USS Missouri: The big questions remain

San Francisco Bay Guardian, August 12, 1987

San Francisco is a Navy town. That must be why Navy ships secretly tested bacteriological warfare on it in the 1950s. That must be why the Navy quietly dumped radioactive garbage off its coast and scrubbed hot ships in its harbor. And that must be why the Navy, Mayor Feinstein, and most mayoral candidates want to berth a fleet of warships, possibly loaded with plutonium-tipped missiles, within the city limits ("The Navy will neither confirm nor deny.") The controversy over the USS Missouri involves the great paradox of the nuclear era: the destructive technology developed since the last war is inimical to the free society it pretends to protect. Requiring secrecy and lies, it corrupts those who believe they control it. Meanwhile, it is slowly killing us all.

Let me take you for a moment beyond the mayoral cant about the "peace ship," the patriotic posturings, the snappy dress whites and gold braid, the bland assurances of feasible cleanup, safety, jobs, and above all, money. Let me take you on a brief tour of postwar America, where warfare has become so permanently and thoroughly embedded in the national psyche and economy, yet so glazed with euphemism, that we call it peace.

Between September 20 and 26, 1950, a Navy minelaying vessel secretly released an aerosol cloud of bacteria outside the Golden Gate "to study the offensive possibilities of attacking a seaport city with a biological agent," according to a declassified report. Nearly every one of the 800,000 citizens of San Francisco was exposed to the agent, said the report. The bacterium, Serratia marascens, produced pneumonia-like symptoms in weakened individuals; it was, the Army later claimed, harmless, though the family of a San Francisco pipe fitter, who was found to have Serratia in his blood after his death, sued the Army for $11 million. The bacteria were prepared at Oakland's Naval Biosciences Lab, jointly run with the University ("Let There Be Light") of California.

San Francisco in 1950 was just a warm-up. In hearings before a Senate health subcommittee in 1977, the Army admitted to at least eighty open-air tests involving disease-producing agents. Unwitting communities included Washington, Key West, the Bay Area (again, in 1954) and New York, where Serratia was dispersed through the subway system in 1966.

The Navy ship broadcasting Serratia might have rubbed bows with Atomic Energy Commission contractors dumping drums of radioactive waste around the Farallone islands. The rupturing barrels provided a brief news spasm in 1980 when then-Supervisor Quentin Kopp and State Senator Barry Keene demanded investigations of just what was out there. While the government claimed to have dumped only 3,500 barrels of low-level waste in deep water, investigators discovered evidence of at least 47,500 barrels, some containing high-level waste, and much of it in shallow water. The New York Times reported "the presence of plutonium contamination in the sediments," and public interest was piqued by the discovery of giant sponges growing on the drums. Initial findings suggested that radioactivity was working up the food chain, but Governor Deukmejian's administration axed fish-testing in 1983. (It was recently resumed). Because "cleanup" of the underwater dump is impossible, interest soon flagged, then flared briefly when then-Secretary of the Navy Lehman proposed scuttling 100 hot submarines off Mendocino in 1984.

Where could so much radwaste have come from, anyway? A goodly helping came from within San Francisco city limits, according to 1986 testimony by Saul Bloom, executive director of the Arms Control Resource Center at Congressional subcommittee hearings on the environmental quality of San Francisco Bay. Ships from the South Pacific nuclear tests of the 1940s and 1950s were brought to Hunters Point for "cleaning." They were sandblasted and flushed with acid; what material could be contained was drummed and sent out to the Farallones, but much of it simply went into the Bay mud and the air. In the late 1940s, UC scientists OK'd unrestricted land burial at Hunters Point. The hot crud is apparently out there, along with three tons of radium-coated dials and a witch's brew of chemicals dumped onshore and off over the decades. Navy consultants recommended tests to determine whether harmful levels of radiation are present.
What would be more intriguing, though troublesome, would be a follow-up of the fate of workers and neighbors at the Point. But this the government is understandably loath to do. Analyses of what comes out of the other end of the arms race cow are entirely unprofitable, as well as embarrassing and messy.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee did consider, in 1985, tracking down some of the 180 people on whom radiation was tested at Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation from 1951 to 1973. Some were fed radioactive fish from the Columbia River, some were injected with phosphorous-22. But they are only a tiny fraction of the unwitting civilians and servicemen on whom the military has been experimenting for the last 42 years.

