This post introduces Peder Anker’s recently published Journal of American Studies in Italy article, “A History of Uranium Mining in Canada.”
I was once asked to contemplate whether using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was the right thing to do. It was back in college, and the question was raised in the first class of the required core course, “Science and Society,” and supported by readings about the Enola Gay airplane that dropped the bomb. In the class discussions, we were supposed to imagine ourselves as President Harry Truman or also as the Captain of the plane, who both had this decision-making power. Given all you have learned in class would YOU have pushed the red button?
To me, the answer was a resounding and obvious “NO!” And I found the question bewildering. The fact that most of the students were willing to even entertain the issue was upsetting. Some even argued that the bomb had been a good thing since it “ended the war.” Perhaps I was duped by the most important book I had ever read: John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946). Or perhaps I just found it absurd to imagine myself in such a position of power. Only one person also rejected the question altogether, and that was Jimena Canales who subsequently became a famous historian of science. We became lifelong friends who continued pondering the question of how to teach and write about the bomb.
Our immigrant status as a Norwegian and a Mexican, respectively, did not help in envisioning us in the elitist position of imagining ourselves as having the power to drop the bomb. Most importantly, we could not think of the bomb in any other terms than it being completely destructive. And we meant completely. Its destructive power went way beyond the poor citizens of Hiroshima. To us the bomb destroyed people and their homes (of course), but also the environment, climate, culture, politics, and science. The entire history of the bomb was destructive from the initial mining of uranium to the abandoned wastelands of disaster sites. (Why is it that historians and bomb makers alike still call them “test sites”?) The bomb was destructive to the political sphere’s ability to discuss military matters. And the bomb was destructive to the scientific culture that produced the bomb. It has even been destructive to the way historians cast the history of the bomb in all too apologetic terms. Nothing good came from the bomb. Nothing. With the possible exception of the two of us enjoying a glass of wine while conversing.
These conversations have been with me for years. At the same time, I have seen one apologetic book after another about the making of the bomb, most often written by US scholars. These are cast as stories of the tormented souls of scientists who made a “Faustian bargain” with the military in pursuit of atomic knowledge. The physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer, the nuke’s “father,” is repeatedly center stage, as in the case of the film about him which hit the movie theatres last month. These are elitist stories that more often than not ignore the suffering and violence of the bomb to laypeople in general, and to marginalized groups in particular.
Historians of the bomb have instead emulated and in various ways repeated the narrative of the Smyth Report by telling the history of the bomb as a history of brilliant physicists.
The origin of the apologetic narrative can be found in a crafty piece of propaganda published by the military only days after the bombing of Hiroshima to enlighten the public in the United States. It’s called the Smyth Report (1945), which tells the story of how the bomb was made, focusing on all the clever achievements of the scientists. It’s more or less factually correct, except that it omits—as propaganda is supposed to do—everything of importance. And that is all the pain it caused. The endless trail of nuclear suffering. Historians of the bomb have instead emulated and in various ways repeated the narrative of the Smyth Report by telling the history of the bomb as a history of brilliant physicists. So I decided to tell the story in a different way, not to correct my historian of physics friends, but to offer an alternative narrative for students with little or no interest in the whereabouts of Oppenheimer.
As a Norwegian, I know the north, the snow, the winter, and the immense beauty of the northern environments. So when I began reading about the people of the Dene First Nation, their life and know-how came close. We are from completely different cultures, of course, though their environmental accounts rang true to me. More importantly, as uranium miners in the 1930s and beyond they were, in many ways, the first victims of the bomb. So I wanted to tell their story. It’s a story of settler colonialism, exploitation, and death due to cancers from being exposed to nuclear materials. As handlers of uranium, their story is the first chapter in a people’s history of the “making” of the bomb. The Dene people were kept completely in the dark about the purpose of uranium as bomb material. Yet their suffering and death from various cancers represent the beginning of the trail of pain that would follow nuclear materials to Japan, to disaster sites on Pacific atolls, and ultimately to storage sites of nuclear waste.
It’s a story of settler colonialism, exploitation, and death due to cancers from being exposed to nuclear materials.
Interestingly, the Dene people’s spiritual leader and medicine man, Louis Ayah, made two chilling prophecies about all of this long before the discovery of uranium. They are at the center of my article. If nothing else, read them carefully. Especially the last one.