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Philip Wylie's Nuclear Nightmare

The following article was authored and submitted for publication here by Richard L. Kellogg of Alfred.

"It will soon be time for the annual Open House in Rushford (Labor Day weekend) to celebrate the lives of Governor Frank Higgins, Dr. Frederick Ballard, and Philip Gordon Wylie.  Ron Beverly is the current owner of the historic home and delights in sharing its history with guests every fall.  Ron plays the role of Governor Higgins, Jay Ballard becomes Dr. Ballard for the day, and I am pleased to play the part of Philip Wylie.  A good time is had by all and the event honors prominent residents who made notable contributions to the community.

I recently competed an article on author Philip Wylie and his views on nuclear war as expressed in several novels he wrote during the Cold War.  The topic is still timely in terms of the nuclear proliferation and the increase in  international terrorism that we are now experiencing. "

Philip Wylie's Nuclear Nightmare

 

Richard L. Kellogg

 copyright ©2010 by Richard L. Kellogg 

 

            Philip Gordon Wylie achieved fame as one of America’s most prolific and influential writers during the period from the early 1930s to the late 1960s.  Wylie worked as a freelance author/essayist and produced hundreds of novels, short stories, magazine serials, philosophical works, and newspaper columns.  He wrote in such diverse genres as mystery, romance, science fiction, philosophy, and social criticism.  Wylie first gained national attention with Generation of Vipers (1942), a biting and satiric attack on American institutions and values.  His savage criticism of government bureaucracy, the churches, our educational system, the large corporations, and the mass media shocked and infuriated some readers while delighting others.  Wylie was so brash as to question the traditional model of motherhood and introduced the term “Momism” to our language.  Generation of Vipers created a sensation and propelled Wylie into the national spotlight. 

            Unfortunately, many of Wylie’s most provocative and intriguing books are no longer in print.  With the possible exception of his science-fiction titles (Gladiator, When Worlds Collide, and The Disappearance), he has become somewhat of a forgotten author.  Contemporary readers, for example, are unlikely to recall that Wylie was an expert on nuclear energy and wrote extensively about the perils of an atomic war.  His astute observations on the cold war and the atomic age are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. 

            Wylie had the scientific expertise and the literary ability for becoming the chief chronicler of the nuclear era which followed World War II.  Throughout the 1940s, he urged the government to establish an Atomic Energy Commission and to maintain civilian control of atomic energy.  The holder of a “Q” clearance for access to classified information, he served as an advisor to Senator Brien McMahon, Chairman of the Special Committee on Atomic Energy.  Wylie was permitted to observe the atomic bomb tests which were conducted in Nevada.  From 1949 to 1954, he also labored as a special consultant to the Federal Civil Defense Administration. 

            Philip Wylie began making accurate predictions about the forthcoming atomic age in the early 1930s.  His science-fiction classic When Worlds Collide (1932) deals with the use of atomic energy to power a spaceship for a flight from the earth to Bronson Beta.  During the 1940s, Wylie wrote magazine articles which promoted atomic energy as a safe and efficient source of energy.  However, Wylie was a man who loved freedom and hated totalitarianism of any type.  He soon became convinced that the Communist leadership was plotting to launch an atomic bombardment against the United States.  Accordingly, he recommended a strengthened system of civil defense for the country.  This national system would provide citizens with an early warning prior to an attack, fund extensive construction of large air-raid shelters, offer intensive training for police, fire, and medical personnel to deal with emergencies, and develop plans which would facilitate the rapid evacuation of urban populations into rural areas. 

            Wylie felt it was his patriotic duty as a citizen to prepare and alert his readers about the eminent possibility of a nuclear war between the two superpowers.  Published in 1954, Tomorrow! was his first novel to deal specifically with the realities of nuclear warfare.  The book is propagandist in that it promotes a strong system of civil defense and also details the chilling prospect of atomic devastation.  In the story, Wylie contrasts the effects of an attack on two neighboring cities in the Midwest.  River City is totally unprepared for the attack and has denied the possibility of a nuclear war.  Green Prairie, on the other hand, has a well-organized structure for civil defense which is efficient and ready for any emergency. 