The National Association of Radiation Survivors conservatively estimates that one million Americans, including at least 270,000 "atomic veterans," have been exposed to harmful radiation from hundreds of nuclear tests conducted by the United States. These are the unsuspecting guinea pigs of the arms race — the soldiers ordered to march through rising mushroom clouds, the pilots to fly through them, the sailors to watch them, the servicemen to clean up after the blasts or accidents, the Navajos who mined the uranium, the workers who made and handled the bombs, the ranchers, mothers and children who lived downwind and were told by "authorities" to stay inside for an hour while the dust settled on their lawns, roofs and crops — all those people dying or dead of tumors, leukemia or the unnamed diseases that penetrate the immune system wrecked by radiation poisoning, the slow, rotting illnesses that cannot causally be traced to government negligence, curiosity, or malice.

On one group there was follow-up. The Polynesians whose home, Bikini Atoll, was ruined by repeated hydrogen bomb test blasts in 1954 presented a scientific opportunity unseen since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Within a day of the tests, the Polynesians showed symptoms of acute radiation sickness. "The groups of irradiated Marshallese people," reported the Brookhaven National Laboratory, "offer a most valuable source of data on human beings who have sustained injury from all possible modes of exposure."

Now wait a moment. There was a time when such morally bankrupt behavior, I thought, was practiced by totalitarian regimes in shadowy places like Nazi Germany and Russia. Yet some researchers tracking American experiments with chemical, biological, and radiological agents, and with drugs, believe they have only scratched the surface of what went on. It is small wonder that the Reagan administration is steadily hacking away at the Freedom of Information Act. It is small wonder, too, that the Supreme Court ruled that a serviceman driven mad by LSD experiments cannot sue the government that did it to him. The citizen's recourse to information, protection, or compensation from a state committed to permanent warfare is meager and steadily diminishing.

Lewis Mumford, the foremost historian of technology and cities, anticipated all of this shortly after the armistice was signed on the deck of the Missouri. If America pursued the nuclear path, Mumford predicted, it increasingly would resemble its enemies. "Managing" materials as lethal as plutonium would require a society of ant-like order. Men given the illusion of absolute power would be absolutely corrupted by it. "National security" would be whatever those at the top wished it to be; information would be ever-more strictly controlled. In short, Mumford wrote in 1970 in The Pentagon of Power, the war never really ended: "In the very act of dying the Nazis transmitted the germs of their disease to their American opponents; not only the methods of compulsive organization or physical destruction, but the moral corruption that made it feasible to employ these methods without stirring opposition."

Grassroots opposition to the homeporting of the Missouri and its sister ships around the country would doubtless please Mumford at 92. Big as it is, the Missouri is only a small component of what Mumford called the "Megamachine." And Mumford would not be surprised by the public relations avalanche in the Missouri's favor. Money fuels the Megamachine, he noted. It concentrates a politician's mind wonderfully. While many local pols are obligated by their liberal constituency to verbally oppose the arms race, they will bark in unison like trained seals when a bribe in military pork barrel is dangled from Washington. [Oakland] Representative Ron Dellums, who opposes homeporting, was caricatured by the San Francisco Examiner as a friend of Kremlin commissars. It is hardly surprising that the ethical and environmental concerns of opponents have been belittled as trivial at best, treasonous at worst.

Money sucks us all into the dark circle of the nuclear arms race by making us increasingly dependent on military spending. "We have 13 states that are indebted to the Secretary of the Navy," claimed Barry Goldwater, testifying in 1986 against the Navy's homeporting plan, which he saw as a classic example of pork barreling. "That is 26 votes for anything the Secretary of the Navy wants. I think it was a brilliant political idea, probably one of the best we are ever going to be confronted with while we are in the U.S. Senate."

Another conservative senator, Robert Taft, took an even longer view, and was frightened by what he saw: "We simply cannot keep the country in readiness to fight an all-out war unless we are willing to turn our country into a garrison state and abandon all the ideals of freedom on which this nation has been erected."

I thought of Taft, Goldwater, and of Mumford the week that the American people went wild for a Marine colonel [Oliver North] who told them their government had consistently lied to save them from a dangerous world beyond their comprehension. I decided then to sit out the bicentennial bash for the Constitution. Wise as they were, Jefferson and Madison never imagined a nation economically committed to warfare, nor plutonium.

I'd like to think that there is not room in San Francisco for plutonium. Yet the arms race will never be stopped by those who profit from it. Only a citizenry fed up with being robbed, lied to, and experimented on — of losing its freedom in order to save it — will do that. Beyond all the mealy clichés about the Missouri, it is time to ask some fundamental questions about what it represents to this city and this nation. Well-informed questions, not bleating, is what democracy was designed to encourage.

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