There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
Veterans Day, Ninety-Five Years On by Adam Hochschild and Joe Sacco
The enduring folly of the Battle of the Somme.
NOVEMBER 11, 2013
Veterans Day in Ireland by Jason R. Myers
For one thing, it’s not Veterans Day, it’s Remembrance Day. For another, it’s not an official holiday, even though some 200,000 Irishman fought in World War I.
NOVEMBER 11, 2013
Prepare to Welcome Our Troops Home from Afghanistan by Vaughn Davis Bornet
America’s longest war will soon be over.
NOVEMBER 11, 2013
This Veterans Day, Beware the Dangers of Robot War by William Astore
This Veterans Day, we need to turn away from the false promise of robot weaponry
NOVEMBER 12, 2012
Veterans Day is a Time for Love for One’s Country by Vaughn Davis Bornet
What can be said on Veterans Day 2011 that has not been said repeatedly over our years of remembering war and that final peace?
NOVEMBER 11, 2011
This Veterans Day, Let’s Reflect on the D.C. War Memorial by Jeffrey S. Reznick
We should celebrate the newly-restored District of Columbia War Memorial.
NOVEMBER 7, 2011
Remembering Generosity and Commitment this Veterans Day by William Astore
Let’s remember that America’s veterans have often exhibited remarkable generosity of spirit and awe-inspiring levels of commitment.
NOVEMBER 11, 2010
Honoring Indian Veterans This Veterans Day by Ed Hooper
More than 44,000 Indians served in World War II.
NOVEMBER 7, 2010
Keeping Veterans Day Alive by Ed Hooper
Veterans Day celebrations are in retrenchment all over the country.
NOVEMBER 1, 2009
This Veterans Day Let’s Hear from the Troops Themselves by Robert E. Bonner
This years Veterans Day comes in the wake of fierce political campaigning over which policies best serve the interest of U.S. soldiers.
NOVEMBER 10, 2006
On 21 October a Holocaust memorial in the French city of Lyon was vandalized. The memorial plaque at 12 rue Sainte-Catherine in the central part of town contained the names of the 86 Jews arrested at that address on 9 February 1943. It was the largest single roundup of Jews in the city. Most of those arrested were subsequently murdered in Auschwitz and Sobibor. On the plaque, black paint was used to cross out their names.
Sadly this is only the latest such act of defacement in Europe and the US this year. Still, there is something especially ironic about this instance. The victims of this roundup had already been, effaced in a sense–forgotten after the war, then manipulated during the 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief whose signature was on the Nazi records concerning the roundup, and finally ignored by the passage of time as it changed the once picturesque alleyway in central Lyon.
The Germans occupied Lyon with the rest of southern France in November 1942, but as of February 1943, the Gestapo in Lyon had arrested very few Jews. The German police were understaffed, underinformed, and they had to contend with French resistance networks in Lyon, which formed a critical hub of underground activity. Jews, meanwhile, were hard to find. Most, (even those who had arrived from Eastern Europe) spoke French and the trade in false identification papers became more vigorous with time. As one Gestapo officer put it, France was “an accursed country” because “you cannot tell a Jew from a non-Jew.”
12 rue Sainte-Catherine housed the Lyon headquarters of the Union générale des israélites de France (UGIF), the umbrella Jewish organization created at the behest of the German and French authorities. It continued the social welfare activities of prewar Jewish charitable organizations. 9 February 1943 was a distribution day. Jews arrived seeking everything from ration cards to medicines to advice on reaching and crossing the Swiss border. They were easy targets. Gestapo agents with military escort entered the UGIF offices and simply waited for Jews to show up. Eighty-six Jews were arrested. Others were warned away by the few who escaped the trap. Klaus Barbie reported to his superiors that he had bagged a critical resistance network. It was an early version of Barbie’s later tall tales of counter-intelligence expertise. But though the Gestapo fortuitously arrested a handful of young men and women involved in the Zionist underground, Barbie knew nothing of them or their network. None were even interrogated before their deportation.
The roundup was largely forgotten afterwards. Most of the arrestees were gassed, the few who escaped the roundup hid successfully, and Gestapo crimes in Lyon and its environs over the next year and a half became bloodier, ranging from torture to summary shootings to mass reprisal killings. With the liberation of France in August 1944, it was these most recent atrocities, locally carried out and largely against resistors, that were adjudicated. The French military trial of Barbie in 1952, in which Barbie was tried in absentia, centered on the bloody April 1944 German counter-insurgency campaign in the Jura region. A subsequent trial of Gestapo officials in 1954, in which Barbie was tried again in absentia, covered a range of crimes including the mass shooting of resistors in Saint-Genis-Laval and the mass killings at Bron airfield just before the German retreat. There was no mention of the rue Sainte-Catherine roundup.
Barbie, meanwhile, forged a new life for himself and his family in Bolivia, where the US Army Counter-Intelligence Corps had sent him in 1951 following four years of surely sub-standard work for the Americans. He was not discovered until 1972, not deported to France until 1983, and not tried in Lyon until 1987. “New” crimes now had to be found. Barbie was to be tried not for ordinary war crimes, but for crimes against humanity, which the French government made imprescriptible in 1964. Moreover, crimes already adjudicated in the 1950s could not be retried. Barbie had indeed committed several crimes that fit the legalities of 1987 trial, the details having been researched by Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld in the Gestapo records collected and held by the Centre de documentation juive contemporaine (CDJC) in Paris. The roundup at rue Sainte-Catherine was one of these crimes.
The matter was open and shut. Relevant Gestapo records with Barbie’s signature were submitted into evidence, and early in the trial, escapees and the lone living survivor from the roundup testified as to how the Gestapo arrested them or their loved ones. But a cruel wrinkle emerged by trial’s end. Barbie’s defense attorney was Jacques Vergès, a controversial and outspoken celebrity attorney known for anti-colonial activism. Hisclients in the 1950s included members of Algeria’s National Liberation Front standing before French military courts. In the 1960s, Vergès’s anti-colonialism developed into a more pronounced anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. He spun conspiracy theories concerning the Rothschilds’ supposed behind-the-scenes machinations before the Six-Day War, and he wrote polemics defending Palestinian terrorists who, he said, were stigmatized by imperialists backed by Jewish money. Now Vergès argued that the Barbie trial was a political setup by Zionists who aimed to obscure what he called similar Israeli crimes in the Middle East. The Zionists, Vergès insisted to one French magazine, “are always holding this [type of] trial. They rehash them so as always to appear as victims.” The Algerian press concurred that the Holocaust was “the Jewish Olympic flame which maintains global financial power imposed by the media.”
In his three-day summation at the end of Barbie’s trial, Vergès wove an elaborate theory. Why, he asked, was the rue Sainte-Catherine roundup only raised “out of the mud” in the 1980s? The answer, he said, was so that the Jews could manipulate its history. Barbie had reported in February 1943 that he had arrested resistors, and indeed, Vergès falsely argued, East European Jews at the rue Sainte-Catherine on 9 February had links to the Allies through Switzerland. Barbie had thus engaged in legitimate military counter-espionage. But the roundup, Vergès professed to reveal, was actually occasioned by the UGIF itself. The Union was “a collaborationist body,” of bourgeois French Jews who, like Vichy itself, viewed the deportation of poor working-class Jews as politically desirable. “It was the directors of the UGIF themselves,” Vergès said, “who lured the families to the headquarters … under the pretext of providing aid.” The court exhibits, Vergès continued, distorted the true picture. Records submitted into evidence were handpicked at the CDJC by his nemesis Serge Klarsfeld, while the UGIF records that revealed the “truth” lay hidden in same Jewish archive, which, he said, secretly maintained “a quasi-monopoly of information.” “Only the UGIF records, in possession of the CDJC, would have been able to get at the bottom [of] this roundup…. The archives at least partially place the responsibility on Jewish notables in the deportation of their brothers. Must we cover this responsibility or transfer it to Lieutenant Barbie? The question … looms in the conscience.”
