In the Silent Zone: An American Nuke in Mexico

As the Soviets dramatically stepped up their nuclear weapons programme in the 1960s, the US government showed a willingness to take calculated risks with its atomic arsenal in order to maintain arms race superiority over its Cold War adversary. With some of America’s nuclear test sites situated close to the northern and southern borders, concerns were raised in classified documents that missiles could drift into neighbouring countries or even as far as Western Europe, risking an international incident. However, the authorities decided to proceed with the tests, confident that in that scenario, the American public would support them if persuaded the programme was in the interests of national security.

When a Pershing missile crashed just south of the Mexican border on September 1967, the misfire was downplayed and soon forgotten. Then on 11 July 1970, a far more serious overflight occurred. Early that morning, the US Air Force launched a rocket from Green River Launch Complex in Utah, aiming for the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The weapon was what is known as a ‘salted bomb’, armed with a radioactive isotope that was designed to maximise the fallout of hazardous material. The rocket travelled hundreds of miles further than anticipated, eventually landing in the sparsely-populated Mapimi desert in Mexico. Although there are no known victims, the overflight resulted in a long and costly cleanup of contaminated soil, which is chronicled in detail on the Utah government website.


In a recently declassified memorandum, then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, expressed gratitude for the patience of the Mexican government, noting a willingness “to grant clearances and assist in any search efforts”. Perhaps Mexico realised it was nothing personal, considering that by 1970 the United States had almost nuked itself on at least 11 occasions. The few inhabitants of the Mapimi region proved to be equally stoical, taking advantage of a road that was rapidly built into the desert to allow the US Air Force to deal with the fallout. Locals rechristened the decontaminated site the Mapimi Silent Zone, borrowing urban myths from the Bermuda Triangle to reimagine it as a tourist destination. The area still attracts visitors today with tales of strange magnetic forces and extraterrestrial activity.

One recent visitor was American artist Freya Powell. In March 2016, she travelled to the Mapimi Silent Zone to explore its strange history, responding to the theme of ‘silence’ to investigate the concealment of the clean-up operation and subsequent myth-making. The project was commissioned by the New York nonprofit Art in General, and her single-channel video, The Silence of the Unsaid, premiered there in 2017. The work intersperses panoramic views of the site, filmed using drone technology, with excerpts from interviews with locals. Through this juxtaposition, Powell deconstructs the language used to describe the area, teasing out the complex relationship between silence, history and accountability. You can watch an excerpt from the video on Powell’s website.

LIKE THIS STORY?
Here are some other Espionart posts you might enjoy:

Images: Freya Powell, The Silence of the Unsaid, 2017 (still and installation view). Courtesy the artist & Art in General. Photo: Charles Benton.

Parisian Artists in Defence of the Rosenbergs

The execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at sundown on 19 June 1953 was one of the darkest moments in recent US history. The married couple were the only American civilians to be put to death for espionage-related activity during the Cold War, after they were convicted of passing top secret information to the Soviets. Their deaths left their two young sons orphaned.

It was claimed that the atomic weapon designs shared by Julius Rosenberg enabled the Soviets to acquire nuclear capabilities earlier than expected. The USSR staged its first nuclear test, RDS-1 (rechristened Joe-1 by the Americans), in August 1949. KGB files declassified after the country’s dissolution confirmed Julius’s involvement in the plot. But the death sentence for Ethel – who was found guilty of typing up notes that Julius passed to his handlers – remains a controversial decision.

For over two years, the pair had been languishing in jail. During this time, the case became a cause célèbre. Particularly in France, there was widespread sympathy for the Rosenbergs, with recognition that the alleged espionage would have taken place when the Soviet Union was an ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. In the aftermath of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, there were also many who felt that the development of Soviet atomic weapons was a necessary evil to deter the United States from launching further nuclear attacks.

Leger to Robert

Fernand Léger, ‘Liberté, Paix, Solidarité’, 1953. Serigraph on scarf with handwritten dedication to Robert Rosenberg.

Artists too rallied in defence of the couple. Among them was the renowned French Cubist, Fernand Léger – a member of the Communist Party – who designed a bold double portrait of the couple in his distinctive colourful style. The couple’s faces are shown overlapping, Ethel in frontal view and Julius in profile, alongside a peace dove – at the time also a common symbol of Communism. Two hands are shown with fingers entwined, a bracelet on one possibly a reference to a press photograph of the couple embracing in handcuffs during their trial. The images are framed by the words ‘Liberté, Paix, Solidarité’ (‘Liberty, Peace, Solidarity’).

