How can we encourage an atmosphere of collaboration and responsible disruption in the nuclear security field? By ensuring that all feel empowered to contribute. In my mind, the first barrier to that empowerment is whether or not you see yourself and your ideas as legitimate. Given that legitimacy is in many ways a product of public opinion, part of the mission is to influence the way the public considers who is a legitimate voice on nuclear issues and what ideas are both credible and justified.
In the nuclear security space, we often equate the most dominant voices with the most legitimate voices. Whether we are talking about the military, the scientific community, or the highest level of government, experience and ideas from these perspectives have been held up as the most authoritative and thus the most valuable.
Culturally, the architecture of the current world order, one that positions nuclear weapons at the center of global dominance, was set up by a small number of powerful men from the U.S., Europe, and the former Soviet Union. When we think about key players in the Cold War—whether scientists like Oppenheimer or Fermi, national leaders like Truman or Churchill, or generals like Eisenhower and Groves—their maleness and whiteness are among their most obvious unifying features.
However, like the stories we’ve told ourselves about the U.S. space race or the history of computing in America, the fact that the celebrated contributors in nuclear security are often very male and very white is a function more of our neglect of detail than it is a reality of who has historically contributed. Just as we saw with the blockbuster film Hidden Figures, women and people of color have a long history of contribution to key moments in American and global history. But this oversight, in the best case, or intentional erasure, in the worst, contributes to the image we have in our minds about who this space belongs to.
“THE FACT THAT THE CELEBRATED CONTRIBUTORS IN NUCLEAR SECURITY ARE OFTEN VERY MALE AND VERY WHITE IS A FUNCTION MORE OF OUR NEGLECT OF DETAIL THAN IT IS A REALITY OF WHO HAS HISTORICALLY CONTRIBUTED.”
If we were to step outside the narrowness of the established history that centers men of European descent as the stewards of our collective security future, we would recognize that we too have stories that can be used as vehicles for the inspiration and engagement of a broader demographic around nuclear weapons. Take, for example, the Calutron Girls. These women, many of them fresh from high school between the ages of 18 and 25, were responsible for operating the uranium enrichment machines in Tennessee that produced the fuel for the first atomic bombs in WWII. Outside of a book published in 2013 on their work, their story as women at the center of war-fighting efforts has gone largely underreported and underappreciated. Measured against the impact of films like Hidden Figures—which grossed over $200 million worldwide while reframing the protagonist not as a powerful white man but as a technically brilliant group of black women—it becomes clear that the public is interested in a reexamination of the past that acknowledges their contributions and establishes these disciplines as their own.