New York Times and National Magazine
Coverage of Project Chariot, 1958 to 1962
E.W. Scripps School of Journalism
Athens, OH 45701
Office: (740) 593-2471
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Paper Submitted to the Science Communication Interest Group
of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
July 31-Aug. 2, 2003
Kansas City, Missouri
New York Times and National Magazine
Coverage of Project Chariot, 1958 to 1962
This study reviews The New York Times' and magazine coverage from 1958 to
1962 of Project Chariot an Atomic Energy Commission plan to blast out a
harbor in northwest Alaska with four nuclear bombs. And in doing so, this
study traces the four-year debate among scientists, government agencies and
environmental activists that was largely played out in the media and
ultimately led to the first stirrings of the modern environmental movement
in the United States.
If anyone wants a hole in the ground, nuclear explosions can make big holes.
In the summer of 1958, three Inupiat Eskimo caribou hunters landed their
small boat near the mouth of Ogotoruk Creek at Cape Thompson, an
unpopulated region about thirty-one miles southeast of their village of
Point Hope on Alaska's northwest coast and about 175 miles across the
Chukchi Sea from the Soviet Union. There, they met several white men
surveying the area. The surveyors informed the hunters that they were
conducting geologic research for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As
those hunters would learn later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and one
of its contractors, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore,
California, were proposing to explode four atomic bombs at the mouth of the
creek near Cape Thompson to blast out a deepwater port that the AEC said
could be used to ship coal, oil, and other resources.
But even if they had known of these plans, the hunters probably would not
have understood the significance of the survey the surveyors' presence
on that isolated stretch of land was one of the first public acts in what
would turn into a nearly four-year debate among scientists, government
agencies, and environmental activists that would largely be played out in
the media. In addition, they certainly would have been unaware that the
ensuing controversy and demand for accountability by those in government
would lead to the first stirrings of the modern environmental movement in
the United States.
This study will trace the print media coverage of these proposed atomic
blasts from the first fairly neutral and largely one-sided (the AEC's)
stories to the later and fuller reports revealing the risk of damage to the
ecosystem, especially the food chain from lichen to caribou to the Eskimos.
This study will explore how a handful of environmental activists working
with scientific experts helped frame the later news coverage that
eventually killed Project Chariot because of what one reporter called
"adverse publicity about its effects on Alaskan Eskimos and their hunting
This study will examine the coverage in The New York Times of Project
Chariot from its announcement in 1958 to its cancellation in 1962 because
it is the major newspaper of record in the United States and because it
covered this project from its very first hint to its demise. In addition,
it is the well-accepted source of information for government officials,
who, in this case, were the final arbiters on whether the blasts in Alaska
would proceed. This study also will look at Project Chariot's coverage in
national magazines that wrote about the project during the same four-year
period. They are: Newsweek, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Science
Digest, Scientific American, Science, Science News Letter, The Reader's
Digest, and Harpers. Coverage over the four years by these magazines was
fairly limited and sporadic, but in the debate and controversy that swirled
around Project Chariot, they were at times the conduit for the voice of one
side or the other. But more importantly, magazine coverage of the effect on
the food chain preceded The New York Times's coverage, which then picked up
the ball and wrote stories about the possible risk of, and its one
editorial, about Project Chariot.
Renowned physicist Edward Teller, known as the "father of the hydrogen
bomb" and at the time the head of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory,
proposed blasting out the harbor in a remote area of Alaska as a test of
using atomic weapons for peaceful purposes. In a book that he would
publish four years later around the time of the project's demise, he
described the scope of the project and the cost benefits of using nuclear
blasts to carve out the harbor:
The harbor basin and the canal connecting it to the ocean would cost less
than 10 million dollars. Only four nuclear explosions, each with a yield of
twenty kilotons would be needed to dig a deep water canal with a width of
250 to 300 yards. A turnaround harbor basin 600 yards in diameter could be
dug at the end of the canal with a 200 kiloton nuclear explosion.
The AEC explored other possibilities, but on June 9, 1958, it accepted
Teller's proposal and dubbed it Project Chariot.
Chariot was the first project announced as part of Project Plowshare,
which had its beginnings on September 19, 1957, when a small atomic bomb
with the force of 1,700 tons of TNT went off below a mesa near Las Vegas
known as Mount Rainier. Atomic Energy Commissioner Willard F. Libby told
the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Disarmament in 1958 that the "little
fellow" made the mesa jump about six inches, but no radiation escaped.
That fact alone, the renowned science writer for The New York Times,
William L. Laurence, later wrote, "marked a definite turning point in
history for both the military and the peacetime uses of atomic energy."
