Advertisement
News

Representing victims of atomic testing has brought attorney to a 'Crossroads' Starting from ground zero

Attorney Jonathan Weisgall received his first dose of emotional fallout from nuclear testing in 1975 when he waded ashore on the island of Kili to meet his new clients: Bikini Islanders, displaced by the U.S. government's 1946 atomic tests, living in isolation 400 miles from their home.

The islanders had contacted Covington & Burling, the blue-chip Washington law firm, for help with their situation. They had agreed to "temporarily" evacuate the Bikini atoll 29 years earlier so the military could test bombs it said would make the world a safer place. Although they were spared any direct contact with the blasts' radiation, the fallout material still lacing their homeland kept them in exile. The firm sent Mr. Weisgall, a 25-year-old associate, to evaluate their case. He found a despairing people, exhausted by three generations of U.S. promises, terrified of being poisoned if they returned home.

Advertisement

"That first day I recognized the magnitude of the human aspect of all this," he says. "I realized that what I did -- or what I failed to do -- was going to have a direct major influence on these human beings."

In the nearly 20 years since that first meeting, the Baltimore native has won his clients millions of dollars in reparations from the U.S. government.

Advertisement

He produced an Academy Award-nominated documentary about the islanders, "Radio Bikini" in 1988.

And he has just published a book about Operation Crossroads, the nuclear tests that sent the Bikinians into their long-term limbo. First intended merely to document the events that determined his clients' fate, Mr. Weisgall's research led him to include U.S. atomic military veterans among the tests' human victims.

"Operations Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll," (The Naval Institute Press, $31.95) presents the first non-government assessment of the first post-war atomic tests. Mr. Weisgall reveals that the second shot was the world's first peacetime nuclear disaster, a test that exposed thousands of servicemen unnecessarily to the hazards of radiation.

Constructed from documents collected from the government, archives around the country, interviews and litigation material, "Operation Crossroads" reports the Navy decided to conduct the tests despite scientific warnings about radioactive contamination.

"The themes of this story are ignorance, arrogance and secrecy," Mr. Weisgall says. "And when you throw in a little radioactivity, you've got a recipe for a disaster. There was one misstep after another."

The first nuclear test at Bikini, the Able shot, was an air drop similar to Hiroshima. Missing its target by half a mile, it ruined millions of dollars of scientific test equipment, invalidating much of the research and increasing the need for a second test.

The second test, the Baker, was the world's first underwater blast. Triggering a mile-wide dome of water, it unleashed on the earth's surface the greatest amount of radioactivity known at that time. (Ninety-five to 99 percent of the radioactive products of the Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Able blasts were dissipated into the atmosphere. Because the Baker was exploded 90 feet underwater, however, the pressure of the water above the bomb kept the radioactive cloud from rising more than 8,000 feet before collapsing back onto the lagoon.)

The test was conducted despite a report from the laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., where the atomic bomb was developed, advising that the water near a recent surface explosion will be a "witch's brew" containing enough plutonium "to poison the combined armed forces of the United States at their highest wartime strength."

Advertisement

The Baker shot sunk eight vessels in a guinea-pig fleet of 95 ships, including the huge aircraft carrier Saratoga. (Over the next four years, the other vessels were scuttled because of lingering radiation.)

More than 40,000 military servicemen and scientists watched the blast. Afterward, thousands of sailors were dispatched to scrub the radioactive decks of the contaminated ships with soap and water, completely unaware of the hazards they faced so blithely in shorts and tennis shoes.

Explosive rivalry

"Operation Crossroads" also explores how the route to nuclear testing was paved by rivalry between the Army and Navy. Both branches of the military wanted exclusive control of the atomic bomb and worried how its loss might affect their budgets and prestige. It examines public, congressional and scientific concerns and attitudes about the tests. And it joins the growing library of books about the long-term effects of nuclear testing and the secrecy surrounding it.

A review in Booklist calls it a "notably insightful and balanced treatment of a complex and controversial subject . . . a highly valuable addition to nuclear affairs and postwar military studies."

Publisher's Weekly describes it as chilling "in light of the current attention on U.S. government radiation experiments on humans and the postwar cover-up of nuclear testing."

