UNDUE RISKS:Secret State Experiments on Humans.
THE PLUTONIUM FILES:America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964) was not the only piece of gallows humor generated by the Cold War. Affixed to the eight-ton blast door that sealed off an I.C.B.M. launch-control capsule in South Dakota was a sign that parodied the slogan for Domino’s Pizza: “World-Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less … Or Your Next One is Free.”
That door and sign are scheduled to assume a prominent place in the recently created Minuteman National Historic Site, High Country News has reported; the twenty-five-acre unit will comprise a deactivated Minuteman II missile silo, launch-control facility, and interpretative center, the purpose of which will be to narrate the history of the American land-based nuclear arsenal, explain why the system of 450 single-warhead missiles served as President John F. Kennedy’s “ace in the hole,” and offer visitors an opportunity to reflect on a strategy that led the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the strategic engine that drove each nation’s military ambitions, and with which Kubrick had such fun, also traumatized the emotional landscape. Tim Pavek, who is overseeing the deactivation of the Minuteman II program in the Dakotas, grew up on the northern Plains and vividly remembers “lying in bed, with the windows open, waiting to go to sleep, only to have the silence broken by the distant rumble of the B-52 bombers taking off from Ellsworth Air Force Base.” As the roar intensified, then diminished, he wondered “whether or not the planes would ever return, whether if, within minutes, we would see fireballs of Soviet nuclear bombs detonating over western South Dakota.”
Pavek’s trauma, like the military hardware he is charged with decommissioning, can be converted into heuristic material, tools by which to teach Isaiah’s prophetic chant: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares / And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation / Neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). But Isaiah’s pre-industrial vision can only take us so far in the Atomic Age. Not all war matériel can be turned into museum pieces – what, after all, can one do with plutonium?
Like the welling up of Pavek’s memories, the toxic debris of the Cold War is surfacing, a reminder of a very troubled past that will remain with us for a half-life to come. Take two examples of varying danger. The hundreds of underground nuclear tests that exploded below the surface of the Nevada Test Site beginning in the mid-Fifties did not just rock the state. But it is only recently that federal and academic scientists have been able to prove that the residue of plutonium 239, which the Atomic Energy Commission had assured the public would remain trapped in bedrock, has created contaminated plumes within a regional aquifer. One estimate suggests that what The New York Times described as “a witch’s brew of radionuclides” within a decade could threaten well water in populated areas of south-central Nevada.
Potable water is jeopardized as well in areas adjacent to other major military installations that mushroomed in size and importance in the Cold War. Beneath the massive Air Force complex on San Antonio’s south and west sides – home to Brooks, Lackland, and Kelly bases – flows a less-toxic cocktail of pollutants. But its potency has registered on local health statistics, not that the Air Force would admit a link between its sloppy disposal of jet fuels and other contaminants and the high level of associated diseases within nearby working-class neighborhoods. As with the Nevada site, recent independent studies of a shallow aquifer flowing beneath Kelly have revealed its radiant state. To say the least, mopping up after the war is going to be a long-term and very expensive proposition.
Yet rectifying environmental devastation is only part of the federal government’s obligation in the aftermath of that dirty little war. It also must come clean about its secret experiments on the human body and cloaked assaults upon human dignity.
How disturbingly appropriate, given the crud that is pooling beneath some of its bases, that San Antonio is the site of one of the cells of deceit exposed in The Plutonium Files and Undue Risk. By name, The School of Aviation Medicine (SAM) sounds as innocuous as its pioneering work on aeromedical evacuation and flight nursing was benign. Certainly that is the impression one gets from a description of the school in a base-produced history of military aviation in the city: when the new, expanded aeromedical facility was built in the late Fifties at Brooks A.F.B., “it contained all the necessary elements for medical research, teaching and clinical treatment. By linking these together, the center could test, discover, and disseminate improved procedures for the care of flyers.” Those improvements, when placed in the context of the frenzied scientific research at SAM into the blinding flash of an atomic bomb, take on a more ominous note. “Should the central vision of a soldier or airman be temporarily disabled and the visual acuity reduced below 20/400,” worried a recently declassified document that Welsome cites, then “he becomes useless as a fighting man and easy prey to the enemy and potentially a danger to his own forces.”
