Downwinders: Some Casualties of the Nuclear Age

by Thomas Powers


by Carole Gallagher.

MIT. 427 pages.



by Michael D’Antonio.

Crown. 304 pages.


IN retrospect it is clear that the Atomic Energy Commission gave the game away when it canceled or postponed bomb tests at the Nevada Proving Ground if the wind was not blowing in “the right direction.”How could there be a “right" direction? The AEC insisted for a dozen years, from 1951 to 1963, that no danger was posed to the local population by the detonation of 126 nuclear devices. The U.S. government has insisted in court, on numerous occasions in the years since, that atomic debris carried by the wind had nothing to do with the dead and deformed sheep, the children with hyperthyroidism or leukemia, the women with breast cancer and the men with lung cancer. or the litany of vague complaints of weakness, nerves, muscle pain, shortness of breath, and chronic fatigue repeatedly cited by a host of citizens of Nevada and Utah who came, in time, with quiet irony, to refer to themselves as “downwinders.” If the millions of their fellow citizens in the vast Los Angeles megalopolis were in the “wrong” direction from the atomictests in the atmosphere, just what was right about the sparsely settled desert communities to the north and east of the wasteland known as Frenchman Flat?

The wind was often right in the spring of 1953. Four times in the months of March through May sheepherders in Utah saw the sky light up to the south and west. A kind of smoky haze would later pass over them, heading north and east. One morning just after a test called Harry, in mid-May. the Bulloch brothers of Cedar City were in camp, preparing to drive their sheep from winter pasture to the lambing sheds at home, when Army technicians wearing protective gear approached their wagon. “You guys are in a hot spot here,” the Army men said. “You better get these sheep out of here.”
This advice was timely but not helpful. The only way to get the sheep out was to walk them out. That took twenty-five days. On the way the ewes began to lose lambs—not just a few, but hundreds. The Bullochs had never seen anything like it. When the ewes succeeded in carrying to term, the lambs were often born dead— “some,”according to McRae Bulloch, “with their hearts outside of their bodies, skin like parchment so you could see right inside to their organs.”
The story was repeated in many parts of Nevada and Utah that spring: lambs aborted, lambs born dead or deformed, sheep with muzzles burned and blistered, sheep with their wool falling out, black sheep with strange white patches, sheep that couldn’t walk, sheep that lay down and died. Like many of their neighbors, the Bullochs were left at the end of the lambing season with a great pile of sheep carcasses. Nothing remained but bones by the time AEC scientists finally showed up to check for radiation with a Geiger counter. “Is it hot?” one scientist asked. “Is it HOT?” came the reply. “It’s so hot this needle just about jumped the pole!”
The Bullochs were pretty much wiped out by the death of their sheep in 1953. Representatives of the government made vague noises about compensation but nothing was forthcoming. Two years later the Bullochs joined six other ranchers in a suit against the federal government for recovery of their losses, but government lawyers successfully argued that the problem was malnutrition, not fallout. If the AEC could persuade a federal judge that poor feed was all that ailed thousands of sheep with muzzles blistered from grazing meadows in the direct path of a cloud of atomic fallout, then there was not much hope for a fair hearing of the inherently vaguer claims of human ills—that five cases of childhood leukemia in a town of 2,000, let us say. was at least four too many.

CLAUDIA Peterson, one of the witnesses cited in Carole Gallagher’s powerful American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War, grew up on a farm outside Cedar City, Utah, not far from the Bullochs’ ranch. When she was three or four, she saw a fireball from an atomic blast on the horizon but she thought it was a flying saucer. She saw the piles of dead lambs but she thought it was in the natural course of things for some lambs to be born dead or with two heads or without legs. It didn’t occur to her that the flying saucer might have anything to do with the dead sheep. Later, when she was in the sixth grade, a boy in the fifth died of leukemia. That was in the natural course of things too. So was the fate of another boy two years later, who had a cancerous leg amputated and then died. When she was in high school, the mother of her best friend died of cancer, and then Peterson’s sister, Cathy, was hit by a kind of cancer blizzard of tumors in her liver, lungs, brain, and breast. Peterson thinks it was her sister’s death, at last, of melanoma that finally pried out of her the question, Why all this cancer and death? The answer became clear following the illness of her own daughter, Bethany, years and years after the flying saucer and the dead sheep. It began when Bethany was three and had a pain in her stomach, variously diagnosed by doctors in St. George. Utah, where Peterson and her daughter were living at the time, as constipation, anemia, and growing pains. In fact it was a tumor the size of an orange. Bethany did not get better, but the diagnoses did. Eventually doctors in Salt Lake City told Peterson that her daughter had stage-four neuroblastoma; they were right, and Bethany died of it, resolving Peterson’s last doubts about the causes of the cancer epidemic. Peterson told Carole Gallagher, “Oh. I’d just like to stand up and scream, “Do something you dumb people, they’re killing us!'”

