2300,000 GIs Under the Mushroom Clouds
Dr. David Bradley sat among colleagues aboard a U.S. Navy ship docked just off the main island of the Bikini atolls in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, about two thousand miles southwest of Hawaii. Bradley, a young Army doctor, was one of a score of assembled physicians in training to be radiation monitors for the first peacetime atomic detonations. He listened attentively as Colonel Stafford Warren, head of the Radiological Safety Section, explained the scenario set for seventeen days later, on July 1, 1946.
An atomic bomb--the same size as the weapon that exploded over Nagasaki--was scheduled to detonate at Bikini. In more ways than one the U.S. military high command and its civilian counterparts were testing the waters with this "Operation Crossroads"--the name given to the 1946 Bikini test series. There was very little question that the two plutonium bombs ready for detonation that July would work; the purpose of Operation Crossroads was to evaluate impacts of existing nuclear weapons rather than to experiment with any new designs.
The psychological aspects of atomic detonations--among direct participants as well as the general public--were being carefully considered. It was no accident that journalists from around the world, photographers, and newsreel crews were solicitously encouraged to observe Operation Crossroads in all its breathtaking, awe-inspiring atomic glory. But the atomic test supervisors were able to meticulously control the stories those journalists turned in. All information about the blasts--including the quantity and significance of radioactive fallout affecting plants, animals, and humans--was most definitely the sole province of official sources.
To be stressed to the world in the summer of 1946 was the theme of fantastic power of nuclear weaponry, held only by the United States--a nation capable of controlling nuclear explosions to protect its own citizens and allies while inflicting enormous and selective damage on adversaries. The leadoff test, appropriately enough, was code-named Able.
The first lectures that Dr. Bradley and other scientists aboard the U.S.S. Haven heard were about keeping quiet. Sitting on the balmy navigation deck of the sleek white ship equipped with elaborate laboratory instrumentation, Bradley had listened to the initial briefing three days after the Haven left San Francisco. "The naval equivalent of a Trial Judge Advocate read us the riot act on security, backing it up with selections from the Federal Espionage Act. Before he got through it began to look as though Bikini would be but a brief stop on the way to Leavenworth," Bradley later recorded in his personal log.
The tests were mounted with assiduous attention to detail. Along with forty-two thousand U.S. armed forces personnel, and an armada of about two hundred ships and 150 planes dispatched to both withstand the atomic damage and help in assessing it, there were hundreds of military and civilian specialists. The government had assigned an entire ship, carrying animals and physicians, to study effects of radioactivity on the fish, plant life, and coral atolls, and its spread by air and sea. Over four thousand nonhuman test animals were to be involved in the Able atomic blast--including goats, pigs, rats, and specially bred mice--in addition to fruit flies.
As he concentrated on the final briefing from Colonel Stafford Warren, one of the American military's top radiation authorities, Bradley found himself both fascinated and concerned. To him, medicine was always destined to be practiced "somewhere in that intermediate zone which combines both science and humanism." The scientist in Bradley was fascinated; the humanist in him was concerned.
Colonel Warren explained that a B-29 would fly over Bikini to drop an A-bomb. A mobile "live" fleet would be about twenty miles away, on the sea and in the air. The bomb would explode with a power of about twenty thousand tons of TNT, sending off blinding heat equal to the sun's.
As the initial flash dissipated, two of the Navy's Marin PBM-S flying boats (Bradley was assigned to be in one of them) would cruise closer and closer to the blast until detecting radiation levels deemed "dangerous." While planes and destroyers would be sent off to follow the mushroom cloud's travel path, the "live" fleet would gradually head toward the blast center--where ships berthed under the nuclear explosion would be examined to find out what an atom bomb of twenty kilotons or so could do to aircraft carriers, battleships, and other military equipment. U.S. commanders had designated seventy-three ships to serve as the atomic explosion's target fleet.
Having heard the last briefing and received their assignments, Bradley and most of his scientific colleagues went ashore on Bikini's main island--four miles long and about two hundred yards wide--a sandy sliver in the Pacific immensity. "The sun was rich with its tropical intensity, and the sky full of the clustering thunderheads," Bradley wrote in his notebook. "The beauty of this Bikini setting seems to belong to another world entirely, having no relation to the strange mission which brings us here."
Indeed, Bikini's beauty masked radioactive poisons that would prove fatal to natives and GIs alike.
1. David Bradley, No Place to Hide (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948), pp. 18-20.
2. Herbert York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1976), p. 19.
3. Bradley, No Place to Hide, p. 5.
4. Michael Uhl and Tod Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1980), p. 34
5. Bradley, No Place to Hide, p. 15.
6. Uhl and Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs, p. 34.
7. Bradley, No Place to Hide, p. 15.
8. Ibid., pp. 18, 19.
9. Ibid., p. 20.
10. Time, July 8, 1946, p. 20.
11. Bradley, No Place to Hide, p. 21.
Tested, and Ignored
It is not entirely accurate to describe the veterans of America's nuclear weapons tests as "guinea pigs." Until the late 1970s the U.S. Government had made no epidemiological inquiries into the health of these servicemen, established no studies about long-term effects of their radiation exposure. As "guinea pigs," at least 250,000 U.S. troops--directly exposed to atomic radiation during seventeen years of nuclear bomb testing--were neglected by their overseers.
Between 1946 and 1962 orders routinely sent American soldiers close to hundreds of atomic blasts. The logistics of their roles changed, as did the kinds of terrain. But what did not vary were the presence of radioactive fallout and official assurances that it was harmless.
In the 1970s as some media attention focused on charges that participation in nuclear tests had caused serious diseases, the U.S. Government denied any responsibility. Continuing to reject service-connected radiation claims from veterans and their widows, the Veterans Administration asserted that servicemen had been exposed to harmless "low-level" radiation.
In 1977, more than thirty years after Able exploded, pressure from publicized battles between the VA and atomic vets moved a federal agency--the Center for Disease Control--to conduct the first health study of America's nuclear veterans.
The survey was confined to the 3,224 men who were in the Nevada desert military maneuvers at a 1957 atomic test code-named Smoky. An initial eighteen-month assessment, released in 1979, discovered more than twice the normal leukemia rate among those servicemen. In more detailed statistics that followed, the federal researchers found nine cases of leukemia among those same soldiers--a ratio nearly three times the average. "This represents a significant increase over the expected incidence of 3 1/2 cases," reported a research team headed by Center for Disease Control official Dr. Glyn C. Caldwell, in a study summary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in autumn 1980.
The Smoky test soldiers, however, represent only about 1 percent of U.S. servicemen exposed to nuclear testing. Extrapolation of the completed federal study conclusions would strongly indicate that several hundred veterans died from leukemia alone as a result of their involvement in the tests. The estimate does not include deaths from numerous forms of cancer, blood disorders, and other ailments.
The implications of the federal government's own study seemed to make no impact on the VA. Consistent with policies toward the veterans of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the agency continued its practice of turning down the claims. The VA granted an occasional publicized atomic vet's request for benefits--being careful not to concede that the terminal illness was tied to bomb test radiation exposure. But for the overwhelming majority of irradiated veterans, the Smoky study results notwithstanding, encounters with the VA continued to mean dealing with an administrative stone wall.
Sensitive to mounting public accusations of unfair treatment toward nuclear test veterans, VA general counsel Guy H. McMichael III told Congress in 1979 that no individual autopsy or diagnosis could establish connection between an illness and prior radiation exposure. "There are serious difficulties inherent in the adjudication of claims involving more lengthy post-exposure development of cancer," he maintained, "when there is no pathological evidence to indicate that the disease process began in service." The VA cited as a complicating aspect of radiation compensation policies "the fact that radiation-induced cancers have no unique pathological characteristics to distinguish them from cancer due to `natural' factors. This makes it impossible to determine with certainty whether such a disease would have occurred regardless of the radiation exposure."
Meanwhile, as of 1981, the VA has turned down more than 98 percent of radiation-based claims for atomic veterans' service-connected benefits. In the summer of 1980 the Pentagon issued a widely circulated press release claiming that "most exposures to DoD [Department of Defense] personnel during the tests were quite low--averaging about half a rem. . . . Of course, many received no exposure at all, and some received more. Our research indicates that only a very small percentage exceeded 5 rem per year, the current Federal guideline for allowable annual dose to radiation workers."
The Defense Department statement, released thirty-four years after America's first peacetime nuclear test, concluded on a soothing note: "In summary, based upon research to date, the average exposure of atmospheric nuclear test participants is about one-tenth of the level that is generally agreed as an acceptable annual exposure for radiation workers." Despite the Center for Disease Control's findings a year earlier, the Pentagon stated that "approximately one fatal cancer per 20,000 individuals" would result.
But many of America's veterans of nuclear testing were in no mood to be placated by Pentagon press releases. Their voices, scattered around the nation, had grown louder and more cohesive as the 1970s progressed. In 1979 the National Association of Atomic Veterans was founded by former Army sergeant Orville Kelly, and his wife, Wanda. Kelly had witnessed twenty-two nuclear weapons test explosions while serving as commander of Japtan, a small land mass in the Marshall Islands, two decades earlier.
Kelly's experiences were fairly typical. As described in an NAAV newsletter he "wore a film badge, which measured gamma radiation, from April 1, 1958 to August 31, 1958. During that time, the badge recorded an exposure of 3.445 rems. At no time was he measured for beta radiation or for possible internal deposition of radionuclides. The equipment used on the island for environmental monitoring also only measured gamma radiation."
Formation of NAAV in August 1979 brought a strong response from atomic veterans and widows all over the country. Within a year three thousand had become members of the association, operating out of headquarters in Burlington, Iowa, the hometown of Orville and Wanda Kelly. Together with nuclear veterans and supporters in every state, they set about challenging the Veterans Administration's treatment of former servicemen exposed to radiation while in the military.
