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Au-delà de l'effondrement, 59 : Nuclear Discourse and 1950’s Environmentalism, par Frederick O. Waage

Crédits photographiques : Christian Charisius (Reuters).

313774931.2.jpgTous les effondrements.

The Dam and the Bomb

The decade of the 1950’s was bracketed between two circumstances that created the environmental movement of today. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and its CBS Reports followup in 1963 “added the environment to the public agenda” (Lear, 1997, p. 450) once and for all. The Echo Park Dam controversy, involving one element in the Colorado River Storage Project which threatened Dinosaur National Monument, was “the galvanizing event that made the modern environmental movement come of age” (Rothman, 1997, p. 34).
Spearheaded by the Bureau of Reclamation’s multi-dam postwar plans to provide power and water to a population-booming West, the CRSP marked the moment when the traditionally “genteel” (Rothman) conservation movement, which, “had been quietly transforming itself, like a caterpillar inside its cocoon [...] emerged into the light of national politics,” and “found a political voice” (Cosco, 1995, p. XV).
Julius Krug, Interior Secretary in 1949, vetoed the Echo Park Dam, saying that such large projects should not be placed in National Parks (Cosco, 1995), but his successor, Oscar Chapman, after hearings on the project in 1950, announced its approval.
It was Chapman’s action, and subsequent Dam support by Eisenhower’s Interior Secretary, Douglas McKay, and McKay’s appointees, that energized the conservation movement’s collective political action. Ultimately the Echo Park Dam project succumbed to conservationists’ pressure in 1956, but its companion project, the Glen Canyon Dam, notoriously did not.
When McKay fired longtime Fish and Wildlife Service director Albert M. Day in 1953, Rachel Carson wrote a stinging and widely reprinted letter of protest to the Washington Post. In it she enumerated other political dismissals, saying “these actions strongly suggest that the way is being cleared for a raid upon our natural resources that is without parallel within the present century” (Carson, 1998, p. 99). She concluded : “It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within” (p. 100).
The pungency of this parallel arises from the allusion to the USSR and nuclear deterrence in “enemies from without,” as being equivalent in danger to environmental destruction “from within” – a phrasing which also parodies Hooverian Red Scare rhetoric (The Enemy Within).
In his excellent study of the Echo Park controversy, Mark Harvey concludes that “Americans in the 1950’s had barely begun to consider the ramifications of their industrial society on public health or the environment, while adverse effects of pesticides and atomic fallout had only just emerged in the public discourse. The Echo Park battle obviously had little to do with such matters” (1994, p. 287).
But, as the Carson quotes suggest, this judgement is inaccurate in both its wider and narrower assertions. As far as Echo Park goes, Harvey has already told us that a main motivator for the CRSP in New Mexico was the need for “low-cost power to fuel its population growth based on its atomic industry” (1994, p. 37), and that the strongest influence on Chapman’s decision to go ahead with the dam was the demand of the AEC that Interior aid in providing more power reserves for nuclear development : “One month prior to the hearing on the dam, President Truman had approved development of the hydrogen bomb, with testing to take place in Utah and Nevada” (1994, p. 90).
It is my purpose in the following discussion to provide evidence that it was the impact of nuclear weapons development that made “Americans in the 1950’s” increasingly aware of, and concerned about, the effects of technology on the natural environment. As the earth came to be considered increasingly at risk, the urge to preserve it, in great and little ways, became more widespread, precisely through extensive public discourse initiated almost immediately following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (Boyer, 1985). By the early 1960’s Marston Bates’s ironic comment “’Nature lover’ for the scientist has [...] come to mean a sort of pervert” (1950, p. 253) could scarcely apply.
Throughout the 1950’s, the shadow of the Bomb enlightened public environmental awareness in general, and in the focused initiatives of environmental activism. David Lilienthal was only partially accurate when he asserted that is was impossible for “the power of fear to reconstitute man’s institutions,” that it could not be a basis for “a whole new structure of human affairs” (1963, p. 36). Fear may not have been an immediate power, but Silent Spring, a great reconstitutive text of the 20th century, matured to its fulfillment through its author’s slow dying during that fear-fraught decade. In February, 1963, Carson wrote to Dorothy Freeman “It seems strange, looking back over my life, that all that went before this past decade seems to have been merely preparation for it. Into that decade […] have been crowded everything I shall be remembered for [...] and most of the sorrows, tragedies, problems, and serious illnesses too” (1995, p. 434).

Fear and Information

Between 1945 and the test ban treaty of 1963, public writings about nuclear war also concerned themselves with the subject of the fear of nuclear war, and with the effect of this fear on human life, often manifested in fear that nuclear war would result in the “end of nature.”
Two early popular texts which were notorious for their fear-provoking rhetoric were David Bradley’s No Place to Hide (1948) and William L. Laurence’s The Hell Bomb (1951). Both authors had witnessed actual explosions – Bradley, the Bikini tests, and Laurence, Alamagordo – and were therefore speaking to the US public from “authority.” Laurence considers the H-Bomb to be “the greatest threat to the survival of the human race since the Black Death” (p. 28). For Bradley, “The question is not political so much as biological. It is not the security of the political system but the survival of the race that is at stake” (p. 165). Neither considers fear itself as a subject, but it is interesting to consider the biological emphases they provide when propagating it. Although for Laurence the H-Bomb’s analogy is organic disease, and he defines it linking its energy transfer physics to the organic processes that sustain the life it can destroy (pp. 131-34), he can also figure it as “a completed architectural plan requiring only a few polishing touches” (p. 98).