He could well write with authority about matters dealing with atomic
energy. Beginning as a science writer with The Times in 1930 and later
becoming science editor, Laurence won two Pulitzer prizes, including one
for his eyewitness account of the bombing of Nagasaki. In addition, for
years he wrote about the possibility of an atomic bomb, and then at the
height of World War II in 1945, the Army conscripted him to become the
official historian of the atomic bomb. That position put him inside the
secret laboratories at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and elsewhere, and among the
elite scientists constructing the bomb.
The Mount Rainier tests showed, Laurence wrote, that for the first time
atomic bombs could be tested underground and that radioactivity could be
kept from releasing into the air. By answering the question of fallout from
tests that had become the crux of controversy and the trigger for ongoing
disarmament talks, the test also opened the door to the peaceful uses of
atomic bombs. Indeed, by early 1958 AEC scientists were testifying before a
Senate subcommittee about the industrial uses of atomic explosions,
including developing oil deposits, building harbors, and creating water
supplies and heat reservoirs. In addition, as a result of the
successful Mount Rainier blast, the AEC also established Project Plowshare.
The project took its name from a biblical allusion to the admonition of the
prophet Isaiah about turning "swords into plowshares" made by the physicist
I.I. Rabi, who told one of Teller's associates: "So you want to beat your
old atomic bombs into plowshares."
Teller said that Plowshare explosions would take place deep underground and
that most radioactivity would be trapped below ground. Less than 15 percent
would escape as a gas, some of it as dangerous strontium 90. But Teller
said he believed that if proper precautions were taken, no one would be
exposed to radiation effects greater than normal background radiation.
Besides, he argued, the United States was in a race with the Soviets in
developing peaceful uses for atomic weapons. "The Communists might develop
Plowshare before we do," he said.
The Media Begin Their Coverage
The New York Times announced the proposed harbor blasts on June 10, 1958
twice. One three-paragraph brief appeared on Page 18 under the headline
"U.S. May Use A-Bombs To Make Alaska Harbor," and a three-line brief
was in its "Washington Proceedings" column two pages later. The longer
brief noted that field studies were taking place and then made the economic
argument that was so much a part of the AEC's justification of the project.
"The commission said the lack of a harbor had hampered development of
large-scale mineral deposits in the area. It also said fishing had been
'impeded by the lack of a safe haven.' " However, beginning a tradition
that carried through much of its early coverage of Project Chariot, neither
of The Times's reports raised the issue of risk to the land and the people
In that same summer, Teller and some of his associates from the AEC and
his lab in California began the first of a series of public relations tours
of Alaska seeking support from government officials, businesses, and the
general populace. On July 14, Teller and his entourage arrived without
warning in the Alaska capital of Juneau to formally announce Project
Chariot. They then traveled on to Anchorage and Fairbanks to do the
same. By all accounts, it was a poorly planned campaign. When the
scientists arrived in Juneau, lawmakers were not in session and thus were
out of town, as was the governor. Some state Department of Health employees
drafted by Teller's group hastily put together a press conference. During
their trek across the state, the group announced plans to blast out the
harbor and made their economic argument to justify it.
Six days after Teller and his entourage landed in Juneau, The New York
Times ran its first explanation about Project Chariot in one paragraph as
part of a story about Project Plowshare. Written by William L. Laurence,
the story said scientists believed it possible to carve out a 300-foot-deep
harbor "by means of four carefully spaced H-bomb blasts." The story
then went on for a third of its length to list the economic arguments for
Project Plowshare that the AEC had outlined in a report. It spent just one
paragraph on the issue of radioactivity and safety, linking that concern to
the AEC's discussion of the possible development of a "clean" bomb.
Project Chariot next showed up on August 9, 1958, in Science News Letter,
but again it was essentially a rehash of the AEC report describing the
agency's list of economic benefits to be gained from the peaceful uses of
atomic bombs. The only mention of radiation risk noted that researchers
were on site in Alaska to determine "whether radiation created would be
However, a month later, Popular Science published the first full story
about Project Chariot, likening the proposed blasts to "waving a magic
wand" and instantly creating a harbor. The story said Chariot would
"inaugurate an era of grand-scale engineering with atomic weapons."
Quoting only the AEC commissioner, Libby, and two Livermore lab scientists,
Gerald W. Johnson and Harold Brown, the author largely discounted concerns
about the risk of radiation because of continuing advances in clean bombs
with reduced fallout and the fact that the Mount Rainier blast showed an
atomic blast could be completely contained underground. What the story
did not mention regarding Project Chariot, however, was that to create a
hole in which water could fill, the blast could not be contained
underground. And it did not seek out other non-governmental sources who
might speak to the issue of risk.
