Bo Jacobs’ Interview
Robert “Bo” Jacobs is an American historian of nuclear technologies and radiation technopolitics. He is a professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute and the Graduate School of Peace Studies of Hiroshima City University. In this interview, Jacobs describes the colonialism of Cold War nuclear testing, and explains the training sessions he organized where young adults from Japan, the Marshall Islands, and other radiation-affected places learned how to collect oral histories of their communities. Jacobs discusses the culture of memory for communities around nuclear sites, the lack of compensation for downwinders and others affected by nuclear weapons, and Hiroshima’s efforts to promote a global peace culture.
Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly and it is February 15, 2019. We are in Hiroshima, Japan. I have with me Robert “Bo” Jacobs. The first question is to say your full name and spell it.
Jacobs: Oh, sure. Robert Jacobs, R-o-b-e-r-t J-a-c-o-b-s, but all my friends call me Bo, B-o.
Kelly: Great. Okay. Well, you have been living in Hiroshima for thirteen years.
Kelly: Tell me, how did you come to Japan in the first place?
Jacobs: Oh, it was unintentional. I’m trained as a historian of science and technology in American history. So I never studied Japan. I never studied Japanese. For me, academia was a second career. I had four kids in my 20s and then I started my bachelor’s degree when I was 30. I finished my PhD when I was 44, and I simply looked for jobs in the job market and one of the jobs that I found was at the Hiroshima Peace Institute. So I applied for that and got hired, and suddenly moved to Japan, moved to Hiroshima.
Kelly: What a great story.
Kelly: What was the job, what did you have—
Jacobs: It’s at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, which is sort of a broadly-defined peace institute. There’s sociologists, political scientists, historians, and for the most part, most of the people there are concerned with either regional peace issues like Southeast Asian peace issues, or war crimes issues, genocides. Some handful of us study either Hiroshima history, hibakusha history, or in my case, the history of nuclear technologies. I just came here basically as an entry-level assistant professor thirteen years ago, and I’ve been working here ever since.
Kelly: What kind of things have you discovered about nuclear weaponry or history of technology of weapons?
Jacobs: Well, my doctoral work that I did at [the University of] Illinois was about representation in popular culture in America, so the way that people learned to think about nuclear weapons, the way they learned to think about radiation, the way culture played with those things. After I moved here, I converted my dissertation into a book, but my focus shifted a lot. Essentially since I’ve been here, I’ve been working on, around issues that are now largely thought of under the term “global hibakusha.”
Essentially what that is is the history of people exposed to radiation since 1945. The word hibakusha—which is a Japanese word used for the survivors here in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—is being used by scholars to talk about other people who’ve been exposed to radiation through nuclear weapon testing, nuclear production, nuclear accidents, things along those lines. So in essence, the history of exposures to radiation since the two nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In doing that work, I’ve done a tremendous amount of field work at nuclear test sites, nuclear production sites, nuclear accident sites, and collected oral histories. That’s really the work I’ve worked on during the thirteen years I’ve been here in Hiroshima.
Kelly: You collected oral histories from places like the Nevada Test Site and—
Jacobs: Nevada Test Site, Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan, French Polynesia, Algeria. Places like Hanford. A wide variety of other places, too. For example, there was the nuclear accident in Palomares, where a U.S. military plane exploded and dropped four H-bombs in Spain. Two landed in the Mediterranean, two landed in a small village, Palomares, in southeastern Spain.
The two that fell on the village, they didn’t explode, but they cracked open and contaminated the village with plutonium. There’s still contamination there now. Places like that, interviewing people. Next week, I’ll be going to Chernobyl and then to Sellafield, the former Windscale site in northern England, where there was a nuclear power plant disaster in 1957.
Working with my colleague Mick Broderick from Australia, we’re interviewed service personnel from the U.S. military, British military, French military, Soviet military, Australian military, New Zealand military, people who were exposed to radiation through nuclear testing. A wide variety of cohorts in a wide variety of locations. Just two years ago, we were working out in Kiribati, on Christmas Island, where both the British and the U.S. conducted H-bomb tests in the late ‘50s. There’s numerous sites all over the world where we conduct this kind of work.
Kelly: That’s extraordinary. Is that a unique record you’ve created?
