Blackness and the Bomb

tags: Cold War, nuclear weapons, racism, African American history, civil defense

Erica X Eisen has published in n+1, the Baffler, the Threepenny ReviewAGNI, and the Washington Post. She is an editor at Hypocrite Reader.

The detonation occurred at 5:20 a.m. Somewhere in the desert expanse of Yucca Flat, an atomic bomb exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of dynamite and the brightness of several suns. Two miles away, meanwhile, crowds of observers bussed in from Las Vegas for the occasion watched as the mushroom cloud formed what one witness would later call a “stairway to Hell.” It was 1953, and bomb drops in the Nevada Proving Ground could no longer be said to be an unusual occurrence, but Operation Doorstep, as it would be designated, was not a regular test. It was a civil defense test—the first of its kind—meant to assess not just the force of an atomic blast but U.S. preparedness in the event of a Soviet first strike. Instead of simply targeting sand, the explosion detonated over purpose-built houses and cars brought in for the occasion. Pantries were stocked, living rooms furnished, mannequins positioned on sofas or dining room tables, stoically awaiting their fate. And as the irradiated dust settled across the scraggles of sagebrush, a team of men in protective suits went forth to see what the explosion had wrought.

Many things are deeply strange about Operation Doorstep, but two elements call out for closer scrutiny today. The first is that the mannequins who inhabited the ersatz town were all white, having been donated by a Las Vegas Sears. The second is that the houses targeted by the bombing—“typical American frame dwellings,” in the words of one propaganda film produced in the test’s aftermath—were the kinds of spacious two-story structures one would expect to find in segregated suburban communities like the several Levittowns scattered across the country. The residents of such commodious homes would have the space and the money to install a well-appointed outdoor bomb shelter of the type recommended by the organizers of Operation Doorstep; failing that, they might clear some space in their roomy basement for a lean-to or box-type shelter. Yet a strategic attack was far more likely to hit a dense urban center than it was a sprawl of tract housing—and its victims were far more likely to be low-income people of color with neither the space nor the resources to abide by the rosy recommendations of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA).

The whiteness of Operation Doorstep was not a fluke: white supremacy was a core part of both the U.S. nuclear program and the country’s civil defense throughout the Cold War. In a 1963 op-ed entitled “Can Negroes Survive a Nuclear War?” sociologist Nathan Hare excoriated the all-in-this-together attitude of public civil defense messaging, arguing that such official cheer flew in the face of the facts on the ground. “Negroes in our big cities now live in bulls-eyes enclosed by white satellite suburban rings,” he wrote. “Mo­­re than nine out of ten of all Negroes living outside the South . . . live in cities.” For many of these citizens, the types of preparedness strategies modeled in Operation Doorstop were an impossibility:

With an average income about $2,000 smaller than the average white family’s, and with more mouths per family to care for, the typical Negro could­­n’t afford a shelter if he wanted to. Not that this makes that much difference; slum dwellings and shelters near the center of the city would amount to incinerators anyway.

Throughout the atomic age, civil defense authorities demanded the active participation of Black citizens whom their measures failed to protect. At the same time, white bureaucrats were regarding the prospect of a post-attack future—one in which the infrastructures that reinforced white supremacy were at least temporarily knocked out—with increasing unease. For those in power, the prospect of nuclear carnage was as terrifying as the collapse of the racist hierarchies it had the potential to cause.

Read entire article at Boston Review

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