Nuclear Frisson: Cold War Cinema and Human Rediation Experiments

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This essay seeks to illuminate the historical convergence between what was in the public domain and what was classified or kept "secret" regarding the many thousands of US citizens who were deliberately and systematically exposed to nuclear radiation as part of cold war research.

A strange synergy of suspicion, denial and disavowal is evident in the cold war Zeitgeist, and manifest in cinema of the time. As historian Michael Rogin has argued:

cold war cultural consensus produced political power in the 1950s. It helped build a national-security apparatus that survived the breakdown of the consensus and dominated the 1960s. By the time the cultural consensus stopped producing power. the powerful institutions were in place. We can see their genesis in our films.

In December 1993 when US Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Lear, was first briefed on the US program of cold war human radiation experiments, she was horrified. At a press conference called to announce the Department of Energy's declassification of this research she drew direct parallels with the Nazi doctors experimenting in death camps and the creation of the Nuremberg Code. At that point, however, O'Leary didn't know how close her analogy was.... It has since been alleged that Nazi scientists repatriated by the US Government (as part of Operation Paperclip) immediately after the European war ended were set to work by Manhattan Project scientists on human radiation tests.

My contention is that, contrary to the shock expressed publicly at these "new" findings, the American public was aware (at least subliminally) of this research for decades. The often critically maligned genre of science fiction which peripherally touched on, or subtextually questioned. the application of nuclear technologies from the 1950s and 1960s actually anticipated these "new" revelations. This following film survey is not meant to be exhaustive but is certainly representative.

But first permit me to outline the background to all this... More often than not, the victims of these radiation "crimes" were unwitting patients in the care of medical scientists. usually in "free clinics" or special institutions. They were frequently destitute, mentally incompetent, state prisoners or just downright poor. The target demographic includes a disproportionately high percentage of black Americans and native Americans, as well as geriatrics and children described as "retarded." Other unfortunates in the care of medical specialists were cancer patients injected without consent with doses of plutonium and uranium; pregnant women given experimental radioisotopes to test foetal absorption; or other hospital patients issued massive whole body exposure to radiation so scientists could calibrate their experimental machines or plan for fighting a nuclear war.

Although these are examples of some of the more odious experiments, quantitatively, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

So what is the national security state "cultural consensus" that Rogin points to which could permit these acts? Partly, it relies on an unacknowledged, ideological relationship between the military development and application of nuclear weapons and the simultaneous research, development and experimentation of so-called "peaceful" applications of atomic energy via medical research.

From the Manhattan Project's wartime rush to create a deliverable nuclear weapon through to contemporary "virtual" nuclear testing by the USA and others, a parallel technology has emerged.

In this postwar atomic epoch the disciplines of science and medicine have collided to create their own critical mass-a chain reaction which exploded in the development of radioisotopes and their experimental application.

Inextricably linked to weapons production, this invisible twin of atomic history, like a mutant DNA, has formed its own sites of proliferation, experimentation, contamination and fallout. …