Bottom Line Up Front
This post discusses nuclear weapon laboratory advertising in Physics Today and Scientific American 1956-1964. I focus on a set of ads published 1956-1959 by Sandia National Laboratories and distinguished by their overt engagement with Cold War nuclear ideologies. I demonstrate how these advertisements often drew on tropes of the history and violence of the “American West” to justify, represent, and recruit for nuclear weapons work. This discussion, although drawing on historical examples, offers a lens for examining contemporary discourses about US nuclear weapons and apocalyptic violence.
Author’s note: portions of this post are adapted from my final paper for a Western History class, UNM, Spring 2017. I give special thanks to (in alphabetical order) Taylor Genovese; Araina Hansen, PhD; Cheryl Rofer; and Grant Trent for offering feedback and comments on drafts.
Sandia! The West! Nuclear Weapons! Violence! Advertising! (Introduction)
One of the best parts about being an anthropologist is the opportunity to indulge my morbidly broad curiosity and get course credit for it. The final paper for my Western History class this spring meant a week in the archives flipping through every page, of every issue, of Physics Today (PT) and Scientific American (SA) from 1950-1964. My toils and ink-stained fingers were rewarded with an abundance of GLORIOUS Cold War advertising (800+ images). For this blog post I selected these particular advertisements to examine because of their unusually “explicit rah-rah Cold War ideology” and temporal coincidence (1956-1959). Between 1956 and 1964, it was only during those three years (1956-1959) that Sandia published advertisements in PT and SA that discussed in a non-negligible way the supposed purposes of US nuclear weapons. Of the ten unique tokens of Sandia ads I collected from 1956-1959, six of them resemble “…out of this nettle” and overtly theorize about relationships between nukes, peace, and morally justified violence.
As I have suggested (ranted) on Twitter, the “American West” has disproportionately provided the labor, resources, land, and imaginaries for the US nuclear weapons complex. Frederick Jackson Turner (in)famously went so far as to proclaim that the Western frontier experience itself generated the uniquely American Nation and character. However, the American “taming” of the frontier was a violent, messy, and genocidal process. One point of this post is to demonstrate how the aforementioned series of Sandia ads (1956-1959) mobilize imagined histories and conceptualizations of violence in the “American West” for persuasive purposes. In other words, tropes and images of the “American West” and its violence were often the rhetorical and cultural (semiotic) building blocks used by Sandia to advertise their work, recruit employees, and shape public beliefs about nuclear weapons. As I will show, Sandia advertising minimized, erased, and romantically recast both the problematic violence of US Western history and the potentially apocalyptic violence of nuclear war. In doing so Sandia advertisements discursively laid claim to both occupied land and nuclear weapon projects.
Using advertisements as data involves potentially prickly questions about communicative context and referentiality. Sandia hired outside advertising agencies to produce the advertisements I collected and thus the exact relationships between animator/text (the ad), author (advertising company), and principal (Sandia) are complex and somewhat opaque. The genre of advertising, by definition, involves a hedged or nuanced relationship to fact and the referential functions of language. Advertising may present facts to inform but it is a positioned and incomplete informing connected to persuasive goals. Finally, Sandia’s advertisements must also be considered as a performance of institutional identity and therefore potentially aspirational or disconnected from actual practice. Recruitment advertisements are like online dating profiles in this sense: more about how one wants to be (or be seen) than how one actually is.
Nuclear War at High Noon
Sandia, the least academically written about of the three nuclear weapon labs, began as an offshoot of Los Alamos tasked with developing & testing non-nuclear components and assembling atomic weapons. In 1949 Sandia Corporation, a Western Electric subsidiary, was formed to manage the newly independent ordnance laboratory for the US nuclear weapons complex.
“Peacemaker,” published 1956 in Scientific American, exemplifies the articulation of utilitarian, gendered, and generative frontier violence to the justification of US nuclear weapon projects: “They called this weapon the Peacemaker. In the hands of the Western lawmen, it brought peace and order to the turbulent frontier.” In the next lines Sandia identifies with an imagined Western heritage of gunslinger justice: “In the West today, Sandia Corporation engineers and scientists explore new frontiers in research and development engineering to produce modern peacemakers…the nuclear weapons that deter aggression and provide a vital element of security for the nations of the free world.” The limits of this analogy are clear even in the ad text itself. Although the peacemakers of Western films & imagined histories brought victory through use (killing the bad guys), nuclear weapons exist “to deter aggression and provide a vital element of security for the nations of the free world.” Whereas the “Western lawmen” demonstrated their masculine toughness through violence and killing, to do so using nuclear weapons would destroy the very things ostensibly being defended. However, the mobilization of the “Western lawmen” trope allows Sandia to invoke Manichean frames of good vs evil and morally justifiable utilitarian violence. In a demonstration of the longevity and mobility of the trope, twenty-six years later the ten warhead MX Peacekeeper would supposedly avoid being named the “Peacemaker” only because of its homophonic similarity to “Pacemaker.”
