Their Baby is a Bomb, 1959
This is a guest post by Dr. Deanna Day. Deanna Day is a writer and Research Fellow at the Science History Institute. Her writing about science and culture, humans and cyborgs, has appeared in Lady Science, Model View Culture, Slate, and elsewhere around the internet.
When Carol Cohn toured a nuclear submarine, the officer leading her group offered the visitors a chance to reach through a hole and “pat the missile.” Cohn was a participant observer working in the defense industry, and she was struck by the idea of “patting” a missile. It was so incongruous an action, so ambiguous an idea, that she couldn’t get it out of her head.
I felt similarly the first time I saw this mid-century advertisement. The image of a doctor proudly patting a “newborn” missile is so weird, so unsettling, that it stayed with me for weeks. Ostensibly, this ad encourages people to buy oxygen, infrared, and other kinds of analyzers from Beckman Instruments, one of the twentieth century’s largest scientific device manufacturers. These tools monitor the environmental conditions of a missile launch, making sure that everything about the launch is “safe” for the people sending the missile (if not for the people that the missile is heading towards).
But what do missiles have to do with childbirth? During her ethnography, Cohn noticed that defense professionals used metaphors of childbirth to talk about bombs constantly. Bombs were “babies.” Physicists were their “fathers.” Officers in charge of maintenance (or scientists they wanted to insult) were their “mothers.” The “babies” were even coded with a gender in order to describe whether or not they were successful (no one wanted a “girl,” i.e., a dud, while “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” cheerfully devastated Japan).
What’s more, Cohn realized that missile metaphors extended well beyond childbirth to incorporate multiple kinds of patriarchal imagery. She described—in graphic detail—the sexual metaphors that defense intellectuals use to think about war. Bombs thrust and penetrate; stockpiles harden; missiles get shot in megaton orgasms; everywhere a missile might be put is called a hole. In 1984, Helen Caldicott summarized this phenomenon by coining the expression “missile envy:” the men in charge of missile defense wanted to be the biggest, strongest men with the most impressive sexual conquests, so they built the biggest, strongest bombs with the most potential for destruction.
It’s this point that makes the advertisement so creepy and disturbing, the elision of an act of communion with one of subjugation. Missile loading is the opposite of birth, an act of obliteration versus an act of creation. But, as Cohn wrote, this perversion was intentional.
“The entire history of the bomb project, in fact, seems permeated with imagery that confounds man’s overwhelming technological power to destroy nature with the power to create—imagery that inverts men’s destruction and asserts in its place the power to create new life and a new world. It converts men’s destruction into their rebirth.”
The metaphor of birth gives men the illusion of power they wish they had. They cannot create life, but they can destroy it. Then they pretend that that’s the same thing.
What’s more, the metaphor provides an ex post facto justification for the damage done by their missiles. The advertisement ludicrously wills birth pains out of existence (as if science has ever satisfactorily answered that problem), and attributes to a missile all of the good will and feelings of care that we would have for a human child. If a missile is like a baby, then the harm the missile brings is justified. It becomes a temporary, private pain, an unfortunate but necessary side effect of bringing a geopolitical regime into the world.
Defense professionals imagine themselves as the ultimate patriarchs. When Robert Oppenheimer called himself Krishna, when the first atomic bomb test was named Trinity, and when the first wave of nuclear professionals named themselves a priesthood, they were assuming for themselves (one of) the powers of God, the power to destroy. At the same time, they ask us to pat their baby, because, as Cohn puts it, “One pats that which is small, cute, and harmless—not terrifyingly destructive. Pat it, and its lethality disappears.”
The premise of this advertisement is both profoundly silly and terrifyingly not. When we look at it, we are asked to see the defense industry as fathers, as protectors, and as creators. We’re asked to trust them, the way we’re asked to trust our doctors. And because babies are adorable, we’re also being enlisted into the project of nurturing and supporting their deadly offspring. But no amount of professional expertise, linguistic framing, or pleasant requests to pat their baby can take away this fundamental fact: their baby is a bomb.
- Helen Caldicott, Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War (New York: William Morrow, 1984)
- Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs, Vol. 12, No. 4, “Within and Without: Women, Gender, and Theory” (Summer, 1987), pp. 687-718
- Carol Cohn, “Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War,” in Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott, eds., Gendering War Talk (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993)
- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985
For more on the visual culture of the Bomb in 1959, see Anna Elizabeth Dvorak's post, Illustrating Deterrence.