In fact, the UGIF records at the CDJC had been open to researchers for many years. Vergès plagiarized much of his summation from journalist Maurice Rajfus’s deeply flawed book on the UGIF, published nearly a decade earlier, based on some of the long-available UGIF files. The French dailies did not doubt Barbie’s fundamental guilt. Still, having turned out in force to hear Vergès’s fiery summation after having skipped most of the trial including the testimony from the roundup’s survivors, some reporters were almost willfully bamboozled. No journalist followed up with the CDJC itself to see if records were really hidden. Instead Lyon Figaro assessed Vergès’s summation on rue Sainte-Catherine as “sometimes confused” but also “sometimes brilliant.” The Paris dailies were fascinated by the theme of “Jewish collaboration” and they liberally quoted Vergès’s one-liner that “the Jewish community … had its traitors.”
Though the court found Barbie guilty on all counts, the charges of Jewish coverups hung in the air. On the anticolonial and anti-Semitic left, Tunisian-born writer and filmmaker Said Ould Khelifa claimed that the Barbie verdict perpetuated the “western tendency toward the hierarchization of inhumanity.” Focusing on the rue Sainte-Catherine roundup, Khelifa wrote that Vergès had delivered to the Jews a “terrible revelation.” The court, Khelifa insisted, had simply not seen all of the evidence. In the years ahead, French Holocaust deniers routinely referred to UGIF collaboration with Vichy as a disclaimer of Jewish victimhood, and in the 1997-98 trial of former Vichy official Maurice Papon, the defense falsely charged that the UGIF had drawn up Papon’s deportation lists.
The plaque at 12 rue Sainte-Catherine accurately listing each of the roundup’s victims under the symbol of a Star of David was installed in 2011 by the Association of the Sons and Daughters of the Jewish Deportees of France. But it is a Holocaust memorial that, even before its defacement in October 2019, had been increasingly, and gloomily, out of place. The upper floors where terrified Jews were arrested in February 1943 have housed a barely reputable late night establishment named the Sauna Club des Terreaux since before Barbie’s trialin 1987. Gritty bars and take-out stands flank the building on either side. Few if any passers-by notice the plaque, the names on which were forgotten after the war, manipulated by anti-Semites thereafter, and now, have finally been, quite literally, crossed out.
“When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa.”
-Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal MP (later British PM), 1901
When gold was discovered in South Africa in 1884, many were ecstatic. Paul Kruger, President of the Boer republic of the Transvaal did not share the enthusiasm. “This gold will cause our country to be soaked in blood.” Indeed, the old Afrikaner would be proved right. Thousands of fortune-seekers from across Europe descended on his humble nation, turning a rough mining encampment into the city of Johannesburg almost overnight. The Boers looked upon influx of foreign miners and businessmen, “uitlanders” in Africaans, with fear and disgust.
The Republic of the Transvaal and its sister, the Orange Free State, had been set up by the descendants of Dutch settlers who had trekked north in the early 19th century to escape British rule. Called Boers, from the Dutch word for farmer, this community had developed a unique culture during the 200 years since first arriving in South Africa. They were deeply insular, religiously conservative, and fiercely independent. In the 1870s, the grasping hands of the British Empire reached and annexed the Transvaal. When conflict broke out in 1881, the Boers fought fiercely and reclaimed their independence.
The peace after the First Boer War was always shaky. Britain had certainly not relinquished its designs on South Africa’s natural resources. The growing uitlander population was also a source of rising tension. These foreigners, many of them British, were becoming wealthy and increasingly demanding political power in the Transvaal. The uitlanders received encouragement from British arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers, as well as the British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Both men believed that incorporating the Boer Republics into the British Empire was inevitable. In 1895, Rhodes funded the Jameson Raid, an ill-fated mission to seize the Transvaal. While the British government officially disavowed the raid, many in London had tacitly supported it. Anglo-Boer relations reached a new low and war appeared inevitable. In 1899, the British government forced the matter by issuing an ultimatum demanding full rights for the uitlanders. Knowing full-well that the Boers would refuse, Britain had sent troops to South Africa.
Britain was the wealthiest nation on earth and possessed an empire upon which the sun never set. Since the defeat of Napoleon, the 19thcentury had been a nearly unbroken procession of British progress and expansion. At the outbreak of the Second Boer War (called the Boer War hereafter), London was awash in excitement. It would hardly be a war at all. The chief worry of the British soldiers was that the fighting would be over before they arrived. The determined Boers would see to it that the British had all the fighting they could handle and then some.
Rather than the expected easy British victory, the war began with disastrous Britain defeatson all fronts. In three battles, the British suffered nearly 3,000 casualties. The London press dubbed it “Black Week,” and the Empire was sent into an uproar. The Boers also besieged several important British settlements. In the field, Boer leaders repeatedly surprised the British forces with their superior mobility and better knowledge of the local terrain. Rather than facing the British directly, the Boers used hit-and-run tactics to disrupt British supply lines.
The aging Queen Victoria spoke for her empire after Black Week when she defiantly announced: “we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.” Britain re-doubled its efforts, ultimately sending nearly half a million troops from across the Empire to overwhelm the total force of 50,000 Boer commandos. In early 1900, this overwhelming influx of men and materiel decisively turned the tide. The cities of Kimberley, Mafeking, and Ladysmith, which had been besieged by the Boers, were soon liberated. The British offensive then advanced on Pretoria and Bloemfontein, capitals of the Boer Republics.
After the capitals fell and the main Boer forces were defeated, many, including the British commanders, believed the war was over. The British even announced the re-annexation of the Transvaal. However, the Boers refused to surrender. Their governments continued to operate on the run, and bands of Boer commandos embarked on a guerrilla campaign.
Britain’s response to the Boer insurgency was swift and brutal. British military leaders ordered the destruction of Boer farms and homesteads and the internment of Boer civilians. The roundup soon encompassed over 100,000 Boers, mostly women and children, in a series of concentration camps across South Africa. As the British focused on pacifying the country, they paid scant attention to their captives, who began to die of starvation and disease at horrifying rates. By the time the British forced the Boers to surrender in May 1902, over 20,000 women and children had perished.
Outside South Africa, the Boer War has been largely forgotten amidst the sea of 20thcentury horrors. However, the Boer War provided an uncanny preview of 20thcentury warfare. The killing power of modern weaponry was on full display, upending centuries of military theory. The stubborn Boer insurgency provided a guide for later asymmetric conflicts. The British responded to resistance by extending the boundaries of the war to the entire Boer population. The doctrine of total war rationalized the wanton destruction of civilian property. The awful suffering imposed sparked global outrage and inspired a powerful antiwar movement in Britain itself.
