Paul Zimmer, now 83 years old, was a US Army Private in 1955 when he was assigned to the Yucca Flats/Nevada Test Site nuclear test site to be a human guinea pig during a series of nuclear tests conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission. As part of Operation Teapot, the US military was researching the effects of nuclear weapons on humans, both physiological and psychological, and researching how to fight wars in areas that have been devastated by nuclear weapons.
Mannequins staked out in khakis were torn apart and melted grotesquely. Caged Cheshire pigs that had been dressed in specially fitting army uniforms were dead or mangled, the latter still shrieking their last. Herds of blasted sheep and cows were mangled together dead or moaning…. But as I grew older I recognized that these tests were some of the very first rehearsals for the end of the world.
Zimmer wrote a powerful article that was published in the Georgia Review in 2014 that describes his experience of being a young 19-year old Army Private who was one of many soldiers who were forced to be horrifically close to a nuclear blast and endure the physical and psychological effects both immediately and for the rest of his life.
A related audio essay by Zimmer, read by John Conlee, discusses some of the effects that the tests had on him as well some of his recent thoughts. It was published by This American Life in late 2017: Episode 627 (Suitable for Children). Click the play button below to listen to it.
The US nuclear weapons testing program, of which Zimmer was a part, continued into the 1990’s, but was finally stopped by the signing of the UN Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Yet the threat of nuclear weapons use today is very high and is steadily increasing under the Trump administration. The US will be spending over $1 trillion to “modernize” our nuclear weapons program, and the Trump administration is considering further expanding the US nuclear weapons program, including developing smaller weapons which would be more likely to be used in battle. Trump and Secretary of Defense Mattis have also recently been contemplating using nuclear weapons in North Korea.
We must not forget the trauma documented by Zimmer, and suffered by the citizens of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and all others who have been exposed to the manufacture, testing and use of nuclear weapons. Many of those who suffered are aging or have died, and if we let their experiences be lost to time we may be doomed to relearn their lessons through even greater catastrophe.
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