For what is perhaps the most shocking example of the way in which human beings were utilized for radiation-related experiments at the height of the Cold War, we have to focus our attention on something called Project Sunshine. There was nothing bright and sunny about this program, however. The history and activities of Project Sunshine collectively serve as perfect examples (and perhaps far more importantly as officially documented examples) of the way in which human beings and bodies were utilized in Cold War radiation and biological tests. In the 1990s, the U.S. Government’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments looked into a whole range of Department of Energy-related scandals involving the use of human beings in radiation tests from the 1940s to the 1970s. The result: the surfacing of the Sunshine files. Or, at least, the surfacing of some of them.
One particular memorandum, dated June 9, 1995, and prepared by ACHRE’s Advisory Committee Staff, is titled “Documentary Update on Project Sunshine Body Snatching” and states: “As part of Project Sunshine, which sought to measure strontium-90, the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] engaged in an effort to collect baby bones from domestic and foreign sources…the project involved the use of a cover story (those without clearance being told that the skeleton collection would be used to study naturally occurring radiation, and not that from fallout). Key participants in Project Sunshine at its onset included the AEC’s Division of Biology and Medicine (DBM), its Director John Bugher, Columbia University’s Dr. J. Laurence Kulp, and the University of Chicago’s Dr. Willard Libby (who became an AEC Commissioner).”
The memorandum then refers to Dr. Willard Libby and his work in more detail. A 1955 transcript classified as “Secret” (located in the classified materials at the National Archives and declassified at the Committee’s request), sheds more light on the role of tissue sampling in Project Sunshine. The transcript shows that, from the early to mid-1950s, considerable thought had been devoted to the best ways to establish channels to procure “human samples,” and the impact of secrecy on the effort. AEC Commissioner Willard Libby, who was a primary proponent of Project Sunshine, explained the great value of “body snatching,” and noted that the AEC had even employed an “expensive law firm” to “look up the law of body snatching.”
The meeting was then turned over to Dr. Libby, who was by now an AEC Commissioner. Dr. Libby began by stating that there was no effort more important to the AEC than Sunshine. However, he said that “…there are great gaps in the data.” He elaborated: “By far the most important [gap] is human samples. We have been reduced to essentially zero level on the human samples. I don’t know how to get them but I do say that it is a matter of prime importance to get them and particularly in the young age group.”
The supply of stillborns had evidently been shut off: “We were fortunate, as you know to obtain a large number of stillborns as material. This supply, however, has now been cut off also, and shows no signs, I think, of being rejuvenated.” Therefore, Libby told the audience, expertise in body snatching would be highly valued: “So human samples are of prime importance and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will really be serving their country.”
Some people reading this, no doubt, will scarcely believe that these latter words were said in all seriousness, and soberly recorded, within official files. As noted, Libby recalled that when Project Sunshine was created in 1953, a law firm was hired to study this problem. He added: “I don’t know how to snatch bodies. In the original study on the Sunshine at Rand in the summer of 1953, we hired an expensive law firm to look up the law of body snatching. This compendium is available to you. It is not very encouraging. It shows you how very difficult it is going to be to do legally.”
The conference attendees discussed the need for a wide enough variety of samples to cover age ranges and potential variations among body parts. Dr. Kulp, from Columbia, explained that there were certain “channels” available: “We have the channels in these places where we are getting everything. We have three or four other leads where we could get complete age range samples from different other geographic localities. These three are Vancouver, Houston, and New York. We could easily get them from Puerto Rico and other places. We can get virtually everyone that dies in this range.”
There was also a discussion of the need to acquire what were termed “resources” from other countries. For example, a Colonel Maxwell, of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, suggested the military could provide some help in securing “specimens” from a native hospital in Formosa. In case you’re wondering, or you haven’t deduced, in the files the terms “resources” and “specimens” refer to people.
Many of the Project Sunshine files are missing – or suspected of being destroyed decades ago. But, what we do know is shocking enough on its own…