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‘Atoms for Peace’ Was Never All That Peaceful—And the World Is Still Living With the Consequences

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Seventy years ago, on Dec. 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Part of a larger public relations campaign called Project Candor, the speech was crafted to garner public support for the government’s expansion of its nuclear arsenal in the arms race against the Soviet Union and to downplay perceptions of the U.S. as a bloodstained empire.

The stunt largely worked. Atoms for Peace and subsequent public relations campaigns circulated two lasting images that have been reproduced to this day: one of the U.S. as a peace-seeking nation, not a warring empire, and another of nuclear energy as a source of life, rather than as an instrument of death.

Even today, the legacies of Atoms for Peace continue to obscure the violence posed by nuclear development, especially nuclear weapons. This October, the Biden Administration announced a $7 billion investment in “America’s first clean hydrogen hubs.” Its plan to spend $1.5 trillion dollars on upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years, however, went largely unnoticed.

Read More: Here's How Faithfully Oppenheimer Captures Its Subject's Real Life

Eisenhower’s words from 70 years ago reveal just how that logic began. “Against the dark background of the atomic bomb, the United States does not wish merely to present strength, but also the desire and the hope for peace…to devote its entire heart and mind to finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” Nuclear power would be rebranded as an instrument for peace.

Atoms for Peace helped produce the twin images of nuclear power as necessary and the United States as a leader in peace. It also obscured what the quest for nuclear supremacy looked like, as the United States pursued mining elements and manufactured bombs. These processes significantly harmed, and continue to harm, Indigenous peoples, people of color, and poor people around the world.

Between 1944 and 1986, the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), with the help of private mining corporations, extracted some 30 million tons of uranium ore from Navajo lands, much of which was used to make nuclear weapons. This extraction happened through leases with the Navajo Nation.

But even after the uranium mines closed in 1986, the legacy of this extraction continues. Several studies have shown that Navajo miners have unusually high mortality risks from a variety of cancers and respiratory diseases, their children are often born with birth complications and defects. As the current president of the Navajo Nation Buu V. Nygren wrote in TIME after the release of Oppenheimer: “This is not a problem of the past…with new victims regularly diagnosed.”

Read More: The Navajo Suffered From Nuclear Testing. Oppenheimer Doesn't Tell Our Story

The Manhattan Project also set its eyes on uranium in the Belgian Congo. In 1945, the Shinkolobwe mine supplied around 80% of the uranium in the bombs used to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the 1950s, almost two-thirds of uranium acquired by the U.S. military came from Shinkolobwe through a secret deal with Belgium. As the people of Congo mined more uranium for the United States under unlivable conditions, Atoms for Peace sponsored the construction of Africa’s first nuclear reactor in Congo, which began operations in 1959.

When Congo gained independence from Belgium a year later, however, the reactor became a national security problem, as a civil war between opposing factions quickly turned into a bloody proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. That summer, the AEC instructed a CIA agent to steal the fuel rods of Congo’s reactor, but the plan was dropped as the war raged on for five more years, killing two million people.

Nuclear bomb testing caused widespread suffering during the Cold War. Between 1951 and 1992, approximately 928 atomic bomb tests took place on Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Pueblo territories, where the Nevada Test Site stands. According to one study, the nuclear fallout of the bombs dropped over and under the region was 620 kilotons, which the wind carried throughout the Southwest, often into the Navajo Nation. By comparison, the fallout of the Hiroshima bomb was 13 kilotons. This was hardly the consecration of life promised by Eisenhower in 1953.

The U.S. government understood what it was doing. The Federal Radiation Council published a 1962 report that concluded “any radiation is potentially harmful…it is virtually certain that genetic effects can be produced by even the lowest doses.” Yet, the U.S. conducted 824 tests after the report’s publication—most at the Nevada Test Site, others in the Pacific, a few in midwestern states, and three in the South Atlantic.

As bomb testing became more frequent and the mining of elements more extractive and destabilizing, the U.S. government launched psychological campaigns across the globe to quell public resistance to its development of nuclear energy.

In Japan, such operations were more pronounced, which was no coincidence. The first country in the world to be bombed by nuclear weapons in war had to be convinced that the U.S. and nuclear energy were agents of peace. As one Pentagon official put it in 1953: “the atomic bomb will be accepted far more readily if at the same time atomic energy is being used for constructive ends.”

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As such, the CIA and the National Security Council launched the “Psychological Strategy Program for Japan.” Part of the government’s “Japan Plan,” the program aimed to quash negative opinions about the U.S. in the country—from resistance to the presence of U.S. troops to what it deemed “psychosis” regarding nuclear weapons. The program was a huge success. In the mid-1950s, the CIA swayed the Japanese public with the help of the media mogul Matsutaro Shoriki. In 1955, Shoriki, codenamed “POJACPOT/1,” sponsored an agency-endorsed exhibit titled “Atoms for Peace” that promoted the benefits of nuclear energy. As some U.S. officials noted, “by the beginning of 1956, Japanese opinion was brought to popular acceptance of the peaceful uses of atomic energy.” By 1957, Japan’s first reactor was an American-made reality.

Americans received similar messages. In the 1960s, U.S. scientists, parts of the anti-war movement, and workers calling attention to nuclear reactor accidents began protesting nuclear development. Amid rising anti-nuclear sentiments, the Department of Defense established the Sandia Atomic Museum in Kirtland Air Force Base in 1969. The museum initially exhibited declassified nuclear weapons, including “Fat Man,” the plutonium bomb dropped over Nagasaki in 1945. Just two years after it opened, the museum changed its name to National Atomic Museum to reflect the broader U.S. mission in reframing nuclear power as peaceful. Today, it is known as the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, a part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Over the years, activists and advocates sought to bring the harms associated with nuclear development to the surface and periodic nuclear accidents brought bad press. Public support for nuclear energy, however, has risen steadily since the 1990s. That support speaks to the continued triumph of Atoms for Peace.

Read More: Nuclear Power Is the Only Solution

And yet, harm endures. In the U.S. Southwest and the Pacific islands, nuclear testing continues to reverberate in higher rates of cancer and other illnesses among residents of all ages. Navajo and Congolese miners still suffer from radiation-related disorders and diseases. Workers who operated American-made nuclear facilities across the globe still face uncertain prospects regarding their health and safety.

Eisenhower’s speech 70 years ago offered a defense and disguise for extractive mining, bomb testing, and state-sponsored deception that harmed people across the globe time and again. In the name of peace, it dramatically expanded the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. in size and scope. As Navajo Nation President Nygren notes, examining this hidden history—and uncovering the legacy of Atoms for Peace—illuminates how we must repair “all those impacted by the harms of the nuclear age” for a more substantive sense of justice and peace in the remaining decades of the 21st century.

Tommy Myung Geun Song is a Ph.D student in History at Yale University. He studies the global history of American social thought with a focus on Indigenous, colonized, and racialized peoples. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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