William J. Broad is a science reporter for The New York Times who has written extensively about nuclear weapons.
“IT’S a boy,” Edward Teller exulted after the world’s first hydrogen bomb exploded in 1952 with a force 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
From the start, the nuclear era seethed with sexual allusions. Military officers joked about the phallic symbolism of their big missiles and warheads — and of emasculating the enemy. “Dr. Strangelove” mocked the idea with big cigars and an excited man riding into the thermonuclear sunset with a bomb tucked between his legs.
Helen Caldicott, the antinuclear activist, argued in the 1980s that male insecurity accounted for the cold war’s perilous spiral of arms. Her book? “Missile Envy.”
Today, the psychosexual lens helps explain why North Korea, in addition to dire poverty and other crippling woes, faces international giggles over its inability to “get it up” — a popular turn of phrase among bloggers and some headline writers.
“Things like this never go away,” Spencer R. Weart, an atomic historian and director emeritus of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, said in an interview. “There’s little doubt that missiles are phallic symbols. Everybody agrees on that.”...