November 1, 1952

Another preliminary: the image that appears above, and on the cover of the book, needs explaining. It’s the Ivy Mike nuclear test shot, the first thermonuclear explosion. Mike and its successors left a tracery of plutonium-239 in sediment layers around the world, and for a mass of reasons that I discuss in the book, I think that that spike in plutonium levels might be the most appropriate symbolic marker for the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch.

Ivy Mike was detonated on a Pacific coral atoll on the morning of Saturday November 1, 1952 (local time; for most of the world it was still October). The transition between any two geological epochs is of course a lengthy process, but 1952, the first year of the H-bomb era, might be a good point at which to fix the nominal end of the Holocene epoch and the equally nominal beginning of the Anthropocene epoch. Alternatively, the switch-over could be located with even more specificity at the very moment of the Ivy Mike explosion. That moment is an emblematic one and nothing more, of course. But what an emblem!

What sorts of things were happening in the world at the time of Ivy Mike? Martin Gilbert’s year-by-year history of the twentieth century includes twenty-three pages on the events of 1952; more on that another time. What about the last day of October and the first day of November themselves? (The answers and quotations that follow come from the Guardian and the Observer of November 1 and 2.)

British Kenya had been subject to emergency law for twelve days as the Ivy Mike mushroom cloud rose. The Mau Mau rising had just begun, and a new regulation was now passed, giving the Governor, Evelyn Baring, the “power to declare any area in the colony a ‘prohibited area’ and to prevent people from entering or remaining there” without a permit. Fresh murders were reported; “hundreds of Mau Mau suspects [had] already been placed in hastily built prisoner ‘cages’ for questioning,” and on November 1 the Lancashire Fusiliers arrested another 31 Kikuyu villagers.  Jomo Kenyatta declared from prison that “it is impossible to over-emphasise the harm that has been done in Kenya by the steps the Government has taken in imposing emergency conditions and arresting almost all Africans who could speak with authority on behalf of and to their people.”

The Viet Minh were engaging in an offensive against French garrisons in northwest Vietnam, aiming to seize the vital airstrip at Son La. In Korea a “see-saw battle” for Triangle Hill between Chinese and American troops was underway: the peak had “changed hands twice in 24 hours.” In retaliation for a raid by communist guerrillas, a village in Malaya, Pekan Jabi, was put on reduced rice rations by the British authorities, and the villagers told they would be “confined inside a perimeter wire for 18 hours a day” for a month. They received the order “in sullen calm.”

The US presidential election, in which Dwight Eisenhower would beat Adlai Stevenson, was a few days away, its outcome as yet unpredictable. A prison riot was taking place in Ohio, but a hostage-taking mutiny at a prison in Illinois had just been quelled—apparently in ninety minutes flat by Stevenson himself, after he arrived to impose an ultimatum on the mutineers.

The tin mines of Bolivia were nationalised. The Minister of Foreign Affairs announced that “Bolivia intended to organise her production efficiently and to show the world that free Bolivians produced much better than Bolivians with rifles at their backs.”

Marshal Tito briefed the media that he was about to deliver a speech “proclaim[ing] Yugoslavia as the fountain-head of a new Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy in rivalry with that of Moscow,” and accusing the USSR of deviation into bureaucratic state capitalism. “Industrial and political leaders from the Schuman Plan countries” were meeting in Trier “to discuss methods of speeding up European economic integration.”

The touring South Africans played the first two days of their game against South Australia at Adelaide. The hosts scored 354 in the first innings, and reduced South Africa to 132–4 at the close on November 1. (South Africa would follow on, but eventually drew the game comfortably.) One Vivian Gell succeeded in catching a fourteen-foot whale from the beach of Pevensey Bay, East Sussex. The whale had swum in close to land; Gell threw an anchor into its mouth and, with the help of others nearby, dragged it ashore.

Rumours of the Ivy Mike test did not begin to circulate widely until a week after the event. The Guardian reported on those rumours—“Hydrogen Bomb Exploded?”—on the 11th, and the confirmation of the explosion was its lead story on Monday 17th. The paper quoted the US Atomic Energy Commission: “In the presence of threats to the peace of the world, and in the absence of effective and enforceable arrangements for the control of armaments, the United States Government must continue studies looking to the war development of these vast energies for the defence of the free world.”


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