Jacobs: No. There’s a small handful of people who have done quite a bit of fieldwork in these places for various reasons. For example, photographers. There’s a number of photographers who’ve done extensive work in sites where people have been contaminated, from uranium mining to nuclear test sites. There’s probably, I don’t know, a couple of dozen people around the world doing some sort of work that brings them through these sites with a global focus. It’s really a post-Cold War focus—primarily before and during the Cold War, and even right after the Cold War.
Scholars and artists that worked on these issues tended to really stay connected to what I would refer to as an irradiating nation. There’s a group of people who study British nuclear testing, the victims of British nuclear testing, the soldiers of British nuclear testing. They kind of kept their boundaries around the nation that was irradiating people.
There’s people who’ve studied American nuclear testing. A lot of people who’ve studied French nuclear testing, British nuclear testing. In the last fifteen, twenty years, there’s beginning to be a cohort of scholars and artists and others, journalists—who are beginning to take a global focus to it, and not necessarily find themselves bounded by national definitions.
My colleague and I, Mick, who started doing this fieldwork probably eleven or twelve years ago—we had both been doing this work within our own bounded nations. He’s from Australia. He was interviewing people who suffered from British testing in Australia, plus also a lot of British soldiers. Whereas I had been talking to people at the Nevada Test Site and downwind from the Nevada test site and places like Hanford. In a sense, for me, moving here to Hiroshima shifted me out of my Americanist focus and gave me a more global perspective.
Also, just on a personal level, part of it was a reaction to the peace culture I found in Hiroshima. When I would hear here in Hiroshima—which you still hear today frequently at public events—that nobody else should suffer from nuclear weapons after what happened here and in Nagasaki.
Of course, I had been speaking to people who had been suffering since then and I realized that this was a missing part of the global scholarly narrative, that there’ve been millions of people who’ve suffered. Not direct attack the way that people did here. These are the only people—here and in Nagasaki—that suffered direct attack and suffered all of the effects of the weapons. But there’s millions of people who’ve suffered from radiation and suffered from nuclear weapons since 1945. And their stories are not really integrated into the histories of nuclear weapons.
Kelly: Well, this is remarkable. It is. We are looking at the Hanford downwinders.
Jacobs: Sure, yeah.
Kelly: And recently had an interview with Tom Foulds.
Jacobs: Oh, yeah, sure.
Kelly: For 25 years, he was helping to litigate. But it sounded from Trisha Pritikin’s interview that all of the lawyers from the top law firms were hired by the Department of Energy and its contractors.
Jacobs: Sure, yeah.
Kelly: And it was kind of an imbalance between what resources could be brought to bear.
Kelly: How about in other cases? Is this a common—?
Jacobs: It doesn’t even reach those points in most places. For example, people in—part of what I’ve written about, some of the work that I’ve done, has been around nuclear colonialism. For example, the British never tested a nuclear weapon inside England. The French have never tested a nuclear weapon inside France. The people that are chosen to be irradiated are for the most part what some people would call subaltern populations. They’re populations that can’t politically stop themselves from being irradiated.
So places like the Marshall Islands, places like Kiribati, French Polynesia, out in the Outback in Australia—they’re not litigating. Those people don’t have the resources that people in the developed world—like, for example, the downwinders at Hanford have. As badly as things went for the downwinders at Hanford, as much as they were outgunned legally in court cases, from the point of view of somebody from Rongelap in the Marshall Islands, at least they went to court.
Here in Hiroshima, there’s a huge budget behind memory culture and remembering what happened, remembering who suffered, remembering how they suffered. In most sites around the world there’s no memory culture. The memory culture is local; it’s oral history culture, for the most part. It’s oral tradition.
For example, when the U.S. at one point compensated—with not a sufficient amount of money—some of the Marshallese that were exposed to radiation. Primarily from the [Castle] Bravo test but also from other tests. Also the Bikinians, who weren’t irradiated, but who lost all of their land—they lost their property. The Rongelapese lost their property. A lot of people lost property, but a lot of people also suffered illness as well.
Part of that mechanism was that in the Marshall Islands they had a Nuclear Claims Tribunal, where people presented evidence for having lost property, where they presented evidence for health problems or relatives who died. From this fund that was allocated by the U.S. Congress, there was some compensation.
