The BOOKPRESS February 1999

Working Under a Cloud


Harvey Fireside

 
In January 1957, I returned to Harvard from my two years in Berlin as an Army Intelligence operative. I had received a Master’s degree in Soviet area studies but was now drawn to the graduate program in clinical psychology. I have forgotten what motivated me to make such a disciplinary leap. In hindsight, it may have been a combination of factors. No doubt my interest in politics had cooled after being on the front lines of the cold war and getting embroiled in the reflexive game of international shadow boxing.

Then, like many other budding students of the mind, I wanted to learn how to exorcise the demons that pursued me in my nightmares. It took no great degree of insight to guess that the dark spirits sprang from my childhood in Vienna, especially after the Nazi takeover in March 1938. Perhaps I hoped that if I could coax other neurotics out of their self-induced labyrinths, I might find surcease from my own bitter memories.

In any case, it took only about a month or so before I was disabused of this dream of finding a second-hand cure for my own problems from the introductory grad courses in psychology. There was little inspiration provided by instructors rereading their dog-eared lecture notes to a somnolent classroom. The textbooks were not written in English, rather in a murky set of abstractions. I joined a so-called study group, where we took turns trying to distill some sense from chapters on theories of behaviorism and conditioning. We distributed blue-dittoed summaries to each other, as if we were law students parsing a complex case in maritime law. But, truth to tell, we were still at sea, awash in an ocean of jargon.

None of my instruction that term seems to have made a lasting imprint on my psyche. I escaped the cycle of alternating boredom and academic stress only through attending an occasional campus recital. There were also sporadic moments of inspiration from a job to which I was referred by the Employment Office at Weld Hall. This involved doing some German typing for Paul Tillich, a noted theologian who had joined the Divinity School faculty in 1955. In that time he had become one of the stellar lecturers at Harvard, linking his unique brand of Protestant existentialism to the worlds of politics and psychiatry.

Tillich was a very intense man in his seventies, with finely chiseled features and a shock of white hair. I had heard about his standing up to the Hitler regime as a professor at Frankfurt University when all around him were mechanistically saluting the new barbarism. His defiance cost him his tenured position and forced him to flee abroad in 1933. Tillich appeared to be on intimate terms with God. My modest mission was to type stencils for his Rundbriefe (circular letters), which regaled scores of his friends with his travels and social engagements. These included encounters with a gallery of notables, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Erich Fromm, Ruth Benedict and leaders of diverse socialist groups. My typewriter had keys for "umlaut" vowels, but Tillich’s convoluted style was difficult to follow. It was always a great relief to have the reverend doctor nod his approval after he had proofread my copy and rewarded me with a beatific smile.

By springtime I was looking for a sign from fate to direct me to a more challenging future than three years as a Cand. Phil. Psych. Could my omen be the notice tacked up on the wall of the Harvard placement office? It announced a recruiting visit by the Atomic Energy Commission. I signed up for an interview.

The AEC man was Jesse, a middle-aged southerner who promised me a productive career if I enrolled in something called "junior management training." I had read about "Atoms for Peace," a program that President Eisenhower had unveiled at the United Nations in December 1953. "Sure," Jesse said, "you sound like a great prospect for that area." How were my chances of working at the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had been established at Geneva the previous year? "Your language skills should be a great plus," Jesse said. I tried to pin him down on exactly what I would be doing. "We can’t be certain of that now," Jesse confided in a conspiratorial whisper. "But once you’ve finished your training and have a clearance, there’ll be all kinds of things we can’t talk about now."

In hindsight, I must have heard what I wanted to hear. No doubt Jesse supplied ambiguous answers and hid behind all those atomic secrets. I saw myself, in short order, as a kind of roving nuclear ambassador circling the globe on high-level missions. In a purposeful flurry of activity, I withdrew from grad school, turned in my financial aid, and headed for Washington.

The AEC was located on H Street, in so-called temporary buildings, which had been erected during World War I. An eager crew of us trainees sat through endless briefings punctuated by breaks for coffee and greasy donuts. We were all impatient to engage our duties and do right by President Eisenhower, whose avuncular portrait smiled down at us from the wall.

I had filled out voluminous questionnaires. With my Army Intelligence status, it wasn’t much longer before the FBI combed through my most recent past. Soon I possessed a Q clearance, which wasn’t even routinely issued to Congressmen and White House staff.

