5 Questions About Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Sarah Alisabeth Fox discusses Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West. 

Read Holly Werner-Thomas’ review of Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West online and in issue 47.2 of OHR. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Downwind is the story of ordinary people in the southwestern United States who came to realize their communities were impacted by radiation exposure during the Cold War. This exposure took many forms; my book is concerned primarily with atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in Nevada and the uranium industry which developed in the Four Corners region to support nuclear weapons development. The Indigenous and settler residents of this region couldn’t see, smell, or taste radiological contamination as it entered their food supply, their water, and their communities, but many of them did observe the towering clouds of nuclear tests and the material changes uranium mining imposed on familiar landscapes. When illnesses and deformities began to appear in livestock and wildlife, then in human populations, many locals began to wonder about possible linkages to the uranium industry or nuclear testing. Some began listing and mapping the illnesses and losses they observed in their families, workplaces, and neighborhoods, and exchanging information with friends and neighbors. Toxic exposure is difficult to prove; years may pass between exposure and the emergence of physical symptoms, a phenomenon Rob Nixon has called “slow violence.” These people were attempting to make slow violence visible. Their observations coalesced in practices of popular epidemiology, which utilized local and experiential knowledge to document patterns of illness and environmental change that eluded formally trained scientists and technicians. Individually, these stories are frequently discounted as “anecdotal” evidence. Considered together, in conversation with other forms of archival and scientific evidence, they provide ample documentation of a devastating betrayal of people and places in the name of national security and technological development.

As knowledge-holders in these communities age and succumb to illnesses most likely related to radiation exposure, this history is beginning to recede from people’s awareness. Many of the individuals I interviewed for my book have since passed away. The book is no replacement for their stories, but hopefully it serves to amplify them, particularly given the resurgent interest in uranium extraction, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons development. Numerous radiologically contaminated Cold War sites continue to pose health risks across the western United States (and the rest of the world), and much is still unknown about the long-term health implications of low-level radiation exposure for people in these communities and their descendants. The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Program is scheduled to sunset in 2022, but we still have a long way to go to achieve justice for these communities, deemed national sacrifices in the pursuit of U.S. nuclear hegemony. This is particularly true for Indigenous communities like the Western Shoshone, the Navajo Nation, the Southern Paiute, and New Mexico’s Pueblo nations, who are still dealing with the violence of displacement, treaty violations, and ongoing contamination related to nuclear development.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Oral history methods and content are fundamental to Downwind, but I want to clarify, the book isn’t an oral history collection, per se. It is a book that relies on oral history evidence. Excellent oral history collections do exist for anyone who is interested in reading, writing about, or teaching those important records. I recommend the Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History and Photography Project’s Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind (Red Sun Press, 1997), Carole Gallagher’s American Ground Zero (MIT Press, 1993), Trisha Pritikin’s The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice (University Press of Kansas, 2020), and the University of Utah Marriott Library Downwinders Archive online oral history collection, which is growing all the time.

When I began research for this project in 2005, I was hoping to document the way people living downwind of the Nevada Proving Ground (today, the Nevada National Security Site) developed an understanding of how their own lives, communities, and foodsheds were impacted by nuclear tests in their region. Carole Gallagher’s book was an incredible starting place: I spent a lot of time poring over the oral histories she c

ollected in the late 1980s to get an initial sense of how people in the region conceptualized and relayed this history. I also started gathering archival records that contained first-person testimony from downwinders, including letters to elected officials, legal and congressional testimony and newspaper articles spanning the 1950s – 1990s. Before I conducted my own interviews, I spent time analyzing these printed downwinder accounts, utilizing folklore methodologies to map prevalent themes, motifs, phrasings, and narrative arcs. I knew that downwinder stories were composed of more than individual memories and experiences; they also incorporated community knowledge, media revelations, and research that many of these individuals undertook years after the events they were describing. Folkloric analysis helped me to identify and delineate patterns, shared memories, and research-based knowledge.

When I began conducting my own oral history interviews, I faced several challenges. Many of the downwinders whose stories and testimony I had been studying had already passed away, and I surmised that many of the downwinder storytellers who remained might be weary of relating such painful stories. With that concern in mind, I began my oral history work by reaching out to some of the more public-facing downwinder activists. Once I had developed relationships and trust, these individuals graciously began connecting me to friends and fellow activists across the region. I utilized the same approach to gathering oral histories on uranium exposure. This slow, trust-based networking continued for years, and I still conduct oral history interviews related to radiation exposure today, six years after the book’s publication and 15 years after my work on this topic began.

Oral history interviews helped me to map a major historical episode as it played out across environments, communities, families, industries, and decades. The structure of Downwind derives from the dominant themes that surfaced in the oral histories I studied and gathered. The voices and stories from these interviews help readers to grapple with the local, human scale of historical episodes like the Cold War and political issues like nuclear weapons proliferation that are usually discussed in abstract national or global terms.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

I love oral history as a methodology for its efficacy in mapping the contours of lived experience and relationships with place and community. As many educators, health professionals, and social scientists have argued, “people are experts on their own lives,” and I’m really interested in the ways that expertise is developed, organized, and relayed.

As many… have argued, “people are experts on their own lives,” and I’m really interested in the ways that expertise is developed, organized, and relayed.

Using oral history as a methodology in history, environmental studies, and public health research brings community expertise into academic conversations in ways that really shift the discussion. It’s simply not possible for academic researchers to apprehend the full picture of a complex event like nuclear weapons testing or uranium mining on their own. We need the stories of people local to that event to understand how it came to shape places, bodies, and perspectives at the scale of ordinary lives.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

I think fellow oral historians will be interested in the book’s interdisciplinary approach, which engages oral history with folklore, archival research, and environmental studies methodologies in order to investigate questions of community memory, social movement formation, environmental change, and practices of popular and professional epidemiology. Methodological questions aside, this is a little-known and really important history that has been kept alive by ordinary people’s resilience and willingness to tell their stories, and I hope other oral historians are drawn to it for this reason also.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

I’ll paraphrase a line from the book. All wars, no matter how abstract, “cold,” or distant they may seem, happen in places where people live, grow food, and raise children, and the effects of those wars linger in the soil, the bodies, and the memories of those who survive. As a society we need to reckon with this slow violence, and attend to the expertise of those who have experienced it firsthand.