Because the fund was placed into Wall Street and the claims were paid out of interest, after a few bumps on Wall Street, the fund was gone. So most of those claims have been paid about 10% or 15%. But all of that testimony – you have all of this testimony from all of these people. It’s a tremendous historical record.
Well, the first time I went to the Marshall Islands, it was just in a small building rotting away. Not even an air-conditioned building. The Marshall Islands is a difficult place to preserve anything, because of how salty the atmosphere is and the lack of infrastructure in general. So all of this material was just being lost. Actually, it was preserved because an archive of a small town in Catalonia in Spain digitized the records in order to keep a copy of it.
But just maintaining even formally-produced memory culture and history in these places—it’s a challenge to even retain what little is formally produced. In places like Kiribati, there’s a small group of people who are trying to advocate for some compensation for their illnesses, but there’s not even good information about the testing history there.
The kinds of maintenance of memory culture and the kinds of capacity to be compensated, or at least to articulate your history publicly and be understood as having suffered, is a luxury of those in the developed world. Most of the people who’ve been exposed to radiation don’t have that kind of capacity.
People living in small villages in Kazakhstan, 20 kilometers away from the Polygon where they tested thermonuclear weapons, almost 500 weapons—both fission and fusion weapons—there’s essentially almost no maintenance of memory culture the way there is here in Hiroshima or in Nagasaki. And there’s essentially no means of compensation at all.
I’m involved a lot with the Hanford groups and supporting and studying what happened around Hanford. But for me, the frame—it really does also emerge of the difference between the developed world and where most of these irradiations happened. Which was in the developing world where people don’t have the capacity or the resources to either advocate for themselves politically or legally. And in many ways, to even preserve historical memory of what happened.
Kelly: You are on the ground trying to do that—fill that hole. Is that right? You and your colleague?
Jacobs: Yeah, and some other people. But it’s a drop in the bucket. We come in and we interview a handful of people in the course of a week or two. There are anthropologists that have worked for extensive periods in certain places and collected much more oral histories than we’re able to. But again, we run into this colonial dynamic.
We’re still white guys with microphones from a rich country who show up. On the one hand, we were very aware—Mick and I—from the beginning of our work, that we in some ways could be seen as a final wave of colonialism. We’re there for resource extraction and what we’re getting is stories, and we take it back to Japan or Australia and we have careers because we do this. So we understood that we’re not necessarily seen benevolently and we’re not necessarily behaving benevolently.
We try to, as a result of that—from the start—be aware of these dynamics, find ways to try to in some small way bring resources to community. But we also realize that—and I’ve seen it happen here in Hiroshima on a larger scale—but when people come into a community because they want to document the kind of things we want to. Similarly to when outsiders—especially let’s say English-speakers – come here to Hiroshima to interview hibakusha, there’s the standard people who are put forward by the community and tell the standard story to the outsider. There is a bit of a production of culture. It’s not inauthentic, but to penetrate below that is harder.
One of the things we did to try to achieve that, or work towards that – we did a few things structurally. One of the things we did was on our first visits—we did not collect oral histories. We simply met people, talked about our work, talked about them. We didn’t go into communities asking to be given things. We would try to build relationships and then try to return and conduct some oral histories.
But one of the things we became aware of in many, many locations was that people talked about how difficult it was to get young people in the communities engaged with this history. A series of things sort of came together. But for example, we were giving a lecture in the College of the Marshall Islands in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, in a nuclear studies class.
We were visitors from outside. The Marshall Islands don’t get outside visitors who aren’t there for the fishing industry, basically. The teacher told the students that they had to write a two-page response paper to our talk, so they all took out their phones and were filming us. We’re looking out at thirty students holding up phones, which to us looked like a resource.
So we began to think about networking young people between these communities through internet technology. We set up a few Skype conversations between—the first one was between students in the College of the Marshall Islands and students at my university. We just for an hour, completely unstructured, let them talk.
The first 15 or 20 minutes, the students from the Marshall Islands were asking the Japanese students to tell them about new anime and manga, because they knew they would get it quicker. They were talking about what was interesting to them, but they ended up talking about living in—inheriting radiation stories from their elders.
Eventually, what we arrived with was we had a handful of workshops, where we got together third-generation survivors—people whose grandparents experienced nuclear testing or nuclear attack. We held workshops in conducting oral histories. Our first workshop was held on the 60th anniversary of the Bravo test in Majuro in the Marshall Islands. We had students from Hiroshima, students from Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, and students from the Marshall Islands.
