Cold War tests were often kept secret because officials feared lawsuits, bad publicity or having tests halted, according to documents released this month by presidential probers.
Officials had said for decades that such secrecy was only to protect national security. But documents released by the president's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments showed that was not always the case.For example, a memo from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 said, "It is desired that no document be released which refers to experiments with humans and might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits. Documents covering such work field (sic) should be classified `secret.' "
Other documents showed government doctors did not tell government workers at Oak Ridge, Tenn., they were sick with illnesses likely caused by radiation exposure.
Another time, officials tried to keep secret a study that showed standards for radiation exposure by government employees had been too low. "We can see the possibility of a shattering effect on the morale of the employees," they wrote.
Sometimes they tried to mislead the public about tests. For example, studies that collected animal milk and human urine downwind of atomic bomb tests were called "nutritional studies," when they were actually fallout studies.
Other times, scientists tried to erase all identification of people used in human experiments - such as their initials on test results - so the people would later have trouble linking themselves to the tests and possibly filing lawsuits.
And even when the military allowed some experiment results to be published, it sometimes ordered that all references be erased that connected them to germ, chemical or radiation warfare experiments.
For example, a Sept. 3, 1952 memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked the military to ensure "that all published articles stemming from the BW (biological warfare) or CW (chemical warfare) research and development programs are disassociated from anything which might connect them with U.S. military endeavor."