Bradley’s pre-H-bomb book brings nature more intimately and problematically into the blast site. The official account of the tests he witnessed, Bombs at Bikini : The Official Report of Operation Crossroads (1947) is remarkably free of commentary on environmental effects (including the presence of environmental scientists at the tests, mentioned by Bradley), except on the easily dismissed fishing industry objection that the blasts might kill “millions of fish,” not to mention whales and tuna (p. 20). Bradley, however, intersperses his journal-sequenced narrative with disconcertingly lyrical nature description. He stands on a coral reef surrounded by the sea : “Through the crevasses and wells it would come surging up and sucking back, ebbing and flowing, until one could believe that the land itself was alternately rising and sinking to a deep troubled rhythm.” The reef is the “threshold to a new world, one totally unsuspected and unimaginable from above. Once beneath the surface you enter a land enchanted” (pp. 84-5). Such rhetoric might have been found in Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, published seven years before. Although Bradley often refers in passing to radioactive fish, and lets us see an “oil slick heavily impregnated with fission products” covering the shore with a “gummy emulsion which may take years to leach away” (p. 105), only in his very last pages does he assert that there is no defense against radiation, no satisfactory countermeasures. A reader of the time might have wondered how much, if any, irony was being conveyed by adding mushroom clouds to this Gauguin painting.
Bradley is satirized by Bob Bale, whose How To Make An Atomic Bomb in Your Own Kitchen is an example of the proliferating popular books about atomic energy it itself exemplifies : one of the “standardized products” in the genre is Bale’s fictional No Place to Save Your Hide (1951, p. 161). As with other supposedly informed popularizers, Bale’s goal is to create understanding of atomic energy among the general public as a tool for living in a future world defined by it. Bale ends with a topographical slippery slope metaphor : we’re walking down an increasingly declivitous mountainside – when will we reach the point of steepness where we will fall (Bale’s mountain is shaped like a bullet) ? But his most extensive reference to environmental effects are those of supposed agricultural enhancement : radiated tulip bulbs create giant tulips, etc. (pp. 164-5, 110).
Other more illustrious informers give more space to environmental effects and also evoke more fear. Lester Del Rey spends a lot of time praising the nuclear sci-fi in Astounding Stories magazine. He ridicules the generic “Susie Pflookht” suing the government because she was exposed to radiation, and debunks biological effects : “We’re facing nothing more than a possible hurryup, not a drastic altering of the processes of life” (1951, p. 87). Like Mordecai Roshwald (see below) he posits hydroponic gardens on nuclear powered ships, which will supply oxygen; he repeatedly warns his readers to avoid fear and panic while telling them that we are “in danger of building Frankenstein – a monster beyond our powers of control” (p. 25).
Pat Frank, of Alas, Babylon fame, writing in 1962, wants to dispel the “unrealistic fear of the vague and mysterious hazards, and horror at the thought of the destruction of our civilization” (p. 11). Throughout his “guide” he emphasizes the imponderables that cannot be controlled or foreseen, even though the supposed goal of his book is to reassure the fearful. Frank refers to Lilly’s Man and Dolphin, suggesting that “the porpoise has never directed his intelligence to the development of warheads and bombs” (p. 42). Recreating an oft-fictionalized scene, he describes his own “safe haven” home in the midst of Florida’s nature : “Quail parade the walks. Possums snitch the dogs’ food. On moonlit nights in spring, wildcats, owls, and bull alligators orchestrate along the lake front. We have fish, game, varmints, and solitude, but without a [bomb] shelter we would probably be killed in World War III” (p. 63).
The fear evoked by such scenes, linking humans’ and nature’s annihilation, was itself a subject of constant discussion in the 1950’s. Irving Janis’s RAND Corporation report, “Psychological Aspects of Vulnerability to Atomic Bomb Attacks,” characterized in detail the psychological damage caused by nuclear anxiety and depression (Boyer, 1985, pp. 330-2). This same “psychological effect as a mystery weapon” was simultaneously being considered by military planners to be “perhaps the most important application of radiological warfare” (Glasstone, 1950, p. 289). Pundits of denial such as economist Peter Drucker saw the greatest threat of nuclear war being to the maintenance of “our industrial economy” (1957, p. 110) or, like Christian Scientist Erwin D. Canham, prophesied spiritual power overcoming the “materialistic law of doom” (1951, p. 37).
President Eisenhower himself assured his people that the US was working to avoid the “condemnation of mankind to begin all over again the age-old struggle upward from savagery toward decency, right, and justice” (Davie, 1960, p. 135) and Werner Von Braun, while writing a novel about characters living “underground in pressurized, air-conditioned homes,” assured us that “Once civilization is committed to technical advance, we have to keep going” (Lang 22-23). Such public denials and mixed messages had the ironic effect of increasing the collective sense of vulnerability, undercutting the authority value of their own enunciators.