Diagnosed as suffering from lymphocytic lymphoma in June 1973, Orville Kelly's claims for service-connected benefits were repeatedly rejected by the VA. Hobbled by the pain of his cancer and powerful chemotherapy drugs, Kelly traveled as much as he could, meeting with atomic veterans and speaking out on their behalfs. In the process Kelly's own often-rebuffed claim became a cause celebre, and a severe embarrassment to the VA and Defense Department.
In November 1979, after five years of denials, the VA's Board of Veterans Appeals granted Kelly's claim. The decision conceded the plausibility of a link between in-service radiation exposure and later cancer, but stopped short of acknowledging a definite connection. The VA made clear that the Kelly decision would not serve as a precedent for other such claims, which would still be processed case-by-case.
Kelly was well aware that only a handful of atomic vets had been successful in gaining compensation. In April 1980, two months before he died, Orville Kelly said from his sickbed: "Although our claims are difficult to prove because we cannot feel, taste, hear or smell radiation, it is more deadly than bullets or shrapnel."
Articulating the sentiments of thousands who had joined the National Association of Atomic Veterans, Kelly added: "I believe I should have been warned about the possible dangers of radiation exposure and that medical examinations should have been conducted on a regular basis after my exposure. The truth is that I was never warned nor were examinations ever performed. During all the years after I left the Army, I was never once told to get a physical because I participated in nuclear weapons testing. Even though I won my case, I have still lost the overall battle because doctors have told me I have but a short time to live."
After Kelly's death it became clearer than ever that the NAAV would not disappear. In fact the organization showed signs of continued growth, issuing bimonthly newsletters to its thousands of members and establishing field organizers in every region of the nation. The federal department perhaps most hostile to the NAAV's aims was the Defense Nuclear Agency at the Pentagon. "We're not in the health effects business--we're in the defense business," DNA spokesman Colonel Bill McGee told an interviewer in 198O. However, responding to adverse publicity, DNA had set up a toll-free telephone number in the late 1970s to gather information from veterans of nuclear testing--and by early 1981 had accumulated more than forty thousand names and current addresses of atomic veterans or next of kin.
DNA refused requests by the National Association of Atomic Veterans for those names and addresses. The Veterans Administration, meanwhile, after more than a year's delay, in January 1981 agreed to provide NAAV with its record of atomic vets' names and addresses. But the VA had only 2 percent of the number of names accumulated by the Defense Nuclear Agency.
DNA's refusal to share its large cache of data was consistent with the agency's combative posture toward the nation's nuclear veterans. A DNA refrain has been the contention that servicemen received very low levels of radiation.
But support for the NAAV cause came in the form of a rebuttal from Dr. Edward Martell, a former fallout analyst for the Air Force and Atomic Energy Commission. Testifying at a citizens' hearing in Washington on April 12, 1980, he said: "The best way of deceiving all of you about the effects of radiation is to talk about the effects of one kind of radiation when you're measuring the other." A scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research based in Colorado, Martell stated that internally absorbed alpha and beta particles are intentionally ignored by government authorities.
Martell alleged that Pentagon officials "take film badge records, which are a measure of penetrating radiation, and they discuss the small degree of effect expected in the way of cancers and leukemias. But most cancer and leukemias are due instead to internal emitters"--nuclear-fission by-products such as strontium, cesium, and plutonium, which were not measured by dosimetry badges.
Even journalists priding themselves on hard-hitting investigative research are inclined to defer to seemingly superior knowledge of Defense Department experts. Such was the case on September 28, 1980, when the CBS television program 60 Minutes broadcast a segment on nuclear vets.
60 Minutes showed brief interviews with atomic veterans Orville Kelly and Harry Coppola, filmed only a few weeks before their deaths. But the program focused on DNA director Vice Admiral Robert R. Monroe.
Admiral Monroe informed CBS correspondent Morley Safer--and tens of millions of TV viewers--that at the nuclear tests "meticulous precautions were taken to ensure that the exposures were within limits thought to be safe. We have almost no indication today that there is a statistically higher proportion of cancer deaths." And, the admiral added, "This weapon testing exposure is a very, very, very, very tiny amount of very low-level radiation." Admiral Monroe explained that about 16 percent of American men die of cancer, so of course the disease would occur among some nuclear veterans.
The Pentagon representative's on-camera assertions went unchallenged as CBS presented no contrary scientific view. The 60 Minutes segment did not mention the government's own Center for Disease Control study--public for well over a year by that time--showing a leukemia rate more than twice expected among veterans who participated in the Smoky test.
Numerous veterans wrote angry letters to 60 Minutes, which quoted from a couple of critical ones on the air. But the CBS editors seemed to have retained unshaken faith in the Pentagon's integrity. The program quoted a viewer's letter charging that "the government's treatment of these men is a national disgrace and perhaps the biggest whitewash since Tom Sawyer painted his Aunt Polly's fence." But 60 Minutes immediately sought to dispel the aspersion on the Defense Department's sincerity, as anchorman Mike Wallace declared flatly: "However, the government is interested in getting the facts, and wrote to us to please tell atomic vets to call, toll-free 800-336-3068."
Among the outraged atomic veterans was a Hagerstown, Maryland, resident--George E. Mace. In a letter to 60 Minutes producer Joseph Wershba, Mace pointed out that "you graciously provided interested atomic veterans with the Defense Nuclear Agency toll free telephone number, so they could seek information and help from a Government which just the week before had said they were insignificant and financially not worth the bother."
Three weeks after the atomic veterans segment was aired, in a one-sentence footnote to its mailbag excerpts, 60 Minutes finally mentioned the high leukemia rate among atomic vets found by the Center for Disease Control.
For George Mace, a participant in twenty-two atomic tests in 1958, the issues went far deeper than a sophisticated journalist was likely to convey. "Cancer is not the only disease or health problems encountered by the atomic veteran," he wrote. "There are blood and bone marrow diseases, respiratory diseases, general deterioration of health, sterility, mental stress or breakdown, and genetic damage."
In late 1980 the National Association of Atomic Veterans published a brief article advising members not to donate blood or sign up for organ donor programs. The newsletter notice expressed a deep sadness common to radiation victims: "All veterans who were exposed to radiation during atomic tests and are now participating in such programs are urged to notify the state or national organization that they are atomic veterans and request a decision on acceptability of future participation. It is a scientific fact that radioisotopes concentrate in specific organs of the body, one of which is bone marrow which produces mature blood cells. Let us not perpetrate this curse on another human being!"
12. The U.S. Department of Defense has estimated there were approximately 210,000 atomic test servicemen. Most other sources say the number was higher. The National Association of Atomic Veterans has calculated the figure at between 250,000 and 400,000. These estimates do not include the many thousands of civilians who participated in the testing at close range.
13. G. C. Caldwell, et al., "Leukemia Among Participants in Military Maneuvers at a Nuclear Bomb Test: A Preliminary Report," Journal of the American Medical Association, October 3, 1980, pp. 1575-1578.
14. Ibid., p. 1575.
15. U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, "Statement by Guy H. McMichael III," June 20, 1979, p. 6.
17. Lewis Golinker, attorney, National Veterans Law Center in Washington, D.C., interviews, February-May 1981.
Atomic veterans appealing to the courts for help, after VA rejections, have been blocked by the government's use of a 1950 Supreme Court decision in the case of Feres v. United States. The "Feres doctrine" has made it nearly impossible for veterans or family members to sue the government for injuries inflicted while in the U.S. military. (For an analysis of political and legal issues involved, see Lewis M. Milford, "Justice Is Not a GI Benefit," Progressive, August 1981, pp. 32-35.)
18. U.S. DOD, Nuclear Test Personnel Review (Washington, D.C.: Defense Nuclear Agency, 1980), pp. 5-6.
19. Ibid., p. 11.
21. Account of Orville Kelly's life and founding of NAAV is drawn from Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, September-October 1979, pp. 6-7.
22. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, September-October 1979, p. 6.
23. Ibid., p. 7.
24. New York Times, November 27, 1979, p. 18.
25. "Statement of Orville Kelly," Citizens' Hearings for Radiation Victims (hereafter cited as Citizens' Hearings), Washington, D C., April 11, 1980 (National Committee for Radiation Victims, 317 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, D.C. 20003.)
27. People, November 10, 1980, p. 44.
28. Years after they called DNA's toll-free phone number and submitted information, all the scores of atomic veterans we interviewed said they had received at most a form letter, and no substantial follow-up, from the government. For its part the Pentagon continued to gather informational responses from atomic veterans. In 1981 the overwhelming majority of backlogged responses from veterans were not being put to any apparent use by Pentagon agencies. Meanwhile the Defense Department was paying the National Academy of Sciences--an institution with long-standing and harmonious ties to governmental nuclear interests--to study the health of veterans who participated in a few bomb test series. With no results expected before 1982 at the earliest, that study addressed the health of about 15 percent of the veterans who took part in atomic tests.
29. Golinker, interview, February 1981; Golinker to authors, January 13, 1981.
30. VA Administrator Max Cleland to Golinker, January 2, 1981.
31. Golinker interview.
32. Citizens' Hearings, pp. 26-28.
35. The Defense Nuclear Agency, in support of its claim that the exposure received by atomic soldiers was too small to cause cancer, uses an average obtained from film-badge readings. This approach is fraught with distortions. First, not everybody wore a film badge. Often a badge was issued to only one person in the platoon. Second, and perhaps most important, the largest source of exposure to the troops was probably the inhalation of radioactive dust, or the ingestion of contaminated water--neither of which was measured by badges. The several hundred isotopes produced immediately after an atomic detonation were swirled around by high-speed winds. Although only a small percentage of this fresh fallout is made up of long-lived isotopes like plutonium, there would still be a significant amount produced. Because the distribution of the fallout would not be uniform, there were no doubt several "hot spots" in the areas where troops were posted.
36. 60 Minutes, CBS television network program segment titled "Time Bomb," September 28, 1980, transcript provided by CBS News.