In an ongoing information campaign about using nuclear explosions for
peaceful purposes, two of the scientific sources in the Popular Science
article who were also employees of Project Plowshare Johnson and Brown
turned authors themselves in December 1958 when Scientific American
published an article of theirs extolling the peaceful uses of nuclear
explosions under the Plowshare program. They described the Mount Rainier
test blast as a watershed event that made non-military uses of the weapons
feasible. Then in May 1959, Johnson's and Brown's boss, Teller,
appeared in The Reader's Digest to reaffirm the benefits of peaceful
nuclear explosions, to list again the many scientific and commercial
benefits to be derived from such explosions, to re-iterate the successful
Mount Rainier blast's importance, and to call for the world's scientists to
Now we are nearing success, and the possible benefits to man are so
tremendous that they demand a positive new approach to nuclear programs.
These must be encouraged, not discouraged. And since people all over the
world will benefit from Project Plowshare, I would like to see it placed
under international supervision. By working together, scientists from all
countries could make Plowshare a decisive victory in man's historic battle
to shape the world to his needs.
A month later, The New York Times published on its front page its first
in-depth story wholly about Project Chariot, noting the balancing act that
scientists had to achieve: "The explosions must be just deep enough to
produce large craters without throwing radioactive debris sky-high."
Quoting both AEC sources and the University of Alaska president, whose
institution was doing much of the research, the story described scientists'
ongoing work at the site. But in a dramatic shift from the year before, the
AEC told The Times that it no longer viewed the proposed harbor as a means
of economically developing the remote area. "The planned size of the
explosions has been reduced, it [AEC] said, so that the resulting harbor
will be small. Possibly this is because of fears that heavy blasts might
'break windows' in the Soviet Union and create a war scare."
But more ominously, with this shift in focus from an instrumental to an
experimental project, the region had become an open-air laboratory, and the
people who lived, hunted, and fished for subsistence in the region had
become essentially laboratory "animals." Quoting John N. Wolfe, chief of
the environmental sciences branch of the division of biology and medicine
for the AEC, The Times story said: "He pointed out yesterday that this
would be the first time that it was possible to observe in detail the
effect of such explosions on the life of an area." And University of
Alaska President Ernest N. Patty continued that theme when he told The
Times, "In addition to examining the plants and animals of the area, a
study will be made of the near-by Kotzebue Eskimos, who depend heavily on
the fish and game of the region. This will make it possible, later, to
observe the effect of the blasts on their way of life."
Again, this tangential declaration that the Alaska natives were to become a
dependent variable in a grand experiment raised no red flags, and The Times
quoted no outside source unconnected to the project. One could make the
accusation that was because the target area was in the remote wilds of
Alaska rather than a borough in New York City. Certainly, however, these
early stories about Project Chariot violated a basic journalistic norm set
down by Theodore M. Bernstein, The Times's assistant managing editor in
charge of copy editors during this period. Writing in his classic textbook
on editing, Headlines and Deadlines, in editions running from 1933 through
the 1960s, Bernstein instructed: "In respect to fairness, the copy editor
should keep watch to be sure that every party to a controversy gets a
hearing. . . . If no effort to obtain both sides of the story has been
made, the copy editor should call the attention of the editor in charge to
the failure to do so." It is unknown, however, whether the editor in
charge was alerted to the one-sided nature of the Project Chariot stories.
Of course, the Project Chariot story began in 1958, and it had only been
during the 1950s under the tutelage of Managing Editor Turner Catledge that
The Times with the threat of competition from television news began to
rethink how it did the news. As Gay Talese pointed out in his history of
The Times, The Kingdom and the Power, the paper, because of its size,
traditions, and many personalities, was like a huge ship. It took time to
turn it around. In addition, any such rethinking would naturally
confront the credo of The Times patriarch, Adolph Ochs, which still lived
in the newsroom: "To Give the News Impartially, Without Fear of Favor."
However, Catledge "was confident that newspapers could bring readers more
details and could explain the significance of these details more
effectively than could television," Talese noted.
Newspaper reporters would now have to dig more deeply into more areas and
to inform the public more thoroughly; they could no longer merely report
all the facts, but they would often have to interpret the meaning behind
these facts. The trick was to do this without editorializing. While there
was a difference between interpreting and editorializing, Catledge knew
that the line between the two was sometimes thin, and if the The Times was
to achieve the new goal and yet avoid making a mockery of Ochs's motto
about objectivity, it had to have a more vigilant copydesk.