In 1957, Sandia again drew on notions of Western gunslinger justice as an analogy for understanding the Cold War and nuclear arms race. The text of “No Second Best” declares: “When an aggressor threatens, you can’t be second best.” Presumably the Soviets, whose ability to conduct a nuclear attack against the CONUS in 1957 was mediocre (at best), would have had some thoughts about this characterization. In any case, the ad copy overtly connects Sandia’s nuclear weapons work to an urgent and morally unambiguous imaginary of the West: “That’s the way it is in our business, too. Our business is design and development of nuclear weapons—weapons that stop potential aggressors and defend our freedom. And, in this kind of work, either you’re best or you’re nothing. We can’t afford to settle for less than the best—ever. That applies to our engineers and scientists too.” The multi-millennial, and ongoing, inhabitation of the Albuquerque region by Indigenous peoples is commodified as a perk of “attractive living…In Albuquerque, a fine climate and a blending of ancient and modern cultures provides pressure-free, relaxed, pleasant living.”
Graphically, “No Second Best” indexes a common and deeply gendered scene in the wildly popular Western cinema of the 1950s. The use of this imagery offers an interpretive lens, reinforced by the text, suggesting that the white-hatted United States must fight, and kill, or die. However, in the Westerns I’ve seen, the face-off generally ends with one person dead and the other, at worst, wounded. In 1957 a full-scale thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would have resulted in tens of millions of people dead in Western and Eastern Europe alone. One US nuclear war plan, prepared in 1956 for a war in 1959, assigned high-yield nuclear weapons to be ground burst on airfields in China, the USSR, and across Eastern Europe; this would have sent lethal levels of fallout onto swaths of Western Europe even without considering Soviet use of nuclear weapons. Also targeted with nuclear weapons by the United States was the population of East Berlin. The SIOP-62 nuclear war plan, which went into effect in 1961, if executed, was estimated to kill over 200 million Soviet, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans in the first three days. Bluntly put, the use of the Western trope of individual gunslingers facing off at high noon was massively distorting.
The 1957 Sandia advertisement “Our Product is not for Sale” largely lacks frontier and “American West” tropes. It is also unusual among the ads I collected in overtly theorizing the brand and intangible “product” of Sandia Corporation through the language of middle-class consumer commodification:
“Our product is not for sale. You won’t find it in the supermarkets or department stores, this product of ours. It can’t be packaged and displayed on a shelf. Our product is protection—protection derived from the strength to deter aggression and defend the freedoms we cherish. Our job—design and development of nuclear weapons essential to the defense of our nation.”
Graphically, the image of a cash register indexes experiences of buying material consumer commodities produced through labor. Textually, the actual material entity created by Sandia (deliverable nukes), along with resources consumed and waste produced, is semiotically obscured through replacement with the imagined products of “protection” and deterrence.
“Our Product is not for Sale” is not completely bereft of Western tropes. Sandia’s Thunderbird logo was the winning entry in an employee design contest in 1955 and it openly appropriates the designs and cultural meanings of Indigenous peoples. In 1999 Sandia LabNews, the employee newsletter, noted that “[t]he thunderbird is a mythical symbol that stems from American Indian Folklore.” The Thunderbird logo offers an example of how American colonial practices have provided semiotic elements used by Sandia in public relations and to construct an institutional identity.
In “The Challenge of New Frontiers” the Western tropes of scenic beauty and frontier opportunity are connected to a parallel myth of scientific progress: “Here in the West where sweeping plains and lofty mesas once challenged the conquistadores of New Spain, Sandia Laboratory now explores new frontiers of science and engineering—seeking the answers to vital questions in many areas of knowledge.” The advertisement copy, acknowledging the centrality of nuclear weapons work to Sandia, suggests that its work, and by extension the colonial violence of the Spanish and Americans, is all for the best and in the name of progress: “research and development in the ordnance phases of nuclear weapons…is still our main task, but in doing it we have learned much in the way of theory and advanced technique that has applications outside the field of weaponry.” Not mentioned by “The Challenge of New Frontiers” are the less progressive legacies of Spanish & American colonial practices such as poverty and relatively low rates of educational achievement in New Mexico. Also absent is consideration of how Hispanic, Indigenous, and Mexican descended persons continue (both in 1957 and 2017) to be present at Sandia but disproportionately concentrated in lower-paying, lower-status jobs.