For three days, we simply trained them how to conduct oral histories, how to prepare for oral histories, how to record oral histories, how to conduct them, how to edit video and audio, and how to digitally deposit them. Because our hope was that oral histories could begin to be accumulated within community in indigenous languages through natural networks in those communities, rather than us white people arriving from outside and being escorted to the people who people like us are brought to talk to.
We’ve had a handful of workshops, but we had really limited funding. So we haven’t had workshops in a couple of years. But we did have workshops that involved Hiroshima and Nagasaki students, Kazakhs, Marshallese, and Australian Aboriginal students.
This is one of the ways that we’re trying to do more than just come in and remove resources, but try to actively network within the communities among young people. Part of our hopes, too, was that for the students from Hiroshima and for the students from—I say students. They’re 20. A college student is 20 years old, 22 years old. All of them were. Going to the Marshall Islands was an amazing experience. Part of our hope is that the bonds that those young people form in that setting endure and they stay in touch with each other through Instagram, through email, through whatever.
When we first started to go to these communities, the only networking that there was, was at a very elite level. There was a handful of people in each of those communities who are good English speakers, who can go speak at the United Nations, who can represent the community as a whole. Most of the people who live in those communities don’t experience any benefit. They sort of know their story is being shared. But we thought that somehow through Internet technology, networking with young people could have some powerful effects over time.
This is sort of some of the way we constructed the—I suppose ultimately a way we could feel good about the work we were doing and not feel like we were being exploitative. You know, it’s partly what that comes from—to not just show up and expect to be given valuable stories.
There is some—there are people, primarily anthropologists, who will spend like a year in places and they’ll collect a lot of stories. One of the roles that our work plays is that those collected stories are contextualized within a broader narrative of what it means to endure nuclear weapons and radiation.
Kelly: Well, this is just—it’s fascinating what you’ve done. And it’s so creative to bring these young people together with the media they know best, the internet and Skyping and—
Jacobs: We thought, “How can we bring resources to the community?” We had a tiny grant and we really couldn’t do that much. But my colleague, Mick Broderick, he had been doing work in Rwanda, helping to train young filmmakers how to make feature films. Not long feature films, but how to make—I wasn’t a part of this, so my understanding is both short documentaries and short features using cellphone cameras, using affordable technology.
He’s a media studies scholar, originally, so he had had some experience in doing this kind of work with people using low-cost, low-tech things. He was thinking this way, and it was easy through our conversations with—one of the people that sparked it really was the person who at the time was the mayor of Bikini Atoll. Most of the Bikinians live in Majuro, which is the capital of the Marshall Islands. They don’t live on Bikini. We talked with him about trying to get young people involved. It just sort of emerged into this notion that maybe this would be one way we could bring some resources instead of remove some resources.
In some ways, it was just a natural reaction to understanding how lucky we were to be able to fly in and out of places. And go in there and find these resources about all of this history and then go back to comfortable lives where we don’t have to endure any of the legacies.
Kelly: Yes. Wow. So what has—you mentioned that collectively all these individual nations or ethnic stories, whatever, the downwinders, lead to a global perspective. What kind of things have you observed globally?
Jacobs: Oh, I would say the fact that, first of all, people in less-developed places can be treated as people whose integrity doesn’t have to be respected. You can irradiate their land, you can irradiate their food supplies, you can irradiate them, and basically have no consequences for it. It’s a grim legacy of the Cold War that remains largely invisible when we talk about the Cold War.
On top of that, I think probably one of the most dynamic things we’ve seen is that there’s tremendous resilience in communities who have suffered in these ways. People find ways to manage living in contaminated environments and manage holding memory culture, holding the memories of what happened, and trying to reclaim land. Obviously, when there’s radioactive contamination, there’s only so much that can be done in terms of remediation and land reclamation.
But working around those things, forming community, maintaining—most of the Bikinians have never been to Bikini—so maintaining their sense of identity as a community without the benefit of land.