A telling exchange is recorded in the documentary anthology The H-Bomb (1950). In the same speech Senator Brien McMahon considers “what sustained fear does to the individual... It constricts his imagination, paralyzes his initiative, even affects his personal morality; it constitutes the most subtle and potent of poisons” (81) and contrarily foresees benign nuclear energy being able to imitate photosynthesis, “making deserts into blooming crop-producing acres and the arid hills of the world into gardens” (Lang, 1954, p. 90). This double vision initiated, among many others, a notorious debate between Leo Szilard and David Lilenthal. The former, with Hans Bethe at an NBC broadcast forum, emphasized the horror resulting from a nuclear war; Lilienthal replied to this exchange with an attack on unnecessary panic spread by “oracles of annihilation” and the “new cult of doom” (Eliot, 1950, pp. 121-2), to which Szilard replied that the forum panelists were merely expressing what the President and the AEC were covering up : “... if the house is actually on fire, I am opposed to keeping it secret for fear of scaring some of the occupants” (pp. 123-4).
Still, in 1963, turncoat Lilienthal saw us “possessed by our fear” and “fascinated terror” of the bomb (1963, p. 13). Astronomer Kenneth Heuer considered 1949 the year when the H-Bomb became an obsession, “a general feeling that Doomsday was now at hand” (1953, p. 162). C. Wright Mills, contemplating the causes of World War III, sermonized that “the brotherhood of man is now less a goal than an obvious condition of biological survival” (1958, p. 153). Ritchie Calder discussed in detail the “fear of being afraid,” an apathy of denial encouraged by political and scientific reassurance (1962, p. 25), and imaged it powerfully in a psychological version of Eisenhower’s reversion-to-savagery scenario : “We began to realize that the crust of our vaunted civilization was only eggshell thick and that, confronted with the release of immeasurable power from the infinitesimally small atom, civilized man tends to cower, like his Neanderthal forefathers, in the dark caves of his own emotions. We were back in the‘childhood of mankind.’” (p. 23).
Such terricentric imagery for fear is totally consonant with the explicit linkage between nuclear fear and environmental destruction, and therefore with an intensified awareness of the importance to human life of environmental preservation. Such a linkage can be found in public writings from the very first responses to Hiroshima. Louis Bromfield entered in his nature journal on August 18, 1945, “This life that is in a single green weed is of more worth than all this death”; so much human achievement “in the polished beauty of a turbine or the quiet still beauty of a garden [...] can be annihilated by a single Atomic bomb” (1970, pp. 435,37).
In 1946 at the eleventh North American Wildlife Conference, Fairfield Osborn’s keynote address foresaw two linked major threats at that moment, “either one of which would cause incalculable loss of human life, if not the breakdown of the entire structure of our civilization. The first is the misuse of atomic energy [...] The other is the continuing destruction of the natural living resources of this earth” (Meine, 1988, p. 479).
Both projectors of future catastrophe and commentators on current technology cast the emotional and physical consequences of nuclear war in terms of environmental destruction. “The geometric symbols of the atomic bomb glitter like Christmas tree ornaments in today’s illimitable forest, and the ancient malady of fear of the world’s end goes forth in every land” proclaims Heuer (1953, p. 33). It is painful to consider, as Albert Schweitzer did in his 1954 Nobel Speech, that “man” now “commands, thanks to scientific and technological advances, the latent forces of nature which he can now put to his own use” (Schweitzer, 2002) – the sun is the giver of life; the human-created “pygmy suns” can destroy it : “It is then, the sun which murmurs in the brook, which whispers in the wind, which moans in the wave, which blossoms in the rose, which gleams in the lightning, which rolls in the thunder, which sings or wails in the great symphony of nature” (Heuer , p. 119). American man as Superman (Schweitzer) seeks power over the “ways of creation,” seeks “to occupy God’s place, to repeat his deeds.”
Contemporary America is “striving for mastery over nature” (Jungk, 1954, pp. 17, 60). Touring, as did Jungk, important nuclear sites in the mid-50’s, Daniel Lang quotes Nevada’s governor :“’we had long ago written off that terrain as wasteland, and today it’s blooming with bombs’” (1954, p. 77). At the building site of the Savannah River nuclear plant, partly covering the government-purchased game preserve of W.R. Grace, an AEC official tells Lang “’There’ll be plenty of space left over for the quail, deer, and wild turkeys... It may even be possible to permit the South Carolina Wild Life Federation to plant food crops for them in a swampy section along the Savannah. If that works out, they’ll probably be living in the world’s best-guarded sanctuary’” ( p. 140).
This ironic quote illustrates what the Rienows 1n 1959 called the atomic age – “a night march over unknown terrain through the darkness of ignorance” (1959, p. 35) – as they pointed out the environmental destruction caused by even “peaceful” atomic energy. “The chain of contamination runs from bomb to stratosphere to soil to plant [...] to animal to man, or from plant to man” (pp. 38-9), but, for the atomic waste generated by Savannah or Hanford, “we do not know how to scour a stream. We are pretty ignorant of how to purify radioactive water adequately for industrial or domestic use” (p. 44). The Rienows anticipated Rachel Carson’s 1960 preface to the second edition of The Sea Around Us : “In unlocking the secrets of the atom, modern man has found himself confronted with a frightening problem – what to do with the most dangerous materials that have ever existed in all the earth’s history, the by-products of atomic fission.
The stark problem that faces him is whether he can dispose of these lethal substances without rendering the earth uninhabitable” (Carson, 1960, p. X).
They say, “A few more contaminated rivers, some coastal ‘low-level’ dumping, a few accidents of atomic vessels on the shoals, and the ocean we live next to, bathe in, and harvest food from might be lost – and lost forever, as far as the human race is concerned” (p. 46).
