Nuclear Inequalities in the American Century

Endorsed by the Society for Military History and the Western History Association

Friday, April 3, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Environment; Science and Technology; Social and Cultural


America’s atomic past tells a story of racial and socio-economic inequality. This panel draws our attention to the unequal distribution of risk and opportunity during the Cold War. The promise of national security was paid for by Indigenous Pacific Islanders supposedly under the protection of the United States, by various groups of neglected uranium miners recovering the raw fuel for warheads, and by minority communities who suffered reduced access to government resources which instead funded the production of nuclear weapons. How marginalized populations came to terms with the costs they bore in the name of U.S. national security engendered conversations regarding the state’s public health obligations, the viability of new political coalitions based on race and organized labor, and the legal legitimacy of claims against the U.S. government.

Reflecting the composite approaches that characterize the field of nuclear history, the papers offered in this panel present a cradle to grave analysis of nuclear weapons. Tracking the effects of extraction, testing, and production done through an examination of social movements, an emphasis on environmental factors, and through legal analysis demonstrates how nuclear weapons created an essential shared lived experience for Americans and non-Americans in the 20th century. This shared experience tapped into broader developments in U.S. history; specifically, the bureaucratic growth of the national security state, the development of environmental consciousness and management of the natural world, and the persistent and problematic state of race-relations in American politics and society.

Our panel’s exploration of these themes is rooted in a spatial conception of the Cold War. Office buildings in Washington D.C. and palaces in Moscow, the front lines in Europe, or peripheral conflicts in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin and South America have consumed the attention of scholars of the global Cold War. We bring attention to the overlooked costs of the Cold War to various geographies of the United States: urban, underground, and extraterritorial. Our findings indicate that nuclear weapons are a pervasive agent of historical change in U.S. history, producing at the same time both the perception of national security vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and the reality of national insecurity within the spaces that Americans lived.

Papers Presented

Inequality and Uranium Extraction: U.S., Canadian, and Soviet Uranium Miners during the Cold War

During the Cold War, the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union extracted vast amounts of uranium to supply their nuclear programs. Policy makers and scientists made discoveries and decisions about nuclear technology and weapons stockpiles, but their plans necessitated a material base. Their strategies relied on the work of thousands of miners and the amount of uranium they could carve from the ground. The decisions made in centers of power profoundly affected miners’ bodies and mining landscapes around the world. This paper will address the people and places that made high-level choices and actions about nuclear technology possible. It will examine comparatively the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic makeup of miners who worked in three mining regions, one each in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union: Grants, New Mexico; Elliot Lake, Ontario; and Krasnokamensk, Transbaikal krai. It will explore who the uranium miners were, where they came from, and the similarities and differences they shared. In addition, it will include a discussion of the transnational indigenous experience of uranium mining, looking at how the Navajo relationship with uranium production in New Mexico compared to the experiences of the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario and the Buryats in Transbaikal region. It will argue that all uranium miners had a shared experience of certain consequences of uranium mining during the Cold War but that certain groups shouldered a disproportionate amount of the long-term effects.

Presented By
Robynne Mellor, Georgetown University

Race, Labour, and the U.S. Nuclear Economy of the 1980s

“No other peace group in history has had the advantage of working for an issue that can potentially unite us all,” observed Freeze minority coordinator Patricia Williams in the summer of 1983. Her optimism reflected the uptick in cooperation between the Freeze movement, the largest antinuclear group in the United States, and civil rights leadership who identified antinuclear sentiment as a vital ingredient in the “New Coalition of Conscious.” Collaboration between the antinuclear and civil rights movements made up the moral core of the “New Coalition of Conscious,” which keyed the success of the twentieth-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The name of the commemorative demonstration reflected the emergence of this new coalition, and the March on Washington for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom in August 1983 exceeded the size of the original event. In highlighting events such as this 20th anniversary celebration, this paper examines how the antinuclear movement appealed to minority communities by illuminating how the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal distorted the national economy and curtailed job opportunities and access to government resources. I argue that in prioritizing the connection between race, labor, and peace the partnership between the antinuclear movement and civil rights leaders contributed to the foundation of modern progressivism in age dominated by Ronald Reagan and the New Right.

Presented By
Anthony M. Eames, Georgetown University

Crafting a Nuclear Empire: The Making of the U.S. Pacific Proving Grounds

Throughout the Cold War, colonies became preferred sites of nuclear weapons experimentation. The United States initiated this trend when it began testing weapons offshore in the Marshall Islands where, between 1946 and 1958, it detonated 67 of its largest nuclear bombs. As historians of science and technology have begun to explore, American researchers engaged not only in weapons research but also in biomedical, environmental, and anthropological inquiry facilitated by these destructive tests. Equally as important to nuclear testing, however, were U.S. legal experiments with new territorial forms in Oceania. This paper traces how nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands entangled with the United States’ creation and maintenance of a sui generis territorial entity—a United Nations (UN) strategic trusteeship over which the United States exercised near-exclusive control. Drawing on archival research in U.S. military, Atomic Energy Commission, Department of State, and Department of Interior records, the paper demonstrates how the creation and maintenance of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands both grew out of and justified experiments with nuclear armaments. Simultaneously, it explores how this novel, international territorial status strictly limited the legal rights of islanders and their allies to object to the appropriation and use of indigenous lands, waters, communities, and bodies for scientific experimentation. As fallout from nuclear tests ranged worldwide, the United States’ territorial experiment contained indigenous discontent offshore.

