Graphic novel shows life in Nevada’s ‘doom towns’ during atomic testing

July 1, 2017 at 6:03 PM EDT
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. tested nearly a thousand atomic weapons in the Nevada desert 125 miles north of Las Vegas. The mushroom clouds from those tests were visible from the Vegas strip and became an unlikely tourist attraction. The book “Doom Towns” offers a history of the people and landscapes from this era. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports.

IVETTE FELICIANO: In 1951, the U.S. government started testing atomic bombs in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, measuring the effects of these weapons for military applications and on civilian life. University of Nevada Las Vegas Professor Andy Kirk has studied the era.

ANDY KIRK, UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA LAS VEGAS: Did they really build fake towns out in the desert and then blow the whole place up with atomic bombs? And the answer is yes, in fact, they did do that.

IVETTE FELICIANO: They were called “Doom Towns.” And as seen in this 1955 public information film, the Federal Civil Defense Administration built houses, stocked them with food, and placed fully dressed mannequins inside to learn what might survive an atomic bomb.

U.S. FEDERAL CIVIL DEFENSE ADMINISTRATION FILM “OPERATION CUE” (1955): Would food in the average home be safe to eat after a blast?

ANDY KIRK: The purpose as stated by the civil defense agencies of creating these “Doom Towns” and then widely disseminating on film of them being destroyed was to encourage Americans to be concerned about the possibility of civilians being the target of nuclear attack.

IVETTE FELICIANO: “Doom Towns” is the title of Andy Kirk’s new graphic history about this era. Collaborating with British artist Kristian Purcell, the book weaves together primary documents, photos, and the oral histories of residents, scientists, soldiers, and anti-nuclear activists.

ANDY KIRK: Instead of just collecting examples of visual history and collating it and presenting it in some sort of coffee book form you could actually think about doing some of that, but also in conjunction with telling the story as a visual narrative. So in the form of a graphic novel except based on careful archival and oral history research.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Kirk found the visual style of a graphic history well-suited for bringing to life the stories of the people who lived through nuclear testing, stories he helped collect in an oral history project partly funded by the U.S. Departments of Energy and Education.

Participants are literally drawn into the panels and describe not fully knowing about the hazards of radiation, how soldiers experienced the blasts at close range, and were then ordered to march toward the test site to see how they would respond during an actual attack.

But the tests weren’t all “doom and gloom,” according to Las Vegas news photographer Don English, who recalled how his photographs of a dancer in front of an atomic cloud became iconic images of Nevada’s nuclear testing legacy. And how the blasts in the Nevada desert became a draw for tourists.

ANDY KIRK: I’m not an artist, so when I watch an artist work I thought it was just really cool. So this is the draft sketch coming out of his head as he encounters primary documents and having a discussion with me about the historical meaning of a given set of circumstances.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Kirk’s book explores how the blasts affected nearby communities and how nuclear fallout was more unpredictable than portrayed by scientists and the military.

ANDY KIRK: The public information tried to depict testing as contained and as low risk. But in private correspondence, there’s always a tone of uncertainty they never knew what was going to happen.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Eventually, local communities learned fallout from some of tests were far more expansive and dangerous than they realized, including a large sheep kill in a wide range of Utah in 1953.

ANDY KIRK: I think there were many people who were affected by nuclear testing who didn’t fundamentally oppose the nuclear weapons. They were patriotic, and they were even willing to make sacrifices personally for the Cold War. But they did want good information, and they did want to know the truth.

NEWSREEL: “It detonated perfectly, releasing its deadly radiation.”

IVETTE FELICIANO: The last above ground nuclear test was in 1962, but underground tests continued until 1992. In Kirk’s telling, residents, civilian workers, and soldiers alike played key roles in Nevada’s history as a nuclear testing site, and in a sense, shared an identity as Cold War veterans.

ANDY KIRK: This identity as a Cold War veteran united people who were very, very different in other respects. Caltech scientists or Sandia Lab scientists who were commingling with Las Vegas residents, who by circumstances and proximity to the test site were pulled into this extraordinary series of events.