A number of Rachel Carson’s close associates likewise evoked nuclear war, and fear thereof, to further an environmental agenda. Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet is shaped by the metaphor of war. He ties a concluded World War II with a potential atomic war and the “silent” war which “contains potentialities of ultimate disaster greater even than would follow the misuse of atomic power. This other war is man’s conflict with nature” (1948, p. VII). The primeval human characteristic, “the impulse to dominate as well as destroy” (p. 11), is often motivated by fear (p. 22), suggesting the connection between nuclear fears, nuclear development, and nuclear destruction of nature. In an ironic vicious cycle, overpopulation threatens survival by overwhelming and degrading natural resources. One tool to control overpopulation is “the devastating use of atomic bombs in a new war” (p. 40); a major source of past wars and possible future wars is population pressure.
Louis J. Halle had a writing hand in both camps, as a government official and enthusiastic naturalist. In his reflections on nuclear war, he creates an equine “comedy of the commons :” a grey horse is introduced to the Cambridge commons as he watches; the resident black horse is hostile but draws no blood “because the issue of war, represented by the objectives of the belligerents, was limited.” The black horse just wants to keep the new one at a distance but if his goal had been to get rid of him completely, the grey horse would have been insecure [as in Osborn’s theory] unless the black one was eliminated from the common, “which is fenced in, like this planet,” and the battle would have been mortal (1958, p.106). These politico/nuclear horses coexist uneasily with the lyricism of Halle’s environmental classic, Spring in Washington, a chronicle of the season in a powerful year, 1945. The connection of Spring and War is admittedly indirect, but in the latter book the implication is that technological dependence allows humans to pretend to themselves they are separate from nature and therefore not vulnerable, as it is : “By retreating from the world and insulating ourselves against it we are achieving a security as spurious as our comforts are hollow,” and, if we hide in our hive, at the first draft of outside air, we will ‘all perish in the first catastrophe” (1947, p. 48).
E. B. White, Rachel Carson’s fellow New Yorker writer, Silent Spring epigraphist, and great admirer of her work, was most persistent in his periodical writing about the threats to nature of modern technology, particularly nuclear; his allegorical story The Morning of the Day they Did It (1954) chronicles the destruction of Earth by nuclear weapons launched by the US from a space platform, but focuses a lot of its satire on the effects of a megapesticide (Tri-D=DDT) in killing all the earth’s pollinators, so that armies of humans have to pollinate plants by hand. His 1956 essay Sootfall and Fallout connects his sooty apartment with “man’s gradual, creeping contamination of the planet” (1977, p. 92); in his 1962 addendum to this essay he evokes a garden setting for nuclear melancholy : “These nuclear springtimes have a pervasive sadness about them, the virgin earth having been the victim of rape attacks. This is a smiling morning; I am writing where I can look out at our garden piece, which has been newly harrowed, ready for planting [...] Tomorrow we will have rain, and the rain falling on the garden will carry its cargo of debris from old explosions in distant places” (p. 97).
Stewart Udall, quoting Rachel Carson on an “age of poisons,”, says “a lopsided performance has allowed us to exercise dominion over the atom and to invade outer space, but we have sadly neglected the inner space that is our home” (1964, p. 187).
The iconography and discourse of atomic war led to an interest in seeing the Earth as a “whole,” gaiaistically, as it were. While Neville Shute’s On the Beach allowed us to experience this wholeness encased in a layer of slow-moving death, another vision was that of the technology-enabled understanding of an ecologically holistic earth, which could lead to constructive anti-nuclear stances. Oppenheimer espoused “the vast view, showing the earth with its fields and towns and valleys as they appear to a camera in a high-altitude rocket,” a view allowing us to see the “vastness and complication of the whole of human life on earth” (1955, p. 54). E. A. Gutkind’s encyclopedic compilation of worldwide air views is a realization of Oppy’s “vast view,” organized as it is in the sequence of human modifications of the earth. Gutkind’s first photo is of Krakatoa, the last of the Bikini blast, which “demonstrated our destructive instincts, and our fear of the future, of our fellow men, and of our own power” (1952, p. 400.). The entire sequence is overtly shaped under the rubric “Man deludes himself into the belief that he can play the part of an omnipotent re-maker of his environment” (p. 242). The Lewis Mumford introduction to the book characterizes it as a challenge to action against planetary destruction from environmental degradation and “perverse misapplications of atomic energy to industry, to warfare, and to mass genocide” (n. p.).
I do not want to imply that the only consequence of conveying nuclear information in the 1950’s was nuclear apprehension. The message of many writers such as the Rienows, who connect environment and atom, is that dispelling ignorance will lead to action, change, and resultant freedom from fear; such, precisely, seems to have been the sequence that led to the 1963 test ban treaty. One area where, in the 1950’s, growing awareness of atomic effects on the environment motivated environmental action was in the “new” field of radioecology. The Bikini report (as we have seen) and 1950’s The Effects of Atomic Weapons, devote almost no space to, or profess ignorance of, the environmental effects of radioactivity, while others recount radiation effects on small mammals isolated in controlled laboratory settings (Zirkle, 1951). The 1953 Washington conference on “Resources for the Future” deals with atomic energy mainly to answer the question “Can atomic reactors become a major source of industrial power within the next two decades?” (1954, p. 217). The US Technical Conference on Air Pollution (1952) had 97 research papers on an impressive range of air pollution issues, including one panel on agriculture, but no discernable papers on “nontraditional” forms of pollution. The coverage changed in 1958, when Walter B. Claus’s anthology of research on radiation biology devoted one specific section to Species Response to Radiation : Radioecology.
