Scenes from the Dawn of the Atomic Age

An advertisement published in 1952 by the National Society for Medical thanksBigResearch shows the towering cloud of an atomic explosion with attendant dog, who calmly turns her head back as if to deliver or at least endorse the message posted at her feet: “We must thank animals if good comes from the atomic bomb”. Yes, the dog must be a she because it surely can’t be by chance that this is a Rough Collie, the same breed as Lassie, who had by then become famous in print and film for her imagined loyalty and sagacity. So she’s thought a suitable intermediary between us humans and the animals whom we’re invited to thank for helping us to make a good thing out of the bomb. Later on, Lassie tended to advertise dog foods, but here she (or at least the breed which she made famous for its useful virtues) is being made to advertise vivisection. And the giant mushroom cloud reminds us that we’re in a hurry; we need to be in a position to thank the animals pretty soon, or there won’t be anything left to thank them for.

At the front of the picture, some palm trees bend and flap in the unnatural gale. Evidently, then, the immediate reference is to the atom bomb tests which had been carried out by the US government at the tropical Bikini Atoll in 1946 (and which would be resumed in 1954). The tests had been titled ‘Operation Crossroads’, the crossroads in question being the ones mankind had arrived at in his war-making: which direction was he to go in next? Three bombs in turn were to be exploded over or under a miscellaneous fleet of about ninety warships – either obsolete US vessels or ones captured from the recent enemy – to test, in particular, the continuing relevance of the navy in battles transformed by nuclear science. The ships were realistically loaded with equipment and stores: planes, tanks, guns, ammunition, even food. But of course there were the personnel to think about too, and that’s where the animals came in, or rather were put in.

Rats, mice, guinea pigs, goats, pigs, about 3,500 of them in all for the first test, were put on board selected ships, in cages or pens, or tied to individual restraint devices which were bolted to the decks, or just shut into the ships’ accommodation. Some of the animals were shaved, and sun-cream and other such ointments were tried out for their protective powers against radiation. Pigs and goats were put into naval uniforms or other clothing, to see what difference that might make. The ships with these grotesque involuntary crews were anchored at various distances from the expected epicentre of the coming first explosion, code-named ‘Able’. (A note on names: after ‘Able’, the next two tests were to be ‘Baker’ and ‘Charlie’, but the bomb itself was named and sign-painted ‘Gilda’, after a character played by Rita Hayworth in the newly released film of that title: “There never was a woman like Gilda!” said the posters. The laddish frivolity of the name is highly characteristic of such enterprises; it re-surfaces, for instance, in the ‘Dolly’ project, as commented on in this blog on 29 August 2016.)

Operation Crossroads was not a secretive affair, except in technical matters. Part of its purpose was to show that the United States was uniquely there at the world’s crossroads, determining the new direction. It was a staged event, and a very large audience, estimated at 42,000, was assembled to experience it: service personnel of course, but also members of Congress, UN representatives, observers from other nations, including the USSR, and many journalists, who had their own dedicated press ship, with “specially prepared media packets, lectures, and tours”. More than 150 ships were needed to accommodate these people. In fact it was said at the time that Operation Crossroads was “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted”.

In particular, great quantities of moving film were used to record the event – mainly the explosions themselves, of course, but also the preparations and the aftermaths. Some of the film was edited for official use, and a commentary was added. One such sequence shows pre-test tours of the fleet, the hurried making-ready (the whole project seems to have been conducted in haste), then the moment for the humans to make themselves scarce: “Preparations are now complete, and crews abandon their ships . . . Military and scientific personnel leave the target area.” The target ships recede from our view. That representative collection of the world’s Able testhumans re-assembles at a safe distance of 15 or so miles away, while the animals remain behind to endure the bomb. It’s a summary of vivisection: the humans taking cover and watching (in this case through protective goggles) to see what happens to their more expendable fellow-creatures.

In the event, the ‘Able’ test was rather less destructive than expected, perhaps partly because the bomb missed its aim by about half a mile. In the official film, the camera cruises again around the now blasted fleet noting the damage. It spots some of the animals just visible in a huddle within the ruined superstructure of one of the ships: “These animals,” explains the voice-over, “survived the blast but died later from the effect of radioactivity.” In fact one or two did survive more lastingly. A pig (no. 311) which had been shut into the officers’ ‘heads’ or lavatories on the Japanese cruiser Sarawak, anchored about 500 yards from the centre of the explosion, was discovered some hours later “swimming gamely in the radiation-polluted waters of the Bikini Lagoon”. “gamely”! One would think it was a sporting event, but then the title of the Time magazine article from which that quotation is taken was ‘This Little Pig Came Home’: once you conspire in the misuse of animals, it’s impossible to speak in a straight and honourable way about them. Pig 311 died in 1950 at the Smithsonian Institution Zoo.

