Cover of Collier's on August 5, 1950.
Austin Thomason/University of Michigan Library
book excerpt / culture

New York City, the Perfect Setting for a Fictional Cold War Strike

On Collier’s 1950 cover story, “Hiroshima, USA: Can Anything Be Done About It?”
Lear goes on to detail the aftershocks, fireballs, ash clouds, and panics that spread across the city, seaboard, region, and nation—all the implications of the horrific “fact” that “An A-bomb fell on the lower East Side of Manhattan Island at 5:13 P.M.(edt) today.” The journalistic and media point of Lear’s hypothetical documentary accounting—down to convincing statistics and vivid descriptions of death, trauma, and damage to civic infrastructure—is to awaken a post-Hiroshima American public to the fact that, in a climate of intense anxiety about Soviet military power, “we are pathetically unprepared to face . . . any A-bomb threat.” 

An editorial titled “The Story of the Story” details a Collier’s investigative method for producing this awakening. Lear’s preparation included extensive research and interviews with the staffs of the Atomic Energy Commission, War Department, and Defense Department and other nuclear physicists and engineers. He and his research team calculated likely death and injury by correlating census figures on population in New York City with AEC data on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (invoked without irony or comment). Their modeling, the editor confidently assures us, is meticulous, and “Every place and name used is real.”

The one structural fact of the enterprise that goes unremarked—that appears, in other words, to need no explanation—is the siting of the fictive strike. To be sure, New York remained, in 1950, the most populous and densest city in the United States, with 7,891,957 total inhabitants in its five boroughs and 25,046 residents per square mile. 

And it was, Lear noted, “our greatest port, our most vital assembly and dispersal point for troops” in the context of the recent world war. For all these reasons, Manhattan would have been readily imaginable as the default target at the outset of the Cold War for a preemptive bid for world dominance.
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