Project Sunshine | Declassified #8

We are all someone’s sunshine, that encompasses love, care, and all what’s good. We should pray that we don’t become the Government’s sunshine, just as in the Project Sunshine; in the name of science. Nuclear projects are always top secret, but the blast is felt for sure, and so not so secret, what is top secret to a vast degree is the research on the aftermath of an explosion i.e. the effects of radioactive material on the human body. I hope you know about Unit 731, but regardless, the human experiments didn’t just exist in the World Wars, it also existed during the Cold War, e.g the LSD experiments (Project MKUltra) and so on. What’s unique about Project Sunshine is that the experiments were done on children, specifically, babies. It is a little project compared to the other ones, but small or big, it matters.

Project Sunshine was launched back in the 1950s by the Federal Government. It required the use of dead bodies, especially children. What they did was “steal corpses” without notification or permission of the next kin, sometimes all they did was take limbs of the deceased. 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 (Atomic Energy Commission) Commissioner Willard Libby (who is also a Nobel Prize winner), 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.” In a conference Dr Libby said, “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.” I love the phrase “serving the country,” there’s no better phrase than this; it embodies an ideology, people, fear (of other countries gaining an upper hand), jingoism and personal recognition, perfect to bypass any sort of morals.

RAND report cover page
Image source: nuclear secrecy

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. The project was kept a secret until 1956 when it was officially released to the public; “released to the public” in the most discreet way as all of them are busy watching TV, boiling their blood over sports and catching up with the latest fashion trends, surely they have a lot of time to read about the one’s ruling them. But anyway, this led to the establishment of a worldwide network of agents to find deceased babies and children. The researchers would then take samples and even limbs without notifying the staggering number of 1,500 grieving families. The world only came to know about the project nearly a half-century later.

Hans Bethe suggesting declassification of the project.
Image source: blog.nuclearsecrecy

Bethe was known as a physicist of “dark atomic arts.” His justifications for the declassification are not necessarily what you might expect. Bethe started out by noting that even in the summer of 1953, when SUNSHINE was being finished up, they (it seems that Bethe and Libby were both there) thought that it would “be highly desirable to declassify a large part of project Sunshine.” Bethe thought the matter has gotten rather urgent. Bethe was convinced that Sunshine will show that (radioactive) fallout from testing isn’t as big a problem as people thought it was. Releasing Sunshine wouldn’t be a matter of propaganda (and holding it back wasn’t a matter of covering it up), in Bethe’s mind — it would simply be getting the facts out. With this they were worried about Russians and other countries being able to decipher the extent of advancement of the US bombs, which the US didn’t want to leak out. Sunshine studies the deposition of fission products following testing, and to make much sense of that, you had to know the fission yields from the tests. If you knew the fission yields, you’d know quite a lot about American nuclear weapons.

Bethe concludes: “I believe it would greatly improve international feeling about our Pacific tests if we were to publish the correct story of Sunshine and of fall-out.” Libby would come around to Bethe’s position and push for declassification. In Libby’s mind, like Bethe’s, Sunshine showed that the world wasn’t going to become mutated just because of a little testing in the Pacific. Furthermore, he also came to believe that you could shut down a lot of the anti-nuclear testing demands by just showing people that you were paying close attention to this sort of thing — by the time of Operation Redwing (which was a series of 17 nuclear test detonation from May to July 1956), he felt that this sort of disclosure had already made the international community more friendly to US testing. It wasn’t until 1956 that the declassification eventually occurred, however, and even then, a lot of things were removed. The “Amended*” in the RAND report cover page above is because it was “Amended to remove classified data; otherwise the report remains unchanged and represents the 1953 estimate of the fallout problem.” As you can probably deduce, it worked out perfectly, no one batted an eye on the human experiments, as I’ve said before; in the name of science.

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