It was six months later that a Times story for the first time quoted a
project official, Gerald W. Johnson, saying the explosions would send up a
cloud of dust 15,000 to 20,000 feet, which would then fall to earth within
a 180-mile radius. In addition, he told Newsweek in February 1960 that
99 percent of the radioactivity would remain underground and that only 1
percent would return as fallout. "Whatever radiation risks are involved in
such nuclear sculpturing, Johnson believes the economic advantages will
But "risk" was the fulcrum upon which the proposed harbor blast project's
continuing survival rested, and as it progressed, several forces began to
come together to investigate and publicize its risk. Early on, University
of Alaska scientists participating in the research connected to the project
called for the AEC to commit to environmental studies of the potential
impact on the area around Ogotoruk Creek. Teller and his associate director
at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Gerald Johnson, offered to fund such
studies, though that latter apparently wanted to avoid the use of the term
"environmental" and instead preferred "health and safety." This was
long before the environmental movement persuaded the federal government to
require an environmental impact statement (EIS) for such projects. In fact,
Dan O'Neill, who has written about the history of Project Chariot, pointed
out in an interview that "the first truly coordinated, multidisciplinary
bioenvironmental study ever done took place then up at Ogotoruk Creek,
south of Point Hope, and from that study came information that ultimately
started to suggest the project wasn't too smart."
Meanwhile, for the first time, a story in the March 13 Times raised the
issue of the blasts' possible adverse effects on the Alaska natives and on
their hunting grounds and noted that there was too much research still to
be done on the experiment's safety to set off the explosions any time soon.
The story quoted an AEC environmental committee's report that the blasts
must not damage any food source and must not deliver any radiation in
excess of that "specified as acceptable for the general public." But
what that enjoinder failed to take into account was previous research into
the effects of fallout from above-ground tests which showed that Eskimos
who ate caribou appeared to already have the highest levels of strontium 90
of any group in the world.
In that same month, Teller was busy at his typewriter again, this time
with a story in Popular Mechanics about how Project Plowshare was going to
"work miracles." While he finally explored in depth the risks of
radiation, he raised more questions than he answered. For example: "The
remote site was chosen deliberately to allay any fears of radioactive
contamination." That posed the question: What about the risk to the
residents of the region (the nearly 400 Inupiat Eskimos thirty-one miles to
the north and the Kotzebue Eskimos 100 miles to the south)? Recall that
earlier AEC officials had said that the fallout would spread in a radius of
Teller also noted that because of the way the explosive devices would be
buried, all but 10 to 20 percent of the radioactivity would be trapped
below the surface: "It is possible that we shall succeed even better and
that all but a very small percentage of the radioactivity will be safely
contained underground." There was a lot less certainty in that
statement than what Johnson told Newsweek in February 1960: 99 percent of
the radioactivity would remain underground. Had the risk increased since then?
And like the University of Alaska president had done earlier, Teller also
seemed to be saying that the Alaska natives were lab "animals" in a grand
experiment they were the dependent variable upon which researchers would
determine if the independent variable, radioactivity, had an effect.
They [researchers] are studying the geology and making biological surveys
of the plant and animal life. They are investigating the food "chains" and
the habits of the few local Eskimos, their food sources and their hunting
and fishing areas.
Similar surveys will be made at some future date after the creation of the
harbor. Thus we will learn whether any local conditions were changed by the
blasts. This is indicative of the care and caution with which we are
approaching this first large demonstration.
About five months after that article, the AEC issued a report pronouncing
the proposed blasts safe from a biological standpoint. The New York Times
ran a story in which AEC officials said the blasts would send 30 million
cubic yards of material 30,000 feet into the air. There was no mention
of radiation or the subsequent fallout. A follow to that story came four
months later when The Times described the ongoing research that was taking
place in the region with scientists observing such things as marine life,
birds, plants, and even Eskimos as they went hunting. Again, AEC officials
were quoted as saying the blasts would cause no undue harm. According to
John N. Wolfe, the head of the group of scientists conducting the survey:
"We know now that the excavation won't affect the health, food sources, and
general livelihood of the natives." Again, conforming to earlier
stories in the paper, there was no source quoted who was not connected to
Meanwhile, though, a fledgling environmental group, the Alaska Conservation
Society, with 200 dues-paying members, was trying to show the world the
risk to the land and its people and to make its small voice heard. In
conjunction with two University of Alaska professors involved in the
research at the proposed site of the nuclear harbor and an Arctic
geographer, Don Foote, who the AEC had hired to conduct studies of the Cape
Thompson area, the society essentially changed the course of history. It
altered media coverage of Project Chariot by working in a grass-roots
effort with scientific experts who could give validity to the society's
concerns. In the spring of 1961, the three scientists broke away from the
AEC's standing line that the blasts would do no harm. They outlined their
research regarding Project Chariot's potential effects on the area around
Cape Thompson and published it in the Alaska Conservation Society's News
One report identified the connection between radiation, the lichen that
caribou ate, and the Eskimos who ate the caribou. The scientists noted that
the tundra's food chain was especially sensitive to radioactive fallout
from the recent above-ground atomic bomb tests over Nevada and in the
Soviet Union. The caribou's main food source is lichen, which, unlike grass
that cows in the lower forty-eight states subsist on, is a rootless plant
that receives its sustenance from the dust that falls on it through rain
and snow, thus directly absorbing radioactivity before it is washed off.
