Weird suburbia: How atomic bombs and UFOs created modern America

After World War II, nuclear anxiety and flying saucer fantasies altered our understanding of suburban life

Published March 16, 2014 6:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "Welcome to Mars: Politics, Pop Culture, and Weird Science in 1950s America"

Levittown— You can imagine how it will look from space: the houses and roads and backyards arranged in neatly ordered rows, a framework of streetlights and driveways in a perfectly arranged grid at night. Located on what was once an expanse of potato fields, midway between New York City and the munitions plants of Long Island, the first Levittown, formerly known as “Island Trees,” is opened to the public in February 1947. A planned community of six thousand households offering affordable housing in the form of small, detached single-family units, this new conurbation quickly expands to embrace a further eleven thousand homes, each situated sixty feet apart on their own patch of ground. Constructed from prefabricated sections and components, Suburbia has at last begun to extend its grand conformity into space.

An accomplished publicist, William J. Levitt trades in myth as much as in real estate. To help his community grow, he presents it as a new form of American life: one that offers the comfortable ideals of middle-class existence, with no money down. To thousands of returning servicemen, most of whom are young and raised in the big cities, this represents a sweet deal for both them and their families. A white picket fence, a front lawn, and a backyard to call your own, far from the crowded urban squalor of the streets, and all at such low, low prices: how can William Levitt and Sons afford to do it?


Levittown’s original inspiration is the planned community created in secret at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to house the technicians and scientists of the “Manhattan Project” busily engaged in developing the first atomic weapon. For ease of orientation, the identical housing units that make up Oak Ridge are arranged along a series of precise grids and identified by numbers and colors. Levitt developed the basic models and techniques for preparing low-cost suburban homesteads out of prefabricated units while fulfilling military housing contracts during the closing years of World War II when storage facilities, dormitories, and administrative buildings had to be built quickly, cheaply, and in vast numbers.

From the start Levittown constitutes a strategic response to modern warfare. The Atomic Bomb has done its job too well. A future conflict in which whole cities might be obliterated does more than demoralize the enemy: it demoralizes everyone. The masses are defined and affirmed to the point of their own destruction. As a result, the politics of Total War, in which the entire resources of one nation are pitched against those of another, don’t just call for proliferation but diffusion as well. A dispersed population is so much harder to find.

William Levitt’s new suburban grid and the existing global one are becoming superimposed. What the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine both have at their core is the concept that there is just one world, a single sphere of influence. The same month Levittown opens its gates to the public, the Voice of America starts broadcasting to the Soviet Union for the very first time.

An ever-expanding, subdivided tract of land, the suburbs constitute the location for a project that will connect humanity directly with outer space, with the future, and with its own emergent inner self. The possibilities are limitless. Levittown homes come with a television set already installed. What was formerly designated the “living room” is now a domestic environment, irradiated by the blue-gray glow of the cathode ray tube.

High-fidelity stereophonic sound systems will extend the boundaries of this new sensory laboratory even further. In 1947 Capitol Records releases "Music Out of the Moon," a suite of compositions on a set of 78 rpm platters with characteristically mellifluous arrangements by Les Baxter. This sequence of six themes features the mysterious sounds of Dr. Samuel Hoffman at the Theremin, the electronic musical marvel from the Soviet Union that can be played by the simple expedient of waving one’s hand in what appears to be empty space. even more otherworldly in their effect are the wordlessly lush close-harmony choruses Baxter has set running through the course of each song. eerily streamlined and enigmatic, they flesh out what titles like “Lunar Rhapsody,” “Moon Moods,” and “Celestial Nocturne” can only hint at. More importantly, as the sleeve notes suggest, the record requires its own specific setting.

“Take it home,” the listener is advised. “Set the stage, in the evening when you are perhaps a little weary of the work-a-day world; its hypnotic beauty assures a unique musical experience.”

More specifically, it articulates the concept of encountering space-age technology in a space-age home. In its self-contained isolation, the suburban colony becomes a model for life not just on this planet but on all the others too. At the same time, this self-contained isolation will eventually establish the suburbs as a complex psychiatric community where aberrations such as alcoholism, schizophrenia, and sexual deviancy can be studied in clinical depth by an increasing number of sociologists, psychiatrists, and cultural anthropologists. It will also supply the pharmaceutical companies with a growing number of customers for a new generation of drugs. In other words, Suburbia will not only radically transform methods of perception but models of behavior as well.

