Book Review: The Firecracker Boys

4-05-08, 9:33 am

The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement, by Dan O’Neill. Originally published by St. Martin’s Press 1994; reissued by Basic Books, New York 2007.

This is a story about one of the most dangerous parts of the Cold War in the one place where the US and the Soviet Union were close geographical neighbors. Its reappearance is particularly timely given the growing interest in the politics of environmental issues. Does advanced capitalism tend to move towards the destruction of life on our planet? Can focused, informed grassroots struggle change the outcome? Is this how high the stakes are in the current environmental crisis? This remarkable book by Alaskan historian Dan O’Neill suggests that the answer to all these questions is an emphatic “Yes”. The Firecracker Boys tells the riveting story of how a coalition of Native northern Alaskan peoples and principled arctic researchers at the University of Alaska confronted and faced down the Atomic Energy Commission and a group of nuclear scientists led by Edward Teller (the original “Dr. Strangelove”) during the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

The AEC scientists, seeing the handwriting on the wall, realized by the second Eisenhower Administration that world wide opposition to atmospheric nuclear testing was becoming so strong that they would need a back-up plan to continue working with (testing) their favorite toys. Even underground tests, they feared, could end up being outlawed, so they cooked up an alternative. “Operation Plowshare” was to involve testing nuclear “devices” ostensibly for “peaceful purposes”. Their initial project looks, in retrospect, like the concoction of maniacs, but they argued and pushed for it with alarming persistence. O’Neill describes what amounted to near panic among the AEC’s “firecracker boys” during late 1958 when it appeared that progress towards a comprehensive test ban treaty between the US and the USSR was moving too quickly for their tastes.

For the second time in thirteen months, the AEC had attempted to derail arms control negotiations by conjuring up dazzling images of the peaceful use of atomic blasts and arguing that such marvels would be possible only with the continued improvement of nuclear weapons …. Not only did the AEC attempt to forestall the moratorium by invoking Plowshare miracles, but during the moratorium the agency argued that the peaceful explosions should be considered exempt from the treaty’s provisions. (pp. 56-57)

Teller and his group proposed to blast away a section of the northwest Alaska coastline with a series of nuclear explosions that would create an instant harbor near Point Hope. They sold the plan to the Chambers of Commerce in Anchorage and Fairbanks as well as to the president of the University of Alaska, all of whom appeared unable to resist the argument that the scheme would promote the rapid economic development of the northern tier of the new state of Alaska. An additional selling point was that, just in case the AEC’s exhaustive—but highly suspect--calculations regarding radiation amounts and environmental damage turned out to be wrong, it would be of little consequence since (to paraphrase their argument) “no one lived up there anyway.” Finally, they thought they had found a way to explode nuclear devices on the Soviet Union’s doorstep, even if a comprehensive test ban treaty were to be signed.

Not surprisingly, the Inupiat people of northern Alaska proved more difficult to persuade. Upon learning about the AEC plans and fearing for their homeland and livelihood, they went into action. In their efforts they found support from a group of arctic researchers at the University of Alaska, a number of whom had developed close contacts with the Inupiat through years of living and working in the region. This developing coalition churned out mimeographed newsletters, wrote petitions, badgered press and government sources and even started one newspaper (The Tundra Times, Alaska’s first statewide Native newspaper) to publicize their cause. Their efforts got the attention of conservationists, public officials, Civil Rights activists and others across the country. By August of 1962, the AEC reluctantly announced that the Alaska Point Hope project (nicknamed Project Chariot) was being “deferred … [and] held in abeyance,” but it was widely understood in Alaska and among environmentalists that this meant the cancellation of the project. The ability of the Eskimo peoples of northern Alaska and their allies to educate numbers of people in the state and across the U.S. and to generate widespread opposition to the AEC scheme, O’Neill argues, marks a seminal episode in the birth of the environmental movement.

The defeat of Project Chariot represented the first successful opposition to the American nuclear establishment and one of the first battles of the new “environmentalism.” Here the rationale for caution was not the old logic of conserving a magnificent landscape or endangered species. Rather it was based on a more holistic concept of environmental protection, one premised on the realization that insidious degradation was possible because of the invisible connectedness of things. (pp. 292-293)

This struggle had political as well as environmental results. The Tundra Times played a unifying role among the Native peoples of Alaska as they undertook to organize statewide gatherings and conferences. These led to “a new era of political accomplishment for Alaska Natives which would reach its apex in 1971 with the passage of the historic Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.”

On the other hand, the victory did not come without casualties. O’Neill writes of one arctic researcher, Don Foote, who died in a traffic accident under circumstances that some who knew him considered suspicious. Two other highly regarded arctic scientists who opposed the Plowshare project were dismissed from the University and never rehired. One left teaching altogether and found work with the Alaska Fish and Game Department; the other had to leave the U.S. to land a teaching job across the continent in Newfoundland. Three decades later William Pruitt and Leslie Vierek finally did return to receive honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Alaska in 1993.

The author’s research is wide ranging and comprehensive. He succeeded in obtaining material from FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act, but he was turned down by the CIA for at least one document after waiting “two years and seven months.” Among his most engaging chapters are those in which the Eskimos speak for themselves. O’Neill was able to include such episodes because the Eskimos had the presence of mind to tape some of the interactions when AEC representatives came to their villages to hype the Plowshare/Chariot project. The AEC men were generally not prepared for the knowledgeable and determined response they met. While language and cultural barriers certainly existed, the AEC representatives could hardly have missed the point. Women and men both spoke up.

Kitty Kinneeveauk, all five feet of her, was well known in the village as a woman who would stand up to injustice wherever she found it, “Once I read some news magazines about Indians where you work on this too, blasting their town …injure their food, their game and their water … and none of the atomic people help them. So I’ve been thinking about we really don’t want to see the Cape Thompson blasted because it [is] our homeland. I’m pretty sure you don’t like to see your home blasted by some other people who didn’t live in your place like we live in Point Hope.' (pp. 134-136)

The author emphasizes that, despite the success of the Plowshare resisters, the arms race did lasting damage to the environment in widespread locations. He notes that nuclear experiments required the disposal (“dumping”) of contaminated materials in places that were frequently kept secret, or simply not made public. One such site was in the area of a creek near Point Hope where nuclear waste lay forgotten for three decades. Today, both the United States and the Soviet Union still contain areas (in generally “remote” spots) where human beings venture only at risk of serious exposure to radiation.

I believe that this book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the urgent environmental threats to our planet, but it does more. It gives the reader historical understanding and a grounding in the crucial importance of overcoming ethnic, cultural and racial barriers in order to build the broad coalitions necessary to save our planet.

--Ben Sears is labor editor for Political Affairs.