Column – Nuclear-level tension

Published 4:38 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2023

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The United States continued its development of nuclear power, but it wasn’t the only country to do so. All of the world’s superpowers were testing and developing nuclear technology. 

Some of the United States’ tests included the first test of an atomic device from a balloon and atomic bombs exploded underground.

In July of ’57, scientists unleashed an atomic explosion high over the Nevada desert. The force of the blast — equal to 20,000 tons of TNT — ripped an unmanned Navy blimp from its moorings in the blast area. The explosion was detonated from a balloon tethered 1,500 feet above the test site. This detonation was open to newsmen. The shock wave shook the newsmen and some 500 military observers as it rumbled past with a thunderous roar. 

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Nuclear technology was not limited to weapons. Several innovations were made such as a dime-sized atomic battery that could power equipment. In January 1958, the keel was laid for the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear naval surface ship. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would go on to serve the Navy for more than 55 years. (I had the pleasure of spending four years aboard the carrier and deployed overseas on it twice while in the Navy.)

Scientific advances were not limited to the seas. In late 1957, the world turned its eyes skyward as Russia launched Sputnik 1, followed a few months later with the U.S. launching the Explorer 1 satellite on Feb. 1, 1958. NASA announced mid-1958 plans of putting a man in space within a year.

Not everybody was a fan of space exploration based on one short story. “Barking dog complaints are routine around police headquarters, but a call taken by police secretary Doris Stallings last night was too much. A man phoned to say that a barking dog was disturbing him. ‘Where is this dog?’ asked the secretary. ‘It’s on that new Russian moon,’ the man said and hung up.”

On Sept. 4, 1957, National Guardsmen, following orders of Gov. Orval Faubus, forcibly prevented racial desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. The soldiers turned back a total of nine black students who tried to enter the 2,000-pupil, all-white school. Faubus maintained that the National Guard was not called out Monday night to maintain segregation at the school but only to keep “peace and order.” 

However, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered them to support the integration on Sept. 23, after which they protected the Black students.

Many other school districts fought court battles throughout 1957 related to school desegregation. 

In Virginia, pupil placement forms were required for students to attend schools in 1957. Several cases went to court when parents refused to sign the forms. The State Pupil Placement Act, passed by the special session of the 1956 General Assembly, took the power of assigning pupils to a particular school away from local school authorities and placed it in the hands of a three-man board appointed by the governor. One story about the Pupil Placement Act quoted Judge Hoffman: “Adults fight for principles, and the children suffer.” The Supreme Court later ruled the Pupil Placement Act unconstitutional. 

After 17 Black students were placed in six Norfolk white schools for the 1957-1958 school year, the school board closed those schools. 

State Senator Mills E. Godwin of Suffolk, a staunch supporter of Virginia’s massive resistance program, called for Black leadership to come forward and urge the 17 Black children who had been assigned to white schools in Norfolk to return to their own schools — and thereby permit white schools to re-open for the year.

“There is no statutory or constitutional requirement in Virginia for a public school system to be maintained beyond the elementary level,” he said. Godwin said the school boards may close secondary schools in their districts at will. “These boards have the power to close certain schools and thereby see to it that those who have been responsible for the interruption of public education for white children would receive the same treatment in their own pursuit of a public education,” he said. 

Jen Jaqua is the creative director for the Suffolk News-Herald. She can be contacted at