            In Tomorrow!, the Russians launch a nuclear attack on the United States just prior to the Christmas season of 1961.  The residents of Green Prairie remain calm and brave in dealing with the crisis.  Citizens of River City, by comparison, panic and become part of angry, chaotic mobs.  During the war, large cities such as New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington are completely destroyed and over twenty million Americans are killed or injured. 

            Wylie provides his readers with brutal and horrific portrayals of atomic death which have never been equaled.   He describes people being torn apart by flying glass and metal, being roasted alive, and being totally disintegrated by the force of the blast.  A particularly gruesome scene depicts a man who makes a clicking sound as he runs down the street.  The man is fleeing on the stubs of his shinbones, his feet having been obliterated by the tremendous force of the explosion. 

            The novel concludes with the Americans detonating a huge bomb contained within the submarine Nautilus.  Russia is destroyed and the last world war is finished.  The major theme of the story is that nations must have an effective civil defense organization to have any chance of surviving a nuclear war. 

            Triumph (1963) was written by Wylie a decade later but his message is even darker and more pessimistic than in the previous book.  This techno-thriller is set in the early 1970s on the final Friday in July.  Russia initiates a massive nuclear attack against the United States.  A small band of men and women survive the attack by retreating to an underground bomb shelter on the property of a millionaire exporter in Connecticut.  During the ensuing war, the two nations continue fighting until both are completely destroyed.  The countries of China, Britain, and France are also hit by Russian missiles.  Before the Russians are hit and wiped out by American missile submarines, they release three-hundred cobalt bombs which render the Northern hemisphere uninhabitable for generations to come. 

            After two years of living underground, the thirteen Americans who survived in the subterranean shelter are airlifted by a helicopter to an Australian naval vessel.  Upon their departure, the author notes wryly that “when they had gone, the place would have no name.” 

            In Triumph, as in Tomorrow!, Wylie provides painfully graphic descriptions of the terrible carnage caused by exploding nuclear weapons.  The tragic implication is that no nation at war can really be victorious when thermonuclear devices are employed.  

            Is it possible for man to avoid a third world war in which nuclear weapons are used?  Philip Wylie provides a tentative response to that query in his novelette titled The Answer (1955).  This atomic allegory, which appeared originally in the Saturday Evening Post, received complementary comments from such prominent Americans as Bernard Baruch, Milton Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Norman Vincent Peale. 

            The Answer involves the accidental killing of an angel during an American nuclear test in the Pacific.  A short time later, the Russians bring down a second angel while conducting their own bomb test.  This angel is shot to death and the remains are destroyed upon the order of the Russian premier.  The Russian leaders fear that the existence of an angel might result in a religious revival and a subsequent revolution against the Communist government.  An investigation of the bizarre events by an American general reveals that both angels were attempting to deliver a golden book of wisdom to the people on earth.  The message within this book, inscribed in all languages, is simply “Love one another.”

             Philip Wylie, the prophet of the atomic era, died in Miami on October 25, 1971.  He did not live to experience the global atomic holocaust which he had written about and worried about for much of his adult life.  Surprisingly, most Americans today do not seem as concerned about nuclear weapons as they were prior to the end of the cold war.  Those with a psychoanalytic bent might suggest that the defense mechanisms of denial and repression keep thoughts of an atomic calamity below the level of consciousness. 

            However, one can build a strong case that nuclear proliferation and the rise of international terrorism have made the risk of nuclear disaster greater today than it was during Wylie’s era.  There are tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world and additional nations are attempting to develop nuclear capabilities.  Are we sure that the mad tyrants of the twentieth century - the Hitlers and the Stalins - are relics of the past whose likes will not be seen again?  The future may bring a nuclear confrontation to the human race. 

            We desperately need a modern-day Philip Wylie to awaken the nation about the likely causes and the terrible consequences of nuclear war.  It is now the proper time to reprint both Tomorrow! and Triumph.  These powerful books should be required reading for government leaders all around the world. 

            There is no question but that Philip Wylie, an intelligent and sensitive man, was dedicated to informing the American public about the awesome and dreadful potential of nuclear weaponry.  As he suggests wisely in The Answer, it is crucial that political and spiritual leaders around the globe stop inciting hatred and violence toward others.  At the least, their basic message to followers should be the noble command of “Love one another.”  We can all hope and pray that Philip Wylie’s nuclear nightmare, which terrified and plagued him for four decades, can still be avoided. 

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