Therefore, research had shown that caribou in Alaska contained about seven
times as much strontium 90 as domestic cattle in the lower forty-eight
states. And because caribou were a large part of the Eskimos' diet, they
had much more of the dangerous isotope in their bodies than people anywhere
else in the world. How much more of the isotope would the proposed nuclear
detonations add to their bodies, the Eskimos asked?
"Produced in advance of the AEC summary report which the biologists
expected would have a prodevelopment slant the Alaska Conservation
Society News Bulletin was essentially a 'minority report' emphasizing
environmental considerations," O'Neill noted in his history of Project
Chariot. With that report linking radiation to lichen, caribou, and the
native population in its newsletter, the Alaska Conservation Society then
mimeographed 1,000 copies of the News Bulletin and sent them to
conservationists across the United States and government officials in
More significantly, the three scientists sent copies of their contributions
to the News Bulletin to Barry Commoner, a plant physiologist at Washington
University in St. Louis who founded a group known as the Committee for
Nuclear Information (CNI) in 1958. It was his attempt to discover more
about the links between radiation, lichen, caribou, and Eskimos that
Commoner soon to become one of the leaders of the modern environmental
movement described as his "introduction to ecology." "It was when I
realized that the different ecosystem in Alaska deeply conditioned the
outcome of this technological impact, that I realized that what we were
doing in our work on radiation was really an aspect of what is now called
environmentalism," Commoner said in an interview with author Dan O'Neill in
a 1994 history of Project Chariot.
In fact in an earlier interview in 1988, Commoner said the beginnings of
the modern environmental movement can be found in the controversy and
debate surrounding Project Chariot:
Looking back on my career in environmentalism, it is absolutely certain
that it began when I went to the library to look up lichen in connection
with the Chariot program. That's a very vivid picture in my mind. And I
think, in so far as I had an effect on the development of the whole
movement (which I did, I have to admit), Project Chariot can be regarded as
the ancestral birthplace of at least a large segment of the environmental
Commoner had been looking for more information about Project Chariot after
publishing two issues of his CNI newsletter in the summer of 1960 about the
project. The newsletter editor had written to the Chariot researchers: "The
two issues 'stimulated such an unprecedented volume of responses from
scientists and non-scientists here and abroad, and from government agencies
that we feel impelled to publish additional material.' "
In June 1961, CNI's Chariot issue described the lichen-to-Eskimo link and
criticized the reliability of AEC estimates about the amount of nuclear
fallout that the Project Chariot blasts would generate. Almost immediately,
The New York Times published a story on the report and the threat to
Project Chariot. It was the first time that it had written about the
subject using sources that had anything negative to say about the project.
The first four paragraphs of the story were a damning indictment of the
science surrounding the project.
Because lichens thrive on fall-out and caribou eat lichens and Eskimos eat
caribou, the Atomic Energy Commission may encounter unexpected difficulties
in its plans to use atomic explosives to carve out a harbor in northern Alaska.
In the process of blasting out the harbor, the commission might contaminate
the food chain in the Arctic region so that radioactive strontium 90 would
pass from plants into animals and thence into the bones of Eskimos.
This note of caution about the Alaska harbor project was sounded today by
the Committee for Nuclear Information, a St. Louis organization of
scientists and laymen founded in 1958 to promote public understanding and
knowledge of nuclear problems.
