Time magazine has featured the bomb on its covers regularly over the years, and its cover archives are actually searchable online. Some of them are pretty iconic, others are just plain weird. Below are a few of my favorites, annotated and in chronological order.
First on the list, chronologically and thematically, is the July 1, 1946 issue featuring Albert Einstein (“All matter is speed and flame”) and a mushroom cloud (which is interestingly an amalgam of the Trinity and the Nagasaki clouds) across which, amazingly, “E=mc2” is emblazoned. This is visually fascinating for at least two reasons: 1. Einstein = E=mc2 = the atomic bomb! Has the connection between theoretical physics and nuclear weapons ever been stated in a graphically more oversimplified way? 2. Einstein is wearing a suit! This might not sound very exciting, but consider that in both of Einstein’s two other Time covers from his lifetime (1929, 1938), he was exclusively wearing pajamas. Because that’s what kooky, head-in-the-clouds theoretical physicists do, right? Until the bomb comes along, and then they get serious and put on a tie. (And shortly thereafter, the FBI shows up.)
Next we have our good buddy J. Robert Oppenheimer (“What we don’t understand, we explain to each other”), from November 8, 1948. Here we essentially have the emblematic physicist-of-the-state — a concerned, serious, well-dressed man surrounded by an ocean of equations. The drawing of Oppenheimer (which is on display in the National Portrait Gallery, I can attest) captures his likeness well (compare with this Eisenstaedt photo, which is very similar), and also captures the ice-blue cool of his eyes (something which is not evident in the black and white photos of him, but can be seen in some photos of him when he was elderly). But moreover, it is a stunning contrast to the Oppenheimer depicted in 1954, just after losing his security clearance, who looks drawn and severe. Also note that when Edward Teller got his Time cover, in 1957, the visual scheme was essentially identical. I like to see this parallel as signifying, in a clean, visual way, Oppenheimer’s decline and Teller’s ascent as the model of what it meant to be a “government scientist” in the early Cold War. Both of these covers are framed in my office — the Yin and Yang of the early atomic age.
There are a lot of other “atomic portrait” photos — David Lilienthal (1947) and a flaming electric horse; Gordon Dean (1952) with a mushroom-cloud periodic table; Lewis Strauss (1953) with a searing radioactive sun, Archbishop Bernadin (1982) using his papal powers to bombard you with ICBMs and doves, just to pick a few creative ones — but none of them “do it for me” as much as the Oppenheimer one does.
The cover for the April 12, 1954, issue of Time is easy to underestimate. It’s clearly recognizable as the mushroom cloud from the first hydrogen bomb test, Ivy Mike, from November 1952. But it’s being shown in April 1954, not long after the Castle Bravo testing accident (in which an island of Marshallese and a Japanese fishing boat, along with a considerable amount of fish in the Pacific Ocean, were irradiated). Why didn’t they put this on the cover in 1952? Because the test was secret, and images from it weren’t widely released until April 1954. So even though it was a year and a half late, it still had a lot of symbolic relevance. And notice that Time chose not to depict it in color, but instead went with an austere black, white, and red scheme. (Life magazine also featured an Ivy Mike image on the cover that week, but chose the fireball instead of the cloud.)
I suspect that the cover of the January 30, 1956 issue, showing an anthropomorphic “smart missile” was drawn by the same artist who drew the anthropomorphic Mark III (“Can Man Build a Superman?”) in 1950, which is another one of my favorites. Maybe I just like machines drawn to look like human beings? (Or at least as being chock-a-block with human organs.) But I just find this beautiful, disturbing, and just plain weird.
A cubist drawing of the nuclear arsenal from August 6, 1963, replete with recognizable drawings of the Honest John, Davy Crockett, Polaris, Titan, Lacrosse, Lance, Minuteman, Jupiter, Hound Dog, Sergeant, and Pershing missiles? Yes, please! It’s hard not to make invidious comparisons with today’s Time covers, but really, they are pretty poor compared to this sort of thing.
The March 14, 1969, cover (“The Great Missile Debate”) is another graphically interesting, well-executed design. I love that the missiles are all breaking the standard red frame, as well.
Lastly, I’ll end on the June 3, 1985, “Who has the bomb” cover. It’s not as beautiful as the other ones — I think Time covers really started to go downhill in the 1980s — but for some reason the combination of childlike oil pastels and the representation of proliferation as little nukes growing in the wake of big ones visually appeals to me.