Léger printed his design on silk scarves which he intended to sell to raise money for the Rosenberg’s defence. The couple were executed before he could put the plan into action – but one of the scarves now takes pride of place in the home of Robert Meeropol, the couple’s youngest son who was 6 years old when his parents died (his brother Michael was 10). Léger added the handwritten dedication to this scarf: ‘à Robert, orphelin’ (‘To Robert, orphan’).

Picasso Rosenbergs

Pablo Picasso, ‘À la mémoire de Julius et Ethel Rosenberg’, 1953. Lithograph with handwritten dedication to Michael and Robby Rosenberg.

Another double portrait print was designed by fellow Communist artist, Pablo Picasso. As with Léger’s scarves, it was intended to be sold to raise defence funds and Picasso would give a dedicated copy to the two boys. In the annual Salon d’Automne, which opened at Paris’s Grand Palais in November 1953, the strength of feeling against the Rosenberg’s execution was made clear. Numerous French artists joined Picasso and Léger in exhibiting artworks in tribute to the Rosenbergs and denouncing what they felt to be a grave miscarriage of justice. A press photo shows Jean Venitien’s large oil painted canvas Honour to the Rosenbergs, an unusual style for the impressionist artist who was better known for his paintings of Southern French landscapes.

alamy rosenbergs

Opening of Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais, Paris on 11 November 1953, showing the painting ‘Honour to the Rosenbergs’ by Jean Venitien. (c) Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Salon also included André Fougeron’s monumental Socialist Realist painting Civilisation atlantique (Atlantic Civilisation), now held in London’s Tate Modern. A scathing critique of America’s influence in Europe, the caricature-style narrative shows widespread suffering caused by corruption, colonisation, consumerism and militarism. In his condemnation of French foreign policy in North Africa, Fougeron introduced visual tropes that he would build upon five years later in his canvas Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), explored in an earlier Espionart post. Central to this modern history painting is the towering image of the electric chair, used to execute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.

Atlantic Civilisation 1953 by André Fougeron 1913-1998

André Fougeron, ‘Civilisation atlantique’ (‘Atlantic Civilisation’), 1953. Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy Tate.

Over in the United States, artists such as Hugo Gellert and Arnold Mesches also expressed their support for the Rosenbergs as prisoners of conscience, who had paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

rosenberg sons

The Rosenberg orphans, Robert and Michael, would later be adopted by songwriter Abel Meeropol, whose commitment to fighting injustice was shown in his famous anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, recorded by such greats as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. The family continue to campaign to this day for justice for their parents and exoneration for Ethel, and to support the children of other activists in the United States, through the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Saga of the Lucky Dragon and Ben Shahn’s Anti-Nuclear Art

Emboldened by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the United States was keen to bolster its nuclear arsenal as it entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. The remote reefs of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which had come under American occupation during the war, were identified as a suitable test site, and the 167 Bikinians were forced to relocate to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, leaving the region contaminated and uninhabitable.

On 1 March 1954, the United States conducted an atmospheric test of a new hydrogen bomb, with the code name ‘Castle Bravo’. The most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States, it produced a radioactive yield 3 times higher than scientists had predicted. Combined with strong winds, the nuclear fallout reached far across the Marshall Islands, causing radiation sickness among the inhabitants and leading to high levels of cancer and birth defects for years to come.

While the world had long turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Pacific islanders, the Castle Bravo incident caused international outrage due to the misfortune suffered by the Japanese crew of Lucky Dragon No.5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru). Although this tuna fishing boat should have been at a safe distance from the explosion, 80 miles from Bikini Atoll and outside the danger zone set by American officials, the unexpected potency of the bomb led the fishermen to be deluged by radioactive ash, which they unwittingly cleaned from the ship’s deck with their bare hands. In the days that followed, the 23 crew members fell victim to acute radiation syndrome. Their recovery was hindered by the US government’s refusal to reveal the composition of the fallout, for reasons of national security, and, in a double tragedy, all were inadvertently infected with hepatitis C during treatment. However, amazingly, all but one would survive the experience.

