Apr 24, 2020

Atomic Artifacts

Back in the 1950s, facing the threat of nuclear annihilation, federal officials sat down and pondered what American life would actually look like after an atomic attack. They faced a slew of practical questions like: Who would count the dead and where would they build the refugee camps? But they faced a more spiritual question as well. If Washington DC were hit, every object in the the National Archives would be eviscerated in a moment. Terrified by this reality, they set out to save some of America’s most precious stuff. 

Today, we look back at the items our Cold War era planners sought to save and we ask the question: In the year 2020, what objects would we preserve now? 

This episode was reported and produced by Simon Adler with editing from Pat Walters and reporting assistance from Tad Davis. 

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate 

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JAD ABUMRAD: Test, test, test, test. Here we go. Hey everybody, it's Jad. This is a time when a lot of us have been pushed into some really difficult circumstances. It's also a time that I think has clarified priorities about what's important. I've certainly been thinking a lot about this recently. Like, who needs my support right now? There are the health and medical institutions that are on the frontlines. They definitely need that support. But there are also the cultural and art institutions that are struggling badly right now that I hope survive, because they help me see outside my own head. We're able to deliver Radiolab to you because we have financial support from our listeners. We take that as a kind of sacred pact, especially now. That in this moment, we're gonna try and do our very best work for you. If you have the means, join your fellow listeners in that support, for yourself but also for the people right now who can't. Your donation will ensure that we continue to bring you this podcast in the months to come, continue to tell stories that help you see this moment for what it is, but also hopefully help you see outside of it. Please visit Radiolab.org or text RL to the number 70101. That's RL to the number 70101. We'll text you right back with a link where you can make an easy donation in support of the show. We hope you are healthy and safe, and thank you for listening and for your support.




JAD: This is Radiolab. I’m Jad Abumrad. This week we have sort of a continuation from the conversation we began last week, but this story begins, I guess you could say, with a mystery.


GARRETT GRAFF: Hi, it's Garrett.


SIMON ADLER: Hey, Garrett. Simon here. How are ya?


GARRETT GRAFF: I'm well. Sorry I'm running late today ...


JAD: And it comes from producer Simon Adler.


SIMON: Yeah, so this mystery all started just a couple years back, when this guy ...


GARRETT GRAFF: I'm Garrett Graff. I'm a historian, journalist, author, et cetera, et cetera.


SIMON: ... was handed an ID badge.


GARRETT GRAFF: So I was working at Washingtonian Magazine at the time, and one of my colleagues found a government ID badge as he was commuting in one day.


SIMON: Garrett says his colleague was just walking down the street when he saw on the ground this ID. And the colleague pretty immediately realized that this was not just any ID. It belonged to somebody with, like, a pretty high security clearance.


GARRETT GRAFF: It -- you know, he brought it into me, and he goes, "Hey, you cover this stuff. Like, you can probably figure out how to get this badge back to this guy." So I’m looking at the badge and trying to figure out, you know, sort of where this guy works, and it's clear it's for someone who works in the intelligence community. And when I turned the badge over, it had two sets of driving directions on the back. One labeled 'short-term,' one labeled 'long-term.'


JAD: Driving directions on the back of the ID?


SIMON: Yeah.


JAD: To where?


GARRETT GRAFF: The short-term instructions obviously led to an office building in Arlington, Virginia. But the long-term directions, you know, I didn't know what they would lead to or sort of just how dramatic it would end up looking like.


SIMON: So Garrett shuffled over to his computer.


GARRETT GRAFF: I get on Google Maps, Google Satellite and follow the directions.


SIMON: You're just, like, clicking along?


GARRETT GRAFF: That is absolutely what I was doing. Like, sort of 'Turn left here.’


SIMON: Continue straight for ten miles, keep right at the fork in the road.


GARRETT GRAFF: Drive off down there.


SIMON: Before long his satellite journey has taken him miles from Arlington.


GARRETT GRAFF: Way out into Virginia, getting more and more rural as I’m dragging west.


SIMON: Rolling hills turn into farmland, then plains. And after several minutes of this and several hundred clicks, Garrett finds himself in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


GARRETT GRAFF: And looking at the satellite, you know, I could tell that basically the road went sort of 100 or 200 yards further up and then disappeared into the side of the mountain.


