Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, speaking with the advantage of hindsight, says "the only thing I could think of was Nazi Germany." Dr. Joseph G. Hamilton, a radiation biologist speaking in 1950 at the height of Cold War fear and frenzy, warned a superior that government medical experiments then being conducted "might have a little of the Buchenwald touch."
It is always dangerous to make comparisons with the Holocaust, unprecedented example of government policy and power being applied to the deliberate extermination of human beings despised by the Hitler regime. Whatever the horrors now being unveiled about this nation's nuclear weapons program, it was not a Holocaust. But this century knows evil has many faces and in the opinion of Dan Bernstein, president of the Center for Radiation Studies, "it can turn out to be authority infected by opportunism and arrogance."
This well describes the attitude of American authorities who in the Cold War years conducted at least 204 underground nuclear tests kept secret until now, subjected hundreds of American citizens to radioactive medical tests at exposures many times safe levels, unleashed radioactive clouds in the atmosphere at great risk to close-in observers and unsuspecting populations and created stockpiles of nuclear waste materials that will require hundreds of billions of dollars to be contained.
"Coming clean" is Secretary O'Leary's battle cry. By unveiling the dark secrets of the Cold War and preparing public opinion for the costly clean-up program that lies ahead, she is reversing the cover-up mentality of her own department. For this she deserves lTC praise but even more she deserves unstinting support from President Clinton. Mr. Clinton will have to advise the Justice Department to reconsider its stance in court cases involving whistle-blowers trying to expose government misbehavior and nuclear victims seeking government redress. He will have to get behind Mrs. O'Leary's insistence that those who suffered from official wrongdoing be compensated.
Granted, it may be unfair to apply 1990s standards to nuclear authorities 30 and 40 years ago who feared imminent war with the Soviet Union and desperately wanted to learn about the deadly power that had destroyed Hiroshima.
But if it is society's duty to learn from past mistakes, then the willingness of doctors to conduct experiments on convicts, the mentally retarded and other vulnerables must be disclosed. And if we are to understand the dangers of war fever run amuck, we have to learn about all the deception, lying and reckless endangerment encouraged by successive administrations in the name of fighting the Soviet menace.
Many bad things were done by officials and scientists who thought they were doing good during the obsessive years of Cold War confrontation. This country cannot "come clean" until it confronts its nuclear past.