I was impatient to get my assignment, but the mills of bureaucracy ground slowly. There were more bewildering training sessions, as we learned the rudiments of a variety of nuclear reactors to provide the energy of the future. Nothing was said about atomic bombs. But I got an inkling of the gargantuan effort that had gone into this top-secret wartime venture when we trainees were taken on a field trip to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

An immense factory stretched across the verdant landscape. Miles of pipes formed a network for the "gaseous diffusion" of uranium. The lighter isotope, U-235, squeezed through membranes slightly faster than the heavier U-236. Each week, a few precious grams of bomb-grade material could be harvested.

As the six weeks of training crept by, my life revolved entirely around the drab suite of AEC offices. With only a few dollars to my name, I had rented a furnished room on 18th Street. A midget refrigerator and hot plate sufficed for breakfast, but there was no space to entertain friends, when and if I acquired any. Office life was strictly segregated by civil service rank. The higher-ups flaunted their superior status by a government-issue umbrella stand or, in ascending order, a padded chair, personalized objets d’art, or a rug on the floor around their desk. Trainees had no permanent space, but we could look forward to staking out a cubicle of our own.

Lunches and dinners I generally had at the building cafeteria. For a change of pace, the nearby Pan American Union offered spicy tacos and rellenos. As the Washington weather turned steamy, I dreaded leaving the airconditioned offices for my hotbox of a room. I had no life outside the AEC. A few trainees escaped from work to their family hideaways in Alexandria or Chevy Chase. Single ones like me dragged out their work until evening. Then we braved the soupy air for a few blocks to a neonlit bar. The lurid reflections of our faces made us seem like automatons mouthing vacuous chatter. We weren’t supposed to discuss the classified chores that occupied most of our waking hours. After the fourth gin and tonic, I was ready to amble home, stopping halfway at a Hot Shoppe for a cheap steamtable dinner.

On our last day of training we were posted to regular positions. My illusions were shattered. There were no "Atoms for Peace" in my future. Indeed, this much-heralded program was limited to a skeleton staff. Its prime purpose seemed to be to distract the public from the overriding military mission of the AEC. I was going to the Secretariat, which had a sinister Stalinist ring to it. Once more it appeared that my shorthand skill had tipped my career scales.

I was greeted by my new boss, J.B. McCool, a bluff giant of a man, with a hearty handshake. McCool told me that I would join the Meetings Branch, which he said was full of international-relations types like me. In effect, I would become one of the glorified supersecret secretaries who took minutes at the weekly meetings of the five AEC commissioners. My cohort soon explained to me why we were needed. It seemed that the chairman, a deskbound admiral named Lewis Strauss (pronounced straws) ran the agency with an iron hand. One of his most outspoken critics had been Thomas E. Murray, a crusty New York Democrat who had been ousted in March 1957.

But before he yielded his seat to a more pliable commissioner, Murray scored some procedural points. He lambasted Strauss for not sharing White House information from his meetings with the National Security Council. What’s more, sessions of the AEC had turned into impromptu affairs, in which matters of great moment had been decided without an agenda or a hint of parliamentary procedure. From then on, to placate congressional critics, it was decreed that AEC meetings would be conducted strictly by Roberts Rules of Order.

Still, I witnessed jumbled proceedings when I sat in as an understudy at the next session of the five commissioners. Admiral Strauss had invited someone named General Starbird, a ramrod figure with four rows of ribbons on his chest, to present the case for augmenting the stockpile of H-bombs. Were there any questions? One of the other men around the table raised a cautionary quibble. Willard Libby, a chemist, responded to a nod from Strauss by saying there was nothing to worry about. The commissioners moved to the next item on the agenda.

How was this exchange going to appear in the official minutes? Jack, my mentor, showed me his draft. "Following a report by the chairman of the Military Applications branch, Commissioner Libby moved that the recommendations be adopted. After being discussed, a motion to that effect was seconded by Commissioner Vance and passed unanimously." In essence, that was the text formally adopted the following week. It bore little resemblance to what I had witnessed, but it certainly lent a historical cachet to a dramatic leap in the nuclear arms race.

