Philip Wylie, 1954

Somewhere in the Midwest are two cities, technically in different states but separated by only a short bridge. River City, in a Northern state, is full of foreigners and Negroes, and doesn't spend any money on Civil Defense. Green Prairie, in a Southern state, is a more genteel place with a military base, and conducts Civil Defense drills on a regular basis. Which will come out better when those no-good Soviets launch a first strike? The fact that the book is "dedicated to the gallant men and women of the Federal Civil Defense Administration and to those other true patriots, the volunteers" is a pretty good clue!

This novel could hardly be more trashy. This is the sort of book in which the love interest is a sassy yet virginal science genius who also happens to be a perky-breasted beauty pageant winner with whom the straight-arrow boy next door went skinny dipping when they were kids. But oh no, her parents are pushing her to marry a callow lothario whose obese mother is the wealthiest woman in town! This is the sort of book in which crusty yet noble newspapermen publish scathing editorials which make the same political arguments as every other sympathetic character in the book. This is the sort of book that says things like, "She was still masticating when her mother and older brother, having dispatched the paterfamilias, returned to the table."

And yet I read 300 of its 372 pages in one long tear. It is a fascinating historical document. I read this book on the basis of a brief mention in the course reader for that apocalypse class that just wrapped up; little did I know that it explicitly sets forth all of the subtext that the professor painstakingly teased out of the books that were actually on the syllabus.

Also, hey, sassy yet virginal science genius who also happens to be a perky-breasted beauty pageant winner who likes skinny dipping.

Tomorrow! is largely a political screed, but it sounds very weird today because the constellations in American politics have shifted since 1954. Wylie's narrator and sympathetic characters are all for greater racial equality and increased federal spending. Wylie is incensed that Eisenhower suggested that atheists can't be good Americans and despises Eisenhower's fellow Republican, Joseph McCarthy. Why the animus against McCarthy? Partly because of concern about civil liberties and intellectual freedom, sure. But mainly because McCarthy was a distraction:

If the McCarthys should remove from U.S.A. every single Communist and Communist suspect, the present danger to us all — so clear, so terrible — would not be measurably alleviated. [...] America would be Communist-free, spy-free, to be sure. But half a billion people elsewhere in the world, Communists all or slaves of Communists, would still be undeterred and laboring day and night to destroy liberty on earth and the United States in particular. We would have killed a few gnats and let fatal hemorrhage run unchecked. That is the measure of the cosmic unimportance of the Senator from our sister state. And that is the measure of the foolishness of those who hold the credulous notion that the McCarthys are accomplishing work of primary importance in the matter of our imminent doom.

Wylie hates Republicans, all right — because they're soft on Commies. Even with the Cold War well underway, Republicans were associated with isolationism. Stupid Republicans! Harassing a few college professors and movie directors while the Russians stockpile weapons of mass destruction! Now FDR, he knew what to do! You see threats to liberty out there, you declare war! Here we've been dinking around in Korea... we should be massing troops around Moscow! And Peking, just for good measure! "America had — and missed — its only golden chance. If, in 1945, or 1946, or even 1947, the American people had seen the clear meaning of liberty, there would have been no war and there would be no danger now. [...] Russia's Iron Curtain would have been seen as what it was and is and always will be: a posture of intolerable aggression against American freedom." Wylie goes on in this vein for a while. "America then was the earth's most powerful nation, Russia was devastated." If only Americans hadn't been so weak that they stopped WWII after defeating Germany and Japan. We could have kept rolling and made it three-for-three. "We didn't face the issue when the Kremlin's bombs were scarce and weak." Now they have a stockpile, so there's going to be a nuclear war. And we'd better get ready to win.

That's Tomorrow!'s message in a nutshell: America, get ready to win the nuclear war. That means sparing no expense to build shelters, educating the public (and if a few kids get scared, boo hoo — Wylie returns to this point over and over), giving everyone a role in Civil Defense... oh yeah, and pre-emptively abandoning all the cities. Wylie hates cities: they're easy targets. Decentralize! Decentralize! On this point, if no other, he would have been pleased by how things turned out. When he writes about his dream cities of the future—

"Semidecentralized," they called it, and "horizontal expansion." It replaced the vertical growth of the skyscraper age which had let fumed air, heat and darkness and slums accumulate in its canyons.
         These buildings took more room, but as architects like Charles had argued— why not? There was plenty of room for them in the prairies. They left plenty of room, too, room for broad streets with underpasses at intersections, room for vast parking areas, room for gardens, for parks, for picnic grounds right in the center of the city, room for swimming pools and dance floors and everything else that added to life's enjoyment.

—he could easily be talking about the place I grew up. I guess they weren't really thinking about Peak Oil in 1954. But they probably should have been thinking about smog. And freeway traffic— ah, but that's the great thing about nuclear war. When it comes to getting cars off the road, it sure beats carpooling.

An overarching theme of the apocalypse class was that American thinking about nuclear war was heavily influenced by the Book of Revelation. See, for all the gruesome stuff in Revelation, it's supposed to be a happy story. Yes, the oceans turn to blood and all that, but for the saved, history is finished and the earth has become a heaven forever. Nowhere have I seen this played out more explicitly than in Tomorrow! For at the end of the book, Wylie has America respond to being nuked by setting off its secret planet-buster bomb that vaporizes northern Asia. (And Finland. Sorry, Finns!) The last scrap of the Soviet Union, down in Tbilisi (or as the book calls it, Tiflis), surrenders. And then? "The last war was finished. The last great obstacle to freedom had been removed from the human path." Every single member of the main family survives, right down to the housecat (who has kittens). Okay, yeah, but what about all those bombed cities? "Those that had been bombed provided people with a surge of exhilaration, for the bombing had proved an ultimate blessing by furnishing a brand-new chance to build a world brand-new — and infinitely better." And as for the future:

         Then the Bomb would be no catastrophe at all, but pure benefit. "End of an era," they would say. "Good thing, too," they'd add. "Can't imagine how they stood those old cities," they'd assert. "Barbaric." "Positively medieval."

Wylie goes on to wax poetic about how today the ruins of Pompeii are "an excitement" from which no one comes away with "a sense of melancholy." "So it would be here" in America after the nuclear war. "So it should be." And why? "Everywhere catastrophe had struck, something other than rank weeds grew in the ash, the crumpled walls: opportunity." Man, and to think that we're stuck in this stupid un-nuked world, with a Finland and everything.

As for the sassy yet virginal science genius who also happens to be a perky-breasted beauty pageant winner who likes skinny dipping, well, naturally in the epilogue she's married to the straight-arrow boy next door, and pregnant. But what about the radiation that's led to a 25% infant mortality rate? "Not too terrible," she chirps. "Just means I might have to have four, for every three we keep." Sassy!

Return to the Calendar page!