The writers discuss food chain transference of radiation, use the word “ecosystem,” and recommend a de facto environmental impact statement before operation of any “new atomic establishment” (p. 135). Still, in 1958, Stanley Auerbach could bewail “the extent of our ignorance of the soil ecosystem and of soil contamination by radioactive materials” (p. 522).
However, in 1959, Claus’s initiative was expanded in the hearings held by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, and published as Biological and Environmental Effects of Nuclear War. Its express purpose was to try to project effects of nuclear weapons detonation on man and his environment (my ital.). Its section on “environmental contamination” is introduced by the slightly pointed comments of Richard F. Trum, DVM : “The cattle of Alamagordo, as you know, were the first casualties of nuclear warfare” (p. 740). The most telling testimony was, however that of an AEC environmental scientist, John N. Wolfe, who introduced himself by commenting “I may be perhaps the only ecologist that has been[before this committee]”. Wolfe presented an unfashionably pessimistic view of widespread damage to life in a “dynamic” environment, and a telling projection of environment and survivors after an atomic attack : I visualize those people [survivors] unsheltered in heavy fallout areas after three months to be dead, dying, sick, or helpless [and] those sheltered, if they can psychologically withstand confinement for that period to emerge in a strange landscape. The sun will shine through a dust-laden atmosphere, the landscape in mid-January would be snow-covered and blackened by fire; at higher latitudes blizzards and subzero temperatures would add death and discomfort; both food and shelter would be inadequate and production incapacitated. Come then spring floods, and soon after, adding measurably to the disrupted pattern of human existence, are the weather events such as hurricane and tornado, for which there is no defense and after which there will be little aid. (p. 842).
The scientific link between ecology and nuclear issues became firmly established at the first national symposium on radioecology, held at Colorado State University, in 1961. John N. Wolfe was the keynote speaker, and he gave a stern warning to technologists : “[...] sophisticated awareness of the importance of environment, physical and biotic, must match or exceed the values of the technological endeavors"”(1963, p. 2). In a subsequent paper, Paul Henshaw almost symbolically celebrates the marriage of nuclear science and ecology by quoting “one of the great pioneers of ecological research, Aldo Leopold,” to the effect that “Civilization is not ... the enslavement of the stable and constant earth. It is a mutual and interdependent cooperation [...] ’” Henshaw asserts “the growing dependence devolving upon ecology as a discipline – not only from the standpoint of radiobiology but also from the standpoint of survival in the atomic age” (p. 13).

The Environment in Nuclear Fictions

Wolfe’s vision above, and Rachel Carson’s unforgettable Fable for Tomorrow which initiates Silent Spring, are both narratives in the tradition of apocalyptic fiction, which personalized nuclear war in innumerable novels and short stories after 1945. This fiction conveyed with affective power lacking in other forms of discourse the issues surrounding development and imagined deployment of The Bomb, but more importantly for the subject at hand, gave readers a deeply emotional sense of the natural world’s vulnerability. These fictions allowed their readers (and their writers) to project, displace, and thereby alleviate personal apprehensions; identification with their characters’ situations could share identification with the damaged environments in which they found themselves. By placing her reader in a songless “town in the heart of America”, Carson was able to use these powers of fictive experience to insinuate the objective information she conveys into the intimate fabric of her readers’ own imaginations. But without the preparation provided by the previous decade’s nuclear fictions, her fable might have been less effective. I would like to discuss briefly some of the environmental content in selected nuclear fictions of the 1950’s.
It seems that the further into the future a nuclear fiction projects its world, the more the environment invades it. In a way, this is an illusion, since, in the utopian or dystopian tradition, the future is the present. If major conventions of nuclear fiction are “the return of Nature as a material adversary,” “the re-emergence of the wilderness,” and the “erosion of [...] technological support systems” (Wolfe, 1983, pp. 6, 13), then these conditions can often be considered those actually present, or immanent, “now,” and the goal of projecting an illusory future as being to free the reader from h/her own illusions, to persuade h/her that “the future is already here.”
Perhaps this is one reason why nuclear novels set in the “real” world of the 1940’s are so claustrophobic, interiorized, and unorganic. Jungk plays on this sense with reference to Los Alamos and the Nevada test grounds : “Our experiments have grown so dangerous that we’ve had to withdraw nearly everywhere into regions once inhabited only by outlaws [...]. In the wastelands once rejected by covered-wagon parties in search of new homesteads we now find the modern man fraternizing with the enemies of life” (1954, p. 33). Novels set in and around Los Alamos are telling in their dominance by pseudo-important Primary Colors, keyed scientists who are always having earnest conversations with other scientists at endless cocktail parties, and affairs with other scientists’ wives. It’s hard to know how the reader is supposed to respond to what seems in 2003 to be satire of those who are determining the fate of the earth while living in an environment of “machines and man-made things” (Halle, 1947, p. 37).
