ascendancy of technological over human agency to be a recurrent theme. For instance, in the recounting of the Hiroshima bombing, it was “[a] B-29, laden with a new weapon of terrible but virtually untried destructive power” that attacked the city (26). Colonel Tibbets appears in the next sentence, almost as an afterthought. Three days later,

the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, shipbuilding port and industrial center. This bomb was described as an “improved type,” easier to construct and productive of a greater blast. It landed in the middle of Nagasaki’s industries and disemboweled the crowded city. Unlike the Hiroshima bomb, it dug a huge crater, destroying a square mile — 30% of the city (27).

Throughout, human agency is implied, rather than stated explicitly. Passive sentence constructions allow the editors to avoid what was undoubtedly a sticky issue — that is, the use such a horrific weapon against patently civilian targets.

The monster was still loose, although for the moment it was loose on Japan, and was therefore a good thing for Americans. The editors at LIFE, though, recognized this invention for the mixed blessing it represented, and in succeeding weeks and months devoted considerable space to the discussion of new atomic technology. On August 20, they called the monster by name, observing that “[if] rockets, whether propelled by chemicals or by atomic energy engines, can span the Atlantic and if their atomic warheads can destroy cities at one breath and if man can do nothing to prevent this, man has unleashed a Frankenstein monster” (8/20/45, 18).

In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though, the dire implications of nuclear power began to set in. An editorial noted that “In the third month of the Atomic Era the world still lacks a moral or political equivalent of The Bomb…. The American people, as they should, are doing a lot of public worrying about The Bomb. Unfortunately the tone of their worrying has degenerated into an abject mixture of shame, confusion and fear” (10/29/45, 36).

Part of their worry no doubt resulted from the mortifying pronouncements of experts like Oppenheimer, who estimated that a nuclear attack on the U.S. could kill as many as 40 million (36), but also disturbing was the fact that the most hellish technology ever conceived had not yet found an ethical context to govern its development and use. By way of analogy, if we’re faced with a large, vicious-looking dog, we either want to know that it’s actually very nice and loves people or that it’s on a very strong leash. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though, the dog was standing in the front yard foaming at the mouth and there wasn’t a dogcatcher in sight.

The scientific community was up in arms because the military had taken control of atomics, and the editors appear to have shared the view of scientists, many of whom had threatened “to desert nuclear physics for the study of butterfly wings if science is not released from its bondage to war” (36). The answer to America’s dystopian fears rested with science and the openness of inquiry that produced the technology in the first place.

America’s real military asset is not The Bomb; it is our share of that body of Western science which split the atom in the first place. European scientists had an even greater share in this discovery than our own. Its source was the habit and spirit of free scientific inquiry which pervades the Western world. America’s stake in that source is greater than its stake in any quantity of blueprints. Thus, the release and encouragement of the scientists, not their control, should be the first goal of our atomic policy (36).

The editorial board then turned a few pages over to some prominent spokesmen from the scientific community – who better to speak to the issue than the scientist-hero? In an essay written by three University of Chicago atomic scientists, readers are told that the bomb had moved humankind “out of the old world – which we may call the world of electronics – into the world of nucleonics” (10/29/45, 45). They explain that the power of the atom, compared with simple electronics, was of another order of magnitude, and was attended therefore by another order of responsibility. In language reminiscent of Lippman, they assert that atomics represented a power perhaps too awesome to be entrusted to non-scientists.

…scientists have not heretofore felt that it was their responsibility to fight for this rational use of the products of their endeavor. This responsibility they willingly left to the governments of their nations (45).

In the case of nuclear energy, though, scientists feel an unusual responsibility because of the destructive power it represents. They say they “do not aspire to political leadership,” but say that the uninitiated need to be warned and advised until humanity has become aware of the technology’s “perils as well as its wonders” (45). The authors undertake a thorough examination of the issue of nuclear energy, its potential benefits and probable drawbacks (especially as regards military application), and conclude that no legislation of any sort should be passed until Congress could “be made fully aware of all the novel and complex implications of the new era” (48).

Of course, “nucleonics” never replaced electronics, and while atomic energy represented a difference in magnitude, it did not ultimately prove to be a difference of type. Atomics produce electricity, and the application of electricity in the lives of most Americans is substantially the same as it was before Hiroshima. The scientists’ language, though, reflects a tone that ought to be very familiar by now.

We must look confidently to benefits which the production of new radioactive elements will bring to science, industry and medicine, since small-scale atomic plants will be sufficient to provide an abundance of these invaluable tools for scientists, doctors and engineers (48).

Within months, then, America had turned to the task of housebreaking Frankenstein’s monster, and LIFE characteristically offered its resources and credibility to the debate.


LIFE and Technology series


Alkon, P. (1994). Science fiction before 1900: imagination discovers technology. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Carey, J., and Quirk, J. (1989). The mythos of the electronic revolution. In Carey, J. (Ed.), Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Science. (pp. 113-141.) Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Carey, J., and Quirk, J. (1989b). The history of the future. In Carey, J. (Ed.), Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Science. (pp. 173-200.) Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Smith, S. (1995). It’s alive!: cyberpunk, scientism, and autonomous technology. Unpublished paper. May.


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