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The Controversy Over Nuclear-Armed Antiballistic Missiles (1969)

GOFMAN: They built us the building. Glenn [Seaborg] came out for the dedication of the building and I did get back in the lab after two years [and started] working on chromosomes in cancer and radiation. Everything went fine until the antiballistic missile treaty was being considered in the Senate.[42]

A guy by the name of Ernest Sternglass had done some calculations and was cited in Esquire in a article entitled "The Death of All Babies." His estimate was that 400,000 children were going be hurt with genetic disease as a result of the weapons program. The Washington office of AEC sent out Sternglass's paper to me and the directors of other installations. I gave it to Tamplin to look at. Tamplin looked at it and wrote something he was going send in to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist. We forwarded that to Washington, and in response [the AEC] said, "Let's have a response of your view."

What Tamplin did was he calculated that the maximum number would be more like 4,000, not 400,000. So we sent that into Washington. The next thing, I heard was from Mike May. He said, "Jack, I don't know what's going on, but Washington's very unhappy with Tamplin's report on the Sternglass thing." So I said, "I'd think they'd love it because he's just saving their skin. Four thousand is the hazard, not 400,000, not the death of all babies."

He [suggested that I] call John Totter up and find out what the hell [was] going on. So I said, "Sure." I called John Totter, the head of [AEC's Division of] Biology and Medicine at that time; the head of Biology and Medicine because I put him there.
GOURLEY: How did that work?
GOFMAN: It worked this way. Spoff English and I were graduate students together in Chemistry. Both of us worked with Seaborg. Spoff had elected to give up his assistant professorship in Berkeley Chemistry and had gone back in the [Atomic Energy] Commission with Seaborg and had moved up to a higher position. He called me up one day: "Chuck Dunham's moving over to the National Academy of Medicine; whom shall we choose for the head of Biology and Medicine?" I said, "John Totter is your man," and he was appointed. That's how it worked.

He later said some nasty things about me, and probably doesn't know that it was because of my recommendation that he became the head of Biology and Medicine.

So I called up John Totter. He and Spoff English were on the phone. Yeah, Spoff, I knew very well; we were graduate students together. I said, "[I] understand you're unhappy about Tamplin's report on the Sternglass issue." They said, "Oh no, we're not unhappy about that. But we think that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is not the place to put it. It ought to be in some more restricted genetics journal."

I said, "Gee whiz, this is a public fanfare; what could make more sense than to put [the work] in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists? The public can see it." "No, no, we think it ought to be in the genetics journal." And I blew up and I said, "Look, John and Spoff, what you want is a whitewash, and you can go to hell." I said that. It's not the most politic thing to say, but you know, that was so damn blatant that I just couldn't take it.

Then I saw Mike May. "Did you talk to John Totter?" [he asked,] and I said, "Yes." He said, "How did it turn out?" [I said,] "I told John Totter to go to hell," and it was awful, nothing else was said. That blew over, too.
GOURLEY: So, now all of this was around 1969.
GOFMAN: Yes, around 1969. Then two things happened in '69. One, I got an invitation from the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers to give one of the plenary addresses at their annual meeting, which was to be on nuclear matters and it was to be in San Francisco. One of my engineers got me the invitation. I said, "Sure, I'll do it."

Another thing happened: There was going be a symposium on nuclear power. The AAAS was going to hold it and whoever was the chairman of that thing asked if I'd give a talk there. I said, "Well, that's on nuclear power; Tamplin is far more versed in the details of the hazard there. Why don't you extend the invitation to Tamplin?" So they said they would, and they did.

Then I gave my talk to the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers. By the way, whatever you heard about l'enfant terrible, like myself, the paper [I] gave there, the most conciliatory, modest, soft-pedaled paper, where we suggested there was a danger [of] something [like] 16 or 32 thousand deaths per year, if everybody got the allowable dose.

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