The Boer War also shaped the careers of several towering figures. War correspondent Winston Churchill’s daring escape from Boer captivity made him a household name. Attempting to demonstrate India’s vital role in the Empire, Mahatma Gandhi organized a volunteer ambulance corps. Future South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts led a series of audacious assaults on the British Cape Colony. Reporter Sol Plaatje, who later founded the African National Congress, witnessed the racism of both the British and the Boers. Their voices provide eloquent accounts of the 20th century’s first conflict.
The 19th century witnessed tremendous advances in military science that fundamentally changed the nature of warfare. Explosives developed by Alfred Nobel and others made the cannonball of Napoleon’s day seem almost quaint. Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, a water-cooled weapon, could fire a remarkable 600 rounds per minute. Until the Boer War, European colonial powers were content to use these devastating new weapons primarily against poorly armed local populations. Many European leaders believed these weapons would not be used in “civilized” warfare. Instead, they stubbornly relied on outdated military doctrines such as the gallant frontal charge.
For the British high command, the Boer War was a rude awakening. Their Boer foes had the most recent quick-firing rifles, machine guns, and artillery to boot. At the war’s outset, British troops marched in close formation and aggressively charged into battle. Invariably, they were slaughtered by the Boers. Sol Plaatje reported with amazement, “they [the British] stroll about in a heavy volley far more recklessly than we walk through a shower of rain.” The combination of outdated tactics and general arrogance led to the disasters of Black Week and cost the British commander his job.
By setting two well-armed foes against each other, the Boer War provided a first glimpse into the changing role of man in war. Previously, individual virtues such as valor and determination could change the outcome of a battle. Now these human attributes were increasingly subordinated to the awesome killing power of modern machinery. The valiant frontal assault would become a suicide charge against machine guns. Courage would count little against the Lyddite shell, which was said to kill nearly everything within a 50-yard radius. War began to lose its luster when it became less about individual bravery and more about the impersonal killing power of machines. All the signs of this terrible evolution of war were present on the battlefields of South Africa. However, some in Europe clung to their old romantic notions. Had they learned from the Boer War, perhaps some of the outright butchery of WWI would have been avoided.
No Safe Place
By September 1900, the British had captured over 15,000 Boer commandos. They controlled all the major cities and had put the Boer governments to flight. Hundreds of thousands of British troops were stationed across South Africa. With their main armies defeated, the Boers organized a well-coordinated guerilla campaign.
The Boer insurgency provided a new template for effective asymmetric warfare. Their commandos infiltrated their home areas, where they relied on local knowledge and partisan support. The commando units were remarkably non-hierarchical, giving each great autonomy in identifying British weaknesses. Commandos were typically expert marksmen and were motivated by the fervor that comes from defending one’s homeland. An impressed Churchill described them as: “thousands of independent riflemen, thinking for themselves, possessed of beautiful weapons, led with skill… moving like the wind, and supported by iron constitutions.”
The British soon realized that their control in the Boer territories extended only as far as the sights of their rifles. During 1901, the British repeatedly offered peace, but the Boer leadership’s hard core of “bitter-enders” refused. Boer commanders Christiaan de Wet, Louis Botha, and Koos de la Rey continued to effectively harass British settlements, infrastructure, and businesses. Smuts led an extended raid into Cape Colony, sparking panic among the British subjects. These attacks made it impossible for the British to restore economic productivity and social order in South Africa. For all its military might, Britain found that defeating an insurgency was far more difficult than winning on the battlefield. America would learn a similar lesson in the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq.
Throughout history, civilians had often suffered the direct and indirect effects of war including violence, looting, displacement, and famine. What was unique in the Boer War was that a modern Western nation targeted an entire civilian population. Using their superior industrial power, the British vigorously pursued a doctrine of total war and turned the entire country into a warzone. Under this doctrine, anything that could aid the Boer guerillas must be destroyed.
The consequences were devastating. As historian Martin Bossenbroek explains, orders were given to burn the farms of Boer commandos. These farm burnings “often…were not reprisals for sabotage but random acts of destruction,” wrecking economic havoc on the civilian population. This indiscriminate campaign surely violated the 1899 Hague Convention forbidding “collective punishment.”
The civilian situation deteriorated further when Lord Kitchener took command of the British forces. Determined to strangle the insurgency by any means necessary, Kitchener constructed what Bossenbroek describes as an “immense metal web” throughout South Africa. Kitchner’s web included hundreds of military blockhouses and dozens of civilian internment camps.
While earlier conflicts had used internment or concentration camps, the scale employed in South Africa was unprecedented. The network of camps soon swelled to contain nearly 100,000 Boer civilians, mostly women and children. Africans caught up in the conflict were also interned in significant numbers. The British military authorities responsible for the camps had put little thought into the welfare of the internees. As a result, conditions in the camps were appalling. Deaths from starvation and disease spread with terrifying speed. By October 1901, some camps experienced death rates exceeding 30% per month.
Many Boers bitterly questioned whether British policies sought the annihilation of the Afrikaner people. Historian and Member of Parliament Thomas Pakenham argues that Kitchener did not desire the deaths of women and children in the camps, rather “he was simply not interested” in their fates. In Kitchener’s single-minded quest for victory he had “uproot[ed] a whole nation.”
Ultimately, total war brought victory. The Boers were worn down and demoralized by the suffering of their people. As Deneys Reitz, a young Boer commando recalled, his troop was reduced to “starving, ragged men, clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered with sores.” Not only did independence now seem impossible, but continuing the war now threatened the very existence of the Boers. Kitchener’s triumph showed the brutal effectiveness of making the civilian population a target of military operations. In WWII, the German Blitz and the Allied firebombings similarly attempted to break an opposing nation’s will to resist.
British policies in South Africa did not escape the world’s notice. From the beginning, many saw Britain as the grasping, bullying aggressor. When the Boer delegation arrived in Europe for the 1900 World’s Fair, they received a riotous ovation. In America, Teddy Roosevelt expressed deep sympathy for the Boers. However, as Bossenbroek notes, such feelings did not translate into material support. Nations recognized Britain’s naval dominance and did not wish to antagonize the Empire by supporting the Boers’ hopeless cause.
Within Britain, the Boer War helped create the first modern anti-war movement. The conflict cost over 2.5 million pounds per month, (nearly 400 million dollars per month in 2019). The main beneficiaries seemed to be arms dealers and the wealthy mining houses. For many reformers, a seemingly interminable faraway war was an outrageous expense while Britons at home lacked adequate nutrition, healthcare, and education.
While economic considerations surely influenced some anti-war voices, the humanitarian issue truly captured British hearts. One remarkable woman, Emily Hobhouse, is responsible for alerting the British people to the horrors in South Africa. She spent months investigating the camp conditions, and what she found utterly shocked her. Not only did the camps lack sufficient food, clean water, and medicine, but internees whose male relatives remained in commandos were punished with starvation rations. Hobhouse declared: “I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty…to keep these Camps going is murder to the children.”
Despite pressure from British authorities, Hobhouse shared a detailed report of her findings. The public outcry was swift. Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who led the Liberal opposition deplored the “methods of barbarism in South Africa.” A young David Lloyd George went even further, calling British actions “a policy of extermination.” His fervent opposition to the war burnished his growing political reputation. Under increasing criticism, the Conservative government agreed to send a commission to South Africa. Led by the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, the commission confirmed Hobhouse’s assertions and demanded immediate policy changes. The military relinquished control of the concentration camps to British colonial administrators, and the death rates began to plummet. The episode demonstrated that democratic politicians now needed to consider the humanitarian consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, the masses retained significant moral blind spots and governments simply worked harder to cover up human rights abuses. Nonetheless, the popular campaign against the outrages in South Africa marked a watershed in anti-war activism.
