Sputnik, 50 Years Later - Page 2

The Launch of Techno-Power
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The conventional wisdom, reinforced by the press, downplayed fears while trusting the authorities; basic judgments about the latest weapons programs were to be left to the political leaders and their designated experts.

On the weekly prime-time Walt Disney television show, an animated fairy with a magic wand urged youngsters to drink three glasses of milk each day. But airborne strontium-90 from nuclear tests was falling on pastures all over, migrating to cows and then to the milk supply and, finally, to people’s bones. Radioactive isotopes from fallout were becoming inseparable from the human diet.

Young people -- dubbed “baby boomers,” a phrase that both dramatized and trivialized them -- were especially vulnerable to strontium-90 as their fast-growing bones absorbed the radioactive isotope along with calcium. The children who did as they were told by drinking plenty of milk ended up heightening the risks -- not unlike their parents, who were essentially told to accept the bomb fallout without complaint.

Under the snappy rubric of “the nuclear age,” the white-coated and loyal American scientist stood as an icon, revered as surely as the scientists of the enemy were assumed to be pernicious. And yet the mutual fallout, infiltrating dairy farms and mothers’ breast milk and the bones of children, was a type of subversion that never preoccupied J. Edgar Hoover.

The more that work by expert scientists endangered us, the more we were informed that we needed those scientists to save us. Who better to protect Americans from the hazards of the nuclear industry and the terrifying potential of nuclear weapons than the best scientific minds serving the industry and developing the weapons?

In June 1957 -- the same month Nobel Prize–winning chemist Linus Pauling published an article estimating that ten thousand cases of leukemia had already occurred due to U.S. and Soviet nuclear testing -- President Eisenhower proclaimed that the American detonations would result in nuclear warheads with much less radioactivity. Ike said that “we have reduced fallout from bombs by nine-tenths,” and he pledged that the Nevada explosions would continue in order to “see how clean we can make them.” The president spoke just after meeting with Edward Teller and other high-powered physicists. Eisenhower assured the country that the scientists and the U.S. nuclear test operations were working on the public’s behalf. “They say: ‘Give us four or five more years to test each step of our development and we will produce an absolutely clean bomb.’”

But sheer atomic fantasy, however convenient, was wearing thin. Many scientists actually opposed the aboveground nuclear blasts. Relying on dissenters with a range of technical expertise, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson had made an issue of fallout in the 1956 presidential campaign. During 1957 -- a year when the U.S. government set off thirty-two nuclear bombs over southern Nevada and the Pacific -- Pauling spearheaded a global petition drive against nuclear testing; by January 1958 more than eleven thousand scientists in fifty countries had signed.

Clearly, the views and activities of scientists ran the gamut. But Washington was pumping billions of tax dollars into massive vehicles for scientific research. These huge federal outlays were imposing military priorities on American scientists without any need for a blatant government decree.

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What was being suppressed might suddenly pop up like some kind of jack-in-the-box. Righteous pressure against disruptive or “un-American” threats was internal and also global, with a foreign policy based on containment. Control of space, inner and outer, was pivotal. What could not be controlled was liable to be condemned.

The ’50s and early ’60s are now commonly derided as unbearably rigid, but much in the era was new and stylish at the time. Suburbs boomed along with babies.