Image: Nuclear explosion 1 millisecond after detonation – from the Tumbler-Snapper test series in Nevada, 1952

The period from 1947 to 1991 is often referred to as the “Cold War” – so named because the main protagonists possessed massive nuclear arsenals but never engaged in direct military conflict.  Despite the threat of mutually assured destruction the period was very far from ‘cold’ and has been described as the ‘secret nuclear war’.  As well as the many indirect confrontations, via proxy wars, the second half of the twentieth century saw a sustained and regular use of powerful atomic weapons.  Between July 1945 and July 1996 there were over 2,000 nuclear explosions worldwide with 25% of these taking place in the atmosphere: over 400 of these atmospheric explosions were conducted by the United States and Soviet Union; about 20 by Britain[1]; 50 by France and over 20 by China.  As a U.S. Congressional investigation of the Atomic Energy Commission stated ‘The greatest irony of our atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of US nuclear weapons since World War II have been our own people’.

In many respects the post 1945 era of nuclear testing was a ‘Hot War’ where nuclear muscularity was signified to potential enemies by demonstrations on home soil (or on the soil of territories unable to resist the ‘opportunity’ to partake).  The victims were more than likely the citizens of their own country – the civilian ‘downwinders’, service-personnel  who were intentionally exposed to nuclear blasts or science staff.  The secrecy surrounding the nuclear testing programme reveals the uneasy relationship between science, politics, national security and medical research.  Governments in effect launched undeclared and secret wars on their own peoples.  For all of the years when nuclear atmospheric testing took place it was denied that radioactive fallout from bombs had any harmful effect on health – sometimes it was even claimed that fallout was beneficial.  Anyone who challenged this was subjected to a campaign of disinformation that questioned their motives in the strongest terms.  Downwinders and those working on the test projects, were continually told that there was no danger and even encouraged to watch fallout clouds by coming outside of their homes, to ‘participate in a moment of history’.  One of the military personnel involved in the test programme, a Colonel Langford Harrison, summed up the secrecy prevalent at this time:

That’s what war is, a calculated risk.  You know somebody is going to get killed. . . Some may die of cancer, some may be all right, we don’t know.  No one’s ever done it before but we’ll take the risk for the evolvement and improvement of the weapon system.  The information was either withheld purposely or accidentally, but I have to say purposely. . . The whole thing was fraught with peril and danger and they knew it was, and this I resent quite readily.

Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) documents show that the downwinders, living in Utah and Nevada, were defined as ‘a low use segment of the population’.  Bomb tests were always timed so that the wind was in the ‘right’ direction — towards the populations of Utah and away from those of Las Vegas and Los Angles (however the wind often changed and radioactive clouds drifted over all major population centres in the US).  One official when questioned about the practice of waiting until the wind blew to Utah before testing bombs, said, ‘those people in Utah don’t give a shit about radiation’.  The combination of secrecy and repeated assurances that all was well led many to believe they had been used as secret guinea pigs.  Martha Bordoli Laird, living in a sparsely populated part of Nevada, was typical.   She knew many locals who had died of cancer (including her own two children):

I could name a hundred people living along that line where someone, somewhere has died of cancer.  I mean around this area. . . I will always believe that fallout had a lot to do with it.  No way, in my mind, will ever erase that.  We are the forgotten guinea pigs.

When in 1957 she wrote to her senator asking for information about her son’s death she received the following reply:

A large segment of the scientific world is in disagreement with the government’s nuclear testing program. . . This has resulted in a fallout scare. . . The President has questioned these reports coming from a minority group of scientists. . . it is not impossible to suppose that some of these ‘scare’ stories are communist inspired.  If they could get us to agree not to use the only weapon with which we could win a war, the conquest of Europe and Asia would be easy.