39. Ibid., letters segment broadcast.
40. George Mace to Joseph Wershba, October 20, 1980.
41. We asked Joseph Wershba for his response to the criticisms leveled by nuclear veterans regarding the 60 Minutes story he produced. Wershba replied with a note, dated January 22, 1981, saying: "As for personal comment, we're responsible for what goes out over the air so the script and follow-up will have to stand for itself."
42. Mace to Wershba, October 20, 1980.
43. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, winter 1980, p. 13.
Selling the Bomb
The root of the curse that plagued the atomic veterans had in fact been resisted as early as the 1946 Bikini detonations. Though their voices were overwhelmed by the emotions of the nascent Cold War, numerous top-level American scientists had argued strenuously against nuclear bomb testing. Some pleaded, with tragic foresight, that the testing would be biologically dangerous. Others warned that it was unnecessary and would make more difficult the job of controlling atomic energy worldwide. The Federation of Atomic Scientists also expressed fear that in the midst of a vast ocean, the nuclear explosions would seem relatively puny, creating an unrealistic image of their power--which would be used to devastate cities rather than isolated battleships or remote atolls.
Before sending mushroom clouds up over the Bikini atolls, Operation Crossroads was the subject of several months of intensiVe media buildup. U.S. military and civilian commanders carefully and successfully set the tone for press coverage of nuclear displays--thus defining the formative notions of atomic weapons for most citizens. Motivations for U.S. atomic tests were increasingly depicted as benign, circumscribed, and well-meaning. Newsweek first headlined its advance coverage of Operation Crossroads scenarios "ATOMIC BOMB: GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH." By the time the week of Crossroads' first test blast arrived, Newsweek headed its preview coverage "SIGNIFICANCE: THE GOOD THAT MAY COME FROM THE TESTS AT BIKINI."
Washington bureau chief Ernest K. Lindley urged Newsweek's readers to keep in mind that the atomic explosions were for scientific and military research, not for planetary saber-rattling: "None of these tests is planned as a spectacle; none is intended to show the world what a powerful weapon the atom bomb is. None is intended for diplomatic or political effect."
With mass media uncritically relaying the military's line, the public image of Operation Crossroads became one of self-defense and even humanitarianism. "The Bikini tests are set up to measure the effects of atomic explosions, not only on ships but on a wide variety of equipment and military ground weapons and on life itself," Newsweek declared on the eve of the first Crossroads blast. "The tests on animals, at varying distances from the explosion should be especially valuable, through their contribution to medical knowledge." United States News informed readers that "only the coming tests can give the final answer to the main question of how today's modern warship can stand up in combat in an age of atomic warfare."
The humanistic theme was reiterated. "One of the answers being sought in the tests will be to see whether more sensitive or more exact devices may be needed to indicate quickly enough the need for special medical treatment of atom bomb victims," reported Science News Letter, adding: "Whether the radiation injury from atom bombs will cause sterility in the victims or cause defects in such children as they might have will also be studied. While it will take many years before such genetic effects could be determined from following atom bomb survivors in Japan, laboratory animals and insects, such as drosophila, can provide the answers much faster."
And, a later issue of the periodical went on--with unknowing irony--"Cancer research may get some help from the atomic bomb explosions at Bikini."
Missing from the press billing of Operation Crossroads were any serious suggestions that subjects of the atomic test experiments included human beings. United States News dubbed the blast target ships the "guinea-pig fleet," but devoted scant attention to the forty-two thousand human beings in uniform nearby.
44. Uhl and Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs, p. 37.
45. Originally announced for early May 1946, Operation Crossroads was delayed for a few weeks. The postponement enabled President Truman's emissary Bernard Baruch to proclaim U.S. support for worldwide nuclear controls, in his speech to the fledgling United Nations, before the U.S. proceeded with atomic bomb tests; "it was felt," noted historian Robert Jungk, "that they would be a discordant accompaniment to the forthcoming presentation of the American plan for international control to the United Nations Organization" (Robert Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns [New York: Harcourt Brace 1958], p. 240.) Other motives were involved, however. "The real reason for the delay was closer to home" than global tensions, Newsweek reported. "Operation Crossroads would have drawn 120 senators and representatives, a record-breaking number for Congressional junkets, away from Washington for six weeks and thus endangered the Administration's legislative program." At stake were proposals for extension of the peacetime draft, military appropriations, and measures to boost development of atomic energy. (Newsweek, April 1, 1946, pp. 21-22.)
46. Newsweek, February 4, 1946, p. 30.
47. Newsweek, July 1, 1946, p. 21.
50. United States News, February 1, 1946, p. 27.
51. Science News Letter, May 11, 1946, p. 294.
52. Science News Letter, July 6, 1946, p. 4.
53. Some apprehensions about the Bikini atomic blasts were publicized. Fears of cracked ocean floors, vaporized seas, and gigantic oceanwide tidal waves--plausibly destined to be disproved--received more general press attention than the issue of long-term radiation effects. See, for example, Newsweek, July 1, 1946, p. 20.
54. United States News, February 1, 1946, p. 26.
Experimenting at Bikini
In a twin-engine plane twenty miles from the falling atomic bomb Dr. David Bradley waited anxiously, looking out through black goggles toward the Bikini lagoon. "Then, suddenly we saw it--a huge column of clouds, dense, white, boiling up through the strato-cumulus, looking much like any other thunderhead but climbing as no storm cloud ever could." The atomic conflagration was rising from its midair detonation point at a speed of two miles per minute. "The evil mushrooming head soon began to blossom out. It climbed rapidly to 30,000 to 40,000 feet, growing a tawny-pink from oxides of nitrogen, and seemed to be reaching out in an expanding umbrella overhead."
In the hours immediately after the explosion, with Geiger counters clicking rapidly, radiological monitoring planes swept through the air around the mushroom cloud. No one seemed to know whether the gas masks worn by the crews would filter out harmful radioactive particles.
As Bradley's plane drew closer to the cloud, passengers could see many of the target ships afire below; a few were sinking. "Expecting much more dire and dramatic events our crew was disappointed," he recalled. "There was much pooh-poohing of the Bomb over the interphone."
The Able test countdown and explosion seemed to bring the atomic bomb within human scale. "Awful as it was, it was less than the expectations of many onlookers," remarked Time magazine. "There was no earthquake, no `tidal' (seismic) wave or other catastrophe to justify the fears of crackpots that the bomb would bring the end of the world." And Newsweek expressed some optimism in its coverage: "Man, pygmy that he is in the endless stretch of time, set off his fourth atom bomb this week. Trembling, he waited once again to see if he had wrought his own destruction. . . . Yet, as the macabre cloud of his fourth explosion rose majestically from Bikini's environs . . . he could sigh with relief. Alive he was; given time and the sanity of nations, he might yet harness for peace the greatest force that living creatures had ever released on this earth." The limitation of visible physical impact was in the spotlight; little attention was devoted to invisible radioactive fallout.
A week after the Able explosion Dr. Bradley boarded a patrol gunboat at Bikini and headed westward, reaching a small atoll after an hour's journey. "Even below the high water mark, on the south shore, whose rocky ledges are constantly being sluiced by the foaming breakers, even here we found radioactive material, invisibly and almost permanently adsorbed to the surface of the rocks. It isn't enough to be serious, but illustrates the difficulty of trying to clean any rough surface of fission products. Even the great Pacific itself cannot wash out a roentgen of it."
The radiation could not be cleansed away. The situation became severely aggravated when the U.S. went ahead with its second postwar nuclear shot, code-named Baker, set off three and a half weeks later. Baker exploded underwater at a shallow location beneath the lagoon surface, displacing two million tons of water.
Instruments in Bradley's monitor plane detected radiation from the targeted ships and the ocean water. Needles on all Geiger counters quickly went off scale. Radioed orders to abandon the survey task were a great relief to the crews--"with radiation so intense at such an altitude, that at water level would certainly be lethal. And this wasn't just a point source, it was spread out over an area miles square."
For many weeks afterward monitors found radiation permeating the ecosystem of the Bikini atolls. Meantime many thousands of sailors were aboard ships anchored in Bikini's lagoon. Four days after the Baker detonation Dr. Bradley and his coworkers became aware that "the live fleet is lying at anchor in dangerous water. . . . By noon the intensity was such as to endanger our water intakes and evaporators." The entire fleet pulled up anchors and moved in an attempt to escape the radioactivity.
But U.S. servicemen were being sent aboard the target fleet--about one hundred ships--under orders to scrub off the persistent radiation. More than a week after the Baker blast Dr. Bradley observed "most of the ships are still in quarantine because of radioactivity." The decks were "still so hot as to permit only short shifts of twenty minutes to an hour. The rain which fell contained the equivalent of tons of radium." For Navy hands accustomed to swabbing the decks, it was an exercise in frustration. Scrubbing the vessels, with help from fire-fighting equipment, provided "no relief from the `damned Geigers.'" Two years later those ships remained highly radioactive.
For all the official public talk about Operation Crossroads being a crucial experiment, from the standpoint of scientific inquiry it had a number of peculiarly flawed aspects.
For example the Navy killed Bikini atoll insects before the first atomic explosion there--preventing any accurate assessment of the bomb radiation impacts on the land food chain. Unlike mass circulation periodicals, the small journal Science News Letter noticed the action, reporting after the first blast: "The atom bomb's effect on Bikini's ecology will have a blurred record because DDT was sprayed over the atoll islands before Seabee forces went to work there weeks ago. This was done to abate the plague of flies that wrecked comfort and threatened health. Biologists making the `before-B day' survey objected but Navy authorities decided in favor of the Seabees."
Whether the test supervisors were merely concerned about servicemen's comfort--or whether they also wished to preclude the possibility of news accounts revealing that an atomic explosion had wiped out insect life--remained unclear. But, as Science News Letter correspondent Dr. Frank Thone pointed out, DDT indiscriminately kills almost all aboveground insects--including those transferring pollen to sustain plant life. So use of the DDT predictably clouded reasons for insect and plant deaths on Bikini.