A lot of what it is globally, we’ve been able to see was that—one of the ways that I would put it, and I’m working on a book now, this is a part of it—is that when we say that the Cold War is a war that didn’t happen, that’s just a luxury we have because it didn’t happen to us. That there are millions of people for whom the Cold War wasn’t cold. They’re invisible, we don’t include their stories. We tell ourselves, comfort ourselves that the Cold War didn’t happen, it was a war that didn’t happen. That’s one of the legacies, that’s a fundamental legacy for me. That’s essentially what I’m writing about now as an outcome of this.
Well, I would say that as an American taxpayer, this is something I paid for and it’s important for me to understand what are the consequences of the actions of my government. That wherever we stand politically, we are all complicit in these actions. We’re all complicit in not remediating these sites, and we’re all complicit in not compensating these people in some way, if even to just acknowledge their suffering.
Kelly: Who would you say—if they had a spectrum of people who were most well-recognized and compensated, and those who are least well, how—
Jacobs: I would say nobody’s in a good position. The people who I would say are in probably—and I’m sure that you have histories and interviews that go into how terrible this is—but some of the only people who have actually been compensated to any degree are a small amount of people in nuclear production in the United States. For example, workers at Hanford—not people who lived in the community at Hanford. So employees within the production complex.
Some small number of American soldiers have been compensated. Some small number of French soldiers have been compensated. The people who have done the best are the people who have been in the employ of—in some way or other—of the countries who were producing these materials or testing these weapons.
Only a tiny fraction of them—and usually to a very small degree of the compensation that they’re probably due in terms of the expenses and suffering they’ve endured. But outside of the people who were direct employees who suffered in a sense as a part of their labor, that’s really pretty much mostly the only ones.
There’s some compensation here in Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the Japanese government. There’s healthcare provided for hibakusha. But for the most part, the people who lived near the test sites, except for a small number of people near the Nevada Test Site. A tiny bit of the fraction, a tiny bit of the claims that were awarded, paid in the Marshall Islands.
I know the French started—I think it’s called the Morin Law, as I recall, a compensation program for those exposed to radiation from French testing. But I believe that in French Polynesia, there were ten people whose claims were admitted, so it’s primarily French soldiers who’ve been paid or laborers who’ve been paid. There’s a few funds in France and England and the U.S. that have compensated to a very small degree some of their own laborers, workers, and soldiers.
A tiny, miniscule fraction of the people exposed in some of these places, in the Marshall Islands, received a tiny bit of compensation. In Australia, some people downwind in southern Utah, some people have received small compensation.
One of the problems in terms of compensation for people, or them being able to make a legal claim, is our models of understanding harm from radiation. These are based on the work done here at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission and the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. They’ve been studying the health of the hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki since 1950. Their primary study—which is the lifespan study—only examines external exposure to radiation, because that’s primarily the main cause of harm here in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, being exposed to the direct attack of a nuclear weapon.
Most of the people in nuclear test site locations, in nuclear accident locations, they’re not exposed to high levels of external radiation. They’re exposed to a large amount of particles that they may internalize. So they may internalize into their bodies various fallout particles, various radioactive radionuclides. The illnesses that proceed from that kind of exposure are very different than the illnesses that proceed from external exposure.
There’s a lot of controversy and there’s a lot of dynamics to this work. But for the most part, for example, people in Fukushima who lived where the fallout came down, people exposed downwind from the Nevada test site or from places like that—a lot of the illnesses that they develop are not the illnesses tracked in the lifespan study. Or even if they are, they’ll often internalize a particle, so you may develop thyroid cancer, lung cancer or stomach cancer, leukemia, various kinds of things like that.
The model of causation we have for that is large external exposures of radiation, rather than small internalized particles of radiation, radionuclides. As a result, we don’t have a medical model for the health problems that proceed to most of the communities that have suffered exposures. Imagining, as we did during the early Cold War, that what was going to happen—what was ahead for us was a large nuclear war. We were building up health models and risk models based on people who were exposed to large nuclear detonations or to any nuclear detonations.
But that’s not the way the Cold War unfolded. The way that it unfolded was you had millions of people exposed to fallout, and being exposed to fallout is really different than being exposed to the burst, the gamma-ray burst, of the weapon itself. All of our models for health risk and health and illness from radiation are based on people being exposed to a burst of gamma radiation.