Hoping to understand and minimize those dangers, the school embarked on a series of experiments during which, Moreno reports, “various methods were used to ensure retinal exposure at various distances from the blast site.” Conducted between 1951 and the early 1960s, the testing continued even after, in Welsome’s words, “the military officers and their scientific colleagues knew with certainty that the flash from the atomic bomb could cause permanent eye damage, even blindness.” Their duration – in the field and laboratory – suggests something of their compromised ethics; reproduced beyond need, the tests’ subjects were not always aware they were subjects. Although some participants recalled signing consent forms (something that did not regularly occur in many of the other human experimentation programs), not all did. The needs of the military took precedence over the civil rights of service personnel; that decision directly violated the Nuremberg Accords that American judges had established to forestall the replication of the heinous experiments Nazi doctors conducted on concentration camp inmates.
Guess who helped structure the ophthamological tests at SAM? While serving on President Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, Moreno unearthed documents indicating that “large numbers of German ophthalmologists were assigned to the School of Aviation Medicine … at a time that research on flash blindness from atomic weapons was a significant operational concern.” One of the key imports was Hubertus “Strugi” Strughold. Director of the Aeromedical Research Institute in Berlin during the war, he stoutly denied any connection to the Nazi Party. His visa application went further to mask his wartime activities: “Subject was regarded as an absolute professional man whose main interest was aero-medicine. He was a bachelor who led a retired life.” Casting doubt on these monastic claims are 1947 intelligence reports: “His successful career under Hitler would seem to indicate that he must be in full accord with Nazism.” Just how full emerges in a slip of the tongue Strughold recorded on his visa application in response to a question about why he wanted to emigrate. The “United States is the only country of liberty which is able to maintain this liberty and the thousand-year-old culture and western civilization.” As Moreno drily notes: “It is news indeed that American civilization dates to the first millennium, but perhaps Strughold was thinking of the racial legacy of certain Aryan tribes.”
This wandering Nazi was royally embraced in his new home: “a pampered guest of the U.S. Army,” Strughold was one of the earliest recruits of the top-secret project dubbed Operation Paper Clip. So titled because American intelligence officers would place clips on dossiers of those German scientists who might be helpful in the coming struggle with the Soviet Union, it allowed the military to rewrite documents, revise life histories, and then smuggle Strughold, Werner Van Braun, and many others with less than desirable records, past President Truman’s commitment, encoded in immigration rulings, to keep “ardent Nazis” far from our shores. With Paper Clip, the military subverted presidential authority, and established unparalleled sovereignty within the Executive Branch.
Just as troubling as this violation of the constitution are the questions that Moreno and Welsome raise about the implications of the growing cabal of Germans in San Antonio. Strughold, who was tapped to head the department of Space Medicine at SAM in 1949, vigorously recruited his former Berlin colleagues. Is it possible that those who were linked directly or indirectly with the brutal concentration camp experiments (and Strughold had been briefed on them) continued their work in the United States – and on American soldiers, at the behest of our military? Careful not to speculate beyond the evidence, the two authors are nonetheless rightly suspicious of motive and behavior. Welsome, whose Pulitzer-Prize winning reports for the Albuquerque Journal on secret Cold War experimentation triggered the 1994 Clinton Administration’s investigations, spotted a damning reference in a report that Konrad Buettner, one of Strughold’s peers, had authored. A member of the S.S. and a major in the Luftwaffe, he had conducted human experiments in the Arctic, Sahara, and the Belgian Congo – not exactly Aryan turf. One of his projects in south Texas was to pinpoint the impact of an atomic flash on “White and Colored Human Skin.” Using differently pigmented pigs as stand-ins, he trained intense beams of light on their skin, and discovered that those with “black” skin blistered, blisters that then exploded, after four seconds; those pigs with “white” skin did not blister even after ten seconds. The significance of these differing reactions “in civil defense is obvious when one considers the close microscopic similarity of black pig and heavily pigmented human skin.” In the SAM labs, Nazi racial theories and Jim Crow ideology easily converged.
The authors may miss that particular connection, but they do not miss much else. As a physician, Moreno is especially concerned with the ethics of the state experimenting on its citizens, and his short book offers a lengthy indictment of a military establishment all too unalarmed by its actions. Journalist Welsome, pursuing governmental negligence, uncovers a shocking number of deceptions designed to deflect criticism and fend off inquiry. Their books will leave readers with a sickening sense of national failure. In fighting evil with evil, we damaged our integrity and corroded our soul, the very context that gave Strangelove its dark comedic thrust.
Contributing writer Char Miller teaches American history at Trinity University and is editor of the forthcoming anthology, “Water in the West” (Oregon State University Press).