It was an era more than half our population knows only through history. It was an era in which the United States went from being the only nation possessing nuclear weapons to facing the reality that the "Godless Commies" also had them. It was an era in which the Cold War blossomed, together with fear that it could well turn into a hot — and radioactive — one.
Philip Wylie's 1954 novel Tomorrow! takes us inside that time, not only into the fears that existed but the debates over defense strategy and the need for and efficacy of the Civil Defense program. The book, re-released this month by Bison Books as part of its "Beyond Armageddon" series, can't help but show it's age, especially with references to "colored people" or using a worse epithet for the name of one area. Yet what is anachronistic today makes the era more real.
Wylie tells his story by way of two large cities on the Great Plains divided by a river and a state line. One, Green Prairie, is the exemplar of preparedness, with an active Civil Defense program. River City is the antithesis, abandoning any organized Civil Defense program. As such, Wylie can play out a debate over the value of Civil Defense in the face of nuclear weapons. Tomorrow! leaves no doubt which side Wylie is on. Still, that message does not mean his characters are simply unadorned storytelling devices. In fact, the potential future he envisions ("X-Day") does not arrive until well more than halfway through the book. (Wylie's 1963 novel, Triumph, dealt exclusively with a group of survivors of a nuclear World War III.)
Wylie builds the story largely on the interplay of three families. Except for the youngest daughter, the entire Conner family is actively involved in Green Prairie's Civil Defense program and eldest son, Chuck, is a lieutenant in military intelligence. Social status is the primary concern of their next door neighbors, the Baileys. Mrs. Bailey dreams of marrying her daughter Lenore, Chuck's longtime girlfriend, to Kit Sloan, the scion of the richest family in the two cities. While Lenore is active in Civil Defense, Mrs. Sloan is infuriated by the inconveniences caused by Green Prairie's Civil Defense drills and embarks on a campaign critical of the program. Not only is the Civil Defense debate played out within these broad outlines but so are other aspects of real life, be it human weakness or loyalty to others or oneself.
Although Wylie is an advocate of a Civil Defense program, he also recognizes there is no precedent for and no way to predict human response to a nuclear attack. He would, in fact, raise that very issue in a review of three disaster studies in the December 1956 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In fact, Tomorrow! doesn't fit firmly into a particular political ideology. It also takes on the dangers of McCarthyism and how casting things as either American or un-American is not only counter to the nation's founding principles but weakens national security.
Some of the issues Tomorrow! raises persist. For example, the book indicates that by taking proper measures a nuclear war is survivable. That thought still raises hackles for essentially saying nuclear war is "winnable." Meanwhile, the Civil Defense debate has a few echoes in today's Department of Homeland Security and an era in which nation-states do not alone pose cognizable threats.
That doesn't make Tomorrow! prescient or predictive. In fact, one could debate whether it succeeded as a cautionary tale in 1950s America. Yet that is irrelevant to the fact the the book immerses today's reader in an era in a way no nonfiction work could.