Health Politics in Cold War America, 1953 -1988
Whitehurst, John Robert (author)
Doel, Ronald Edmund (Professor Directing Dissertation)
Mesev, Victor (University Representative)
Frank, Andrew (Committee Member)
Blaufarb, Rafe (Committee Member)
Gabriel, Joseph (Committee Member)
Florida State University (degree granting institution)
College of Arts and Sciences (degree granting college)
Department of History (degree granting department)
Throughout American history, physicians and their close professional associates, including pharmacists, have been asked to participate in both public health and national security efforts. While these efforts are not inherently contradictory, some physicians within the medical community began to perceive them as such, especially following World War II. These physicians gave birth to an anti-nuclear “physicians’ movement” that challenged the notions of national security and used public health as a basis for doing so. They did this alongside two very important allies: natural scientists and concerned citizens, particularly middle-class women. This dissertation focuses on the two ways in which activist physicians were most directly tied to national security: as purveyors of information on the health effects of radiation (especially that resulting from nuclear testing) on people and the environment, and as participants in civil defense programs and exercises. Cold War physicians and pharmacists were expected to be the arbiters of information concerning the physical impacts of nuclear testing on Americans. Indeed, civil defense programs often described them as the “liaison” between the science community and the general public. Consequently, those within the “physicians’ movement” used their positions to challenge nuclear testing through medical activism. The Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), alongside various other anti-nuclear groups like the Women Strike for Peace (WSP) and Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), presented information which contested the narratives of federal and state agencies, which often claimed that radioactive levels resulting from nuclear testing remained and would continue to remain safe for Americans. This challenge was largely manifest through the national conversation on the consequences of radioisotopes on public health, in particular Strontium 90 and Iodine 131. These radioisotopes fell from the skies in the form of fallout and worked their way back up food chains and into the American diet. This was especially disconcerting to young mothers, as infants and small children were particularly susceptible to these toxins. The “physicians’ movement” mobilized these radioisotopes and challenged civil defense throughout the early Cold War. Its leaders largely did so in the name of public health and were even credited by Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, for their influence in garnishing American support for the passing of a Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) in 1963. The LTBT was a monumental achievement of the anti-nuclear movement, as it eliminated atmospheric (above ground or aquatic) nuclear testing in both the United States and the Soviet Union. While underground nuclear testing continued, and other nations soon entered the nuclear club, this legislation greatly limited the two largest nuclear powers from further contaminating the global atmosphere to the degree that they had in the early Cold War. During the early Cold war, physicians and pharmacists were also expected to continue the tradition of supporting and preparing for war on the home front via civil defense exercises and practices. With civil defense administrators shifting their focus from conventional toward nuclear arsenals following World War II, they also began to predict the disproportionate destruction of physicians in post-war scenarios. Pharmacists and others within the medical community were being trained to take the place of these theoretically deceased physicians in preparation for a post-attack environment. The idea that pharmacists could replace physicians in a post-nuclear environment, as proposed by civil defense planners, alerted some physicians that something must be done. In response, the PSR participated in several congressional hearings, influenced the narratives of other anti-nuclear groups, funded anti-nuclear media, and fostered citizen-science projects in order to challenge notions of civil defense and nuclear testing in the name of public health. Medical activism, however, did not end with the signing of the LTBT. The PSR, in particular, only grew stronger as the Reagan Revolution and heightened Cold War tensions rose in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The PSR mutated from a local and national organization into an international participant in the Freeze movement and the anti-nuclear resurgence of the early 1980s. Medical activists again used many of the same methods they had relied on during the early Cold War period to challenge militarism such as professional journals, newspaper editorials, and popular media. They also began to use newer forms of media. In particular, the PSR funded the airing of several well-known and influential anti-nuclear films, like Day After and Threads, which challenged the foundations of civil defense throughout the 1980s. The story of Cold War medical activism illuminates the various tensions which have existed, and continue to exist, which are fundamental to balancing the necessities of national security with those of public health.
Civil Defense, Cold War, Medical Activism, National Security, Nuclear Testing, Public Health
October 8, 2018.
A Dissertation submitted to the Department of History in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Includes bibliographical references.
Ronald E. Doel, Professor Directing Dissertation; Victor Mesev, University Representative; Andrew Frank, Committee Member; Rafe Blaufarb, Committee Member; Joseph Gabriel, Committee Member.
Florida State University