Thursday, October 7, 2010

“The Good War”: Our Nuclear Shame—and It’s Not What You Think!

Recent stories in the news about discoveries that the U.S. had performed medical experiments on unknowing Guatemalans back in the 40s reminded me of Studs Terkel’s book “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II. I will explain why shortly. If you are not familiar with Terkel’s books you should try this one. His approach is an excellent way to view history—from the bottom up. Terkel lets a variety of people tell their own stories about the war and how it affected them. Almost all the speakers are people you have never heard of—people you would pass on the street and never notice. But they were people who had remarkable stories to tell.

Towards the end of the book several tales are told by servicemen who were caught up in nuclear weapons activities. One tells of hearing the announcement that an “atomic bomb” had been dropped on Nagasaki, followed by the conclusion that “it will be a hundred years before anyone can return to the city.” A few weeks later he was on a transport ship and was told that his unit would be occupying Nagasaki. As for the “hundred years,” he was told “Don’t worry about it, the scientists said it was safe.” I doubt that the “scientists” actually said that, but someone had decided that they needed troops in Nagasaki and that was that.

The story Terkel told that I want to focus on relates to the use—or misuse—of servicemen in nuclear weapon experiments. The military assumed that nuclear weapons would play a role in the next war. They wanted to know how to fight that war with such weapons. That required experiments that put the war fighters in harm’s way— many received large doses of radiation.

From our vantage point it is easy to take umbrage at the decision to conduct these experiments, and at the decision to use the bombs on Japan in the first place. I long ago decided to be unhappy about it, but to not be judgmental. I think these are cases where you had to be there at the time to understand the emotions, the constraints, and the motivations. Terkel includes in his Introduction this quote from Archibald MacLeish written in 1949.
“Never in the history of the world was one people as completely dominated, intellectually and morally, by another as the people of the United States by the people of Russia in the four years from 1946 through 1949. American foreign policy was a mirror image of Russian foreign policy: whatever the Russians did, we did in reverse. American domestic politics were conducted under a kind of upside-down Russian veto: no man could be elected to public office unless he was on record as detesting the Russians, and no proposal could be enacted, from a peace plan at one end to a military budget at the other, unless it could be demonstrated that the Russians wouldn’t like it. American political controversy was controversy sung to the Russian tune; left-wing movements attacked right-wing movements not on American issues but on Russian issues, and right-wing movements replied with the same arguments turned round about.....”
In other words—you really had to be there.

I used the word “shame” in the title to this post. Here is where the shame begins.
“In earlier testing years, particularly in the North Pacific region of the Marshall Islands, military participants were required to sign agreements, in which they promised not to discuss their mission. Violators were subject to a $10,000 fine and/or a ten-year prison sentence. It was not uncommon for armed personnel to be present during the signing. One of the participants recalled being warned that if he violated the agreement, he would never live to see the world outside of Leavenworth. Fearing retaliation, men went to their graves without revealing even to their families that they had participated in nuclear arms weapon tests.”
That quote is from a book titled Countdown Zero written by Thomas H. Staffer and Orville E. Kelley.

The agreement that the soldiers were forced to sign had nothing to do with security—but it had everything to do with secrecy and protecting the military from medical claims from the participants. I suspect the secrecy was required because the military was afraid that if rumors got started that in a nuclear war everyone dies, they would have a hard time getting people to show up.

Terkel allows John Smitherman to tell his story about his service and how he was affected by this military mindset.

John joined the Navy in July, 1945. He was told that his ship and crew would participate in something called Project Crossroads. There were about 40,000 Navy personnel involved in this project.
“We were advised there would be nothin’ harmful. Just a lot of excitement and have a lot of fun.”
Project Crossroads was a Navy operation designed to demonstrate that Navy ships could survive in the environments associated with a nuclear war. They collected about a hundred old ships and docked them in the lagoon at Bikini Atoll. An airburst and an underwater explosion were planned. The air burst went first. One of the ships had animals on board to assess the effects on humans. It caught fire putting at risk the animal experiment. John volunteered to go on board with a party to fight the blaze. Within ten hours of the blast he was at ground zero where he spent three hours battling the fire.

The underwater explosion was a disaster. It spewed an enormous spray of contaminated water and sea bottom sand and muck all over. John and his companions were sprayed with water containing bomb debris and had to be scrubbed down.
“The scientists came aboard with their Geiger counters. We still didn’t know what they were doin’. In ten hours, we were right back again on ground zero. There was a lot of confusion going on. There’s a bunch of guys got caught goin’ swimming the second day and they were punished for it. But again, there was no restrictions for us. We had a lot of fun over there, we really did. We didn’t think of anything wrong.”
Many of the target ships were heavily contaminated. Sailors were sent in to scrub the ships down because it was necessary to demonstrate that Navy ships could be cleaned up and go on fighting. If you go here you can see pictures of sailors dressed in their normal work clothes and armed with mops and buckets of water trying to clean these ships the same way one would if a can of coke had been spilled on deck.

John soon noticed about a half dozen burns on his feet and legs, and his legs began to swell. He was given some salve and bed rest. The bed rest helped but he was not able to wear shoes. He was hospitalized and given tests. He was told that he had kidney problems and was given a medical discharge. When Terkel interviewed him in the late 70s John was in a wheel chair. He had lost both legs, one hand was swollen to three times normal size, and he was suffering from terminal cancer. The Veterans administration was quite willing to amputate his legs and invited him to return so that they could amputate his arm, but they never admitted that his illnesses had anything to do with his military service. All he received as compensation was a “nonservice connection disability.” Because his wife had an income, his disability check came to $5 a month.

John told Terkel that when word got out about his problems he was contacted by the Japanese. They told him they had methods for treating his symptoms and would help him if he could get over there. Local people raised money for him and some Californians paid to send a doctor with him to Japan. He was welcomed and treated like one of their nuclear survivors. He spent a month receiving whatever treatments they provided for their own people and benefited from them. He returned and wanted to continue the treatments in the U.S. The Veterans Administration refused to allow it and continued to deny that his problems were service related. If they had approved the treatment, there would have been thousands more like him who might have demanded help. So he went untreated.

John died in 1983.

It was estimated that over 200,000 military personnel were involved in these weapon tests. The Orville E. Kelly quoted above formed a group called the National Association of Atomic Veterans. They still maintain a modest website. If you visit you will discover that in 1996 Congress finally recognized that perhaps something was amiss and revoked the secrecy agreement.

It only took fifty years.

Yes—there is plenty of shame here.

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