Boozing with the Bomb: Alcohol in the Atomic Age

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Randall McMurphy

Frank Kelly Rich
Modern Drunkard Magazine April 2011

(full article at link)

AUGUST 6 1945: Less than an hour after an atom bomb flattened Hiroshima, the nattily-attired barmen of the Washington Press Club began shaking up a gin, Pernod and vermouth concoction they called the Atomic Cocktail.

It went for 60 cents a pour and the press boys lapped them up with glee. And why not? It was a heady time — the arrival of the long-rumored atomic bomb not only spelled the end of that long goddamn war, it cemented America’s number-one ranking on the world stage. We might not have been the only superpower, but we sure as hell wielded the biggest stick, a stick that scared the hell out of everyone, even those hulking Soviets.

What’s more, the government and media swore we were giddily teetering on the brink of a fabulous new age, an Atomic Age. Soon this fantastic genie in a bottle would serve up cheap and abundant power, not to mention a vast spectrum of technological advances. Why, it wouldn’t be long before the average Joe wouldn’t have to lift a finger — atomic-powered machines would do all the work, whether that be growing crops, fighting wars or pouring rounds of celebratory cocktails.
Oh sure, there were a few doom-and-gloomers fretting about what might happen should the genie run amok or end up in the hands of the wrong sort of people, but those shrills were plainly communist agitators. And even if this atomic genie was a terrible monster, it was, for the time, our monster and ours alone.

At home Americans poured cocktails from shakers shaped like atomic missiles, much as Vikings once swilled mead from the skulls of conquered chieftains. Swizzle sticks featured mushroom clouds, glassware sparkled with that ubiquitous atomic symbol and cocktail napkins encouraged the next round with “Up and Atom!” and “Let’s Get (Atom) Bombed!”

Not everyone, of course, awaited this new era with relish: philosopher Robert M. Hutchins suggested that the easy living promised by atomic energy might give rise to terminal boredom: “The leisure of the atomic age will create a peace more horrible than war. After we have read all the comic books, travelled all the miles, seen all the movies, drunk all the liquor we can stand, what shall we do then?”


Eat, Drink and Be Merry, For Tomorrow We Atomize
It wasn’t long, of course, before psychiatrists and politicians began fretting that this keen and constant sense of impending doom might well spur a loosening of morals and irresponsible behavior. Like heavy drinking.

Sen. Glen H. Taylor (D-ID) opined that “If people live in fear of the bomb, if a man knows when he goes to bed at night he may not wake up in the morning, why he may decide to go out and get drunk.”

“The thud of people dropping off the wagon is heard all round the bars,” wrote popular columnist and noted drunkard Robert C. Ruark. “The sudden and rather complete extinction has assumed the aspect of faddism.”

The usual worries, like staying on your diet, making your mortgage payments or finding a job were pushed aside by the imminence of societal destruction. Every day above ground seemed a gift that could be reasonably celebrated with a drink. Or a lot of drinks.

“Why fret over a lousy liver if the word ‘live’ might shortly be removed from the organ,” noted Ruark. “Make the Martinis drier, Charlie, there may be a juniper shortage underground.”
Then arrived a British study suggesting alcohol reduced the effects of radiation on the human body. The thing was, the alcohol had to be in your bloodstream when the bomb hit, and since nobody knew when it was going to hit, the only sensible thing was to have a protective level of booze in your system at all times.

Fear of the bomb also lent a load of momentum to the already burgeoning Tiki bar craze. There was something very attractive about walking into a primitive world uncomplicated by technology, especially the sort of technology that could transform your city into a radioactive crater. A popular song of the day, “Civilization,” performed by Danny Kaye and the Andrew Sisters, describes a native refusing to leave his simple life in the Congo because civilization has “things like the atom bomb, so I think I’ll stay where I am.”

The Fatalists: Obliteration Before Radiation
A growing group of fatalists cast aside Bert the Turtle’s advice to duck and cover and chose instead to duck into the nearest dive and await obliteration from atop a bar stool.

