July 15, 2010

Greg Mitchell: Secrecy, Cover-ups and Deadly Radiation: On the Birth of the Nuclear Age 65 Years Ago

While most people trace the dawn of the nuclear era to August 6, 1945, and the dropping of the atomic bomb over the center of Hiroshima, it really began three weeks earlier, in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, with the top-secret Trinity test. Its sixty-fifth anniversary will be marked — or mourned, if you will — tomorrow, July 16.

Entire books have been written about the test, so I’ll just touch on one key issue here briefly (there’s much more in my book with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America). It’s related to a hallmark of the age that would follow: a new government obsession with secrecy, which soon spread from the nuclear program to all military and foreign affairs in the cold war era.

In completing their work on building the bomb, Manhattan Project scientists knew it would produce deadly radiation but weren’t sure exactly how much. The military planners were mainly concerned about the bomber pilots catching a dose, but J. Robert Oppenheimer, “The Father of the Bomb,” worried, with good cause (as it turned out) that the radiation could drift a few miles and also fall to earth with the rain.

Indeed, scientists warned of danger to those living downwind from the Trinity site but, in a pattern-setting decision, the military boss, General Leslie Groves, ruled that residents not be evacuated and kept completely in the dark (at least until they spotted a blast brighter than any sun). Nothing was to interfere with the test. When two physicians on Oppenheimer’s staff proposed an evacuation, Groves replied, “What are you, Hearst propagandists?”

Admiral Williams Leahy, President Truman’s chief of staff — who opposed dropping the bomb on Japan — placed the weapon in the same category as “poison gas.” And, sure enough, soon after the shot went off before dawn on July 16, scientists monitored some alarming evidence. Radiation was quickly settling to earth in a band thirty miles wide by 100 miles long. A paralyzed mule was discovered twenty-five miles from ground zero.

Still, it could have been worse; the cloud had drifted over loosely-populated areas. “We were just damn lucky,” the head of radiological safety for the test later affirmed.

The local press knew nothing about any of this. When the shock wave had hit the trenches in the desert, Groves’ first words were: “We must keep the whole thing quiet.” This set the tone for the decades that followed, with tragic effects for “downwinders” and others tainted across the country, workers in the nuclear industry, “atomic soldiers,” those who questioned the building of the hydrogen bomb and an expanding arms race, among others.

Naturally, reporters were curious about the big blast, however, so Groves released a statement written by W.L. Laurence (who was on leave from The New York Times and playing the role of chief atomic propagandist which he called the greatest “honor” that could come to a newspaperman) announcing that an ammunition dump had exploded.

In the weeks that followed, ranchers discovered dozens of cattle had odd burns or were losing hair. Oppenheimer ordered post-test health reports held in the strictest secrecy. When W.L. Laurence’s famous report on the Trinity test was published just after the Hiroshima bombing he made no mention of radiation at all. Instead he hailed the birth of the atomic age, likening the Trinity blast to God declaring, “Let there be light.”

Even as the scientists celebrated their success at Alamogordo on July 16, the first radioactive cloud was drifting eastward over America, depositing fallout along its path. When Americans found out about this, three months later, the word came not from the government but from the president of the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, who wondered why some of his film was fogging and suspected radioactivity as the cause.

Fallout was absent in early press accounts of the Hiroshima bombing as the media joined in the triumphalist backing of The Bomb and the bombings. When reports of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki afflicted with a strange and horrible new disease emerged, General Groves, at first, called it all a “hoax” and “propaganda” and speculated that the Japanese had different “blood.” Then the military kept reporters from the West from arriving in the atomic cities, until more than a month after the blasts, when it controlled access in an early version of today’s “embedded reporters” program.

When some of the truth about radiation started to surface in the US media, a full-scale official effort to downplay the Japanese death toll — and defend the decision to use the bomb — really accelerated, including the deep-sixing of footage of the survivors shot by an American film crew, leading to an effective decades-long “Hiroshima Narrative.” But that’s a story for another day.

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