Too Dumb to Meter, Part 4

What Friendly Atom?

By 1952, when the Republicans under Eisenhower recaptured the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate, civilian control of nuclear energy—at least on paper—was well established. The AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] was up and, if not running, then at least lurching ahead.

David Lilienthal had stepped down as chairman of the commission in February 1950 and was succeeded by Gordon Dean, whom Truman appointed to the commission in 1949 to fill one of the two vacancies created when commissioners Robert Backer and William Waymack resigned. Dean, a forty-six-year-old lawyer, had only one pertinent qualification. He had been a law partner of Sen. Brien “Mr. Atom” McMahon, the Connecticut Democrat who was a key player in the passage of the 1946 Atomic Energy Act (the bill was known as The McMahon Act). Truman designated Dean chairman when Lilienthal left.

Dean’s tenure, which lasted past the Eisenhower triumph of 1952 and ended on June 30, 1953 (the end of the federal fiscal year 1952), was largely unremarkable, except for some anger he elicited from the military. Time magazine reported in January 1952, “The most violent criticism of Dean and his colleagues comes from the military. None of the brassier brass hats wants to be quoted, but out of the Pentagon’s propaganda orifices comes a continuous stream of bitter unofficial protest. It is not against the AEC’s scientists. These the Pentagon loves: they think up atom bombs. It is against the AEC itself, a snooty civilian agency that speaks a language which few generals understand, whose power is enormous, and whose lowliest employees are not afraid to talk back to the Pentagon.”

The military was pushing to expand the U.S. arsenal with bigger and more deadly weapons, while the AEC was recommending smaller bombs with more bang-per-pound and -dollar, including battlefield tactical nukes.

The magazine cited Gen. Curtis Lemay, head of the Air Force Strategic Air Command, which was flying the enormous B-36 bombers, as scornful of smaller bombs. Army General Joe Collins, an artilleryman, was also skeptical of small, tactical nuclear weapons, preferring 150-ton shells that could be fired from enormous Army artillery barrels.

The irony of this contretemps highlighted in Time magazine was that the military was getting virtually everything it wanted from the AEC, and would continue to enjoy its accustomed deference and largess. What was lacking was any progress on civilian power.

As the Eisenhower administration moved into Washington, the promises of the early days of nuclear madness had gone largely unfulfilled. There were no houses heated by small nuclear reactors, no cars, or locomotives with atomic engines. And there never would be such imaginative, or hallucinatory, devices. At that point, a nuclear submarine was still considered visionary, and many experts, including some in the Navy, didn’t think it was possible.

Moreover, the most practical and obvious potential civilian fruit of nuclear energy—electricity—was nowhere to be seen. The civilian power industry had shown complete indifference to investing in nuclear power, which promised to be expensive and difficult to build. To an industry accustomed to cheaply burning coal, the transition seemed to impose unnecessary burdens. Without a compelling business case that showed clear financial incentives to building electricity-generating nuclear plants, no one in the industry dared to make the leap.

Eisenhower, whose military credentials were above challenge, felt strongly that the nation had to refocus its atomic attention from weapons to defend the nation to technology to support the country’s welfare. Ike didn’t want to abandon military nuclear power, but he wanted to deliver on the civilian promises of the atom. His administration moved quickly to assert control over the AEC.

The White House named Strauss, a true-blue, pro-military and -business conservative, to lead that transformation. Strauss had been feuding with Lilienthal for months in 1949 and 1950, largely over secrecy and security. Strauss felt Lilienthal was too willing to share the secrets of the atom with U.S. allies, such as Great Britain; he also pointed to what he perceived as Lilienthal’s lack of concern about personnel security policies dating back to the Manhattan Project, which didn’t do enough to weed out former Communists from the enterprise.

The final dispute between Lilienthal and Strauss was over development of the hydrogen fusion bomb, also known as the Super. Lilienthal and the scientists on the General Advisory Committee—led by Oppenheimer—opposed work on the weapon, fearing it would result in an even more ferocious arms race with the Soviet Union than was already underway.

