I. Soldiers’ Psychological Stress upon Close Observation of a Nuclear Test Shot

(Cold War, Nevada Test Site, 1958)

     At the Nevada Test Site in 1957, psychologist Mitchell Berkun and colleagues studied the stress responses of soldiers at Camp Desert Rock. The soldiers were selected to observe a 10-kilotron-nuclear shot at two miles from Ground Zero (Berkun, Timiras, & Pace, 1958). The researchers noted that:  “At this distance severe heat and sound waves and a strong ground shock are clearly felt. It is considered within the danger area; required precautions include using gas masks and kneeling in a narrow trench.”  The report stated that research participants “expressed no verbal concern about the possible hazards of exposure.” This observation accorded with results from a similar study in which “only 3% of 70 enlisted men brought from another post under equivalent circumstances described themselves on a questionnaire as being ‘quite a bit’ or ‘very worried’ about participating in an atomic maneuver” (p. 679).

     The researchers measured the soldiers’ levels of stress through “chemical products” in blood and urine samples. The study also included a subjective stress scale completed by the soldiers. Comparisons were made with repeated measures between test results on a control day and test results on the day of the “nuclear shot”. The researchers concluded that neither conversations with the experimenters or the biological data revealed any stressful responses. The self-report measures did indicate a shift from a mean control-day attitude of “steady” to a test-day attitude of “timid.”  But the researchers concluded that, “Obviously this amount of shift does not represent a high degree of disturbance….” (p 681).

Issue 1:  In subsequent decades, hundreds of “atomic veterans” provided a different perspective on the calm of the test site soldiers. David MacMichael, a U.S. Marine officer, historian, and CIA analyst, remarked (Welsh et al, 2008):

While we weren’t told this was to test the effects of the weapons on us, the exercise, at least one in which I participated,  involved sitting down there under a trench and experiencing the explosion of a twenty kiloton device from the top of a 250-foot tower about 1500 meters from where we were. These [tests] were known as Desert Rock, 1950s.... I was fortunate enough, thirty years after taking part in these experiments,  to be at the test site again, protesting the Reagan Administration’s desire to reopen atmospheric tests in the area. Knowing the fact that systematically the troops who had “participated” in these were assured beforehand that there should be no adverse effects from radiation or other effects, and knowing thirty years after the event that in fact those levels had been exceeded.

     Did the Nevada Test Site psychologists measure the effect of the nuclear test on the mental states of the soldiers or the effect of the military propaganda about the safety of the test?  Researchers can serve to legitimize questionable military activities as well as to study their effects. How is it possible to distinguish between legitimization and research in national security settings? 

Issue 2:  The experimental exposure of soldiers to atomic tests at the Pacific and Nevada Test Sites generated  perennial claims  from “atomic veterans” of dire effects on health and of betrayal by the military (e.g., Grahlfs, 1996). These claims were largely substantiated by President William Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments  (1995). There is both documentary and anecdotal evidence that many experimenters were aware of the dangers but deceived the soldiers and downwinders (people living downwind of the atmospheric tests). Raye Tegtmeyer, a radiation safety officer and undercover counterintelligence  officer, stated:  “As I have been saying all the way along through here, [the researchers’ message] was: ‘Nothing is going to hurt you.... You don't have to worry about anything.’” At the same time, they moved their own families out of harm’s way: “I remember one particular scientist, when he told his family at Vegas—They were going to have a shot on a given day, and he said, ‘Instead of you going that way, I want you to go...the opposite way.’  So he's a family man. He doesn't want his wife hurt or his children hurt” (Tegtmeyer 1995).

     Like health professionals advising on abusive interrogations, radiation experimenters on human participants were embedded in a system of roles of those who knew, those who suspected, and those who did not know. Where does the moral responsibility lie in such a system? What is the researcher’s/soldiers’ ability to change an unethical course of scientific study?  What conditions and resources would be required to do so?

Issue 3:  Harmful consequences evolve may over long periods. A Nevada Test Site automobile mechanic subsequently had a daughter and a grandson whose unusual health problems he attributed to his repeated radiation exposures (Kendall, 1995):

I accept to a certain degree what was done to me because it was testing for knowledge and all like that and how to build a bigger bomb and better bomb. And I was a soldier and I had raised my right hand and swore allegiance to my country that I would do all this. But I am perturbed, I'm bothered by what wasn't told me and so on and that this would lead to problems with your children and grandchildren .


     Do the psychologists involved in the experiments have any follow-up ethical responsibilities to the atomic veterans or their descendents, or to the historical record? (Analogously, do BSCTs involved in abusive interrogations have any follow-up ethical responsibilities to abused detainees or their descendents, or to the historical record?)

Issue 4:  As acknowledged in his research report, Mitchell Berkun worked for the defense contractor Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO). Is there moral significance  to whether a psychological researcher conducts an experiment as an entrepreneurial government contractor or is assigned to it as a military psychologist?


Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. (1995, October). Final report:  Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Washington, DC:  U.S. Government Printing Office.

Berkun, M. M., Timiras, P. S., & Pace, N. (1958). Psychological and physiological responses in observers of an atomic test shot. Psychological Reports, 4, 679-682.

Grahlfs, F. Lincoln. (1996). Voices  from Ground Zero:  Recollections and feelings of nuclear test veterans. Lanham, MD:  University Press of America.

Kendall, Kenneth. (1995, January 14, & 1997, April 6). Mechanic for the scientists motor pool at the Nevada Test Site. Interview conducted via telephone by J.M. Arrigo. Ethics of Intelligence and Weapons Development Oral History Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Tegtmeyer, Ray. (1995, July 13). Loyalty to Country and Betrayal by Country. Interview conducted by J.M. Arrigo, Albuquerque, NM. Ethics of Intelligence and Weapons Development Oral History Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Welsh, C., MacMichael, D., Arrigo, J.M., Culbertson, R., & Amondson, N. (2008, June 28). Inquiry into Experimentation with Neuroweapons on Humans. [Audio-recording and transcript.]  Meeting of the Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook on Interrogation Ethics, June 27-30, Herndon, VA. Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.