SIMON: Just dead-ends into the mountain.




SIMON: Now whatever this road led to, Garrett didn’t know what it was.


GARRETT GRAFF: It did not exist on the map that I was looking at.


SIMON: But he had a pretty good hunch that whatever it was, was inside the mountain itself.


GARRETT GRAFF: You know, I had covered national security in Washington for years, and interviewed people who had been whisked to bunkers on 9/11, for instance.


SIMON: Okay.


GARRETT GRAFF: And so I assumed it was an evacuation facility that people would enter in the event of a surprise nuclear attack. And I was like, you know, wow! Like, this whole world, you know, exists out here. And we just have no idea.


SIMON: And Garrett just thought, I’ve gotta know more about this.


GARRETT GRAFF: Exactly. [laughs] And so that launched me on this quest to understand the history of the U.S. government's doomsday planning.


SIMON: And eventually, this quest would lead him -- and consequently us -- to a pretty existential question about America. In fact, building on what we did last week, what he came across was a sort of cataclysm sentence for the United States. And it emerged in a moment when -- when the nation was gripped fiercely by this sense that the end was near, I mean, even more fiercely than the moment we're living through right now, 1950s Cold War America.


GARRETT GRAFF: One of the things that's hard for us to remember now, because we’re looking at history as sort of where the Cold War ended, which is, you know, tens of thousands of nuclear warheads that could bring global annihilation in 17 minutes, was that for much of the 1950s, there was a real belief that, you know, the U.S. might actually be hit by 50 or 60 atomic bombs.


SIMON: Which would essentially be like 50 or 60 Hiroshimas happening around the country.


GARRETT GRAFF: Yes. And, you know, if you are looking at a Hiroshima-sized bomb that explodes in Times Square, for instance, if you are in New Jersey or Brooklyn, you have not had a great day ...


SIMON: [laughs]


GARRETT GRAFF: ... but you have likely survived if you were in the basement or you were in the center of a building. You might be injured for sure, but ...


SIMON: You’re not gonna be vaporized in a moment.


GARRETT GRAFF: You wouldn’t necessarily be vaporized in a moment.


SIMON: And given the relatively low number of these bombs ...


GARRETT GRAFF: Dozens of bombs, not tens of thousands.


SIMON: Even in the worst-case scenario, a sort of all-out strike from the Soviet Union ...


GARRETT GRAFF: You know, most of the country would be untouched by the explosions from that. There would be fallout and radiation that would spread beyond, but nuclear war was thought to be a relatively survivable phenomenon. And so there was this whole elaborate process across the U.S. government of really imagining what post-nuclear war America looked like.


SIMON: So, just to play this out step by step, imagine ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: It's a hot June day in Austin, Texas.]


SIMON: It's 1960, you’re living in Austin, listening to the radio, when out of nowhere ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: This is your Austin Civil Defense Director with an urgent message. Enemy missiles have been reported. The Austin area may be hit. There will not be time to evacuate. Repeat: There will not be time to evacuate.]


SIMON: And so you run down into the nearest fallout shelter as Austin and a number of other major U.S. cities are decimated. And you hunker down until finally, several weeks later ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: This is your Austin Civil Defense Director. Our monitors report that those in shelters may come out without harm.]


SIMON: And as you crawl out of your shelter and look around, you just see destruction. You don’t recognize Austin, you don’t recognize America. Your house? Destroyed. Your friends and neighbors? Missing. You have no food, no car. You have no idea what to do, where to go. You’re terrified. But, fortunately for you ...


GARRETT GRAFF: Every aspect of the U.S. government had effectively this secret, shadow, post-apocalypse version of itself.


SIMON: This is one of the first things Garrett discovered when he started digging into this, that the government had a very detailed plan for what to do.


GARRETT GRAFF: So as a couple of examples, the National Park Service would run refugee camps, because the belief was national parkland would not be targeted by nuclear war. And so, you know, parks like Yosemite would become these camps.


SIMON: Like, did they have a specific portion of Yellowstone that they were like, "Oh, we’ve got some nice flat land here. This will be the place we’ll put up the tents?"


