In the last century, the United States completed over one thousand tests involving nuclear weaponry. The majority of these experiments involved the deployment of US soldiers to either witness the event or clean up afterward. I was surprised to learn of the existence of these Atomic Veterans and only more infuriated when I learned of their struggle for recognition, ever since the first known test of the atomic bomb in 1945.
According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, “ During the early Cold War, the United States wanted to prepare servicemen for the possibility of a nuclear war and placed them only miles away from nuclear test detonation sites. Depending on the particular shot, servicemen were stationed approximately 6 to 11 kilometers (approximately 3.7 to 6.8 miles) away from ground zero during Operation Buster-Jangle in 1951. At the same time, the government also wanted to research the psychological impacts of witnessing these explosions. Psychiatrists were present before, during, and after tests to assess the psychological effects.” The government subjected hundreds of thousands of veterans to these tests in varying capacities, often giving them little or no protective equipment and woefully inadequate decontamination procedures following. Additionally, some of the first known atomic veterans were part of the crews sent in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to help clean up the two cities.
Getting an exact handle on how big of an effect this work has had on the Atomic Veteran community’s overall health is challenging. For a long time, these veterans were not allowed to mention their participation in these tests, despite health effects showing up almost immediately after their involvement. According to Stars and Stripes, “ Until 1996, the atomic vets were sworn to silence, forced to keep their burdens from their families, their friends and doctors. They had limited records and medical help for their illnesses, and faced a threat of prison if they revealed the secret too soon.” Congress passed its first effort to compensate these service members several decades after the fact in 1988 and only after a group of veterans sued the Veterans Administration to force them to provide compensation to thousands of veterans denied care over the years. Nevertheless, even today, stories of cancer and other horrifying health complications abound. Regrettably, many of these veterans’ children show signs of health defects that are likely tied to their parents’ involvement in these tests.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton offered an apology on behalf of the US government admitting that, “ the United States government actually did carry out on its citizens experiments involving radiation” and ultimately resolving that “ those who led the government when those decisions were made are no longer hear to take responsibility for what they did…So today, on behalf of another generation of American leaders and another generation of American citizens, the United States of America offers a sincere apology to those of our citizens who were subjected to these experiments, to their families, and to their communities.”
Human Radiation Experiments Report
President Bill Clinton commented on the final report on human radiation experiments conducted by the federal government…
These tests and experiments seem more at home in games like Fallout or dystopian science fiction novels than in real life. Still, it’s just a testament to the slippery slope of dogmatic notions like “the greater good” and “national security.” If these ideas are seen as sufficient justifications, what roads can the government permit itself to go down when they are the ones defining what reasons qualify as justification.
The National Association of Atomic Veterans estimates that hundreds of thousands of veterans across America still today are unaware their oath-of-secrecy has been lifted or that there is now some compensation available through the government for service-connected, radiation-induced illnesses. It’s a depressing notion when viewed in the light of the calcifying vigilance seen around the world when it comes to the non-proliferation and dismantling of nuclear weapons.
Originally published at https://robertpotter.co on November 24, 2020.