Following its victory in World War II, the United States government seized the moment to beef up an arsenal of newly invented nuclear weapons. The new atomic industry was built of resources extracted and tested in the Four Corners region.
In her recently published book, “Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West,” Sarah Alisabeth Fox weaves the oral stories told by farm and rangeland families living in rural, southern Utah with those of neighboring indigenous miners in the uranium industry. Together with layers of government documents, archival publications, court records and corporate salary pay stubs, her book maps a ravaged land and unearths the first-hand stories of the victimized people living in rural sacrifice zones and of ecological decay in the infancy of the nuclear age.
The book documents the Cold War era, “an ongoing abstract conflict, the promise of America…McCarthyism. It’s a window to the ’50s,” explained Fox in a conversation with the Free Press. “I hope to rekindle the nuclear conversation and renew the questions around how we can resolve this moment in history when an entire generation was scarred from Cold War fear, betrayal and contamination.”
Shortly after Fox moved to Utah in pursuit of a graduate degree in history, she reread Terry Tempest William’s book, “Refuge,” and realized she had arrived in “downwinder” country, a term for people who lived downwind from nuclear production and testing. She was encouraged at a book-signing when she met Williams, who encouraged her to find her way to the families in southern Utah and eventually to the neighboring Native lands where uranium mining and milling provided work.
She didn’t intend to chronicle the Cold War and the Nuclear West together in one book. That marriage of time and geographically related topics happened after the Utah housewives and the Navajo families began to trust her. They shared stories of miscarriages, illnesses in children, rashes the dust left on their skins, malformed lambs born to their sheep, miscarriages and “the men whose lungs gave out before they grew old enough to be grandfathers,” she writes, and, their scientifically refutable yet site-specific observations of the sky.
Patterns began to emerge as she listened to the personal narratives, “dynamic compositions of memory and culture, a vital reality rarely explored fully in historical literature.” Components of the stories from the communities in Utah downwind of the Nevada test sites matched the stories of the miners’ families on the Navajo Nation and Laguna Pueblo, where uranium- mining brought somewhat-steady jobs to really rural reservation families while also visiting a “yellow monster” on the people and their cultures.
The experiences recounted to her had been told before and dismissed in history books as accounts of “hysterical woman” or exaggerations by country folks, stories that conflicted with government and scientific dogma.
But Fox validates the people’s experiences, using the tools of a folklorist instead of basis-in-fact scientific inquiry. She defends the personal narratives in her book, explaining how you can’t go back and prove details described as someone stands in their yard and sees a giant red mushroom cloud appear over the western horizon, or relates how noticeably odd the atmosphere felt and how plants in the home garden developed white dust on the edges of their leaves soon after, and then withered and died.
Fox described the research dilemma which led to the structure of her book, the first tome, according to Fox, to contextualize the history of uranium-mining and nuclear testing side by side — the cross-cultural exposure to dangerous nuclear contamination. The experiences of ordinary people, the “obscured Americans, those who live in poverty, in rural areas, people of color, [as well as] more visible and ordinary Americans such as white middle class families living in large cities… all of them noting their experiences are overlooked in history books,” she explained.
Even today, documents filled with statistics record “facts” provided by the government, courts and academics, but omit the oral history. “These sources are still privileged over the memories of ordinary people, broadly seen as less reliable and authoritative.”
This troubling aspect opened the door that led Fox into conversations around tables in Utah and with Navajo families, where both groups used oral storytelling to recapture the history of the atomic race and the effects it had on their health, the food shed and their future family security.
During her research with these people, she explained, she was unnerved by the almost formulaic similarity between the storytellers of each distinct culture – Navajo hamlets and southern Utah Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) communities.
“Within each one, the stories used culturally distinct plot trajectories, phrasings and tended to project the same emotions at the same points in the story,” she said.
As she began to research the “official” history of U.S. nuclear-weapons development she discovered that the government, scientific and court records of the era were riddled with agendas, inaccuracies, omissions and rhetorical flourishes – strategic fictions that contributed to the propaganda needed to support the weapons industry.
“The truth lay somewhere in the middle,” writes Fox. “Clearly a profound contamination had occurred across the American West.”
Folklore stories do more than entertain; they communicate important messages about social norms, personal history and identity and nail down nuances and details of the land, the ingredients of trust and accuracy. Fox rationalized that the folklore category created a unique component of place, a validation for these stories in the larger framework. The oral stories are a record, she said. Including them is a way to make sense of the past.
She incorporated as many points of view as possible and embedded them in the greater nuclear context in order to trace historical, physical and ecological patterns. One of the salient examples in the book is government public relations pamphlet material. Fox reproduces archival illustrations like the one titled, “Procedures for Flash,” published by the AEC, 1957. The particularly cheerful depiction shows a rural ranch couple dressed in Western wear, watching a nuclear test through huge sunglasses and smiling as they witness the mushroom cloud explode over the land in front of them. Or another where a bow-legged cowboy holding a Geiger counter looks aghast at the clicking machine that registers well above the safety levels on the meter. The image was intended to allay fears of the growing accounts of “hot” spots, informing citizens that it was merely “naturally occurring background” radiation.
Equally prominent in Fox’s book is the inclusion of women’s hand-written recordkeeping, a method many housewives use even today to track grocery lists, to-do errands, and child-care issues on the backs of used envelopes. In a particularly poignant chapter titled, “Writing Down Names,” Fox sanctions the lists of friends and family the Utah women believe are victims of the Cold War nuclear-testing program. A list kept by one woman has 45 names on it.
