H-Diplo Article Review 768 on “Italian Public Opinion in the Atomic Age: Mass-market Magazines Facing Nuclear Issues (1963-1967).”

George Fujii's picture






Article Review

No. 768

17 May 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Laura Ciglioni.  “Italian Public Opinion in the Atomic Age:  Mass-market Magazines Facing Nuclear Issues (1963-1967).”  Cold War History 17:3 (2017):  205-221.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2017.1291633.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR768


Review by Maurizio Zinni, University of Roma Tre



Nuclear issues as tool to decipher the cultural and social history of the Cold War years is a recent field of study in Italy.[1] The main questions in the second half of the last century have some sort of relations with the nuclear issue and with the ambivalent frightening/fascinating feeling about the atom. The nuclear debate is connected with Cold War ideology, the dawn of the new consumerist society and the deep modernization of the lifestyle and self-representation, the diffusion of pacifist movements, the rise of the energy issue and the quest for a new kind of development. Atomic energy, its symbols and its media representations, are a key to understanding Italian political, social and cultural evolution in the years of the so-called economic boom and center-left governments.



In the field of the cultural and social history of the atom,[2] Laura Ciglioni’s research aims to assess the thoughts of Italian public opinion regarding the nuclear issue between the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1967. To achieve this target, the author analyses articles in the most relevant national mass-market magazines chosen on the basis of diffusion and where they fall on the political spectrum.[3] She integrates her research by means of sources in the National Archives. General surveys commissioned by the United States Information Agency on the feelings of Europeans in the 1960s about such strategic political questions as nuclear proliferation, defense policies and NATO appear to be extremely revealing. By means of analyzing these documents, Ciglioni attempts to verify “how atomic issues were represented, and negotiated for a vast public, in the Italian mass media” (206). This research is directly connected with national public debate and its evolution is of great interest in terms of the nuclear issue and changing perspectives on it. 


The author is able to harmonize the political and social dimension of the debate thanks to her examination of different kinds of documents and her critical reading of the sources. Ciglioni knows the commercial nature of the medium. She offers a convincing analysis not only of editorial lines and the political background of these mass-market magazines, but also of formal aspects of the popular press (218).


The essay highlights the relevant place of the nuclear issue in this kind of press, even after the PTBT. Long-term attention to this theme reflects a deep social curiosity about the nuclear issue (206). This is different from what happened at the same time in other countries—in the United States, for example.[4] The author also shows us the coexistence of two different keys to reading the issue. The first is more obvious, connected to the political debate of the time on relevant geopolitical questions (213-217). The second, running below the surface over a longer period, is characterized by a constant fear of the atom in its military role, which was seen as “an unfortunate necessity” (221).


Extremely revealing media coverage of the nuclear issue took place in Italy. It focused on both specific, short-term events, in an international context, and on long term representative stereotypes. These stereotypes arose from old prejudices and general misperceptions of the matter (209). For instance, we can see this approach in the discussion of the Chinese nuclear program and the international role of Chairman Mao Zedong (214), or the impact of French President Charles de Gaulle’s force de frappe on national politics (214), ending with the American project for a Multilateral Force and the “fear” that West Germany might join the nuclear club (215).


The transition from articles on international politics, with serious and scientific (or pseudo-scientific) aims, to “easier,” charming pieces, written to draw the readers’ attention, is tied to the very nature of these magazines (218). In this increased “dramatization” of the nuclear issue the author finds the origins of a process of trivialization capable of palliating “other concerns, even when the bomb was involved” (218). The ambivalence that characterized international debate can be found in Italian mass-market magazines, “which simultaneously present atomic weapons as both objects of ‘history’ […] and as fodder for a good story”, but in a less extreme way, especially if they were referred to the representation of the atomic arsenal (220).


These reflections suggest that “all contributed to a certain degree of trivialization and extenuation which made nuclear issues seem both more entertaining and less threatening” (218-219). This interpretation helps to make clear some important topics of the public debate on the nuclear issue. Seen differently, however, the ‘serialization’ of the nuclear scare and the emergence of a popular culture focused on movies with nuclear themes, sci-fi novels, comics, and so on, was not necessarily a sign of the issue being trivialized. Instead it could be evidence of how deeply rooted the polysemic nature of the atom was in the public sentiment, an illustration of the permeability of the collective consciousness to alarmist sensations provoked by the shadow of atomic annihilation. So the influence of trivialization in public debate is as important as the role of different languages—at the same time social and mediatic—to portray and confront in different ways the nuclear issue and its multiple connections within an Italian political and cultural context.


In conclusion, Ciglioni highlights the characteristics of a multi-stratified mosaic of social interpretation and beliefs about the nuclear issue in a manner new to Italian Cold War history[5]. She focuses more on the political and military aspects of the mediatic coverage than on the civil use of atomic energy. This makes the essay relevant to a variety of fields, not just cultural history. Thanks to the heterogeneous political background of these magazines, the author is able to on the one hand analyse the evolution of the public debate, and on the other, to discuss the positions of different political cultures in facing the international nuclear policy. The atom, with its dichotomy between hope and fear that is typical for this collective narrative, common to Italy and the world at large, becomes a key to defining a new national modernized identity in a developing bipolar scenario.


Dr. Maurizio Zinni teaches History of Jornalism and Mass Communication in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Roma Tre. He is a specialist in the relations between media and history, especially cinema. He is member of Mondo Contemporaneo. Rivista di storia and Cinema e Storia. He is Vice Director of the Laboratory for Historical and Iconographic Research and Documentation of his Department. He has published: Fascisti di celluloide. La memoria del ventennio nel cinema italiano 1945-2000 (Venezia: Marsilio), in 2010 and Schermi radioattivi. L’America, Hollywood e l’incubo nucleare da Hiroshima alla crisi di Cuba (Venezia: Marsilio), in 2013, and several essays in Italian and English on the role of cinema in defining national identity and public imagery. He is currently working on a book project on Italian society facing the nuclear issue between the 1940s and 1950s seen through the lens of popular culture.


© 2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] On the development of historical research on nuclear issues in Italy see Elisabetta Bini and Igor Londero (eds.), “Nuclear Energy in the Twentieth Century: New International Approaches,” Contemporanea 18:4 (2015), 619.

[2] Ciglioni’s cultural perspective refers directly to works like Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear. A History of Images (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1988); Paul S. Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Margot A. Henriksen, Dr. Strangelove’s America. Society and Culture in the Atomic Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Scott C. Zeman and Michael A. Amundson (eds.), Atomic Culture: How We Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2004); Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail. Americans Face the Atomic Age (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

[3] About media and nuclear issue see Dick Van Lente (ed.), The Nuclear Age in Popular Media. A Transnational History, 1945-1965 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[4] Paul S. Boyer, “From Activism to Apathy: The American People and the Nuclear Weapons, 1963-1980,” Journal of American History 70:4 (March 1984): 821-844; Lawrence S. Wittner, Resisting the Bomb. A World of the Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) 447.

[5] See M. De Giuseppe, “Gli italiani e la questione atomica negli anni Cinquanta,” Ricerche di storia politica, 1 (2000), 29-51. More recently L. Ciglioni, M. Zinni, “Il ‘miracolo’ all’ombra della bomba. Media italiani e questione nucleare tra Guerra fredda e boom economico,” Officina della storia 1 (2017); Elisabetta Bini and Igor Londero (eds.), Nuclear Italy. An International History of Italian Nuclear Policies during the Cold War (Trieste: EUT, 2017).