Farewell to August, the Nuclear Month: A Brush With Death I Never Knew I Had

I’m a child of the Cold War, but I never realized just how true this was until I read an opinion piece in Al Jazeera America which argues that the real nuclear threat does not come from Iran or North Korea, but from the two original nuclear powers. Yup–Russia and good ol’ us. 

Despite radical cuts to our mutual arsenals, we superpowers still stand guard over a combined 14,600 nuclear warheads, signed, sealed, and ready to deliver. And even though those nukes are far from the headlines, they’re also far from rusting in peace. The article mentions one very close call that came as recently as 1995, well after the communist state had crumbled:

In January 1995, a global nuclear war almost started by mistake. Russian military officials mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missile. Boris Yeltsin’s senior military officials told him that Russia was under attack and that he had to launch hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles at America. He became the first Russian president to ever have the “nuclear suitcase” opened in front of him. But Yeltsin trusted U.S. officials, and he was confident that there was no hidden crisis that might prompt a surprise attack by the U.S. With just a few minutes to decide, Yelstin concluded that his radars were in error. The suitcase was closed. 

But the close call that chilled me the most was an incident I had never even heard of, that struck–LITERALLY–very, very close to home:

In 1961, a B-52 carrying two armed weapons broke apart over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Two bombs dropped from the bomb bay. One bomb’s parachute deployed and carried it safely to the ground. The other fell all the way down. All of the weapon’s safety mechanisms failed, save one. A single low-voltage switch, the technical equivalent of a light switch, prevented a hydrogen bomb from destroying a good portion of North Carolina.

Goldsboro is 80 miles from the farm where I grew up. If that “light switch” had failed, even if a nuclear blast had not resulted, at the very least a lethal dose of nuclear contamination would have been released into the air and carried all over the state, including my parents’ farm. In 1961. The year I was born.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Courtesy Wikipedia

Here’s some more detail of the event, provided by Wikipedia:

The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour (310 m/s) and disintegrated without detonation of its conventional explosives. The tail was discovered about 20 feet (6.1 m) below ground. Pieces of the bomb were recovered.[12][page needed] According to nuclear weapons historian Chuck Hansen, the bomb was partially armed when it left the aircraft though an unclosed high-voltage switch had prevented it from fully arming.[8] In 2013, ReVelle recalled the moment the second bomb’s switch was found. “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, ‘Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Not great. It’s on arm.’”[13]

I know the Cold War, and the ongoing danger of nuclear proliferation, isn’t all about me. Except that it is. It is about me. And you. And you. All of us. Whether ground zero or “only” downwind, every human being is a potential victim of any kind of nuclear accident or misdeed.

So, as Congress prepares to debate the nuclear deal with Iran, my prayer will be more general. August 6 and August 9 still haunt me with images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons still haunt us all. I pray that those in power continue to do everything in their power to keep those weapons safe, while finding ways to keep future farm girls, and everyone else, from being haunted.

When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction-Writing: Iowa Writers’ Workshop as CIA Baby?

When you get involved in fiction writing, you hear “Iowa” a lot. It’s shorthand for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, operating since 1936 under the auspices of the University of Iowa. It’s also a flagship of American creativity. And, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it was also erected as a bulwark against Communism, and partially funded by the CIA.

Iowa, a weapon of the Cold War?! That bastion of individualism? The first program in the US to promote advanced degrees in creative writing, to amplify the voices of writers expressing themselves freely, independently, even iconoclastically?  Oh…wait. I think I get it.

It was a shock to me at first, I must admit, when I read this sentence in an article in Al Jazeera America about the CIA sending hip-hop artists to Cuba to further American ideals: “It was also a CIA front group, known as the Farfield Foundation, that provided seed money for what would become the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.” I had to investigate.

Turns out that quote comes from Professor Eric Bennett,  assistant professor of English at Providence College. [The article adds that Dr. Bennett’s “book on creative writing and the Cold War, Workshops of Empire, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. This essay is adapted from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach and published this month by Faber 
and Faber.”–just in case you want to track him down.]

Here’s the part of Dr. Bennett’s article I found most striking:

But it’s also an accepted part of the story that creative-writing programs arose spontaneously: Creative writing was an idea whose time had come. Writers wanted jobs, and students wanted fun classes. In the 1960s, with Soviet satellites orbiting, American baby boomers matriculating, and federal dollars flooding into higher education, colleges and universities marveled at Iowa’s success and followed its lead. To judge by the bellwether, creative-writing programs worked. Iowa looked great: Famous writers taught there, graduated from there, gave readings there, and drank, philandered, and enriched themselves and others there.

Yet what drew writers to Iowa was not the innate splendor of a spontaneously good idea. What drew writers to Iowa is what draws writers anywhere: money and hype, which tend to be less spontaneous than ideas.

So where did the money and the hype come from?

Much of the answer lies in the remarkable career of Paul Engle, the workshop’s second director, a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior whose accomplishments remain mostly covered in archival dust. For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.

After reading the whole article, I can’t say that I’m “shocked, shocked!” at the ideas Dr. Bennett expresses. The writing is not muck-raking; it’s a deeply personal statement about the impact of political ideas on a creative movement, and the more I think about it, the less surprised I am that such impact should have been so deliberately built. The Cold War was, after all, by definition, a war of ideas. Why should creative writing be held above the fray?

The only bit that leaves a bad taste in my mouth is Iowa’s own disingenuity when presenting its own history. Here’s what their website has to say on the subject:

One of the first students to receive an M.A. in creative writing was the poet Paul Engle, who assumed the directorship of the Workshop in 1941. During the 24 years of his directorship, the Workhsop gained a national reputation as the premier program of its kind. During World War II enrollment was no more than a dozen students, but after the war it grew, attaining in a few years a strength of over a hundred students, and dividing into the fiction and poetry sections which exist today.

Yep–same Paul Engle whom Dr. Bennett knew personally, and describes as “a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior.” The Iowa website seems to be opting for the storyline of spontaneously-arising program for artists. Given what Dr. Bennett has detailed, that origin story appears to be–perhaps appropriately–fiction.

No problems with those origins–but I would like to see Iowa be a little more open about them.

Do you agree? Are you “shocked, shocked”? Or is this old news to you?