The government's DDT dousing prevented systematic evaluation of radiation effects on other atoll life as well. "Some birds and almost all lizards depend mainly on insects for food," Thone reminded readers. "Recent experiments indicate that DDT-poisoned insects do not kill birds and fishes that eat them but if the insects are killed off, where will the birds find food? . . . This one monkey-wrench, thrown into this atoll's ecology, sprinkles question marks all over the biological record."
Those life forms that escaped the DDT were not missed by the radiation. After the Baker test ordinarily bright-hued coral heads were white, and dead; their normally nurturing surroundings remained highly radioactive. Dr. Bradley's "first netful of sand dumped upon the fantail of our boat proved to be so radioactive that in a panic I had the whole catch thrown overboard."
The implications were disturbing. Intensive radiation on the lagoon bottom threatened to contaminate the ocean food chain. After two more weeks passed, Bradley found that nearly all seagoing fish caught around the atoll were radioactive.
Government authorities and the mass media neglected such biological issues. More conspicuous, however, was the failure to decontaminate the target ships; the military had little choice but to concede a lingering problem. In the words of Bradley's log, there remained "a real hazard from elements present which cannot be detected by the ordinary field methods. . . . recent studies with the alpha counter have established the presence of alpha emitters, notably plutonium." A month after the Baker explosion it became clear that ship surfaces would shed radioactivity only through sandblasting or administering huge quantities of strong acid. Seven weeks after the blast, laboratory studies were consistently detecting "a small but definite amount of plutonium spread atom-thin over most of the contaminated areas."
The public version of Operation Crossroads was that no long-term harm had been inflicted by the tests. Bradley's conclusions were far different: "We don't know to what distances from Bikini the radiation disease may be carried. We can't predict to what degree the balance of nature will be thrown off by atomic bombs."
55. Bradley, No Place to Hide, p. 55.
56. Ibid., pp. 22-23.
57. Ibid., pp. 57-58.
58. Time, July 8, 1946, pp. 20-21.
59. Newsweek, July 8, 1946, p. 19.
60. American media eagerly lacquered events even indirectly linked to the atomic test with thick coats of patriotic heroism. An Associated Press article--headlined "SCIENTISTS RISK LIVES TO SAVE ATOMIC SECRETS" in the Los Angeles Times--disclosed that "a group of famous scientists flying to the United States from Bikini, deliberately gambled their lives today in a thunderstorm over Nebraska by refusing to bail out to save top secret photographic and instrument records of the atomic blast." (Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1946.)
61. Bradley, No Place to Hide, p. 73.
62. Bruce A. Bolt, Nuclear Explosions and Earthquakes (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1976), p. iv.
63. Bradley, No Place to Hide. p. 95.
64. Ibid., pp. 96-97.
65. Ibid., pp. 98, 107-108, 126.
66. Ibid., pp. 100-101.
67. Ibid., p. 101.
68. Ibid., p. 102.
69. Ibid., p. 103.
70. Uhl and Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs, p. 44.
71. Science News Letter, July 6, 1946, p. 3.
74. Bradley, No Place to Hide, pp. 107-108.
75. Ibid., p. 126.
76. Ibid., pp. 115-116.
77. Ibid., pp. 116-117.
78. Ibid., pp. 131-132.
79. Ibid., p. 147.
80. Ibid., p. 149.
Like their later counterparts, servicemen at the 1946 atomic testing were almost nonpersons--little more than props in a grandiose show. Early onset of health problems among American troops sent onto the radioactive ships was not publicized. Operation Crossroads veterans were to recall, sometimes bitterly, that they were provided no special cleanup garb as they scrubbed the contaminated decks. Most emphasize they were provided no radiation-detection badges or other monitoring gear.
Three decades later, under short-lived congressional pressure, U.S. Department of Energy acting assistant secretary Dr. Donald Kerr admitted that the government could document radiation-exposure badges for only about one quarter of the servicemen at Operation Crossroads. The ratio dropped to about one tenth for the next atomic test series.
For participants at Operation Crossroads the pair of twenty-three-kiloton nuclear detonations were only the start of their hazardous ordeals. Sent onto the targeted vessels within days--sometimes merely a few hours--after the atom bomb explosions, they scoured the irradiated surfaces for weeks on end, at times living on the same ships. They routinely drank water distilled--through frequently contaminated evaporators--from the lagoon that Dr. Bradley and his colleagues were finding to be so intensely radioactive. Former Navy servicemen tell of entire crews falling violently sick soon after boarding ships hot with radioactivity. Chronic, painful illnesses inexorably followed.
Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy, commander of the Operation Crossroads joint Army-Navy task force, had been quick to proclaim the atomic experiment "highly successful." Newsweek reported at the time: "There had been no human casualties, though Admiral Blandy cautiously warned some might yet be overexposed to radiation [a rare public admission that received no substantive media follow-up]. For, he said, the personnel were eager to board the ships for the military and scientific findings that would affect the future of mankind."
Judging from dozens of interviews with Operation Crossroads veterans contacted for this book, Admiral Blandy may have greatly overstated just how eager "the personnel" were to climb aboard the radioactive vessels.
Jack Leavitt, for instance, had enlisted in the Navy in 1941, before his eighteenth birthday. Stationed in California, he was twenty-two years old when he learned he was headed for Operation Crossroads in early 1946. "Someone told me it was volunteer only, but I was not asked if I wanted to participate, only to report for duty. I had volunteered to join the Navy, and I guess that was good enough."
After the Able atomic blast Leavitt was ordered to board the U.S.S. Pensacola, a heavy cruiser among the hardest-hit large ships in the Bikini target zone. He was assigned to a team "to scrub down the decks to wash off any radioactive fallout." Leavitt was aware that "at no time did I or anyone working with me--that is, naval personnel--have a Geiger counter, nor any other testing device to measure danger of radiation."
Leavitt and the others in his crew ate K-rations and sandwiches, and drank water filtered from the lagoon.
Leavitt's stint aboard the Pensacola was cut short by news of the death of his mother, and he left for the United States after nine days on the radioactive cruiser. Ever since boarding the Pensacola his health had deteriorated. "I had diarrhea for some time after the test, but was told it was emotional and would go away. I had accompanying pain in the lower abdomen, and in the right side. And have had since. I have had stomach trouble since 1946." His later ailments included colitis, bleeding of the bladder, and obstructive lung disease, all malfunctions of organs vulnerable to internally absorbed radioactive particles. The Veterans Administration refused to provide medical treatment.
In 1981, at age fifty-seven, Jack Leavitt spoke to us from his home in Mesa, Arizona. "They asked me to participate in a test I knew nothing about, and gave no guarantee as to what could result from these tests. Upon completion of tests I felt I was forgotten and rejected for further testing of any ailments." For Leavitt, who served in World War II and the Korean War, the continuing injustice of Operation Crossroads remained hard to accept. The government, he noted, "still doesn't want to admit any possible guilt for cause of alteration of the lives of those `volunteers' who gave at that time--but when they ask now for help they are rebuffed and told to simply forget it ever happened."
Like so many other atomic veterans Jack Leavitt refused to forget. "I am bitter because I have lost my ability to work, to take care of myself. I collect five hundred thirty-four dollars and ten cents Social Security. I am totally disabled." With a sad anger in his voice he said that the government declined to pay for his needed prescription drugs. His situation, Leavitt stressed, only represented a small part of a much larger problem. "There must be thousands still suffering, and loved ones left behind prematurely by early death to veterans who have passed on with claims pending, and some could still be alive today if proper treatment was given, and the responsibilities accepted by those responsible in the first place."
Kenneth H. Tripke, of Brooklyn, Wisconsin, was aboard the U.S.S. Quartz supply ship at Operation Crossroads. "I personally was so sick," he recalled, "with diarrhea and vomiting for days. I went from 128 to 70-some pounds. I turned a funny color, lost all my hair on my body." Taken onto a hospital ship, Tripke was fed intravenously. Ever since, severe weight loss plagued him, along with calcium deposits in his eyes impairing his sight, and sharp hip pains. "My back, shoulders, nerves, etc., are in poor shape."
A day after the Baker underwater blast Frank F. Karasti and three other seamen were sent aboard the destroyer Hughes to keep it from sinking. Karasti who later settled in Winton, Minnesota, was twenty-six years old at the time. "Out of the four hours we spent on her, two were spent vomiting and retching as we all became violently ill." Like many Crossroads veterans, Karasti never forgot that drinking water came from conversion of the Bikini lagoon water. Lesions appeared on his lungs about a month after the second Crossroads explosion; serious breathing problems evolved. Since 1948 he suffered from "uncontrollable hypertension." As with many Crossroads veterans Karasti's skin developed frequent severe disturbances. "My skin is deteriorating on my whole body and it is possible to wash off parts of it while bathing. . . . I have been aging ahead of my time and should I use any physical effort, I get ill for three days after." Frank Karasti's afflictions--serious damage to breathing, nervous system, and skin, along with overall feelings of premature aging--are frequently reported by people exposed to atomic radiation.
The day after the first Crossroads blast, Karasti was assigned to putting out fires on several of the target vessels, including the bull's-eye ship, the U.S.S. Nevada, which had been painted orange. About two weeks later a Navy crew of about sixty men boarded the Nevada, where they worked, ate, and slept. Among the crew was seaman Michael W. Stanco, who had in years past been wounded in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and again in the Philippines. On board the U.S.S. Nevada, "We became deathly ill after eating. I remember being so ill along with the others."
Reflecting on the events, from his home in New Port Richey, Florida, Stanco recalled reading that the Nevada was later among ships intentionally sunk because of long-lived intensity of residual radioactivity. "If this ship was sunk for reasons of contamination, what effects do you think it had upon the 60 men who ate and slept aboard it?" he asked. "And what about the divers who sank to their armpits in ooze--and the other 42,000 men that also participated?"