GARRETT GRAFF: Yes. I mean, the planning was done to the level of which roads people would enter, where they would park.




GARRETT GRAFF: Another agency, the U.S. Post Office, would actually be the agency that was in charge of registering the dead and figuring out who was still alive, because the Post Office best understood where people lived.


SIMON: So let’s say you made it to one of these National Parks-turned-refugee camps after the attack.


GARRETT GRAFF: When you arrived, you would be given one of these pre-printed postcards, and they were just normal postcard size.


SIMON: Beige color, almost like manila folder. And they were known as POD Form 810s. And those exist. I have one. I bought one on eBay for three dollars.


JAD: [laughs]


SIMON: And looking at one of these, on the back side it reads, "I am/we are safe and can be reached at this address." And then it has some blank lines where you're meant to fill in the quote, "Members of family included in this notification."


GARRETT GRAFF: And you would fill out who survived in your party. And then beyond the Post Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was in charge of figuring out how to feed America after nuclear war. And so they spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out sort of what the most survivable food could be. And they ended up amassing what they called "survival crackers," manufactured in enormous quantity by companies like Nabisco.


[YOUTUBE CLIP: Survival crackers.]


[YOUTUBE CLIP: Is that what they say?]




[YOUTUBE CLIP: November, '63.]


[YOUTUBE CLIP: Yeah, that was a good year for biscuits.]


SIMON: In fact on YouTube, you can find this genre of video where people go into old abandoned buildings or mine shafts ...


[YOUTUBE CLIP: Oh, they're tins.]


[YOUTUBE CLIP: They're tins, yeah. Like that tin out there.]


[YOUTUBE CLIP: Survival biscuit.]


[YOUTUBE CLIP: Survival biscuits.]


SIMON: ... places that used to have fallout shelters. And they unearth boxes and boxes and boxes of these things.


[YOUTUBE CLIP: How many boxes are there?]


[YOUTUBE CLIP: 200 maybe?]


GARRETT GRAFF: And they were sort of a particularly unpleasant graham cracker.


JAD: Like very fibrous, it had a lot of nutrition?




[YOUTUBE CLIP: Oh, it smells like chemicals!]


SIMON: And of course, you can also find videos of people eating them.


[YOUTUBE CLIP: They're not bad.]


[YOUTUBE CLIP: There's no flavor.]


[YOUTUBE CLIP: It's well-aged. [laughs]]


SIMON: And I've actually eaten one. In my U.S. History class, freshman year of high school, apparently the teacher had dug out the bin of biscuits from the school’s fallout shelter before they could be thrown out, and any student who wanted to could come and eat one.


JAD: You had a fallout shelter in your high school?


SIMON: Yeah, I bet you did too.


JAD: Under -- did I?


SIMON: Yeah, I bet you did.


JAD: Wow!


SIMON: I mean, throughout the '60s, the Office of Civil Defense went around retrofitting and stocking basically any building that they could get their hands on. And part of that, part of turning these buildings into fallout shelters was shipping out these crackers. I mean, in total ...


GARRETT GRAFF: The government hid something like 160 million tons of these crackers.


SIMON: Which to put in perspective is about 200 Golden Gate Bridges worth of these things. Anyhow, moving on ...


GARRETT GRAFF: You know, the IRS ran calculations of how they would levy taxes, and the Federal Reserve built a mountain bunker, you know, with $2 billion cash hidden inside of it.


SIMON: $2 billion?


GARRETT GRAFF: Yes. Think of it as, you know, the nation's bank of last resort.


SIMON: Okay.


GARRETT GRAFF: Now what made that $2 billion sort of particularly amusing, was the U.S. found that most Americans had no interest whatsoever in $2 bills. But rather than pulp the unused, unwanted bills, figuring that after nuclear war people would be much less choosy, what the Federal Reserve did was they actually shrink-wrapped the $2 bills and hid them inside the bunker.


JAD: Oh my God!


SIMON: So if you or I went to take out a loan in this post-apocalyptic world, we'd be walking out with a stack of $2 bills.


JAD: That's amazing!


SIMON: Like, what -- what percentage of people working for the federal government would actually be saved to run all these things?


GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. So the short answer is very few in the grand scheme of things.


