A Look At The Kitschier Side Of The Atomic Age

Smithsonian Channel doc A-Bombs Over Nevada looks at the bizarre “spectator sport” that spawned from post-WWII nuclear bomb testing

WHAT: A-Bombs Over Nevada documentary airing December 5 on the Smithsonian Channel. (It follows a rebroadcast of a related doc, Pearl Harbor: The Lost Tapes, by the same filmmaker.)


WHO: Written and directed by Peabody Award-winning documentarian and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Tom Jennings. With interviews of Congresswoman Dina Titus, military journalist Keith Rogers, former Department of Energy manager Nick Aquilina, and retired Nevada Test Site personnel: test director Chuck Costa, physicist Bruce Church, security officer Dick Mingus, executive secretary Peggy Hallerber, and communications specialists Darwin Morgan and Ernie Williams.

Atomic explosion at Nevada Test Site from the National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Site Office

WHY WE CARE: In the early 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the military engaged nuclear testing just outside of Las Vegas, dropping hundreds of atomic bombs over the Nevada Test Site, an old gunnery range 65 miles northwest. From this deadly serious backdrop, a quirky Atomic Age pop culture industry was born. Las Vegas was dubbed Atomic City, casinos held Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contests, and people threw rooftop parties to watch the mushroom cloud. But more sinister forces were at work—the government hid the dangers of radiation, exposing thousands of unwitting soldiers and civilians. This hour-long special uses first-person accounts, rare footage, and nuclear experts to take viewers back to the most nuked piece of ground on the planet.

“There was a time in the United States when the detonation of atomic bombs was a spectator sport,” says Jennings. “The government suspected that fallout from these weapons could cause health damage, but kept that information from the public for years. Instead, the detonations were heralded in the growing casino Mecca of Las Vegas as an added benefit to the city’s nightlife—with people partying on hotel rooftops all night awaiting for next A-bombs to go off at dawn.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.