Before Vietnam, before Watergate, before Iran Contra or Iraq, there was Rainier in Nevada

The Rainier test as it happened.

The Rainier test as it happened.

Area 51 is famous. Area 12 should be more famous, given the shameful things associated with it that happened.

On Sept. 19, 1957, the first underground test at the Nevada atomic testing ground was detonated. Federal officials then engaged in misinformation designed to torpedo a nuclear test ban treaty. Lazy reporters were their collaborators. A brave, independent journalist caught them at it and blew the whistle.

The device was detonated at 10 a.m. at the end of a 2,000-foot tunnel that put the bomb 900 feet under a mesa. The test was designated “Rainier.” A short time later, officials at the test site issued a news release saying “there was [sic] none of the usual visible effects of surface or above-surface shots. There was no flash of light, no wave of heat, no shock wave, and no mushroom cloud.”

What the release did not report was that shock waves from the blast were felt around the world at a time when the U.S. was arguing in test ban negotiations with the Soviet Union that underground tests were seismically undetectable. A U.S. station in Alaska, 2,300 miles away, detected Rainier. So did seismic labs of other nations on the other side of the planet.

The next day, Rainier was on the front page of the New York Times, in the lower right hand corner, then jumped to page 13. The article, written by Gladwin Hill, parroted the Atomic Energy Commission’s claims about the test: “There were reports from points in California about 300 miles away that some seismographs recorded a small tremor at the moment of the blast. … But in general the experiment seemed to have conformed with predictions of A.E.C. scientists that the explosion would not be detectable more than a few hundred miles away.”

In D.C., a short, rumpled fellow named I.F. Stone read the Times story. He noticed that it was followed by a shirttail from Toronto reporting detection of the test by a seismology lab there. A shirttail was a news story that came in too late for the main story. It was tacked on at the end. It could look untidy but was a real service to readers, giving them the latest information. (Advanced technology has made shirttails obsolete.)

When Stone saw the shirttail, he left his home and walked to a newsstand to pick up a later edition of the Times. Stone found “more little shirttails, from Rome and from Tokyo, saying they detected it. I didn’t have the resources you’d need to cable those places and check out what was happening, but the discrepancy really piqued my curiosity, so I put it away in the basement with my back numbers of the Times.”

Time passed.

Isidor Feinstein Stone was the greatest U.S. reporter who ever lived, but in 1957 he was out of favor in Cold War D.C. After a long reporting career in daily journalism, his views got him blacklisted during McCarthyism, so he set up shop on his own. He began publishing a newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly. The first issue appeared Jan. 17, 1953. At its height, it had a whopping 66,000 subscribers. Stone’s now-respected 1952 book The Hidden History of the Korean War—initially rejected by 28 publishers—was so accurate and embarrassing to U.S. officials that Che Guevara told him the U.S. embassy in Mexico City bought up and destroyed all the copies it could find. The book was not reviewed in the U.S. because, as historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in 1970, Stone was “too honest too soon.”

The mouth of the Rainier tunnel.

Stone said of establishment reporters and news executives who got too close to the people they covered, “You begin to understand there are certain things the public ought not to know.”

Because he had to operate outside of the journalism establishment, Stone had no ties to sacred cows and insiders. He published information that often fell outside of allowable circles of discourse for mainstream reporters. And because his pariah status denied him the kind of sources other reporters cultivated, he relied for information on the public record—especially material government published that rarely got attention. With the passing years, his newsletter became so well known for reliability that its editor gained a kind of respectability.

In February 1965, the U.S. State Department issued a “white paper” designed to answer the question the public kept asking—“Why are we in Vietnam?” On March 8, the Weekly appeared. In four pages, it annihilated the department’s facts, reasoning and analysis, often using the department’s own information to make its case. One of his biographers points out that, years later, major press entities “would begin to announce the same findings as ’exclusives.’”

Stone’s freedom as an independent self-publisher meant he never had to do pieces on the 10 best places in town to find bouillabaisse. I.F. Stone’s Weekly was dense text, had no photographs, contained dry statistics, drier wit, and was indispensable for those who wanted to critically analyze their government.

