By James L. Nolan, Jr. (Cambridge, MA, USA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2020, 294 pp.)
Reviewed by Rachelle Linner
It is hard to imagine a more appropriate author for this impressive work of scholarship and interpretation than Williams College Professor James L. Nolan, Jr. A sociologist who focuses on the role of technology in modern society, Professor Nolan is the grandson of James Findley Nolan, M.D., a physician who was involved in the seminal events of the early nuclear age. Through the lens of his grandfather’s life, James L. Nolan explores the dynamics of “the overarching, penetrating, and ubiquitous quality of technique in modern society.” It is an ambitious agenda and one he accomplishes with nuanced sensitivity.
James Findley Nolan, M.D. (1915–1983) was a 28-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist when he was recruited for the Manhattan Project and appointed postsurgeon at Los Alamos. In addition to medical care for the Los Alamos community, Dr. Nolan and his colleagues were responsible for developing standards to protect against radiation exposure in the laboratory and during the Trinity Test in July 1945. Dr. Nolan accompanied the Hiroshima bomb from Los Alamos to Tinian Island, was among the first people to enter Hiroshima and Nagasaki after Japan’s surrender, and monitored fallout during nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. After the war, Dr. Nolan went on to have a distinguished civilian career in gynecological oncology.
Dr. Nolan and his colleagues were responsible for developing standards to protect against radiation exposure in the laboratory and during the Trinity Test in July 1945.
Was Dr. Nolan a hero or a villain? This is the conflict that Atomic Doctors addresses as it delineates the competing narratives offered about the use of the bomb and the effects of radiation. It is an eminently readable history of the early years of the atomic age, presented as a case study that raises broader questions about the relationship between technological determinism and human freedom. Nolan clearly illustrates how “technological momentum” made the use of the bomb inevitable. He quotes historian Ferenc Szasz, who argued that “Truman did not really make any ‘decision.’ Instead, the momentum of the Manhattan Project made the decision for him.”
There were three communities present in the Manhattan Project and each “emphasized distinct, and sometimes conflicting, vocational characteristics: the academics, the military, and the much smaller community of medical doctors. The academics were primarily concerned with scientific discovery … . They were accustomed to the open exchange of ideas through seminar-style discussions and colloquia. The military, on the other hand, wanted a bomb for combat purposes. It emphasized secrecy, security, and a strict hierarchy of authority. Instead of the open sharing of ideas, it wanted an operational structure with clearly defined compartmentalization of tasks.” And then there were the medical doctors, “marginally part of both communities but not fully members of either.”
Was Dr. Nolan a hero or a villain?
General Leslie Groves, who directed the Manhattan Project, was particularly contemptuous of the doctors and dismissive of the concerns they raised about radiation exposure. Dr. Nolan traveled to Oak Ridge, TN, USA, to give Groves the monitoring and evacuation plans for the Trinity Test. After keeping Nolan waiting for hours, Groves taunted, “What are you, some kind of Hearst propagandist?” The General’s “single-minded preoccupation with security and secrecy” meant that he did not want to approve anything that would alert people to the military operation being conducted at the test site, including the need to evacuate people from areas that received high radioactive fallout.
The first test of an atomic bomb, named the Trinity Test by Robert Oppenheimer, took place on 16 July 1945, at the Alamogordo Bombing Range, 210 miles south of Los Alamos. The biggest uncertainty about the test was how meteorologic conditions would affect the size of the area of radioactive fallout.
The military saw radiation exposure as a public relations problem, not a medical one. The physicians were continually frustrated by their inability to convince the military about the dangers of radiation but “there is considerable evidence to suggest that the doctors were ever mindful of potential legal consequences and careful to take precautions to protect themselves and the military from future litigation.” Time after time “a scientific mindset superseded a medical one,” perhaps most egregiously in human experiments on 18 patients secretly injected with plutonium. A 1949 proposal to do “total-body irradiation tests on prisoners with life sentences” was rejected because “It is not very long since we got through trying Germans for doing exactly that.”
Nolan clearly illustrates how “technological momentum” made the use of the bomb inevitable.
Groves consistently minimized the impact of initial and residual radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki because he “feared having to give an account for what could justifiably be seen as an inhumane and (illegal) form of combat,” akin to biological or chemical warfare. This is one reason why Americans did not offer medical care to hibakusha, the survivors of the bomb. To do so “would be acknowledging moral responsibility for the plight of the hibakusha in both cities. … this was not something Americans were willing to admit.” Atomic Doctors painfully delineates the actions that flowed from that allegiance: the shameful treatment of downwinders exposed to radiation during the Trinity Test, the destruction of the lives of Marshall Islanders, the callous disregard for the health of enlisted personnel, and the secrecy necessitated by lies about the long term effects of radiation.
