Chris O’Brien, Resident Scholar

Chris O'Brien

Historian Chris O’Brien of the University of Maine – Farmington is this summer’s second Resident Scholar to complete a tenure in the OSU Libraries Special Collections.  For much of his career, the primary focus of Dr. O’Brien’s research and writing has been the experience of children, ages 6-13, growing up in the U. S. during the Cold War years 1945-1963.  O’Brien primarily utilized the History of Atomic Energy Collection and the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers during his one month stay in Corvallis.

As O’Brien noted in his Resident Scholar lecture, 110 million American children passed through elementary school between the years 1945-1963.  And while it is easy to find sources who talk about the experience of kids during that time period, it is much more difficult to find record of actual children’s voices.  Much of the cultural history written about the Cold War period focuses on the experience of families, and especially of mothers.  But primary source documentation of the era as expressed by children during the time, while growing, remains exceptionally scarce.

The era did, however, produce a great quantity of ephemera aimed at children.  From toys to books to comics, a great many entities, both public and private, sought to impress upon children the import of their roles and duties amidst the peril of nuclear destruction.

O’Brien argues that many of these cultural relics, while written by adults for children, were actually intended to make more of an impression upon the parents of children.  The famous “duck and cover” civil defense film, for example, while encouraging children to be safe, was also meant to convey to parents the idea that the government was doing something to protect the nation’s youth.

O’Brien also suggests that the cultural ephemera of the atomic age, time and again, sought to impress upon young people the idea that it was their obligation to save the world from nuclear catastrophe.  The methods by which they were to accomplish this feat, however, changed with the evolving political sentiment of the time.  In his examination of both comic books and children’s scientific texts (notably those of Margaret O. Hyde) O’Brien has traced a pronounced change in approach

In 1945 kids are told that you’re going to save the world, and the way that you’re going to save the world is work for world peace and embrace the United Nations.  By 1963 it is your job to save the world, and the way to save the world, for children, stand firm against the Russians, work for world peace by supporting the U.S., and become a scientist.

While highly compelling, comic books are especially problematic to historians in part because it is difficult to chart their actual readership, comics tending to be passed from one child to the next.  What is clear is that many private interests were very intent on using comics to deliver messages about the safety of nuclear energy to children.  General Electric, for example, employed a staff of comic book writers who worked with teachers to produce literature meant for wide dispersal among youngsters. (“Dagwood Splits the Atom,” to name one, enjoyed a print run of some two million copies.  It was handed out for free to visitors of the General Electric concession at the “Man and the Atom” exhibit in New York’s Central park during the Summer of 1948.)  O’Brien concludes that, in the end, comics do tell us a bit about the experience of children during the atomic era, but also tell us at least as much about what adults thought of children at that time.

O’Brien found Linus and Ava Helen Pauling as fitting in with his larger conception of the debate surrounding children during the nuclear age.  While too far to the left in his politics to ever appear, for example, in Weekly Reader, Linus Pauling involved himself in the debate about children primarily through his wide lecturing on radioactive fallout.  O’Brien cites Pauling’s televised debate versus Edward Teller as a typical example.  In it, Pauling argued

Now there are, every year, 75 million children born in the world. Two percent of these children are seriously deficient because of heredity of bad genes — the bad genes that are in the pool of human germ plasm — partially due to the natural radioactivity and cosmic rays, and now being increased by fallout. The two-percent of 75 million is 1.5 million seriously defective children born each year, with various grave diseases that cause them to die shortly after birth or in early childhood, to have mental deficiency or serious physical defects that makes them suffer all of their lives or live their lives in a mental institution.

Pauling’s rhetoric contributed significantly to an increasingly gruesome debate that was framed in terms of children – a debate that started at the beginning of the atomic era.

Chris O’Brien is the seventh individual to serve as Resident Scholar in the Oregon State University Libraries.  For much more on the program, including past and future participants, please see the Resident Scholar homepage.

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