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.

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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.

St George and the Atomic Dragon

tsereteli good defeats evil (2)

Perched majestically atop his trusty steed, while delivering a death blow with a spear to the contorted monster at his feet, St George appears incongruous with the lofty skyscrapers that rise above him in Manhattan. What could have caused this valiant knight to venture into the concrete jungle?

The bronze effigy of St George came to New York in 1990, in the twilight months of the Cold War, to take up residence in the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters. The sculpture was a gift of the failing Soviet Union, on the occasion of the UN’s 45th anniversary. Titled Good Defeats Evil, the statue pays tribute to the UN’s role in presiding over a series of treaties that furthered the cause of nuclear disarmament, starting with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom in 1968. The figure of the two-headed dragon that lies at the base of the statue is a direct result of the later Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 between the United States and Soviet Union. The dragon is formed from the scraps of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear missiles, which were destroyed under the terms of the 1987 treaty. Standing 12 metres (39ft) high and weighing 40 tonnes, Good Defeats Evil is a bombastic symbol of the Gorbachev government’s commitment to ending the Cold War, which would inadvertently take place the following year with the dissolution of the bankrupt USSR.

The extravagance of this statue will be of little surprise to any visitors from Moscow, where its creator is notorious for installing what many residents consider an unsightly eyesore. The most famous work by the elderly Georgian-Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, is the monumental Peter the Great Statue, which stands on an artificial island in the middle of the Moskva River. The sculpture has been widely derided by Muscovites since it was installed in 1997. At 94 metres (308ft) high, the gargantuan figure forged from stainless steel, bronze and copper is credited as the eighth tallest statue in the world – higher than the Statue of Liberty – and is unmissable from miles around. It is so unpopular in Moscow that a rumour is widely circulated that it was originally conceived as a statue of Christopher Columbus, to mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World in 1492; but that the US government wisely rejected it, and it was instead repurposed and sold on to the foolhardy Moscow authorities as a tribute to the legendary Russian tsar. Tsereteli vehemently denies the story, although his proposed statue of Columbus, entitled Birth of the New World, was indeed rejected by the US government in 1992 and would struggle to find a home until it was finally erected in Puerto Rico in 2016. The fact that Peter the Great famously loathed Moscow and moved his capital to the eponymous St Petersburg only adds to the ongoing ire among Muscovites, although attempts to knock the statue from its perch have so far been blocked by the appreciative administration of St Petersburg native, Vladimir Putin.

By comparison, Good Defeats Evil has found a more receptive audience in Manhattan. In the gardens of the UN Headquarters, it shares a home with another dramatic Soviet sculpture, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares by Evgenii Vuchetich. In 1959, in the aftermath of the successful Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York, the sculpture was likewise gifted to the United Nations as a symbol of the Soviet commitment to nuclear disarmament. Espionart readers will recognise it as part of the blog’s logo.

In an ironic twist, since 2001, Good Defeats Evil has stood in the shadow of the Trump World Tower. This dramatic symbol of Cold War disarmament is now dwarfed by a skyscraper bearing the name of the new president, who in recent months has expressed a desire to reverse 50 years of US policy by augmenting the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

Images: Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990. United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo: flickr user Al_HikesAZ, CC BY 2.0; Zurab Tsereteli, Peter the Great Statue, 1997. Moskva River, Moscow, 2012. Photo: flickr user e_chaya, CC BY 2.0; Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957. United Nations Headquarters, New York; Trump World Tower behind the Good Defeats Evil by Zurab Tsereteli, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2007. Courtesy Getty Images.

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.

Warning of the Cold War Horse

The life-size effigy of the horse stands alone in a windswept field in Jefferson County, Colorado. But this is no pettable pony. The Cold War Horse is a warning that something sinister has occurred on this remote plateau, about 15 miles north-west of Denver. Cast in fiberglass, steel and resin, the sculpture depicts the horse cloaked in a bright red hazmat suit, with a grey respirator strapped over its nose and mouth.

The Cold War Horse is wise to be dressed so strangely. Between 1952 and 1992, this area, known as Rocky Flats, was the site of a top secret factory where 70,000 highly toxic plutonium “triggers” were produced. These triggers were then dispatched to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where they were assembled into hydrogen bombs, to be used in the event that the Cold War suddenly became blazing hot.

Throughout its forty-year history, the Rocky Flats Plant witnessed a series of dangerous incidents, including a plutonium fire in 1957 and numerous leaks of radioactive waste into the surrounding soil and rivers. As a result of these incidents, a 4,600-acre buffer zone was imposed around the plant in 1972 and extended a couple of years later by another 4,500 acres. In the early 1980s, revelations about the activities at the plant and its environmental effects led to public outrage. In 1983, 17,000 people travelled to Rocky Flats to join hands around the 17-mile perimeter fence as part of a peace protest. Finally in 1987, the plant was raided by the FBI and its managers were fined what at the time amounted to the largest fine in history for an environmental crime. Although officially cleaned up in the early 2000s, the site is still heavily contaminated and uninhabited by humans, and has since been designated the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The Cold War Horse was made by sculptor Jeff Gipe, who grew up near to Rocky Flats and whose father worked at the plant for over 20 years and now suffers from serious health problems as a result. The statue was dedicated in September 2015, ten years after the cleanup of the site was declared complete. But this is no memorial. The Cold War Horse is intended as a renegade artwork, to symbolise the locals affected by the scandal who have yet to be recompensated, and a protest against plans to construct a large housing development near the contaminated land.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Just a week after the Cold War Horse was installed, it was knocked to the ground and attacked with sledge hammers by unidentified assailants. The horse is now under repair and Gipe has set up the coldwarhorse.com website for people who would like to donate towards its reinstallation.

Image: Jeff Gipe, Cold War Horse, 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Werkheiser

Exhibition: Dreamworlds and Catastrophes

Recommended by ESPIONART in 2015, the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Jersey is home to a vast collection of nonconformist Soviet art that was secretly amassed and brought to the United States by the late American economist, Norton Dodge. The latest exhibition at the museum focuses on fantastical and nightmarish scenes conjured up by Soviet artists at the height of the Cold War, inspired by the rapid technological developments in support of the Space Race and nuclear proliferation.

Sherstiuk Cosmonauts Dream

Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection features more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and photographs produced between the 1960s and ’80s. The title is a nod to the book Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (MIT Press, 2000), in which Susan Buck-Morss defines the collective Soviet experience as a “dreamworld,” where the constant barrage of utopian propaganda clashed with the realities of a struggling nation.

Mikhailov Sots ArtSimilarly, the Zimmerli exhibition compares unsettling imaginings of a brave new world on earth and beyond, as in the hyperrealist fantasy of The Cosmonaut’s Dream by Sergei Sherstiuk, with works such as Boris Mikhailov’s Sots Art photographs, which reveal the underlying paranoia of artists living in the shadow of the nuclear threat. The exhibition also includes examples of kinetic art by Valdis Celms and Francisco Infante-Arana that show an attempt by some Soviet artists to emulate and appropriate aspects of military and space technology.

Dreamworks and Catastrophes continues at the Zimmerli Art Museum until 31 July 2016, with admission free. And if you move quickly, you might be able to catch the special exhibition celebration planned for 14 April, to include a curator-led tour of the display and guest lectures on Cold War art and politics.

Images: Sergei Sherstiuk, The Cosmonaut’s Dream, 1986. Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 79 inches; Boris Mikhailov, from the series Sots Art, 1975-90. Gelatin silver print handcolored with aniline dyes,  42 x 43.5 cm.

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