If the skies above Levittown seem particularly dark in 1947, it’s because the Nuclear Clock has been set running for the first time on the front cover of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Intended to show the close proximity of humanity to total annihilation, the clock’s minute hand is periodically shown edging its way toward ultimate midnight. Featureless and brand new, standing where there had once been only fields and wasteland, the suburbs seem not so much isolated in space but in time as well.

There is, after all, something mythic about the idea of an advanced civilization perishing overnight in some single vast cataclysm. Named after the lemurs that once populated it, the lost continent of Lemuria is said to have disappeared beneath the Indian Ocean centuries before the start of recorded history, an early utopian center that had managed to combine technical achievement with advanced spiritual knowledge.

Like another Atlantis, Lemuria’s submerged contours mean that it is no longer subject to the physical confines of normal geography: Lemuria can be everywhere and nowhere, even here on this former stretch of agricultural land between Long Island and New York City. Lemuria is a phantom island, one of those agreements made with the facts that can sometimes go on, untroubled, for centuries. In fact, the enormous timescale involved, the passage of entire millennia ruptured by the devastating events of a single night, has pushed the Lemurians and all their works far beyond the narrow calibrations of human progress.

Which is fine for a bunch of backward foreigners, but this is the United States of America, and things are done a little differently around here.

In 1947, at the same time as Levittown is being constructed, David Henken locates a ninety-seven-acre site in Pleasantville, Westchester County, New York, for a cooperative housing project. The Pleasantville community is to be called “Usonian Homes II,” its name and design both derived from architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s plan for “Usonia,” a colony of simple but elegant single-family homes to be built on circular one-acre plots of land. Wright came up with the name by combining the words “utopia” and “USA,” thereby expressing precisely the kind of spiritualized manifest destiny Henry R. Luce would have applauded. “The Usonian dwelling seems a thing loving the ground,” declares Wright in The Natural House, “with a new sense of space, light and freedom to which our USA is entitled.”

Mathematical logician Albert Wohlstetter, a close friend of the modernist architect Le Corbusier, following the example of William J. Levitt and Frank Lloyd Wright, also immerses himself in prefabricated house design. Having worked at the National Housing Agency on a program to develop prefabricated modular living units that can be easily transported and quickly assembled into low-cost homes, Wohlstetter moves to Los Angeles in 1947 to start a private company that applies the rigorous architectural ideals of the International Style and the Bauhaus to the same basic approach.

That November the Broadway-Crenshaw Center opens to the public in south Los Angeles. Occupying 550,000 square feet, with thirteen acres of parking, a Broadway department store, a Woolworth’s, a cluster of smaller shops, and Von’s supermarket, it can claim to be the first outdoor shopping mall in existence. At the other end of the timescale, carbon dating is used for the first time in 1947 to establish the antiquity, and in many cases the reality, of historical artifacts. It’s a tacit reminder that each fabulous new age that dawns, each great new city built, comes shadowed by its own loss. But for now let us content ourselves with the fact that Lemuria really does exist once more, reconstructed out of prefabricated concrete, mass-produced shingles, and precut drywall. The dream can be yours, no money down.

From Outer Space to the Military-Industrial Complex

Organizing the Future— Mere progress is the preoccupation of lesser beings. Lemuria begins and then it ends: it neither grows nor develops. Marvels of the modern age require more than that. The first Polaroid Land camera goes on public display in New York in 1947. In California, the Ampex electrical Corporation demonstrates its Model 200 tape recorder, the first professional machine designed for commercial studio use, at Hollywood’s Radio Center.

Quickly finding a home for themselves in the suburban environment, thereby helping to usher in the Pushbutton Age, such devices require the marshaling of considerable resources, capital, specialized equipment, and man-hours. It’s not surprising therefore to note that some of the major organizational structures of what will be denounced by decade’s end as the “military-industrial complex” suddenly start falling into place in this year of miracles.

The Atomic energy Commission assumes active civilian control of America’s nuclear program from the very first day of 1947; and Project RAND, an Air Force think tank of scientists and mathematicians, starts its slow move toward incorporation as a nonprofit business venture based in Santa Monica, California. established at the end of 1945, Project RAND became an independent division of the Douglas Aircraft Company in March 1946. Retaining its original Air Force name, a streamlined modernist shortening of “Research and Development,” RAND is the first organization to bring those two concepts together formally. Its first official publication, commissioned by Major General Curtis e. LeMay, on the feasibility of earth-orbiting satellites, was published in May 1946. As Deputy Chief of the Air Staff for Research and Development, LeMay sees United States airpower extending beyond the sky into outer space, ultimately reaching into the future itself, thereby fundamentally altering the way in which the earth itself is viewed, and at what remove, in the decade to come.