Admiral Strauss was a formidable figure—tall and generally unsmiling as he surveyed the world through steelrimmed glasses. I soon became aware of his key role in depriving J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist who had headed the Manhattan Project during World War II, of a security clearance in May 1954. During off times, I was able to browse through three brimming file drawers in the Secretariat labeled Gray Board. That was the special panel headed by Gordon Gray that had heard endless testimony about Oppenheimer’s life and politics. From the documents, I surmised that Strauss had thought Oppenheimer a godless fool, since he had been educated at the Fieldston School of the Ethical Cultural Society in New York. That amounted to sufficient proof of his moral blindness.

As I dipped into the files in the summer of 1957, I failed to understand why the AEC couldn’t have simply canceled Oppenheimer’s contract as a consultant. Why had it been necessary for Strauss to publicly humiliate him and cut him off totally from government work? The object lesson must have been to warn other potential critics to march in step, or else.

I was just an overeducated clerk at the meetings of the five commissioners. I had only an ant’s-eye view of reality. But even without the big picture, I was growing palpably uncomfortable. The AEC was building and testing ever more powerful bombs. It claimed that it was merely matching the atomic weapons buildup of the Soviet Union. Yet through CIA "sniffer planes" flying over Russia at stratospheric heights, the AEC knew the laggard pace of the Kremlin. Debris from Soviet atmospheric tests yielded telltale clues to the composition of the primitive devices on the ground.

I had been a child witness of one holocaust, which cost the lives of six million innocents in years of agony. Now I was a helpless observer of an arms race that could lead to millions of casualties in a few minutes. It didn’t seem rational for me to walk out of the AEC after only five months, yet I was driven to escape under some pretext. My chance for reprieve came in the form of an announcement that the AEC would shortly move its offices to Germantown, Maryland.

"I’m afraid there’s no easy way for me to get there," I told McCool. "I have no car."

He regarded me quizzically. "You aren’t really happy here in Washington, are you? You’d rather be back in New York?" I nodded. "You do have genuine writing talent," he said. "Let’s see what I can do for you."

I should never have settled for this halftruth. Yes, my life in Washington was depressing. But the real source of my frustration was the AEC and its militarist ethos. I couldn’t bring myself to blurt this out. Was it just cowardice, the product of a deference to my elders learned from childhood? At the time, I rationalized that fate must have something new in store for me—perhaps a reflex inherited from my father’s fatalism, or a tribal attitude of Jews who see the Book of Life closing anew each Yom Kippur, with a certain number of us doomed to violent deaths in the subsequent year. We must watch, with Spinoza, while the paper boat of our fortunes sails down the gutters headed for the sewers.

Until my transfer came through, I continued taking minutes at commission meetings. Clearly, weapons were the prime topic, yet there were also other issues. Businessmen and bankers showed up to get rich on reactors. They came from electric utilities and old boilermaking companies, like Combustion Engineering, of Windsor, Connecticut. Their trade organization was the Atomic Industrial Forum. The commissioners seemed to approve virtually every design for nuclear reactors that was submitted to them. Instead of standardizing the safest and most efficient plant, Strauss welcomed them all—the more the merrier.

In July 1957, I received my new assignment. I was going to be assistant director of information for the AEC in New York. I could enjoy concerts and the theater again. It felt good to escape Washington’s cultural wasteland. But it soon turned out to be my transfer from the moral frying pan into the fires of hell.

New York City was the headquarters of something called Project Sunshine. This was the euphemistic title for the program that monitored fallout from nuclear tests around the world. The information office was supposed to reassure the media and the public that there was nothing to be afraid of.

I was quickly briefed on the party line: Fusion weapons were no more dangerous than the old fission ones. Hadn’t Chairman Strauss dismissed the complaints of the 23 crew members of the Japanese fishing boat, Fukur Yu Maru, who seemed to be suffering from radioactive poisoning after sailing 85 miles east of Bikini, site of the March 1954 hydrogen bomb test? The lesions on the fishermen’s skin, said Strauss, were due to "chemical activity of the converted material in the coral rather than [to] radioactivity."

When one of the fishermen died in September, Strauss explained that the real cause was "hepatitis from antiquated medical techniques." In a later announcement, he claimed that all tests up to that time had increased the average person’s dose of radiation "about as much as the exposure received from one chest X-ray." Some of our information handouts compared the fallout danger to humans to that of the radium dial on a wristwatch.

