AN AMERICAN VIEW

Learning to grow up and tell the big lie

FRED BRUNING January 31 1994
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Learning to grow up and tell the big lie

FRED BRUNING January 31 1994

Learning to grow up and tell the big lie

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

Anyone who thinks the United States is not yet a mature nation— that it is too naïve to rate the serious consideration afforded European states—had better listen up, and listen up quickly. As 1993 expired, a sequence of disclosures proved once and forever that American government has acquired in a mere two centuries the knowhow and sophistication critical to running any massive bureaucracy—namely that Washington can prevaricate, dissemble, deceive, withhold and otherwise alter the truth with the most clever of its overseas elders.

When a government takes questionable action without consent of the governed, a great cynical sickness is apt to develop

Of particular interest now are the remarkable—and largely unpublicized—federally sanctioned efforts in atomic warfare testing and radiation experimentation that began in the 1940s and, in some instances, continued until 1990. According to Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary (a government official of such candor and courage, by the way, that one marvels at her continued survival), U.S. authorities during those years OK’d more than 200 nuclear explosions and a variety of spooky tests on the citizens they were sworn to protect and preserve. It was all done in the name of science and national security—a blanket so ample that it could easily cover the Capitol rotunda, with enough surplus to swaddle the White House as well.

The specifics seem lifted from the script of a campy, if unconscionable, horror movie. Terminally ill patients were injected with plutonium. Prisoners on the West Coast had their testicles irradiated as part of a sterility survey. For a 10-year period, authorities fed a group of mentally retarded children radioactive minerals in order to better understand human metabolism. More than 700 pregnant women were persuaded to pop radioactive pills. Oh, the labs were exciting places in those days, all right.

So, too, the nuclear test sites. Government

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

reports confirm that radiation was secretly released during at least a dozen atomic experiments conducted in New Mexico, Tennessee and Utah. At the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Richland, Wash., officials often spritzed the surroundings with radioactive matter, and, in one case, uncorked a quantity of radioactive iodine-131 in order to test their tracking devices. Underground, military geniuses triggered hundreds of nuclear bombs without telling the public. The final below-level test occurred in 1990, as though to celebrate the imminent dissolution of the Soviet Union—which, after all, had inspired the program in the first place.

Of course, since so little was known about the dangers of nuking the human organism, Americans drafted as subjects had no way of assessing the risks. Even now, there isn’t much sense of how dangerous—or benign—those early experiments proved. The government file on the matter is god-awful thick, but Secretary O’Leary and the Clinton administration promise a speedy investigation and seem ready to pay damages where circumstances demand. Money cannot retrieve lost health, however, nor can it uplift the communal psyche. When a government

takes perilous action without consent of the governed, a great cynical sickness is apt to develop. And make no mistake, Americans are not immune.

Almost from the beginning, there were warnings that human experimentation— even if high-minded—had a diabolical and destructive aspect. In 1950, well-known biologist Dr. Joseph G. Hamilton sent a memo to a senior Atomic Energy Commission official decrying lab procedures that had “a little of the Buchenwald touch”—a reference to the bellicose testing programs carried out by Nazi Germany. Hamilton said the AEC “would be subject to considerable criticism” for exposing Americans to radiation—no matter what the intent.

But the government plunged ahead, as governments so often do. Over the years, news of one test or another would show up in scholarly journals, congressional transcripts, newspaper articles—even in medical textbooks—but not until O’Leary addressed the issue did the scope of the nuclear experiments and atomic testing become clear. Health authorities now are debating the perplexing ethical riddles involved. What is the morality of using scientific data gained by questionable means? But there can’t be much discussion about the emotional impact of the secret U.S. tests. They hurt.

Little more than a generation ago, Americans had an endearingly innocent view of power and those who pull its levers. No more. Vietnam and Watergate demanded that we abandon childish ways and so we did. Mischief in the radiation lab and below the earth’s once-sacred surface does not really come as a surprise, but rather affirms what Americans have known for a quartercentury: that subterfuge is the friend of politicians and an enemy of the people.

The opportunity for deception is unbounded. Towards year’s end came word that Washington had lied pathologically about matters pertaining to one of our dauntless client-states south of the border. Documents showed that as late as 1990, U.S. military personnel had been involved in training “death squads” in El Salvador—a most peculiar form of foreign aid. Other material confirmed that officials in the government of Ronald Reagan were aware that Salvadoran troops slaughtered hundreds of peasants in the town of El Mozote in 1982. The Reagan-Bush gang was cited again last week in a final Iran-Contra report that portrayed them as masters of misinformation. Standard operating procedure, you say? What’s the big deal?

There is no big deal—and that’s the sad thing. So politicians lied? So they blew up a couple hundred bombs without mentioning the risks? So we treated mentally retarded kids to a radioactive hot-lunch special? So we dipped some poor slob’s private parts in isotope stew? So we taught our buddies in Salvador how to thin the population? This is the way adults do business and, in case no one noticed, America has come of age.