Speculating on the potential design, performance, and possible use of a manmade satellite, Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship is only the first of many RAND reports exploring the possibilities of man in space. Its cover art shows a missile, the world, and a mathematical grid in an abstract freestanding relationship with one another. One of the simplest yet also the most elegantly complex expressions of human thought and ingenuity, the grid offers up a perfect reflection of the times. Precise and potentially limitless, it contains within its blank uniform spaces all the possibilities of the future; its vectors reaffirm the connection between Levittown’s suburban divisions and the lines of latitude and longitude encircling the globe itself.

One person to look more deeply into the grid than the rest is James Lipp, head of Project RAND’s Missile Division. “Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress,” he declares early in 1947, “the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques. To visualize the impact on the world, one can imagine the consternation and admiration that would be felt here if the United States were to discover suddenly that some other nation had already put up a successful satellite.”

Lipp’s observation indicates the extent to which it is not the unpredictability of the future but the changeability of the present that concerns industrial society. Capable of constructing its own world, the future is already here. It’s merely a question of dealing with it.

Primarily concerned with defense strategy, bombing patterns, and long-range military planning, the experts at RAND are less interested in hardware than in behavior: how systems develop and take on a creative life of their own. To this end, Project RAND holds a symposium in New York in 1947 as a first step toward enlisting economists and social scientists in its work on national defense. “I assume that every person in this room is fundamentally interested in and devoted to what can broadly be called the rational life,” mathematician and RAND consultant Warren Weaver declares in his keynote address. “He believes fundamentally that there is something to this business of having some knowledge, and some analysis of problems, as compared with living in a state of ignorance, superstition and drifting-into-whatever-may-come.”

Responsible for organizing this event, having also coauthored parts of RAND’s Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship, is the writer and political analyst Leo Rosten. The man who persuaded Walt Disney to make animated propaganda films for the Pentagon during World War II, Rosten is asked by John Williams, head of RAND’s Mathematics Division, to invite key figures from the social sciences to attend. This Rosten proceeds to do while working at night on the screenplay for The Velvet Touch, a murder mystery for RKO Radio Pictures starring Rosalind Russell.

When finished, the movie will tell the story of a Broadway actress who murders her producer and then, conscience-stricken, helps the investigating detective to uncover the clues that will solve the case. Its cat-and-mouse plot owes more than a little to the mathematically precise methods of determining rational strategies in the face of uncertainty developed by John von Neumann, consultant to the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Known informally as “game theory,” its principles have been outlined in Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, written by von Neumann in collaboration with Princeton economist Oskar Morgenstern and first published in 1944. A seminal work that will influence the thinking of corporate executives and military planners for decades to come, it suggests how game theory might be applied to both economic theory and the social sciences. Among the book’s more enthusiastic readers is RAND’s John Williams, who persuades von Neumann to join Project RAND as a part-time consultant in December 1947.

The adoption of game theory at this time indicates a moment of transition: one in which the physicists and mathematical logicians at RAND are no longer obliged simply to predict the random motion of subatomic particles but to contemplate how their effects might influence human outcomes. Arthur Raymond, chief engineer at Douglas Aircraft, further articulates this shifting relationship in 1947 when he defines RAND’s main preoccupations as “systems and ways of doing things, rather than particular devices, particular instrumentalities, particular weapons, and we are concerned not merely with the physical aspects of these systems but with the human behavior side as well.” A quantitative approach to the unpredictable complexities of human psychology, behaviorism is still a relatively new science; assessing its subject as little more than a species of responses, it helps place the rat inside the maze and pit the cat against the mouse.

In its impact on such soft sciences as economics and sociology, game theory represents the mechanization of policy by other means: the hardwiring of strategists and soldiers, mathematicians and logicians into the decision-making process. More importantly for those wishing to see an evolutionary process at work within the technological advances of progress, it reveals how the short-term and the long-range have become closely related by the same factors. Game theory’s interdisciplinary applications eventually prompt John Williams, despite some initial resistance from Major General LeMay, to broaden RAND’s range and scope by creating divisions at Santa Monica for the study of economics and the social sciences.

The analysts RAND subsequently brings into these new departments represent a cross-section of the very sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists who will descend upon the suburbs, testing and probing its inhabitants. Top wartime psychiatrist Brigadier General William Menninger makes this clear in his keynote address as newly elected president of the American Psychiatric Association at their 1947 conference, held at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York that year. Although there are still fewer than five thousand practicing psychiatrists in the United States, Menninger takes great pains to spell out to his colleagues the vital importance of bringing the potential benefits of psychiatry to the masses and of his ambition to “offer its therapeutic effort to a world full of unhappiness and maladjustment.”