Advertisement

Navy veteran Oscar Rosen, who saw the Able shot, calls the book "fantastic." National commander of the Atomic Veterans Association, the 72-year-old retired history professor remembers gawking at the blast with his buddies while they were standing on a floating dry-dock. He judges they were 15 nautical miles from the explosion.

"No one mentioned protective goggles or anything," he recalls. "There was a flash, a huge flash on the horizon, and as soon as we saw it, we were towed back toward Ground Zero." (Ground Zero is the immediate site of a bomb blast.)

Like many veterans of America's atomic testing program, Mr. Rosen feels betrayed by the government. He believes he developed premature cataracts and became sterile because of radiation exposure. His organization, which met last week in Washington, includes at least 500 veterans of Operation Crossroads.

"The public should know the complete truth: that we were used as guinea pigs," he says. "There are still people in the government from that era who maintain that few, if any, people were exposed to harmful amounts of radiation."

Mr. Weisgall says there are no villains in his tale -- only victims.

"I don't see Operation Crossroads in black and white terms. There was a lot of gray. I don't see guinea pigs here, but I do see sailors who end up being subjects in a grand experiment. . . . This was also the birth of the nuclear age, when there were lots of questions about the effects of atomic energy.

Advertisement

"I am critical because there were a lot of warnings and more effort could have been made in advance [to protect people]. . . . I thought Crossroads was ridiculous, but there were 23 tests at Bikini that helped develop nuclear weapons that helped provide the U.S. with a strategic balance of power that helped win the Cold War.

"I've found you can't write about nuclear issues without getting radicalized. There tends to be no middle ground."

Continuing struggle

An energetic, expressive man of 45, Mr. Weisgall lives in Bethesda, teaches part-time at Georgetown University Law Center and maintains a practice near Dupont Circle. His office is decorated with drawings by his three children and maps of the Marshall Islands that chart the atomic bombs' deadly radioactive shadow.

Although he handles a variety of cases -- current clients include a female FBI agent claiming sexual harassment and a company producing geothermal electricity -- he spends "a big chunk" of his time advising the Bikini Islanders, who still have not returned permanently to their atoll. In 1946, 167 Bikinians went into exile. Almost 50 years later, through many intermarriages, there are roughly 2,000.

In the late 1960s, many went home when President Johnson announced that Bikini was safe, but left again in 1978 after U.S. government scientists, concerned about the island's radiation levels, tested their urine and found high amounts of radioactive cesium-137.

Advertisement

(After they stopped ingesting contaminated food, the radioactive material flushed through their systems, Mr. Weisgall says. Although they have not been tested regularly by U.S. physicians since the early 1980s, the islanders have not shown a surge in such radiation-connected diseases as cancer.)

As soon as the Bikinians plan how best to clean up their islands -- with the help of options and data provided by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and guidance from their scientific adviser, a German radioecologist -- the U.S. government will begin the work. It will probably take 10 years, Mr. Weisgall estimates.

Meanwhile, the islanders have a $100 million resettlement trust fund to help them plot the best chart for their future; the money will also help pay for the cleanup.

But can these "nuclear nomads," as Mr. Weisgall calls them, rebuild their lost culture with those millions? Or create a new and satisfying life for themselves?

'Never be the same'

"I think it's hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," Mr. Weisgall says. "They desperately want to go back home, and I think some will, but Bikini will never be the same. And they will never be the same. They will never be able to erase the legacy of the testing. They won't be going back to their outrigger canoes, it's that simple."

Advertisement

The attorney credits the part of his career spent with the Bikini Islanders to serendipity.

"I'd love to say that I was the one they were looking for, but I wasn't," he says. "I was 25 years old, I had just started practicing law, and this guy came into my office and said: 'Could you pick up on line 8? It's got something to do with atom bombs.' So I picked up on line 8," he says. "I've found that life is that way."

He admits to a deep fascination with the bomb and its power. Although he calls himself the "world's biggest chicken," he learned to scuba dive so he could visit the submerged Saratoga and walk its flight deck.

"It was the history that really got to me down there. Almost like the feeling of being on a battlefield in a quiet moment and of wondering what it was like.

"There's a certain romance that goes with all of this, it's bizarre to even admit it," he says. "Talking to guys who've been at these bomb shots, they say, 'As horrible as they were, they were just so awesome, so powerful.' For me to be walking on this ship realizing that an atomic bomb lifted it 43 feet out of the water and sank it is extraordinary.