An Enduring Legacy
The Boer War reverberated throughout the British Empire. Global sympathy for the Boers showed London how resented the Empire was. Other nations appeared all too eager to take advantage of any further signs of British weakness. Although Britain remained the dominant world power, its days of “splendid isolation” were numbered. In 1902, Britain concluded a treaty with Japan to secure their Pacific holdings against European rivals. In 1904, the Entente Cordiale ended centuries of animosity between Britain and France. By signing an agreement with France’s ally Russia in 1907, Britain protected its claims in Afghanistan, Iran, and its crown jewel, India. With this final deal, the Triple Entente was born.
The Boer War also revealed the grime of poverty below the veneer of Victorian splendor. Embarrassingly, many potential British recruits were rejected because they were too poorly nourished. The richest nation in the world could not even feed its people. Such revelations motivated Liberal efforts to create the basic forms of social welfare.
In South Africa, the war sowed the seeds of apartheid. The peace concluded at Vereeniging offered exceptionally lenient terms to the Boers and pledged millions of pounds to rebuild the nation. This arrangement left the Boers with political control across much of South Africa. Considering white Boer dominance to be preferable to African sovereignty, the British soon reconciled with their bitter foes. In 1906, the Boers were granted significant legal autonomy, and in 1910, the colonies joined to become the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion.
Many of the “bitter-enders” were still unhappy with any degree of British authority. Winston Churchill believed this opposition was based on “the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man.” Indeed, to the Boers’ racialized worldview, even Britain’s tepid endorsement of African legal rights was anathema. Just before WWI, former Boer commander Barry Hertzog founded the National Party, which fiercely defended Afrikaner culture and white supremacy. Although an opportunistic 1914 Afrikaner uprising was suppressed, the Afrikaner nationalists never stopped trying to slip the British yoke. During the next few decades, the ruling Afrikaner minority systematically stripped black Africans of their rights and pushed for greater separation from Britain. Leaders like Jan Smuts attempted to maintain unity, but in the chaos after WWII, the right-wing nationalists won out. The National Party’s victory in 1948 enabled the final construction of the apartheid state.
The British accommodation with the Boers betrayed Britain’s non-white allies. In exchange for supporting the Empire, Indians and Africans had been promised legal and political equality. Before the war, Gandhi had believed “if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defense of the British Empire.” After the war, he expressed the disappointment of many, “learn your lessons, if you wish to, from the Boer War. Those who have been enemies of that [British] empire a few years ago, have now become friends.”
Africans felt similarly betrayed. Sol Plaatje described the racist ways the British had mistreated their African allies. During the siege at Mafeking, Africans were given the lowest rations and ultimately were forced from the city to reduce the number of mouths to feed. A British administrator described the widespread African discontent well: “they received a rude awakening. They found the country was not theirs; that we had not fought to give it to them, and most of all that the owners went back and still owned the farms.” For Gandhi, Plaatje, and others, British duplicity forced them to acknowledge that true equality could never be obtained within the Empire. The struggle for equality would become a struggle for independence.
There is something darkly poetic in the timing of the Boer War. It offered a grim preview of warfare and the social conditions that would shake the world during the 20th century. The devastating power of modern weaponry and the challenges of defeating an insurgency would force a fundamental reevaluation of military strategy. Lines between civilians and combatants would be increasingly trampled. As a result, the suffering of innocents would reach an unprecedented scale. The Boer War was the first spring of these deadly flowers of modern war.
Patriotism has been defined many ways, but I prefer Martha Nussbaum’s in her Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice: “A strong emotion taking the nation as its object … . It is a form of love.” It “can play … an essential role in creating a decent society, in which, indeed, liberty and justice are available to all.” Her examples of great patriotic leaders include not only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but also Martin Luther King Jr., an adherent of non-violence and breaker of unjust laws. Such patriotism does not demean other nations, but wishes them well. It is not self-satisfied, but values critical dissent and realizes much work is still necessary if one’s country is to live up to its highest ideals.
Valuing critical dissent and realizing more work needs doing are essential to true patriots. Pseudo patriots, however, wish only to emphasize a country’s heroes and heroics, and minimize or ignore its villains and villainy. In response to critics, they reply “love it or leave it,” believing love does not criticize. They think that historians should help inculcate patriotism, but they want only half-baked history.
They share the viewpoint of right-wing columnist Jarrett Stepman. In his The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past (2019), he begins by stating, “An informed patriotism is what we want… . Is the essence of our civilization—our culture, our mores, our history—fundamentally good and worth preserving, or is it rotten at its root?
His “informed patriotism” suggests a false dichotomy—”fundamentally good and worth preserving” or “rotten at its root.” But history is not so simple. Historians’ main allegiance should be to truth-telling in all its fully-baked complexity. Granted, we all have our biases and see history through the lens of our own interests. But our main job is not to glorify a country—or an ethnic group, or a gender, or a particular person—but to tell the truth, warts and all. Like all countries, the past of the USA has its glorious, sublime moments, but also its nasty, disgraceful ones. Neither can be ignored.
These reflections are especially appropriate in light of Donald Trump’s continuing insistence that he is attempting to “Make America Great Again.” For the slogan appeals to Americans who wish to ignore past U. S. sins, especially the racism that killed and brutalized so many Native Americans and blacks, including slaves.
In a 2017 article entitled “Who Are We?”, conservative columnist Ross Douthat suggested that many Trump supporters preferred “the older narrative” of U.S. history, the one that glorified Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, Lewis and Clark, and Davy Crockett, the one that emphasized the melting pot (not multiculturalism), and the U.S. Christian tradition (not separation of church and state, and certainly not any secularist thinking).
In response to Affirmative Action and the “Black-Lives-Matter” movement, many Trump supporters, especially older white men, see themselves as today’s true victims. As one Trump supporter claimed, “White lives matter, too, you know.” Such individuals believe Trump can help them “get their country back,” a country that would once again be dominated by white, male Christians, a country where history is taught so as to glorify American exceptionalism and not “tear it down” by harping on any perceived past flaws.
As columnist Roger Cohen has pointed out, ”I want my country back” is not just a U.S. sentiment. “It is the universal cry of the global wave of rightist reaction.” It helps fuel anti-immigration, anti-Islamic, and anti-semitic feelings in various countries.
In the late 1980s I witnessed a similar reaction in the Soviet Union. These were the days of Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness). It was wonderful to see Soviet citizens’ hunger to learn their true history after they had been denied it for so many decades. Many of the crimes of Lenin and Stalin were exposed, but defenders of the two men fought back, and the battle over their history and reputations continues today in Russia, where Lenin and Stalin remain more popular than other Soviet leaders including Gorbachev. Rather than face up to the truths of the crimes of Lenin and Stalin, President Vladimir Putin attempts to manipulate Russian history for his own benefit. Like many of Trump supporters unwilling to acknowledge the USA’s past injustices, many of Putin’s followers refuse to acknowledge all the sins of Lenin and Stalin.
In 2015, Poland elected a right-wing government that “promised to make the country’s past great again” and combat a “ pedagogy of shame.” In 2018 it made it a crime to blame Poles for any Nazi atrocities. The government hoped to stifle any tales of anti-SemiticPoles collaborating with Hitler’s forces. This year it has interfered with a museum devoted to the history of Polish Jews. The museum’s offense? Exhibiting evidence of Polish anti-Semitism.
