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The Nuclear Borderlands

The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico

Joseph Masco
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    The Nuclear Borderlands
    Book Description:

    The Nuclear Borderlands explores the sociocultural fallout of twentieth-century America's premier technoscientific project--the atomic bomb. Joseph Masco offers the first anthropological study of the long-term consequences of the Manhattan Project for the people that live in and around Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb, and the majority of weapons in the current U.S. nuclear arsenal, were designed. Masco examines how diverse groups--weapons scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, neighboring Pueblo Indian Nations and Nuevomexicano communities, and antinuclear activists--have engaged the U.S. nuclear weapons project in the post-Cold War period, mobilizing to debate and redefine what constitutes "national security."

    In a pathbreaking ethnographic analysis, Masco argues that the U.S. focus on potential nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War obscured the broader effects of the nuclear complex on American society. The atomic bomb, he demonstrates, is not just the engine of American technoscientific modernity; it has produced a new cognitive orientation toward everyday life, provoking cross-cultural experiences of what Masco calls a "nuclear uncanny." Revealing how the bomb has reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship, the book provides new theoretical perspectives on the origin and logic of U.S. national security culture. The Nuclear Borderlands ultimately assesses the efforts of the nuclear security state to reinvent itself in a post-Cold War world, and in so doing exposes the nuclear logic supporting the twenty-first-century U.S. war on terrorism.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4968-0
    Subjects: History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. 1 The Enlightened Earth
    (pp. 1-40)

    The nuclear age began in earnest in New Mexico.¹ Los Alamos scientists created much more than simply a new technology with the invention of a military atomic device in 1945; they engendered new forms of consciousness, new means of being in the world distinct from those that came before. For over a half century now, the psychosocial spaces of American modernity have been shaped by the most prominent legacies of Los Alamos: a utopian belief in the possibility of an unending technological progress, and an everyday life structured around the technological infrastructures of human extinction. The Manhattan Project not only...


    • 2 Nuclear Technoaesthetics: The Sensory Politics of the Bomb in Los Alamos
      (pp. 43-98)

      A striking feature of nuclear weapons science—as a science—is that its experimental form would seem to have been most powerfully determined by nonscientists.¹ From the 1963 Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty through the 1992 Underground Test Moratorium, the experimental regimes open to nuclear weapons scientists have been predominately defined by international treaties and U.S. nuclear policy, rather than by experts within the laboratory. In the post–Cold War period, this means that U.S. nuclear weapons scientists cannot conduct what would appear to be the most basic experiment in their profession: namely, detonating a nuclear device.² Nuclear weapons science is...

    • 3 Econationalisms: First Nations in the Plutonium Economy
      (pp. 99-159)

      When the Manhattan Project arrived on the Pajarito Plateau in 1943 it was to be a temporary U.S. intrusion into northern New Mexico, a necessary military undertaking that would disappear after the end of the war. Few suspected at the time that the launch of the military atomic age, and then the Cold War, would lead to a permanent technoscientific presence on the plateau, one that would make the plutonium economy a perpetual feature of life along the northern Rio Grande. For those pursuing military nuclear science, the future has always offered an unending possibility for self-reinvention, as each new...

    • 4 Radioactive Nation-building in Northern New Mexico: A Nuclear Maquiladora?
      (pp. 160-214)

      The epigraphs to this section reveal the complexity of contemporary Nuevomexicano investments in Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), an institution that exists simultaneously in local representations as a vital resource necessary for cultural survival and as a profoundly colonizing force in the northern Rio Grande valley. Referencing the high poverty rates in twentieth-century northern New Mexico, the first statement points to the material and imaginary effects of LANL on Nuevomexicano culture, an institution that not only has supported families economically in northern New Mexico for three generations but also has kept small-scale village life a viable enterprise since 1943. Offering...

    • 5 Backtalking to the National Fetish: The Rise of Antinuclear Activism in Santa Fe
      (pp. 215-260)

      Wearing matching blue windbreakers emblazoned with the icon of a Santa Fe–based antinuclear group, a seven-member “citizen verification team” arrived to conduct their first impromptu inspection of nuclear weapons programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) (Figure 5.1) in March 1998. Modeled on the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) investigators (then charged with monitoring Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs), this self-authorized verification team identified the Plutonium Facility, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building, and the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility as possible sites of U.S. nuclear proliferation, and demanded access to these buildings as well as to...


    • 6 Lie Detectors: On Secrets and Hypersecurity in Los Alamos
      (pp. 263-288)

      The U.S. nuclear complex has always been haunted by the possibility of spies. At Los Alamos, some of these ghosts have names—Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, for example—while others remain elusive, like the third Soviet agent long rumored to have worked at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.¹ With the end of the Cold War, however, espionage, like the U.S. nuclear arsenal itself, seemed to recede in the American imagination, psychically exiled as an increasingly quaint relic of a (nuclear) age assumed past. Hence the widespread shock and bewilderment in 1999, as accusations of atomic espionage arose from...

    • 7 Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post–Cold War New Mexico
      (pp. 289-327)

      After more than five decades focused on a specific kind of apocalypse in Los Alamos, the firestorms of spring 2000 could not have come from a more unexpected source. On May 4, the U.S. Forest Service lost control of an effort to reduce the risk of forest fire in Bandelier National Monument by burning underbrush. Over the next week, winds gusting to over sixty miles per hour turned the “controlled burn” into a raging firestorm, forcing the evacuation of Los Alamos County. In addition to displacing over 25,000 people, the fire forced Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to close for...

    • 8 Epilogue: The Nuclear Borderlands
      (pp. 328-338)

      The post–Cold War period ended after September 11, 2001, with the formal conversion of the United States to a counterterrorism state. Americans who once thought the end of the Cold War had fundamentally transformed their relationship to the bomb were, after the terrorist strikes on September 11, once again witness to an escalating discourse of nuclear terror: the airwaves were filled with stories of vulnerability, of unsecured ports through which a terrorist nuclear device could be smuggled, of unprotected nuclear power plants open to suicide attacks by airplane, of radiological dirty bombs, which might contaminate major U.S. cities, rendering...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 339-374)
    (pp. 375-412)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 413-426)