Stone said of his work on the Nevada atomic test story, “People say that getting that kind of story is a matter of luck. Luck, hell. You just have to make more trouble than the next guy, make the extra calls, do the extra reading.” He became the personification of A.J. Liebling’s dictum that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

Several months after he squirreled away his copy of the New York Times story on the Rainier test, there was a hearing of a U.S. Senate subcommittee on disarmament. President Eisenhower’s atomic test ban negotiator, Harold Stassen, testified that he had the Soviet Union ready to reach an accommodation on policing a ban. Stassen said the Area 12 test was “recorded in every seismic instrument within a thousand miles” and a network of seismic listening stations 580 miles apart could detect any atomic test. This was a breakthrough.

By a remarkable coincidence, two days later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), dominated in those days by Strangelovian nuclear physicist Edward Teller—who was adamantly opposed to a test ban—suddenly got around to releasing its report on the Rainier test. It claimed that Rainier had not been detected more than 250 miles away, thus undercutting Stassen’s credibility and reducing the chance of any agreement. The report said, “When the device was detonated, only a few persons of many who witnessed the event from the forward control area, 2½ miles from the ground zero, felt any earth shock, and off-site the earth movement was so slight that it could be recorded only on extremely sensitive seismological instruments.” This was a lie. Nor did the Radiation Laboratory at Livermore, which detonated the test, publicly correct the AEC’s falsehood.

Stone was already suspicious of the AEC—he considered it the most dishonest agency in Washington, which is quite a standard to meet. After the agency cut Stassen’s legs out from under him, Stone went down into his basement and dug out his Sept. 20 edition of the Times. He called the AEC’s spokesperson and asked why they were saying the test could not be detected for more than a couple hundred miles when the overseas stations picked it up. The agency man replied, “Izzy, we don’t know what the answer is. We’ll see what we can find out.”

Stone: “I figured I better get me a seismologist.” After checking around, he learned that the Coast and Geodetic Survey (CGS) in the Commerce Department had a seismology lab. He drove down to CGS. His arrival was an event at the little-known agency.

“They were so tickled,” Stone later told interviewer Andrew Patner. “They hadn’t seen a reporter since Noah hit Mount Ararat, or at least since San Francisco.” After taking a tour, Stone showed the CGS men the Times shirttails and asked if they believed the overseas seismic reports. “No, not really,” one of them answered—but then he gave Stone information on 19 other seismic stations that had picked up Rainier. One was Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1,240 miles from Area 12. Another was the Alaska reading. Stone asked, “Mind if I jot these down?” The CGS man said sure. Then he asked Stone why he was so interested. Stone told him about the AEC report. Uh-oh. This was, remember, the height of the Cold War. The CGS men abruptly clammed up. When Stone returned to his office, the AEC was calling: “Izzy, we heard you were sniffing around at Coast and Geodetic. It’s too late for us to get Nevada on the teletype, but we’ll call you tomorrow. Maybe there’s a mistake.” The congeniality was deceptive.

President Kennedy with scientists Glenn Seaborg (left) and Edward Teller.


A day later, the AEC released a retraction—but worded it as incomprehensibly as possible and did not publicize it or distribute it widely. Stone reported the story in two issues of the Weekly. The March 10 issue carried the headline “Dr. Teller’s Campaign Against A Ban on Testing.” The story on the AEC’s lying appeared on St. Patrick’s Day—“Why the AEC Retracted that Falsehood on Nuclear Testing,” a story that ended, “The false press release with its reluctant and inadequate correction deserves a fuller airing.”

It was a vain hope. Stone was one of the few who reported the retraction. He alerted the St. Louis Post Dispatch, which ran a story, and scientific publications like Science magazine and the Newsletter of the Federation of American Scientists gave it heavy coverage. But the major popular organs such as the television networks, the Times and Herald Tribune in New York, and the Times Herald and Post in Washington, as well as the news magazines, continued toeing the company line.