Presented By
Mary X. Mitchell, Purdue University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kate Brown, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Kate Brown is a Professor of History at UMBC. She is the author of A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Harvard 2004) which won a handful of prizes including the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize for the Best Book in International European History. Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters appeared in 2013 with Oxford University Press. Plutopia won the the 2014 George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH), the 2014 Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the 2014 Heldt Prize from the Association for Women in Slavic Studies, the Wayne S. Vucinich 2014 Book Prize of the Association for Slavic Studies, East European, and Eurasian Studies, the 2014 Robert G. Athearn Prize from the Western History Association, the 2014 Albert J. Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association (AHA), and the 2015 John H. Dunning Prize also from the AHA, for the best book in American history in the last two years. Brown’s newest book, a collection of essays, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015. It explores place and the construction of space as a springboard for histories of communities and territories which have been silenced or destroyed. She is currently finishing a book, A Manual for Survival, on the environmental and medical consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, to be published by Norton in 2019.

Brown has published articles in the American Historical Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, Harper’s on-line edition, Kritika, Aeon Magazine, Slate Magazine and the Times Literary Supplement. She is a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, and has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, the National Council for East European and Eurasian Research, the International Research and Exchange Board, the Eurasia Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, Harvard University’s Davis Center, UMBC’s Dresher Center and the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC. She won the 2015 Univ. of Maryland Regents’ Award for Excellence in Research. Dr. Brown was a fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, in fall 2016 and in spring 2017 she held the Berlin Prize at The American Academy in Berlin. She was the recipient of a 2016-2017 Carnegie Foundation Fellowship.

Presenter: Anthony M. Eames, Georgetown University
Anthony Eames earned his MA in global history from King’s College London and Georgetown University. He is now a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Georgetown where he specializes in nuclear history, scientific activism, and Anglo-American diplomacy in the late Cold War. The American Institute of Physics and the Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Foundation are among the organizations that supported research in American and British archives for his manuscript, Morally Assured Destruction: The United States, the United Kingdom, and the End of the Cold War. This project explores how debates about nuclear weapons in the U.S. and U.K. reflected and produced divergent moral values for conservatives, liberals, and radicals on boths sides of the Atlantic. In tracing the moral evolution of Anglo-American society at the end of the Cold War, Morally Assured Destruction offers new insight into how nuclear weapons affected political party dynamics and structure, local-national government relationships, the creation of new political elites and coalitions, and ideological polarization during the era of Cold War nuclear arms control.

Eames’ articles have recently appeared in the Journal of Military History, War on The Rocks, Mediterranean Quarterly and several other publications. He has spoken on antinuclear activism, nuclear sharing arrangements, proliferation concepts, and many more nuclear issues at events hosted by the American Historical Association, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the History of Science Society, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and by many other organizations. He and his colleague Sarah Robey are currently producing a Carnegie Foundation funded-podcast entitled Duck and Cover on the history of civil defense for the project “Reinventing Civil Defense.”

Presenter: Robynne Mellor, Georgetown University
Robynne Mellor earned her PhD in history at Georgetown University in 2018. Her research focuses on the interactions among environments, human bodies, uranium, and Cold War diplomacy. Her dissertation, “The Cold War Underground: An Environmental History of Uranium Mining in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union, 1945-1991,” comparatively examines the ways in which access to uranium impeded and facilitated certain strategic maneuvers, as well as the ways that these diplomatic choices shaped landscapes and bodies in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union. This project incorporates research from a dozen archives from various locations in the United States, Canada, and Russia, which the Social Science Research Council, Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and American Society for Environmental History supported.

Mellor has published a book chapter, “A Comparative Case Study of Uranium Mine and Mill Tailings Regulation in Canada and the United States” in the book Mining North America (University of California Press 2017). She has several online publications and has participated in podcasts for the Network in Canadian History and Environment and Historical Climatology websites. Her online work focuses particularly on making the legacies of uranium mining understandable and accessible for those living in communities that once produced uranium, as well as emphasizing the importance of the front-end of the nuclear cycle when considering the environmental and health risks of nuclear technology. Mellor has spoken about her work to various interdisciplinary audiences in the United States, Canada, Ukraine, and Italy. She is currently working on turning her dissertation into a book manuscript for publication.

Presenter: Mary X. Mitchell, Purdue University
Mary X. Mitchell, JD, PhD is a lawyer and historian of science and technology. She is an assistant professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Radiological and Nuclear Security. In Spring of 2020, she will be a faculty fellow at Princeton University’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center for its theme of “law and legalities”. Mitchell served as an Atkinson Fellow in Sustainability at Cornell University from 2016-2018. She earned her PhD in history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. Before beginning graduate study, she earned her JD and law license, worked in intellectual property law and management, and served as a law clerk to Judge Anthony J. Scirica of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Mitchell’s research focuses on the intersections between nuclear science and technology and law and social movements. She is currently working on a book project entitled “Test Cases: American Law, Nuclear Weapons, and Extraterritorial Power in Postwar Oceania”. Test Cases uses legal conflict over US nuclear weapons testing and contamination in the Marshall Islands to explore shifting patterns of American territoriality in the postwar period. It examines how and why weapons testing and contamination was located offshore, in Indigenous lands and waters administered by the United States under a one-of-a-kind United Nations Strategic Trusteeship.

At Cornell, Mitchell worked on a collaborative, international project tracing different regimes of liability and compensation for civilian nuclear reactor incidents. Working with colleagues in law and social science from across Japan, Europe, and the United States, Mitchell was responsible for exploring the history of how the United States and international organizations handled questions of nuclear liability and compensation. She has several publications in progress from this broader project.

Mitchell’s work has been funded by the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, among others. She has published articles in Environmental History, Journal of the History of Biology, and Somatosphere.