Strauss, with backing from physicists Ernest O. Lawrence and Edward Teller, supported development of the bomb, with its potential to be at least one thousand times more powerful than the bombs that brought Japan to its knees. With Gordon Dean’s support, Strauss persuaded Truman to support development of the H-bomb. Strauss then resigned from the AEC, leaving only months after Lilienthal’s final day. With White House backing, the AEC directed a successful program to create the most terrifying and dangerous weapon the world had ever seen. The Soviets, convinced that the purpose of the weapon was to annihilate its communist regime (Teller would probably not have disagreed with that aim), mounted a successful crash program to develop its own thermonuclear bomb—and the arms race was on.

Strauss was a conservative Republican who backed Ohio Sen. Bob Taft for the 1952 GOP nomination that Eisenhower won. After Eisenhower’s victory, he began reaching out to Taft Republicans. Iowa’s Hickenlooper, a key player on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, suggested Strauss as AEC head. Taft pushed Strauss for a top Pentagon job, and former president Herbert Hoover suggested his former private secretary would be a dandy commerce secretary.

Events moved quickly. The victorious former general nominated Strauss, a former wartime admiral, to chair the AEC on June 24, 1953; the Senate confirmed the nomination three days later. On July 2, Strauss took the oath of office.

On December 8, 1953, Eisenhower addressed the United nations General Assembly in New York, where he gave his famous Atoms for Peace speech. The oration was directed as much toward the American people as to the rest of the world. Citing his military experience, Eisenhower said he felt the need to unburden himself “by saying to you some of the things that have been on the minds and hearts of my legislative and executive associates, and on mine, for a great many months: thoughts I had originally planned to say primarily to the American people.”

Pondering the abyss of nuclear annihilation, Eisenhower proposed an international body to harness and control the power of fissionable elements, turning them into instruments of peace. “So my country’s purpose is to help us move out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light,” Eisenhower said, “to find a way by which the minds of men, the hopes of men, the souls of men everywhere, can move forward towards peace and happiness and well-being.”

The United States, Eisenhower said, “would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.

“The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage?”

There was no reason to suspect that Strauss was the wrong choice to implement Eisenhower’s vision. He was a forceful, successful executive with a background that suggested he could transform the AEC into a force for peace as well as the forge of the weapons of war.

Strauss was a fabulously successful investment banker who started out in life selling shoes wholesale for his Richmond, Virginia, family business. A good student interested in science in high school, he had hoped to enroll at the University of Virginia to study physics, but a recession in 1913–1914 forced him onto the road selling shoes, where he was quite successful. His diligence in flogging footwear saved the family business.

In 1917, the supremely confident Strauss traveled from Richmond to Washington, D.C., to apply for a job as private secretary to Herbert Hoover, whom President Woodrow Wilson had asked to take over the task of feeding American troops in World War I. The brash young man from Richmond got the job, impressing Hoover with his hustle. At the end of the war, Hoover—with Strauss in train—organized relief for war-torn Europe.

In 1919, Strauss joined the investment banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb in New York, where he made a considerable fortune and became active in Republican politics as a Hoover devotee. When a second worldwide war broke out in 1941, Strauss, a long-time Navy reserve officer, volunteered for service and eventually earned the rank of admiral, as an expert in logistics.

Strauss’s successes in business and the military, and his Republican connections, led Truman in 1946, after the passage of the Atomic Energy Act, to name the Virginian to the Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss, the wannabe physicist, possessed an optimistic, even romantic, view of the role of the atom in the United States’ future. After he resigned from the AEC in 1950, scuttlebutt immediately had Strauss becoming chairman should the Republicans claim the White House in 1952. Strauss did nothing to chill the rumor mill. When Eisenhower named him to head the commission, there was no reason to doubt the ability of Strauss, who had demonstrated skill and loyalty at every level of business and government service.

Strauss, the accomplished businessman, had very different ideas than David Lilienthal about how to chair the five-member commission and how to run the sprawling, still infant agency. Strauss, accustomed to hierarchy and top-down decision making, had been uncomfortable with the way Lilienthal tried to run the AEC commission as a circle of equals. Strauss biographer Richard Pfau summed up the new approach to running the AEC as follows: “Strauss brought a new style of management to the Atomic Energy Commission. Accustomed to action rather than debate, he replaced the informal, rambling, seminars of his predecessors Lilienthal and Dean with crisp, formal sessions designed to produce quick decisions rather than slowly evolving consensus. Forceful, determined, and impatient once he had made up his own mind, Strauss dragged the other commissioners along with him.”