The millions of people who’ve been exposed to radiation since 1945 have not been exposed to large bursts of gamma radiation. They’re not close to the weapons when they detonate. But they are in places where huge clouds of fallout may deposit particles. And those particles will have a fair amount—some of them are short-lived, like iodine-131. Other ones may be in the ecosystem for hundreds of years, like cesium-137. Things like plutonium and uranium last over hundreds of thousands of years. Depending on the specific particles that deposit, the risks are really irregular.
If you internalize that, the kind of illnesses that develop are not necessarily the way things were modeled in the lifespan study. It’s very difficult to prove causation for the illnesses that develop. “Did that lung cancer come because you internalized a particle, or did it come because you smoked?” Or, “Did your bowel cancer come because there’s a particle that you internalized, or did it come from nature, did it come from toxins in your ecosystem?”
That causation is difficult to determine, and as a result, it’s almost impossible for people who’ve experienced illness because of being in an ecosystem where there’s been a deposition of fallout. It’s very difficult for them to legally—even if they had the resources to assert this—to legally prove that the cause of their illnesses were these fallout particles.
Our models were based on preparing for nuclear war. They weren’t based on spreading fallout around from testing nuclear weapons. But the second one is the one that happened. We spread fallout around from testing nuclear weapons. We don’t really have health models and risk models for that, and so it’s difficult for people to obtain any compensation.
Kelly: Very difficult. And that’s my experience in working with Manhattan Project veterans. You mentioned before the workers—people employed have the best chance. But a man who had a causative agent in that he had berylliosis, related to his work during the war on beryllium. The government turned it down because he was working for MIT, and that wasn’t considered a contract employee, or whatever. They found a little escape hole.
Jacobs: And we would wish that there would be appropriate responses to the suffering people endure, but of course, what there is the avoidance of liability. That’s the way these things end up. Even people like there, you have somebody who’s in a privileged position compared to somebody in Kiribati, a child in Kiribati, and they can’t obtain compensation and they can’t obtain recognition for what happened.
Kelly: Right. There was just this week a New York Times story about the Dutch filmmaker [The Atomic Soldiers, by Morgan Knibbe]. You—
Jacobs: I think he probably went to the recent conference of the National Atomic Veterans Association in Portland a couple of months ago, I assume. He interviewed a bunch of American soldiers who took part in tests in Nevada. It’s haunting, it’s haunting interviews.
Because they’re telling the stories which you hear soldiers from almost any nation tell, of basically covering their eyes at the moment of a test shot and seeing their bones through their bodies, seeing the bones of the person next to them through their bodies. Realizing that they’re being exposed to a lot of radiation as a result of that, struggling for any kind of compensation, being silenced by secrecy acts and various other policies inhibiting them from talking.
This is the story you hear from soldiers from all of the nations that tested above ground, is that they experienced these kinds of exposures. They were given very little information and they develop health problems and essentially can’t get compensation or recognition. In these cases, you’re talking about people who are experiencing a significant amount of gamma radiation in some cases, because they’re seeing through their bodies. But they’re also now in this environment where they now have to usually perform maneuvers—the soldiers do—and there’s all kinds of dust. There’s a blast wave, it’s often a desert setting and so they’re internalizing particles as well.
It’s really heart-wrenching, because you feel this sense of betrayal and tragedy in those soldiers in this video. But that’s just exactly—having interviewed soldiers, as I said, from numerous countries—that’s exactly the interviews you get. That’s exactly what you hear from people. It’s a very different cohort than the downwinders, the people who live near the test sites or the production sites, because these are people who were members of the military. They tend to be proud of their service, they tend to be enthusiastic supporters of their government and proud of their government’s capacities. There’s a deep sense of betrayal, often, both pride and betrayal. That’s really evident, I think, in those interviews.
People in French Polynesia—it’s just a sense of, “I was basically treated as though my life was unimportant.” Whereas the soldiers have this different tone. It’s really heart-wrenching. It’s a very powerful film. It’s a short film, it’s 14 minutes, and it’s very powerful, because it’s just the person talking right there and it’s very easy to feel the emotional depth of their storytelling. That kind of stuff needs to be around there more.
The place that had the most nuclear detonations on earth is Nevada. Americans don’t think of the United States as having suffered very much irradiation, but I’m sure you’ve probably seen U.S. government-produced maps of fallout clouds crossing the U.S. There’s quite a lot, and part of the reason that there was opposition to testing inside the United States and anxiety about testing was that in the late 1950s, people were beginning to find radiation in upstate New York.
