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Educators Recommended Resources Nuclear Film Nuclear Frisson, Cold War Cinema

Broderick, Mick, "Nuclear frisson,  Cold War Cinema and Human Radiation Experiments." © Mick Broderick 1997

This paper 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'Leary 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. The following film survey is not meant to be exhaustive but is certainly representative.

But first permit me to outline the background to all this...

Researchers (circa 1946) at the AEC Donner Laboratory place an experimentaal patient into a Boron neutron chamber.

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.

Mirroring the rapid cold war military testing of atomic energy around the world, the emerging nuclear medical technologies exposed unwitting civilian underclasses, the dispossessed and colonised indigenous peoples.

Like the poisonous H-bombs exploded across the globe, the 'fallout' from these human radiation tests was also lethal, invisible, and deliberately targeted against disempowered or 'disposable' populations.

Medical researchers frequently worked under the same cloak of secrecy their military partners routinely employed to 'defend democracy'. They deceived civilian participants who were deliberately misled, not competent to give informed consent, or were taken from captive populations.

US President Eisenhower's international program 'Atoms for Peace' was meant to be the benign flip side of the nuclear coin--a propaganda means by which to reassure an increasingly alarmed public of the benefits of atomic energy. Instead, as the experimentation reveals, the coin was merely two-faced.

The secret blueprints for the inculcation of domestic nuclear programs and anti-communist propaganda--NSC-68 and The Hoover Commission--argued for the use of mass media to indoctrinate the American public for overt political purposes. Chillingly, the 1950 National Security Council directive stated:

The only deterrent we can present to the Kremlin is evidence we give that we make any of the critical points [in the world] which we cannot hold the occasion for a global war of annihilation.

This doctrine ensured that, at the slightest hint of any area of US strategic interest around the globe coming under Soviet influence, American nuclear superiority and the unparalleled threat of genocidal atomic warfare would be paraded to deter any potential change in the balance of global hegemony (pax Americana).

Similarly, at the start of the cold war the Hoover Commission asserted:

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human behaviour do not apply. If the US is to survive, longstanding concepts of 'fair play' must be reconsidered [...] we must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.

So what strategies were employed by the Commission to 'acquaint' the American people and to persuade them to 'support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy', one where 'Hitherto acceptable norms of human behaviour do not apply', and where 'There are no rules'? Did filmmakers of the period knowingly aid and abet this agenda, or did some exploit generic convention, such as science fiction, to suggests official involvement in human nuclear experimentation?

A key text in this discussion is the 1952 Universal Pictures production, The Atomic City, made under the strict supervision of the FBI and Atomic Energy Commission, and partly filmed on location at Los Alamos. The film opens with archival footage of the Trinity and Hiroshima explosions and AEC sanctioned newsreel shots showing in great detail the vast array of security in and around the Los Alamos facility. The prologue concludes with a mock newsreel narration:

But the atom is not all 'death and destruction'. [And over a montage which shows a hospital operating surgery and the production line of isotopes.] This too is a product of the atomic age: isotopes and other atomic techniques saving lives all over the world!

Ostensibly a family melodrama, the film didactically sets out to instil in the viewer the 'fundamentally repugnant philosophy' that the civilian US population is expendable when it comes to issues of national security.

After the young son of a leading nuclear physicist (played by 1950s sci-fi icon Gene Barry) is kidnapped and held hostage by 'enemy agents', an FBI inspector gruffly explains the atomic age 'facts of life' to the scientist: "Our job is to keep the [Hydrogen] bomb at home and to apprehend the kidnappers. And, to bring your son back safely". The dejected physicist remarks: "That's the order of their importance isn't it - one, two, three. Tommy's number three?" "Yes doctor" The FBI man replies, "I'm afraid so."

Shortly after, FBI Inspector Mann briefs an assembled group of agents and security personnel, making it clear to the audience (both on and off- screen), that the child's safety is not a priority when stacked up against keeping the monopoly on US nuclear 'secrets'.

I want to explain one thing--we are dealing with top espionage agents who have resorted to kidnap, and we want them. And I mean every last one of them. That's a must. [glancing at the physicist father] You're probably asking yourselves 'what about the boy, isn't getting Tommy Addison back safely more important?'. Well, I'm giving you my answer to that officially: NO. No matter how callous that may seem, your first job is to locate and apprehend the spies.