While Eisenhower and Strauss hoped to redirect the AEC toward more civilian uses of atomic energy, that never came to pass during their tenure in Washington. Rather, military applications continued to drive the attention of the commission and the administration and soak up the endless amounts of money provided by the joint committee. The AEC prioritized building and diversifying the atomic weapons stockpile, developing new weapons including nuclear submarines and nuclear bombers, and rooting out the alleged Communist menace within the agency.

Strauss entered into this set of priorities led both by forces beyond his control and by firm intention. He was convinced that Groves had permitted lax security during the Manhattan Project, in part because it was necessary to attract the best scientists to the endeavor. Like many of the intelligentsia of the time, some atomic physicists and chemists had been sympathetic to the left. In some cases, they had actually been Communists (although none of the key American scientists who worked on the bomb were in any way associated with spying for the Soviet Union).

Strauss participated in the hunt for Red scientists with gusto. He had a personal grudge to bear against J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had belittled Strauss in public over the issue of developing the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer opposed the weapon and considered Strauss a fool for pushing it. Oppenheimer’s arrogant scorn for those whose views he believed were wrong was legendary. Strauss, with Teller whispering in his ear, was convinced that Oppenheimer was a dangerous leftist who should be purged from any access to the holy secrets of the atomic weapons program. A 1947 security report to Groves had pointed to Oppenheimer’s ties to leftists (his wife) and Communists (his brother), but Groves concluded that Oppenheimer was a loyal American—and crucial to the development of an atomic weapon.

Strauss in 1954 initiated security proceedings against Oppenheimer, a controversy that dominated his time as head of the AEC. While ultimately successful in forcing Oppenheimer out of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee, the event tainted Strauss from that time forward and soured the public image of the commission. The vendetta against Oppenheimer plunged the AEC for the first time into partisan politics. Strauss biographer Pfau wrote, “Until the summer of 1954 the Atomic Energy Commission conducted its affairs free of partisan politics.”

The Oppenheimer security hearings were a travesty of innuendo, personal animus, and inquisition. The attack on Oppenheimer included wiretaps, clandestine surveillance, and routine violations of the attorney-client privilege. At a time when the Soviet Union had a tarnished reputation for show trials of political opponents of its murderously repressive regime, Strauss gave critics a milder, but no less telling, analog. His biographer, who was mostly sympathetic to Strauss, cut to the bone on his assessment of the Oppenheimer vendetta: “Determined to eliminate Oppenheimer, Strauss spared nothing. He failed to take account of the long-range effect of his action. For Strauss, no sacrifice was too great, even the sacrifice of himself. In the end, the Oppenheimer case cost the United States the services not only of Oppenheimer but also of Strauss.”

Strauss also seemed to go out of his way to court controversy. He quickly enmeshed the Eisenhower administration in a nasty battle with advocates of publicly-owned electric utilities over who should build new generating plants to supply electricity to the AEC’s burgeoning Oak Ridge weapons lab. The dispute turned into the Eisenhower administration’s first, and perhaps most brutal, partisan conflict, with Strauss fanning the flames for the Republicans. It became known as the “Dixon-Yates” controversy.

On December 2, 1953—six days before Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech—Strauss met with the president’s budget chief, Joseph M. Dodge, who informed the AEC chief that the TVA needed more electricity in order to continue to serve its territory, particularly the city of Memphis. The AEC’s sprawling Oak Ridge weapons laboratory and the AEC uranium enrichment plants there and at Paducah, Kentucky, were the TVA’s largest industrial customers. The bulk of the TVA’s electric power went to publicly-owned distribution utilities—electric departments owned by cities and towns in the region and rural electric cooperatives. Oak Ridge consumed about a third of the power the TVA generated from its hydropower dams and coal-fired power plants.

Dodge explained to Strauss that the administration really didn’t like the idea of allocating federal funds to build power plants that private industry could build. The TVA exemplified what Republican orthodoxy defined as “creeping socialism,” and on this matter Ike was ultra-orthodox. Strauss pledged to Dodge that the AEC would find a way to buy its power in the TVA region from the private sector, as it did elsewhere in the United States.