SIMON: Mm-hmm. I would presume.


GARRETT GRAFF: You know, in round numbers probably about 10,000 government officials in Washington would be saved. And this actually gets to the heart of doomsday planning, which is the goal is not for any single American to survive nuclear war. The goal is for America to survive nuclear war. And, like, America is an idea.


SIMON: Which is arguably true of every country, but here ...


GARRETT GRAFF: We don't have, you know, a hereditary monarch that has been handed down through hundreds of years in a single unbreakable fashion.


SIMON: Mm-hmm.

GARRETT GRAFF: What we have are these institutions ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Four score and seven years ago…]


GARRETT GRAFF: And sort of these historical totems ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Give me liberty, or give me death…]


GARRETT GRAFF: ... that have bound us together generation by generation. And so if you are trying to preserve America, if you want to say that the America of the apocalypse is the America of before, you need these historical totems, you need these quasi-religious artifacts from our past.


SIMON: Objects that capture the idea of America that could be passed on to the folks who survived a nuclear attack so that they could rebuild it. But the thing is, they only had essentially one helicopter set aside to save stuff. The rest were reserved for saving people.


GARRETT GRAFF: And so there was a large task force that came up with this list of artifacts that needed to be saved.


SIMON: Now unfortunately, we don’t really know how they came to their decisions. That information is apparently either lost to history or is still classified. But we do know some of the items that they vetoed.


GARRETT GRAFF: You know, the oil portraits of the former joint chiefs from the Pentagon, and a number of animal skeletons.

SIMON: And we also know of seven items that they landed on, that they decided needed to be saved. So the sort of "Group A Items," -- there were three of them -- consisted of, maybe unsurprisingly, the Charters of Freedom.


JAD: Okay.


SIMON: So, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.


JAD: Okay. So the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Those feel, like, easy. That's low-hanging fruit.


SIMON: Yeah, that's easy. But then we get to the sort of "Group B Items" which -- which get a little strange. There are four of them that we know of. So number one was a log from the USS Monitor.


JAD: The -- the log of the USS Monitor?


SIMON: Yes. Which was a Civil War-era battleship that the Union had and which was eventually sunk.


JAD: So this is like an 1850s to '60s ship that was sunk?




JAD: Huh. Was that -- did -- do you have any -- why -- why?


SIMON: So this is my speculation. But I think it's that the -- when the USS Monitor was built, it was one of these early -- what are they called, like clad-iron battleships? It was -- it was a demonstration of American ingenuity in wartime. It was out -- it was us showing that we can innovate in the name of protecting our country and destroying our enemies.


JAD: Is there anything in the -- that it was a Civil War-era ship? That this is a moment that America was being torn apart and ...


SIMON: Could be. Yep. That we fought battles before and managed to piece ourselves back together.


JAD: It's also a symbol of sacrifice, that we sacrificed for -- for the preservation of the Union.


SIMON: It's also possible that somebody who was on the committee was just, like, a big fan of the USS Monitor and was like, "Come on guys, we gotta save the log."


JAD: Hmm.


SIMON: Okay. So that's number one.


JAD: That's number one. And that was agreed to.


SIMON: That was agreed to.


JAD: Of all things America that needs to be passed forward is this log.


SIMON: Yeah.


JAD: Okay.


SIMON: Number two, Lincoln’s medical records post-assassination.


JAD: What?


SIMON: And the logic there, I again am presuming, is that it's very likely that the U.S. president will have been killed in the early moments of this nuclear exchange. And so to have the -- the medical records of Lincoln and be able to say, "We've lost a President before. We've lost a heroic President before ...


JAD: Yeah.


SIMON: ... and we've managed to pull ourselves back together," that seems to be the symbolic significance of those medical records.


JAD: I see. Interesting.


SIMON: Again, I'm no historian. This is me thinking about, why the hell would they do this?


JAD: Right, right, right. Okay, so those are the first two.


SIMON: That’s one and two. Number three is the signed surrender documents from the Japanese at the end of World War II.


JAD: That’s a great victory.


SIMON: Great victory.


JAD: So these are -- these are so far, totems to great losses and great resilience.


SIMON: Well said.


JAD: All right.