George McNish of Tampa, Florida, was on the U.S.S. Coucal as part of a radiation survey group at Bikini. "We scuba dived, ate coconuts from the island and swam, unaware of the danger involved. We had scientists dressed like for `outer space,' with instruments like I had never seen. But when it came to diving or bringing up samples, all we had were `skin and tanks.'" Seven years later he began treatment for tuberculosis; he later suffered from severe spine deterioration.
A few days after the Baker test Navy seaman Richard Stempel "anchored among the ships in the target area, swimming nearly every day and using the water freely. We were never told not to do either. At one point in operations during rough seas, three other crewmen and I tied our landing craft to a mooring buoy anchored in the blast area and climbed aboard. About two hours later, a high ranking officer came by and checked the radiation level of the moss on the buoy. The Geiger counter pegged and he ordered us off. He didn't advise us of any decontamination procedure."
Within a few weeks Stempel "was being treated by ship's doctor for a skin disorder the doctor was unable to diagnose." The following year Stempel filed for service-connected VA benefits because of the severe skin affliction physicians had dubbed "atopic eczema"; the VA rejected his claim.
Initially the VA's rejection had contended that "the evidence shows that you had had this affliction since early childhood and there was no evidence to show that it was aggravated by your military service." Refiling the claim in 1980, Stempel, living in Grants Pass, Oregon, submitted "three notarized letters from my father and two brothers stating I had no skin problems before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. Again it was refused." Uncompensated, Stempel's skin "has now deteriorated to where the total skin surface is either red raw, white scales, or open bleeding sores that itch constantly."
By the early 1980s numerous other Crossroads veterans had begun to speak out. As Navy veteran Jack Sommerfeld recalled: "We remained berthed in the lagoon and had to use sea water from the lagoon to make water with which to wash, bathe and brush teeth and for other purposes. . . . We were not issued radiation badges." An in-service photo of Sommerfeld shows a cherubic, smiling youngster in sailor garb. But in 1980 he was blind, confined to a wheelchair, suffering from deteriorating skin, and diagnosed with mouth and throat cancer. His continued efforts to obtain VA compensatory aid went unrewarded.
Warren E. Zink, an eighteen-year-old fireman first class at Operation Crossroads, was assigned to go aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Salt Lake City two days after the Able explosion. He was "accompanied by a scientist who was equipped with a Geiger counter," Zink explained. "We had no way of telling the severity of the level of radiation other than noticing the indicator went as far as it could on the counter." After the Baker test Zink and his crew returned to the Salt Lake City for cleanup and repair work. The ship was eventually torpedoed because of its extreme contamination.
"Within two years of my discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1948, I began having severe headaches, nausea and vomiting," recounted Zink, a resident of Woodridge, Illinois. After months of hospital tests the diagnosis was "migraine." In 1973 doctors found that Zink's lungs had deteriorated severely. "At that time, and I quote my doctor, `my lungs are 15 years older than the rest of my body.' Today I am classified as an emphysema patient, I am also bothered by constant muscle spasms in my legs which never seem to let up."
Pervasive among former military participants in Operation Crossroads--as well as for others exposed to radiation--are deep concerns about genetic damage to their children and future generations.
For William A. Drechin, of Old Forge, Pennsylvania, worries began on deck of the U.S.S. Ottawa, as he faced toward Bikini. He was nineteen years old. Dizziness and painful headaches soon became part of his life, and a softball-size lipoma tumor was surgically removed from his back three years later. But the most painful was yet to come. In 1954 he and his wife had a son, born nonambulatory. A year afterward another son was born with the same condition, later diagnosed as cerebral palsy. The first child died at age twenty-one; the second at age nine. "There is absolutely no history of defective births on either side of families," according to Drechin, who blames his participation in Operation Crossroads for the birth defects of his two sons. "The seeds of their physical woes were implanted when the destructive forces of the A-bomb were released on Bikini."
Charlie Andrews, of Riverview, Florida, also was left to agonize over the genetic legacies of Operation Crossroads. For the last six months of 1946 he worked on radioactive ships that had been at Bikini. "We lived on board, drank the water filtered by contaminated evaporators, and some of the food had been aboard the vessels at the time of the blast, making it also contaminated." In 1980 the aftermath of Crossroads was still very much with Andrews: "I find it very difficult to explain to my 15-year-old son who was born with deformed legs and no heels, which have been corrected over the years no thanks to Uncle Sam, the possibility of his children . . . being deformed also."
Living in Lower Lake, California, Howard C. Taylor harkened back to his early pride in the Navy. At Bikini in 1946 he was a ship's officer on the target-zoned U.S.S. Dawson, sent onto the vessel after both test explosions. In the late 1950s, health problems appeared: lesions on his lungs, calcium deposits in his shoulder, and black, brittle teeth. They were only the start of his ills. Suddenly he lost nearly all his vision. He was forced into retirement in 1963. "I had five children and we were soon quite destitute. My children all have eye problems. I have a son in a mental institution and another son who is abnormal and in a foster home. My wife had several miscarriages."
As occurred for so many atomic veterans, Taylor's strong patriotism and pride in the U.S. armed forces soured. "I am now disenchanted and disgusted with the Navy and our government. I and many more veterans have been deprived of the ability to enjoy and provide for our families and are now being treated like a bunch of `social bums.'"
There were civilians involved in Crossroads test operations as well; they and their families gained no more consideration than their military counterparts.
Thomas W. Scott received top-secret clearance as a civilian aerial-ground photographer to film the Able test for the government. After the explosion his plane followed the dissipating radioactive cloud for several hours. Scott's wife, Helena, of Camarillo, California, saw that "for 26 years following `Able Day' his ailments slowly, but steadily, kept increasing: the choking cough, nausea, vomiting, nose bleeds, severe back pains, depression and so on, became a daily routine." Scott died of bone cancer in 1972.
Nor did Americans' radiation exposure from Operation Crossroads end when the U.S. ships involved left the Bikini area. Scores of the vessels remained highly radioactive, and some were taken to Hawaii for disposal.
Gregory Bond Troyer, eighteen, was in the Navy at the time, working in the Base Craft, Pearl Harbor shipyard. His duties included securing vessels, still hot from Bikini, to a tug, towing them out to sea about ten to fifteen miles from Pearl Harbor, and sinking the ships. He worked without protective clothing; often his chest and feet were bare. His crew had no exposure badges or radiation monitoring gear.
A few years later, after honorable discharge from the Navy, Troyer got married. Attempts to start a family were unsuccessful, intensive physical exams by doctors determined that Troyer was sterile. In the mid-1970s physicians discovered Troyer was suffering from hyperthyroidism. A lesion appeared on his scrotum, attributed to eczema. Arthritis of neck and shoulders, cysts around his eyes and forehead, prostate problems, and hearing loss set in also. In 1980, living in St. Paul, Minnesota, Troyer at age fifty-three remained under medication for his long-standing thyroid damage.
81. Uhl and Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs, p. 43.
82. Bradley, No Place to Hide, pp. 103-104, 152.
83. Newsweek, July 8, 1946, p. 20.
84. Jack Leavitt, taped statement to authors, December 1980.
90. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, winter 1980, p. 4.
91. Frank Karasti to authors, December 8, 1980.
93. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, fall 1980, p. 11.
95. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, summer 1980, p. 13.
96. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, winter 1980, p. 9.
100. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, spring 1980, p 11.
102. Warren Zink to authors, December 15, 1980.
103. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, fall 1980, p. 5.
106. William Drechin to authors, December 10, 1980; Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, summer 1980, p. 9.
107. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, fall 1980, p. 8.
108. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, winter 1980, p. 8.
110. Helena Scott, "Written Statement," Citizens' Hearings April 12, 1980.
111. Gregory Troyer to authors, December 1980; Troyer's complete VA file, C-13470812.
Living with Nuclear Weapons
Considering the government's deliberate control of information before and after Crossroads, it is perhaps no surprise that the test blasts actually allayed domestic fears of atomic war. "On returning from Bikini," wrote William L. Laurence, a New York Times science reporter, "one is amazed to find the profound change in the public attitude toward the problem of the atomic bomb. Before Bikini the world stood in awe of this new cosmic force. Since Bikini this feeling of awe has largely evaporated and has been supplanted by a sense of relief unrelated to the grim reality of the situation. Having lived with the nightmare for nearly a year [since Hiroshima and Nagasaki], the average citizen is now only too glad to grasp at the flimsiest means that would enable him to regain his peace of mind".
Many years later the public-relations role played by the Bikini tests of 1946 seemed apparent. "Their spiritual effect was great," wrote historian Robert Jungk. "For they soothed the fears of the American public almost as much as the bombs dropped on Japan had aroused them."
There had been some opposition to the atomic explosions at Bikini. After the Federation of Atomic Scientists unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the tests protesters gathered in New York's Times Square. But America's nuclear machinery--forged through extremely close cooperation between government and private industry during the wartime Manhattan Project--was picking up speed and consolidating alliances along the way. America had entered the cold war, and atomic bombs were requisite materiel.
Rhetorical abhorrence of nuclear bombs accompanied the beefed-up nuclear weaponry appropriations and further atomic bomb test explosions. President Truman inaugurated "an American political tradition," as authors Michael Uhl and Tod Ensign described it: "Denounce the proliferation of nuclear weapons, urge disarmament, and advocate peaceful uses of atomic energy, while continuing to produce and test nuclear weapons under the guise of national security."
The issue of how the government should supervise atomic energy came to the fore in 1946, with a struggle over whether regulation should be entrusted to the U.S. military or civilian administrators. A petition campaign, spearheaded by the Federation of Atomic Scientists, deluged Congress with messages favoring civilian control of the atom. When the law establishing the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) took effect in August 1946, its provisions seemed to reflect a victory for the forces backing civilian authority over nuclear development.
The U.S. Government's executive and legislative branches, with appointments by the president and confirmation powers plus oversight duties by Congress, would keep watch over the AEC. Yet, underneath the proclaimed civilian umbrella, America's top military officers retained basic roles in the government's atomic policy decisions.