The report, much of it based on previously unpublished studies made for the
commission by University of Alaska biologists, constitutes the first
comprehensive public analysis of the probable gains and risks of one of the
commission's key projects for developing the peaceful uses of atomic
Eight days later, The Times followed with an editorial about safety and
atomic energy. Citing project opponents' concern with the lichen-to-Eskimo
link, the editorial writer cautioned: "The commission must answer these
opponents fully and satisfactorily if public opinion is to support the
The commission's response came within days when it issued its "First
Summary Report" on Project Chariot. Prepared by the Committee on
Environmental Studies for Project Chariot, the report denied the likelihood
of a fallout hazard from the blasts and ignored any discussion of fallout
connections to lichen and caribou. With the two sides firmly fixed in a
face-off, The New York Times framed its story about the AEC's report in the
form of a debate over risk. "The report placed the commission in general
opposition to a committee of scientists and laymen in St. Louis known as
the Committee for Nuclear Information. Last Saturday, the St. Louis group
issued its own study of the safety of the Alaska project and came to the
conclusion there might be hidden dangers of radioactive contamination of
the food chain in Alaska."
With these new elements of risk and debate, magazines also quickly picked
up on the story. The June 17 issue of Science News Letter essentially ran
CNI's description of the lichen-to-Eskimo link and its criticism of AEC
estimates of total fallout. It then followed that short article with
another that essentially gave the AEC's side of the issue, which said it
saw no reason to stop Project Chariot.
With both the AEC and CNI reports circulating and being debated, the
magazine Science ran a review of the two conflicting reports under the
headline: "Project Chariot: Two Groups of Scientists Issue 'Objective' But
Conflicting Reports." The writer, Howard Margolis, faulted the AEC report
for some omissions, but then he targeted the CNI report, especially
questioning its estimates of how much strontium 90 the Project Chariot
blasts would release. He also described CNI as a citizens group interested
in radiation education, failing to note that it also was made up of
O'Neill, in his book about Project Chariot, noted that the evidence
indicated that in preparing his article, Margolis relied on the AEC's point
of view and Commoner believed he had been briefed by the AEC on the CNI
report before he even saw it. "Several of Margolis's criticisms form the
core of AEC comments prepared for use within that agency," O'Neill
said. Two months later, Commoner responded with a rebuttal in the same
magazine and criticized Margolis.
Meanwhile, two of the scientists involved in the reports that became
national news were busy putting together information that would eventually
help make Project Chariot a footnote in history. In late 1961, William
Pruitt and Don Foote had heard that the national magazine Harper's had
commissioned conservation writer Paul Brooks to research and write an
article on Project Chariot. He was editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin and
had written a number of essays based on personal experiences in the
wilderness. Both men believed Brooks would do a good job, especially if he
received help with gathering information. Foote quickly contacted his
brother Joseph Foote, a Harvard Law graduate and a member of the
Massachusetts bar. Joseph Foote soon connected with Brooks, supplied him
with information gathered by his brother, and became a co-author on the
article "The Disturbing Story of Project Chariot," which appeared in the
April 1962 Harper's magazine.
The article began by questioning why so little had been publicized about
the project and then outlined its history and unveiled the changing nature
of policy surrounding it since its inception in 1958. First it was to build
a self-supporting harbor that Alaskans could use to develop the interior of
the state. Then, apparently, it became an experiment to determine the
efficacy of nuclear excavation. Which was it, they asked?
Ultimately, the authors answered that question, and for the first time
raised the issue of the AEC's apparent policy of using the region's people
as lab "animals" in their grand experiment, an issue alluded to but never
explicitly explored in earlier media reports. Citing the delicate link
between radiation, lichens, caribou, and Eskimos, the authors
concluded: "Project Chariot is quite frankly an experiment; and the
essence of experiment is uncertainty. Let's phrase the question
differently. What sort of risk are we talking about? And does that delicate
balance of life at Cape Thompson, which in turn is so closely tied in with
the life of the Eskimos, allow any margin for uncertainty?"
But besides questioning the AEC's use of Eskimos as lab "animals," Brooks
and Foote in their last paragraph ended with an equally disturbing
implication: the threat that an agency of the government held unaccountable
to the public can have on democracy.
"If your mountain is not in the right place," said Dr. Teller at Anchorage,
"just drop us a card." It was only half a joke. Our ability to alter the
earth we live on is already appalling. Few of us are in a position to judge
the ultimate scientific value of an experiment like the Chariot explosion.
But it is up to us to know what is going on in that far corner of the
United States. And to realize that another scale of values is also
involved: not the precise relations between depth of burst and crater
characteristics, but the precise relations between unlimited power and the
awesome responsibility that goes with its use.
Those words echoed the sentiments of Commoner, who in a 1997 interview
with the magazine Scientific American, said: "The AEC taught us that when
science is forced to serve a powerful self-justified purpose, it becomes
too narrow to serve the wider needs of society. It was the independent
scientists, outside the AEC, who understood their obligation to society."
