Watch the Nuclear Cartoon That Terrified Children in the ’50s
‘A Short Vision’ traumatized Ed Sullivan’s viewers
by MATTHEW GAULT
Ed Sullivan was a big deal. The old broadcaster ran a variety show on CBS throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s called The Ed Sullivan Show. When Sullivan was on, viewers across the country tuned in. His ratings fluctuated, but Sullivan often pulled 10 to 15 million viewers a night.
For perspective, Game of Thrones averages about five million.
Sullivan was the man who would bring Elvis to Middle America and The Beatles to the world. He was a trusted media personality, and one night in 1956, he abused that trust to scare people about the dangers of atomic war.
On May 20, 1956, the U.S. military successfully detonated an improved hydrogen bomb in Bikini Atoll. The nuclear arms race advanced and America was in the lead. On May 27, Sullivan announced he had a really great cartoon to show his audience.
“Just last week you read about the H-bomb being dropped,” Sullivan said. “I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ’cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated.”
“Two English writers, Joan and Peter Foldes, wrote a thing which they called A Short Vision in which they wondered what might happen to the animal population of the world if an H-bomb were dropped,” Sullivan explained.
“It is grim, but I think we can all stand it to realize that in war there is no winner.”
Sullivan ran the cartoon. It’s just over six minutes long and that was all it took to scar the generation of children already frightened by Duck and Cover.
A Short Vision was the first in a long line of nuclear scare pieces and the foundation on which later artists would build. There’s no The War Game, Threads or The Day After without A Short Vision. It has a special power because of its mythical quality. It a tale of Armageddon written for children.
A Short Vision is simple and powerful. It opens on a window in a home looking out on a city. The camera zooms on the sky. “One night,” the narrator begins. “I looked out the window and saw it approaching from the deep, blind sky.”
A small black dot expands, taking on the shape of a B-52, which then seems to morph into a B-2 stealth bomber. Odd, since the famed plane was still decades away. The animation is strange. It stutters and contorts as if we’re watching an oil painting brought to life.
The black, jet-like object passes over animals in a field. A leopard, deer, rat and owl all hide as if by instinct. The narration and animation both give the film the feel of a child’s storybook or biblical lesson.
The object flies over the city and detonates in the air. “All those who saw it were destroyed,” the narrator explains. Painted faces melt and turn to bone. The skulls turn to ash, leaving a deep black nothingness.
Then the animals melt. The deer and the owl wear shocked expressions of horror as nuclear fire strips away their flesh. “All the people who had not seen it were destroyed too,” the narrator explains while a young woman ages and deteriorates.
In the end, the world is gone, wiped out by nuclear flame. All that remains is the fire and the jet that brought it. The fire then consumes it, leaving only darkness. The narrator gives no reason for the fire, explains no great war and chooses no sides. The story is a fable of ultimate destruction.
It’s a child’s vision of nuclear destruction — a Golden Book for the young survivors of atomic war.
The film traumatized people. It was not the kind of thing Sullivan’s audience expected in 1956. Thanks to the efforts of Ken Sitz and Bill Geerhart at the CONELRAD Adjacent blog, we know just how much A Short Vision affected its audience.
The writers named the blog for the Cold War emergency broadcasting system meant to warn Americans of an impending attack. It describes itself as a website focused on “atomic secrets, missing persons and general Cold War strangeness.”
In 2011, CONELRAD published an extensive history of A Short Vision’s American broadcasts and the subsequent media reaction. It also collects testimony and memories from the people who remembered the strange cartoon. According to the blog, calls poured into Sullivan and CBS after the cartoon aired.
“Shock Wave From A-Bomb Film Rocks Nation’s TV Audience,” the New York Sun declared in a headline. The paper interviewed Sullivan and he told them his audience’s response was mostly positive and frightened. “‘Thanks for having the guts to run it’ or ‘It was a terrifying thing to do.’”
Sullivan decided to run the film again on June 10, so he could horrify those who missed it the first time around.
Papers continued to cover the short film. The Associated Press ran a wire story on May 29 that locals across the country picked up. One opinion piece in the Syracuse Post-Standard captured the mood.
“It should be shown all over the world, particularly in Russia,” the newspaper opined. “It is the best argument for peace at any price that has been presented in a long time.”
“Shocked public reaction was natural, but the impact is more one of grim realization than terror, and one viewer put it precisely when he said it is the best piece of anti-war propaganda ever shown.”
Sullivan was the consummate showman. He knew how to work an audience, market himself and build anticipation. He and CBS heavily promoted the June 10 re-airing of A Short Vision. CBS put ads in newspapers and invited the Navy’s Blue Angels to follow the cartoon.
When the night arrived, a stern Sullivan marched onto the stage holding a newspaper. “Two weeks ago on this program I put on a film — an animated film — about the atom bomb,” he began.
“I’m going to show the film again, but for those of you who have youngsters in your living room, it is a harrowing experience for youngsters, so would you please take them out of the room and just have the older people in the family look at it. I think it’s something the country should know, should see, but the youngsters, that is the little ones, should not be looking at it.”
The film ran and Sullivan immediately interviewed the Blue Angels. It was an odd night of television. Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Time all covered it. Everyone praised Sullivan for airing an unflinching and beautiful warning of atomic war.
A Short Vision had a short theatrical run after airing on The Ed Sullivan Show. It toured film festivals and won awards. The British Film Institute has preserved the film on YouTube. Sullivan stayed on the air until 1971.
The Cold War worsened. Washington and Moscow pursued more advanced nuclear weapons. Bombs gave way to ballistic missiles. The children of the Greatest Generation lived with the constant threat of annihilation.
Both authorities and the media told them that the Soviet Union could attack at any moment. World War III, it seemed, was just around the corner. The belligerents would fight this war with nukes — the most horrifying and destructive weapon yet known.
A Short Vision is so powerful because it renders a child’s conception of that fear — stark, terrifying, simple and with a child’s matter-of-fact depiction of extreme violence.
If any of our readers remember watching the film, I urge them to reach out to CONELRAD and tell their story.