Under Menninger’s kindly interest, the suburbs will gradually be transformed into Suburbia: as much a state of mind as a dispersed geographical location. As such, Suburbia can only give birth to itself. Its inhabitants, their expectations, and the way they intend to live their lives are merely by-products of that process, the raw material of social engineering. In relocating from the cities, the new suburbanites have left their extended families behind, together with their traditional values and knowledge. The door is thus left wide open for the psychologists and social scientists to walk in and take a look around.

Those who view with alarm the bodying forth of the military-industrial complex might do well to consider for a moment the third part of this descriptive proposition. That military and industrial interests should be seen coming together so intimately to form a “complex” says a great deal at a time when the nation’s psychiatric elite is set to exert greater public influence. Such a thorny interlocking of drives and inhibitions, obsessions and barely suppressed urges is sure to have a deleterious effect not only on the physical aspects of these systems, to paraphrase Arthur Raymond of the Douglas Aircraft Company, but also on the human behavior side as well.

It is perhaps not altogether surprising, therefore, to discover that it is a pilot who is destined to report one of the most aberrant pieces of technological behavior to take place in this modern age.

“They flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across water,” Kenneth Arnold tells Bill Bequette of the East Oregonian, referring to the nine unidentified flying objects he has seen speeding through the skies toward Mount Rainier on the afternoon of June 24, 1947. According to Arnold’s written report submitted to the US military, they moved “in a definite formation but erratically” in a “diagonal-like chain, as if they were linked together.” It is the image of the “flying saucer” that sticks in the popular imagination, however; its flashing and darting establishes an erratic but discernible visual rhythm that will continue to reverberate for years to come. A few weeks later, when the July 8 edition of the Roswell Daily Record appears in New Mexico with the headline “Army Air Force Captures Flying Disc in Roswell Region” spread across five columns of its front page, the transformation of motion into archetypal form is complete.

Although both stories have originated from local newspapers, they are quickly picked up all over the world, following the global grid now being comfortably imposed upon the earth’s surface. Never has a message been so clear, or its implications so ambiguous. “They’re more than atom bombs or falling stars,” runs the stark warning in “When You See Those Flying Saucers,” a hillbilly ballad written in 1947 by Charles Grean and Cy Coben. Released as a 78 rpm disc on the RCA Victor label, the song links religion and atomic devastation with the “trouble and unrest brewing” on the far side of the Iron Curtain. If it came out of the sky, the assumption goes, it can only be a judgment from on high. The other assumption, exemplified by the lack of a conditional preposition in the song’s title, is that it’s only a matter of time: of “when,” rather than “if.”

Both Arnold’s Mount Rainier sighting and the crashed saucer in Roswell will go on to assume mythic status, subject to endless lines of speculation, research, and argument. It is worth reflecting at this point, however, upon just how close both these incidents are to the ragged edge of aviation technology as it exists at this time. According to his own account, Arnold was piloting his “specially designed mountain airplane” in search of a crashed C-46 Marine transport. The flying disc reported to have come down in the New Mexico desert is investigated by officers from Roswell Air Force Base, home to the US nuclear bomber wing. Less than two years previously the Enola Gay took off from Roswell AFB into the blinding light of summer on its way to Hiroshima.

The Atomic energy Commission and Project RAND are soon studying the flying saucers, AeC chairman David Lilienthal going so far as to make a public statement discounting any direct relationship between such sightings and the effects of atomic radiation. However, the main connection between the saucers and the emergent military-industrial complex will inevitably be supplied by the United States Air Force: an organization that has had to wait until now for an Act of Congress to bring it into being. The 1947 National Security Act does as much to recalibrate the American war machine as von Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. It establishes the Department of Defense, creates the National Security Council, and separates off the United States Air Force as an independent entity from the rest of the Armed Forces. More importantly, it replaces the old wartime Office of Strategic Services with a brand new organization: the Central Intelligence Agency.

Great organizations create themselves out of confusion, and the United States Air Force is no exception. Glimpses of the future start to flash up at random. Over one weekend in the summer of 1947, a bunch of bikers go on a drunken rampage through the little town of Hollister, California, establishing the renegade motorcycle gang as another modern myth. Most of these mechanized outlaws are ex-servicemen, many of them former Army Air Force, bored with peacetime and looking for excitement.