SIMON: And then the final one breaks that mold slightly. It is a painting capturing the journey that Lewis and Clark made westward in 1806.


JAD: Oh, so it's about uncharted territories, it's also about conquest.


SIMON: Mm-hmm.


JAD: It's also about the land.


SIMON: Mm-hmm.


JAD: Interesting. Okay. Those are the four.


SIMON: Those are the four we know of.


JAD: That seems so narrow to their point of view. I mean, why wouldn’t you put the Dred Scott Decision? You could put Ida B. Wells reporting on lynchings. Like, those are things that I feel like should be put into the helicopter. So I -- I wanna argue with this list. But where do you --- where do you wanna do with this list, more -- more importantly?


SIMON: I have several questions. Number one is, America in 2020, what the hell are the appropriate objects at this point?


JAD: That’s where my mind wants to go. In this moment of profound change, it’s such a hard question to answer right now.


SIMON: Very complicated.


JAD: And so I feel like what you should do is -- and you need to crowd-source this shit, Simon. Like, I don't know. Like, oh my God, that would create some fights.


SIMON: Oh, so many! So many. Maybe we should just stay with the USS Monitor log and avoid all the conflict.


JAD: [laughs] I don't think that would fly.


SIMON: No. So folks, when we come back from break, we head out across this great nation of ours to ask today, in the year 2020, can we agree upon a list of items that more fully represents what America was, what America is, and what America could be? That’s when we come back from break.


JAD: This is Radiolab, I’m Jad Abumrad Here with Simon Adler.


SIMON: Yes, yes, yes.


JAD: And okay Simon, let's do it.


SIMON: Okay, well so as I told you before the break, we came across this list of objects our Cold War-era government planned to save to rally America after an atomic attack.


JAD: Remind me ...


SIMON: So it's this log from the US ...


JAD: Oh, yeah, yeah. Sorry, you were about to do that.


SIMON: A log from the USS Monitor.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


SIMON: Abraham Lincoln’s medical records post-assassination, the signed Japanese surrender documents, and then a map of Lewis and Clark’s journey west.


JAD: Right. Right. All weighty objects, but a bit musty.


SIMON: Right. And so the thought was, let’s go out and ask Americans, people other than the cigarette-smoking, pocket protector-wearing bureaucrats of the 1950s, what they would want added to this list.


SIMON: Check check.


JAD: And is your sense that you’re going to find the one thing that we all agree on or ...?


SIMON: I think the exercise itself is sort of foolish. To convince oneself that you’re gonna get down to one item is just completely insane. So no, this was just me setting out to try to get some new answers. It's by no means comprehensive or in any way scientific, it was just sort of a coronavirus interrupted attempt to kick off a conversation.


SIMON: All right. Walking down Canal Street here on Sunday, February 16.


SIMON: And for my first stop ...


SIMON: Hello, hello. Wow, busy spot this Sunday! I’m Simon. Very nice to meet you. How are you?


SIMON: I wanted to go to a variety of American Legion halls.


JAD: That’s where -- a sort of a vets' association?


SIMON: Yep. It’s like a social club for veterans.


GABE MUY: The American Legion is a national organization. Right now it's close to two million members.


SIMON: This is Gabe.


GABE MUY: My name is Gabe Muy. I was drafted into the army during the Vietnam era.


SIMON: I spoke to him at the Chinatown American legion, Post 1291, which is actually the largest in the city.


JAD: Really?


SIMON: Yeah. Wouldn’t have guessed it. And we also swung down to Post 1544 on Staten Island.


JAD: This is an interesting choice. What did you hear?


SIMON: Their answers were -- were very patriotic, and stayed pretty close to that original list.


GABE MUY: I would say the original written U.S. Constitution.


LEGION MEMBER #1: Definitely take the Constitution, because that would put you on the right path.


LEGION MEMBER #2: I think the Armistice from World War I and the signing of the World War II declaration of surrender, because it shows that history repeats itself.


SIMON: And the other answers we got were a little bit narrow.


LEGION MEMBER #3: I would love to see the first convention pin of the American Legion in 1919 kept.


JAD: Huh. Okay, that’s interesting-ish.


SIMON: So from there I thought, like, let’s go to people that think about items a lot: Curators at museums. So let’s call up some niche little museums around the country. But ...