This is what is know’ll as anecdotal evidence—that is, it is not evidence, because it is anecdotal. It does not prove anything. Gallagher’s book is full of it. In fact, anecdotal evidence is the only kind of evidence Gallagher really cites. Each story is accompanied by a full-page black-andwhite photograph, usually of the storyteller. These are like the pictures Richard Avedon takes when he takes pictures of ordinary people. They are generally headon, stark, high-contrast, brutally detailed portraits, although a few are in effect still lifes, like the photograph that accompanies the testimony of a woman named Kay Millett. It is shot from above. Two pictures of Millett’s daughter Sherry and an old AEC booklet are arranged on a lace runner on a table. The AEC booklet is open to a drawing of a goofy-looking hayseed holding a Geiger counter. One of the pictures shows Sherry at perhaps three, a beaming, pudgy blonde baby in a sailor’s blouse. In the other Sherry, four, about to die of leukemia, has ballooned up like the fat lady in the circus. The photograph is a little hokey but dignified withal; all the same, it’s anecdotal evidence.
Gallagher is clearly determined to make the most powerful and damaging case she can that the federal government recklessly threatened the health of those citizens of Nevada and Utah with the bad luck to live downwind of the proving ground and is therefore morally responsible for forty years of death and suffering, but she goes about this task, for the most part, in a cool and restrained manner. There is a lot of talk about quite horrific things—a deformed human fetus like a bunch of grapes, for example—but with a few exceptions we do not see them. One exception is a sad and gentle portrait of a man who has had much of his face carved away to remove cancers, leaving him looking strangely like a question mark. The rest of Gallagher’s photographs are straightforward portraits of men and women who lived downwind, or worked for the AEC with nuclear materials or in nuclear environments, or had the bad luck to be among the 250,000 soldiers and civilians who took part in aboveground tests to prove that a conventional war of battle and maneuver could take place on a nuclear battlefield. Their stories are almost all sad accounts of illness and death or of years and years of just plain feeling like hell for no discernible reason. They are all anecdotal and don’t prove anything. It’s like the story, cited by several of Gallagher’s witnesses, of Howard Hughes’s last film. The Conqueror, shot in Utah in 1954. “As you know,”said Elmer Pickett, a mortician in St. George who took Susan Hayward’s twin boys fishing during the shooting of the epic, “that cast, the majority of them died of cancer.” Hayward played a tempestuous maid who captures the heart of Genghis Khan, played by John Wayne. She died of brain cancer, and Wayne died of stomach and lung cancer. There’s something grimly fascinating in the idea of a film cast and crew dying one by one of cancer, as if struck by the mummy’s curse. But it’s still anecdotal evidence; it doesn’t prove anything.

WHAT the downwinders in Nevada and Utah went through was pretty much repeated by those who lived near the nuclear-reactor complex in Hanford, Washington. Their ordeal also began with an epidemic of deformed sheep and included the standard casebook of cancers and vaguer disabilities. Michael D’Antonio’s Atomic Harvest is an account, scrupulously fair, of the unfolding public debate throughout the 1980s over health hazards posed by the Hanford complex. Some of these hazards were dramatic. The release of 19.000 pages of official records in 1986 included reports of what amounted to an experiment conducted on the public at large in the final three months of 1949. The process for separating plutonium from uranium was deliberately speeded up in a way that multiplied the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere; measurements in the surrounding area showed levels of radioactive iodine as great as eighty times the maximum considered safe. The purpose of the so-called green run was to establish experimental data that could be used to estimate plutonium production in Soviet reactors, and thereby help American intelligence analysts to estimate how many bombs the Soviets were building. Whether the green run caused any cancers is impossible to say, just as it is impossible to say whether any particular heart attack has been provoked by secondhand cigarette smoke, a diet heavy in saturated fats from hot dogs and french fries, or plain bad luck in the genetic draw.