Tendentious in the above regard is Pearl S. Buck’s boring Command the Morning (1959), which covers the development of the bomb up to Hiroshima. Virtually the only non-man-made scenes in this novel are those of a protagonist, Burton Hall, scouting the four-corners area for a place to site Los Alamos. Haakon Chevalier, posthumously notorious for his letters suggesting Oppenheimer’s communism, wrote The Man Who Would Be God (1959) to tell his version of the “brotherhood of the bomb,” with Oppy as Sebastian Bloch, the anguished man who would be God – and who is a communist. Bloch, pretentious though he be, has some pretty interesting reflections on the “unnatural nature” of the “Monster” he’s creating, which represents “a leap beyond the known bounds of nature” (p. 201). Bloch figures it as an “embryo” with ore extracted from the earth to feed it. At zero hour, he prevents a colleague from killing a moth in the lab where they await the results. He obsesses in “images of dreaming and nightmares” (Boyer, 1985, p. 350), “the earth opening, oceans sinking... Mountains toppling....” (Chevalier, 1959, p. 446).
Dexter Masters uses one of the notorious fatal “accidents” during reactor research at Los Alamos as his governing situation in The Accident (1955). Louis Saxl, the scientist to whom the accident occurs, has his body and its functions examined by pathologists as they degrade, in a way symbolic of the earth after a nuclear war and, as an unprecedented biological phenomenon, like the collective Hiroshima aftermath. Masters is effective in contrasting the geographical texture of New Mexico landscape to the man-made artifice of the nuclear city, and in suggesting ironic similarities and differences between the two : Los Alamos in the distance looks like a cliff dwelling; scientists dance in their labs like ceremonial indians; when the accident occurs a guard is staring at “an enormously large petaled organ sticking straight out from the center of [a] flower” (p. 22) – phallic and nuclear at once. “In the beginning there was fear” (p. 43) : disconcertingly, the scientific community fears what it has done more than does the lay world. While Thiel, Masters’s “good” scientist, warns “You ask a lot of Mother Nature.... Give us the good half, deny us the bad. She’s much too perverse...” (p. 328), Louis, dying, remembers and recites Frost’s apocalyptic Fire and Ice.
The next stage of immediacy is the imagined nuclear holocaust itself. In these novels the environment is more fully present. In The Future Like a Bride (1958), Robert Colborn creates a parallel “imaginary history” of Los Alamesque nuclear development and the arms race, which ends in everyone’s extermination, including the narrator’s. In Colborn’s case, the cocktailing scientists of the novel’s beginning present an ironic foil to the scientist-narrator’s retreat to a subsistence life in a Vermont mountain cabin (which he equates with Yeats’s Byzantium). His “pocket” of wilderness is being ironically preserved by an alliance between conservationists and a lumber company. After nuclear attack, Colborn’s narrator imagines the town of “Missile Gap, PA,” describing how survivors rethink their relationship with their organic environment, and the radiation effects on various food sources. Also, in an interesting intersect, he discusses at length necessity and dangers of human dependence on the sea for post-apocalyptic protein : “The oceans are so vast and active that long-lived radioactive elements would be quickly diluted...” (p. 112).
Other novels in which nuclear attack actually occurs vary greatly in the way they connect bombs and nature. The one utopian example I have found is Ray Wiley’s On the Trail of 1960 : A Utopian Novel (1950); its reader, probably a Randian positivist, might actually have diminished fears from its vision of an omnicompetent hero, appropriately named David King, who after the war uses his own technology to collaborate with nature to “clear up this old earth” (p. 23), recreating a Jeffersonian middle landscape economy. It’s a mixed agrarian economy too, since some of its main features are dams, mines, pipelines through mountain ranges, coexisting with new watersheds, irrigated deserts, forests cleared of brush.
The distinguishing environmental feature of Frank’s Alas, Babylon is its water pollution theme. It is set in a Carsonesque rural Florida town, whose access to unpolluted artesian water is a key to its survival. Interestingly, one nuclear fear theme, genetic damage, is seen here, by the story’s good doctor, as “nature’s way of preserving the race. “ The environmentally unviable human is (apparently) spontaneously aborted.
“By natural selection, nature will attempt to undo what man has done” (1983, p. 215). By contrast, John Wyndham’s whole novel Re-birth (1955), set in distant time after the “Tribulation”, is based on the conceit that nuclear survivors kill any organic “Deviant,” human or non-human, to restore pre-Tribulation nature.
The protagonists of Philip Wylie’s polemical The Disappearance (1950) and Robert Lewis Taylor’s grotesque Adrift in a Boneyard (1947) are both average suburbanites brought to grave or ludicrous extremity. Taylor’s Mr. Robinson is a Westchester commuter whose postapocalyptic adventures end him and his family up on an idyllic Mediterranean island in a restored world where they must decide whether to stay in utopia or return to restored Westchester. Wylie’s alter-ego hero rages against the stupidity of nuclear scientists and human inability to accept partnership with nature. A character says “The universe is brilliant. Only man’s view is dark” (p. 340).
A notoriously dark view is found in Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959) where most of the citizens of the US and the USSR live at different levels underground, depending on their scientific standing & social rank, to avoid the fallout from each others’ weapons. When war comes, it lasts only 2 1/2 hours. Ultimately, as in Shute’s On the Beach, human mortality is total. The power of Roshwald’s story comes from the journalistic narrator’s yearning to be above ground, within nature’s creation, a yearning the underground hydroponic plants “imitating nature on a small scale” cannot satisfy (p. 40). He has allegorical dreams of ecological destruction : a clear blue mountain swimming pool becomes a reeking pool of garbage rising to crush him against a grey ceiling.