The death of Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, fuelled the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement both in Japan and across the world. The fisherman’s final words, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb”, touched a nerve at a time when America’s nuclear stockpile was proliferating rapidly. The country’s armoury of nuclear weapons would rise from 299 in 1950, to a high of over 31,000 devices in 1965 (the Soviet Union would reach a high of almost 40,000 nuclear weapons in 1980). American artist Ben Shahn was one of those alarmed by this acceleration and horrified to hear about the devastation caused in his country’s pursuit of military supremacy, and the incident at Bikini Atoll would continue to haunt his creative output for years to come.

In 1957, Shahn accepted a commission to illustrate a series of articles about the contamination of Lucky Dragon No.5, that were published in Harper’s Magazine in early 1958. The following year he travelled to Southeast Asia and the experience reinforced his enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese art. Upon his return in 1960, Shahn began a series of paintings on the same theme, highlighting the injustice wrought on the burned and poisoned Japanese fishermen and powerfully advocating an end to nuclear testing. In the Lucky Dragon paintings, Shahn’s signature style is enhanced by design elements drawn from Japanese artistic traditions, while the heavy palette and scenes of lamentation provide a confrontational record of the nuclear anxiety that gripped people around the world.

Together with the writer Richard Hudson, Shahn later brought together some of his Lucky Dragon illustrations and paintings in the book Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon, published in 1965. While Shahn’s leftist principles and socially-directed art were viewed with suspicion by many in the United States, this series of work brought him great acclaim in Japan and across Southeast Asia. Part of Shahn and Hudson’s book is available to view online.

All images by Ben Shahn and tempera on wood. We Did Not Know What Happened to Us, c.1960, Smithsonian American Art MuseumThe Lucky Dragon, 1960, Private Collection; A Score of White Pigeons, 1960, Moderna Museet.

Cheerful Collages of Mushroom Clouds

Terrified by the news that the Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear bomb in August 1949, the United States decided to up the ante – by going thermonuclear. On 1 November 1952, the world’s first H-bomb, codenamed Ivy Mike, was detonated on the Pacific island of Elugelab. The island was instantly transformed into a cloud of ash that reached 27 miles into the sky, and all vegetation within the path of the 3-mile-wide fireball was vaporised. After the dust had settled, all that remained was a crater over 1 mile wide that plummeted 165 feet into the seabed.

In 2010, Piotr Uklański memorialised Ivy Mike in the form of a seven-foot-long collage. The artist, who lives between Warsaw and New York, is known for satirising both the iconography of American consumerism and the visual tropes of state propaganda in Eastern Europe, toying with viewers’ expectations by investing clichéd visual tropes with new, subversive meaning. In a similarly provocative manner, his depiction of Ivy Mike juxtaposes the ominous shape of the mushroom cloud, a common symbol of disaster, with cheerful colours and a child-like technique – although the torn paper also suggests violence and destruction. The work was part of a series of collages of natural disaster and nuclear tests, with the United States’ detonation of the Castle Romeo H-bomb in 1954 also pictured.

ivy mike 2

Hyperallergic described the series as “rainbow sherbert collages of calamity,” and Uklański told the magazine: “I like the contrast of beauty and something that symbolizes a complete disaster.” The subject may have also appealed to Uklański as one of Ivy Mike’s two creators was a fellow Polish-American, mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (together with Hungarian-American physicist, Edward Teller).

The United States finally admitted to the detonation of Ivy Mike in 1954, releasing an hour-long self-congratulatory propaganda film. Yet that same year the Soviet Union once more had the upper hand in the nuclear race, having created an H-bomb which was capable of being dropped from a plane.

Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Ivy Mike), 2010. Gouache on paper, collage, torn and pasted on plywood, 217.8 × 304.8 × 10.2 cm. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Painting the Iranian Nuclear Threat

American Israeli artist Andi Arnovitz recently made headlines in the New York Times with a new series of collages crafted in response to the perceived nuclear threat posed against Israel by Iran. The painter and printmaker, who has lived in Jerusalem since 1999 and works out of the Jerusalem Print Workshop, recently exhibiting the works at the city’s L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art as part of a larger exhibition of her work entitled Threatened Beauty.