Soon that list multiplies three times when it is compared to other lists kept by other women in nearby communities. The lists grow as they are shared between women at public forums on the nuclear-testing topic and at church meetings, coffee klatches, class reunions. When an obituary of an unknown person appears in a local paper the women compare and contrast dates of birth and death, reasons for death, hometown and residencies to any likelihood of radiation exposure.
“Locally Grown,” another chapter in which women play a substantial role, illuminates the contamination found in the food shed. After the 1957 congressional hearing on radiation safety, the AEC’s admission that strontium-90 had entered the food chain motivated inquiries into the safety of the food supply. An article in Consumer Reports in 1959 describes rudimentary information gathered from 50 cities across the U.S. and Canada and concludes that, “there is incontrovertible evidence that the strontium-90 content of milk has been increasing since 1954.”
Although the public controversy on the contamination led to an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to enact a temporary moratorium on nuclear testing, the news of the milk contamination spurred mothers across the country into antinuclear organizing efforts. Horrified that a staple they fed their children might contain radioactive poison, they protested the resumption of nuclear testing in 1961, when “an estimated 50,000 women in more than sixty cities walked out of their kitchens in a one-day strike…[organized] through female networks such as the Parent Teachers Associations, the League of Women Voters, the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom…even Christmas card lists,” writes journalist Ruth Rosen. “After a decade of containment and the Cold War, with citizen dissent silenced… Women Strike for Peace, the W.S.P. stunned the nation.”
In the final chapter, “Critical Mass,” Fox takes the reader through the creation of citizen advocacy organization, research documentation and legal proceedings that at length result in the 1990 passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), proposed in 1981 to provide “compassionate compensation” for cancers and deaths related to radiation exposure. It was the result of many groups emerging in the ’70s and ’80s from informal citizen networks. Some included Citizens Call, Downwinders, the Nevada Test Site Workers Victims Association, and the Uranium Radiation Victims Committee formed by a group of Navajo uranium-mine workers, Phil Harrison, Timothy Benally, Harry Tome, and others, in Shiprock, N.M.
Fox describes the tireless advocacy of these groups, how they persisted for decades, giving rise to or morphing into other groups such as Citizen Alert Nevada, the Healthy Alliance Environment of Utah, Downwinders United and Downwinders.org, the Shundahai Network, The Office of Navajo Uranium Workers, and the Southwest Research and Information Center. Fox layers their collective strength among the oral storytelling and alongside the court battles and decisions denying compensations. To this day they continue to fight for funding, publication of epidemiological studies and to keep the cause of the downwinders and uranium-affected communities in the public consciousness and help those who fall ill to obtain basic medical care.
Although RECA was a major victory, Fox highlights the many shortfalls in its current form. Absurd decisions underline greedy corporate and government tactics used to mitigate remediation and compensation, like how skin cancer was taken off the list of compensable diseases because there were “too many test site workers.”
The paperwork itself operates as a discriminatory tool – many otherwise qualified uranium miners and their families may be unable to prove they worked at a mine due to credit arrangements with local trading posts, such as Gouldings, in Monument Valley, Ariz. Fox points out the equally absurd notion that radiation respected such arbitrary boundaries as county and state lines as the RECA qualification guidelines suggested.
Radiation sickness, poison dust and rain, and fallout cannot be contained.
The book clearly draws relationships between the scientific community and national media and their collusion with the Atomic Energy Commission message during the Cold War — that a large nuclear arsenal would protect national security, it was the people’s patriotic duty to build bomb shelters in their homes to protect them from the Russians, and the tests in Nevada were controlled experiments. Together they “underscored the nationalistic propaganda,” exploiting and contaminating the people living in geographical sacrifice zones located in southern Utah and the Navajo reservation (Dinetah) and the Laguna Pueblo land.
The U.S. has mined more that 225 million tons of uranium since 1945. It was used to build and test atomic bombs that assured national security, or possibly applied to domestic construction processes such as building dams or highways, according to Fox. It was not just a few detonated bombs, but 100 atmospheric tests between 1945 and 1962, when the atmospheric test ban put a halt to surface explosions. Since then the U.S. has test-detonated 900 underground nuclear weapons.
Fox told the Free Press that she wrote “Downwind” in this multi-layered format in order to place the stories in a verifiable perspective, “to document the shift in people’s consciousness that had clearly taken place.”
“They felt betrayed after learning that government had actively concealed the risks of radiation from nuclear weapons development and uranium extraction.
“It should be the burden of the industry to prove that these consequences are not related, not the burden of the victim to prove that they are.”
Each carefully detailed geographical, political and human facet of the nuclear-testing and extraction program presents the grim future. “…cancers and illnesses will continue to manifest in the bodies of ordinary people erasing the supposed boundaries between soldier and civilian,” says Fox, “making us all survivors and potential victims of a war we thought had ended.”
The stories in Fox’s book are border crossers. They layer over nations and politics, linking the betrayal of ordinary people to the blatant marketing campaigns designed to persuade citizens of the need for nuclear development.
“I tried really hard to preserve these stories as respectfully as they were shared with me,” to carefully preserve the conversations about nuclear energy, she said. “Over time the stories begin to fade into the background. Nuclear activism wanes and rises in the public interest. My grandest ambition is to know that people are talking about this today, that they haven’t forgotten.”