While it certainly cannot be said that the Harper's article killed the
project, The New York Times within weeks carried a story that Chariot was
being put on hold because it was losing the battle for public opinion. The
Times's Lawrence E. Davies wrote: "Project Chariot may well be dead, killed
by adverse publicity about its effects on Alaskan Eskimos and their hunting
grounds." Quoting mostly unnamed sources at the AEC, Davies wrote that
the agency's Project Chariot environmental committee appeared to be leaning
toward neither recommending for or against the blasts at a meeting
scheduled for early the next month. While the story was equivocal about the
project's future, it did quote one unidentified scientist, who said: "I
have very grave doubts that they will ever make that shot."
Those doubts proved true. On August 25, 1962, The New York Times announced
Project Chariot's demise. Ironically, in the same way it published the news
of the project's inception in 1958, The Times's announcement appeared twice
on the same day. The first was in a short Associated Press brief that said
the harbor blasting project had been "put off by the Atomic Energy
Commission." The second item in a summary roundup of Washington news
was much shorter, but much more definitive: "The Atomic Energy Commission
announced it had given up a plan to use nuclear explosives to create a
harbor on the coast of Alaska." Many years later, Teller told the
national radio program Living on Earth that he still supported the idea
behind Project Plowshare. "Chariot was cancelled because of exaggerated
fear of radioactivity. That was a mistake," he said.
It may approach a clichι to say the media are a watchdog, which, through
airing all the facts they can find surrounding a story, unfurling its many
dimensions, and prompting a public debate, hold government and other powers
accountable for their actions. Still, it is a truism that is at the heart
of democracy. And to that point, this study of the print media's response
to Project Chariot indicates the dangers that can occur when the media are
missing in action. Certainly, The New York Times wrote extensively about
the project, but for the most part its stories as well as those from the
magazines discussed especially early on approached a form of passive
stenography and not the active, probing type of journalism that seeks out
other sources and questions the party line. The stories essentially
repeated officialdom's point of view and until much later failed to seek
out critics of the proposed harbor blasting. Finally, it was those critics
that used the media and held the media accountable in relation to the story
about Project Chariot. Those critics, the scientists who disagreed with the
AEC conclusions regarding risk, the fledgling Alaska Conservation Society,
and Barry Commoner and his Committee for Nuclear Information, put together
a grass-roots pipeline to national media exposure that overcame
journalistic apathy and the powerful voice of government. It was a way of
making their voices heard that became a template for the modern
environmental movement's media strategies involving information and
symbolic politics that is still being used today.
 Norman Chance, Project Chariot: The Legacy of Cape Thompson, Alaska
accessed February 8, 2003.
 Dan O'Neill, The Firecracker Boys (New York: St. Martin's Press,
 Lawrence E. Davies, "A-Blast to Dig Alaska Harbor May Be Deferred,"
The New York Times, May 13, 1962.
 Chance, Project Chariot.
 Teller, The Legacy of Hiroshima, 84. The atomic bombs exploded over
Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II were each twenty kilotons.
 "Peaceful Atomic Blasting," Time, March 24, 1958, 64.
 William L. Laurence, Men and Atoms: The Discovery, the Uses and the
Future of Atomic Energy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), 255.
 Ibid., 96.
 Teller, The Legacy of Hiroshima, 82.
 Ibid., 87.
 "U.S. May Use A-Bombs To Make Alaska Harbor," The New York Times,
June 10, 1958.
 "Washington Proceedings," The New York Times, June 10, 1958.
 "U.S. May Use A-Bombs To Make Alaska Harbor."
 Chance, Project Chariot.
 William L. Laurence, "Project Plowshare Studies Ways of Using Immense
Force of H-Bombs Peaceably," The New York Times, July 20, 1958. Three
months later, the magazine Science Digest (October 1958) published a
condensed version of this story under the title "Peaceful Uses For the
 "Plan Excavation by Bomb," Science News Letter, August 9, 1958, 83.
 Alden P. Armagnac, "Atomic Blasting for Peacetime Feats," Popular
Science, September 1958, 102.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ibid., 103.
 Gerald W. Johnson and Harold Brown, "Non-Military Uses of Nuclear
Explosives," Scientific American, December 1958, 29-35.
 Edward Teller as told to Allen Brown, "How Nuclear Blasts Can be Used
for Peace," The Reader's Digest, May 1959, 108.
 Walter Sullivan, "H-Bombs May Dig Harbor in Alaska," The New York
Times, June 5, 1959.
