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:: By Josh Schollmeyer

:: Image courtesy Los Alamos
:: National Laboratory

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Investigations ::

Atomic abstract

Joseph Masco, an assistant professor of anthropology at Chicago, first arrived in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1993. At the time, the Soviet Union’s collapse inspired many scholars interested in Cold War culture to undertake ethnographic projects in Eastern Europe. But Masco, then a doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego, wanted to explore the consequences that defending the nation for almost 50 years with latent and overt threats of nuclear annihilation had on American life and the American psyche. Already, he thought, the U.S. public had forgotten the bomb, treating it as a Cold War relic with an invisible legacy that few cared to investigate. 

To Masco, Los Alamos—selected by J. Robert Oppenheimer to house the Manhattan Project as much for its beauty as for its remoteness—epitomized Atomic Age paradox and symbolized how the bomb has irrevocably altered American notions of nature, race, and citizenship.

The end of the Cold War transformed Los Alamos socially as well as functionally; for the first time, the lab opened itself to its neighbors and their concerns.

“In the early ’90s, we were already starting to tell a different story about the Cold War and that we weren’t learning any lessons from it,” says Masco, whose book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post–Cold War New Mexico (Princeton, 2006), contains the sum of his decade-plus examination of Los Alamos. “An extraordinary library of work existed on Los Alamos for the years 1943 to 1945 and then nothing afterward.”

Arriving in New Mexico, he found Los Alamos National Laboratory and its surrounding communities changed and staggering—an industry town experiencing a historic, potentially ruinous downturn in its signature business: war. “New Mexico is an industry state,” he notes. “There are two national laboratories [Sandia National Laboratories is the other], White Sands Missile Range, and several big air force bases.” In addition, as the Clinton administration pledged openness, and courts demanded it, the lab could no longer arbitrarily evoke “national security” to obscure activities it wished concealed from view. 

Conducting his most intensive fieldwork in the mid-1990s, he returned frequently throughout the decade: “It was a bit of an obsession, to be sure.” He focused on four groups—Pueblos, Nuevomexicanos (descendents of Spanish and Mexican colonialists), lab scientists, and anti–nuclear weapon groups, each with competing, yet frequently identical concerns, claims, and goals. “I was able to follow these communities that in many cases worked together, in many cases breathed the same air, in many cases shared the same levels of risk, as they sorted that out for the first time.”

This nascent social untangling went slowly. For example, in a quest for that mandated “openness,” the lab began holding public meetings in local communities. The first took place in the tiny, economically de-pressed town of Española. Fifty laboratory employees—many in upper management, all sartorially imposing—lined the room, ready for decades of suppressed frustration to be vociferously articulated. But instead, three people turned out for the meeting: a member of an anti–nu-clear weapons group, a local author, and Masco.

The conversation began slowly, but over time patterns emerged. Most fundamentally, the four groups disagree as to whom Los Alamos (the site, not the lab) belongs. Certain Pueblo communities maintain that, like the local flora, they emerged from the earth underneath what is now Los Alamos at the start of time. “Before we have law,” Masco says, “Pueblos are there.”

For their part, Nuevomexicanos insist that they rightfully control portions of the lab’s land. The United States obtained the area in 1848 as a Mexican-American War spoil, and a century later the U.S. government partitioned it “temporarily” for the Manhattan Project, arguing that national security trumped all other territorial claims. “You have people evoking rights under indigenous law, Spanish colonial law, Mexican law, U.S. territorial law, and then under contemporary national-security law,” Masco explains. “That’s the reality of Los Alamos as a site: all these different political regimes are still active and still subject to contestation.”

Moreover, the lab and its ample budgets have established clear, omnipresent, and unspoken race and class distinctions: Pueblos and Nuevomexicanos provide the lab’s nontechnical workforce—labor that usually involves hazardous drudgery with radioactive material—and the domestic help for the area’s elite, typically lab scientists. Even geographically the lab towers above all else, physically assuming the Pajarito Plateau that overlooks Los Alamos County. These distinctions permeated the conversations Masco conducted with locals. “We’d start talking about environmental and health effects, but we’d end up discussing citizenship and the injustices of the United States in the Southwest,” he says. “It became radioactive nation-building, in the sense that there’s nation-building going on—people are coming to an understanding of their place in America—but it’s not a positive notion of shared sentimentality. It has levels of risk and sacrifice mixed into it.”

Enter the anti–nuclear weapon groups. Their creative and assertive lobbying, litigation, and public-relations campaigns against the secrecy that shrouds weapons work help keep the lab’s environmental reporting honest—the start to righting one injustice. But Pueblos and Nuevomexicanos disagree with the groups’ larger effort to undo the U.S. nuclear complex, which would result in a financial free fall back to pre–Manhattan Project, hardscrabble agrarian ways. “This idea of a fundamental threat to the region’s chief employer reads differently when a good percentage of your family works at the laboratory in one fashion or another,” Masco says. “Neighboring communities wanted to transform the [lab], not destroy it.”

At the lab, with the Soviet adversary no more, the routine of weapons work has become an exercise in supercomputing. Nuclear weapons are now tested upon a 16 x 8–foot projection screen (appropriately dubbed the “powerwall”), a 3D simulation during which weapon scientists interact (via gloves and goggles) with the processes that propel and sustain its fury. A blast plays like digital performance art, an altogether different sensory experience from watching it swallow Pacific atolls or seeing a needle record how powerfully it shook the ground. “Politically, there’s something that fundamentally changes your idea of the bomb when you’re interacting with [simulations],” Masco suggests.

Today this abstract atomic bomb resides in a post-9/11 United States that is rife with re-energized nuclear fear—note, Masco offers, the Bush administration’s willingness to evoke images of a mushroom cloud to justify the Iraq War. Likewise, the war on terrorism has reconstituted nuclear weapons in both American culture and policy—the labs, Los Alamos included, eager to pursue new weapon designs meant to keep the nuclear arsenal relevant for decades.

On leave from Chicago this academic year to work on a book analyzing the cultural and political effect of nuclear fear and another examining memory and perception of the Cold War, Masco continues to assess the ramifications of relying on nuclear weapons for national security. “The United States is spending more money on national security than ever before, and yet we’re arguably more insecure,” he says. “Where did we get this idea that you could have perfect security? One strand of it goes back to the idea that we have the bomb.”