The 1946 law that established the AEC also set up the Military Liaison Committee, located in the Pentagon and charged with supervising America's nuclear program from a "national defense" standpoint. While usually a civilian, that panel's head represented the Defense Department; the committee's members were military officers.
Supporters of civilian nuclear control soon began to realize they had won a hollow victory. The AEC was effectively interwoven with U.S. military authority--which was, after all, the prime user of the atom.
Those eager for nuclear proliferation American-style found that in many respects they could enjoy the best of both worlds: the appearance of civilian control, with the military still calling the shots. In the face of Pentagon expertise and clout, the legislative branch quickly accepted a junior role in nuclear matters. When the 1950s began, members of the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy still were not privy to the number of bombs in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
The American military, meanwhile, rapidly became the primary source of funds for scientists in numerous fields. And those who paid the pipers composed the tunes. By autumn 1946 the trend was becoming painfully obvious to many atomic scientists, including Philip Morrison. Speaking at an annual public-affairs forum sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune, Morrison commented on this evolving relationship: "At the last Berkeley meeting of the American Physical Society just half the delivered papers . . . were `supported in whole or in part' by one of the [Armed] Services . . . some schools derive 90 percent of their research support from Navy funds . . . the Navy contracts are catholic. . . . The now amicable contracts will tighten up and the fine print will start to contain talk about results and specific weapon problems. And science itself will have been bought by war on the installment plan.
"The physicist knows the situation is a wrong and dangerous one. He is impelled to go along because he really needs the money."
The nation's major universities grew steadily entangled in the atomic funding net. In spring 1947 prime academic institutional involvement came from the University of California--operating Los Alamos in New Mexico and the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley--and from the University of Chicago, main operator of the Argonne National Laboratory along with dozens of other colleges acting as copartners. By the end of the decade scores more large universities were under large atomic contracts from the government.
Less than seven months after the AEC came into existence, President Truman issued a "loyalty order" authorizing police investigations into the moral fiber and political fidelity of federal employees. Atomic researchers with government grants were also subject to such inquiries. Robert Jungk characterized the results as an "unhealthy climate of suspicion, accusations and time-wasting defense against false charges."
"From 1947 on," he added, "the atmosphere in which the Western scientists lived became more and more oppressive every year." Throughout the U.S., England, and France scientists faced "loyalty committees," firings, interference with international travel, and general harassment--so that "in the laboratories of the Western world people started whispering to one another, anxiously on the watch for the State's long ears, as had hitherto been the case only in totalitarian countries."
The fear ran from the lowest lab intern to the most esteemed scientific pioneer. Attending the University of California, physics student Theodore Taylor and a few other pupils devised a proposal for a general strike by American physicists. They approached J. Robert Oppenheimer, then at the height of his considerable national power in nuclear policy circles. Taylor always remembered Oppenheimer's words. After he read over the written proposal, Oppenheimer said, "Take this paper. Burn it. Never recall it. Anyone who knew of this would label you a Communist and you would have no end of trouble the rest of your life."
113. Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, p. 240.
115. Bolt, Nuclear Explosions and Earthquakes, p. xiv.
116. Most members of a blue-ribbon consultant board, entrusted by the State Department to come up with an initial plan for international control of atomic capabilities, were top executives in large American business institutions--General Electric Company, Monsanto Chemical Company, and New Jersey Bell Telephone Company. The pattern of policy formulations dominated by representatives of corporations, standing to reap huge profits from further nuclear expansion, was well established.
117. For details on proposals and negotiations regarding international control of atomic energy in the late 1940s, see D. F. Fleming, The Cold War and Its Origins, Vol. I (Garden City and New York: Doubleday, 1961 ), Chapters 13 and 14; see also, Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, Chapters 14 and 15; also, The H Bomb (New York: Didier, 1950), pp. 170-171, for comments by Professor Hans J. Morganthau.
118. Uhl and Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs, p. 32.
119. Fleming, The Cold War and Its Origins, pp. 382-383.
120. York, The Advisors, p. 61
121. See Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, p. 244.
122. It soon became clear that entrenched enthusiasts for civilian jurisdiction over atomic matters generally saw it as the most effective way to bring the nuclear age to rapid maturity. In a speech aimed at rallying support for the civilian-control concept, one of its most influential boosters, Connecticut Senator Brien McMahon, left no doubt that he was seeking the most productive way to develop a wide array of atomic technologies: "Of course the military should be consulted on the military aspects of atomic energy and this is as far as any civilian commission should be required to go. The military is noted for its reactionary position in the field of scientific research and development. The most successful weapons of war throughout history have been conceived and developed by civilians and the atomic bomb was no exception. It is because I am concerned about the nation's security, as well as the development for peaceful use of atomic energy, that I want civilians to control this force unhindered by the military." (Fleming, The Cold War, p. 382.)
123. The H Bomb, p. 158.
124. Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, p. 248. For an account of the military's atomic research contracting activities on campuses the spring after Morrison's speech, see Business Week, March 22, 1947, pp. 32-38.
125. Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, p. 249.
126. Ibid., p. 251.
128. John McPhee, The Curve of Binding Energy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974), Ballantine paperback edition, p. 41.
When American students opened Scholastic magazine's first issue of 1948, they read that their country was planning more nuclear bomb tests. Under the headline "ADVANCING SCIENCE" was the periodical's account of upcoming Operation Sandstone:Eniwetok is a lonely spot. It is a sort of coral necklace of 40 tiny island "beads," far out in the vast Pacific. It lies about halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines. The nearest land is more than 100 miles away. The 147 natives of the atoll are being moved to another island.Just two years after Operation Crossroads the United States was back exploding nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands. About twenty thousand American servicemen were there, during three atomic detonations from towers on Eniwetok in April and May 1948. Men like David Lloyd and John E. Knights and Claude E. Cooper participated, like the good soldiers they were, in the Pentagon's scenarios.
But don't get the idea that you can spend a nice, quiet vacation there. You couldn't even get near the place. Even the United Nations is barred.
For Eniwetok will become a "forbidden fortress of the atom." The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission plans to test atomic weapons there.
Ten years after Operation Sandstone, Air Force veteran Lloyd got married. His son Scotty was born in 1960; at the age of ten, Scotty was diagnosed with bone cancer. A year later Scotty was dead. His father was left with skin cancer, which doctors termed recurring basal cell carcinoma, on his nose. Twenty years after the death of his son, Lloyd, living in Topeka, Kansas, could not forget. "At the present time," he said, "I feel nothing but bitterness towards my Government for using me and thousands like me as human guinea pigs."
Lieutenant Colonel John Knights, of Tampa, Florida, had a long military career spanning service in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. He was an Army major in 1948, exposed to high amounts of radiation a few days after the first nuclear shot at Eniwetok, when he helped extricate a tank from a blast crater. Knights testified about the experience in front of a citizens' commission in Washington, D.C., thirty-two years later: "Back on board the radiological safety ship, the needle on the radiation meter bounced off scale and I was sent to the showers for a scrub-down with stiff brushes. I was still very hot and in a state of shock after the shower and I was sent back to my state room to recuperate. An hour later I suffered severe nausea and vomited." Twenty years later he had bladder cancer, combined with chronically itching skin and sharp pain in his groin that persisted for decades.
U.S. Navy Lieutenant Claude Cooper died in 1979, after suffering from prostatic cancer with metastases to his vital organs and all his bones. "I feel in my heart that my husband's death was attributable to the radiation he received while participating in Operation Sandstone at Eniwetok," said his widow, living in Long Beach, California.
The response to Lloyd and Knights and Mrs. Cooper from the U.S. Government was the standard one: Denial of responsibility.
At Eniwetok in 1948 atomic weaponry took a substantial leap. Under joint auspices of the Defense Department and AEC, the Operation Sandstone tests "evidently did result in substantial improvements in the efficiency of use of fissile material," according to physicist Herbert York, a key researcher in U.S. nuclear weapons design. One forty-nine-kiloton blast, code-named Yoke, expended more than twice the force of any atomic bomb detonation in previous years.
Operation Sandstone gave a lift to the politicians, industrialists, generals, and scientists pushing for bigger nuclear weapons outlays. "Success" of the Sandstone tests "boosted morale at Los Alamos and helped garner further support for the laboratory in Washington," observed York. "As a result, the construction of a new laboratory, located nearby on South Mesa, was authorized as a replacement for the wartime facilities that were still being used." More than ever the fix was in for nuclear testing to be perpetual scenery on the American political, economic, scientific, and media landscapes; its tangible benefits had become obvious to its prime constituents.
One of the Los Alamos laboratory's leading physicists, Edward Teller, recognized that nuclear bomb test explosions would be pivotal for continually gearing up the nuclear weapons assembly line: from research and development to production of warheads in bulk. Offered the directorship of the Los Alamos theoretical division, Teller said he would accept the post only if the U.S. would conduct a dozen nuclear tests per year--a rate that seemed unrealistic to Los Alamos chief Norris Bradbury in the late 1940s.
Unable to force such a commitment, Teller declined the position. But his vision soon prevailed. In the first five years after the end of World War II the U.S. tested a total of five atomic bombs; from 1951 to 1955, the American government tested sixty-one nuclear bombs.
129. Scholastic, January 5, 1948, p. 6.
130. Uhl and Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs, p. 43.
131. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, fall 1980, pp. 9-10.
132. Citizens' Hearings, pp. 17-19.
133. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, summer 1980, p. 9
134. York, The Advisors, pp 19-20.
135. Announced U.S. Nuclear Tests, p. 5. Unless otherwise noted, nuclear bomb blast dates and magnitude figures were derived from this source.
136. York, The Advisors, pp. 19-20.
137. Ibid., p 18.
The Soviet Union exploded its first atom bomb on August 29, 1949, in Siberia. U.S. planes detected the fallout. On September 23, 1949, President Truman announced: "We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R." The President added, "Ever since atomic energy was first realized to man, the eventual development of this new force by other nations was to be expected. This probability has always been taken into account by us."
