Negotiating Citizenship in a Nuclear Age

AHA Session 132
North American Conference on British Studies 3
Society for the History of Technology 2
Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago, Second Floor)
Natasha Zaretsky, Southern Illinois University

Session Abstract

Since the advent of nuclear weapons, radioactive contamination has troubled the boundaries of the nation-state. As knowledge about the geographic dispersion and harmful effects of nuclear fallout developed during the 1940s and 1950s, nuclear fear spread globally, mirroring the movements of radioactive effluents. Individuals and grassroots organizations in communities worldwide began to reevaluate their relations with nuclear technologies and nation-states. They questioned whether and how the dangers posed by nuclear weapons changed individuals’ relationships to community, nation, and world. Nuclear science and technology provoked new thinking about citizenship.

This comparative panel will explore the changing and contested meaning of citizenship in the nuclear Cold War--across geographies and across time, from the post-war Pacific and United States to the United Kingdom’s struggles during the 1980s. How did communities respond to the development of these powerful and dangerous technologies? How did the emergence of new knowledge about massive, technogenic harm affect thinking about global connection and a changing international community? How did such challenges alter the ways in which communities thought about their own political participation?

Although a rich historical literature has begun to trace more fully the truly global contours of the Cold War, few of these histories have focused on the importance of everyday people and communities in shaping national and international responses to nuclear technologies. The papers presented will explore new ideas of nuclear citizenship arising at the grassroots level as communities grappled with the emerging understandings of nuclear harm. In doing so, the panel will emphasize synergies between historiographies of science, technology, and environment, on the one hand, and literatures of citizenship and political belonging, on the other.

Focused on activists’ opposition to these new and powerful tools of statecraft, the panel papers will also deal integrally with the conference theme of loyalty. What did it mean to be loyal while objecting to these powerful new tools of foreign policy? Who decided the meaning of loyalty in a festering atmosphere of paranoid secrecy? What constraints on the rights associated with citizenship--rights of expression, movements, association, and the like--did dissident activists face as they espoused positions that politicians felt to be disloyal? Who validated nuclear knowledge, and what role did it have in shaping governments’ obligations to the governed?

Together, these papers will show how nuclear technologies reoriented ideas about rights and obligations, loyalty and belonging, and activism and participation. The panelists will demonstrate the varied and contested ways historical actors used vocabularies of citizenship to make claims and demands of governments. Likewise, the papers will scrutinize structures of power inherent in antinuclear activism, exploring how individuals and communities mobilized politically and legally to achieve social change. These themes were not only powerful in the past, but also remain so today as new, wide-scale technogenic threats like climate change stand alongside decades-old threats of nuclear harm, challenging how political communities are made and bounded.

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