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Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West, by Sarah Alisabeth Fox.

August 9, 2014

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West, by Sarah Alisabeth Fox.  University of Nebraska Press, Bison Books (2014), Hardcover, 328 page.

An engaging and informative history, based on the words of the people affected, of how nuclear production and testing changed them into activists.

Sarah Alisabeth Fox has not simply written another account of the extensive damage caused by the mining of uranium and the atmospheric testing of atomic bombs in the American southwest in the 1950s and early 1960s. Instead, she explores how conservative, relatively docile patriots came to feel angry and betrayed by their government and how they created a movement to address their needs. Using first-hand accounts, Fox examines how experiences with their desert environment lead people to dismiss the assuring, but false promises that there was nothing to fear. Fox is interested not only in what happened but in the process that radicalized the victims.

Arranging her material in chronological order, Fox writes of the indications of problems of radiation that began to surface in the desert southwest after World War II. The atomic bomb had been critical in winning the war quickly and the USA became involved in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Too often nuclear defense took priority over the lives of US citizens. At first people in the southwest didn’t know they were being put at risk. Much of the uranium found in the United States lay in the lands of the Navaho and other Native Americans. Not only was their land taken for mines, but the Navahos were among the first to experience widespread exposure to dangerous levels of radiation. Navaho men, recently returned from fighting in World War II, faced massive unemployment and were glad when the mines provided jobs close to their homes. Living beside the uranium mines with their families, they accepted low pay, dangerous working conditions, and prohibitions on unionizing. What they did not know was the high risks of their exposure to radiation. The men actually in the mines were most endangered, but whole families were threatened as the uranium dust swept through the mining camp, drinking water was contaminated, and children played in the slag heaps. Even when government officials know that risks existed, they never told miners and their families of the dangers, and no precautions were taken.

Open-air testing of nuclear weapons began in the Nevada desert in the early 1950s, causing radiation to be spread more widely. Ranchers across the state line in Utah regularly brought their sheep to grazing lands in Nevada. In 1953, some of the men and their sheep got caught close to bomb tests and were unable to avoid strong exposure. Afterward, the sheep revealed unusual symptoms. Massive numbers died, and those who lived gave birth to lambs that were deformed or dead. The ranchers faced heavy losses. The Atomic Energy Commission and their employees scoffed at the sheep ranchers and said the animals simply suffered from malnutrition. They insisted that the problems could not be traced to radiation, although they had clearly begun only with the bomb testing. Despite the sheep ranchers’ deep knowledge of their animals and their grazing lands, the officials from the government humiliated them, calling them ignorant and uninformed. The men who had been with the sheep soon developed cancer and died.

Fall-out on plants covered an even larger area. Family vegetable gardens, on which many small-town residents relied, became covered with a strange-looking dust and withered. Dairy farmers worried about the milk from their cows. Some people bought personal Geiger counters which registered high readings when bomb testing occurred. The AEC intensified their campaign to reassure everyone that there was nothing to worry about. When researchers finally began, secretly, to measure the amounts of radiation in milk, they discovered that the highest amounts were not related to closeness to the blast or to its intensity. They came instead from local conditions. High mountains north and east of the testing site turned radioactive haze into water and funneled it through irrigation ditches into the rich alfalfa fields on which dairy cows grazed in northern Utah.

As family members, often children, began to suffer and be treated for rare physical symptoms, residents of the region met and compared stories with others who were affected. They discovered that they were not alone and began to use their own knowledge of what was occurring in their local communities to make sense of what was happening. Often the first step was to create lists and maps, indicating where people were sickening and dying, to challenge the glib assumption that the radiation was harmless. Later they used their maps to indicate where clusters of radiation sickness existed. The lists were an important tool in convincing neighbors of dangers that were consistently denied by authorities.

Fox does an excellent job of describing the larger culture of the 1950s in America that encouraged the denial of nuclear dangers. McCarthyism reigned and conformity was demanded of all. The message was that atomic bombs could be survived, if you covered your head or had a bomb shelter. It was a message directed to suburban families with resources to pay for bomb shelters and who had yards to build them in. No concern was expressed was expressed for the urban poor, often black, residents of inner cities. Radiation danger became the responsibility of private families, not the responsibility of the national government. No concern was expressed for the urban poor, usually black.

By the 1970s the stories of the downwinders had created wider acceptance, even from the national government. Although funding remained difficult to obtain, scientists begun confirming their stories of dangerous levels of radiation. Retribution was paid to some victims, while others seemed arbitrarily denied. An international ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons stopped some of the more grievous damage. The accident at Three-Mile-Island also slowed the growth of the nuclear power industry. When September 11 occurred, however, new talk of the need for nuclear advancement surfaced again.

In retelling and amplifying the downwinders’ stories, Fox makes that point that the ordinary people can develop a knowledge base that needs to be respected and heard by their society. Outside experts must integrate local accounts into other more formal kinds of knowledge, but they should realize that “people are the experts on their own lives.” When people are not heard, they must listen to each other, figure out for themselves what is happening, and challenge those with the power to destroy them, economically and physically.

Downwinders is filled with emotion and sympathy for those who suffered from radiation. Readers never doubt where Fox’s loyalty lies. She shows how commitment to a belief can push a person to investigate and write all the relevant information about a topic without succumbing to limiting biases. In stressing the need for local knowledge to be heard and respected, she never denies the validity of other ,more traditionally revered, kinds of knowledge. She also realizes that in order to matter, stories like the ones she tells in this book need the careful documentation her book provides. She also tries to be fair to all sides in writing about a controversial topic. Using the words of the Atomic Energy Commission, however, she allows us to see exactly how and why they prioritized national security and the arms race with Russia over the health and livelihood of the Americans living in a sparsely populated section of the country. She also relates how leaders in the small towns of Utah denied radioactivity’s affects because it hurt business and tourism.

Fox has a Master’s degree in History and Folklore, and a passion for changing the world we live in. She blogs at Overeducated Waitress, earning just enough as a waitress to insure that she, her husband, and small son can “just get by.”  She also writes poetry and researches local history. Her real passion is not traditionally defined success, but writing and telling important stories.   In writing, Fox pondered how to best convey the stories of the downwinders and decided how to write this book.

I can get it right by letting them speak for themselves. From the grave, sometimes. I play back the tapes to myself when the house is quiet. I listen to the silences where they stopped to compose themselves when the tears came. I listen to the places we laughed together.

She certainly found the way to maximize the accounts of individuals, differing from each other but drawn together by their experience of radiation. I wholehearted agree with the points she makes, but her writing about these more abstract topics falters and becomes somewhat vague and repetitive. She has obviously read the relevant theoretical works, but she is not able to discuss them with the sharpness of her narrative sections. This flaw, however, should not keep others from reading and learning from her book.

I strongly recommend Downwinders to a wide audience of readers. Those interested in how people change their minds and organize will find it valuable. So will those with little memory or understanding of the impact of radiation on the first generation of Americans to encounter it. No one reading this book will be able to passively accept the dangers of nuclear power, which its producers claim are totally safe. The stories Fox tells are ones we need to remember.

Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press for sending me this excellent book to read and review.  I am particularly impressed by the books they are publishing.


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