The mise-en-scene here and expository dialogue situate the viewer as identifying alongside the other (diegetically) passive subjects of the information. Such sentiments voiced by a law enforcement agent in US cinema of the period is, I believe, unparalleled. It represents a turning point in American film since the 'longstanding concepts of "fair play" [are] reconsidered' in such an overt fashion.

Whereas film noir and westerns during the cold war began to metaphorically question post-war notions of 'fair play' and social 'rules', alongside the evolution of (anti)heroes, it was science fiction which first broached the ethics and efficacy of such 'secret' policies.

Remarkably, the earliest science fiction film to depict human radiation experiments is the 1914 Gold Seal silent film By Radium Rays , which shows a doctor at an insane asylum inserting radium into a female patient's head and effecting a miraculous cure. In reality, the Presidential Advisory Committee revealed researchers investigated pre-war experiments conducted at the Elgin State Hospital, Illinios, where radium was injected "as an experimental therapy for treating mental disorders".

A doctor administers radium to the head of a patient in an attempt to cure ther 'insanity' in the 1914 film By Radium Rays.

Shortly before The Manhattan Project commenced, the iconography of the scientist as an evil experimenter of radioactive substances on humans was emerging. In Dr Cyclops (1939) the scientist was cast in the familiar generic mould of a brilliant researcher turned bad, bordering on the megalomaniacal, who uses radium against his colleagues in secret miniaturisation experiments. Like Frankenstein, he was an independent freelancer, either driven out of the academy, or rejecting it, due to his unconventional ideas and practices.

After Trinity, however, as Robert Oppenheimer acknowledged, the scientists 'knew sin'. In Universal's 1955 film, Tarantula , Leo G. Carroll is portrayed as a scientist whi in effect reverses Dr Cyclops atomic agenda. Experimenting on animals and humans with a new radioisotope, the professor triggers giantism in his insect and animal subjects, and deadly acromegaly in those unfortunate humans injected with the radiation. Although Tarantula also features a deranged scientist as a brilliant outsider working with a small team in isolation, the underlying implication is that legitimate nuclear medicines will inevitably be misused and result in such monstrosities. Within the narrative the professor clearly acknowledges that he is a former employee of Oak Ridge. At the time the AEC held a monopoly on the production of radioisotopes which furthers the association of official experimentation.

Prescient and echoing Energy Secretary O'Leary's press conference associating AEC funded research with Nazi deathcamp experimentation, the seemingly preposterous 1955 film Creature with the Atom Brain now appears, in retrospect, to be less far-fetched in its depiction of an ex- Nazi replacing human brains with atomic energy to create zombies! From 1949 to 1950, psychiatric patients of the UC Medical School in San Francisco were injected with radioiodine under the most dubious of research pretexts to investigate metabolism in psychiatric illness.

Three science fiction films produced in 1956 highlight nuclear technologies and experimentation with humans. Ed Wood's now classic cult film Bride of the Atom (aka Bride of the Monster ) features Bela Lugosi in a badlands swamp employing atomic radiation on unsuspecting local citizens in order to create a race of super beings. Virtually all die from the exposure but newspaperman, Tor Johnson, uncovers the crimes and turns the radiation machine on the mad doctor.

Similarly, and perhaps the most transparent film to voice horror at state- sanctioned human radiation experiments is the Anglo-American production, The Gamma People . This film, however, projects as 'other', nuclear atrocities conducted by Communists which are uncovered by an American newspaperman and a British photographer, accidentally trapped behind the 'iron curtain' in a tiny Eastern Bloc country named 'Gudavia'. With the blessing of the Soviet satellite's dictator, a renown scientist is shown bombarding children with massive gamma radiation in order to create geniuses, but inadvertently produces a village full of zombie-like imbeciles. The propaganda value is not lost on the two press men as they destroy the scientist's 'peaceful' experimental laboratory and effect a spontaneous rebellion amongst Gudavia's oppressed serfs. Aiming for a Pulitzer Prize, one suspects the film's reporter would have been better advised to look closer to home for such horrors, since from 1946 to 1953 the AEC (with assistance from Quaker Oats) was dosing the breakfast cereals of young boys, without their informed consent, with tracer amounts of radioisotopes at the Walter E. Fernald School, and in 1961, radioiodine at the Wrentham State School for "retarded children" in Boston. After considering such tests, the Advisory Committee has warned:

Today, fifty years after the Fernald experiments, there are still no federal regulations protecting institutionalized children from unfair treatment in research involving human subjects. The Committee strongly urges the federal government to fill this policy void...