Decades of scientific claim and counterclaim, in and out of court, have failed to establish precisely how radiation causes cancer and other ailments, and especially how much radiation is too much— a frontier referred to as a threshold. The AEC and its successors have insisted that the threshold is relatively high; some scientists say it is low, and perhaps does not even exist at all—meaning that a population’s exposure to any level of radiation, however slight, will always result in some incidence of cancers. John Gofman, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bomb, later did a study of radiation effects for the AEC which found a very low threshold. If the whole U.S. population were exposed to the maximum “safe” dose. Gofman said, cancer deaths in the United States would increase by about 16,000 to 32,000 a year. This was not what the AEC wanted to hear, and Gofman soon stopped getting government contracts. A study of the Hanford area in the late 1980s showed that over the years more than 20,000 local children could have received dangerous doses of radioactive iodine with the potential for causing thyroid cancers and other problems. Did it happen? A fair observer might conclude that it probably did. A fair observer might conclude that the case is not proved. D’Antonio says of one investigative journalist’s work, “As with virtually every piece of objective reporting on the nuclear debate, the articles reached no firm conclusions.”
But on two things all fair observers must agree: First, the AEC expressed its innermost convictions on the relationship between fallout and human health every time it canceled a test because the wind failed to blow in the “right” direction. And second, the extent of every radioactive threat posed to downwinders, the record of warnings recommended but never issued, the health histories of employees of the AEC, the details of plant operations and fallout from nuclear tests, the map of hot spots measured at one time or another in virtually every state in the union, the horror stories of radioactive wastes casually dumped, have all had to be dragged out of stonewalling officials pleading national security. It is only in the past few months, under the new Secretary of the Department of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, that the file keepers have at last begun to let go of the secrets wholesale. It is not hard to see why they waited so long. Secret radiation experiments on unsuspecting human beings—retarded high school students among them—violated the rules of medical ethics in the 1940s just as they would now. The AEC understood from the beginning that the domestic production and testing of nuclear materials depended on the sufferance of the public, which in turn depended on ignorance. Gallagher reports that President Dwight Eisenhower “is alleged to have said, ‘We can afford to sacrifice a few thousand people out there in the interest of national security.'" It is hard to imagine that Eisenhower could have been dumb enough to say that. A little evidence supporting this claim would have been helpful. But there is very little doubt that official Washington was prepared at least to run the risk of a few thousand deaths in the interest of national security. Downwinders take this as gospel. “They knew it caused cancers,” Pat Broudy, a founder of the National Association of Radiation Survivors, told Gallagher “They knew it could cause birth defects, but they felt it was worth the sacrifice of a few men for the good of the country.” Gallagher and D’Antonio have cited cases of sacrifice in plenty, but did the country get any good out of it?

SOON after the Soviet Union closed the railways and highways connecting West Germany with the combined American, British, and French zone of occupied Berlin, in June of 1948, President Harry Truman presided at a White House meeting to consider the Allied response. Truman and his advisers believed that weak Allied military forces were confronted by a huge Soviet army in East Germany. Only one credible threat was available to keep the Soviets at bay—nuclear weapons. Deeds, not words, conveyed the threat: a fleet of American B-29 bombers, of the sort modified during the war for delivery of huge, bulbous plutonium bombs like the one that destroyed Nagasaki, was ostentatiously dispatched to a British airfield within range of Moscow, The B-29s carried an implicit message.

