Q&A with ‘Proving Grounds’ author Neil Oatsvall

Proving Grounds coverThe essays in Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases give us the most comprehensive examination to date of the environmental footprint of U.S. military bases both at home and abroad. Though critical of the military’s presence across the globe, the book does point to a few examples where the armed forces were actually ahead of the curve—at least compared to the private sector—in terms of self-regulation. Still, the majority of cases in Proving Grounds look at the damaging consequences—both intended and unintended—of building bases and testing weapons, from wiping out indigenous plant and wildlife to the contamination resulting from the disposal of Agent Orange after the Vietnam War.

In Chapter 2, historian Neil Oatsvall looks at how deeply policymakers engaged with environmental science at the dawn of the nuclear testing era. Contrary to popular belief, he finds, U.S. leaders actually did take scientific considerations seriously as they tried to take a lead in the burgeoning nuclear arms race. However, though their intentions may have been well-meant, given the limits of their environmental knowledge at the time, they were clearly in over their heads. We asked Neil to elaborate on this contradiction.

–Ranjit Arab, Senior Acquisitions Editor

Q: What led you to pursue your research? Who or what were some of your inspirations?

Neil Oatsvall: Two books made me want to be an environmental historian: Don Worster’s Dust Bowl and Ed Russell’s War and Nature. It’s a funny coincidence that I went to the University of Kansas to study with Don, and when he retired Ed replaced him. Russell’s work in particular sparked many questions in me. Nature and culture are frequently intertwined, as are technology and culture—but how has human culture mediated the interaction between the natural world and technology? And how has warfare served as an historical flashpoint where these relationships can be more easily examined?

These questions and others led me to research defoliation during the Vietnam War and then nuclear technologies and the environment.  You could say I’ve been drawn to the more charismatic technologies, if technology could ever be so described. And warfare to me was always one of those spectacles so horrifying that I couldn’t look away, like the Titanic sinking.

In addition, I grew up too late in the Cold War to be scared of nuclear weapons destroying the world and in Raleigh, North Carolina near the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant. This meant that nuclear technologies never seemed like the specter of death to me—they were just captivating pieces of technology. Thus this lifelong fascination with nuclear technologies combined with my coming of age as an historian right around the time Ed Russell and Richard Tucker started the historical subfield of war and environment. It was a logical topic in that way.


Historian and author Neil Oatsvall

Historian and author Neil Oatsvall

Q: What was one of the more surprising finds you came across along the way?

Neil Oatsvall: My most surprising find revolved around early plans to test nuclear weapons on Amchitka Island, further detailed in my chapter in Proving Grounds. I was shocked to find military planners talking seriously with administrators from the Department of the Interior about sea otters and how Amchitka being a successful breeding ground might derail testing plans. Ultimately it was geology, and not otters, that scuttled early testing plans on the island. But the mere fact that the 1950s U.S. military wrestled with how nuclear tests might affect vulnerable sea otter populations was truly unexpected.

Q: How did the military and the federal government conceive of environmental science, broadly, during the early Cold War?

Neil Oatsvall: Different historians might answer this in different ways, but I would say environmental science was just another tool in trying to improve the U.S. geopolitical position as much as possible. Understanding ocean currents and the ocean floor’s topography helped with submarine warfare. Knowledge of the atmosphere and air currents helped detect and interpret foreign nuclear tests. And Jake Hamblin has even shown in his recent book Arming Mother Nature how environmental science was factored into plans for potentially using catastrophic environmental disasters for military purposes. Learning about the environment was not necessarily a goal in and of itself, but it was a means to an end.

Q: Did you detect any sustained, strong pushback, even during the era of nuclear testing, against the idea that such testing was making America safer?

Neil Oatsvall: There certainly was resistance to the notion that testing was making the nation safer, and from a variety of sources. Linus Pauling was a particularly important scientist-activist, awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-nuclear activism. But the archives are littered with both formal and informal pushback. For example, a 1958 anti-nuclear weapons letter, signed by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Christian ethicists Albert Schweitzer and Martin Niemöller (among others), implored President Eisenhower, “We want you to feel that your job is to help make this planet safe and fit for human habitation.” As an informal example, journalists made sure to question Eisenhower frequently about nuclear weapons tests, their safety, and what the nation gained from such tests. And privately there are numerous examples of decision makers questioning each other about nuclear weapons policy and whether testing actually accomplished the goals laid out for it.

Now, can all that be considered “sustained” or “strong”? I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder. I would say that it was, even such criticism was frequently diffused. But it’s hard to discount people like Pauling, and his Nobel Peace Prize shows that it’s not just historians playing a trick on the past—his contemporaries found him influential too.

Q: What are two or three of the most enduring legacies of the 1945-58 period, in terms of both later and current federal and military environmental policy?

Neil Oatsvall: Am I taking comps again? Is this real life? In all seriousness, this is a difficult but worthwhile question.

I could say something specific: for example, Karl Brooks has argued for the modern-day implications of the 1946 amendment of the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, which required consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service when development on a body of water might cause damage to wildlife resources. Instead I want to briefly talk about two broad trends: the U.S. military’s increasing dependence on environmental science and the understanding that the Earth may not be unbreakable.

Earlier I talked about how the military came to see environmental science as a tool for better protecting the nation and improving its military capabilities—environmental science became more important to achieving national security goals. Some of my previous research has also shown how nuclear technologies, agriculture, and the Green Revolution melded to influence what the U.S. government perceived as its role in the world. In that sense, scientific knowledge of the environment combined with technology to influence U.S. geopolitical policy. In general, the early postwar years saw the U.S. military (and by extension the federal government as a whole) increasingly integrate environmental science and environmental understandings into policymaking. (This is largely the subject of my book manuscript, under advanced contract with the University of Alabama Press.) That’s had a lasting legacy on governmental and military policy.

In addition, the country started to learn that the planet is not some gutter into which we can dump whatever we want without consequence. There are many examples, but one that has stuck out to me occurred in 1957 when testing showed that wheat samples from Minnesota contained much higher concentrations of radioactive strontium 90 fallout than expected or permitted. That raised questions about what nuclear tests were doing to the natural world and, by extension, human bodies. It hit home because policymakers realized that nuclear tests “over there” in the Pacific could affect people and environments “over here” in the United States. I won’t go so far as to say that a true environmentalist consciousness existed, but I think during this time period we see the beginnings of the shift away from the idea that the planet is some unbreakable, indefatigable sewer toward the idea that the planet is much more delicate and something in need of protection. Without that idea the Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Environmental Protection Agency—the bedrock of any modern governmental environmentalism that might exist—likely never would have come into being.

Q: What’s next for you, and with your research?

Neil Oatsvall: I’ve just taken a job as a history instructor at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, a residential high school for gifted 11th and 12th graders. The school is part of the University of Arkansas system and stresses an innovative curriculum based on interdisciplinary team teaching and concurrent university credit. The heavy teaching load means that researching in the near future will be more difficult, but I remain optimistic!

When I’m able, the next project will be an Envirotech examination of U.S. beer brewing. The Envirotech subfield of environmental history contends that environment and technology cannot be understood separately, and I think beer brewing is a great example of that. While brewing depends on natural entities and processes like grains, hops, and yeast-driven fermentation, humans attempt to dominate those beings and processes. To me, this ambivalent relationship between humans, technology, and the natural world says a lot about what it means to be a modern industrial human. It may seem like there’s a vast chasm between studying nuclear technologies and beer, but to me the projects have most of the same intellectual underpinnings.