The 1958 “WARHEAD” advertisement presents constructions of American West and Indigenous histories that symbolically justify the US nuclear weapons project and lay claim to land and resources. Both Sandia and Los Alamos occupy land acquired through processes of colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples; San Ildefonso Pueblo continues to claim the Pajarito Plateau as Tribal land. However, the multi-millennial Indigenous persons’ inhabitation of the region, the varied experiences by multiple groups of imperial and colonial violence, and the continued presence of Indigenous peoples and claims are erased by exile to the past: “[c]enturies ago, the Indians of New Mexico designed and developed warheads like this one.”
The “WARHEAD” text goes on to equate hunting and tribal warfare using stone tools with the US deployment of over 7,000 nuclear weapons in 1958: “Today, we at Sandia Corporation do very much the same job—but we call it research and development in the ordnance phases of nuclear weapons for the Atomic Energy Commission.” Simultaneously, and through the analogical articulation of Western and Indigenous heritages, “WARHEAD” naturalizes Sandia’s work and the production of (nuclear) warheads as a human constant.
The text of “About Men and Weapons” is unique in both the Sandia and Los Alamos advertisements I have collected in that it openly addresses a central paradox (or “THE BIG PROBLEM OF EVERYBODY DYING” issue, as I like to call it) of nuclear deterrence theory. Like in the text of “WARHEAD,” the development of “new and more powerful” nuclear weapons is normalized through an invocation of the past: “[f]or centuries men have tried to develop new and more powerful weapons to achieve victory in war.” The nuclear age, as an epochal experience of modernity, means now that “war can be race suicide and victory thus gained is a delusion” but “we keep on trying to develop new and more powerful weapons, because we must.” Why, you ask, and for how long are we compelled to risk “race suicide?” “For as long as there are powerful forces with a record of cynical duplicity and oppression, the free world must have weapons capable of neutralizing them. At least until men learn that the only alternate to peace is oblivion.” American nuclear weapons are thus naturalized as part of historical progress in weaponry and also justified by reference to an implacably evil external threat. Potential Sandia applicants (and America) are cast as reluctant, almost tragic, defenders forced by human ignorance to risk Doomsday.
At least in the publications and time period (1950-1964) I have examined, the Sandia ads published 1956-1959 were distinctive. Later (1960-1964) Sandia advertisements, like “New Sources of Pulsed Energy,” avoided overtly engaging with theories of nuclear deterrence and apocalyptic violence. Instead, and in a pattern continuing today in Sandia public relations, non-weapon and obliquely-weapon related activities were disproportionately highlighted.
The PhD student in me is screaming at how short this post is and how much I have left unsaid. I may fill some of those gaps in future blog posts. For instance, here I have given short-shrift to issues of gender and race; the ways in which nuclear weapon laboratory advertising imagined an American “good life” of middle-class consumerism; and the similarities of lab advertising to private defense industry advertising. What I have tried to say is that the way we talk about nukes, and the analogies we use, matters and to offer some fun illustrations of how.
 Wellerstein, Alex. “Advertising for Weapons Designers.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/12/14/advertising-for-weapons- designers/, December 14, 2012. Accessed 01/01/2017.
 Masco, Joseph. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.; Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
 Blackhawk, Ned. Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.; Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973; Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
 I use the term “American West” in quotation marks to acknowledge the historically contingent nature of the American state as a geographically deictic center. Furthermore, “The West” and “frontier” were different things at different times in American history but the advertising I examined treats these historically (and geographically) distinct “Wests” as a broad set of shared semiotic features. That is to say, the ads I examined generally treated all “Wests” and “frontiers” as though they were the same.
 Sandia Corporation. “Peacemaker.” Scientific American 195, no. 2 (1956): 110.
 New York Times. “’Peacemaker’ Loses Missile Name Game.” http://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/23/us/peacemaker-loses-missile-name-game.html, November 23, 1982. Accessed May 30, 2017.
 Sandia Corporation. “No Second Best.” Physics Today 10, no. 9 (1957): 33
 National Security Archive. “U.S. Cold War Nuclear Target Lists Declassified for First Time.” Edited by William Burr. George Washington University. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb538-Cold-War-Nuclear-Target-List-Declassified-First-Ever/, December 22, 2015. Accessed 04/20/2017.; Wellerstein, Alex. “Mapping the US Nuclear War Plan for 1956.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2016/05/09/mapping-us-nuclear-war-plan-1956/, May 9, 2016. Accessed 04/20/17.
 National Security Archive, “U.S. Cold War Nuclear Target Lists,” 2015.; Wellerstein, “Mapping the US Nuclear War Plan,” 2016.
