The get-to-know: Sarah Robey

Sarah Robey has just recently completed her PhD in American history at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her dissertation, “The Atomic American: Citizenship in a Nuclear State, 1945-1963,” examines the effect of the nuclear threat on American society during the early Cold War. Sarah’s research interests include the history of the early Cold War, nuclear technology, natural and man-made disasters, urban and suburban space, domestic life, and cultural citizenship.

Read more about Sarah on her personal webpage.

The Atomic American: Citizenship in a Nuclear State, 1945-1963

Nuclear weapons technology transformed the meaning of American citizenship in the early Cold War. The nature of nuclear war forced Americans to reconsider the relationship between citizens and the state, raising the question: who was responsible for Americans’ survival? As weapons technologies became more destructive, this civic debate intensified, demanding the involvement of policymakers, scientists, activists, and a surprising number of everyday Americans.

Using a framework I call nuclear citizenship, this dissertation illustrates how knowledge of the nuclear threat led American citizens to reimagine ideas of public safety and democracy. My research thus examines the intersection of federal civil defense policies, popular science, and antinuclear activism, revealing how nuclear weapons opened new avenues for political participation and challenged ideas about democratic practice in the post-World War II era. In other words, the problem of public safety in the Atomic Age gave Americans a new language for discussing rights, responsibilities, civic duty, and the power of the state. Americans, I argue used their understanding of nuclear science and technology as a means for pushing back against the Cold War state. American civilians were active participants in a public dialogue that ultimately came to conclude that nuclear weapons stood in the way of peace, prosperity, and human health.

Scholars frequently examine nuclear history through the lens of classified federal policymaking, military advancements, or elite science. These narratives downplay the economy of nuclear information available to civilians, and the ability of average Americans to understand and act in response to nuclear knowledge. This dissertation reorients the historical understanding of the early nuclear era in the United States by drawing attention to grassroots political engagement with nuclear science and technology. By utilizing a variety of local and federal records, personal correspondence, popular media, and civic group documents, my research gives agency to a range of unconsidered actors. My work thus adds nuance to larger scholarly conversations about the relationship between science, the state, and civilians, and changing currents of political activism in the postwar era.

Conference presentations
“In the Crosshairs, On the Radar, and at Ground Zero: The Nuclear Blast Bullseye as Early Cold War Icon” at the International Symposium on Icons in the United States and Great Britain at the University of Angers in France, 2015.

Disasters and the State at the Biennial Conference of the Urban History Association, October 2014 (organizer): “Civil Defense for Sitting Ducks: Bureaucracy, Inequality, and Local Autonomy in the Atomic Age.”

“Missile Anxiety before Cuba: Reassessing the Cuban Missile Crisis.” SHOT November, 2014

“Access to Survival: Federalism, Race, and Spatial Safety in Early Cold War Civil Defense” at the University of Michigan’s conference: The American Racial State in the Long Twentieth Century (2013).