[ANSWERING MACHINE: The Mississippi Coast Model Railroad Museum is currently closed to the public.]


SIMON: Unfortunately, many of them had already closed.


[ANSWERING MACHINE: We have temporarily suspended all operations ...]


SIMON: Because of the coronavirus.


[ANSWERING MACHINE: ... calling the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum ...]


[ANSWERING MACHINE: Thanks for calling the Flamingo Museum.]


SIMON: And didn’t get back to me.


[ANSWERING MACHINE: Please leave a message and have a wonderful day.]


SIMON: But who did get back to me was ...


ANDREW BECKMAN: Let me plug you into the headset here. Just a moment.


SIMON: Andrew Beckman from the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana.


ANDREW BECKMAN: You still there?


SIMON: I'm here, yep.


SIMON: And he archives what's left of the Studebaker Corporation. They made horse-drawn equipment, then cars and for his item ...


ANDREW BECKMAN: You know, of course to rally American spirit afterward, either the Star Spangled Banner, the actual flag that flew over Fort Sumpter or one of the Iwo Jima flags.


JAD: Yeah.


SIMON: Yeah. Not like the sexiest thing, but it did come up more than once.


CARRIE MCCOY: Oh, yes. I agree.


SIMON: This is Carrie McCoy and she and her company ...


CARRIE MCCOY: FlagAndBanner.com.


SIMON: ... know a thing or two about flags. They sell one of, if not the widest, selection of them in America. And she said just look at when people go out and buy them.


CARRIE MCCOY: Flags are just kind of like church. When things are bad, people start going to church. When things are bad, flag sales will be soaring.


SIMON: But then as I broadened out further, they started to get more interesting, more particular.


ALEXIS ROSSI: Images of the physical beauty of the United States like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.


SIMON: Like these from Alexis Rossi of the Internet Archive and history professor Greg Smoak.


GREG SMOAK: Perhaps instead of the Lewis and Clark map, the Fort Laramie Treaty Council map.


SIMON: We got one that was maybe a little too particular.


BETH SIMONE NOVECK: This is a bit on the esoteric side.


SIMON: From NYU professor Beth Simone Noveck.


BETH SIMONE NOVECK: I would add the Administrative Procedure Act.


JAD: What does that do?


BETH SIMONE NOVECK: It’s boring. But it’s this right that we have that almost nobody knows about.


SIMON: Thanks to it, we get to inform what regulations federal agencies make.


JAD: I see. All right.


SIMON: And then we also got some suggestions, like this one from truck driver Buck Ballard ...


BUCK BALLARD: The AA book called Alcoholics Anonymous that we just call the big book.


SIMON: That were, I don't know, cleverly obtuse.


BUCK BALLARD: Because in that is the key to recovery from pretty much anything. Just scribble out alcohol and write in crystal meth.


SIMON: Or a nuclear attack.


BUCK BALLARD: Whatever the case may be.


JAD: [laughs]


SIMON: And then I came to what I think is my favorite answer, from Sharony Green.


SHARONY GREEN: You know, and it’s funny because I’m a woman of color. I totally get the Kaepernick thing. Trust me. Get it. Get it! Get it, get it, get it! But I’m also, like, proud to be American because we’re just so quirky.


SIMON: She’s a Professor of History at the University of Alabama.




SIMON: Roll Tide.


SIMON: And she suggested a concert recording.


SHARONY GREEN: So the Newport Jazz Festival, 1958. You have all of these people in this picturesque setting listening to jazz. These days it's highbrow more often than not, but what keeps this particular concert earthy is Mahalia Jackson. Just the sacredness of this song, The Lord's Prayer, takes you to a more solemn space. It just touches you. I mean, it would make us stop and realize there’s something bigger. [laughs] Something bigger. Something bigger has a bit more power than we do. And there's some beauty in that, that Americans, as arrogant as we are, realize our limitations just for a second.


SIMON: Yeah.


SIMON: And then Sharony went on to say there was actually one more reason, in fact the reason why she picked this specific live recording.


SHARONY GREEN: It's the audience that I'm actually thinking of. If you look in the audience, you're gonna see people, black and white, male and female, sitting there together. It’s the beginnings of shared space.