Strauss clearly didn’t know what he was getting into with this seemingly uncontroversial decision. What followed was a reprise of a battle that Lilienthal had waged during his years as the head of the TVA. In the earlier rumble, the TVA had prevailed over the private utilities and their champion, Wendell Wilkie, the failed GOP presidential nominee in 1940, putting the Tennessee Electric Power Co. out of business.

It was no surprise that private power companies were quick to come up with a plan to shut the TVA out of building new power generating plants to supply the AEC in the middle south. Strauss hooked up with an old acquaintance from his investment banking days, Adolph Wenzell of First Boston Corp. Strauss didn’t know that Wenzell was working both for the giant investor-owned Middle South Utilities and as a consultant to the White House Bureau of the Budget, a clear conflict of interest that, when later revealed, made Strauss look venal.

Middle South’s Edgar Dixon and Eugene Yates of The Southern Co., a large Atlanta utility holding company, proposed a contract with the AEC whereby a new company—Mississippi Valley Generating Co.—jointly owned by Middle South and Southern, would build generating capacity and sell the power to TVA for the city of Memphis, freeing up power to flow to the AEC. Strauss signed the contract setting off a fight with the TVA, its powerful Washington allies in the American Public Power Association, the national Rural Electric Cooperatives Association, and important congressional Democrats. Among the outraged Democrats were Sen. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, long a force on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), and politically ambitious Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.

Democrats had regained control of Congress in the 1954 off-year elections and Anderson became JCAE chairman. In 1955, acrimonious hearings on Dixon-Yates in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, with Kefauver as chairman, brought Wenzell’s conflicts to light, damaging Strauss in the process. Predictably, the White House shortly announced that it would cancel the contract, but only after considerable damage to Strauss and the Eisenhower administration.

Strauss’s final controversy came over continued testing of nuclear weapons and the fears of nuclear fallout. This issue simmered as the United States and the Russians scaled up above-ground tests during the early 1950s. In the fall of 1954, it boiled over after U.S. H-bomb testing dropped radioactive debris on the Japanese tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon) and South Pacific islanders. Throughout the controversy, and later when defending the need for continuing atmospheric testing, Strauss displayed his rigid and sanctimonious nature.

On March 1, 1954, the AEC detonated the first lithium deuterium-based (dry) H-bomb, known to the bomb mavens of Los Alamos as Shrimp, for its comparative size. The test, known as Castle Bravo, took place on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It was a tremendous technical success, as the weapon released an explosion calculated at 15 megatons, three times the yield that AEC scientists had estimated.

The bomb was so powerful that it trapped observers in bunkers well outside the projected range and rained radiation on U.S. navy ships observing the test from sea. Harold Brown, an AEC atomic bomb expert and later secretary of defense in the Carter administration, said, “Shrimp went like gangbusters.” AEC bomb builder Marshall Rosenbluth told historian Richard Rhodes, “I was on a ship that was thirty miles away and we had this horrible white stuff raining out on us. I got ten rads of radiation from it (about the same as ten chest x-rays). It was pretty frightening.”

The event didn’t particularly frighten the twenty-three-man crew of the unlucky Japanese tuna boat, which had been working some sixty miles east and downwind of Castle Bravo. They were unknowingly drenched with radioactive ash and dust from the blast for three hours. The men scooped up the detritus as it fell on their vessel and bagged it with their bare hands. When the ship pulled into its home harbor in Yaizu, Japan, on March 14, all of the crew showed symptoms of radiation poisoning. They were nauseous, with bleeding gums, suffering from headaches and eye pain. One of the crew members eventually died, apparently of a secondary infection that is common with radiation poisoning.

Strauss’s performance in the ensuing controversy was disgraceful. When the event surfaced in Japan, it created an understandable uproar. The United States was again, even if inadvertently this time, attacking Japan with nuclear weapons. In Washington, Strauss washed his hands of any U.S. responsibility. The test never got out of control and the Japanese ship “must have been well within the danger area,” he said. When the crewman died in September, Strauss insisted that the death was a result of “hepatitis from antiquated medical techniques.” He told Eisenhower press secretary James Hagerty that the Japanese vessel was “a Red spy ship.” There was not a shred of evidence to support any of Strauss’s assertions.