It is easy to imagine that the people who lived in the vicinity of the test nuclear sites were thought to be expendable as they were subjected to intentional exposure and misinformation. Eugene Hayes, a security guard was ordered to within a quarter of a mile of ground zero after a nuclear explosion to ‘guard’ plutonium balls. The media became interested in his case and before a press conference he was put under pressure to withhold facts about his case.  If he agreed that it was his fault and that he had taken a wrong turn, then he would be offered a job for life.  His widow Sarah recalled what happened at the press conference:

A woman from Sweden asked him, “How can you be so stupid as to go down the wrong road?”  He just broke down and cried, he couldn’t even answer her.  They closed off the mikes then. . . Gene worked about a month and they let him go.  Gene asked, “What about the promise of a lifetime job?” Captain McIntyre said, “Prove it”.  I’m talking about callous men, not men with compassion.  Things quieted down, Gene was no longer news, the tests were going on, other people were irradiated.  We were never right.  They were always right.

Despite the secrecy and suppression of information about of nuclear testing it gradually became acceptable to discuss the adverse health effects of radioactive fallout.  In 1955, after a test detonation, Drs. Ray Lanier and Theodore Puck from the University of Colorado Medical Center issued a press release stating their opposition to testing.  In response the AEC maintained that the radioactivity was ‘inconsequential’.  However the Governor of Colorado had stronger criticisms calling their statement an ‘organised fright campaign’ and demanding their arrest.  Others claimed that their warning was part of a communist propaganda plot to disadvantage America in the arms race.  In 1956, during a Presidential Election campaign, an atomic scientist, Ralph Lapp warned about the cumulative effects of strontium-90 from fallout.  The Democratic hopefuls, Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver, made opposition to nuclear testing a campaign issue but went on to lose against Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Their campaign was not helped by Kefauver’s outlandish claim that nuclear testing could knock the earth off its axis.

In 1963, despite opposition from the AEC, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty came into effect to stop atmospheric testing.  But still the relationship between radioactive fallout and ill-health was denied by the AEC.  Matters came to a head with the research of Ernest Sternglass who had spent years following leukaemia deaths, stillbirths and infant mortality.  In 1968 he presented a paper showing that the infant mortality rate had declined steadily except after periods of nuclear testing – the implication being that fallout was deadly to children.  In 1969, despite ominous warnings to the editor that it would be a ‘grave mistake’ to publish, his paper appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Shortly after a lay version written, by Sternglass, appeared as a lead article in Esquire under the title ‘The Death of All Children’ – the ‘AEC had been completely blindsided’.

Meanwhile the iconoclastic Dr. John Gofman, the director of Livermore Laboratory’s medical department and his assistant Arthur Tamplin had been trying to determine the minimum safe level of radiation damage thresholds.  Their research appeared to show shocking results – there was no safe minimum.  After presenting their findings to an obscure meeting of electrical engineers they were summoned by the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), Chet Holifield.  In a tense meeting Gofman made it clear that they stood by their numbers at which point Holifield exploded ‘listen, there have been others who have tried to cross the AEC before you.  We got them and we will get you’.  In January 1970, Gofman and Tamplin, formally appeared before the JCAE and in the space of an hour presented overwhelming evidence that three decades of atmospheric nuclear testing had exposed many millions of people to ill-health, cancer, leukaemia, thyroid and lung disease.  Shortly after this Gofman and Tamplin left Livermore and the future funding of their research was cut – their academic careers were effectively over.

By this point the tide had turned against the AEC.  The sixties had just finished, the Vietnam War was at its height and anti-government political sympathies were running high.  The AEC began to appear as a feckless bureaucracy that was callous to the question of nuclear safety.  In 1974 it was abolished and its duties devolved to other agencies.  But this period of nuclear folly touched and continues to touch everyone’s health on the planet.

Un-cited material for this post comes from two sources:

Carole Gallagher (1993) American Ground Zero: Secret Nuclear War, MIT Press: Cambridge


Richard Lee Miller (1986) Under the cloud: the decades of nuclear testing, The Free Press: Woodlands


[1] At one point there were serious plans to conduct an atmospheric nuclear explosion near Wick in Scotland.