“None of us will have to worry because we’ll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?” So said the bartender in Oscar-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives.

One cynical columnist went so far as to suggest all the money spent on public shelters would be better spent on “a gigantic barbecue with free booze and belly dancers for all.”

This apathy toward surviving a nuclear holocaust was further evidenced in the lackadaisical attitude which generally greeted the practice evacuations occasionally organized by the OCD. When the sirens blared, the bars, not the highways, tended to fill up. Instead of jumping in their cars and getting caught in the world’s worst rush hour, many citizens chose to huddle in dim dives and take their chances amongst the bottles.

Others complained that even if civil defense was effective, the wrong sort of people might survive doomsday. Rep. Martha Griffith (D-MI) went on record saying that due to the downtown locations of most public shelters “if the bomb fell at night, you would save nobody but skid row characters, drunks, a few people in hospitals and maybe the night shift on the local newspapers.”

He Who Lasts, Laughs: Boozing in the Bomb Shelter

Of course, not everyone felt that the post-apocalyptic life was not worth living. Displaying that deeply ingrained pioneer spirit, many Americans meant to survive whatever horror and hardship might be coming their way.

This gang didn’t put much faith in the public shelters. First, there wasn’t enough of them to house the multitudes and, worse, they had silly rules against bringing in vital neccesities, like booze. They weren’t keen on hunkering down with a mob of edgy strangers with nothing to live on but canned water and OCD crackers (which you’d need to eat about 45 a day to maintain normal caloric levels).

When 26 volunteers spent a weekend in a government fallout shelter in 1961, one participant said, surely with no small amount of horror, that the ordeal “was like being at a cocktail party without the booze.”

[​IMG] In 1967, in the biggest fallout shelter experiment conducted up to then, 750 volunteers filed into a public shelter with just what they could carry. When a reporter inquired as to the possible infiltration of liquor, the OCD spokesman shrugged, saying, “We didn’t frisk them. That will depend on their leaders and how they handle this. Who knows what possessions, in event of nuclear attack, a person would grab to take with him?”

Indeed. While it wasn’t revealed how much booze made it into the shelter, it obviously wasn’t enough: after the two-day experiment was over, one crew-cut lad remarked the first thing he’d do was get a beer, and maybe a bath.
When they realized they’d never get adequate funding to build enough public shelters, the OCD shifted the burden of survival to the individual citizen, announcing: “Each person and family must be prepared to meet immediate survival requirements for two weeks following an attack without dependence on outside assistance.”

There were many advantages to having your own shelter, they said, hinting you could bring items that would not be allowed in public shelters, like pets and alcohol.
The New Face of Doomsday
Of course, humanity isn’t happy unless there’s some sort of doomsday scenario lurking in the near future. Contrary to all reason, the possibility of world destruction can serve to take the edge off less spectacular worries; with the end of the world at hand, average workaday stresses seem unimportant. Like soldiers on the eve of a great battle, it suddenly seems a good idea to squeeze in some fun, a final hurrah before the whole shebang goes up in flames.
Hence the Mayan calendar hoopla. Come Dec. 21 2012, I strongly suspect there will be many more people getting bombed at “Doomsday Parties” then hunkering down in underground bunkers.
Or you could do both. A group called the Vivos Shelter Network is in the process of building a network of underground shelters in time for the Mayan calendar countdown. The largest shelter, in rural Nebraska, will house 900 people and, along with a movie theater, hair salon and decontamination showers, the facility boasts a “fully-stocked wine cellar” and the availability of “spirits.”

I’m not certain what quality or quantity of wine and liquor the $25,000 membership fee gets you, but I’ll bet even the worst box wine and rotgut whiskey in the world will taste like Dom Pérignon and Johnnie Walker if all the suckers trapped outside are getting drowned by tsunamis, fried up by super volcanos then swallowed whole by earthquakes.
Frank Kelly Rich