Military-Industrial Toxins from World War II to the Palomares Semicentennial

AHA Session 4
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Grand Ballroom A (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Pete Daniel, National Museum of American History

Session Abstract

In his landmark 2005 monograph Toxic Drift, historian Pete Daniel meticulously reconstructs and critiques the close symbiotic relationship between postwar federal bureaucracies and chemical companies in the United States, yielding  “market first, test later” pesticide policies that maximized both corporate profits and environmental risks, poisoning countless persons, fish and wildlife. “In the quarter century after World War II,” he summarizes, “the commercialization of synthetic pesticides spread toxic residues across the globe, just as the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and subsequent atmospheric tests … internationalized radioactive fallout.” Expanding the analogy while examining distinctive localities, this panel explicitly weds the toxic politics of ill-regulated agribusiness so effectively detailed by Daniel with that of U.S. military-industrial imperialism—from “Good War” chemical weaponry and its commercial applications to Vietnam War herbicides and suburban adaptations to Cold War nuclear arms and radioactive wastes in Spain.

Since the 1940s, global movements of American troops and technicians, with their chemical and nuclear arsenals, have presented unprecedented challenges to land, environment, habitat, territoriality and sovereignty. Consistent and often complicit with overseas expansionism, corporate profit-seeking has simultaneously created new domestic markets for battle-tested technologies, retooled to increase crop yields, decrease urban/suburban pests, and maximize nuclear energy production. This panel asks, in part, how the public-private partnerships of the military-industrial complex both created synergies of scientific innovation and externalized costs of proliferating contaminants, as they advertised new lawn and household products and undercut grievances over toxicity.

As U.S. wartime mobilizations expanded research infrastructure and market protocols, toxic migration in southeast Asia and environmental exodus in southern Spain threw raced and classed outcomes into stark relief, as poor people of color bore greater risks of toxicity, higher costs of decontamination. Supported by both the Pentagon and its international allies, defense contractors Dow, Monsanto, Westinghouse and others enjoyed dual subsidies, constituting a globalized upward income redistribution, from poor, working- and middle-class taxpayers to executives and shareholders, capital resources and surpluses flowing from lower-income nations to U.S. conglomerates.

As these three papers demonstrate and their larger projects elaborate, cover-ups and cleanups have proven particularly onerous, as institutional secrecy, non-disclosures, and omissions forced local people to pay high prices—with years of effort toward remediation and restitution, with their health, and with their lives. Across the global South, in Almería as in Alabama, environmental injustice insured that, as panelist Ellen Griffith Spears has written, “predictably, the black workers were employed in particularly hazardous jobs, drumming the chemicals, and in cleanup and in the laundry.” Just days short of the Palomares semicentennial, this panel asks finally how American slow violence, at home and abroad, has been most effectively contained over time by persistent organizers and intergovernmental agencies, implementing mechanisms of transparency and accountability.

See more of: AHA Sessions