Cold War Crimes
An Interview with Author Eileen Welsome
By Dennis Domrzalski
OCTOBER 18, 1999: They are the men and women who made it possible for the world to go boom, for flesh to melt off bones, for vomit and diarrhea to flow in rivers from humans, and for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to be instantly incinerated.
They are the men and women who helped build the world's first atomic bomb. You've heard of some of them: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Gen. Leslie Groves. But there are others in this saga whose names should be as familiar to Americans, because, for better or for worse, they helped alter the world in a huge way, in a way that is perhaps too staggering to comprehend. They are the military people, scientists and doctors who gave us plutonium and all the potential horrors that has come with it -- Glenn Seaborg, Stafford Warren, Joseph Hamilton, Kenneth Scott, Louis Hemplemann, Hymer Fridell, Patricia Durbin, Shields Warren and "Mr. Plutonium," Wright Langham.
One of the horrors of plutonium was the stunning disregard that the scientists, doctors and generals who developed the bomb showed for their own ethical standards. In her new book, The Plutonium Files, Albuquerque reporter and author Eileen Welsome details those stunning ethical lapses, which were, Welsome says, made in the name of patriotism, public relations, self-promotion, elitism and arrogance.
The cornerstone of those lapses was the infamous plutonium injections, beginning in 1945, when American doctors injected 18 unwitting Americans with radioactive plutonium. Those Americans were not the elites. They were house painters, railroad porters, blacks, housewives, widows, children, the uneducated, those afflicted with illness and disease and those who were erroneously thought to be terminally ill. Perhaps it was because they were on the bottom rungs of the social ladder that the scientists never bothered to tell the plutonium subjects that they were being used as human guinea pigs and that their veins were being filled with a deadly radioactive material. The plutonium experiments led to more medical radiation experiments in the 1950s and 1960s, during which the subjects were never told what was being done to them. More than 200,000 American servicemen were made to watch A-bombs explode, fly through radioactive clouds and "wash" radiation off Navy ships.
Eileen Welsome: I think that they were good people, good people who got carried away by trying to do right. They were so filled with the idea -- they had to be during the Manhattan Project -- that this bomb was important to winning the war, which it obviously was. So they were imbued with this highly patriotic fervor. And I think that after the war, as the Cold War deepened and the fear of communism grew, they were imbued with this idea that they had to keep the nuclear weapons program going to keep the world safe for democracy. So they were patriots who went awry. They were patriots who got carried away. They're not the first group of doctors and scientists who that has happened to. And that goes directly to the epilogue of my book in which I say that the price of democracy is vigilance, and I'm not the first to say it. That's why we need the public to know what is going on in these secret enclaves, like Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Labs, Lawrence-Livermore and other weapons sites.
EW: What I have come to learn is that everything associated with the atomic bomb, from the building of the bomb to the dropping of the bomb to the development and the deployment of the bomb, has been cloaked in controversy, secrecy, and to a certain degree, deception. What I was most struck by in reading these documents, whether they came from a military agency or from Los Alamos or from the Nevada Test Site, was this consistent desire to protect the weapons complex from lawsuits and embarrassment. It was something that was endemic throughout the weapons complex, and I got to thinking that there was not a lot of litigation going on at that time. There weren't lawyers on every street corner looking for a job. We weren't suing McDonald's for spilled cups of coffee.
EW: In all of the thousands of documents that I have looked at, the things they have kept secret were things that would embarrass them or bring lawsuits. They were not things that involved national security. There was only one document involving one experiment in which a classification official said, "This has to be kept secret in the national interest." The reason they kept it secret was because they were trying to cover their own butts. It was not for national security purposes. It was to protect themselves. It was to protect their unethical science, to protect their unethical projects, to keep the subjects that they used from learning what was done to them.
EW: When my series [for The Albuquerque Tribune in 1993] broke, a lot of scientists said, defending these experiments, that the ethics of the time were different. They said that ethics then weren't as developed as [they are] today. Well, I went back and looked at the documents. The Advisory Committee [President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments] came up with hundreds of other documents, and what those documents show clearly is that this idea of getting informed consent to do something to somebody is a very old idea, and that dating back to the 1890s, the American Medical Association was warning doctors that before they did an experiment they needed to get the individual's informed consent. There are records from the military dating back to the 1920s showing that they were recommending that doctors and scientists get the informed consent of patients to do an experiment on them. It's a common sense thing. As one doctor put it, he said this was the gilded age of research in the American laboratory, and coincidentally, with the explosion of experimentation, you had the Nuremberg Code that had been issued at the end of the Nazi doctors' trials in Nuremberg. The first rule of the code is that you can't do an experiment on somebody without getting their consent.
EW: They violated it repeatedly. What a lot of doctors said in these oral histories in 1994 and 1995 is that they didn't think the Nuremberg Code was for them, that it was something that was created for barbarians and that American doctors were not Nazis.
WA: The code wasn't just for "barbarians" or Nazis, was it?
EW: No. Of course it was for all doctors and scientists. But there is a big debate about the Nuremberg Code in academic circles. There are some doctors today who say that if we really had to follow the Nuremberg Code we couldn't do any human experiments.
Human experimentation is unsettling and disturbing to me, but I believe it has to be done. The only way we can make advances in science and medicine is by using human guinea pigs. I think, though, that in order for it to be done ethically you have to get volunteers to agree to be guinea pigs. I have talked to a number of bioethicists about it. You have to be blunt. You basically have to say to somebody, if you want them to participate in your experiment, "Listen, I want you to be a guinea pig. And what I'm going to do isn't going to help you, and it's not going to eradicate your disease and it may even hurt you, and it may shorten your life. But we really need this information. Are you willing to do that?" They would get subjects, and it would be difficult, but that is the only way to do that ethically.
