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The First Downwinder Debate

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Verse of the week:

“Waves of anger and fear
Circulates on the luminous
And the darkened lands of the earth” – WH Auden, “Another Time”

A total of 528 nuclear tests were carried out in the atmosphere. The United States conducted 215; the Soviet Union did even more. France has been tested fifty times in the atmosphere above colonial possessions. During the first two decades of the Cold War, prevailing winds spread radiation exposure widely. Evidence of nuclear testing began to appear in breast milk, children’s teeth, and bones. The hottest spots were close and downwind of the test sites.

The history of downwinders in the United States is not well known, so I picked it up for my book, Winning and Losing Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise and Rebirth of Arms Control. Here is a partial recap:

President Dwight Eisenhower was reluctant to allow atmospheric testing but chose to do so. The competition for nuclear weapons during his presidency was relentless. In 1958 alone, the United States conducted seventy-seven surface and underground tests.

The United States, the Soviet Union and Britain agreed to halt atmospheric testing under the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty – the first major achievement of nuclear arms control. But the atmospheric tests continued because China and France were not signatories. Beijing conducted the last atmospheric test in 1980. Even then, low-level radiation continued to be released due to sloppy underground testing practices that produced deplorable ventilation and human consequences. The worst offender, by far, was the Soviet Union at a test site in what is now Kazakhstan.

Why have there been so many atmospheric tests? Initially, it was easier to test above ground than below ground. Two other reasons stand out, at least in the American context. One explanation was that the resulting damage to public health could only be assumed, as data and consequences for downdrafts (and nearby troops), particularly regarding the incidence of certain cancers, would take time to document. In the meantime, the negative consequences could be downplayed by those who believed continued atmospheric testing was imperative – reason number two. The testing lobby argued that the United States could not afford to fall behind in the nuclear arms race. Atmospheric tests could, for example, provide useful data regarding the effects of weapons and missile defenses.

There was an intense national backlash against the tests, led by the National Committee for Nuclear Policy SANE, established in 1957. SANE had 150 chapters nationwide. The American Friends Service Committee provided support. More help was on the way with the founding of Women Strike for Peace in 1961.

The first televised debate on nuclear weapons took place on the issue of testing 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 in government councils who had previously championed the development of hydrogen bombs and the construction of a second nuclear weapons laboratory at Livermore to work on such designs.

Writing with Albert Latter in Life magazine and in Our nuclear future, Teller argued that “radiation in small doses doesn’t have to be harmful – in fact, it can possibly be helpful.” He and Latter claimed that a wristwatch with a luminous dial could subject the wearer to far more radiation than fallout from nuclear testing, and that “global fallout is as dangerous to human health as being overweight. of one ounce”.

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

Pauling, son of a small-town Oregon pharmacy owner, won two Nobel Prizes, first for his work on chemical bonds and then for his public advocacy against testing. As a result, Pauling came under intense FBI scrutiny; 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 lesson for concerned citizens. Then he took off the gloves, saying Teller’s plea was false, misleading and inaccurate. The article in Lifewrites Pauling, was “an apology for evil”.

In their televised debate, Teller argued that the dangers of radioactive fallout had not been proven. He then based his argument on strategic imperatives: whatever dangers may arise from testing, they pale in comparison to the consequences of nuclear war, and continued testing has helped deter war.

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

Sidney Hook, a New York University philosophy professor and ardent anti-Communist, joined Teller in opposing the moratorium. “These effects,” Hook argued, “must be considered part of the tragic costs of freedom.” This argument won the debate. Pauling was of course right on the merits of the matter, but those merits would take time to be proven by medical science.

Five weeks after the debate, Nikita Khrushchev surprised Eisenhower by proposing a moratorium on all testing. Khrushchev’s offer came at the end of a long series of Soviet trials, just before the start of a long American retaliation. Eisenhower heard from his scientific advisers, led by George Kistiakowsky and Herbert York, who pleaded to accept Khrushchev on his offer. Ike then sided with the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Washington and Moscow finally came to terms, halting nuclear testing from November 1958 to September 1961. The moratorium was broken by the Soviet Union’s massive Tsar Bomba test, a fifty-megaton monster that exploded over- above the arctic tundra of Novaya Zemlya.

This test raised fears of a megaton discrepancy – but that’s another story. Once Soviet scientists could demonstrate their ability to advance weapons design by testing underground, Khrushchev was ready to join John F. Kennedy (and Harold Macmillan of the UK) 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.