"I would love to have seen one of those shots. Nothing could possibly compare to being there. One man who had been there said, 'It was as if someone had turned a fishbowl upside down on us and had poured blood all over it.' What an image. Staggering. And he was 250 miles away. The sky turned red and the ground shook. And this is why these are weapons that can never be used again.

Advertisement

"Just as I wish every world leader could have a 5-year-old at home, I wish that every one could have witnessed an atmospheric atomic bomb shot," Mr. Weisgall says. "I think that would have gone a long way toward ending nuclear testing a lot sooner."

Atomic veterans

And what about the atomic veterans who now suffer from health problems they claim are radiation-linked? Should they be considered merely as victims of circumstance?

"I've told the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments that I don't see a whole lot of difference between people who were injected with trace amounts of plutonium in hospitals and Navy divers who were back in the water two hours after the Baker Test," he says.

The Advisory Committee, recently established by President Clinton, is looking into the ethical and scientific standards of various human radiation experiments conducted over the years; where indicated, it will also recommend remedies, which could range from apologies to compensation.

In addition to evaluating clinical radiation tests, it is considering "experiments involving intentional environmental releases of radiation that were designed to test the extent of human exposure to ionizing radiation." (This category includes such experiments as the Atomic Energy Commission's 1949 "Green Run test" in Hanford, Wash., that tested the atmospheric diffusion of radioactive gases.)

Advertisement

Waiting for an apology

"No one said, 'Let's put a bomb 90 feet underwater and see how many sailors we can contaminate,' " Mr. Weisgall says. "But the ** fact of the matter is that the Baker shot was certainly an intentional environmental release of radiation. And it certainly showed the extent of human exposure to ionizing radiation. I don't think it's relevant whether or not it was designed or intended to do this."

Further complicating the veterans' situation, he says, is the Feres Doctrine barring veterans from suing the United States for torts arising from activities that occurred while they were on active service, because "who wants to have a lawsuit over whether Iwo Jima should have been invaded from the north instead of the south?"

Mr. Weisgall believes the government should compensate veterans as long as they have certain medical conditions and can prove they were present at an atomic test.

"I would also, at the level of the president of the United States, apologize to atomic veterans, just as we apologized to the internees of the Japanese concentration camps," he says. "Simply say, 'A mistake was made, you were placed in harm's way, we were ignorant at the time, you fulfilled a very valuable function for the United States, and you have not been treated the way you should.'

"The veterans and widows I have spoken to are looking for compensation -- no one wants to turn down money -- but what they really want is some recognition."

Advertisement

CREATIVITY IN THE BLOOD

Jonathan Weisgall, the author of "Operation Crossroads," is a die-hard Orioles fan who was born into a legendary Baltimore family.

His grandfather, Adolph "Abba" Weisgal, the fourth generation in a line of prominent cantors, began serving Chizuk Amuno Synagogue when it was located on Eutaw Place. (He came to Baltimore from Czechoslovakia in 1920.) His uncle, Fred Weisgal, was a well-known civil rights lawyer -- he represented atheist Madalyn Murray and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan -- as well as a jazz pianist.

Jon's father, Hugo Weisgall -- the man who added the extra "l" to the family name -- is an internationally renowned opera composer who recently received a gold medal award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Jon spent his early childhood on Whitney Avenue in Mount Washington, attending Cross Country Elementary School. When he was 10 years old, however, his father became the first in the family to take a job away from Baltimore, eventually moving to Long Island. Although Jon once considered becoming a musician -- he studied piano and clarinet for many years -- he received his degree in history from Columbia University and went on to study law at Stanford University, where he became an editor of the Law Review.

He says "Operation Crossroads" is very much a family affair: It blends a creative drive he credits to his father and a sense of justice he traces to his late uncle.

Advertisement

"I'm never going to write an opera, but when I'm no longer here, there will be something for the children and grandchildren to see and touch like they can listen to an opera. And Hugo also loved history.

"But Freddie is why I went to law school," he says. "And Freddie represented human beings. At Covington & Burling, I did corporate work. Something just brought me to individuals. I care more about people cases than anything else."



Advertisement