But did the B-29s carry bombs? At the close of the meeting at which this step was decided on. Truman was approached by the assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, who told the President that the Berlin emergency found the USAF in an embarrassing situation: no bombs were available to load aboard the licet of bombers. The current model of the plutonium bomb, called the MARK III, required two days of assembly by a crew of forty-eight technicians; most of the bombs carried on the AEC’s inventory books were lying about in pieces. However, Whitney added, turning to the good news, the USAF did have some practice bombs, called “pumpkins,” which were identical to the real thing in size and shape. These could be loaded aboard the B-29s in the full glare of secrecy until genuine bombs could be assembled to replace them. Whether this was done is uncertain. But the dispatch of aircraft was certainly intended and perceived as a nuclear threat. The result was a standoff—no attempt by the Americans on the ground to fight their way through to Berlin, an airlift that kept the city supplied, and eventual Soviet acceptance of Berlin’s division and a halt to the blockade, very likely encouraged by fear that any military attempt to seize the city would prompt atomic retaliation.
The lesson was not lost on the U.S. government. An inability to match Soviet forces man for man on the ground, for the simple reason that no democracy could tax itself so heavily for arms in “peacetime.” might be compensated for by huge stockpiles of atomic weapons, which were cheap compared with conventional armies. That, in a sentence, is the history of the arms race at the heart of the Cold War. American nuclear weapons were the counterweight to Soviet armies.
The Soviets understood this equation, of course, and attempted to neutralize American nuclear weapons with their own, thereby regaining the decisive edge promised by their huge conventional armies. In pursuit of this will-o’-the-wisp the USSR built scores of thousands of nuclear weapons of dozens of types, but the Americans always remained one jump ahead, with increasingly sophisticated weapons and credible strategies for using them. The testing that dumped radioactive fallout on both sides was the by-product of a whirlwind technical evolution of nuclear weapons from the nearly live-ton behemoth that destroyed Nagasaki to adjustable-yield warheads small enough to fit in the nose of an artillery shell. Early weapons just slammed together lumps of fissionable material; later developments exploited the geometry of implosion, for example, to enhance yield, making weapons smaller and cheaper. The plain-vanilla gravity bomb of 1945 became a whole warehouse of varied weapons, each with its own special purpose; clean bombs; dirty bombs: bombs that burrowed into the earth, seeking underground command posts; bombs that went off undersea, seeking submarines; bombs that went off high over the earth, to fry the brains of electrical devices with a huge shower of electromagnetic pulses; bombs that killed tank crews with radiation but didn’t flatten towns or cities; bombs delivered by guidance systems so precise that they could destroy anything with a known location on or near the surface of the earth. (For information about what the weapons designers were testing over the past four decades see Volume II of the Nuclear Weapons Databook: U.S. Nuclear Warhead Production, published by Ballinger in 1987.) The results of this tireless invention were weapons powerful enough to threaten human life on the planet, a fact not quite realized by those in command of the weapons. There were several years in the mid-1980s when the human experiment could have ended in a day. Peaceniks and pessimists would not have been surprised, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have been astonished. They thought nuclear weapons were weapons, not instruments of doom.
The worst failed to happen. In fact, things worked out even better than American officials had dared to hope. The threat of atomic retaliation bred caution on both sides, and none of the many small wars of the era grew into a big war. But what really amazed the peaceniks and pessimists, of whom I was one, was the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s under the financial strain of keeping up. American plans for a spacebased system for defense against missile attack, popularly called Star Wars, threatened to neutralize the trillion-dollar strategic rocket forc-es built by the Soviets since their humiliating retreat during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. After a few years of blustering protest and dire threats the Soviets, under a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, considered the zillion-dollar price lag for a space-based defense system of their own, confronted the empty Soviet coffers, and dropped out of the business of being a superpower. The full history of this amazing turnabout awaits free access to Soviet archives, but it is already clear that both the beginning and the end of the arms race at the heart of the Cold War were intimately related to the progress of nuclear invention.
Where does this leave the downwinders of Nevada and Utah, who feel betrayed by their country? It was nice to be on the winning side, but nuclear testing poisoned the air they breathed, the grass eaten by their sheep and cattle, the milk drunk by their children. Some numberno one knows how many—of the aborted and deformed babies, the cancerous thyroids, the leukemias and tumors suffered by the downwinders. were wounds and deaths suffered in the battles of the Cold War. But there have been no battle ribbons, no military funerals, no thanks or, until the recent revelations, even simple recognition. Is this just the grudging hardheartedness of governments? Or is there something peculiarly American in the downwinders’ belief that they have been willfully mistreated and Washington’s insistence that it has done nothing wrong and has no questions to answer?

JUST before the Second World War the literary critic Philip Rahv published an essay titled “Paleface and Redskin,”in which he argued that American styles, attitudes, and concerns came in two classic types—those of the gentle, feeling, discriminating moralists he called “palefaces,” and those of the confident, loud, impetuous celebrants of America he called “redskins.” Rahv was interested in the way this split in the national psyche played itself out in our literature, but the fissure is easily mapped in our politics and history as well. On the one side is yearning idealism, on the other hard realism. The Abolitionists who brought on the Civil War were palefaces; the men who fought the Civil War and preserved the Union only to abandon the freed slaves at war’s end were redskins to the core. So it is with labor unions and robber barons, One Worlders and America Firsters, social workers and hanging judges, those who prosecuted Nazis at Nuremberg and those who hired them as intelligence agents, doves and hawks, environmentalists and clear-cutters, those who take the side of victims like the downwinders and those who sacrifice the few for the many, without explanation or apology. You can persuade some Americans that the downwinders were callously abused for no reason at all, and you can persuade some Americans that a resolute military posture and a willingness to confront Soviet expansionism won the Cold War at a modest price, all things considered. But each of the two groups seems unable to grasp what the other is getting at. Gallagher and D’Antonio have written sad chapters in the paleface history of the Cold War. The redskin history, when it is written, will excuse all by the victory.