Edward Teller called fellow atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer and asked what to do in response to the news. According to Teller, Oppenheimer replied: "Keep your shirt on." But for Teller and others demanding more federal monies to develop weapons, the revelation that the Soviets had the atom bomb provided a strong additional argument. The nuclear arms race was on!
A few days later Time commented on "a change in mood and tempo. Military planners were suddenly faced with a whole new timetable of strategic planning. . . ." Under the subheading "Red Alert," Time declared that "with atom bombs and bombers in the hands of an enemy, the Army and Navy, as well as the Air Force, took on new and immediate importance. If the U.S. wanted security, it would have to buy the full, costly package."
While virtually everyone recognized that a nuclear war would cause unprecedented casualties and suffering, few people realized that more insidious peacetime effects were already under way. Routine operation of the atomic weapons assembly line--exposing an increasing number of Americans to radiation under normal conditions--was taking its toll. Ironically, Americans became primary victims of their own country's nuclear weapons program.
Like other major nuclear decisions before and since, the hydrogen bomb go-ahead came first. Public comment was welcome later. When it came to atomic development, the general public was in a position of reacting to one fait accompli after another. And proliferation of radiation victims followed as a consequence.
As the new decade began, the White House, Defense Department, and Atomic Energy Commission were coordinating hush-hush meetings about the H-bomb--a weapon involving fusion of hydrogen into helium. The required high temperature of hundreds of millions of degrees would be possible only from an atomic bomb detonation--so A-bomb capability was a prerequisite for triggering an H-bomb's "thermonuclear" explosion. Scientists estimated that if an H-bomb were possible, it could bring about one thousand times the explosive force of an A-bomb.
Albert Einstein was among those in 1950 who viewed current events with trepidation. Within the U.S. he warned of "concentration of tremendous financial power in the hands of the military, militarization of the youth, close supervision of the loyalty of the citizens, in particular, of the civil servants by a police force growing more conspicuous every day. Intimidation of people of independent political thinking. Indoctrination of the public by radio, press, school. Growing restriction of the range of public information under the pressure of military secrecy."
It was in this atmosphere that deliberations over whether to proceed with H-bomb research reached their climax. That secretive process is important to understand "because it is one of the relatively few cases where those who explicitly tried to moderate the nuclear arms race came within shouting distance of doing so," according to Herbert York, the first director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory where much of the hydrogen bomb R and D subsequently took place. Behind the scenes there was, in York's words, "a brief, intense, highly secret debate."
Under federal law a key source of recommendations for the Atomic Energy Commission was its General Advisory Committee. Called upon by the AEC to take up the question of prospective H-bomb development, the Advisory Committee--chaired by J. Robert Oppenheimer and including such luminaries of nuclear physics as Enrico Fermi and I. I. Rabi--met in late October 1949. While urging continued efforts to magnify the power of atomic weaponry, the Advisory Committee urged that the United States not plunge ahead with developing the H-bomb, also known as the "super bomb."
The panel presented arguments in terms of military strategies, technical aspects, and optimum use of present nuclear resources, concluding that the H-bomb was not needed for U.S. national security. The report also depicted the H-bomb choice as a profound moral issue: "It is clear that the use of this weapon would bring about the destruction of innumerable human lives; it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations."
An addendum to the Advisory Committee report, written by James B. Conant--later president of Harvard University--and signed by five other committee members including Oppenheimer, underscored the moral moment of the H-bomb decision: "Let it be clearly realized that this is a super weapon; it is in a totally different category from an atomic bomb. . . . Its use would involve a decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians. We are alarmed as to the possible global effects of the radioactivity generated by the explosion of a few super bombs of conceivable magnitude. If super bombs will work at all, there is no inherent limit on the destructive power that may be attained with them. Therefore, a super bomb might become a weapon of genocide."
These and other anti-H-bomb scientists were in effect muzzled from openly expressing their viewpoints at critical junctures, held back by security-clearance status. Thus in the crucial months before Truman proclaimed his decision on H-bomb development, the public was allowed little information about a decision that could potentially result in millions of deaths and change the course of human history.
In top-secret circles the debate was fierce. Senator Brien McMahon, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, confided in Edward Teller that the anti-H-bomb Advisory Committee report "just makes me sick." For their part McMahon and a constellation of atomic scientists, including Teller and University of California Radiation Laboratory director Ernest Lawrence, were determined to bring about development of the H-bomb as soon as possible, believing it to be the best possible response to Soviet possession of the atom bomb.
Teller went out of his way to tell Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists readers at the time: "The scientist is not responsible for the laws of nature. It is his job to find out how these laws operate. It is the scientist's job to find the ways in which these laws can serve the human will. However, it is not the scientist's job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed, whether it should be used, or how it should be used. This responsibility rests with the American people and with their chosen representatives." But in the real world--as Teller well knew--secrecy restrictions prevented the American people from participating in the deliberative process until the basic decisions had already been made at governmental top levels, by men very much like himself.
The Pentagon provided important support for the hydrogen bomb. Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, Military Liaison Committee chairman Robert LeBaron, and, less strongly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged proceeding with the H-bomb.
Most of the five-member Atomic Energy Commission opposed development of the H-bomb, at least for the present. But commissioner Lewis Strauss vehemently argued that the AEC's Advisory Committee had inappropriately raised issues of morality.
In a letter to President Truman in late November 1949 Strauss urged approval of a crash program to come up with the H-bomb. Strauss--who later became chairman of the AEC--warned that the Soviet Union could be expected to develop the H-bomb. "A government of atheists," Strauss added, "is not likely to be dissuaded from producing the weapon on `moral' grounds." Neither would a government of Christians and Jews.
On January 31, 1950, President Truman announced he was ordering full-speed-ahead research and development for the H-bomb.
139. Prior to the first Soviet atomic test, in 1948 and 1949, public speeches by a number of high-ranking American generals had contended that a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union's major cities and industrial centers might be a good idea. (See Fleming, The Cold War, p. 391.)
140. York, The Advisors, p. 34.
141. Ibid., p 63.
142. Time, October 3, 1949, p. 7.
143. The H Bomb, pp. 13-14.
144. York, The Advisors, pp. ix, 2.
145. Ibid., pp. 150-159.
146. Ibid., p. 155.
147. Ibid., pp. 156-157.
148. Ibid., p. 60.
149. Ibid., p. 45.
150. Ibid., p. 71.
151. Ibid., p. 58.
Without so much as hinting that tests of the H-bomb could vastly increase harmful radiation fallout, America's mass media applauded the President's latest nuclear-related action. "No presidential announcement since Mr. Truman entered the White House seemed, in the opinion of many observers, to strike such an instant or general chord of nonpartisan congressional support," The New York Times reported. "Under the circumstances," Newsweek added, "it was the only answer he could give."
Reporting of the AEC Advisory Committee's moral objections to the H-bomb was lacking. As for the more general matter of scientists' compunctions about assisting research for a weapon of such mass annihilation, Newsweek did affirm that "many, if not most, of the nation's atomic scientists had developed `a Hiroshima complex'; they were appalled by the death and destruction which the A-bomb had wrought; and they detested the idea of developing an even more murderous weapon." But, said the magazine, "as patriotic Americans, they were ready to squelch any moral reservations they might have if the AEC gave the go-ahead signal."
Dissenting voices, published in some small periodicals, were all but ignored. "One difficulty created by the cold war is that it makes everything America does right and unquestionable for Americans and everything Russia does wrong and indefensible," observed a lengthy analysis in The Nation. Much was being demanded in the name of patriotism, including the setting aside of moral reservations. The Nation perceived that a perverse logic had taken hold of nuclear policy-making: "The decision to proceed with the construction of the hydrogen bomb carries the folly of present thinking about defense close to suicide. If fear is to be man's defense, the fear must be magnified to the greatest possible extent. That is to say that the greater the fear the greater the safety, another way of saying that the greater the danger the greater the safety."
As a corollary in the prevailing atomic syllogisms, horrors of the past justified more lethal atomic weaponry for the future. Allied firebombing sieges of Dresden and Tokyo had been recalled as justifications for the later atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; these nuclear bombings, and the very existence of an atom bomb arsenal, in turn, provided rationales for preparing the hydrogen bomb. In nuclear escalation today's awesomely repugnant spectacle became tomorrow's diminutive old hat.
The 180 American atmospheric nuclear bomb detonations between 1950 and 1960 carried with them great political power. Senators Millard Tydings and Glen Taylor were object lessons.
Tydings, an aristocratically mannered parliamentarian from Maryland, was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Taylor had been elected to the Senate from Idaho after a barnstorming career as a Western vaudevillian earned him the sobriquet "the handsome cowboy singer." Both men had become vocal foes of unbridled nuclear weapons development and indiscriminate disloyalty charges against dissenters from the cold war. And, in 1950, both Tydings and Taylor were up for reelection.
At the same time Senator Joseph McCarthy was in the midst of launching to new depths his crusade to depict a wide array of citizens and organizations as un-American and pro-Communist--a drive that was to put the word McCarthyism into the political lexicon as a synonym for unsubstantiated, scurrilous smear tactics. Only ten days after Truman's directive favoring the H-bomb, McCarthy delivered a famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, claiming that there were many Communists in the U.S. State Department. McCarthy's witch-hunting star was on the rise, with nuclear weapons enthusiasm and anti-Communist hysteria dovetailing nicely for him and his backers.
But, in 1950, Senator Millard Tydings unrepentantly advocated comprehensive disarmament talks to halt and reverse the nuclear arms race. He was one of McCarthy's prime targets. That autumn, running for reelection, Tydings went down to defeat in a campaign filled with charges that he had amiable relations with Communists and was not in favor of vigorously combating reds.