Pope Pius XII warned in 1955 that radiation threatened to bring about "the horrors of monstrous offspring." AEC press releases asked disingenuously, "Who can tell whether the next mutation will result in a defective or in another Einstein?" Meanwhile, school children were being taught to scrunch under their desks in case of nuclear attack. Civil defense exercises had New Yorkers ducking on the siren’s signal into cellars and subway entrances. In mid-1956 Strauss said that the Redwing test series in the Pacific had emitted reduced fallout. Indeed, it "has produced much of importance not only from a military point of view but from a humanitarian aspect."

These were not merely exercises in denial. I came to learn later that they were part of a disinformation campaign approved by kindly President Eisenhower. It was designed to undercut the protests of antinuclear activists. Strauss had pontificated in a 1954 press release that, "The degree of risk" from nuclear explosions "must be balanced against the great importance of the test program to the security of the nation and of the free world." How was Strauss weighting the impact of deadly isotopes on growing children?

The byproducts of tests in the South Pacific included strontium-90 that found its way onto the grass eaten by cows. Next in the food chain, it turned up in the milk drunk by children whose bones became cancerous, while radioactive iodine attacked their thyroid glands. My own science education had been too sketchy to sniff out all the lies in the AEC "information materials." But I choked on some of the answers I was supposed to parrot, though none of my coworkers seemed particularly distressed.

Grace, the director of information, was baffled by my ethical dilemmas. She sat me down for a motherly lecture. My problems with authority, she suggested gently, cried out for a good psychiatrist. I began to suspect I was really going bonkers. The rotund Dr. Kalbfuss, whom she recommended, wanted to know why I couldn’t seem to get along with my parents. Political qualms didn’t enter his Freudian equations. I squirmed on his couch. Through my half-closed eyelids I visualized a blinding mushroom cloud and the permanent shadows left on buildings in Hiroshima by people who had been vaporized.

The tranquilizers the doctor prescribed had no noticeably soothing effect. My nightly ration of Scotch made my working life the next morning almost bearable. Still, there were moments of hilarity. A voice on the phone identified itself as "Mel, a butcher from Brooklyn." He had a modest request: "In all the studies of fallout, has the AEC found the one place in the world with the lowest readings?"

I checked this out with Grace. She snickered, "Oh, Mel. He’s been pestering us for months. Maybe you’ll figure out how to finally get rid of him." That afternoon I ran into Merrill Eisenbud, the affable engineer who directed Project Sunshine. He stopped and mused, "That’s actually an interesting question. We’ve been studying this one spot—a depression in Patagonia—where the column of air is remarkably static. Even after the latest tests we couldn’t get a perceptible radiation reading."

When Mel called again a week later, I passed on my news of this meteorological anomaly at the southern tip of South America. Mel thanked me profusely. He never called again. As far as I knew, he had packed up his family and moved to Patagonia. They might yet turn out to be the ultimate survivors of World War III.

Not long after, the office was in an uproar. The venerable Edward R. Murrow was going to produce a program on the fallout controversy that was becoming a national obsession. Dr. Eisenbud was rehearsed by our staff and equipped with colored charts and maps. Still, he was a rather stodgy bureaucrat. Would he be able to deflect the searching questions of muckraking Ed Murrow? If he misspoke and blurted out the truth, all our heads might roll.

On the appointed morning, we ushered Fred Friendly and the "See It Now" crew into the conference room on Columbus Avenue. Murrow strode in and lit his ever-present cigarette. "What’s all this about the danger of nuclear tests to the American public?" he asked on camera.

Eisenbud was at his soothing best. He pointed at the map of test sites in the distant Pacific. He displayed the tiny blips that stood for readings of Geiger counters in the Midwest, half a world away. "A minor health hazard," he concluded, "Nothing to get alarmed about."

It dawned on me that Murrow, the prize-winning reporter of "Harvest of Shame," a classic exposé of the miserable treatment of migrant farm workers, was over the hill. He had let himself be mollified by deceptive statistics and swallowed the analogy of fallout to exposure to a chest X-ray. Eisenbud had gotten the AEC off the hook. The audience watching this program could breathe easier.

Still, there were persistent voices that kept up the protests. On the morning of August 6, I was about to enter the Northeast regional office of the AEC. My way was barred by a lanky fellow, whose forehead was adorned by a shock of white hair. "Do you know what day this is?" he asked. I tried to stutter an answer. "It’s the twelfth anniversary of the day we dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima," he said in a Midwest drawl, as he handed me a copy of The Catholic Worker.

