Back To Index Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson
PROJECT CHARIOT Part III. Dissolution
In the spring of 1961, John F. Kennedy was the president of the United States, Alan Shepherd and John Glenn would become space heroes, and the Bay of Pigs invasion turned into a military fiasco and embarrassment for the United States.
In Alaska, things were not going too well for the advocates of atomic engineering. From its very conception, Project Chariot had its detractors, and as field work progressed on the impact study, doubts and second thoughts burgeoned in the minds of a number of the University of Alaska scientists. Eventually, several of these men charged the AEC with duplicity and outright censorship in the way they were handling the study and in the progress reports that were disseminated to the press and to the public. For their trouble, they were dismissed from the grant-conscious university which was attempting to put up a facade of progressive attitudes-which included taking the atomic advocates seriously.
In the meantime, hostility to the project was also growing in the village at Point Hope, and culminated in an eloquent document drafted by villager Howard Rock stating the inhabitant's opposition to the project which was sent to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. The letter asserted that the Native Alaskans had legal rights to the land they used under the terms of the Organic Act of 1884. In this effort, the inhabitants of Cape Hope were able to enlist the assistance of the Association on American Indian Affairs. They also found many sympathetic ears in the Interior Department.
In 1961, the Alaska Conservation Society boasted a membership of barely 200 Alaskans and about an equal number of non-voting, out-of-state members. They had taken a stand against project Chariot "until the AEC gave adequate assurance of the safety of the people and wildlife in the area."
In March, 1961, the ACS was approached by William O. Pruitt, Leslie Viereck, and Don Foote, the dissident scientists from the U. of A., about putting out a special edition of their publication, the News Bulletin. With a typewriter, a dilapidated mimeograph machine, and many hours of work, this team of concerned people published what amounted to a 30-page summary of the Project Chariot research up to that time. Unvarnished by the AEC. As O'Neill says, they went public "with the facts, opinions, and research findings that they hoped would destroy Project Chariot."
One thousand copies were sent all over the United States, concentrating particularly on conservation groups and government officials. In addition to this, Pruitt sent additional material off to Barry Commoner, a plant physiologist at Washington University in Saint Louis, who had recently organized the Committee for Nuclear Information.
The ball was rolling, it was getting bigger, and gaining momentum.
William O. Pruitt was one of the first persons to recognize that environmental studies made in Norway and Canada showing that lichens capture and retain inordinate amounts of fallout, including high levels of strontium 90, might prove to be a decisive strategy in defeating the proposed atomic shots at Cape Thompson. Previous studies had already shown that levels of Strontium 90 in Alaskan caribou were much higher than in the meat of domestic animals in the lower forty-eight.
Lichens are slow-growing, long-lived, and collect the detritus of fallout from almost any source over the years. This is bad news, not only for browsing animals like caribou and reindeer, but even worse news for the life-forms that feed on them. Eskimos and Indians, for instance.
It became apparent to Pruitt (and also to Barry Commoner with whom he shared his data) that the fallout from Project Chariot could easily contaminate large areas of the North Slope. He relayed these facts to the AEC, and though they were not publicly acknowledged, there is little doubt that there was a growing degree of concern. Especially in the mind of John Wolfe, even though he didn't publicly acknowledge it.
In June, 1961 Science magazine published an article titled, "Project Chariot in which two groups of scientists issued 'objective' but conflicting reports," that more or less sided with AEC claims, but in a subsequent issue of the publication these conclusions were challenged and refuted by Barry Commoner.
Opposition to Project Chariot was soon forthcoming in the Sierra Club Bulletin, which reprinted the entire issue of the ACS bulletin; in resolutions against the project by the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Association, and articles in smaller environmental journals and sportsmen's magazines. Widespread publicity was accorded the opposition by information disseminated on the Methodist Church's network of civic education programs.
Individual endeavor at the grassroots level also played an important role in defeating Project Chariot. People like Alan Cooke, Jim and Doris Haddock; Max, Peter, and Elizabeth Foster, and Mrs. Joseph Lyndon Smith all contributed greatly to the growing tide of opposition to playing games of chance with people's lives-not to speak of the wildlife. Through it all, Keith Lawton, the Episcopal priest at Point Hope, was unrelenting in his opposition to Chariot, often in the face of criticism from superiors in his own church.
Dan O'Neill relates that by 1961, some elements of the Alaskan press "finally began at least to cover the opposition to Project Chariot," but the best news of all was a June 4, 1961 story in The New York Times headlined, "Caribou's fondness for lichens may bar Alaska Atomic blasts."
"By the end of 1961," O'Neill writes, "the Christian Science Monitor framed anti-Chariot activism as a David-and-Goliath story headlined ALASKAN ESKIMOS BUCK AEC." The heat was turned up still more when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article stating the case against Project Chariot.
The April, 1962 issue of Harper's magazine ran "The Disturbing Story of Project Chariot" by Paul Brooks, assisted by Joe Foote. About the same time, Stewart Udall was informing officials of the AEC that his department "wished to participate in the review of the Cape Thompson environmental studies once they were completed." He also added that Interior wanted "all future dealings between the AEC and the native people of the Cape Thompson region to include Department of the Interior participation."
Not long after at a meeting of officials from both agencies, Assistant Interior Secretary John Carver and Bureau of Land Management Director Karl Landstrom voiced "serious doubts as to whether the land could be taken from the Eskimos and made available for this experiment." It was their opinion that such actions would require an executive directive from the president or, at the least, congressional approval. For all practical purposes, Project Chariot was dead.
In addition to all of these difficulties, John Wolfe and his impact people were increasingly concerned with a variety of disconcerting information that was being bared by their own on-going studies. Among their chief concerns was the prevailing wind direction during March and April, the months designated for the blasts. As illogical or amoral as it might seem, the AEC and Livermore scientists wished for a fallout over land so that the results of "a meaningful radioactivity experiment" could be measured. Early spring wind directions, it turned out, would most probably blow the fallout to sea.
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