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‘The monster’? The British popular press and nuclear culture, 1945–early 1960s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 January 2013

Department of History, University of Sheffield, Jessop West, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield, S3 7RA. Email:


British popular newspapers were fascinated by the terrible power of the nuclear bomb, and they devoted countless articles, editorials and cartoons to it. In so doing, they played a significant role in shaping the nuclear culture of the post-war period. Yet scholars have given little sustained attention to this rich seam of material. This article makes a contribution to remedying this major gap by offering an overview of the coverage of nuclear weaponry in the two most popular newspapers in Britain, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror, in the period from 1945 to the early 1960s. Although both papers supported British possession of the bomb, claiming that it was essential for the maintenance of great-power status, their reporting was more complex and critical than the existing scholarship has tended to assume. This article argues that sceptical voices in the press often disrupted official narratives and that journalists emphasized the potential dangers involved in the nuclear arms race. Newspapers frequently highlighted, rather than downplayed, the horrors of the bomb: it was repeatedly portrayed as a ‘monster’ threatening the world.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2013

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1 Daily Express, 7 August 1945, pp. 1, 4.

2 On the coverage in the United States and elsewhere see Boyer, Paul, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, New York: Pantheon Book, 1985Google Scholar, Chapter 1.

3 Boyer, op. cit. (2), p. 22.

4 Seymour-Ure, Colin, The British Press and Broadcasting since 1945, 2nd edn, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, pp. 1620Google Scholar; Wadsworth, A.P., ‘Newspaper circulations 1800–1954’, Manchester Statistical Society Transactions, 4, Session 1954–55, pp. 2430Google Scholar; Tunstall, Jeremy, Newspaper Power: The New National Press in Britain, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996Google Scholar, Chapter 3; Williams, Francis, Dangerous Estate: The Anatomy of Newspapers, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1958, pp. 12Google Scholar.

5 On the significance of the press in British culture see Bingham, Adrian, Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press, 1918–78, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 1528CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a useful summary of agenda-setting and interpretative frameworks see McCullagh, Ciaran, Media Power: A Sociological Introduction, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 For an overview of broadcasting in this period see Crisell, Andrew, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 2002Google Scholar, Chapters 4–6.

7 Notable exceptions to this include Aubrey, Crispin (ed.), Nukespeak: The Media and the Bomb, London: Comedia Publishing Group, 1982Google Scholar; Alan Foster, ‘The British press and the coming of the Cold War’, in Anne Deighton (ed.), Britain and the First Cold War, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990, pp. 11–31; Shaw, Tony, ‘The British popular press and the early Cold War’, History (1998) 83, pp. 6685CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jenks, John, British Propaganda and News Media in the Cold War, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Salisbury, Peter, ‘Giles's Cold War: how Fleet Street's favourite cartoonist saw the conflict’, Media History (2006) 12, pp. 157175CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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10 Cockerell, Michael, Hennessy, Peter and Walker, David, Sources Close to the Prime Minister: Inside the Hidden World of the News Manipulators, London: Macmillan, 1984, pp. 9596Google Scholar.

11 Paul Chilton, ‘Nukespeak: nuclear language, culture and propaganda’, in Aubrey, op. cit. (7), p. 96. For a similar reading in an American context see Hilgartner, Stephen, Bell, Richard C. and O'Connor, Rory, Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Visions, and Mindset, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1982Google Scholar.

12 Chilton, op. cit. (11), pp. 94–112, 96–101.

13 Knightley, Philip, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to the Falklands: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker, London: Pan Books, 1989Google Scholar; Taylor, Philip M., British Propaganda in the 20th Century: Selling Democracy, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999Google Scholar; Jenks, op. cit. (7); Stephen Dorril, ‘The Secret Intelligence Service and journalists during the Cold War’, unpublished paper delivered to Journalism and History: Dialogues conference, University of Sheffield, 15 September 2010.

14 Chilton, op. cit. (11), p. 99.

15 Daily Mirror, 9 August 1945, p. 1.

16 Daily Express, 23 August 1945, p. 2.

17 Boyer, op. cit. (2), p. 187; Knightley, op. cit. (13), pp. 301–302.

18 Daily Express, 5 September 1945, p. 1.

19 Daily Express, 5 September 1945, p. 1.

20 On Cameron see Cameron, James, Points of Departure: An Experiment in Biography, London: Arthur Barker, 1967Google Scholar; Griffiths, Dennis (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the British Press 1422–1992, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992, pp. 140141Google Scholar.

21 Daily Express, 23 September 1946, p. 4.

22 Daily Express, 25 September 1946, p. 4.

23 Daily Express, 27 September 1946, p. 4.

24 Cameron resigned from the Beaverbrook press in 1950 when the Evening Standard (unjustifiably) accused John Strachey, the minister of defence, of having connections with the ‘atom spy’ Klaus Fuchs; see Greenslade, op. cit. (8), p. 49. On Pincher see Chapman Pincher, ‘Reflections on a lifetime of reporting on intelligence affairs’, in Robert Dover and Michael Goodman (eds.), Spinning Intelligence: Why Intelligence Needs the Media, Why the Media Needs Intelligence, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, pp. 149–164.