 Burr, William. “U.S. War Plans Would Kill an Estimated 108 Million Soviets, 104 Million Chinese, and 2.6 Million Poles: More Evidence on SIOP-62 and the Origins of Overkill.” Unredacted. https://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/u-s-war-plans-would-kill-an-estimated-108-million-soviets-104-million-chinese-and-2-3-million-poles-more-evidence-on-siop-62-and-the-origins-of-overkill/, November 8, 2011. Accessed 04/20/2017.
 Sandia Corporation. “Our Product is Not for Sale.” Scientific American 197, no. 1 (1957): 171.
 Sandia National Laboratories. “Sandia Gearing up for 50th Anniversary Celebrations, Observances in 1999.” Sandia LabNews. June 19, 1998. http://www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN06-19-98/fiftieth_story.html, accessed 05/10/2017.; Furman, Necah Stewart. Sandia National Laboratories: The Postwar Decade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
 Sandia National Laboratories, “Sandia Gearing Up,” 1999.
 Sandia Corporation. “The Challenge of New Frontiers.” Physics Today 11, no. 11 (1958): 33.
 Government Accountability Office. “Equal Employment Opportunity: Information on
Personnel Actions, Employee Concerns, and Oversight at Six DOE Laboratories.”
Washington DC: Government Accountability Office, 2005. www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-190. Accessed 04/02/2017.; Masco, Nuclear Borderlands, 2006.
 Sandia Corporation. “Warhead.” Scientific American 199, no. 3 (1958): 211.
 Sandia Corporation, “Warhead,” 1958.; Norris, Robert S., Hans M. Kristensen. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 66, no. 4 (2010): 77-83.
 Sandia Corporation. “About Men and Weapons.” Scientific American 198, no. 5 (1958): 135.
 Sandia Corporation. “New Sources of Pulsed Energy.” Physics Today 203, no. 3 (1960): 269.
Blackhawk, Ned. Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Burr, William. “U.S. War Plans Would Kill an Estimated 108 Million Soviets, 104 Million Chinese, and 2.6 Million Poles: More Evidence on SIOP-62 and the Origins of Overkill.” Unredacted. https://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/u-s-war-plans-would-kill-an estimated-108-million-soviets-104-million-chinese-and-2-3-million-poles- more-evidence-on-siop-62-and-the-origins-of-overkill/, November 8, 2011. Accessed 04/20/2017.
Furman, Necah Stewart. Sandia National Laboratories: The Postwar Decade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
Government Accountability Office. “Equal Employment Opportunity: Information on Personnel Actions, Employee Concerns, and Oversight at Six DOE Laboratories.” Washington DC: Government Accountability Office, 2005. www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-190. Accessed 04/02/2017.
Johnson, Leland. Sandia National Laboratories: A History of Exceptional Service in the National Interest, Edited by Carl Mora, John Taylor, and Rebecca Ullrich. Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories, 1997.
Masco, Joseph. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
National Security Archive. “U.S. Cold War Nuclear Target Lists Declassified for First Time.” Edited by William Burr. George Washington University. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb538-Cold-War-Nuclear-Target-List-DeclassifiedFirstEver/, December 22, 2015. Accessed 04/20/2017.
New York Times. “’Peacemaker’ Loses Missile Name Game.” http://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/23/us/peacemaker-loses-missile-name-game.html, November 23, 1982. Accessed May 30, 2017.
Norris, Robert S., Hans M. Kristensen. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 66, no. 4 (2010): 77-83.
Sandia Corporation. “About Men and Weapons.” Scientific American 198, no. 5 (1958): 135.
Sandia Corporation. “The Challenge of New Frontiers.” Physics Today 11, no. 11 (1958): 33.
Sandia Corporation. “New Sources of Pulsed Energy.” Physics Today 203, no. 3 (1960): 269.
Sandia Corporation. “No Second Best.” Physics Today 10, no. 9 (1957): 33.
Sandia Corporation. “Our Product is Not for Sale.” Scientific American 197, no. 1 (1957): 171.
Sandia Corporation. “Out of this Nettle…” Scientific American 195, no. 1 (1956): 104.
Sandia Corporation. “Peacemaker.” Scientific American 195, no. 2 (1956): 110.
Sandia Corporation. “Warhead.” Scientific American 199, no. 3 (1958): 211.
Sandia National Laboratories. “Sandia Gearing up for 50th Anniversary Celebrations, Observances in 1999.” Sandia LabNews. June 19, 1998. http://www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN06-19-98/fiftieth_story.html, accessed 05/10/2017.
Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600- 1860. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Wellerstein, Alex. “Advertising for Weapons Designers.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/12/14/advertising-for-weapons-designers/, December 14, 2012. Accessed 01/01/2017.
Wellerstein, Alex. “Mapping the US Nuclear War Plan for 1956.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2016/05/09/mapping-us-nuclear-war-plan-1956/, May 9, 2016. Accessed 04/20/17.