Mention of Nazi atrocities recalls, of course, the Holocaust and all the other evils perpetrated by Hitler and the Germans who followed him. Earlier this year, Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil appeared. One of its chapters deals with “The Sins of the Fathers,” i.e., the German fathers of the Nazi era, but more than one hundred pages deal with what Neiman labels “Southern Discomfort.” She is referring to the “discomfort” of U. S. slavery and racism. Having grown up in the U. S. south, she believes that the slavery and racism that existed there has not been adequately recognized by the U.S. public. The aim of her book is to indicate what we might learn about dealing with those sins from the way Germans have acknowledged and dealt with all the evils that emanated from the Nazi era.
On the occasion of 2019’s Veterans Day, the controversy over The New York Times (NYT) 1619 Project illustrates well the contested relationship of history, past sins, and patriotism. The project’s aim is“to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 [when slaveswere brought to Virginia] as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
But many pseudo patriots objected. As Adam Bruno wrote on this site a few months ago, such objections typify those who wish to weave “unadulterated patriotism into the center of the country’s historical quilt—a move that conceals the broader ups and downs of the past.”
He contrasts the criticism of the project by conservative media and individuals such as National Review, Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States, and former Speaker of the House Representatives Newt Gingrich with individuals like historian Andrew Hartman, whose A War for the Soul of America declared that “those aspects of American history that shined an unfavorable light on the nation, such as slavery, were ignored or explained away [by conservative media] as aberrations.”
Gingrich, who received a Ph.D. in history from Tulane University, typifies the half-baked historical approach. He tweeted that “the NY Times 1619 Project should make its slogan ‘All the Propaganda we want to brainwash you with.’” In her justly praised These Truths: A History of the United States, Jill Lepore refers to Gingrich’s 1996 book To Renew America as “a fantasy, useful to his politics, but useless as history—heedless of difference and violence and the struggle for justice. It also undermined and belittled the American experiment, making it less bold, less daring, less interesting, less violent, a daffy, reassuring bedtime story instead of a stirring, terrifying, inspiring, troubling, earth-shaking epic.” Yet, she acknowledged “that fairy tale spoke to the earnest yearnings and political despair of Americans who joined the Tea Party, and who rallied behind Donald Trump’s promise to ‘make American great again.’”
The problem with the type of history written by Gingrich and O’Reilly is not that they interpret it differently from historians like Lepore, who happens to be more progressive in her politics. In his second Annual Message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln stated “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Lepore begins her U.S. history by quoting these words. But the history of Gingrich, O’Reilly, and other half-baked historians fails to disenthrall itself from a pseudo patriotism that belittles historians who see both sides of U.S. history, the positive and the negative.
A favorite metaphor of U. S. politicians is to refer to their country as a “city upon a hill,” meaning a shinning beacon for the world. John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama all spoke of it, with Reagan most suggesting that ideal had been achieved. In 2016, Republican Mitt Romney, his party’s 2012 presidential candidate,warned that Donald Trump had “neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
Many pseudo patriots and half-baked historians believe that by trampling out all the nay-sayers and “fake news” and by restoring white Christian supremacy, Trump can restore the “shining city on a hill,” can “Make America Great Again.” True patriots and true historians know, however, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, that the city on the hill is still a work in progress, a work that is in peril under a president many historians consider our worst ever.
April 26, 1986. Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union. The Number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. The blast propelled a massive amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere. This fallout covered a wide area of what is now Ukraine and Belarus, and western Russia. Soviet officials put the death toll at no more than 54 people.
Within weeks, the Soviet government declared that the radioactive fallout posed no danger to human health, and it offered reassurance to affected citizens as it distributed numerous manuals with recommendations on continuing to live in the contaminated regions.
Eventually international agencies such as the United Nations also minimized the human health and environmental aftereffects of the Chernobyl explosion. Those who complained of problems from nuclear contamination were labeled “radiophobic.”
Acclaimed historian Professor Kate Brown embarked on an unrivaled journey of scholarly investigation to learn more about the aftermath of this devastating nuclear disaster. In her impassioned and lively new book, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (WW Norton), she recounts her findings based on extensive archival research, travels in the “Zone of Alienation” and beyond, and numerous interviews of scientists, officials, factory workers, farmers, health care professionals, radiation monitors, and others.
In her exploration, Professor Brown found evidence of extensive medical and environmental damage from radioactivity in Ukraine, Belarus, and beyond. She also unraveled an international effort to minimize public awareness about the dangers posed by nuclear power, nuclear testing, and nuclear weapons research. She traces similar efforts to downplay damage from radioactive contamination since the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and warns of the dangers that the nuclear radiation presents after almost eight decades of nuclear weapons and energy.
Based on her investigation, Professor Brown learned of dramatic increases in cancer, birth defects and other medical problems linked to Chernobyl. As documented in archives and as reported to her by scientists and other professionals, she found that tens of thousands of people—not a few dozen—died as the result of radiation from the massive nuclear explosion. She also describes ongoing medical and environmental problems that persist in the aftermath of the disaster. And, as clean energy initiatives often prescribe nuclear energy as an alternative to carbon-based fuels, Professor Brown calls for careful consideration of what happens when technology fails and we are left with in the wake of nuclear disasters. Her book raises profound environmental concerns based on careful investigation in the vein of Rachel Carson’s iconic volume Silent Spring.
Kate Brown is currently a professor in the Science, Technology and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is renowned for research that illuminates the convergence of history, science, technology, and bio-politics. She has written three other award-winning books, including A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland; Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten; and Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Plutopia earned many awards including the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge and John H. Dunning Prizes for the best book in American history: the George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History, the Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize of the Association for Slavic Studies, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Robert G. Athearn Prize from the Western History Association.
Professor Brown’s teaching and research are also widely recognized. For example, she has received numerous fellowships and, in 2017, she was awarded the Berlin Prize by the American Academy in Berlin. Her current research focuses the history of “plant people:” indigenes, peasants, and scientists who understood long before others that plants communicate, have sensory capacities, and possess the capacity for memory and intelligence.
Professor Brown generously responded by telephone to questions about her work as a historian and her new groundbreaking new book, Manual for Survival.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your groundbreaking book on the Chernobyl disaster, Professor Brown. You are a recognized expert in Soviet and Russian history. What sparked your interest in this field? Was there something in your family background or in your childhood that drew you to this history?
Professor Kate Brown. I don’t have any Slavic heritage or anything that I know of. But I remember I went to a movie called Red Dawn about the Soviets attacking Colorado. And fortunately, the Coloradans had guns and they could defend themselves. It’s a stupid movie and I recognized it to be a cult movie or propaganda, but I was upset that the kids in the movie theater were cheering every time a Communist was killed. And I went home and I was complaining to my parents about it. My mom was there smoking a cigarette and she says, “Well, do something about it. Study Russian and change the world.” And I decided, well dammit, I’ll just do that.
The very next week I signed up for classes in everything Russian. Russian history, Russian grammar, and Russian literature mostly in translation. My aim was to go to Russia and see if it really was an Evil Empire. I guess I’ve always liked to know things for myself rather than relying on someone else’s knowledge.
