Genay, Land of Nuclear Enchantment

Review by Jacob Darwin Hamblin, originally published in Pacific Historical Review (Spring 2020), 306-308.

Land of Nuclear Enchantment: A New Mexican History of the Nuclear Weapons Industry. By Lucie Genay. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019. xiv + 324 pp.

Questions about historical memory haunt Americans as they commemorate the first atomic bomb tests in 1945, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the history of nuclear weapons and power. Should our narratives focus on technological achievement or on the Bomb’s destructive legacy? Lucie Genay’s intriguing book moves away from such conventional dilemmas and focuses on the experiences of the people of New Mexico, as they played host to the Manhattan Project and the postwar Los Alamos National Laboratory. For a book about Los Alamos, her perspective is refreshing—she is a French scholar, not an American one; she does not shy from making bold, provocative claims; and she seeks to connect with stories of environmental justice and racial inequality.

            Genay frames her analysis as a story of colonialism. She draws on existing scholarship that depicts the American West as a colonial space–a site of resource extraction and dominated peoples. She speaks routinely of invaders and conquerors. Rather than focus on the scientific story of the bomb or the politics of the state, she wants to show the impacts of a sudden and dramatic change to a traditional society. In short, she sees a two-stage process that begins with excitement but ends in disillusionment. She utilizes oral histories to reveal a New Mexico that stood as an internal colony on a distant American frontier, only to be transformed by the war. She tells us of of ranches, schools, and homesteads taken over by the military during the war, and the steady disillusionment of patriotic Americans who learned years later that they would never be able to return. She reveals the myriad ways that the Bomb, and later the lab, contributed to the economic development of New Mexico—the nuclear “Golden Goose” as it was often called—while at the same time widening disparities along class and ethnic lines.

One of the strengths of Genay’s book is that it shows how differently these events affected Native Americans, Latinos, and the new (mostly white) nuclear experts. Like other scholars, she points out the callous treatment of Navajo uranium miners. She also examines blue collar workers, many of them Latino. Los Alamos was almost entirely dependent on federal funds, and the community lived well—with recreational facilities, schools, and good housing. But the surrounding counties, where many workers lived, did not fare as well. Many tried to get jobs at Los Alamos, and the prime employer was Zia Company, a contractor that employed in an array of positions related to construction and maintenance, such as garbage collectors, office cleaners, janitors, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. These workers are at the heart of her story. As Genay puts it, laboratory staff and Zia employees evolved in two separate worlds, where one population was at the service of the other.

Genay’s book is certain to inspire some and outrage others. It provides a portrait of a US state drawn with racial divisions and social inequality firmly in mind. It may be that some American readers would bristle at her conclusions, accustomed to thinking of the Bomb as the double-edged sword of achievement and destruction. For Genay, it is another history of colonialism, and the Bomb’s story was there among the people, in the place of its making.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Oregon State University