Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz
On December 8, 1953, in the midst of increasing nuclear weapons testing and geopolitical polarization, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace initiative. More than a pacifist program, the initiative is nowadays seen as an essential piece in the U.S. defense strategy and foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War. As such, it pursued several ambitious goals, and Latin America was an ideal target for most of them: to create political allies, to ease fears of the deadly atomic energy while fostering receptive attitudes towards nuclear technologies, to control and avoid development of nuclear weapons outside the United States and its allies, and to open or redirect markets for the new nuclear industry. The U.S. Department of State, through the Foreign Operations Administration, acted in concert with several domestic and foreign middle-range actors, including people at national nuclear commissions, universities, and industrial funds, to implement programs of regional technical assistance, education and training, and technological transfer.
Latin American countries were classified according to their stage of nuclear development, with Brazil at the top and Argentina and Mexico belonging to the group of “countries worthy of attention.” Nuclear programs often intersected with development projects in other areas, such as agriculture and public health. Moreover, Eisenhower’s initiative required the recruitment of local actors, natural resources and infrastructures, governmental funding, and standardized (but localized techno-scientific) practices from Latin American countries. As Atoms for Peace took shape, it began to rely on newly created multilateral and regional agencies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations and the Inter-American Nuclear Energy Commission (IANEC) of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Nevertheless, as seen from Latin America, the implementation of atomic energy for peaceful purposes was reinterpreted in different ways in each country. This fact produced different outcomes, depending on the political, economic, and techno-scientific expectations and interventions of the actors involved. It provided, therefore, an opportunity to create local scientific elites and infrastructure. Finally, the peaceful uses of atomic energy allowed the countries in the region to develop national and international political discourses framing the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean signed in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, in 1967, which made Latin America the first atomic weapons–free populated zone in the world.
Although their history can be traced further back to the study of heredity, variability, and evolution at the beginnings of the 20th century, studies on the genetic structure and ancestry of human populations became important at the end of World War II. From 1950 onward, the tools and practices of human genetics were being systematically used to attack global health problems with the support of international health organizations and the founding of local institutions that extended these practices, thus contributing to global knowledge. These developments were not an exception for Mexican physicians and human geneticists in the Cold War years. The first studies, which appeared in the 1940s, reflect the emerging model of human genetics in clinical practice and in scientific research in postwar Mexico. Studies on the distribution of blood groups as well as on variant forms of hemoglobin in indigenous populations paved the way for a long-term research programs on the characterization of Mexican indigenous populations. Research groups were formed at the Ministry of Health, the National Commission of Nuclear Energy, and the Mexican Social Security Institute in the 1960s. The key actors in this narrative were Rubén Lisker, Alfonso León de Garay, and Salvador Armendares. They consolidated solid communities in the fields of population and human genetics. For Lisker, the long-term effort to carry out research on indigenous populations in order to provide insights into the biological history of the human species, disease patterns, and biological relationships among populations was of particular interest. On his part, Alfonso León de Garay was interested in studying human and Drosophila populations, but in a completely different context, namely at the intersection of studies on nuclear energy and its effects on human populations as a result of World War II, with the life sciences, particularly genetics and radiobiology. In parallel, the study of chromosomes in a large scale using newly experimental techniques introduced in Mexico in the 1960 by Salvador Armendares allowed to tackle health problems regarding Down and Turner syndromes, and child malnutrition. The history of population studies and genetics during the Cold War in Mexico (1945–1970s) shows how the Mexican human geneticists of the mid-20th century mobilized scientific resources and laboratory practices in the context of international trends marked by WWII, and national priorities owing to the construction movement of postrevolutionary Mexican governments. These research programs were not limited to collaborations between research laboratories but were developed within the institutional and political framework marked at the international level by the postwar period and at the national level by the construction of the modern Mexican state.