Perhaps Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950) is most successful, among the novels that actually portray the moment of nuclear impact, at conveying that impact on the daily life of “real” people, forming serious counterpart to Adrift in a Boneyard. Her protagonist, Gladys Mitchell, is a normal suburban housewife with a normally disfunctional family, and a husband who works in New York at the time of the bombing.
The quest of her husband to get back “home” read now, eerily evokes the flight from New York on 9/11. But the focus is on Gladys, and her challenge is as much to withstand the intrusive and insensitive emergency governmental bureaucracy as it is to preserve her family’s life. Although after horrendous adventures trying to escape the military cordon meant to prevent the dispersal of contaminated New Yorkers, the husband finally makes it home, home is no longer what it was when he left, and Gladys, still at home, at the end is still wondering “Would anything ever be safe again ?” (p. 275).
Merril’s destroyed normalcy is like that in Edmond Hamilton’s City at World’s End (1951), where a bomb over a rural town actually named Middletown, site of a disguised nuclear facility, throws the town and its immediate surroundings intact into a distant post-apocalyptic desertified future. The anxiety in this story, ultimately resolved intergalactically, comes from the repeated evocation of the contrast between the still-
normal town and the encompassing dead land a mile outside its limits. The Earth has been forever lost. Our hero protests this fate : “The Earth, the soil, the winds and the rains, the growth and the dying over the ages, beast and tree and man. You could not forget that. You could not let drop the heritage of a world as though it had never been” (p. 90).
Among the many other novels that portray the earth long after a nuclear war there is a divide between visions of a chaotic, distorted, hostile natural environment and a benign one. Humanity is lost either in literal wastelands which challenge survival, or deceptively lush lands which encompass and isolate its members. There are also numerous religious movements, in which natural conditions have replaced the supernatural as the source of spiritual power. Walter M. Miller’s magnificent Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) desertifies the post-apocalyptic environment, transforming the deity of its “desert fathers” into the form of the scientist, Leibowitz, who tried to prevent the long-ago war. “Too much hope for Earth had led men to try to make it Eden, and of that they might well despair until the time toward the consumption of the world” (p. 272). The novel ends with the hinted destruction of the sea around us; the shark is feeding on the whiting which feed on the shrimp; then “A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash. The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers. The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood. Then they washed up the whiting. The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the cold clean currents. He was very hungry that season.” (p. 320).
The survivors of Riley Hughes’s The Hills Were Liars (1955), belonging to the “Company,” descendents of original Catholics, live isolated in a forested world, rich, uncultivated. Kevin, the protagonist “was alone in his universe. He could cry out and no sound would come back to him. All the sounds of the earth, he thought, are of my own making” (p. 3). “The Afflicted One,” wandering Jew of the story, says “’there is no where-ness any more. No place exists [...] as the builders built it [...]. We were the wilderness builders. Wherever there was a city, wherever a town or village, we made a wilderness of it’” (p. 140). The environmental message is ambiguous here. Since, at the end, the “Company” begins to restore technology, we are, in a way, being asked to fear the loss of the power that destroyed, at the same time as we are repelled by the remembered cataclysm that destroyed it. By contrast, Wyndham’s Re-birth, finds the anti-“deviant” cultivators more destructive than the “fringe” dwellers of the outlying forested areas, who are persecuted by them; the latter see the cultivators as evil in their quest for an illusory pre-war Perfection.
Perhaps the nuclear novel most explicitly terror-centric in its environmentalism is the British author Margot Bennett’s The Long Way Back (1954). Here, postwar civilization survives in Africa, which sends a mission to research the nature of what once was England. Their airship lands in a totally forested land “’They say it’s only fifty generations from virgin forest to virgin forest… Look at it, no one lives here unless they live in trees’” (p. 36). Grame, the protagonist, has ecosystemic visions in the luxuriant forest, even though it is inhabited by bizarre mutations, wondering “why seeds used tress to reproduce themselves; how long the earth’s atmosphere would last after life vanished
from the planet; if any atomic explosion could be so gigantic as to destroy all life"” (p. 132). The primitive natives, finally encountered have a religion based on fear of “Thai,” the personified bomb. They recite litanic “Let us fear” texts, such as “Let us fear the mighty crash and overpowering wind with which Thai destroyed our ancestors. But let us worship those in the depths of the earth who were saved. Without these two we would not have lived to enjoy our happiness on earth” (p. 83).

Nuclear Fear and Silent Spring

Rachel Carson, who vehemently opposed the Echo Park Dam as “nothing but blind and wilful destruction” (Carson, 1995, p. 16), also early on recognized the fearful environmental consequences of nuclear radiation, and followed the wartime discussion of the “link between DDT and the atomic bomb” (Lear, 1997, p. 120). Although Under the Sea-Wind of 1941 makes no explicit reference to the bomb, its human presences, fishermen, have a prescient power akin to it. Their gill net “glowed as though it had life of itself; its radiance shone out into the black sea and down into the darkness below” (p. 179); the descending net with its “big leaden weight” closing around the fish “entrapped only by their own inability to see the way of escape....” (p. 201) could represent any human-created destructive power descending from above. In 1946 Carson was unable to accept Roger Revelle’s invitation to join Project Capricorn, the Scripps Institute’s expedition to study biological effects of the Bikini atomic tests, but she strongly opposed them, and the invitation gave her the opportunity to connect the nuclear threat with her oceanographic research (Lear, 1997, pp. 237-8).