They are clearly not alone in their frustrations.

At exactly the same time as Kenneth Arnold’s account of flying saucers over America is making headlines around the world, the May 1947 issue of Mechanix Illustrated devotes its cover to the US Navy’s “Flying Flapjack”: a disc-shaped twin-propeller aircraft boasting a bold new arrangement of cockpit and engines within a circular fuselage. “It hovers like a helicopter: will it fly faster than the speed of sound?” the magazine wonders. Painted bright yellow with a futuristic silver undercarriage, the airplane’s advanced “discoidal” shape is tested in June 1947 along Long Island Sound for a Navy Day display, causing excited bathers to report seeing a “flying saucer.” It is the Flying Flapjack’s first and only public flight. The Navy quickly drops the project to concentrate on jet-propelled craft instead.

The chaos continues.

On June 21, 1947, a marine salvage operator in Puget Sound sees a group of flying saucers over Maury Island, three miles out from Tacoma, Washington. Seemingly in distress, one of the saucers scatters hot debris over the island’s bay area in the form of light metal and black, rock-like slag. Investigating the incident, Air Force intelligence officers Lieutenant Frank M. Brown and Captain Davidson dismiss it as a hoax. They are transporting some of the debris back to Hamilton Field AFB on August 1, when their B-25 crashes, killing them both. All the remaining pieces of saucer debris are then immediately impounded by Major Sander of S-2 Army Intelligence, McChord Field AFB.

Although the Maury Island incident is soon dismissed as a tragic hoax, it indirectly helps the USAF and the flying saucers to extend and define their presence through each other. Just as LeMay predicted, issues of air supremacy and the threat of outer space have helped to position the USAF ahead of all the other organizations, especially in a year when the prototype Bell 47 helicopter gets wheeled out of the hangar and the jet plane is offering unprecedented levels of speed and maneuverability. It is the flying saucer’s shape, however, that really speaks of the future. For those on the ground, the flying saucer doesn’t appear to depend on the same stresses and strains as the helicopter or jet plane do to get into the air. Rather than heaving itself up toward the sky, it seems to swoop effortlessly down from above. Its rounded design continues to mock the forward momentum of the jet plane, even after Chuck Yeager, piloting the Bell X-1 research plane, breaks the sound barrier for the first time in October 1947.

But where exactly does it come from? Initial speculation is that it may be the Soviets at work. Or it could be some secret project whose existence is hidden somewhere in the small print of the National Security Act.

At the end of 1947, the US Air Force sets up Project SIGN to investigate public sightings of strange things in the sky. As the name suggests, SIGN is an indication of that which has hitherto gone unnoticed: a signifier for what has so far passed without comment. By determining the significance of what may or may not exist in the skies over America, the Air Force impresses itself with greater clarity upon the popular imagination.

Except that at the very beginning it is movement and speed that define the flying saucer as a mass phenomenon, not its shape. Its overall visual appeal is one of metallic lightness, of reflective surfaces that glint and flash as the saucer maneuvers at high speeds. It has no stabilizing tail and leaves no trail.

The Maury Island saucer inadvertently marked itself out as a fraud by leaving that blackened trail of slag and scrap metal behind. While such a display may not be out of place among the ore-smelting operations of Tacoma Bay, slowly poisoning the islands in Puget Sound with toxic deposits of arsenic and lead, this saucer’s sheer physicality denies it a presence in the future. It is only by removing all trace of its existence from the scene that the Air Force belatedly confers significance upon the incident.

The flying saucer becomes associated with forms of technology so superior that they can no longer be adequately detected by the human senses. As such, it is the elusive representative of an emergent invisible order of energy: of rays and beams, wireless transmissions and radiation bursts.

In a year when technicians at Bell Laboratories begin tests on an early model transistor, the US government formally takes control of General Electric’s cloud seeding experiments, and military contractors Raytheon come up with a basic idea for the microwave oven, the appearance of the flying saucer in popular culture marks a transition from mechanical forms of energy transfer to electronic ones. Like radio waves, TV signals, and atomic energy, whatever powers and steers the flying saucer remains a strange and unseen mystery. As the pragmatic era of edison appears to give way to a visionary Age of Tesla, the flying saucer also marks the deep gulf that has opened up between the actual accomplishments of technological progress and those who feel the future really can’t get here fast enough. Suddenly the Raytheon microwave oven may not seem so humble anymore.

Excerpted from "Welcome to Mars: Politics, Pop Culture, and Weird Science in 1950s America" by Ken Hollings, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2014 by Ken Hollings. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

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