1950s Nuclear Tests Were Aimed at Easing U.S. Soldiers' Fears but Health Risks Were Played Down, Papers Show

By Robert Burns Of The | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 2, 1995 | Go to article overview

1950s Nuclear Tests Were Aimed at Easing U.S. Soldiers' Fears but Health Risks Were Played Down, Papers Show


Robert Burns Of The, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


TROOP EXERCISES during nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s were designed to convince soldiers that their fear of radiation was irrational, to give them "an emotional vaccination," newly declassified Pentagon records show.

It has been known for decades that soldiers were deliberately exposed to radiation during exercises starting in 1951 at the Nevada nuclear test range. The newly available documents open a window into the reasoning of military leaders about how far to go in using military personnel in the tests.

The basic judgment, as reflected in the records, was that soldiers had an exaggerated fear of nuclear radiation after Hiroshima. The solution was to put military personnel in foxholes near ground zero of nuclear bomb blasts and then move them even closer after the shock wave passed.

Little consideration was given to longer-term health risks. The focus was on the short term, to erase what one general in a 1951 report called a "combat unfavorable psychology."

In a newly declassified Pentagon briefing paper dated Feb. 27, 1953, the purpose of the indoctrination effort was described this way:

"To remove from the minds of the troops - and therefore to a degree from the minds of other persons in the services with whom they will later come in contact - the folklore and superstition regarding atomic explosions, . . . particularly effects connected with nuclear radiation hazards."

Military leaders felt this psychological manipulation was essential because of their belief that nuclear war with the Soviet Union could begin at any time. The Army then was envisioning a war in which nuclear weapons would be used on the battlefield.

The formerly secret Pentagon papers are among thousands of pages of documents of the now-defunct Armed Forces Special Weapons Project that have been declassified by the National Archives at the request of The Associated Press. The Weapons Project coordinated the armed forces' role in nuclear arms development.

Deaths and injuries caused by the two U.S. nuclear bombings of Japan - Hiroshima and Nagasaki - in 1945 gave rise to worry among soldiers and the general public about the dangers of radiation.

"Fear of radiation is almost universal among the uninitiated, and unless it is overcome in the military forces it could present a most serious problem," Dr. Richard L. Meiling, chairman of the Pentagon's Armed Forces Medical Policy Council, wrote in a June 27, 1951, memo stamped "top secret."

He recommended putting combat troops 12 miles from ground zero and them moving them closer after the explosion. In fact some military personnel later were placed just 2,000 yards from ground zero.

A June 3, 1952, memo suggested placing military personnel only 800 yards away.

Greg Herken, who is with the presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, said the U. …

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