Michael KreponThe First Debate Over Downwinders

Verse of the week:

“Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth” – W.H. Auden, “Another Time”

A total of 528 nuclear tests were carried out in the atmosphere. The United States conducted 215; the Soviet Union conducted even more. France tested fifty times in the atmosphere over colonial possessions. During the first two decades of the Cold War, prevailing winds spread radiation exposure far and wide. Evidence of nuclear testing began to show up in mothers’ milk, children’s teeth, and bones. The hottest spots were near and downwind from test sites.

The backstory on downwinders in the United States isn’t well known, so I’ve retrieved it for my book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control. Here’s a partial recap:

President Dwight Eisenhower was reluctant to authorize tests in the atmosphere but chose to do so. The nuclear arms competition during his presidency was relentless. In 1958 alone, the United States carried out seventy-seven tests above and underground.

The United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain agreed to stop atmospheric testing in the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty — the first major achievement of nuclear arms control. But atmospheric testing continued because China and France weren’t signatories. Beijing carried out the last atmospheric test in 1980. Even then, low-level radiation continued to be released because of sloppy underground test practices that produced venting and woeful human consequences. The worst offender, by far, was the Soviet Union at a test site in what is now Kazakhstan.

Why were there so many atmospheric tests? At the outset, it was easier to test above than below ground.  Two other reasons stand out, at least in the U.S. context. One explanation was that the resulting damage to public health could only be surmised, as the data and the consequences to downwinders (and nearby troops), especially regarding the incidence of certain cancers, would take time to document. In the meantime, negative consequences could be downplayed by those who believed that continued atmospheric testing was imperative — reason number two. The testing lobby argued that the United States couldn’t afford to fall behind in the nuclear arms race. Atmospheric testing could, for example, provide useful data regarding weapon effects and missile defenses.

There was an intense domestic backlash against testing, led by the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, created in 1957. SANE had 150 chapters nationwide. The American Friends Service Committee lent its support. More help was on the way with the founding of Women Strike for Peace in 1961.

The first televised debate over nuclear weapons occurred over the testing issue on February 20, 1958. The debate was broadcast on KQED, a new “public” television station based in San Francisco. The debaters were Edward Teller and Linus Pauling.

Teller was an influential force within counsels of government who previously championed the development of hydrogen bombs and the construction of a second nuclear weapon laboratory at Livermore to work on these designs.

Writing with Albert Latter in Life magazine and in Our Nuclear Future, Teller argued that, “Radiation in small doses need not necessarily be harmful—indeed may conceivably be helpful.” He and Latter asserted that a wristwatch with a luminous dial could subject the wearer to far more radiation than fallout from nuclear testing, and that “the worldwide fallout is as dangerous to human health as being one ounce overweight.”

There were other outlandish claims. Willard F. Libby, a distinguished professor of physical chemistry who served as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, claimed that fallout could be increased 15,000 times without hazard. Libby won the Nobel Prize in 1960 for his work on radiocarbon dating.

Pauling, the son of a small-town drugstore owner in Oregon, won two Nobel Prizes, first for his work on chemical bonds and then for his public advocacy against testing. As a consequence, Pauling was the object of intense scrutiny by the FBI; the State Department even went so far as to temporarily deny him a passport. 

Pauling’s rebuttal to Teller and Latter, No More War, reads like a science class for concerned citizens. Then he took the gloves off, claiming Teller’s advocacy to be false, misleading, and inaccurate. The article in Life, Pauling wrote, was “an apology for evil.”

In their televised debate, Teller argued that the dangers of radioactive fallout had not been proven. He then rested his case on strategic imperatives: Whatever dangers might result from testing, they paled by comparison to the consequences of nuclear war, and continued testing helped to deter war.

Pauling countered by highlighting the public health consequences of testing, especially radiation, even at low levels. Teller acknowledged the possibility of genetic damage resulting from testing, but added that “Without some change evolution would be impossible.”

Joining Teller in arguing against the moratorium was Sidney Hook, a professor of philosophy at New York University and an ardent anti-communist. “These effects,” Hook argued, “must be regarded as part of the tragic costs of freedom.” This argument won the debate. Pauling was, of course, right on the merits of the case, but these merits would take time to be proven by medical science.

Five weeks after the debate, Nikita Khrushchev surprised Eisenhower by offering a moratorium on all testing. Khrushchev’s offer came at the end of an extended Soviet test series, just before a long U.S. rejoinder would start. Eisenhower heard out his scientific advisers, led by George Kistiakowsky and Herbert York, who argued to take Khrushchev up on his offer. Ike then sided with the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Washington and Moscow eventually got on the same page, stopping nuclear tests from November 1958 to September 1961. The moratorium was broken by the Soviet Union’s massive Tsar Bomba test, a fifty megaton behemoth detonated above the arctic tundra of Novaya Zemlya.

This test generated fears of a megaton gap — but that’s another story. Once Soviet scientists were able to demonstrate their ability to advance weapon designs by testing underground, Khrushchev was ready to join John F. Kennedy (and the United Kingdom’s Harold Macmillan) in accepting a ban on atmospheric testing.  The Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed on August 5, 1963, five years after the Teller-Pauling debate.