A remarkable book by Eileen Welsome on her investigation of U.S. radiation experiments on Americans during the Cold War period
In 1987, Eileen Welsome, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and for a small newspaper in New Mexico, discovered radioactive animal carcasses in several dumps at the local Air Force Base. Her discoveries lead to more disturbing truths about America’s secret radiation experiments. Following her investigation, Federal agencies and military branches gathered approximately 6 million pages related to the American radiation studies. An investigative committee was appointed by the Clinton White House, and was comprised of members who were similar to the experimenters; they came from the same socioeconomic class, same colleges, and worked at the same universities that sponsored the experiments. Meanwhile, experiment victims came from a socio economic class that was mostly uneducated or poor.
While going through documents at the Air Force’s Special Weapons Laboratory, Welsome saw a footnote on “human plutonium experiment.” When she confronted the Department of Energy (a successor of the Manhattan Project) about the experiments, they refused to reveal the identities of people who involuntarily underwent experimentation; DOE’s refusal to release the documents violated the Freedom of Information Act.
After her persistent investigation, she found that a code name, CAL-3, was used for a patient from the plutonium injection experiments. Determined to find who CAL-3 was, Welsome began her lengthy and challenging crusade to reveal the truth about the unethical experiments on so many other Americans during the Cold War.
The targeted subjects for radiation experiments came from all races, ages, and sex. However, most were poor, uneducated, or ill. The victims included service men, pregnant women, single mothers, orphans, and prisoners, amongst others.
“A Pleasant Way to Die” by General Leslie Groves
In 1945, when Gen. Grove, who was in charge of Manhattan Project (the U.S. nuclear weapon making project), was called in to testify about the radiation effects of the nuclear bomb, he lied about the excruciating pain victims suffered from the radiation and commented that it was “a pleasant way to die”. Welsome wrote, “During the war, the bomb makers believed that lawsuits would jeopardize the secrecy of the project. After the war, they worried that lawsuits would jeopardize the continued development of nuclear weapons.”
The Vulnerable Victims who Lacked Social Power and Authority
Welsome continuously focused on victimhood with underrepresented social classes. Orphan boys at Walter E. Fernald State School in Massachusetts, were fed radioactive oatmeal. Several hundred women were given radioactive iron during pregnancy. The Heller program involved experimentation on prisoners in Oregon and Washington.
Medical treatment of receiving radium placed in nostrils for earaches to infected tonsils, were given to somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000 service men and total of 500,000 to 2 million Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The Atomic Veterans claimed the government exposed over 200,000 men over 200 atmospheric atomic and hydrogen bomb tests between 1945 through 1962, and devalued their lives knowing they were under military discipline.
Hazel O’Leary Prods Arrogant Bureaucracy Behind the Closed Door
Hazel O’Leary, U.S. Energy Secretary (1993-97), became the first government official to take great risk in dismantling the secrecy. Although the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments was unsatisfactory and apprehensive, the documents revealed that the atomic veterans were not told of their risk. Her efforts faced hostility from Republicans; Regan Administration compared her report to the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack.
O.J. Simpson Overshadows a Presidential Apology
In October 1995, what was supposed to be a historic moment of President Clinton’s condemning apology speech regarding the unethical radiation experiments was lost in the media frenzy regarding the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict. In the speech, Clinton acknowledged that, throughout the country, thousands of government-sponsored radiation experiments were performed at hospitals, universities, and military bases.
Welsome wrote, “Most Americans, in fact, paid little attention whatsoever to Clinton’s speech. “
Lessons to be Learned
With dedication by a writer from a small newspaper, and others who supported her courageous undertaking in revealing injustice by authorities, Americans were given a valuable opportunity to recognize genuine bravery by American citizens, outrageous government mishandling of its citizens and admittance of its mistakes followed by an apology. There were crucial lessons to be learned for the rest of Americans, except those whose lives were already lost from the experiments. However, to the author’s disappointment, most Americans preferred to sit and watch an enterprising medias’ sensational portrayal of a Hollywood murder trial, rather than facing a complex moral issue.
In the opening of her book, a quote reads;
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom “ – Thomas Paine, 1776, Common Sense.
Welsome’s “The Plutonium Files” teaches us crucial lessons to question authority demand their transparency, and be true to democratic values by protecting and working with all classes of society.
- Welsome, Eileen. The Plutonium Files- America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. New York: The Dial Press, 1999.