EW: That's a really complicated question, and I don't think I can answer that. That is very subtle and goes way beyond my expertise.
EW: There were somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 veterans used in these atomic tests between 1947 and 1962. One of the major driving forces of the atomic maneuvers in Nevada was to prove that ground zero could be occupied soon after detonation. Another driving force was to inoculate the American people into understanding that this was just another piece of ordnance, that one atomic bomb wasn't going to set the atmosphere on fire, that we could survive an atomic war. So a lot of the maneuvers in Nevada were done to show Mr. and Mrs. America that the bomb was not as dangerous as they thought and to get soldiers used to it.
Well, how many bombs do you need to do that with? I mean, they detonated something like 1,030 bombs. There are documents showing that by 1955 they had gained every bit of knowledge they could from the veterans, short of putting them at ground zero, and yet they continued to put them in harm's way until 1962. They did the same tests over and over and over again, year after year after year, exposing more and more veterans.
EW: I think that when the Manhattan Project doctors went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki they were just shocked by what they found, that it left a deep and lasting impression on them. First of all, the cities were rubble, and people were still dying. This was not like machine-gun fire. They [The Japanese] were getting sick to their stomachs. The first-aid stations were slick with vomit and diarrhea. Their hair was falling out. They were getting pneumonia -- men, women and children. They suddenly realized the horrific implications of this new weapon. And I also think it had [an impact] on future research. Imagine a war where everything is destroyed and people are working with their hair falling out and vomiting. They have gangrene in their throats, blood pouring out of their noses, blood pouring out of their ears -- every orifice. It's just horrendous. Imagine a war like that. Soon after that, the military clamped down on information that was coming out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I think that had the world been able to see that or understand the depths of this damage and this aftermath, they definitely would have put the bomb under international control. So I think that by covering this stuff up they did a big disservice to humanity. I mean, the Indians and the Pakistanis [should know that] there is nothing romantic about a nuclear bomb or its aftermath. It's awful.
EW: I think the sophistication of the media has grown over time and the aggressiveness of the media has grown over time. And I think that in the 1950s, reporters, just like the general public, believed and accepted what they were being told. It was a different era. People were kinder and gentler and more trusting.
EW: That's a difficult question, because each patient, each experiment had its own horrific or distinctive set of events. For example, I found that the prisoners who had their testicles irradiated in the maximum security facilities in Washington state and Oregon, I found those to be incredibly brutal experiments. Those experiments were coercive.
According to the prisoners, the doctors did not inform them. The apparatus they used was extremely crude. Imagine lying face down over essentially two orange crates glued together. They laid down, dropped their testicles into a little cup of water, and then the x-ray machine was turned on, and they were blasted. Sometimes the inmates controlled the irradiation machines. Sometimes the doctors weren't even there.
EW: No. I have to say that the people themselves who were the subjects, and their families, were the real heroes because they battled a faceless bureaucracy. They fought years to get these little piles of information from the federal government. They just never let it go. To me, they were the heroes. They kept slogging through the peanut butter looking for the truth. And I think the atomic veterans are heroes. They have been very mistreated by the government.
EW: I felt that the Committee organized and coordinated the documents that President Clinton had required the federal agencies to release, so I thought they were a good organizing point for that. I feel that their final report has a lot of valuable new information, but I also feel that their conclusions were very weak, and I feel they failed to deal with the most controversial experiments. They issued some broad guidelines about experiments in general, but they claimed they did not have time to do the fact finding of specific studies, and I thought, quite frankly, that was a cop-out.
The people who investigated these experiments are very nice people. But they were part of the academic and scientific elite in this country, and they were not to issue any radical notions for reformation. And in that sense, I feel like they really squandered an opportunity to really dig deep into this whole era of nuclear weapons and the military/civilian complex and really, really make some far reaching pronouncements. And they failed to do that. Essentially they maintained the status quo. I found some of their conclusions breathtakingly arrogant and cold.
EW: It is a class thing. In America we don't like to talk about class. But we do have classes and they are growing more distinct every day. The doctors were equally culpable. One doctor who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission was interviewed by the Advisory Committee, and he was talking about informed consent and the way it was in the 1940s and 1950s. He said "Doctors who were doing research wanted to be professors. And in order to be a professor you have to have lots of publications. So your highest priority is to conduct research and publish it. You're the doctor. Here's a patient that you want to experiment on. Is it going to contribute to your research if you inform that patient? What can happen is the patient can say, 'No, I don't want to do that.' That's not in your interest. Your interest is to have the patient participate. So do you tell him or her? No. Does anybody care? No. So you don't tell them. That's why [ethics rules] were ignored. Because there is a conflict between informed consent and the ability to conduct research. And the physician is interested, not in the patient's welfare, he is interested in his or her own welfare. So he doesn't inform them."
The thing that was galling to me was [the scientists' and doctors'] willingness to subject human beings to their studies. The arrogance of that was unbelievable. Who were these people to decide that other people, not themselves, should be sacrificed to science in the name of the country?
Not only was it the government, it was these elite academic institutions that were just as culpable. These academic institutions made a lot of money on these experiments [and] got a lot of recognition.
EW: I really understand the bomb and its role in our world in a way I never did before. I think I have a unique perspective on it. And I think for those who read my book from cover to cover, it is going to change their thinking, too. I am proud to have put on the record the stories of these individuals. They have been captured forever. And in 50 years' time, long after I'm dead, somebody can read about this. I have captured a little piece of history and time. I'm really proud of that. Everything else aside, that is good enough for me. ?
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