Glen Taylor, elected to the Senate in 1944, was given to committing serious breaches of contemporary political etiquette. In 1948 Taylor ran as the vice-presidential candidate on the Progressive Party's national ticket headed by Henry Wallace. Taylor's decision to run for vice-president came after a meeting with Truman, who expressed views favoring military confrontation with the Soviet Union--an approach that Taylor found appalling in the atomic age. The Progressive Party involvement clearly jeopardized Taylor's Senate career, and even his future ability to support his children and send them through school. "Well hell, honey, if there's an atomic war, it won't matter none if the kids are educated or not," Taylor told his wife.
During his unsuccessful campaign for reelection to the Senate in 1950 Taylor was called to account for his staunch opposition to nuclear boosterism; he was branded disloyal and worse. The sort of conduct that had made him a target was epitomized in a Senate debate two days after Truman's announcement that the U.S. was going ahead with the H-bomb.
"I feel that we have handicaps to overcome," Taylor told the Senate. "The fact that the evil influence of Dillon, Read & Co. was largely responsible for shaping our foreign policy and creating mistrust in many areas of the world, has placed us at a disadvantage." Taylor had committed a severe indiscretion. He had raised the issue of corporate control over U.S. nuclear policies.
The leading Wall Street banking firm of Dillon, Read & Co. was, in fact, well represented in the top echelons of the federal administration that brought the nuclear industry over the billion-dollar-a-year mark in 1950. Truman's secretary of defense, James V. Forrestal, was formerly president of Dillon, Read & Co.; William H. Draper, a high-ranking executive of the same firm, became undersecretary of defense.
Truman's appointee as the AEC's research director, Dr. James B. Fisk, was a former executive of Bell Telephone Laboratories. The AEC commissioners included Sumner Pike, who had been a Republican member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Lewis Strauss--a rear admiral and New York banker.
To astute financiers the late 1940s signaled prospects for huge profits to be made from nuclear investments. Fairchild, General Electric, and Monsanto Chemical were taking the lead in postwar corporate nuclear involvements. By the start of 1949 the list of postwar corporate investors had lengthened to include such major companies as Du Pont, Westinghouse, Standard Oil Development Co., Union Carbide, Kellex Corp., Blaw-Knox, and Dow Chemical. A cornucopia of government contracts was anticipated.
"ATOM BECOMES BIG BUSINESS AT BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR," blared a 1950 headline in US. News & World Report. "All across the country, research installations and industrial projects are to be built or expanded as part of the rapid growth of the atom into a big business. Hydrogen-bomb development will be fitted into this pattern."
There was talk, too, of developing nuclear power for electricity--a prospect that would evolve into the "Atoms for Peace" program a few years later. More certain to investors as the 1950s began, however, was the lure of nuclear weaponry.
152. New York Times, February 1, 1950.
153. Newsweek, February 13, 1950, p. 20.
154. Ibid., p. 19.
155. Raymond Swing, "Prescription for Survival," Nation, February 18, 1950, p. 152. For another contemporary critique of Truman's H-bomb decision, see Christian Century, February 15, 1950, p. 198.
156. Swing, "Prescription for Survival," p. 151.
157. For an example of the public arguments used to justify the H-bomb on grounds of earlier forms of brutality, see the 1950 essay by Robert F. Bacher, head of the California Institute of Technology physics department who had been a charter AEC commissioner, in The H Bomb, p. 142.
158. See Peter Collier, "Remembering Glen Taylor," Mother Jones, April 1977, pp. 43-53. For Senator Tydings' position on disarmament and ending U.S.-Soviet tensions, see Fleming, The Cold War, p. 527.
159. For news coverage of McCarthy and Tydings during this period, see Newsweek, July 31, 1950, pp. 25-29; also, Newsweek, March 5, 1951, p. 25.
160. Fleming, The Cold War, p 534.
161. Collier, "Remembering Glen Taylor," p. 48.
162. The H Bomb, p. 94.
163. Senator Brien McMahon, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, leapt up to chastise the errant Senator Taylor. "I cannot let go unchallenged the Senator's assertion that the foreign policy of the United States has been written by any banking firm be it Dillon, Read & Co. or any other firm," McMahon declared on the Senate floor. McMahon added: "We cannot tolerate without speaking up the attack which I feel has been made by the Senator from Idaho on the sincerity of our position, and which does not help the cause of peace." (The H Bomb, pp 94-95.) Idaho Senator Taylor had indeed touched a sensitive nerve.
164. Fleming, The Cold War, p. 437.
165. Business Week, March 15, 1947, pp. 38, 41.
166. In 1948 the Atomic Energy Commission sought suggestions on how to best draw in the private sector, setting up the "Industrial Advisory Group" headed by the president of Detroit Edison and including executives in such corporations as Standard Oil of Indiana, Gulf, and Babcock & Wilcox. See Newsweek, January 10, 1949, p. 63.
167. Business Week, March 29, 1947, p. 22.
168. Business Week, January 1, 1949.
169. U.S. News & World Report, February 10, 1950, p. 11.
170. The issue of corporate interests in perpetuating atomic development and the nuclear arms race is commonly viewed as a rather indiscreet subject--perhaps all the more so because of its critical importance. Within the nuclear weapons and arms control establishment even those individuals who have served as voices of moderation prefer not to talk about it publicly. Herbert F. York, director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory from 1952 to 1958, later served in prominent positions related to nuclear arms control under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. York became a fervent and articulate supporter of disarmament. Yet, in a book he wrote in the mid-1970s, York blamed the momentum of technology while disregarding corporate influence: "The possibilities that welled up out of the technological program and the ideas and proposals put forth by the technologists eventually created a set of options that was so narrow in the scope of its alternatives and so strong in its thrust that the political decision makers had no real independent choice in the matter." (The Advisors, p. 11.)
While stating that in his view responsibility for the cold war and arms race "is widely shared among the major powers of the world," York wrote "I do believe that the United States has pursued policies which caused the technological arms race to advance at a substantially faster pace than was really necessary for America's own national security." In diagnosing why this has happened, however, York sanitized the issue so that no one on Wall Street, in nuclear laboratories, or at government agencies need squirm: "The reasons for this are not that American leaders have been less sensitive to the dangers of the arms race than the leaders of other countries, nor that they are less wise or more aggressive. Rather, the reason is that the United States is richer and more powerful, and its science and technology are more dynamic and generate more ideas and inventions of all kinds, including ever more powerful and exotic means of mass destruction. In short the root of the problem has not been maliciousness, but rather a sort of technological exuberance that has overwhelmed the other factors that go into the making of overall national policy." (The Advisors, p. ix. )
"To What Extent Can We Trust Ourselves?"
With the twentieth century at its midpoint the United States geared up for a quantum leap in the magnitude and frequency of atomic bomb tests. Wrapped in the flag, the testing package grew bigger, costlier, and deadlier.
Even before the first of hundreds of U.S. nuclear test explosions took place in the 1950s, some nuclear scholars warned about the biological implications of large-scale atomic blasts. One of the first was Hans Bethe, a Nobel laureate credited with discovering energy mechanisms present within the sun--knowledge that proved integral to H-bomb development.
Bethe had served as director of theoretical physics at the Los Alamos laboratory during World War II. A professor at Cornell University, he and eleven other prominent physicists expressed deep concern about the H-bomb in a public statement issued at a Columbia University meeting of the American Physical Society, a few days after Truman's directive approving the new weapon.
In late February 1950 Bethe appeared on an NBC radio round-table discussion that provoked national controversy. When the moderator raised the question of radiation dangers from thermonuclear weapons, Bethe responded: "You are certainly right when you emphasize the radioactivity. In the H-bomb, neutrons are produced in large numbers. These neutrons will go into the air; and in the air they will make radioactive Carbon-14, which is well known to science. This isotope of carbon has a life of 5,000 years. So if H-bombs are exploded in some number, then the air will be poisoned by this Carbon-14 for 5,000 years. It may well be that the number of H-bombs will be so large that this will make life impossible."
Another panelist on the NBC program was Leo Szilard, a University of Chicago professor of biophysics who had been influential in getting the U.S. to embark on atomic development for military purposes at the start of World War II. A physics pioneer whose work on uranium's neutron emissions had made it possible to sustain chain reactions, Szilard posed a profound overview for the national radio audience to ponder. Said Szilard:In 1939 when we tried to persuade the Government to take up the development of atomic energy, American public opinion was undivided on the issue that it is morally wrong and reprehensible to bomb cities and to kill women and children. During the war, almost imperceptibly, we started to use giant gasoline bombs against Japan, killing millions of women and children; finally we used the A-bomb. I believe there is a general uneasiness among the scientists. It is easy for them to agree that we cannot trust Russia, but they also ask themselves: To what extent can we trust ourselves?Such talk from impeccably credentialed individuals, if widely disseminated, could have been a roadblock to the nuclear weapons testing program. David E. Lilienthal, who had just retired from his post as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, promptly denounced the scientists who had appeared on the NBC round-table radio show as "oracles of annihilation." Lilienthal, speaking at a Town Hall forum in New York City, warned that the "new cult of doom" was liable to bring about "hopelessness and helplessness. . . . And hopelessness and helplessness are the very opposite of what we need. These are emotions that play right into the hands of destructive Communist forces."
If physicists of Bethe's and Szilard's stature could be taken to task for warning the public about perils of radiation, less secure critics had better watch their step. Those running the nuclear machinery were anxious to make clear that they would employ derision and innuendo to fight anyone opposing atomic proliferation. Such pressure would be felt for decades to follow as scientists attempted to investigate the full implications of radiation effects on human health.
Dr. Szilard's unpleasant question, however, would prove prophetic for many thousands of Americans whose lives were forever altered by the mushroom clouds that followed his broadcast words: To what extent can we trust ourselves?
171. Science, February 17, 1950, p. 190.
172. The H Bomb, p. 112.
173. Ibid., pp. 118-19
174. New York Herald Tribune, March 2,1950; reprinted in The H Bomb, pp. 121-122.
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