The Politics of the Atomic Age
Contemporary politics strongly influenced Bradbury’s writing in Fahrenheit 451. The novel first appeared in 1953, just eight years after the conclusion of World War II and the advent of the Cold War. The novel’s historical context can be referred to as the “Atomic Age.” This term designates the period of history that began with the detonation of Trinity, the world’s first nuclear bomb, and the prototype for the bombs that the United States would later drop on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For Bradbury’s contemporary readers, Fahrenheit 451 would have seemed very much a novel of the Atomic Age. Not only are there two atomic wars in the novel’s recent past, but nuclear apocalypse hovers threateningly over all the events, and the novel ends with a devastating atomic blast that reduces the city to ruins. In this sense, Bradbury plays on the popular fears of nuclear war that defined the Atomic Age, and he does so to heighten the reader’s sense that the issues of the novel are very urgent indeed.
In addition to the fear of nuclear war, another contemporary political issue that influenced Fahrenheit 451 emerged from Bradbury’s particular American context. This issue was the widespread anxiety about Communism, known as the Red Scare. By the time Bradbury was writing, the Red Scare had already had a long history in the United States, beginning in the years after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Russian Revolution originated with the Bolsheviks, a political group founded by Vladimir Lenin that dismantled the Czarist autocracy ruling over Russia. The Bolsheviks’ victory gave rise to a new socialist era in Russia, which in 1922 would officially become the Soviet Union. The events of the Russian Revolution provoked anxiety among U.S. politicians. After World War I, U.S. culture had grown increasingly patriotic and conservative, and the resulting anti-radical hysteria provoked fear that revolutionaries might rise in the United States. The Communism associated with the Bolsheviks quickly became associated with a threat to core American values.
New anxiety about Communism flared up again immediately following World War II. In 1947, President Truman authorized the screening of federal employees for any association with Communist organizations. This act created increased suspicion of government workers, and suspicion quickly turned into hysteria. At the forefront of anti-Communist sentiment stood Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy became an influential voice in 1950, when he alleged that Soviet spies and Communist sympathizers had infiltrated all the major political and social institutions of the United States. The hysteria McCarthy fueled gave rise to a countrywide witch hunt where hundreds of American citizens came under aggressive government scrutiny. Although McCarthy’s influence didn’t peak until after his election to the Senate in 1953—the same year as Fahrenheit 451’s publication—the atmosphere of mass suspicion clearly impacted the novel, and particularly Bradbury’s focus on the firemen, who track down and punish anyone hoarding illegal books.