Called before the JCAE in 1955, as scientists began questioning the value of the atmospheric tests in light of the increasing concern about radiation, Strauss was adamant about the need to continue testing. “The degree of risk,” he said in a press release, “must be balanced against the great importance of the test program to the security of the nation and the free world.” But the AEC consistently downplayed the risk, as nuclear physicist Ralph Lapp demonstrated convincingly in an article in Science magazine.

In a 1955 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Lapp openly discussed the impact of radioactive fallout from the hydrogen bomb. Hickenlooper, the Iowa Republican and stalwart on the joint committee, was so disturbed by Lapp’s findings that he instructed the AEC to investigate Lapp for revealing classified information. Strauss complied, although Lapp was eventually cleared of any charges.

During both the Oppenheimer show trial and the Dixon-Yates controversy, Strauss frequently let his prickly personality and inherent arrogance govern his behavior. That succeeded in making a lasting enemy of New Mexico’s Anderson, who had no shortage of arrogance and bile himself. They clashed repeatedly during the testing hearings.

Strauss left the AEC in 1958 and became a personal aide to Eisenhower on national security issues. In 1959, Eisenhower nominated him to be secretary of commerce. Strauss’s Democratic enemies—particularly Anderson— seized on the nomination as a chance to gain retribution and bloody the Republican administration in the process. Anderson turned all his skill and considerable vitriol against Strauss and defeated the nomination.

Reporting on the fight over the Commerce Department nomination, Time magazine aptly summarized Strauss’s tenure on the Atomic Energy Commission:

Strauss’s five years as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission resounded with an endless rumble of controversy. The wounding wrangle that followed the suspension of physicist Oppenheimer’s security clearance made Lewis Strauss an unforgiving enemy among the nation’s scientists . . . He drew much of the blame for AEC’s heavily attacked (and long since cancelled) Dixon-Yates contract, under which a private utility was supposed to build a power plant at West Memphis, Ark., right in the jealously guarded public-power domain of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He outraged stop-the-tests advocates by urging continued nuclear tests, with emphasis on developing “clean” weapons.

The Atomic Chimera

Throughout the Strauss controversies, the nation’s leaders had embarked on restructuring the Atomic Energy Commission to reflect Eisenhower’s peaceful aims and in response to a precipitous slide in public support for atomic energy. The government had not been able to deliver on its grandiose postwar promises for atomic power, and the public’s patience was growing short.

In 1953, the University of Michigan’s renowned Survey Research Center looked at public attitudes toward atomic energy, publishing their results in the January 1, 1954 issue of Science magazine. The study found broad pessimism about the prospects for non-military uses of nuclear power. The researchers said the polling indicated that “it does not appear that the development of atomic energy and the allegedly revolutionary social and economic changes which it portends have captured the imagination or stimulated the curiosity of the majority of the lay population.”

The conclusion, perhaps expected but hardly persuasive, was that the “lay population” was “ill-informed about atomic energy apart from the atomic bomb.” In a sophisticated variant of “blame the victim,” the analysis concluded condescendingly that those who had a negative view of the non-military fruits of the atom were “chronic pessimists” and characterized by insecurity and low in self-confidence.

More to the point, the Science article also noted in passing that “the development of atomic energy, up to this point, has been tied largely to wartime needs and military demands. Peaceful applications have been comparatively modest and exceedingly specialized. Their consequences have not directly entered the lift of the average citizen. His automobile is not run by atomic power; atomic power has not changed his job, his diet, his house, or his recreation.”

The Eisenhower administration, the joint committee, and the AEC were aware of a disconnect between promise and delivery. Their diagnosis focused, in part, on the shortcomings in the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, which kept a tight government monopoly over all things atomic. Under the act, it was a crime for public citizens to possess nuclear materials. All research and development, for both military and civilian uses of atomic energy, was in tightly-controlled government hands at the AEC. No private citizens could hold patents involving use of fissionable material. The historians Mazuzan and Walker noted, “Civilian direction of the agency did not mean liberalized control of the atom by the government.” Any research and development outside the government required AEC approval. The AEC had special authority to classify information that extended far beyond that employed by the military. The atomic agency could criminalize possession of what it alone defined as “restricted data.” That gave the agency the authority to classify information that had already appeared in the public record, a practice that was common inside the AEC. While this gave the AEC, and its overseers, tremendous power, it also meant limiting the range of ideas and breadth of experience that could be brought to new ways of using the power of fission and fusion.

