Dan Zak’s book on nuclear weapons is a lyrical history rich with personalities
By Linda Pentz Gunter
“The zero hour approached but time seemed at a standstill. There was no cell service out there in the bramble, off a state highway named for a U.S. senator, past the point where brick estates gave way to matchstick shanties, past where foothills overtook steeples, where civilization faded down tangles of switchbacks. Off one sudden turn, a gravel drive hitched into the dim heather and got narrower, until it was just a mud lane rutted with tire tracks that wormed between warped barns. And there was the grove of sycamore, the rows of grapevine and corn, the handsome country house. A sanctuary. On the wraparound porch facing the vegetable garden, especially at night, it was possible to pretend that this was all there was — that the world was made only of tranquil enclaves under ancient starlight.”
If, on reading that evocative paragraph, you did not immediately conclude that this was a non-fiction book about the history of nuclear weapons, you could be forgiven. That lyrical opening was the first, but by no means the only, unexpected thing about Dan Zak’s book, Almighty. Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age.
Zak writes feature stories, and occasional news assignments, for the Washington Post. He is, not to be too harsh on others, a rare pearl among a lot of rather pedantic swine. Fine writing matters, or it should, but it doesn’t seem to much anymore in today’s 280-character blurt-fest.
And so when I opened Almighty and read that first sentence of Zak’s Prologue, I was in. By the end of the first paragraph, I knew I was going to read the whole book — if there was time, in one sitting. We get sent a lot of nuclear-focused books. They are doubtless well written, thoroughly researched and important. Too often, they sit waiting their turn in the reading queue, gathering dust on the bedside shelf, serious, hefty, glaring at me like neglected homework. But not this book.
Zak cleverly approaches the topic of nuclear weapons development by telling the personal stories of those involved. One of these is described in that opening Prologue paragraph — the preparation, execution and aftermath of the daring break-in by three peace activists at the Oak Ridge Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Tennessee.
Zak’s book emerged from a lengthy feature he wrote for The Washington Post about the deliberate trespass at Oak Ridge. The article was titled The Prophets of Oak Ridge, which itself was first turned into an eponymous short book. And, as we learn in Almighty, there really was a Prophet of Oak Ridge. And the prophet was right.
And so we follow Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, who were arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for breaching the boundaries of Oak Ridge, considered the most impenetrable fortress of all of the country’s nuclear weapons production facilities. They had wandered on the property for at least two hours unobserved before reaching the Highly Enriched Uranium Facility where they daubed the walls with graffiti.
Along the way to this narrative climax, we learn about the earlier Plowshares actions, the umbrella campaign that the Oak Ridge three were a part of, and the history of the Catholic Left. And we learn about the security officer, Kirk Garland, who chose not to shoot the Oak Ridge intruders, but whose life was changed dramatically as a result.
We also get history, of the US nuclear weapons facilities, of the Manhattan Project and of the scientists who worked both on — and eventually against — the bomb. One of these is physicist, Selig Hecht, and it is in fact he, and not the Oak Ridge three, whom we meet at the start of the book. Chapter 1 begins:
“Gargoyles ruled the island at the turn of the century, but in 1910 the new building at 35 Claremont Avenue had angels peering from its third story. They were archangels, not cherubs, with stern faces and sleek wings flared upward, bodies protected by stone shields — a biblical squadron rendered in medieval style, as if summoned from the pages of Milton to the building’s Italian Renaissance facade. They looked ready for battle.
“In the spring of 1926, one floor above the angels, a man of science moved into apartment 4B.”
Soon Hecht, along with his Columbia University colleagues and others involved in the secrecy of the Manhattan Project, began to question deeply whether they were indeed on the side of the angels.
In an extraordinary twist of fate, the Hechts lived across the hall from the Rice family, where young Megan grew up with her two sisters. And so, as we travel through the moral dilemmas of the Manhattan project as seen through Selig’s eyes, we eventually journey back to that sanctuary house and the break-in at Oak Ridge unfolds.
But Zak takes us further afield as well. Much further. We go also to the Marshall Islands, where American atomic bombs were exploded 67 times in so-called tests. Zak travels there himself, where he meets not only the man who would become its most prominent advocate for justice, its foreign minister, Tony deBrum (who died in 2017), but also a larger than life American living there, known as Bikini Jack.
The pages come alive with the personalities, with the injustices, with the terrible decisions made and their devastating consequences. But also with the quiet commitment of the protesters. Zak does not take sides. He avoids polemics and rhetoric. He lets these fascinating stories speak for themselves. If you read one book on nuclear weapons, read this one.