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On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Context


Evolution of the Nuclear Age

On the Beach was published in June 1957. This was 12 years after the United States' first successful testing of an atomic bomb and America's subsequent use of this devastating technology in warfare.

World War II began on September 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland. On October 11, US president Franklin Roosevelt received a letter drafted by a group of physicists and signed by German American physicist Albert Einstein. Several of the physicists had fled the Nazi regime. Their letter warned of Germany's pursuit of a nuclear chain reaction bomb—and the grave dangers this posed. In response Roosevelt approved research that eventually developed into the Manhattan Project. By 1942 this atomic research program had produced a controlled nuclear chain reaction. The next step was to develop a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, the United States had been drawn into the global conflict and was fighting on two fronts: Europe and the Pacific. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese had bombed the US naval fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. They followed the attack with a declaration of war on the United States and Britain. On December 8, the United States proclaimed war on Japan, and three days later Germany declared war on the United States. Roosevelt's response was swift. The United States joined the Allied powers—chiefly Britain and the Soviet Union—to fight the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy.

As the war proceeded, members of the Manhattan Project labored at New Mexico's Los Alamos research center to develop an atomic weapon. That goal was achieved by July 1945. On July 16 project physicists detonated the first prototype atomic bomb in the desert at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The result was unexpectedly and frighteningly spectacular in force and magnitude. The nuclear age had arrived.

President Truman Uses the Bomb

On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt suffered a massive stroke and died, catapulting Vice President Harry S. Truman into the role of president. War on the European front was winding down, and on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally. However, conflict raged on in the Pacific. On June 9, 1945, Japanese prime minister Suzuki Kantarō announced that Japan would never accept unconditional surrender and would fight to the very end.

By this time US military forces had taken back Japanese-held Pacific islands one by one, but with terrible losses on both sides. On March 9, 1945, US forces launched a firebomb attack on Tokyo, Japan, killing a confirmed 105,400 people. The Allied forces planned a mammoth final campaign against Japan: a full-scale invasion of the Japanese islands of Kyushu and Honshu. The American military officers planning this campaign estimated the Allies would suffer 1.7 million to 4 million casualties and projected 5 million to 10 million Japanese deaths.

To avoid the projected slaughter and end the war, Truman authorized bombing two Japanese cities: Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9. The death toll of these events was approximately equal to that of the Tokyo firebombing. However, the devastation inflicted on each city by one plane and one bomb shocked Japan into unconditional surrender.

The Cold War

The carnage in Japan also shocked the world at large. Truman's decision had introduced an unprecedented level of warfare. In the wake of World War II, a new type of conflict was being waged. The main opponents were the United States and the Soviet Union. This Cold War was an ideological conflict, and the weapons employed were economics and propaganda. However, America had the upper hand as long as it alone possessed nuclear capability.

All that changed in 1949. That year the Soviet Union successfully detonated an atomic bomb, and fears associated with nuclear weapons increased. The Soviets were feverishly pursuing missile technology that could deliver a nuclear bomb to another continent, specifically the United States. In response the United States began its own pursuit of a guided long-range, transoceanic missile.

For an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM, to achieve its long-distance goal, it must escape Earth's atmosphere before traveling around the planet to its target. On October 4, 1957, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) shocked Americans with the launch of Sputnik, Earth's first artificial satellite. This event—the birth of the Space Age—also proved that ICBM technology was no longer a theory but a reality. The United States ramped up its testing and research, and Americans more than ever were acutely aware of looming danger.

The Duck-and-Cover Fifties

During these Cold War years, preparedness was encouraged. People built bomb shelters and learned how to furnish them. In schools children were taught how to duck under their desks and cover their heads at the first flash of a nuclear bomb. The federal Civil Defense Administration sponsored ads, pamphlets, and a cartoon titled Duck and Cover to promote awareness. Little was yet generally known about the effects of radiation from a nuclear detonation. Most people worried about the force of the blast, flying debris, and burns.

In popular culture, sci-fi films such as Godzilla (1954) and Them! (1954) featured giant menacing creatures as metaphors for nuclear bombs and their horrific destruction. Between 1948 and 1962, Hollywood produced more than 500 such films, reflecting the public's mixed feelings of awe and terror over the emerging nuclear age. In the real world, atomic scientists monitored civilization's advance toward total devastation, illustrating their findings on a graphic clock called the Doomsday Clock. In 1947 the hands of the clock were set at seven minutes to midnight, with midnight signaling total catastrophe. By 1957 when On the Beach was published, the time was fixed at around two minutes to midnight.

Reception and Relevance

Following its publication, On the Beach immediately struck a chord with the reading public. Nearly 90,000 copies were presold in Britain and Australia. In America the novel was well received by critics and the public, who purchased 100,000 copies in the first six weeks. This landed On the Beach in second place on the New York Times Best Sellers list. The novel was also serialized in 40 American newspapers. Renowned Hollywood director Stanley Kramer quickly purchased rights to On the Beach and adapted it to film. Released in 1959, the movie's stellar cast included actors Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, and Fred Astaire. The film was shot in Melbourne—the main setting for the story.

Both novel and film raised the public's awareness of the invisible, deadly danger of nuclear fallout and its potential effect on weather patterns, the environment, and agriculture as well as the destruction of life. The frightening message inspired antinuclear movements while highlighting the uselessness of bomb shelters, preparedness, and duck-and-cover drills.

Decades later, the relevance of On the Beach endures. At the time of the book's publication, only two superpowers had acquired nuclear bomb technology: the United States and the Soviet Union. That number has since grown to at least nine nations with stockpiles of nuclear weapons. This growth is despite international treaties to halt expansion: the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty and the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In addition, several countries have been suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons technology. The lesson of On the Beach seems to have been forgotten—that nuclear war is a war nobody wins.
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