JILL LEPORE: I don’t mean to buck the storyline you’re going with here but, like, I don’t get it.


SIMON: But then, I ran into several people who -- who thought that this exercise was one of the dumber things I could spend my time doing.


JILL LEPORE: I swear to God, and I don't mean this the wrong way, but like ...


SIMON: And the sort of chief among them being New Yorker writer Jill Lepore.


JILL LEPORE: ... the question after the apocalypse is not, "Do we have Abraham Lincoln's medical records?" The question is, "Who are we that we did this to each other?"


SIMON: Okay, but isn’t the push back something like, don’t you need some of these totems to rally people and to tell them that hey, we’re still here?


JILL LEPORE: So what we need after the apocalypse is nationalism?


SIMON: If not -- if not a national identity that you're gonna have people rally behind, what ...


JILL LEPORE: It would have been the national identity that brought the apocalypse in the first place. Like, what we want to preserve, our totems of what it was that drove us, like, that's -- that's bananas, Simon. Like, it's bananas.


SIMON: Okay. Well, so then let me pose the question this way: If we are trying to answer the question of who are we that we did this to each other, are there any artifacts, are there any objects that you think would help us answer that question and then move forward from it?


JILL LEPORE: Like, I think I understand where you and I are parting ways. In your supposition, in the aftermath of an atomic war, what would endure would be the nation-state. It would not. I mean, the nation-state was devised to grant rights to human beings under a written constitution. If under that system of organization we actually kill one another then the nation-state would not deserve to endure.


ARLO IRON CLOUD: Growing is about exploring. And if you're not able to explore fluidly, then you're not gonna be able to grow.


SIMON: And then the second of this one-two punch came from Communications Manager and oft-times host of KILI Radio.


[RADIO CLIP: [Indigenous greeting.] You're listening to Voice of The Lakota Nation, across the Pine Ridge Reservation on 90.1 FM.]


SIMON: Arlo Iron Cloud.


ARLO IRON CLOUD: Oh man, I’ve been on KILI radio for about 19 years now. Almost two decades. It’s crazy.


SIMON: KILI is a community radio station serving the Pine Ridge Reservation.


ARLO IRON CLOUD: The Pine Ridge Reservation is about 45,000 people, roughly the size of Rhode Island, smack dab in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. And so, you know, what it's like these days? Man, we are redefining ourselves in this day and age after all the atrocities that have happened to our people in the past.


SIMON: And what struck me with him was an atomic bomb descending upon civilization is essentially what happened to the Lakota Sioux Tribe, as well as the rest of the native Americans in this country.


ARLO IRON CLOUD: It’s happened to our people in the past. Big time. And so I often think about what would happen if something happened so drastic that we would have to leave.


SIMON: And when his mind goes there ...


ARLO IRON CLOUD: There's just so much stuff that I would love to take with me. Bows, earrings, quill bags, teepees, the sacred pipe. This pipe goes back 27 generations.


SIMON: 27 generations! What even is that, like 800 years?


ARLO IRON CLOUD: Yeah. We have that. And we -- there's a great story behind that, Simon. And I'm teaching my children that, and I don't think it would be very wise of me to, like, tell these stories on national radio, but that pipe, it represents us.


SIMON: But even this, even this pipe ...


ARLO IRON CLOUD: I don't even know -- I don't know if we'd actually take it.


JAD: And why?


SIMON: Because, he says, if you look at the history of the Oglala Lakota tribe ...


ARLO IRON CLOUD: You know, we don't have anything written down. Our forefathers didn't write anything down, and that's probably the best thing for us.


SIMON: Because, he says, when he looks to the broader United States ...


ARLO IRON CLOUD: The United States of America, the people that belong to it, sometimes I think they take the things that were written by your forefathers too literally and they can't adapt it into the future.


SIMON: Take, for example, the Bill of Rights, he says. Because it was written down, it's rigid. Whereas a Lakota story, even one that's even 27 generations old, Arlo can take that and adapt it to the present moment.


ARLO IRON CLOUD: And that's what we're doing. We're adapting everything that we know and we're moving forward into the future.


SIMON: And so given the choice, he says, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence ...


