“The Calutron Girls,” Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1944
In the nuclear security field, the most dominant voices should not be mistaken for the most legitimate.
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.
Similarly, the role of creative expression in shaping the public consciousness of nuclear weapons issues cannot be ignored. The film The Day After is a useful illustration of this point. Watched by over 100 million people in 1983, this film explored the realities of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. It gave the American public, and those that viewed it in the Soviet Union, a common starting point to probe their governments about what was being done to protect against this exchange. Distinguished policymakers and thinkers in this space were called to the carpet by journalists to speak plainly about alternatives to war and ways to infuse stability into what was then a very unstable situation.
Some say the film influenced Ronald Reagan’s evolution from a hard-lined nuclear arms control skeptic into a president that would sign one of the most consequential nuclear arms control agreements, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—which Russia is violated and the Trump administration just ended. If we fast-forward to today, many of the same signs of instability are once again present, and the American public is hungry for a way to understand these issues and influence the thinking of their leaders. Mediums like film, podcasting, and radio are positioned to bring nuclear weapons out of the abstract and explore the human consequence of the policies we have pursued in the past and are entertaining today.
If there were one thing to take away from the question of how to overcome the barrier of legitimacy on the road to empowerment, it would be the importance of a complete and correct record of our nuclear history. Knowing that women and people of color have an established legacy of contribution relieves us of the pressure of being the first down this path. Knowing that creatives have long helped both the American public and policymakers think about the implications of their actions means we have a foundation to build from. What we need to do now is build new frames and tools that help us understand the world as it is today, and may be tomorrow.
“KNOWING THAT CREATIVES HAVE LONG HELPED BOTH THE AMERICAN PUBLIC AND POLICYMAKERS THINK ABOUT THE IMPLICATIONS OF THEIR ACTIONS MEANS WE HAVE A FOUNDATION TO BUILD FROM.”
It is true that the world is different than it was during the Cold War, and it is justified to question if the frameworks we used to understand the dynamics of deterrence are appropriate to use now. Is the vocabulary appropriate for a world with multiple nuclear powers, whose actions in the nuclear space affect not only their main rivals but others in this multipolar world? How can we think about security in a way that accounts for the new dynamics of climate change, and the role it will play in introducing instability? In many ways, the problems we face are messier than what our predecessors had to navigate, and the solutions will require thinking that accounts for much more.
We are poised to do that thinking. Professional, cultural, and gender diversity among the individuals working toward these solutions will allow us to look at the risks and consequences of nuclear war through lenses beyond traditional government, scientific, and military perspectives. I encourage everyone who enters the nuclear security space to see it as their own, and know that their voice is legitimate and necessary in the way we think about nuclear policy and the impact of nuclear weapons development and possible use. We must all be generous with our expertise—and open to seeing the issues in new ways.
Mareena Robinson Snowden is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an N Square Fellow. This piece was adapted from remarks she gave to the N Square Innovators Network in November 2018.
top photo: Trevor Holden for the N Square Innovation Summit at RISD