Physics classes would test for background radiation and find high levels. Because of the fallout clouds crossing the U.S. from Nevada, there was radiation turning up all around. I mean, from the Trinity test itself, there was film produced by the Kodak Company that was put in boxes that were made from strawboard that was irradiated in Illinois from the Trinity fallout cloud. From the very, very first test what you’re finding is a deposition of particles a thousand miles downwind. And then we started testing dozens and dozens of weapons in the course of a year in Nevada.
Of course, the United States wouldn’t test thermonuclear weapons. This is getting to that colonialism that I’d been speaking about earlier. I forget the exact number, but I think it’s 14% of the tests that the United States conducted were conducted in the Marshall Islands. But over 80% of the yield of all American tests were the tests in the Marshall Islands, because of the size of the thermonuclear weapons.
Even though Nevada has more tests than anywhere on earth, the U.S. was well aware that it was irradiating people because of these tests, and it specifically chose the Marshallese as the people to be irradiated as opposed to the people downwind from the Nevada Test Site. Even though there was plenty of irradiation of people downwind from the Nevada Test Site.
Kelly: But are there other things—five more minutes—that we should talk about that would be helpful to—?
Jacobs: One of the things I would say since you’re here in Hiroshima—this is one of the things that interests me—is that ever since I got here, there’s this narrative about Hiroshima and Hiroshima peace culture. What is the role of Hiroshima. The role of Hiroshima is to bear witness, so the world understands what happens when nuclear weapons are used.
The way that the narrative has unfolded here is that if leaders of nuclear weapon states would come to Hiroshima and see Hiroshima, if they would hear the stories of the hibakusha, they would understand how inhuman these weapons are. And that would help compel elimination of nuclear weapons. You still hear that said in this town, even though [Barack] Obama came here a few years ago. And he did not go back home, he did not realize, “Oh, these weapons are terrible,” and go back and dismantle the United States’ reliance on nuclear weapons. He committed to further funding for nuclear weapons.
So Hiroshima is at this crossroad where it needs to figure out what role it plays in participating in the abolition of nuclear weapons. For me, what that highlights is that the nuclear abolition movement for 70 years has been focused primarily on the notion that we’re going to get rid of these weapons by proving that they’re unethical. I really don’t think there’s a lot of people who claim that they are ethical. I think even the people who advocate for their production and deployment would say, “Yes, they’re unethical. That’s why we shouldn’t use them, and deterrence is the way not to use them.”
I think, personally, as somebody who opposes nuclear weapons completely, that what we need to do is we need to look at the economies behind nuclear weapons and not talk about the ethics of nuclear weapons. We in the United States – we’ve committed to spending a trillion dollars on nuclear modernization. There’s a lot more ways we could get significantly better security as Americans with a trillion dollars of spending than nuclear weapons. I would advise people looking to abolish nuclear weapons to think about—to talk about the money, not talk about the ethics. Everybody agrees on the ethics. Nobody thinks these are ethical weapons.
I’m trying to encourage people in Hiroshima to talk about money and not just say that the weapons are unethical. Just since we’re here in Hiroshima, I thought I would mention that.
Kelly: Richard Rhodes, in his book—the third of his quartet on nuclear history, which focuses on Chernobyl and [Mikhail] Gorbachev and such—he said that we commonly say we bankrupted the Soviet Union. They realized they couldn’t spend more money on this. And yet we should look at how we bankrupt the United States and weren’t able—what investments did we not make in education—
Kelly: And infrastructure and all of those areas.
Jacobs: I agree with that entirely. I think that the reason that we have the healthcare system we do, the reason we have the crumbling infrastructure we do as Americans, is because of what we invested in. Things that did not make us secure. Things that made us less secure. In that way, I sometimes tell my students that the Cold War was a war by the Soviet Union against the Soviet people and by the American government against the American people, both in terms of irradiating their own population and bankrupting their own populations. And using the collective wealth of their citizenry essentially in a way that was not to their benefit.
Kelly: Well, on that note, perhaps there’s hope for the future. We can say we made big mistakes in the past.
Jacobs: I’m an irrational optimist, just because it feels better. But I do have great faith in human beings. I think almost all human beings are really decent people who want the best for their communities. So that, I think, is a powerful thing and we should really support that.