Soon the Eisenhower administration began promoting reform of the 1946 act; Congress quickly agreed to consider changes in the law governing atomic energy. In February 1954, following his U.N. speech two months earlier, Eisenhower sent a message to Congress calling for revising the 1946 law to make “it possible for American atomic energy development, public and private, to play a full and effective part in leading mankind into a new era of progress and peace.” On August 30, Eisenhower signed the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, a major revision of the 1946 law, opening up the nuclear vault to greater civilian access, hoping to promote peaceful uses of the enormous power of the atom.

But old patterns and habits refused to change. While their lips said peace, the hearts and minds of the nuclear power establishment continued to say, and mean, war. This tension remained throughout the 1950s and 1960s and well into the 1970s.

Overall, Strauss’s cockeyed optimism flawed his vision of the future. That’s no surprise. The nuclear delusions were widespread, and the ability of government in all branches to foresee the future has a wretched record, as do beard-stroking pundits and denizens of learned think tanks. Princeton psychologist Philip Tetlock, starting in the 1980s, began studying 284 men and women who make their living predicting the future and scoping out political and economic trends. He published the results in his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment. These were folks steeped in their fields, gurus, and mavens all. They proved unable to make consistently valid predictions. As Danish physicist Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, particularly about the future.”

Some of the atomic vision made sense. Nuclear power was well-suited for Navy applications, where weight was not a problem and cost was no barrier. Use of isotopes in medicine was a fine application, giving physicians the ability to trace the activity of drugs in the human system and see deep into body tissue. Even reactors to produce commercial electricity had considerable value, though it never approached being “too cheap to meter.”

But much of the enthusiasm about life with the tamed atom made no sense. Frequently the most harebrained schemes for atomic energy ignored the very real properties of radioactive materials: ionizing radiation can sicken and kill. Take the notion of atomic-powered cars, which was simply radioactive moonshine. Imagine a 50-car pileup on an interstate in the California fog if the cars had glowing, radioactive power plants? The results are too gruesome to detail. Detroit’s flirtation with nuclear-powered automobiles never moved beyond passing notes and giggling.

The intriguing idea of small nukes that could heat homes and provide onsite electricity also proved to be an illusion. The Army pursued this with its SL1 program at the Idaho testing site. The Army wanted a small reactor that could serve remote bases in places like Alaska with their entire needs for heat, water, and electricity. The result was the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history. The test reactor in Idaho, for still-unknown reasons, lost control and killed three soldiers in a grisly catastrophe. One soldier was impaled through the groin and pinned to the top of the reactor building by an errant control rod. The accident got little public attention. But it marred the Atomic Energy Commission’s reputation for many years. The pundits and politicians largely had more big-muscled roles in mind for nuclear power than how to heat Alaskan military outposts.

They pursued a grander agenda. Bombers powered by nuclear reactors would command the air, circling at high altitudes, patrolling enemy skies with the ability to rain death and destruction at will. Nuclear explosives would move mountains, dig channels, carve out new harbors, and liberate vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. Nuclear power plants would make steam, generating vast amounts of electricity, while generating their own fuel, producing more fissionable material than they would consume. Ultimately, the power of the H-bomb would turn into endless, clean, free electricity.

Radioactivity? No problem. Scientists promised they could keep the radioactive emissions from nuclear energy at bay. Gordon Dunning, the AEC’s in-house expert on radiation, was always sanguine in public about the threat posed by exposure to radiation through nuclear technology and, most particularly, from fallout resulting from nuclear weapons tests. Writing in Scientific American in 1955, Dunning assured the public that atmospheric weapons testing posed no threat to the public. The dreaded word “cancer” never appeared.

Strauss summoned the vision of the friendly atom, which would transform American society entirely for the better, in his 1954 speech to science writers in New York. That optimism echoed his boss, President Eisenhower, who had asserted to the United Nations the previous year:

The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage?

Meanwhile, out in the desert reaches of the western United States, Atomic Energy Commission scientists and engineers were being increasingly supplied with fissionable materials, with full-scale government backing. They were being tasked with turning the power of the bomb into several forms of aviation, for both military and peaceful uses. The results belied the technological optimism of the post-Manhattan Project age.

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available from the POWER Bookstore or and is serialized by permission.