In the 1950s and early 1960s, Las Vegas hotels would host ‘atomic cocktail parties’ where guests on rooftop hotel bars could witness test explosions in the nearby Nevada nuclear test sites some 50 miles away.
Sin City became known as ‘Atomic City’, a place where tourists could gawp at a real nuclear fireworks show and enjoy apocalyptic parties.
As the bombs exploded, so did the Las Vegas economy.
The test site brought federal funding and jobs. From 1950 to 1960 the population of Las Vegas doubled. By the end of the decade the mushroom cloud symbol was used on billboards, casino marquees, advertisements, and even the cover of the Las Vegas High School yearbook. In the 1970s, the population doubled again, prompting casino owner Benny Binion to declare,
The best thing to happen to Vegas was the Atomic Bomb.National Endowment for the Humanities
After 900 explosions the nuclear test-ban treaty put an end to the most bizarre tourist spectacle in recent history. We have not always been so frightened of the scintillating atom – even when we have had very good reason to be.
The use of atomic weapons at the end of World War Two and subsequent weapons testing above, and the Cuban Missile crisis created a visceral legacy of fear around nuclear. As risk expert, David Ropeik wrote for Scientific American:
Such tangible at-any-moment existential fear can burn deeply into anyone’s mind, especially the mind of impressionable adolescents, as many baby boomers were back then. So it’s not surprising how far reaching and long lasting the effects of those Cold War fears have been. Fear of atomic weapons and nuclear fallout helped carve the dread of cancer deep into our hearts, and they put a man on the moon. They helped launch environmentalism, and laid the foundations for the anti-Vietnam war movement. They framed the phobia about nuclear power, leading to a coal-based energy policy which has killed hundreds of thousands of people from air pollution and threatens the very climate on which life on earth depends. Nuclear fears even gave birth to the modern skepticism of technology and industry, and of science itself.
The Cold War is no longer the great existentialist threat facing humanity. Today, the great threat is climate change. Ironically, the great power that threatened life in the last century may be our great hope for this century.