Stocking Nature’s Arsenal
ARMING MOTHER NATURE: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. Jacob Darwin Hamblin. 320 pp. Oxford University Press, 2013. $29.95.
In May 1960 scientists and military officers at NATO headquarters came to a conclusion about the massive earthquake that had just stunned Chile: One nation’s natural disaster is another’s military opportunity. The earthquake, still the most powerful ever recorded, triggered mudslides, floods, tsunamis, even a volcanic eruption, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless. It sent 35-foot waves racing across the ocean at 450 miles per hour before smashing into Japan, Australia, and the Philippines. Nonetheless, says Jacob Darwin Hamblin in his book Arming Mother Nature, from their vantage point in Paris NATO leaders saw the seismic event “as a shining example of what Americans might soon implement against the Soviet Union.” If they could determine where to place a hydrogen bomb in the Earth’s crust, scientists thought they might be able to replicate what happened in the Pacific and cripple the Soviet state, all while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability.
NATO used the term environmental warfare for this new strategy—that is, harnessing nature’s physical forces and biological pathways to wage a global war. After opening his book with the unsettling Chile anecdote, Hamblin, who teaches the history of science and technology at Oregon State University, lays out a fascinating and often disturbing history of American efforts to enlist Mother Nature in the war against Communism. Under the guise of national security, he says, “military and civilian scientific work proceeded together.” Triggering earthquakes with subterranean explosions, controlling the weather with hydrogen bombs, introducing pathogens via air-dropped contaminated bird feathers—no scheme was too outlandish to contemplate. The government even conducted experiments on American civilian and military populations as well as on America’s enemies. In the context of war, anything could be morally justified.
The desire to control and manipulate nature on a massive scale—and the belief that doing so was viable—had emerged earlier, during World War II. American military leaders took note of how fires caused by incendiary bombs Allied forces had dropped on Japanese and German urban centers consumed city after city. Washington strategists contemplated using biochemical weapons on Japanese rice fields to deprive both civilians and soldiers of the primary staple of their diet. Ultimately they wanted to manipulate nature on the atomic level. Fearful that the Germans were developing an atomic bomb, the United States raced to develop one first. For the next half-century the desire to outpace the enemy in weapons development drove military doctrine and much scientific research. Says Hamblin, “Scientific growth after World War II owes its greatest debt to the U.S. armed services, which paid the lion’s share of the bill.”
Yet these atomic-era mushroom clouds came with a kind of silver lining for environmentalists. In time, the tireless search for vulnerabilities to exploit expanded and deepened our scientific understanding of nature. By the late 1950s, public questions arose about the human impact on the environment, leading eventually to predictions of environmental catastrophe. The data used by those in the international environmental movement came directly from military-funded research. Moreover, global climate change would not have been detected during the latter years of the 20th century without scientific projects funded by the U.S. Defense Department.
Arming Mother Nature is divided into three thematic sections that are loosely chronological. The first, “Pathways of Nature,” covers the brief period following World War II when the Americans were the only ones with nuclear arms but possessed so few that the military wanted other, less costly weapons of mass destruction (a phrase government officials tried to avoid using publicly then) to stem the rising tide of Communism. The military believed it required flexibility in how it might respond to the threat. Before the Soviets’ emergence as a nuclear power, a flexible response meant using biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. (As we’ll see, in the 1960s “flexible response” would take on a whole different meaning.) In addition to researching biological and radiological warfare, scientists strove to learn more about how disease becomes epidemic. Some initial experiments focused on crop destruction rather than on infecting crops with disease: Anti-livestock and anti-crop weapons seemed the most logical and cost-effective approach. Other researchers debated which pathogens to mass-produce and the best ways to spread them.
“Forces of Nature,” the second section, covers the first decade of the thermonuclear era. Research and policy as well as military strategy shifted with the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949. The blast triggered more questions: Could the United States wage and win a nuclear war? If not, how could the West defeat the Soviets and their allies? Manipulating nature became a major focus of strategic thinking, and the military dollars followed. Opinions within the nuclear research community were divided over the most effective use of a bomb: dropping a nuclear device directly on a city or introducing floods and wildfires by targeting dams and forests. Meanwhile, research into developing bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons had led some scientists to study nuclear fallout and its effects. As researchers learned more, their thinking turned increasingly toward using geophysical forces, such as oceans and winds, militarily. It was within this context that American defensive planners perceived opportunity in the aftermath of the 1960 Chile earthquake.
The third section, “Gatekeepers of Nature,” picks up around the time President Kennedy issued the military doctrine of Flexible Response, calling for a diversified nuclear arsenal as well as the use of small, specialized combat units such as the Army’s Special Forces. Many Americans believed, as Kennedy did, that science and technology could help win wars abroad while also solving problems such as hunger and disease at home. “Scientists,” Hamblin says, “were not merely asked to do research or to develop technology but to plan global strategy. That encouraged civilian scientists to think of the whole Earth as the playing field.” They used computers and game theory to develop models predicting the outcome of countless scenarios. Hamblin observes, “Military planning and environmental prediction were rarely far removed from each other, as they asked the same questions, drew from the same data, and often involved the same scientists.”
It is not surprising, then, that Americans learned of the environmental damage caused by nuclear testing and chemical spraying from scientists such as Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, and Rachel Carson, who consulted military researchers’ data in their own work. At the time few realized that environmental scientists often drew on data and reports generated from projects funded by the Defense Department. In writings aimed at the general public, environmentalists discussed the planet’s future in catastrophic terms. That books like Carson’s Silent Spring and Erlich’s The Population Bomb became bestsellers reflected Americans’ growing concern over the environment in the 1960s.
The Vietnam War proved a turning point in the history of catastrophic environmentalism. In his chapter on the war, Hamblin examines how and why military and civilian scientists openly used Vietnam as a vast “playing field” for all manner of biochemical weapon research. Even the U.S. Forest Service got involved, loaning fire researchers to the Department of Defense, where they experimented with spraying defoliants and dropping incendiary bombs intended to consume swaths of jungle in massive forest fires. But soon the war abroad fueled widespread protest back home, and antiwar activism paved the way for environmental activism. By 1969 the environmental movement had grown powerful enough that American policy makers and diplomats needed to act if they were to maintain control of what was now a global issue. President Nixon pushed through robust environmental legislation and attempted to promote environmental issues through NATO, keeping the United States in a leadership position. Discussing ecological issues with the Soviets provided additional points of engagement besides nuclear disarmament and helped open a path for negotiating nonproliferation and arms-limitation treaties in the 1970s.
Although the relationship between scientists and military leaders transformed yet again in the face of new environmental challenges in the 1980s—the droughts in Africa, the global AIDS epidemic, and the scientific debate over climate change—and after the end of the Cold War, the connection that has existed between them since World War II remains today. Indeed, soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, American policy makers, scientists, and defense experts began discussing how terrorists might use forest fires as a weapon on American soil and ways to defend against it.
As a strategy, environmental warfare went global decades ago, and now the temptation to arm Mother Nature may always be with us. Arming Mother Nature reminds us that we do so at our peril.
James G. Lewis is the staff historian at the Forest History Society, a nonprofit library and archive dedicated to preserving and disseminating forest and conservation history, located in Durham, North Carolina. The author of The Forest Service and the Greatest Good: A Centennial History (2005), he is working on a history of the U.S. Forest Service at war. He blogs about all things forest history at Peeling Back the Bark.