Robin Lindley: And then you traveled to Russia.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes. By 1987, I had enough Russian grammar and language to study in Leningrad as an exchange student. Just then all kinds of interesting things were starting to happen between Gorbachev and the United States. After that, I just kept going. I was part of a crowd of Westerners who worked in the USSR at the end of that polity. Gorbachev liberalized visas and politics, which made it easier to spend time in Soviet Union and carry out joint programs.
Robin Lindley: Did you also work as a journalist?
Professor Kate Brown: Yes, I did. When I was in Seattle in a graduate history program at the University of Washington, I initially didn’t have funding for my studies, so I worked through a work study program. I worked for KCTS, the public television station, on their weekly news magazine. And then I worked at KUOW, a National Public Radio station where I was a beat reporter. The job wasn’t complicated. I’d get to work at eight in the morning. They’d say, Boeing’s on strike or there is a problem over water rights at the Snoqualmie Falls. And I’d go off and I’d get some interviews and I’d have my story on the radio by 4:00 PM, whatever the story. That was a real crash course both in figuring out how to get a lot of information really fast and how to organize material into a news story. I learned to stick a microphone in people’s faces. And I learned to tell a story with a narrative arc. And then I met some people at the TV station who went on to make documentary films. They hired me as a researcher and scriptwriter for their documentaries.
And in 1992 I ended up in Munich working for Radio Free Europe. And then I went to Moscow and I did some stories for Radio Free Europe from there in the fall of 1992.
I have that kind of experience, and I enjoyed it. But then I thought I wanted to do longer form journalism and I wanted to write my own books. I didn’t want to just write a story that’s on in the course of a day. And I wanted more control over the stories I told and how I told them, as opposed to the rigid format, whether it was TV or in short form journalism. So, I chose a career in academia, which meant I would have a smaller audience but I could have more autonomy in what I wrote.
Robin Lindley: And you pursued grad school and earned a doctorate in history, but you wanted to write for scholars and the general public.
Professor Kate Brown: Academia is full of all kinds of wonderful ideas and fantastic research-driven, creative work. But sometimes academic writing turns off popular readers. And so that was one other missing part for me. Was it possible to do nuanced, creative research and then tell about it in a way that’s compelling and can reach any kind of high-school level reader? That’s always been my mission. So I wrote my dissertation as a first-person travelogue. I got some trouble for it because dissertations are usually more formally written, but I was stubborn and finally my advisors just said do whatever you want.
Robin Lindley: Did that desire to put your brand on a scholarship bring you to history graduate school?
Professor Kate Brown: I didn’t think so much of a brand, but as a lease to liberate myself from the constraints that I saw imposed on grad students and academics, and we often put these constraints on ourselves.
Robin Lindley: Your journalism background served you well. Your writing is very engaging and accessible. I believe you have described yourself as a partisan historian. In Plutopia, your book on the plutonium cities of Hanford, Washington, and Ozersk, USSR, you included information from non-expert people you interviewed who actually lived in the areas you wrote about in addition to your archival research. You also broke from most scholarly writing with first-person reporting on your research.
Professor Kate Brown: When you work in the archives, you get kind of a sketch or an outline of what real life is like in whatever period you’re studying. And, when you go to a place, especially if it’s going to a place for recent history, you can see what it looks like. You can see how the physical world is also an actor in your stories: the way the rivers flow, how the soils soak up water.
You can read the archival record, but it really helps to get the fine grain detail by going to a place and then talking to people. People can really clue you into their local knowledge that is so important. And they know things that experts don’t know. They know things that you only get a glimmer of working in the archives.
I don’t just take people’s word for it. After talking to people, I can go back to the archives and try to cross-check what they tell me. Often, I have a whole new understanding of an event after hearing firsthand accounts.
Robin Lindley: And you also did extensive interviews for your new book on Chernobyl.
Professor Kate Brown: With Chernobyl, I did a good number of oral histories. What I found in the archives is that the officials were having arguments among themselves. Some doctors and scientists who studied the accident were reporting major health problems. But experts in nuclear medicine who were Moscow, Vienna, Paris, or New York were saying that, with the kinds of emissions and the kinds of estimated doses that they calculated people received, they didn’t expect major health problems. They would explain the rise in the frequency of disease by saying that these people were anxious, or they drank too much, or they had a poor diet and a poor economic situation. They basically devised an alternative narrative to attribute to those health problems, though I didn’t see hard evidence of drinking or a rise in anxiety. So, what helped, I think, is that I would just go talk to people and get their stories, and confirm one version or another of the oral histories with the material in the archives. But then I still wasn’t sure.
So, in this project, I took yet another step and I enrolled myself as a participant observer with two biologists who were the only two scientists I could find who regularly worked in the Chernobyl Zone twice a year since 2000. They are like clockwork arriving in the Chernobyl Zone in June and in September. They use the contaminated Chernobyl Zone as a natural experiment, a massive field lab. I started going along with them, and I learned a lot. I learned forensic methods to detect radioactivity in the natural environment as I traveled with them. Later, outside the Zone, when I went to Chernobyl-contaminated areas where people continued to live, I could see evidence of damage in the environment using techniques that I had learned from the biologists.
And that was a third way to cross check the story, which I knew was going to be controversial. I was really intent on verifying the stories I was getting. And, as I was talking to people, I figured I could use science also. People lie and archives lie, but maybe trees don’t.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for describing your approach to research. Did your research for Plutopia on those plutonium cities spark your book on Chernobyl?
Professor Kate Brown: For sure it did. I felt like this was a bit of a sequel for Plutopia. I started out with a very different set of questions for Plutopia, but I kept running into these farmers, whether they were in Siberia or in Eastern Washington, who had very similar stories to tell me about their health problems. And I knew that they weren’t talking to each other and they didn’t share a common language.
I tried to do as much research as I could in archives, but those cities were both military sites. The American government wasn’t terribly curious about what happened off site of the nuclear reservation. And the Russians kept some studies of people living down river and downwind of the plant who were exposed, but those studies were off limits to me as a researcher. So I figured Chernobyl might be a good place to look and try to get more about that health story because it was a civilian site and it happened later.
I walked into the archives in Kyiv (Kiev) one day. I asked what they had from the Ministry of Health on the medical consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. They said that was a censored topic during the Soviet period and I would not find anything. I asked to look anyway.” Sure enough, it took three seconds to find a whole document collection entitled “The Medical Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe.” Big bound collections. I started reading them and I realized that the archivists didn’t know about these files. They discouraged me not because they were trying to deceive me, but because nobody else had ever pulled them before.
Robin Lindley: It surprised me those files had been untouched until you came in.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes. And over and over again, I had that experience in Minsk and Zhytomyr, Gomel and Mogilev. To be the first to check out the files. With two research assistants, we found files down to the county level. In sum we found thousands of records that described, in one way or another, environmental exposures and health problems.
I also was convinced that I came across again untapped archives in the Belorussian Academy of Science. The Belorussian government was doing a great job of ignoring the contamination story and pretending Chernobyl didn’t exist, but scientists at the Academy had privately gotten very worried and they started their own case control studies on several topics, but mostly related to children’s health and the health of pregnant women. And those studies are really convincing. They had all the relevant data such as dose estimates. I guess that’s when I determined I believed what’s called the alarmist stories.
Robin Lindley: What were some of your major findings on the medical and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe? The official death toll was about 50 people but you learned that radiation illness probably contributed to tens of thousands of deaths.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes. The official death toll most often cited in the big publications is that 33 to 54 people died from the Chernobyl explosion, but that’s just from the acute effects of radioactivity. Those were fireman and plant operators who were exposed massively right during and right after the accident, and most of them died within the next couple of months in one hospital in Moscow.
