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The Ghost of the Bomb : the Bravo Medical Program, scientific uncertainty, and the legacy of U.S. Cold War science, 1954-2005


After more than 50 years, controversy persists over the effects of radioactive fallout from the 1954 "Bravo" hydrogen bomb test. Although most scholars agree that the exposure was a tragic accident, popular accounts continue to portray the Marshallese as human guinea pigs, victims of scientific imperialism and Cold War atomic politics. Analyzing the historical records of pertinent activist groups as well as government documents of the long-term medical program that was created in response to the exposure - the "Bravo Medical Program" - this study describes why the question defies closure. Like many Cold War studies, the Medical Program blurred the lines between medical care and research, and between civilian and military needs. The Program's multi-decade continuation meant that it became subject to a wide variety of social, political, cultural, and ethical changes. While relatively uncontroversial in the 1950s, when the threat of nuclear war appeared imminent, the Program became suspect in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Marshall Islands struggled toward political independence and human rights campaigns took place world-wide. In the Marshall Islands, antinuclear and anti-colonial activists argued that radiation science was uncertain and open to many interpretations, and that government scientists could not be trusted to be objective. At the same time, the Marshall Islands Government tried to use the exposures to their advantage. The needs of the exposed often became lost in the tumult. My work demonstrates that political and social concerns, more than ethical ones, were the primary basis for charges of human experimentation. Today, uncertainty lingers. Yet the science produced by the Bravo Medical Program continues to be used by all parties in public policy and compensation claims debates because diverse groups still believe that, whatever its shortcomings, science offers a greater promise of objectivity than politics. By offering a nuanced view of a controversial topic, this dissertation contributes to studies about health and environmental debates with public policy implications, as well as the growing literature on the civilian consequences of Cold War atomic science

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