Written By: Ben Cosgrove

In the spring of 1955, as the Cold War intensified and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated at a shocking pace, America—as it had many times before—detonated an atomic weapon in the Nevada desert. The test was not especially noteworthy. The weapon’s “yield” was not dramatically larger or smaller than that of previous A-bombs: the brighter-than-the-sun flash of light, the mushroom cloud and the staggering power unleashed by the weapon were all byproducts familiar to anyone who had either witnessed or paid attention to coverage of earlier tests.

Here, LIFE.com presents pictures made in the Nevada desert by photographer Loomis Dean shortly after a 1955 atomic bomb test. These are not “political” pictures. They are eerily beautiful, unsettling photographs made at the height of the Cold War, when the destructive power of the detonation was jaw-droppingly huge—although miniscule compared to today’s truly terrifying thermonuclear weapons. As LIFE told its readers in its May 16, 1955, issue (in which some of these photos appeared):

A day after the 44th nuclear test explosion in the U.S. rent the still Nevada air, observers cautiously inspected department store mannequins which were poised disheveled but still haughty on the sand sand in the homes of Yucca Flat. The figures were residents of an entire million-dollar village built to test the effects of an atomic blast on everything from houses to clothes to canned soup.
The condition of the figures—one charred, another only scorched, another almost untouched—showed that the blast, which was equivalent to 35,000 tons of TNT, was discriminating in its effects. As one phase of the atomic test, the village and figures help guide civil defense planning and make clear that even amid atomic holocaust careful planning could save lives.

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

In the test, this scorched mannequin indicated that a human at that distance would be burned but alive.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Burned up except for its face, this mannequin was 7,000 feet from the blast.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

This lady mannequin’s wig was askew though her a light-colored dress was unburned.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Remains of a house [built for the test more than a mile from ground zero] after an atomic bomb test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

This mannequin was in a house 5,500 feet from the bomb blast.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Vehicles lined up far from ground zero before a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Atomic weapon test, Nevada 1955

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE magazine pictures made after an atomic weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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