I was dumbfounded. "What can we do about that now?" I protested. "You could join us this afternoon," he said, "when we go to the Empire State Building and hand a belated apology to the Japanese consul." I mumbled some excuse. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Ammon Hennecy. He hoped that in time we would become better acquainted.

Not long after, I learned more about this remarkable man. He had spent two years in Atlanta federal prison as a draft resister in World War I. In 1952, he had linked up with Dorothy Day, the dynamic organizer of the Catholic Worker movement. One of their regular actions was to assemble in City Hall park during Civil Defense drills. They had declared that it would be ridiculous to take cover during a nuclear attack, so they refused to "play at war." Their truth-telling was like that of the child in the story who insists on informing the deluded emperor that he is naked.

I saw Ammon again ten days later on the AEC’s doorstep. He looked more gaunt than last time, but was no less voluble. I asked if he was all right. "Oh, I’m OK," he said. "It’s my annual penance, giving up solid food." It turned out that he had been fasting annually on Hiroshima Day, adding one more day for each year since 1945. "I am getting a bit thirsty," he admitted. I went up to the office and brought down a big cup of tea with extra sugar. After he had downed it, Ammon unfurled a handlettered sign: "The Individual Conscience Versus the Atom Bomb? Yes. There is no Other Way."

Ammon’s certainty contrasted with my own vacillation. He kept speaking the truth, even if it exposed him to periodic arrests and to heckling, mostly from rightwing Catholics. He recounted with a chuckle, "One of them asked me yesterday at the Federal building, ‘Why don’t you picket the Russian embassy, too?’ I told him, ‘Because they’re not asking me to pay taxes for their bomb."’

While he was picketing our office, Ammon handed out flyers explaining, "I am fasting not to coerce or embarrass the Atomic Energy Commission, but in penance for our sinfulness in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for our continued testing of hydrogen and atomic weapons in our mad race for a supremacy that means only death. I am fasting to awaken the consciences of those who are part of the war machine, those who are half-hearted pacifists, and those Christians who see no contradiction in following Christ and Caesar."

I was no Christian, but Ammon’s words rocked me to the core. Grace shook her head over the time I was spending away from my desk, bringing cups of tea to Ammon and furtively reading his columns in The Catholic Worker. Dr. Kalbfuss tapped his pencil impatiently during my next session. "Why are you avoiding talking about your real problems?" he wanted to know. But for me the political had become the personal.

One night I wasn’t able to sleep. Even a double dose of tranquilizers wasn’t working. Except for Ammon, there was no one with whom I could share my spiritual agony. At 2 a.m., I didn’t know how I got to Broadway and 70th Street, twenty blocks from my rooms. I had no idea why the fire alarm was blasting away. When a cop found me there and asked if I had turned in a false alarm, I wasn’t able to answer. Meekly, I let him load me into a police car that took me to Bellevue Hospital. That night, I suppose, I was trying to do my penance.

When my case came up in court, a legal-aid lawyer explained that I had been stressed by my work for the AEC and was seeing a psychiatrist. The judge looked me over. She dismissed the case but made me promise to keep my appointments with Dr. Kalbfuss. The good doctor saw me twice a week for several years. At last he persuaded me that, despite my moral crisis, I had not been stricken with a psychosis. I just needed more realistic goals in life.

I managed to send off a letter formally resigning from the AEC. It must have sounded angrier thatn I realized, because for the next six years I would get an annual call from the personnel office in Germantown. They said that I was the most disgruntled person who had taken their management training program. They assured me they offered recruits more meaningful assignments now, even giving them leaves to obtain advanced degrees. Wouldn’t I retract my letter?

I countered that the AEC had sold me a bill of goods. "Not even a fellowship to get my PhD would have helped," I said. "Please let my letter stand. It still expresses how I feel." They muttered something conciliatory, but the following year they would make me go through the same routine.

Four decades have passed. Concerned scientists have been resetting the hands of their Doomsday clock, now closer to noon, now a few minutes back. Most of us keep our eyes to the ground as we follow our narrow paths, but a few of us tread carefully, aware that the clock is still ticking. At times its mechanical gears threaten to drown out other sounds, even the pulse of life itself.

This is excerpted from the final chapter of Harvey Fireside's memoir, Interesting Times: Tales of a Viennese Boyhood. Two other excerpts have appeared in The Bookpress.

Return to Front Page