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Weekly Alibi America's Dark Atomic Past

Eileen Welsome's "The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War"

By Dorothy Cole

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Eileen Welsome received a Pulitzer Prize for a series about plutonium testing on humans that she researched and wrote while at the Albuquerque Tribune. This volume picks up from there, both chronologically and in subject matter. Historians like to divide human history into dynasties and eras, and the third quarter of this century is often called the Atomic Age. This book examines the human side of that phenomenon. Those who ushered in the age were individuals with certain prejudices and enthusiasms. These are their stories.

The newspaper series mostly focused on the point of view of the human subjects, unwitting players in the years of testing. Here the camera takes a more varied viewpoint, alternating close-up portraits of the subjects and their families with shots from the lives of the doctors, chemists and other researchers, as well as soldiers and bureaucrats, who planned and carried out the experiments.

The Plutonium Files is a definitive reference book for a significant chapter in modern history. The index and notes are well-organized and easy to use, but the main text stands on its own. In story form, the information is organized chronologically within sections, detailing related events.

Many of the stories are as sad as they are frightening. As in any large project, different constituencies had different priorities. Accidents occurred, with horrible results. The doctors were genuinely concerned about the possible effects of exposure to plutonium and other radioactive materials on soldiers and workers in the nuclear industry. Politicians and military leaders had other concerns. In their naive pursuit of a method to measure exposure, the doctors themselves did terrible things to innocent people. But Welsome shows them not as mice or monsters but as imperfect humans.

The desire for secrecy, rational in the context of weapons development and impending war, became a guiding force in its own right. After bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, secrecy was as much a public relations issue as a requirement of national security. The United States didn't want to look like the bad guy, and experts expected nuclear weapons to be used alongside conventional warfare. Military planners worried that anxious soldiers might be reluctant to march into fresh fallout zones.

It is hard to remember now, but the accepted wisdom used to be that it was possible to win a nuclear war. The school district where I grew up held bomb drills where all the children crouched in basements and windowless hallways. We were ready. It wasn't until the early 1970s that the general public began to show real doubts about the wisdom of policies like "first strike capability" and "nuclear readiness."

In that context, the belief in medically acceptable, even beneficial, exposure was natural -- for the general public, that is. The researchers had known better for years. In the book they appear not malevolent but narrowly focused and capable of great ethical lapses in judgment. They were caught up in a great thing, and too many of them just focused on humanity in the abstract while disregarding individual humans.

Many decisions backfired. Patients assumed to be on their deathbeds got up, went home, and lived with plutonium in their systems for years. One regimen after another was based on the ingestion of plutonium by mouth to track the substance's passage through the body, even though ordinary exposure would likely be through respiratory or tactile contact. And the secrecy that was supposed to prevent public hysteria helped to create a climate of paranoia and distrust of the government.

Welsome could have chosen to write only history, exposé, ethical studies or a series of linked cautionary tales. What she has done is bring all of those together, and come out with a whole richer than those parts suggest. She uses few adjectives and renders almost no judgments. The facts are there to speak for themselves, and the tale they tell is damning to the medical, scientific and military establishment. (We already knew the one about politicians and ethics.)

Years of meticulous research went into this volume, but it began simply: Someone asked questions. It's amazing what a wealth of information a few persistent inquiries can ultimately yield. (Dial Press, hardcover, $26.95)

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