The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the latest issue of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York. With a president about to be inaugurated who favors intensifying the nuclear arms race, Zak’s book is even more timely than it was when he wrote it. And God knows, we need to be inspired to go out and resist all the madness..
Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. By Dan Zak. New York, NY: Blue Rider Press, 2016. 336 pp. $27.00 (hardback); $13.99 (eBook).
In the coverage of the death of Fidel Castro in November, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis came up again and again, but always as if it were part of ancient history. No mention at all that today there are 15,375 nuclear weapons on the planet, or that the Doomsday Clock, indicating how close we are to nuclear catastrophe, is at three minutes to midnight.
What’s to be done about this massive public obliviousness to the threat of nuclear weapons? One strategy is to educate people, as Dan Zak does to astounding effect in his 2016 book, Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. But the education Zak undertakes in his book is not of the policy-wonk kind. It’s education through storytelling, the kind of storytelling that mesmerizes the learner.
At the heart of Almighty is the saga of the July 2012 infiltration of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tennessee by three Transform Now Ploughshares activists, Sr. Megan Rice, Gregory Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli. Y-12 was (and still is) a site where thermo-nuclear warheads are overhauled and upgraded. Already in the book’s prologue, Zak has the Ploughshares activists preparing for their incursion into Y-12, baking bread to share with their captors, pouring the human blood they will spread on Y-12 walls into baby-bottles, and setting out. And in the last chapters, he has Sister Megan, released in 2015 after two years of imprisonment, back tying a peace crane onto the gates of Y-12 to protest the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
In the chapters between, the author weaves, with extraordinary finesse, the whole story of nuclear weapons production and use by the United States. He begins with the Manhattan Project at Columbia University during World War II, where the secret research took place that led to the development of the first atomic bomb. The subject of this segment of Zak’s story is Selig Hecht, the Columbia biophysicist who was deeply involved in the secret research, but who later joined with Albert Einstein and other scientists to denounce the bombings and stress the horrific future nuclear weapons made likely. Zak’s nuanced description brings Hecht alive in an unforgettable way.
But Hecht’s story and the dozens of others that comprise Almighty are by no means mere beads on a string. In Hecht’s case, as in many others, the stories are woven together with mastery. Who, for example, do you think lived across the hall from Hecht and his wife during the Manhattan Project? Dr. Frederick Rice and his wife, Madeleine Newman Hooke Rice, and their daughter, Megan. Sister Megan Rice cited the secrecy around Hecht’s work as one of the causes of her concern about nuclear weapons.
Of all the stories in Almighty that will not leave me for a long time, that of U.S. testing of nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands is sure most unforgettable. Within a year of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. had removed all of the residents from the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll, to a “sparser atoll” 125 miles away and began testing nuclear weapons there. As the U.S. military removed the people, they told them that they had been “chosen by God” because testing the weapons was “for the good of mankind.”
Ultimately, the radiation from U.S. tests on the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, if parceled out evenly, would equal that of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized detonations a day for twelve years. The U.S., upon granting the Marshall Islands its independence in 1986, settled all claims for $150 million dollars. The story of Tony deBrum, who was nine years old when the first nuclear weapon was tested on Bikini, and those of other Marshall Islanders gravely affected by the testing, only makes U.S. actions all the more horrifying. And this is but one of the multiple galvanizing narratives throughout Almighty’s 300-plus pages.
Readers of this blog who live not too far from New York may be interested to know that Sister Megan Rice, one of Almighty’s pivotal heroes, will be leading the annual retreat of Pax Christi Metro New York this year ( nypaxchristi.org ). It’s taking place on the weekend of March 10 to 12, at the Maryknoll Sisters Center, near Ossining, NY. Zak’s book is a terrific introduction to the retreat, but if you can’t get there, read the book anyhow. At a time when each of us needs to be stepping up in the face of new threats of nuclear disaster, Almighty provides much-needed inspiration.