III. Soldiers’ Psychological Stress in a Medical Context—The “Air Bubble” Experiment

(Cold War, late 1950s)

     Social psychologist Paul Secord and sociologist Carl Backman remembered having heard Mitchell Berkun talk informally about an unpublished "air bubble experiment" during a late 1950s West Coast conference on small group research in San Francisco (Secord, Backman, & Elms, 1997-1998). Secord wrote, “My own recollection is that about 20 of us were sitting around a table when Mitch talked about various techniques of creating stress. Carl was there, too. But it was not a formal presentation... So there is little hope of finding any record of the discussion through the West Coast Conference Group.” Backman recalled that Berkun related the air bubble experiment to him as they were walking along a street in San Francisco.

     In short, a soldier-participant was sent to an infirmary for a routine shot. Suddenly the medical technician performing the procedure—a confederate of the experimenter— exclaimed to the participant, "Oh, my God, I've injected an air bubble into your vein!" He then called for a doctor and explained the "accident," and the doctor said, "He's going to die." The soldier was led to believe he would die in a matter of minutes. Following a short period of observation, he was debriefed. According to Berkun on that day, the soldiers typically became quiet and withdrawn when informed of their impending deaths.


Issue 1:  If deemed, as likely, a blight on public relations, yet productive of vital information for the military, how should the air bubble experiment be reported, archived, and transmitted?  Bioethicists have pondered a similar question of whether to preserve the results of medical experiments by the Nazi doctors (e.g., Caplan, 1992), but the air bubble experiment was less drastic with respect to intent and damages.

Issue 2:  Mitchell Berkun was an active member of the American Psychological Association (APA). According to Alan Elms (Milgram’s graduate student assistant for the obedience experiment), the APA did conduct an ethics investigation of Berkun’s "Experimental Studies of Psychological Stress in Man” (case narrative II above) but did not cite him (Secord, Backman, & Elms, 1997-1998). The air bubble experiment, however, was far beyond APA scrutiny. On what basis can a professional association accommodate members whose research and/or practice are unavailable to scrutiny due to secrecy in national security settings?

Issues 3:  Is there an ethical responsibility to investigate partial evidence of horrific human experiments?  If so, whose responsibility is it?

     Partial evidence of horrific human studies have many times followed public announcements of marginally ethical research in national security settings. The research opportunities—in the 50s and today—are abundant, the stakes high, and oversight meager. An historical example illustrates how public and private information may interface.

     In 1956, Willard Libby, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and later Nobel laureate in chemistry, announced Project Sunshine in the journal Science. Strontium-90 accumulates in bones, especially the growing bones of children, because of its chemical resemblance to calcium. By Libby’s account the AEC was responsibly monitoring bone uptake of radioactive strontium from nuclear explosions, so as to assess the worldwide risks of nuclear testing (Libby, 1956). The actual method of monitoring was concealed:  “solicitation of bones of deceased babies from intermediaries,”  using cover stories, as reported in the 1995 Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (pp. 638 - 641). The collection of bone and tissue samples was accomplished secretly through the AEC’s personal arrangements with the Christian Medical Association, which “already had well-developed contacts at the local level in foreign countries” (p. 639), and through informal arrangements with directors of hospitals, pathologists, and others that afforded plausible deniability (p. 641)  A former U.S. Army covert operator has given uncorroborated testimony of his abduction of street children from Brazil, that is, live samples, for a precursor of Project Sunshine (Garcia, 1995a). But the Advisory Committee declined to admit this claim into public testimony taken in Santa Fe, NM, on the grounds that their mandate excluded foreign operations; the Committee recorded only Garcia’s testimony on domestic radiation abuses (Garcia, 1995b).

     This example leads to a further issue.

Issue 4:  By what practical means could ethical limits on human subjects experiments actually be imposed in national security settings, especially in foreign countries?  (Deployment of BSCT psychologists to CIA black sites abroad has raised analogous issues.)


Caplan, A. L. (Ed.). (1992). When medicine went mad:  Bioethics and the Holocaust. Totowa, NJ:  Humana.

Garcia, Ernest. (1995b, January 30). Testimony, Santa Fe, NM. Noted in: Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. (1995, October). Final report:  Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Washington, DC:  U.S. Government Printing Office. P. 895.

Garcia, Ernest. (1995a, October 21 & 22). An OSS covert actions operator. Oral history interview conducted by Jean Maria Arrigo, Albuquerque, NM. Ethics of Intelligence and Weapons Development Oral History Collection, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Libby, Willard. (1956). Radioactive fallout and radioactive strontium. Science, 123, (3199): 657-660.

Secord, Paul, Backman, Carl, Elms, Alan, & Arrigo, Jean Maria. (1997-1998). Correspondence concerning  Mitchell, Berkun’s psychological stress experiments. Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA. [To be deposited in 2009].