Book Review: The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico

Joseph Masco

The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020, ISBN: 9780691202174, pp. 456, Price: $27.95 / £22.00)

The nuclear weapons programme is one of our time’s most talked about yet misunderstood technological endeavours. While historians have studied the early years of the Manhattan project in-depth, the secrecy surrounding nuclear weapons has ensured that the nature of the technology decision-making and work methods involved in the modern US nuclear weapons programme (from the 1960s to the present) has remained unclear. Fortunately, a few gutsy ethnographers have made the effort to investigate nuclear weapons work during the last decade or two. They have had to deal with the difficulty of researching a group that insists on, and may legally enforce, secrecy in many of its core activities.

The Nuclear Borderlands delves into the social ramifications of America’s most influential technology project of the twentieth century: the atomic bomb. The first anthropological study of the long-term repercussions of the Manhattan Project for the people who live in and around Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb, as well as the bulk of warheads in the current US nuclear arsenal, was designed, is presented by Joseph Masco in his book “The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico.” Masco looks at how various groups (weapons scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, nearby Pueblo Indian Nations and Nuevomexicano communities, and anti-nuclear activists engaged with the US nuclear weapons projected in the post-Cold War period) mobilising to debate and redefine what constitutes “national security.” Masco contends in a ground breaking ethnographic research that the United States’ preoccupation with possible nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War overshadowed the more considerable impact of the nuclear complex on American culture. He argues that the atomic bomb is more than simply the motor of American technoscientific modernity; it has also spawned a new cognitive orientation toward daily life, prompting cross-cultural experiences of “nuclear uncanny,” as Masco puts it. The book presents fresh theoretical views on the genesis and logic of US national security culture by revealing how the bomb has transformed conceptions of time, nature, race, and citizenship. The Nuclear Borderlands evaluates the nuclear security state’s efforts to recreate itself in a post-Cold War world, exposing the nuclear logic that underpins the twenty-first century US war on terrorism.

From the 1963 Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty to the 1992 Underground Test Moratorium, international treaties and US nuclear policy have primarily determined the experimental regimes available to experts on nuclear weapons (p.43). When the Manhattan Project landed on the Pajarito Plateau in 1943, it was supposed to be a one-time US incursion into northern New Mexico, a required military operation that would cease when the war ended. Few could have predicted that the advent of the military atomic era, followed by the Cold War, would result in a permanent technoscientific presence on the plateau, making the plutonium economy a permanent aspect of life along the Rio Grande’s northern reaches (p.99). However, the threat of espionage has long loomed over the US nuclear complex. Some of these ghosts at Los Alamos have names Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, for example, while others, like the third Soviet agent alleged to have worked at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, remain unidentified (p.263). However, with the end of the Cold War, espionage, like the US nuclear weapons, seemed to fade in the American consciousness, psychically banished as a quaint relic of a (nuclear) period presumed passed. The firestorms of spring 2000 could not have come from a more unexpected place after more than five decades concentrated on a certain sort of catastrophe in Los Alamos. On May 4, the U.S. Forest Service lost control of a plan to burn underbrush at Bandelier National Monument to minimise the danger of forest fire. Winds gusting to over sixty miles per hour overtook the “controlled” area during the next week (p.289). With the formal turn of the United States to a counterterrorism state after September 11, 2001, the post-Cold War period came to an end. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, Americans who thought the end of the Cold War had fundamentally changed their relationship with the bomb were proven wrong. A complete accounting of the Manhattan project, as this book has argued, is a more difficult matter that must consider not just technoscience but also the cumulative social, environmental, and political impacts of radioactive nation-building. The bomb, most crucially, has created a split between national and state security discussions (p.336).

Starting with the first two chapters, the modified version commences a delicate balancing act by demonstrating the complicated relationships among localised, regional, and worldwide nuclear weapons crises. He presents an intriguing viewpoint on the realities of regular activities for the inhabitants of northern New Mexico in this and future chapters. Masco’s multidisciplinary framework enables him to interact with many intersecting narratives of ethnicity, power, and colonialism involving nuclear weapons, which are still largely unknown throughout American Analyses. Masco dives into the knowledge and perspectives of First Nations communities, Nuevomexicanos, and environmentalist NGO activists in his third, fourth, and fifth chapters. Even if some of those groups regard Los Alamos as a colonialist entity, Masco skilfully clarifies the various opposing interpretations and perceptions of nuclear weapons inside and between such communities. Numerous residents’ examples of environmental NGOs as Anglo intruders threaten the region’s survival, even though they have campaigned for such disclosure of crucial data about nuclear activities and pollutants in northern New Mexico. Masco’s work is well known for its straightforward portrayal of these difficulties. His concluding chapter on Los Alamos’ nuclear confidentiality, endemic racism, and genetically mutated ecological systems establishes the importance of the previous chapters whereas offering a disheartening evaluation of the existing challenges confronting the people of New Mexico and the rest of the world that are living with the hazardous inheritance of the Manhattan Project.

The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, by Joseph Masco, is the most recent addition to the anthropological literature on nuclear weapons work and its cultural significance. The declared objective of Masco is to “defetishize” nuclear weapons. His method is to drastically raise the ethnographic stakes by looking at not only the work of weapons designers but also the connections between a weapons design facility and its surrounding communities and, more broadly, the significance of the nuclear weapons business in American society. Masco’s broad method allows him to pose new questions regarding nuclear weapons’ cultural relevance, but it isn’t totally successful: it yields crucial discoveries, but some ethnographic detail is lost in the scope of his study, and certain linkages aren’t thoroughly explored.

The book’s main audience consists of professional academics, analysts, and policymakers, and it should also reach beyond specialists to university students and the general public. As the book explains enough relevant historical, technical, and theoretical background and is surely well presented, an educated student can quickly grasp and benefit from the important points in one read. Academics, politicians, and the general public have benefited greatly from these studies, which have made elements of the cultural background of nuclear weapons manufacturing available. They have increased the opportunities for public debate and democratic decision-making on nuclear weapons.

Daniyal Talat

Islamabad, Pakistan

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