 Robert E. Garst and Theodore Manline Bernstein, Headlines and
Deadlines: A Manual for Copyeditors, 2nd ed., New York: Columbia University
 Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power (Garden City, New York: Anchor
Books, 1978), 222. Originally published in hardback by New American
Library, Inc., in association with World Publishing Company, 1969.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 222.
 Walter Sullivan, "3 Underground A-Blasts Slated," The New York Times,
January 28, 1960.
 "Dr. Johnson's Magic," Newsweek, February 8, 1960, 67.
 O'Neill, The Firecracker Boys, 77.
 Living on Earth, October 9, 1992, radio script (available at
http://www.loe.org/archives/921009.htm) accessed on September 16, 2002.
 "A.E.C. Is Pursuing Harbor Project," The New York Times, March 13, 1960.
 O'Neill, The Firecracker Boys, 209.
 Edward Teller, "We're Going to Work Miracles," Popular Mechanics,
March 1960, 97.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 100.
 Lawrence E. Davies, "Proposed Atomic Blast in Arctic is Called Safe,"
The New York Times, August 17, 1960.
 "Alaska Area Eyes All Forms of Life," The New York Times, December 4,
 O'Neill, The Firecracker Boys, 186.
 Chance, Project Chariot.
 O'Neill, The Firecracker Boys, 187.
 Ibid., 187.
 Ibid., 209.
 Ibid., 210. In fact, others have noted Commoner's role as one of the
founders of the modern environmental movement. For example, Bibi Booth, in
Environmental Activists, eds. John Mongillo and Bibi Booth, Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001, says: "Many people believe that
Commoner's ideas helped prepare the world for the grassroots
environmentalism and citizen activism that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s,
and he is credited with being one of the founders and leaders of the modern
 Tape-recorded oral history interview with Dan O'Neill, 289. Available
at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. Quoted in O'Neill, The
Firecracker Boys, 268-69.
 O'Neill, The Firecracker Boys, 208.
 "Caribou May Bar Alaska A-Blasts," The New York Times, June 4, 1961.
 "Safety and the Atom," The New York Times, June 12, 1961.
 "A.E.C. Backs Plan for Alaska Blast," The New York Times, June 19,1961.
 "High Alaska Fallout Risk," and "AEC Finds No Reason to Stop
"Chariot," Science News Letter, June 17, 1961, 375.
 Howard Margolis, "Project Chariot: Two Groups of Scientists Issue
'Objective' But Conflicting Reports," Science, June 23, 1961, 2000-2001.
 O'Neill, The Firecracker Boys, 214.
 Barry Commoner, M.W. Friedlander, and Eric Reiss, "Project Chariot,"
Science, August 18, 1961, 495-500.
 O'Neill, The Firecracker Boys, 241.
 Paul Brooks and Joseph Foote, "The Disturbing Story of Project
Chariot," Harpers, April 1962, 60-61.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 67.
 Alan Hall, "Interview with Barry Commoner," Scientific American, June
23, 1997 (available at
accessed on March 3, 2003.
 Lawrence E. Davies, "A-Blast to Dig Alaska Harbor May Be Deferred,"
The New York Times, May 7, 1962.
 "Harbor-Blasting Project In Alaska Put Off by U.S.," The New York
Times, August 25, 1962.
 "The Proceedings In Washington," The New York Times, August 25, 1962.
 Living on Earth.
Information politics and symbolic politics involve a grass-roots effort
to frame a story by putting a face upon the potential victims of some plan,
proposal or policy and then activists supporting the case they are trying
to make through the validation of scientific research. In the case of
Project Chariot, that involved the Eskimos who lived near the site of the
proposed harbor blasts and the effect that scientists said radiation could
have on them through the food chain from lichen to caribou to humans. The
same environmental strategy can be seen in the long-running battle in the
West to tear down many of the dams on the region's rivers. Here, the victim
has been presented as the wild runs of salmon slowly diminishing toward
extinction because of the many barriers between them and their eons-old
spawning beds. More recently, the same use of information and symbolic
politics as a strategy of the environmental movement involved the defeat of
a plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Again, the
successful confrontation with government and powerful oil industry
interests involved a grassroots effort beginning with putting at the center
of the debate the region's Gwich'in Indians and their dependence on the
caribou that oil drilling could harm. "It's effective because so much of
Congress is about listening to the local impacts, who will be affected.
It's all the more poignant when you are talking about indigenous people,"
the Sierra Club's Melinda Pierce said in a June 29, 2002, Boston Globe
story, "Two Tribes Split on Alaska Oil Plan."