Also from 1956, in the Sam Katzman production, The Werewolf , two scientists are shown removing a comatose victim from a car crash and clandestinely injecting him with an experimental serum in an attempt to combat the effects of radiation. The result is a monstrous nuclear lycanthropy. Amid the grafting of a traditional Gothic tale into a post- atomic milieu, it is clear the film questions the veracity of the scientists' methods, implicating them as the real monsters.

In reality, of course, the Advisory Committee report tells us doctors were only too willing to subject unconscious, comatose and/or delirious patients under their charge, without consent or that of their relatives or guardians, to experimental cocktails of plutonium, uranium, americium, polonium, zirconium, radio-yttrium, radio-strontium, radio-cerium... Indeed, by war's end, it seemed anyone looking remotely terminal and unfortunate enough to be unwittingly under the care of classified Manhattan Project or AEC sponsored scientists could be given 'injections [of fission products which] were not expected to be, nor were they, therapeutic or of medical benefit to the patients'.

The Advisory Committee concluded:

...we believe that these experiments were unethical. In the conduct of these experiments, two basic moral principles were violated--that one ought not to use people as mere means to the ends of others and that one ought not to deceive others--in the absence of any morally acceptable justification for such conduct. National Security considerations may have required keeping secret the names of classified substances, but they would not have required using people as subjects in experiments without their knowledge or giving people the false impression that they or their family members had been given treatment when instead they had been given a substance that was not intended to be of benefit.

Now if you cut through the polite bureaucratic rhetoric here, it is abundantly clear that at the start of the cold war sick people were systematically given toxic radioactive materials against their will, substances that could only serve to harm them, and that this ongoing practice was illegal.

Although there are other examples, which time does not permit, I will briefly touch on two more SF films which foreground human experimentation with nuclear technologies. In 20th Century Fox's 1958 production, The Fly , Herman Muller's classic experiment proving that cellular mutation of a fruit fly could be achieved by radioactive bombardment is updated to matter transferral using atomic energy. In the process of the experiment, scientist David Hedison's genetic material becomes inextricably fused with that of a common house fly. And finally, The Alligator People from 1959 depicts yet another scientist experimenting in the swampy bijou, this time performing experiments to irradiate a hormone with cobalt 60 and X-rays, which turns his unfortunate victims into human-reptilian hybrids.

Cumulatively, I would suggest that there is something going on here more than just generic evolution and exchange; more than imbuing B-grade narratives with sensational and exploitative headlines from the emerging atomic age. It is much more than the mere extrapolation of then current scientific advances into the realm of popular science fiction cinema. There is the distinct whiff of hidden knowledge, and suppressed fears struggling to challenge the 'cultural consensus'.

Even in marginally SF cinema, such as Mickey Rooney's production The Atomic Kid . an observable paradox of disbelief/disavowal in the face of assurances regarding the safety of mainland US atomic testing is evident. The 'accidental' exposure of prospector Rooney, caught in a nuclear blast less than a mile from ground zero while inside a mock home (complete with test dummy 'nuclear family'), belies the real experimental subjects-- thousands of US servicemen and women--who are shown assembled in shallow trenches not much further out. The film lamely pokes fun at radiation exposure since Rooney's only observable post-blast effect is a short-term quickening of speech and ongoing irradiated glow when sexually aroused. Seen today, The Atomic Kid betrays the AEC and military's rationale for its domestic program of continental atomic tests--to indoctrinate audiences into accepting atomic detonations as part of day- to-day life. Normalising the bomb in this confined way enabled federal agencies to monitor the physiological and psychology effects on more than a quarter of a million military personnel who took part in the exercises. The Presidential Advisory Committee report documents how the Army wished to experimentally thrust personnel closer and closer to ground zero "until thresholds of intolerability are ascertained". Decades later, the 1989 film Nightbreaker , (aka: Advance to Ground Zero ) portrayed this 'secret' aspect of psychological and physical testing of troops.

