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Reviewed by:
  • Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War
  • Robert C. Kiste
Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War, edited by Barbara Rose Johnston. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-930618-82-4; x + 326 pages, tables, figures, maps, notes, references, index. US $27.95.

While the nuclear era began with the development and use of atomic weapons by the United States near the end of World War II, the focus of this volume is the ensuing cold war between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The book’s thirteen chapters are authored or coauthored by fifteen anthropologists, most of whom have studied the culture and history of science, documented the legacy of the cold war, and conducted research with the aim to assist communities harmed by the arms race.

The chapter by editor Barbara Rose Johnston, “Half-Lives, Half-Truths, and Other Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War,” introduces the volume. While several nations are known to have nuclear weapons (including China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), others have the technical capacity to develop them. Drawing on the nuclear history of the United States and the Soviet Union, Johnston makes several observations that are of general relevance. The nuclear programs of both nations have had and continue to have devastating consequences for the peoples involved. Uranium mining and processing, weapon production facilities, the testing of nuclear weapons, and nuclear waste dumps have created “radiogenic communities.” Such communities suffer from unseen dangers of radiological contamination, which result in an increased incidence of a variety of cancers and other illnesses, miscarriages, births of congenitally deformed children, difficulties of caring for disabled children, and cause people to live with fear and anxiety over inter-generational and other long-term and unknown effects of radiation.

Johnston notes that the ability of communities to comprehend, confront, [End Page 500] and address environmental and health problems is strongly linked to and constrained by a number of variables. The victims of radioactive pollution are psychologically traumatized and often stigmatized by neighboring peoples. They are relatively powerless and have a low position in the larger scheme of things. They are often indigenous peoples living on traditional or tribal lands in remote areas and are relatively poor. Very importantly, they are deprived of basic information. National security is the most commonly advanced rationale for the development of nuclear weapons. The cold-war security state required control over the science involved, the production of weapons, and the dissemination of information. Secrecy allowed the systematic use of half-truths and misinformation to pacify and alleviate public concerns, and detached scientists caught up in their work often lost sight of basic human needs and welfare. Animals are commonly used in laboratory research, and in reference to Marshall Islanders, Johnston quotes one researcher: “these people are more like us than mice” (25)—an astounding remark that seems to suggest the view that indigenous peoples are creatures of a lower order than the rest of humanity.

Three chapters focus on the US nuclear testing program in the Pacific. Johnston’s chapter, from which the above quote was drawn, provides essential historical background. Holly M Barker, a researcher and, until 2008, adviser for the government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, reviews the major issues and problems that have challenged that small island nation. David H Price provides a biographical sketch of Earle Reynolds, a physical anthropologist turned cold-war dissident, who gave up his career to challenge US nuclear activities in the Pacific. The remaining chapters provide a larger context, which allows a better understanding of US nuclear activities both at home and abroad during the cold-war era.

The United States has conducted nuclear tests and related activities in the Pacific Islands and the western United States, including Alaska. In the Pacific, 67 atmospheric tests were conducted at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. Other tests were conducted on Johnston Island, and, in conjunction with the United Kingdom, on Christmas and Malden Islands in Kiribati. The people of...