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Free Study Guide/Summary for On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Free Book Notes
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The following timeline of events precipitating the Cold War and the Atomic Age explain the historical context of the time in which On the Beach was written, as well as why the novel and the movie had such impact:


August 6, 1945: The atomic age begins when the U.S.A. drops an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, ending World War II in the Pacific theatre. There had been a race to develop atomic weapons which accelerated when German scientists working on such development were “liberated”, some to continue in the service of the U.S.’s European ally in the war, Russia and the former Soviet Union, and some to the United States.

1946: Julius Robert Oppenheimer, one of the lead physicists on the top secret Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and later one of the most prominent of a group of scientists who opposed proliferation of nuclear weapons, tells U.S. President Harry Truman (who took sole responsibility for the use of the bomb to end the war), “I have blood on my hands.”

1947: Henry L. Stinson, the United States’ Secretary of War during World War II, and President Truman’s leading adviser on the use of the “A-bomb”, states that the use of the bomb had saved one million human lives.

1948-1949: The Soviet Union builds a plutonium reactor using forced labor by prisoners in a detention camp, and successfully develops a bomb which in the U.S. is called “Joe Number 1” (after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin)

1949: Robert Oppenheimer and other scientists speak out against development of the hydrogen bomb (the “H bomb”). Enrico Fermi and other scientists believe that the H bomb may promote disarmament.

1949: The People’s Republic of China is formed. This is a cause of grave concern in the West, since the leader of the sprawling People’s Republic, Deng Xiaoping, is a Communist, like China’s sprawling neighbor, the Soviet Union. The dictators of both countries believe that Communism, a totalitarian form of government, must be spread through the entire world.

1950-1953: The Korean War, technically designated a “police action” because it is conducted by the United States in conjunction with the United Nations, and has limited rules of engagement, takes place. It is caused by Communist Chinese incursions into northern areas of Korea, resulting in a division of the country into two countries: North Korea, which is Communist, and South Korea, which retains a more representative form of government, as well as a capitalist society, with the help of the U.S.A.

1951: The United States’ Joint Chiefs of Staff order atomic retaliation against 200 Soviet bombers on air bases in Manchuria in the event of a "major attack" against UN forces in Korea. General Douglas MacArthur is fired for hesitating to follow the nuclear attack strategy.

1952: Atomic bomb testing on the Monte Bello Islands of Australia. During the next several years, testing of nuclear weapons is conducted on uninhabited islands of the Pacific and various other locations by the United States, and within its own boundaries by the USSR

1953: Both the USA and the USSR make plans to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)

1954: The U.S. nuclear submarine Nautilus, powered by a pressurized water reactor, is launched

1954: A hydrogen bomb test conducted by the USA on Bikini atoll, near the Marshall Islands, creates a crater 240 feet deep, and 6,000 feet wide. Two weeks later, 23 crew members of a Japanese fishing boat working 100 miles away from Bikini atoll have radiation sickness, and one of them eventually dies of liver cancer.

1955: The United States becomes a signatory to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), obligating itself to help defend the democratic government of South Vietnam against aggression from Vietnamese Communists in control north of the 17th parallel, and allied with Communist China and the USSR. In 1957 the U.S. sends troops to help defend the South Vietnamese government against Communists living in and opposing the democratic government south of the 17th parallel as well. The U.S. involvement in the war continues until 1975, when South Vietnam is lost to the Communists. The USA had joined SEATO because of the domino theory, the fear that Communism would continue to spread, by the aggressive use of force, from China and the USSR throughout all of Asia.

1956-1957 (the year On the Beach was published): Several nuclear accidents occur, including two in England, but there are no known fatalities.

1957: The Soviet Union launches an atomic powered ice breaker ship, Lenin

1957: The “space race” begins with the launching of the USSR’s Sputnik 1, the first man-made craft to clear the earth’s atmosphere into outer space, and Sputnik 2, with a dog, Raika, aboard. This increases anxiety in the West, especially the United States, that the Soviet Union is advancing technologically faster than the U.S., and may be gaining superiority in weapons development, too.

1958: The space race continues as the USA sends its Explorer 1 space capsule, launched by the Jupiter C Rocket, into outer space.

1959: The U.S. nuclear fast attack submarine Scorpion is launched. While unrelated to this story, it is interesting to note that the Scorpion was lost with all hands on May 22, 1968 in more than 10,000 feet of water 400 miles southwest of the Azores in the Atlantic. The ship was lost with two nuclear torpedoes onboard and its nuclear reactor. As a result, radiation monitoring of the site continues to this day. No significant nuclear contamination of the surrounding environment has yet been detected.

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Free Study Guide-On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Book Summary


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