But I found the death toll was much higher. I found that not 300, the official count, were hospitalized after the accident for Chernobyl exposures, but 40,000 were hospitalized, 11,000 of them were kids were hospitalized for exposures in the summer after the accident.
The Ukrainian government gave compensation to 35,000 women whose husbands died from causes related to radiation. Now that number is limited. It included just men who had documented exposures. It doesn’t include children or women or babies. And that’s the number just for Ukraine, which got the least amount of any radioactive fallout, while Belarus received far more.
We tried really hard to get some kind of count for Belarus and Russia about fatalities from Chernobyl, but there simply is no kind of official count. So, 35,000 is the lowest possible number. On the thirtieth anniversary at the Chernobyl visitor center, the official tour guide said that the death toll was at least 150,000 in Ukraine alone.
Robin Lindley: How again did you come up with the figure for men who died?
Professor Kate Brown: About 35,000 wives received compensation because their husbands died from a Chernobyl-related radiation illness. That means that these men did some kind of work in which they were monitored so they had a film badge or some other dose estimate. Their doses were recorded or reconstructed, and then their illnesses were on a list of illnesses that were attributed to Chernobyl contamination. They died leaving their widows some income as compensation. So that’s how that number was created.
Robin Lindley: What evidence did you find on birth defects?
Professor Kate Brown: There’s all kinds of evidence in the book. The evidence I had was a study here and a study there and observations here and there. But the one study that’s been done that fits standardized Western protocols was by Wladimir Wertelecki who teaches at the University of South Alabama. He carried out a study in the northern province of Ukraine. He found that there was a six times higher rate of neural tube birth defects (a category that includes spina bifida and anencephaly) in people who live in those northern regions. He also found elevated rates of cesium in the bodies of people in that northern Rivni Region.
Anencephaly and spina bifida are also big problems in Eastern Washington [the site of Hanford]. In 2010 the State of Washington became alarmed because there was a 10 times higher than expected number of babies with anencephaly in Eastern Washington, especially in the three counties around Hanford. They did a study and wrote a report that you can get it online. To the best as I know, this little epidemic is not over and the numbers continue to be high. The Washington State epidemiologist wrote in this report that they don’t know what’s causing these defects. He said they looked into all kinds of things such as nitrates and pesticides and genetic factors and radiation from Hanford.
They reported that they were told by the Department of Energy that radioactivity does not leave the Hanford site. If you know anything about Hanford, you know that’s a statement that only a very gullible person would believe. So that’s largely a silent, unexplored topic, but one we see in areas where people have been exposed to radioactivity.
Robin Lindley: What a tragedy for those families. Another issue that’s related to the physical health consequences of the Chernobyl disaster of course is the mental health of citizens after the catastrophe itself. I think you mentioned cases of posttraumatic stress disorder and just the general stress of living in that situation.
Professor Kate Brown: The United Nations’ bodies first said that the health problems were from the fear of radiation. But some researchers and scientists find that real neurological damage caused by exposure to radioactivity can cause emotional disorders. There are also people who work in microbiology who have found that when you have a disorderly microbiome in your gut that is damaged from some toxin, whether it’s a chemical toxin or a radioactive contaminant, that that can trigger emotional problems as the gut serves as a sort of a second emotional brain. A lot of how we feel every day has to do with our microbiome and our gut.
These cases suggest a lot of unanswered questions. A purpose of the book is to urge citizens to ask their leaders and public health officials to get more curious about the long-term effects of chronic low doses of radioactivity. We know a lot about high doses of radioactivity and human health, but researchers repeat that they know next to nothing about low doses. We know about high doses from the Hiroshima studies. We don’t know about these low-dose effects because we have never really studied people who live in those conditions.
Robin Lindley: Your book serves as a call for further research. What were some of the environmental consequences of the disaster that struck you? You mention harm to animals and plants and even decreased pollination.
Professor Kate Brown: What was really striking was when I went from the Ministry of Health records to the State Committee for Industrial Agriculture records, I saw that the people in the Soviet Union did their best to monitor food supplies and levels of radioactivity in the in soils, water and air. And when they found high levels of radioactivity, they went in with bulldozers and they scraped away the topsoil and dumped it far away from the villages. And they scrubbed down surfaces and asphalt and buildings with chemical solvents to try remove any radioactivity.
They could get these villages to a level of making them livable, but then they would come back two weeks later, and the radiation levels would be nearly as high. And they realized that radioactive isotopes could mimic minerals that plants and animals need to survive, that go from soils, air and water into the plants, then into the animals. And then, because humans sustain themselves on plants and animals, they take in these materials and bring them to their villages. And as they go into the villages with their shoes or their tractor wheels, they bring in dust and dirt from the forest and the field. And that all those contaminants gather in human population points.
So the exposures for humans were consistently from ingesting contaminants. Once you ingest radioactive isotopes, the natural biological barrier of your skin and your body no longer helps, and beta and alpha particles penetrate your skin. Once they’re inside your body, they can do a lot of damage to lungs, hearts, various organs, and inside the joints. They wreak havoc on bone marrow.
But before these acute problems, people have subacute problems. And interestingly enough, we don’t much care about those. Few journalists have asked me how many people had digestive tract disorders or respiratory problems. Mostly, they want to know more about cancers and deaths and birth defects—the acute problems. But subacute problems mount in a body. A person may have that one chronic disease, but maybe two or three subacute problems. A family would have several people with chronic health problems. They’re still alive and not in the death toll, but their lives are shorter and far more painful. They are not able to be productive as members of the community in terms of work and a creative life.
None of us would wish this kind of medical history on our own families and communities. And that’s I think something that we don’t statistically track because we have failed to ask this question.
Robin Lindley: The damage to the immune system must be serious.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes.
Robin Lindley: One of the themes of your book is the international effort to minimize evidence about the medical and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. You also note that there’s a long history, even in United States, of covering up problems with radiation illness. That goes back to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when General Groves refused to disclose the effects of radiation. You recount a history of similar cover up efforts since then.
Professor Kate Brown: Unfortunately, we have a real track record in the United States of minimizing the record of radiation exposure and illness. We have a long-term life span study of the survivors of the Japan bombings, but that study doesn’t take into account radioactive fallout. It estimates that the doses survivors received was that of one big x-ray that lasted a second. But the other exposures, the Chernobyl-like exposures, with people living in these environments who take in radioactive contaminants by ingesting them in the air in their lungs or through the food cycle, was never considered as part of that study. There were also exposures of Marshall Islanders and people from the Nevada test sites. We really don’t know what happened in those cases for a lack of curiosity.
Finding out about radiation is a real threat [to nuclear power advocates]. In 1987, a group of health physicists, specialists in nuclear medicine, had a convention in Columbia, Maryland. A lawyer from the Department of Energy addressed them. He said that after Chernobyl, the biggest threat to the nuclear industry was lawsuits. He announced that they were going to break out into small groups with lawyers from the Department of Justice to train them on how to become expert witnesses in defending the US government against lawsuits. These scientists then served as “objective” witnesses in lawsuits where Americans took corporations to court for their exposures in the production and testing of nuclear weapons. It comes as no surprise that few won those lawsuits.
