How a secretive US agency discovered the a-bomb’s effect on people via Politico

Susan Southard

When Do-oh was 20, new hope appeared at her door. It was 1949, at the time of year, she remembered, that “the persimmon fruits started to develop color.” Her injuries still hadn’t fully healed, and her hair had not grown back; short, soft fuzz still grew in periodically, then fell out again. “I felt like giving up,” Do-oh remembered. “At about that time, an unfamiliar, foreign car arrived and parked in front of our house.
Three years earlier, the United States had seized on what it saw as a critical and unique opportunity to conduct long-range scientific and medical research on hibakusha (“atomic bomb-affected people”)—which an Army Medical Corps senior researcher on atomic bomb effects had believed “may not again be offered until another world war.” To this end, President Harry Truman had signed an order to establish the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), charged with studying atomic bomb survivors to determine how radiation exposure affected their health. U.S. leaders projected that the ABCC’s studies would offer the United States numerous military, scientific and regulatory benefits—including greater understanding of the impact of nuclear weapons currently in development, support for civil defense planning for potential nuclear attacks on U.S. cities and data for the reevaluation of international radiation dose limits for physicians, scientists, radiation workers and patients.
These goals inadvertently reflected how little, prior to the atomic bombings, U.S. scientists and military officials knew about the immediate or long-term impact of whole-body radiation, and they foretold how blatantly the ABCC would ignore the medical needs of the survivors, conducting research only and failing to provide treatment of any kind. Why? Because U.S. leaders believed treating hibakusha would be akin to admitting responsibility for their injuries—a concession the government refused to make.
The choices the agency made in fulfilling its mission ignited a bitter, decades-long controversy between the ABCC and hibakusha, their physicians and research scientists across Japan.

The United States offered numerous reasons for its no-treatment policy. Early on, officials said that American physicians could not pass Japanese medical licensure exams because of the language barrier—but by 1951, 70 percent of doctors on ABCC staff were Japanese physicians who could have provided medical care. The United States also asserted that occupation policy did not allow American physicians to render aid to Japanese citizens, giving an inaccurate impression that the ABCC was under the occupation’s authority. Other arguments included that medical care was not a relevant activity within the scope of the ABCC’s scholarly scientific research, that the cost of providing care would be prohibitive and that the ABCC’s provision of care to survivors would have a negative impact on local physicians by depriving them of the opportunity to administer these services to their own community (a position many Japanese physicians disputed). As late as 1961, U.S. authorities overseeing the ABCC maintained that offering medical care to atomic bomb survivors would oblige the United States to deliver care to every Japanese citizen injured during the war, which in return would require Japan to provide treatment to every American injured in battles with Japanese soldiers, including those wounded at Pearl Harbor. In putting forth each of these reasons, the United States failed to distinguish between other Japanese war casualties and hibakusha who were subjects of the ABCC’s long- term scientific study for U.S. military purposes.
Underlying every explanation was the highly charged concern that providing medical care to hibakusha—even while conducting studies on their medical conditions—could be interpreted as an act of atonement by the United States for using the atomic bombs, a position that was unequivocally rejected at every level of the U.S. government. The United States held tightly to this position despite the fact that in postwar Europe, the U.S. military provided medical care to former enemies under Allied occupation without any suggestion of responsibility for their injuries. So sensitive was this issue that ABCC directors rejected a hiring proposal to prioritize hibakusha as employees so as not to be perceived as atoning for the bombs by giving them preferential treatment.
Japanese scientists and early hibakusha activists also equated treatment to U.S. atonement, and hibakusha were caught between the polarized stances of the two governments, each wanting the other to claim moral, financial and medical responsibility for the atomic bombings. As this fierce international tug-of-war dragged on, hibakusha continued to suffer and often die from illnesses related to their radiation exposure, and neither the barely solvent Japanese government nor the U.S.-directed ABCC provided financial or medical support. Out of compassion for their patients, some of the ABCC’s Japanese doctors occasionally broke policy and provided medical care—including chemotherapy and other protocols—both at the ABCC’s clinic and during house calls, where they could treat simple cases without notice or with the silent acceptance of their American supervisors.
Within this highly charged atmosphere, hibakusha found an advocate in 33-year-old pediatrician James Yamazaki, the city’s third ABCC director. A second-generation Japanese American, Yamazaki had served as a U.S. Army combat surgeon in northern Europe while his family was interned in a War Relocation Authority camp in Jerome, Arkansas.
As the only American doctor at the Nagasaki facility, and with limited Japanese language skills, Dr. Yamasaki determined that one of his first goals would be to gain the confidence of both hibakusha and the Nagasaki medical community. To this end, Yamazaki developed a strong collaborative working relationship with Dr. Raisuke Shirabe, now the director of Nagasaki Medical College Hospital. This relationship helped ease the tensions that had been built up between the ABCC and Nagasaki’s medical professionals and survivors.
Early on, Shirabe delivered to his new colleague the still-censored research study of the acute effects on 8,000 survivors that Shirabe had conducted four years earlier. It was difficult for Yamazaki to comprehend the extent, rationale and impact of the occupation’s censorship of Japanese research on the medical aftereffects of the bombs. “They completed the study in 1946,” he explained, referring to Shirabe’s team. “Four years later, he was handing it to me—the first medical report our team was to receive covering that critically important population.”
Yamazaki was also barred access to numerous studies carried out by Japanese research teams in the four years after the atomic bomb attacks, and later he discovered that even he—an American serving American purposes who had security clearance from the Atomic Energy Commission—had not been given access to early U.S. studies on the short-term effects of the atomic bombs. In fact, he knew nothing of their existence until shortly before he left Japan two years later. These reports, Yamazaki remembered, “would have been immensely helpful … as we groped our way toward establishing our research on the effects of the radiation.”


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One Response to How a secretive US agency discovered the a-bomb’s effect on people via Politico

  1. norma field says:

    Illuminating piece, but there is one egregious aspect of ABCC (now RERF) research it does not touch on: its failure and/or refusal to investigate the effects of “residual radiation”–the impact of breathing the air, drinking the water, and eating food grown on the soil, leading to “internal exposure.” Needless to say, the implications are enormous–for all nuclear weapon production and nuclear power plant communities, as well as disaster sites such as Chernobyl or Fukushima. A 2012 TBS program offers (not subtitled, unfortunately) provocative research on this subject. It also shows RERF chair Dr. Toshiteru Okubo promising, on the occasion of a lecture in Koriyama City, Fukushima, that RERF would henceforth take on this topic. Has he been able to actualize that commitment?

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