The cheerful appearance of the painted medallions belies their menacing subject matter. Fordow’s Underground refers to Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment plant and below the ornate flowers and bright blue sky men in turbans are shown operating machinery. In other works the dreamy, swirling landscapes and seascapes gradually reveal sinister objects and figures, demonstrating the artist’s personal fears.

Taking inspiration from the decorative traditions of the Islamic world, in particular the intricate designs of Persian carpets and the lush visions in Persian miniatures, Arnovitz has actively sought to subvert these alluring visual legacies by manipulating them to reflect the current political turmoil in the Middle East. While other works in Arnovitz’s recent exhibition dealt with the menace of Islamic fundamentalism, the theme of nuclear threat was at its heart. The artist is a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and she claims she would like to hang her work “on the walls of Congress” and force the US president to “look at this every night before he goes to bed”.

Reflecting on the benefit of using art as a form of political propaganda, Arnovitz says: “It’s so much easier to get your message out there with art, because you’re not standing in front of a microphone and banging people over the head. Art is quieter, art gets under your skin more.”

Images: Andi Arnovitz, Fordow’s Underground, 2014. Mixed media on paper, 56.5 × 56.5 cm.

Recommended: Cold War Bunkers – East and West

Recently the public got its first glance inside Albania’s most important Cold War era bunker, located just outside the Albanian capital of Tirana. Built 100m below ground between 1972 and 1978, the top secret complex boasts 106 rooms over five storeys. It also features a bedroom with red satin sheets for former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, as the bunker was intended to house the government in the event of a nuclear attack by the West.

Such was Hoxha’s paranoia that over the course of his 40-year rule he built some 700,000 bunkers across Albania. A team of enterprising students is currently planning to convert those along the coastline into a series of “bunker-and-bed” hostels for adventurous tourists.

Bunkers and nuclear shelters abound across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, from Bunker-42 next to Taganskaya metro station in central Moscow to Military Installation D-0 in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Underground bunkers were also built in both halves of Germany, with the Government Bunker (Regierungsbunker) south of Bonn intended to house the West Germany government, while Bunker 17/5001, in a forest north of Berlin, was set to protect the East German government of Erich Honecker.

Chairman Mao built a series of nuclear bunkers, including beneath a mountain in Ruichang in the 1960s. Bunkers under mountains also proved popular in the United States, with a number of massive military complexes built in the 1950s. These include the “underground Pentagon” at the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Pennsylvania and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado.

ESPIONART has previously reported on Ottawa’s so-called Diefenbunker. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, nuclear paranoia resulted in bunkers springing up across the United Kingdom, from York Cold War Bunker, now managed by English Heritage, to the secret network of Cold War bunkers underneath Birmingham. Groups such as Subterranea Britannica are dedicated to recording and photographing these locations while across the world they are being reimagined as museums, hotels and restaurants.

So next time you’re looking for a day or evening out with a difference, it’s worth checking where the nearest Cold War bunker is to you. You may be standing directly above it.

Image: Bunker-42 na Taganke, Moscow

Featured Artist: Henry Moore

Having survived the horror of the World War I trenches as a teenager, celebrated English sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986) continued to respond to the dramatic historical events he witnessed throughout his lifetime.

During the Cold War, Moore’s work was infused with the tensions of the era and his anxiety about the development of atomic weapons. In this strange new world Moore’s familiar combination of the human figure with organic forms expressed the vulnerability of mankind in the face of nuclear attack.

As the start of the Korean War threatened to unleash the world’s first nuclear conflict, Moore revived a theme that had first entered his work in 1939 at the onset of World War II. Between 1950 and 1952 the sculptor produced thirteen Helmet Head sculptures. These sinister robot-like bronzes, which he described as “disturbing and strange,” expressed a sense of entrapment in an oppressive environment.

Despite Moore’s support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), in the early 1960s he accepted a commission that appeared to challenge this opposition. The 12-foot bronze sculpture Nuclear Energy was unveiled at the University of Chicago in 1967 to commemorate the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction which took place there in 1942. Yet while supposedly a commemorative piece, many have read its mushroom cloud shape as an anti-nuclear statement. In 1987, the city of Hiroshima purchased one of seven Atom Piece models of the sculpture.

Images: Top – Henry Moore, Helmet Head No.1, 1950, cast 1960. Bronze. Courtesy Tate; Bottom – Henry Moore, Nuclear Energy, 1967. Bronze. University of Chicago. © The Henry Moore Foundation