In the midst of this depressing narrative of moral compromise is the edifying story of the Polish-born British physicist Joseph Rotblat. Like other scientists who were refugees from Europe, Rotblat was motivated to work on the Manhattan Project because he feared that Germany was going to develop atomic weapons. But after Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945, only Rotblat walked away. Why did no one else choose to leave? “This was a question he explored with his colleagues both before and after the war. ‘The most frequent reason’ offered to Rotblat by his Los Alamos colleagues was that of ‘pure and simple scientific curiosity—the strong urge to find out whether the theoretical calculations and predictions would come true.’ Operating within the investigative mentality of the scientific paradigm, the physicists were thinking not so much about the wartime use of a weapon as they were about the final outcome of their intensive research, experimentation, and theoretical predictions.” Or, as Robert Oppenheimer observed, “the decision to use the bomb ‘was implicit in the project.”’
The military saw radiation exposure as a public relations problem, not a medical one.
When asked about his work at Los Alamos, Dr. Nolan always replied, “I delivered the babies.” He hewed to the official justification for the use of the bomb that it ended the war and saved American lives. But his grandson suggests that he was deeply troubled by his participation in these historic events. “While in later years he occasionally gave interviews and lectures about his wartime experiences, he was notably reluctant to discuss his various roles. Even close family members recall hearing very little about his unique journey, and concerning some aspects of experience—such as what he saw in Japan—virtually nothing at all. One can only imagine the anguish and psychological toll he endured from keeping hidden and unspoken such life-changing experiences for so long.” It is impossible to ignore the moral injury this good physician sustained after years of secrecy, compartmentalization of roles as scientist and healer, and acceptance of narratives that the ends justify the means.
The story of the nuclear age is a narrative about how society develops and adapts to new technologies. In an excellent chapter on the “quandary of technique” Nolan draws on the work of Albert Borgmann and Jacques Ellul to discuss “technology as a cultural force.” Dr. Nolan illustrates what Borgmann calls an “instrumentalist view of technology”—technology “is neither good or bad … . It depends on us and our values whether it is used well or ill.” Dr. Nolan’s postwar career as a physician and cancer researcher was devoted to using nuclear technology to benefit his patients with gynecologic cancers. He was an “optimistic determinist,” who viewed “the development and application of new technologies as inevitable and as a net good for society.” Yet, his career also illustrates Ellul’s cogent analysis of the “inseparability of technology’s beneficial and destructive features” and how “technology, once set in motion, becomes self-augmenting and difficult to resist.”
In Atomic Doctors, Nolan uses the Manhattan Project as a model to think about the implications of newer technologies—the internet, social media, surveillance technologies, biotechnology, genetically modified organisms, and human genetic manipulation. As Ellul nodes, “recognizing the deterministic quality of technique is the first step toward realizing human freedom. Modern humans cannot act with freedom unless they first recognize and appreciate the extent to which they live in a technological milieu.”
The physicians were continually frustrated by their inability to convince the military about the dangers of radiation but “there is considerable evidence to suggest that the doctors were ever mindful of potential legal consequences and careful to take precautions to protect themselves and the military from future litigation.”
In 1983, more than one hundred alumni (including James F. Nolan) gathered at Los Alamos for a 40th-anniversary reunion. Some of the distinguished physicists expressed regret for what they had done. Victor “Weisskopf lamented, ‘Forty years ago we meant so well. At that time we did not foresee the consequences of our work.’ Given all that had happened since 1943, Weisskopf acknowledged the ‘special duty’ of the scientists to come to terms with the fact that their invention had resulted in ‘the unintended cause of the world’s tragic predicament.”’
Interestingly, a Similar Language of regret is offered by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, who “remorsefully reflected” on the unintended consequences of his work. One cannot make exact parallels between nuclear weapons and the Internet, but Nolan’s persuasive and eloquent argument about the necessity of paying attention to the underlying ethos of technology allows for a path forward. Until now, our moral intelligence has been too undeveloped to resist the technological mindset. We need to find a way to support the men and women of integrity who, like Joseph Rotblat, know that the ends never justify the means. Atomic Doctors is a sober study of what happens when we pretend otherwise.
Rachelle Linner is a retired librarian and a freelance writer. A long-time student of the atomic bomb, she is the author of City of Silence: Listening to Hiroshima (Orbis Books, 1995). She resides in Medford, MA 02155 USA.