The Heights of Absurdity
Rudolph Herzog with Karen Rester
A Short History of Nuclear Folly
(Melville House, 2013)
It is arguably not possible to imagine human stupidity on a grander scale than what Rudolph Herzog has stockpiled in his new book A Short History of Nuclear Folly. In it he details some of the most absurd, disturbing, and woefully misguided ways we dealt with, or failed to deal with in many cases, the most destructive technology in the history of humankind. Plutonium was implanted in people’s hearts; reactors were shot into orbit, after which they rained down on Earth; 40 nuclear bombs were declared missing. There were even plans to bomb the moon.
A Short History of Nuclear Folly comes two years after Herzog’s first book, Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany, about humor during the Third Reich. Though humor is a byproduct in this book, Herzog again displays a talent for writing about serious subjects with all the gravity they require while rousing one to laughter at the absurdity of it all. Maybe this could be considered a Kafkaesque approach to nonfiction. How else can one tackle Nazism and nuclear war—the two most devastating subjects of the 20th century?
Herzog, the 40-year-old son of director Werner Herzog, built his career in Europe producing and directing documentaries. I spoke with him at a café in Athens, Greece, a city he is very fond of and where he wrote the book.
Karen Rester (Rail): You describe how your childhood in Germany was affected by the Cold War. As a kid were you more likely to play cowboys and Indians or nuclear warfare?
Rudolph Herzog: [Laughs.] It’s funny you should ask. Do you know the game Risk? It’s a board game where you try to conquer the world. I remember my cousin and I devised this variation of it called Nuclear Risk, which had little atomic mushrooms we made out of paper, and you could bomb any country with that—a sort of Joker.
Rail: You’ve said that time was scary and depressing because you felt you were in the crosshairs of the cold war.
Herzog: Definitely. It was clear to everyone that Germany would be the battleground if there were ever a war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. And everyone was pretty clear that it would be a nuclear war.
Rail: World War III?
Rail: How did you picture it?
Herzog: I pictured sirens going off, which they did all the time back then, the rockets coming in and everyone would die. Worse if you survived it. Those pictures of half-burnt women carrying their children through Hiroshima’s nuclear holocaust—these are the images we carried around with us. I remember, as I write in my book, my uncle showing me some sleeping pills he kept in his fridge. He said, “If the siren goes and this is for real I’m taking them.” I thought, well what about me, do I have some pills somewhere? So that was the spirit of the time.
One thing I’m trying to argue is that the crosshairs have moved elsewhere. The nuclear age, it’s like Pandora’s Box and in some ways it’s gotten worse. It’s moved to hotspots that are completely unpredictable—parts of Asia, where they’ve got a huge arms race going on. For instance, India has just successfully tested a long-range missile. And the Middle East of course is a huge powder keg and there could be a nuclear arms race there, too. Back then we learned to live with the Soviet Union and NATO—they were sort of predictable in their unpredictability. But now we’ve got multiple places that are far less predictable and far more emotionally charged.
Rail: What’s the most disturbing thing you came across in your research?
Herzog: That’s a tricky question in a book full of disturbing stories. Edward Teller, who invented the H-bomb, tried to blast a harbor in Alaska with hydrogen bombs. We can consider ourselves lucky that the Inupiat natives managed to get enough political momentum to stop him. There was also a German engineer in the ’70s who wanted to set off 200 H-bombs in the Sahara, connecting the desert to the Mediterranean Sea to create hydropower. People thought it was a great idea. This was when everyone knew radiation was extremely dangerous.
Rail: Did you expect your book to be funny?
Herzog: No, but what do you laugh at? You laugh at the scale of the insanity and the hubris. Maybe that’s the only way we can treat it at this point, to look back and maybe laugh because in spite of the bleakness of the subject, it’s a very natural way to deal with trauma. That’s something I certainly researched for Dead Funny.
Rail: Is there anything you came across that was so highly classified you couldn’t find out anything more, but you wish you could have?
Herzog: There are a couple of things that should have been classified and there are one or two things I actually didn’t put in the book. The idea of my book is to teach people something from history, not to teach terrorists how to go about their business. I will say that I came across some U.S. military documents from 1968 that referred to a B-52 that crashed over Greenland. It was carrying four hydrogen bombs. The controversy is whether one of the bombs broke through the ice and is now at the bottom of the sea. The U.S. military sent a submarine to look for something at the crash site, but precisely what was blackened out. In my book I take a pretty good guess as to what’s down there.
Rail: You also write about a “new era of proliferation.” That sounds disconcerting.
Herzog: There’s been a huge leap with a technology called Silex—uranium enrichment by laser excitation. It’s far more efficient than centrifuges, which means you can get a bomb much quicker and run a bomb project that’s easier to conceal. An Australian company perfected this. I don’t want to think of the consequences of this technology getting out.
Rail: One of my favorite stories was about the John Wayne movie The Conqueror, which was filmed near St. George, Utah, not far from the Nevada test sites. Many cast and crew members supposedly died from nuclear test fallout.
Herzog: In 1980, someone did a count and of 220 cast and crew, 91 had developed cancer and 46 had died, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and the director Dick Powell. What’s new about this story is its connection to the U.S. government’s nuclear testing in Alaska, which is almost unknown. The effects of The Conqueror shoot must have freaked out Howard Hughes, the producer who, as we know, became very paranoid later in life. He was living in Las Vegas, not far from the test site, and with his money and political contacts he fought this relentless campaign to move the tests to Alaska. They did finally, to Amchitka Island. It’s one of the oldest natural reserves in the United States and they blew the hell out of it. This was also the birth of Greenpeace because someone found out about the testing, found this old trawler, called it Greenpeace and sailed for the island to stop them. They didn’t succeed but that galvanized the budding green movement.
Rail: Was this the most hopeful thing you got out of your book—the story of Greenpeace, and how the native Alaskans fought Teller to preserve their land?
Herzog: Absolutely. Seeing that in rare cases people rose up against these nuclear follies. Even in the early ’60s, when the green movement was unheard of, these remote Inupiat natives were able to galvanize enough press and politicians to stop it. That was the birth of something new. I think it’s a forward movement that takes us up to the present. As we speak, Germany’s share of electricity produced from renewable energy is at 23 percent and it’s expected to double in the next 10 years. Had you told me that as a kid when we had maybe 1 percent hydropower in Bavaria, I would’ve never thought that possible.
Rail: You’ve said you agree with those who consider nuclear energy and nuclear weapons Siamese twins, so you’re obviously happy about Germany’s decreasing reliance on nuclear energy. Are you both pessimistic and optimistic about the future?
Herzog: Well, it’s possible that if we continue on as we are we’re basically moving towards our own extinction. On the other hand, I see some signs that are quite optimistic. One thing we can do is try to extract as much wisdom as we possibly can from our past follies.
Karen Rester is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and Berlin.