.Military personnel at the Nevada test range are assembled to watch the blast and rising mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb test shortly before marching to ground zero.

For the full impact of this mage, click on it to download a larger version (126k).

Not all films, however, represented fear of nuclear technology through the generically acceptable fantasy of science fiction. Indeed, the earliest post-war drama I can find to overtly draw on human radiation experiments is RKO's 1950 Experiment Alcatraz . The film appears quite transparent in its depiction of a select group of five convicts 'volunteering' for a radiation experiment on the basis that their sentences will be fully commuted. They are told virtually nothing about the procedure; as the warden informs them: "You have volunteered for a hazardous medical experiment. I can't tell you any of the details because I don't know them myself". It is later revealed to them at a Military Hospital that they will be following up tests done on laboratory animals to help find a cure for a blood disease, but they are not told anything of the nature of the risk involved. The prisoners are injected with metallic salts and then irradiated in a gruelling procedure. The Presidential Advisory Committee has shown that from 1949-51, the time of the film's production and release, the University of California in association with the AEC had been funding identical research on prisoners at San Quentin.

Yet right up into the late 1960s, state prisoners were being used as radiation guinea pigs. One of the more controversial experiments to come to light was the program to irradiate the testicles of prisoners in Oregon and Washington State. Prisoners repeatedly were given up to 600 rads of x-rays for as little as $25, then subjected to painful biopsies and follow-up vasectomies. There was certainly no offer to commute anyone's sentence for the pain and suffering, let alone compensate for the potential genetic and cancer-related after-effects. Again, the President's Advisory Committee has condemned these experiments as a fundamental abuse of human rights.

To close parenthetically, a British comedy from 1960, Man on the Moon , features Kenneth Moore as a professional guinea pig, who voluntarily submits himself to a battery of tests to help scientists understand human metabolism on the threshold of space flight. Remarkably he is seemingly impervious to the extremes of temperature and radiation. This is the antithesis of what NASA astronauts, as trained test pilots, were actually undergoing in preparation for the early manned flights. Indeed, former Mercury astronaut John Glen later championed on Capitol Hill the hunt for evidence of clandestine radiation experiments. The real story had NASA co-funding research into nuclear powered rockets and the Air Force looking at nuclear powered planes (both of which were abandoned as potentially lethal devices). The Advisory Committee has since revealed, to obtain this data in the mid-to-late 1960s, civilians who were considered terminally ill by the Cincinnati General Hospital,and therefore considered 'expendable' for defense-related experiments, were bombarded with total body irradiation. Medical investigators contend no less than eight of whom died directly from the high experimental doses.

The research was not for therapeutic purposes, nor to ameliorate suffering. In fact, to simulate and measure the effects of radiation poisoning, desperately sick patients were deliberately denied any palliative care to prevent or ease vomiting and nausea associated with the trials. In proposing the experiments the Cincinnati doctors knew that there was a "one in four" chance that patients receiving the high dosages would die as a result. None of the patients were told this, nor that the procedure was an experiment for the Department of Defense.

And so it seems there are uncanny parallels extant in the generic corpus of science fiction (and other genres) which indicate some awarness of official involvement in human radiation experiments. By the very nature of their bizarre and fearful scenarios, the repetition of these narrative themes appear to operate outside the 'cultural consensus' of accepting the proliferation of (medical) nuclear technologies which cold war hegemony tried to persuade American society to consume.

And, as an Epilogue:

The Final Report of the Presidential Advisory Committee, delivered in October 1995, largely avoids issues of survivor notification and compensation. And while condemning the atrocities of the past, the Advisory Committee's recommendations for the future includes an inexplicable loophole. These recommendations would still permit experimental radiation tests to be conducted in secret for the purposes of 'national security'.

Intentional releases of radiation could be continued in secret at sites across the USA without informing local residents or other interested citizens. Under these conditions it may well be happening right now...

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