ARLO IRON CLOUD: Oh, I'm kind of an anarchist in that I would burn them. I would let them go to dust. I know, at the -- I probably -- it probably hurts to hear -- hear that, but I -- I think it would be kind of cool.


JAD: Huh. Here we are. This is the kind of American thing of the moment, which is do we preserve the thing or do we burn it down? Where do you -- where do you land in all of this?


SIMON: I don't even know, Jad. I don't -- I'm still sort of lost as to what to take away from this, other than even though this is a story that I pitched and a story that I went out to report, I was sort of skeptical of it from the get-go in that ...


JAD: [laughs] I love that. Okay.


SIMON: Yeah, in that, like, I'm skeptical or I don't -- I sort of bristle when I hear questions about what is the mood of America, what is the conversation America is having right now? These grand national questions about who we are. And I think the reason I -- I bristle or I chafe at that is I remember as a kid growing up in Wisconsin watching the news or listening to the news at the end of day and hearing reporters talk about what was going on in America, and just not relating to it or not seeing any of it on the ground at all. And I came to believe that either the news was exaggerating everything or they just weren't talking about me or anyone I had ever met.


JAD: Hmm.


SIMON: And so there's -- there's an arrogance in thinking you can take the nation's temperature. However, here I -- I just spent the last two months doing this, and I think it's because, despite everything I just said, secretly deep down I wanted to find something that we could all agree on, even now. And I’ll say there was one thing that that kept coming up.


CARRIE MCCOY: You know -- you know, I mean, what would tell our story?


SIMON: And I don't think it was ever anyone's first choice, but ...


CARRIE MCCOY: Oh, maybe you should put -- I know what it is. Oh yeah. An image from the moon looking at Earth.


SIMON: Almost everyone said they'd want to preserve something from the Apollo moon missions.


CARRIE MCCOY: I like it. That's what I'd put.


MAN: President Kennedy, Navy lieutenant in World War II where he said …


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John F. Kennedy: We shall send to the moon 240,000 miles away …]


MAN: We’re gonna put a man on the moon.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John F. Kennedy: … a giant rocket.]


WOMAN: You know, the speech that Kennedy gave ...


MAN: John F. Kennedy putting a man in the moon.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, astronaut: We are now approaching lunar sunrise.]


MAN: The earthrise photo of Apollo 8.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, NASA: Radio contact]


MAN: The Apollo 11 space capsule.


WOMAN: The actual, like, recordings of the audio ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, astronaut: Okay, Houston. We've had a problem here.]


WOMAN: ... from the Apollo 13 mission.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, NASA: Okay, stand by 13. We're looking at it.]


SIMON: And everyone had their own reason as to why.


WOMAN: To help people remember the ways we as a nation have come together to survive something that doesn’t seem survivable.


WOMAN: Cause nobody may ever get there again.


MAN: It’s the greatest industrialization our country ever saw.


WOMAN: Talk about display of prowess, the ability to -- to engineer resources.


MAN: It's something that America did collaboratively.


JAD: It's like people are still yearning for that sense of, like, unity and transcendence.


SIMON: And a project.


JAD: Yeah. A common mission, a common purpose.


SIMON: But I think what I actually like most about it is America did this at a time when we were more polarized potentially than we even are right now. Like, America was going through far more radical changes than I think we face today. And yet, out of that maelstrom, we did this transcendent thing.


JAD: Yeah.


SIMON: And so, what this leaves me with is the feeling that I want to live in a time and a place in an iteration of America where we achieve something that inspiring. And I think maybe that's actually what we all want.


JAD: Producer Simon Adler. This episode was reported and produced by Simon with editing from Pat Walters and reporting assistance from Tad Davis. Original music also from Simon. Special thanks to Luke Manon, Ben Irving, Bill Pretzer, Jason Spier and Garrett Graff for all his reporting that made this episode possible. Also Jill Lepore, who you heard in this episode, has a new podcast out. It's coming out on May 14. It's called The Last Archive. Keep an eye out for that. I'm Jad Abumrad, thanks for listening.


[GARRETT GRAFF: Hi, this is Garrett Graff calling from Burlington, Vermont. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad, with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is the excellent Michelle Harris.]


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