Sunday Bookchat

April 26, 2008

Here’s big time Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias at the Center for American progress, talking up his new book Heads in the Sand: How Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and How Foreign Policy Screws Up Democrats, a look at how the Democratic inability to deal coherently with foreign policy leaves them open to boneheaded Republican attacks, and makes the rest of us victims of boneheaded Republican foreign policy. Yglesias is the topic of this book salon session at Firedoglake.

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Hey folks, how about we give this pretty little seacoast town of yours a brand-new harbor by detonating several thermonuclear bombs right next door? It’ll all be perfectly safe — sure, maybe a bit of radiation, possibly some fallout, but heck, it won’t be as risky to your health as being a little overweight!

If that offer sounds crazy now, it sounded even crazier in 1958 when physicist Edward Teller, who had practically trademarked “Father of the H-Bomb” for his own use, went to Alaska to promote “Project Chariot,” a plan that would have used Teller’s explosive children to create a deep-water harbor on the coast of northwestern Alaska. The locals didn’t want it, and despite government pressure, a well-orchestrated media blitz that had the Alaskan newspapers in Teller’s pocket, they developed into an organized group that managed to halt the project, though not before biologist Les Viereck lost his university position because he provided data supporting the opposition.

The astonishing story of Project Chariot and how it inadvertantly helpd spark the environmental movement is chronicled in The Firecracker Boys: H-bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement, Dan O’Neill’s overlooked 1994 classic, recently reissued in paperback. PD Smith, a new hand at the great site 3 Quarks Daily, offers some highlights:

Locals said they didn’t need a harbour. They also raised understandable concerns about radioactivity. After all, the year before, Nevil Shute had published On the Beach, one of the best-selling of all nuclear fictions (four million copies by 1980), in which the world dies a lingering death caused by fallout from a nuclear war fought with cobalt bombs. Teller was unfazed by the criticisms. That year he had defended atmospheric nuclear tests, claiming such fallout was no more dangerous than “being an ounce overweight”. He tried to reassure the Alaskans: “We have learned to use these powers with safety”. He even promised them a harbour in the shape of a polar bear.

Teller and his fellow scientists at the Livermore Laboratory in California were on a mission to redeem the nuclear bomb. They wanted to overcome the public’s irrational “phobic” reactions to nuclear weapons. “Geographical engineering” was the answer, said Teller: “We will change the earth’s surface to suit us.” The Faustian hubris of the man appeared to know no bounds. Dubbed in the press “Mr H-Bomb”, Teller even admitted to a “temptation to shoot at the moon” with nukes. You need a new Suez Canal? Blast it out with my thermonuclear bombs. Or how about turning the Mediterranean into a freshwater lake to irrigate the Sahara? All you need to do is to close the Straits of Gibraltar by detonating a few H-bombs (clean ones, of course, absolutely guaranteed). No problem. We can do it – trust me, I’m a physicist.

Dan O’Neill interviewed Teller. Or at least he tried to. As soon as he started asking questions, Teller “cursed loudly and with great facility” and tore up the release form he had just signed to allow O’Neill to use the interview. Despite Teller’s hissy fit, O’Neill’s remarkable book shows how government agencies lied to local people, attempted to bribe scientists with promises of research funding, and manipulated the Alaskan media, which demonstrated “more sycophancy than scrutiny”. But a grass-roots movement of local Alaskans – Eskimo whale hunters, bush pilots, church ladies, and log-cabin conservationists – joined forces with a few principled scientists to successfully oppose America’s nuclear establishment, and in so doing sowed the seeds of modern environmentalism.

Teller, of course, went on to inspire the title charatcer of Dr. Strangelove and promote the Strategic Defense Initiative, that multi-billion-dollar money sink launched during the Reagan administration and still with us today.

It’s wonderful to have O’Neill’s book back in print. It’s an exciting, powerful story, told in a way that combines the grace of John McPhee with the two-fisted zeal of Robert Caro.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a book coming out called The Good Fight, a title that can only leave us wondering — when does he plan to fight it? When his book salon discussion starts at Firedoglake, perhaps we can ask him.

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For Americans who still think the Iraq invasion is just another version of World War II, only this time with George W. Bush fighting in place of John Wayne, Russia is a big country that used to be our enemy but has now become a democracy, led by a man whose heart has been scanned by Dubya and found good. In The Age of Assassins: The Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin, Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky show that the former Soviet Union has been recast as a corporate-gangster state, with ex-KGB men firmly in control.

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Unraveling Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Cat’s Cradle. Interviewing Errol Morris on his new Abu Ghraib documentary. Singing the praises of Richard Price. Are these the 50 best cult novels?

6 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. rix Says:

    By “cult” I was expecting something a bit different. Surprised at how many I’ve read, including Dr. Spock. Of course, there’s a few I’ll never read. I read The Carpetbaggers (not a cult book) long before I read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I didn’t iike Zen. But I really enjoyed my mom’s Harold Robbins paperbacks.

  2. Scott Stiefel Says:

    Like several others in the comments on that page, I was baffled by the absence of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Maybe it was included in fnord form?


  3. [...] April 27, 2008 My weekly rundown of interesting and current books, usually with a progressive and left-wing [...]


  4. [...] Sunday Bookchat « The Opinion Mill ≥If that offer sounds crazy now, it sounded even crazier in 1958 when physicist Edward Teller, who had practically trademarked “Father of the H-Bomb” for his own use, went to Alaska to promote “Project Chariot,” a plan that would have used Teller’s explosive children to create a deep-water harbor on the coast of northwestern Alaska. The locals didn’t want it, and despite government pressure, a well-orchestrated media blitz that had the Alaskan newspapers in Teller’s pocket, they developed into an organized group that managed to halt the project, though not before biologist Les Viereck lost his university position because he provided data supporting the opposition. [...]

  5. J.L. Nathans Says:

    My father was one of those scientists at L(3), then the Lawrence Radiation Lab (LRL) at the time. He had a falling out with Teller, but has never said what caused this. I believe this may have been it.


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