Western Electric Turns North: Surveyors, Engineers, and the Transformation of the Cold War Arctic

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Matthew Farish and p. Whitney Lackenbauer

800px-Map_of_Distant_Early_Warning_(DEW)_LineJust weeks ago, the CBC reported that the fifteen-year, $500-million cleanup of 21 abandoned Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line sites was nearly complete. This massive effort to remove debris and decontaminate sites rife with toxic waste, a final chapter in the saga of an extraordinary Cold War project, is certainly fodder for students of the north. But a search for the roots of this “slow violence,” to borrow Rob Nixon’s useful term, suggests that the environmental history of the DEW Line is not limited to a finite set of Arctic locations. And to note that the Line was established “in the 1950s because of fears of Soviet attack,” as the brief CBC article put it, is to say very little indeed.

Our chapter is concerned with the conception and construction of the Line in the 1950s, and the roles played by a relatively unknown and certainly understudied group of temporary northerners, many hired by the prominent industrial firm Western Electric, in the siting, planning, building, and operation of radar stations from Alaska to Greenland. But alongside such tasks, these technicians were also participating in the haphazard but nonetheless significant extension of the state, and the military, northward – or, in this case, two states and militaries whose northern ambitions were markedly similar. This broader perspective helps to explain why our account begins not in Tuktoyaktuk or Cambridge Bay, but in Illinois.

At its huge Hawthorne Works in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, thousands of Western Electric employees were engaged in defense duties during and after the Second World War. In the mad Cold War rush for ‘scientific manpower’, the company was actively recruiting students “whose world-wide assignments” would “call for working with equipment we make for the Government.” Some of these employees were dispatched to the DEW Line, but before setting out on their northern assignments, many traveled to a corn field in the middle of Illinois, where a prototype radar facility had been built to “ensure smooth and efficient operation when the actual DEW Line construction was undertaken.” At this location, and then at a three-station ‘test line’ set up along the north coast of Alaska, attacks were simulated with military and civilian aircraft, and “artificial data” was inserted into a rudimentary tracking system.

As this quick sketch suggests, it was not clear, for Western Electric technicians (and indeed for many other North Americans), where the ‘Arctic’ ended and began: were the lines between north and south, laboratory and field, drawn at MIT (the hub of Cold War radar research), in an Illinois patch of corn, inside a DEW Line station, or perhaps on the maps that accompanied news coverage or military briefings on continental defence? By closely considering the contribution of Western Electric technicians to the creation of enduring Cold War structures and systems, we aim to draw connections between the specifically northern legacy of the DEW Line and the global geography of mid-century militarization and modernization. To argue that the DEW Line transformed northern environments is certainly accurate, and additional understanding of these transformations is one of our goals in the larger project from which the chapter is drawn. Still, to consider how these changes occurred – how ideas of the north, laboratory techniques, and technicians themselves all traveled between Illinois and the Arctic – is to realize that ‘transformation’ is best understood as both imaginative and material, general and specific.

Popular Science September 1956.
Popular Science September 1956.
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Matthew Farish

Matthew Farish is an Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Undergraduate in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. He is working on a book about survival schools, climate laboratories, proving grounds, and the U.S. militarization of the planet in the middle of the twentieth century.

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