The Sea Around Us of 1951 surely reflects this research in its discussion of species destruction on islands, due to “man,” and his “habitual tampering with nature’s balance” (p. 95) : “Upon species after species of island life, the black night of extinction has fallen” (p. 93). According to Lear “the very existence of the atomic bomb” forced Carson to direct increasing attention to environmental destruction after 1951. It is Lear’s theory that “by focusing on the immutable forces of nature, The Sea Around Us calmed atomic fears in others” (Lear, 1997, p. 220), but I wonder if its readers might as well have been further upset by the earth’s vulnerability the book emphasizes : “The continents themselves dissolve and pass to the sea, in grain after grain of eroded land” (p. 196).
In her National Book Award speech for The Sea Around Us, Carson suggests that we look at the earth rather than outer space : “perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction” (1998, p. 92).
Throughout the 1950’s, Carson’s public addresses, in particular, increasingly called attention to nuclear war and nuclear technology’s damage to the environment. Her references become particularly poignant when she undergoes extended courses of radiation therapy, with her own body as the earth subjected to nuclear bombardment : “that 2-million-volt monster is my only ally in the major battle […]. But under the circumstances I have no choice but to accept the hazards of radiation” (1995, p. 399).
As she conducted her arduous research during this period into the ecological effects of pesticides, she was also preparing to meet the widely-shared scientific/industrial view that “These new chemicals were the agricultural equivalent of the atomic bomb – the ultimate weapon [...]. But the American public knew just as little about the long-term effects of these chemical weapons as they did the effects of atomic radiation” (Lear, 1997, p. 305).
At the same time, the movement to increase public information, hence fear, and hence action against chemical pollution was growing. In 1947 an ecologist could define a “sick” or “diseased” landscape “whose stability is threatened, whose laws of beauty and life are violated” (Pfeiffer, p. 26) without any nuclear reference. In 1955 a chemist (Leonard Wickenden in Our Poisoned Planet) could place among chemical threats to life – including DDT, artificial hormones, and food additives – atomic radiation and bewail the “touching faith” of the American public in the “rightness of public officials” (p. 20). Wickenden evokes creative fear – “No-one can doubt that all of us are living in a poisoned world from which we cannot easily escape as long as we live” (p. 171) – as a spur to public protest. In 1958 Carson wrote to Dorothy Freeman a moving letter about losing faith “soon after atomic science was firmly established” that any of the earth could be secure from human destruction (Carson, 1995, p. 248).
From this growing apprehension came her strongly-worded preface to the 1960 edition of The Sea Around Us. Her, and our, “certain comfort in the belief that the sea, at least, was inviolate, beyond man’s ability to change and to despoil” has been proven naive in the presence of radioactive pollution : “The mistakes that are made now are made for all time” (1960, pp. X-XII). As Lear says, by the end of the fifties public anxiety had risen proportionately with atomic stockpiles and revealed dangers of aboveground testing. “By the end of 1959 a full-blown fallout scare gripped the nation” (1997, p. 374), and Carson, in shaping Silent Spring, both sincerely and astutely took advantage of the heightened public imagination of disaster to seal the connection between atomic radiation and chemical pesticides. “The two products of wartime science were forever linked in discovery, destruction, and debate” ( p. 374). In one of many such Silent Spring references, “The problem of water pollution by pesticides can be understood only in context, as part of the whole to which it belongs – the pollution of the total environment of mankind. The pollution entering our waterways comes from many sources : radioactive wastes from reactors, laboratories, and hospitals; fallout from nuclear explosions... To these is added a new kind of fallout – the chemical sprays applied to croplands and gardens, forests and fields. Many of the chemical agents in this alarming melange imitate and augment the harmful effects of radiation” (1962, p. 44).
Carson continued to make these points in her heroic public addresses and congressional testimony following the publication of Silent Spring, as in her 1963 Kaiser Foundation address. There she discusses at length the effects of radioactive contamination of the oceans and their biota : “It is surprising ... that so little thought seem to have been given to the biological cycling of materials in one of the most crucial problems of our time : the understanding of the true hazards of radiation and fallout” (1998, p. 237). She also addresses the danger that people will feel “the recent test ban treaty makes the whole fallout problem obsolete,” a false assumption given that “environmental contamination by radioactive materials is apparently an inevitable part of the atomic age,” including the “so-called ‘peaceful’ uses of the atom” (p. 242).
In her Scripps College speech, Of Man and the Stream of Time, delivered on the publication day of her first New Yorker article from Silent Spring, Carson eloquently united the concerns for human life and the whole living environment in the shadow of nuclear war. If rather than “always trying to impose our will on Nature we should sometimes be quiet and listen to what she has to tell us ... We might even see the folly and the madness of a world in which half of mankind is busily preparing to destroy the other half and to reduce our whole planet to radioactive ashes in the doing.” And to the graduating class she is addressing, she offers a challenge : Your generation must come to terms with the environment. Your generation must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and a sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery – not of nature but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny. “In today already walks tomorrow.” (1962, pp. 11-14).
Now, as adults, and in many cases those with power to achieve her goals, the generation Carson was addressing can look around and observe with ambivalence the degree to which we have met Carson’s challenge in the forty years since then, and with a certain fear, knowing her challenge could be issued today just as applicably to the generation now shedding blood on the oilsoaked deserts of Iraq.

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