Other nuclear powers including Great Britain, France, and Russia, were facing similar lawsuits. If industry scientists could say that Chernobyl was the world’s worst nuclear accident and only 33 or 54 people died, then those lawsuits could and indeed did go away.
Robin Lindley: When you were traveling through the Zone of Alienation and when you were finding information that a lot of people probably didn’t want you to have, were you threatened? Did you feel that your safety was endangered at all?
Professor Kate Brown: No, I didn’t. Since I published the book there have been a couple of people who are industry scientists and a guy who runs two pro-nuclear NGOs, and they make a living by promoting the nuclear industry. They’ve been attacking me and my book but they’re not disinterested parties. Other than that, I haven’t really endured any hardships.
Robin Lindley: I’m glad. With the KGB involved and a series of cover ups, your book reads like a thriller. It’s a compelling scholarly expose’ with popular appeal on what happened after Chernobyl.
Many witnesses you spoke with were women who were close to the ground level in areas of contamination–the sort of people you wanted to hear from who’d lived through this experience. They included doctors, teachers, and women who work in the wool and leather factories, among others. Their contribution to your book was impressive.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes. Well, women are the ones who take care of the kinship networks. They’re the ones who normally, especially in Soviet society, take care of family members when someone is sick. And women are also the ones who staffed hospitals. Being a doctor in the Soviet Union was a low paying job usually left to women. Men were researchers who worked in institutes and universities. So, it was women who noticed these trends in poor health and they’re the ones that are there in the book. The women were the ones sitting around in the waiting rooms and they exchange information there day after day for hours, and they start to see trends.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that personal insight from your travels. What was the political fallout of the Chernobyl disaster in terms of the future of Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union?
Professor Kate Brown: Gorbachev said at some point after the fall that the main cause of the fall of the Soviet Union was Chernobyl, but I’m not sure Gorbachev is the most reliable person to ask on this point because everybody else in the former Soviet Union blames him for the collapse. So it makes sense that he was looking for outside factors to deflect attention away from himself. But, as I worked through archives, I took note of the incredible resources that the Soviet government spent to try to deal with this disaster from cleaning up this huge territory and then putting a sarcophagus over the reactor itself. In Ukraine alone, they sent out 9,000 medical staff to look at everybody they could find who might have been exposed to contaminants. They dealt with the medical fallout, and set up studies of the ecology and the human health problems. And on and on.
Chernobyl was a huge drain at a time when the Soviet Union was experiencing a collapse in oil prices and oil exports, the main source of hard currency revenue. And so Chernobyl was certainly a confounding factor.
And then they kept this all under wraps and they weren’t honest with people. When, in 1989, they finally published the first maps of radioactivity showing the high levels of radioactivity in places where people were living for three and a half years, residents were furious. People poured out to the streets in June 1989. There were marches and strikes and pilgrimages and protests, and new people started to run for office.
Robin Lindley: You recount some of the history of previous nuclear accidents in the Soviet Union. Wasn’t the Soviet military using nuclear weapons to stop forest fires, or is story apocryphal?
Professor Kate Brown: The story I report my book that we have from archival sources and one eyewitness was that there was a gas fire in a well when someone digging tapped into underground flows of gas and that caused a fire in the ground. They couldn’t extinguish it. They tried for a year to put out the fire this way and that, and finally a team came from a closed military establishment in Russia and they dug down 200 meters, right next to the gas fire, and they dropped a nuclear bomb in there and blew it up, expecting to spill this big mound of dirt on top of the gas fire and just snuff it out. But what happened instead is somehow the bomb went sideways horizontally, and not on the gas fire. And then the plume from the nuclear bomb went up through the gas well and just made this huge column a mile in the sky from the explosion. And then fallout rained down. They had to evacuate Russian soldiers and villagers nearby. It was not far from Kharkiv.
That was in the 1970s. And that was in the same year that a nuclear explosion for civilian purposes became an experiment that went disastrously wrong. And there are lots of incidents like that.
They had 104 accidents at the Chernobyl plant in the five years before the big accident in 1986. It was a tottering enterprise to run. Lots can go wrong and lots apparently did.
Robin Lindley: What have you learned about the nuclear accident in Northern Russia this past August where here was an explosion perhaps involving a missile experiment?
Professor Kate Brown: I only know what we all read in the papers. I’ve been reading a little bit in the Russian papers and they don’t have much more than what’s in the English papers but this seems like a case of press the replay button from Chernobyl with denials that it happened. And then, seven Russian scientists died. That’s significant. There’s a lot of secrecy about the situation. It doesn’t appear to have created anywhere near the levels of radioactivity and fallout as Chernobyl. They were trying to develop some kind of weapon, but we don’t know exactly what. There’s some speculation about a weapon for a nuclear submarine or some kind of missile. So it’s unclear.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your new role at MIT as a professor in an interdisciplinary program.
Professor Kate Brown: I’m teaching in a program in science, technology and society. At MIT we train future scientists and future engineers so it’s a wonderful place to think about science and to talk with students about not just creating beautiful machines, but also thinking about how they will be used in the worst and the best of all possible situations. It’s an exceptional opportunity.
Robin Lindley: Are you continuing your research on Russia and on nuclear issues?
Professor Kate Brown: No. I thought I’d move on from that. I feel like I’d just start repeating myself. Now I’m interested in what I call “plant people.” Now that Western scientists have validated the notion that plants have distributed intelligence and communicate with one another and across species. I thought to myself, peasants have known that for hundreds of years. So I am going back in time and looking at people who had these insights. I want to know what else have they have known that we have missed.
Robin Lindley: I’d like to conclude by asking you how you decided on the title of your book about the aftermath of Chernobyl: Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future?
Professor Kate Brown: I found in the archives all kinds of [post Chernobyl disaster] manuals for how to live on a radioactive landscape. There was a manual for doctors who treated exposed patients, another manual for the meat packing industry, and one on how to deal with high and low levels of radioactive farm crops, and manuals for the dairy industry, for the leather industry, and for the wool industry, and manuals for farmers who were going to live here.
The manuals were to reassure citizens, and said we’ve checked the radiation in your population point and everything’s fine. No need to worry. There are just a few things you need to keep in mind. Take all your topsoil and remove it and bury it somewhere far from your village. Don’t eat any berries or mushrooms. In fact, it’s better not to enter the forest at all. They go on and on like that. Clearly everything was not fine.
That’s where I got the idea of the manual. I decided to call it Manual for Survival because I considered the people who lived there to be survival experts. This place had suffered through the revolution, the Russian civil war, the First World War, the Second World War, and famine, and purges. They’d seen it all. And then, they tried to make it better by building a nuclear power plant to bring cheap energy to the villages. And then it blew up.
So they’d seen all the calamities the twentieth century had to offer. And I thought, as we talk about coming threats because of the ecological crisis, that it might be good to know something about how to survive a severe ecological crisis. And so that’s what I was looking for: the everyday heroes.
I did find lots and lots of people who resisted the bosses who told them to fudge the numbers or to overlook troubling facts or not report radioactivity in the water or the land. And these people stood up to power and said, No, I’m not going to do that. I don’t care what you do to me, but I’m going to do what’s right. And I found that extremely inspiring.
Nobody got shot and they weren’t throwing people in jail for resistance. Some people got docked in pay and other people faced more demands on the job or were demoted. But they continued. So it was possible to be courageous and they actually did a great deal of good. I was purposely looking for that story.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful responses Professor Brown and congratulations on your new book and your new position at MIT. I wish you the best.