Thesis ID: CBB215678564

Health Politics in Cold War America, 1953-1988 (2019)


Whitehurst, John Robert (Author)
Doel, Ronald E. (Advisor)

Florida State University
Doel, Ronald E.
Publication date: 2019
Language: English

Publication Date: 2019
Physical Details: 231

Throughout American history, physicians and their close professional associates, including pharmacists, have been asked to participate in both public health and national security efforts. While these efforts are not inherently contradictory, some physicians within the medical community began to perceive them as such, especially following World War II. These physicians gave birth to an anti-nuclear “physicians’ movement” that challenged the notions of national security and used public health as a basis for doing so. They did this alongside two very important allies: natural scientists and concerned citizens, particularly middle-class women. This dissertation focuses on the two ways in which activist physicians were most directly tied to national security: as purveyors of information on the health effects of radiation (especially that resulting from nuclear testing) on people and the environment, and as participants in civil defense programs and exercises. Cold War physicians and pharmacists were expected to be the arbiters of information concerning the physical impacts of nuclear testing on Americans. Indeed, civil defense programs often described them as the “liaison” between the science community and the general public. Consequently, those within the “physicians’ movement” used their positions to challenge nuclear testing through medical activism. The Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), alongside various other anti-nuclear groups like the Women Strike for Peace (WSP) and Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), presented information which contested the narratives of federal and state agencies, which often claimed that radioactive levels resulting from nuclear testing remained and would continue to remain safe for Americans. This challenge was largely manifest through the national conversation on the consequences of radioisotopes on public health, in particular Strontium 90 and Iodine 131. These radioisotopes fell from the skies in the form of fallout and worked their way back up food chains and into the American diet. This was especially disconcerting to young mothers, as infants and small children were particularly susceptible to these toxins. The “physicians’ movement” mobilized these radioisotopes and challenged civil defense throughout the early Cold War. Its leaders largely did so in the name of public health and were even credited by Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, for their influence in garnishing American support for the passing of a Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) in 1963. The LTBT was a monumental achievement of the anti-nuclear movement, as it eliminated atmospheric (above ground or aquatic) nuclear testing in both the United States and the Soviet Union. While underground nuclear testing continued, and other nations soon entered the nuclear club, this legislation greatly limited the two largest nuclear powers from further contaminating the global atmosphere to the degree that they had in the early Cold War. During the early Cold war, physicians and pharmacists were also expected to continue the tradition of supporting and preparing for war on the home front via civil defense exercises and practices. With civil defense administrators shifting their focus from conventional toward nuclear arsenals following World War II, they also began to predict the disproportionate destruction of physicians in post-war scenarios. Pharmacists and others within the medical community were being trained to take the place of these theoretically deceased physicians in preparation for a post-attack environment. The idea that pharmacists could replace physicians in a post-nuclear environment, as proposed by civil defense planners, alerted some physicians that something must be done. In response, the PSR participated in several congressional hearings, influenced the narratives of other anti-nuclear groups, funded anti-nuclear media, and fostered citizen-science projects in order to challenge notions of civil defense and nuclear testing in the name of public health. Medical activism, however, did not end with the signing of the LTBT. The PSR, in particular, only grew stronger as the Reagan Revolution and heightened Cold War tensions rose in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The PSR mutated from a local and national organization into an international participant in the Freeze movement and the anti-nuclear resurgence of the early 1980s. Medical activists again used many of the same methods they had relied on during the early Cold War period to challenge militarism such as professional journals, newspaper editorials, and popular media. They also began to use newer forms of media. In particular, the PSR funded the airing of several well-known and influential anti-nuclear films, like Day After and Threads, which challenged the foundations of civil defense throughout the 1980s. The story of Cold War medical activism illuminates the various tensions which have existed, and continue to exist, which are fundamental to balancing the necessities of national security with those of public health.

Citation URI

This citation is part of the Isis database.

Similar Citations

Article Tobbell, Dominique A.; (2009)
“Who's Winning the Human Race?” Cold War as Pharmaceutical Political Strategy (/p/isis/citation/CBB000932686/) unapi

Chapter Wei, Chunjuan Nancy; (2013)
Barefoot Doctors: The Legacy of Chairman Mao's Healthcare (/p/isis/citation/CBB001320724/) unapi

Book Reid-Henry, Simon; (2010)
The Cuban Cure: Reason and Resistance in Global Science (/p/isis/citation/CBB001033359/) unapi

Thesis Lin, Chien-Ting; (2014)
Fugitive Subjects of the “Mi-Yi”: Politics of Life and Labor in Taiwan's Medical Modernity (/p/isis/citation/CBB001567627/) unapi

Article Cabaj, J.; (2006)
Assemblies of the Medical Circles of the Kingdom of Poland (/p/isis/citation/CBB000931638/) unapi

Article Giovanni Cipriani; (2020)
Manuali e Ricettari farmaceutici all’indomani dell’Unità d’Italia (/p/isis/citation/CBB138047800/) unapi

Book Bob H. Reinhardt; (2015)
The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era (/p/isis/citation/CBB147233173/) unapi

Article Cueto, Marcos; (2008)
International Health, the Early Cold War and Latin America (/p/isis/citation/CBB000933073/) unapi

Article Annette Hinz-Wessels; (2020)
Medizinische Verflechtung und Systemkonkurrenz im Kalten Krieg: Poliobekämpfung im geteilten Berlin (/p/isis/citation/CBB940010570/) unapi

Article Sonia Muzzarelli; (2020)
La formazione del patrimonio storico-artistico dell’Ausl della Romagna (/p/isis/citation/CBB385779940/) unapi

Article Cameron-Smith, Alexander; (2010)
Australian Imperialism and International Health in the Pacific Islands (/p/isis/citation/CBB001030875/) unapi

Book Giorgio Cosmacini; (2022)
Il medico della mutua. Storia di una istituzione e di un mestiere (/p/isis/citation/CBB635726933/) unapi

Article Merlin Chowkwanyun; (2018)
“The Neurosis That Has Possessed Us”: Political Repression in the Cold War Medical Profession (/p/isis/citation/CBB712043534/) unapi

Thesis Cruickshank, Paul Joseph; (2011)
The Teleology of Care: Reinventing International Health, 1968--1989 (/p/isis/citation/CBB001562820/) unapi

Authors & Contributors
Cabaj, J.
Cameron-Smith, Alexander
Cipriani, Giovanni
Cosmacini, Giorgio
Cruickshank, Paul Joseph
Cueto, Marcos
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Medizinhistorisches Journal
Atti e Memorie, Rivista di Storia della Farmacia
Ambix: Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
Australian Historical Studies
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Harvard University
Bloomsbury Press
University of Chicago Press
University of North Carolina Press
University of California, San Diego
Edizioni Pantarei
Medicine and politics
Cold War
Public health
Physicians; doctors
Medicine and society
Time Periods
20th century
20th century, late
20th century, early
19th century
21st century
18th century
United States
Berlin (Germany)
World Health Organization (WHO)
United Nations

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment