Joseph Masco

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


The Nuclear Public Sphere: An Anthropology of U.S. National Security Discourse

After completing an analysis of the expert communities involved in building nuclear technologies (The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, Princeton University Press), Joseph Masco was “really happy to start thinking about other things”—until the ramp-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The speed with which the government successfully rallied national support for the unprecedented pre-emptive military action was linked, Masco thought, to the legacy of what he calls “the Cold War security culture.”

For example, the image used by Administration officials to justify the invasion—“the smoking gun” of an Iraqi weapons program coming in the form of a “mushroom cloud”—explicitly deployed a kind of apocalyptic nuclear fear developed during the forty years of the Cold War arms race.

In his new book, The Nuclear Public Sphere, Masco argues that “the conception of the ‘nuclear danger’ has a specific genealogy in the United States, one that has been carefully crafted and formed across nearly a half century of Cold War state—and nation—building.” The cultural mechanisms created in the 1950s to shield the massive nuclear project from public scrutiny while urging citizens to build fall-out shelters and teach their children to “duck and cover” have found new applications in today’s “war on terror” and Department of Homeland Security.

Positioning his research at the intersection of American security culture and science studies, Masco has identified three goals: to analyze how nuclear fear in the U.S. has been negotiated from one generation to the next, to examine the nuclear archive now available to citizens and policymakers, and to assess the expert discourses of policy professionals now redefining how “weapons of mass destruction” are configured as part of the “war on terror.” Recently declassified films from the U.S. nuclear project and several new public history museums commemorating the Cold War are important subjects of his research.

“This project argues that the constitution of ‘terror’ is a political project with a specific geneaology, one that has been a defining aspect of the citizen-state relationship since 1945,” Masco says. “In an era of pre-emptive war, understanding the content, ideological construction, and contemporary meaning of the nuclear archive, and how it structures the possibilities of contemporary public debate, has never been more important.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

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