The second test, ‘Baker’, was detonated underwater and proved much more sensational. The giant column of sea-water, hurled 6000 feet into the air, came back down in a spray of radioactivity which clung to the surviving ships so tenaciously that they could not safely be re-occupied. (For that reason, the third test, ‘Charlie’, was abandoned.) An official report described the ships as “radioactive stoves”. There seems to be less information available about the animals used in this second test, but one history of Operation Crossroads says that “All of the pigs and most of the rats used during the Baker test were either killed by the initial blast or died shortly thereafter from radiological exposure.”

That was of course neither the beginning nor the end of the part which animals have been made to play in atomic weapons research (some more details are provided in this blog at 9 November 2018). In 1964, a cow patronizingly called ‘Granny’ – and if I was naming farm animals, I’d avoid the theme of family life – appeared in the news as a survival story, rather as pig no.311 had done. The cow had just died twenty or so years after the very first atomic bomb test (New Mexico, July 1945) by which she and her fellows had been sprinkled with radioactive dust. The herd had at once been collected and taken away for tests. ‘Granny’ herself was, when she died, under observation at an agricultural research laboratory, for as a 1960s booklet on the subject noted, “Not only does man benefit from radiation research on animals, but animals do also”: for instance, we can “improve the quality of farm animals by determining, with the help of radioisotopes, the most efficient methods of feeding, breeding, and maintaining good nutrition.” So Granny didn’t survive in vain.

Still, deciding how to fight and win wars in the new atomic age was the primary motivation of the early animal research, and it remains, after all this time, a continuing laboratory theme. Thus a study from 2003 titled ‘Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors’ argues that “accurate predictions of age-specific radiation-induced mortality in beagles and the atomic bomb survivors can be obtained from a dose-response model for comparably exposed mice.” Or, from 2010, the report of a ‘workshop’ on the subject, titled ‘Animal Models for Medical Countermeasures to Radiation Exposure’, speaks of its mission “to identify and develop mitigating agents that can be used to treat the civilian population after a radiological event”.

A “radiological event”: it’s a horrible prospect even when part-disguised by euphemism, and no doubt we’d all be glad to learn that there did indeed exist “mitigating agents” against it. That, of course, is the thinking behind the Lassie advert. The National Society for Medical Research had been founded in 1945 to promote animal research in general, and how better to promote it than by shaking the mushroom cloud at us?

Many unappealing human sentiments and qualities have been involved in the practice and the reporting of atomic weapons research – in that part of it, at least, for which we “must thank animals”: callousness, bumptious levity, hubris, amoral curiosity. But cowardice is perhaps the most shameful of them. That workshop report claims that “Radiation research has a glorious history of sound animal models.” I’ve only offered a sketch or two of that history here, but I’ve perused a very great deal more, and I can’t find anything glorious there. It has been inherently a cowardly enterprise. A suitable New Year’s resolution for the human species would be to face up to our future with honourable self-reliance, instead of trying to make the other animals solve our troubles for us.

 

Notes and references:

The Lassie advert is in the archive of the US National Library of Medicine, and can be seen here: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/animals/atomic.html

There is any amount of material documenting the Crossroads tests, including notably the web-site of de-classified documents from the US National Security Archive, at  https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/environmental-diplomacy-nuclear-vault/2016-07-22/bikini-bomb-tests-july-1946. The quotation about publicity, and the phrase “radioactive stoves”, come from that page, as well as the photograph of test Able and the report on the animals used in the Baker test. The quotation about amenities for journalists comes from James P.Delgado, Nuclear Dawn: the Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War, Osprey, 2009, p.147. See also The Effects of Atomic Weapons, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, McGraw-Hill, 1950.

As for film, links to official documentary films can be found on the web-site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation: https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/operation-crossroads. Some of that footage appears also in the compelling 1988 film by Robert Stone, Radio Bikini.

The quoted article in Time magazine was published in the issue for 11 April 1949. The 1960s booklet is Animals in Atomic Research, published in 1969 by the US Atomic Energy Commission, quoted at p.37.

Both of the recent research articles quoted were published in Radiation Research: the first is dated August 2003, vol.160, no.2, pp.159-67, the quotation being from the preliminary abstract; the second is  from April 2010, vol.173, no.4, pp.557-78, the quotations being from pp.557 and 573.

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