25 On Cassandra see Connor, Robert, Cassandra: Reflections in a Mirror, London: Cassell, 1969Google Scholar.

26 Daily Mirror, 28 September 1946, p. 4.

27 John Hersey's account was published in the New Yorker on 31 August 1946, and subsequently published in the UK by Penguin Books: Hersey, John, Hiroshima, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946, pp. vixGoogle Scholar; see also Boyer, op. cit. (2), pp. 203–210; Daily Mirror, 5 October 1946, p. 4; 23 November 1946, p. 4; 18 January 1947, p. 4.

28 Daily Mirror, 18 January 1947, p. 4.

29 Daily Mirror, 6 April 1954, p. 9.

30 Griffiths, op. cit. (20), p. 167.

31 On this aspect of popular journalism see Bingham, Adrian, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-war Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004Google Scholar, Chapter 1.

32 For example, Daily Express, 7 August 1945, p. 1; 8 August 1945, pp. 1–2.

33 Daily Express, 23 August 1945, p. 2.

34 Daily Express, 17 September 1952, p. 1.

35 Daily Mirror, 18 January 1955, p. 8.

36 Daily Express, 2 April 1954, pp. 1–2.

37 Daily Mirror, 2 April 1954, pp. 1, 8–9, 16.

38 Freedman, Lawrence, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 3rd edn, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2003CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Section 2.

39 Daily Express, 18 February 1946, p. 1; Daily Mirror, 5 March 1946, p. 1.

40 For example, Daily Express, 2 March 1950, p. 1; 3 March 1950, p. 1; 21 October 1950, p. 1; 24 October 1950, p. 1; Daily Mirror, 2 March 1950, p. 1; 21 October 1950, p. 1. For details on these various spy scandals see Andrew, Christopher, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, London: Penguin, 2010Google Scholar, Section D; on Pontecorvo see Turchetti, Simone, ‘Atomic secrets and governmental lies: nuclear science, politics and security in the Pontecorvo case’, BJHS (2003) 36, pp. 389415CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Daily Express, 2 March 1950, p. 1.

42 Hennessy, Peter, The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War, London: Penguin, 2002, p. 33Google Scholar.

43 On the news values of the popular press, and the fascination with human interest and private life, see Bingham, op. cit. (5).

44 Daily Mirror, 2 March 1950, p. 1.

45 Daily Express, 6 November 1950, p. 4.

46 Turchetti, op. cit. (40), pp. 409–411.

47 See Andrew, op. cit. (40).

48 Daily Express, 24 October 1950, p. 4.

49 Daily Express, 13 May 1950, p. 1; 25 May 1950, p. 4.

50 Daily Express, 1 December 1950, p. 1.

51 Daily Express, 14 March 1955, pp. 1, 4.

52 Divine, Robert, Blowing on the Wind: The Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1954–1960, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978Google Scholar.

53 Daily Express, 25 November 1955, p. 1.

54 Daily Mirror, 9 January 1956, p. 2.

55 On these fears in American culture see Henriksen, Margot, Dr Strangelove's America, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997Google Scholar.

56 Daily Express, 2 December 1958, p. 8.

57 Daily Express, 13 March 1958, p. 5.

58 Daily Express, 4 February 1966, p. 7; 23 January 1968, p. 1; 20 August 1968, p. 1; Daily Mirror, 23 January 1968, p. 1.

59 On this mindset see Hennessy, op. cit. (42), Chapter 2; on the popular press and the creation of a national community see Conboy, Martin, Tabloid Britain: Constructing a Community through Language, London: Routledge, 2006Google Scholar.

60 Daily Express, 11 August 1945, p. 2.

61 Daily Mirror, 4 October 1945, p. 1; see also 5, 6 October 1945, p. 1; Boyer, op. cit. (2), p. 11.

62 Hennessy, op. cit. (42), p. 44.

63 Daily Express, 2 August 1950, p. 4; see also 26 September 1949, p. 4; 19 December 1949, p. 4.

64 Daily Express, 4 October 1952, p. 1.

65 Daily Mirror, 4 October 1952, p. 1.

66 Daily Express, 15 October 1953, p. 4; 27 August 1956, p. 4.

67 Daily Express, 8 October 1956, p. 1; 18 October 1956, p. 11.

68 For example, Daily Express, 25 March 1957, p. 6; 28 March 1957, p. 6.

69 Daily Mirror, 4 March 1958, p. 1.

70 Daily Express, 29 October 1962, p. 8.

71 Daily Express, 10 December 1962, p. 6.

72 Daily Mirror, 18 December 1964, p. 1.

73 Salisbury, op. cit. (7), pp. 166–167.

74 On the close relationship between the BBC and the security establishment see Michael Goodman, ‘British intelligence and British Broadcasting Corporation: portrait of a happy marriage’, in Dover and Goodman, op. cit. (24). Even under the supposedly liberal regime of Hugh Greene, the BBC was famously reluctant to broadcast The War Game, Peter Watkins's 1965 drama-documentary portraying the aftermath of an nuclear strike on Britain. Chapman, James, ‘The BBC and the censorship of The War Game (1965)’, Journal of Contemporary History (2006) 41, pp. 7594CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 Daily Express, 16 July 1952, p. 4.