Stone was experiencing one of the most unattractive features of journalism then and now—pettiness from journalists when a competitor, particularly an out-of-favor competitor, outshines them. To recognize Stone’s achievement would have been to recognize Stone.

It became an increasingly difficult story to ignore, but U.S. journalism managed it. At a hearing where AEC chair Lewis Strauss testified, New Mexico Sen. Clifford Anderson grilled him on the myth of undetectability and even got Strauss to admit it was Stone who forced the agency to admit the truth. But the mainstream press still disregarded the story; the myth was too deeply embedded. Teller and his allies, with the aid of journalism, were able to keep knowledge of the detectability of testing within rarefied circles, leaving the conventional wisdom intact and blocking a test ban.

I can find no coverage at all in Nevada newspapers. There is no evidence Nevada journalists even knew the Rainier dispute happened. If they did, the story was suppressed.

The myth’s consequences were enormous. When journalism suppressed the retraction, the AEC was able to “cut poor Stassen’s throat, make a liar out of him, and dash the agreement,” as Stone later put it. Eisenhower administration officials succeeded in sabotaging a test ban treaty. The test ban was delayed for another six years, until the Kennedy administration achieved a treaty a few weeks before John Kennedy’s murder, and that treaty covered only tests above ground, underwater and in space. Tests like Rainier were still permitted.

In society generally, the undetectability myth lived on. Nothing made this clearer than the way conventional wisdom reared its head in the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. In the fourth debate, Sen. Kennedy said, “The kind of tests which you can’t detect are underground or in—in, perhaps, in outer space.”

Other legacies of the inadequate press coverage of the 1957 test live on. Rainier was one of what atomic scientist Glenn Seaborg called “peaceful” detonations, intended to advance an initiative called Plowshare that promoted nonmilitary uses for atomic explosions and nuclear energy. Free of press scrutiny, Plowshare officials prematurely promoted development of atomic energy by other nations by guaranteeing to accept wastes produced before knowing what to do with the waste.

The Rainier story is still not being told candidly. The July/August 2002 newsletter of the Lawrence Livermore lab, which (as the Radiation Laboratory at Livermore) detonated Rainier, contained this account: “The Rainier event was announced in advance so that seismic stations throughout the U.S. and Canada could attempt to record a signal.” Nowhere does it mention that the lab participated in the detectability cover-up.

The Atomic Energy Commission continued its truth-free activities for years. Every Nevada governor except one was an admirer of the AEC. The exception, Grant Sawyer, always refused to tour the Nevada Test Site because of his suspicions of the AEC and to avoid putting the governor’s imprimatur on its operations.

I. F. Stone


Eventually, nuclear contamination of humans north and east of the test site vindicated Sawyer and discredited AEC assurances that fallout was safe. (Times reporter Hill, who covered Rainier, died of cancer.) Stone said in 1988, “The AEC was just the worst agency. They were mendacious. They started out right off the bat by telling us that fallout was good for you, and it was all downhill from there.” He wrote in 1970, “[T]he AEC claimed [the Rainier coverup] was an ’inadvertent’ error. No agency in Washington—not even State Department or Pentagon—has a worse record than the AEC for these little ’errors.’”

In 1974, the AEC was abolished and its functions transferred to the newly created Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. ERDA and the NRC were later folded into the Department of Energy, established in 1977. But the AEC’s culture of dishonesty migrated through its evolving bureaucratic configurations into each new entity, and the Energy Department is now considered just as mendacious as the AEC. In August 2001, for instance, a report by the U.S. Justice Department found Energy had misled the FBI in the famous bungled investigation of scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was unjustly accused of espionage by Energy.

Stassen would later become something of a national joke for his repeated presidential candidacies, but Stone always had a good word for him: “Stassen tried very, very hard as Eisenhower’s chief disarmament negotiator—he’s a real unsung hero—to get something, but Teller was making the test ban seem unilateral, like some sort of giveaway. As we got close to an agreement, Teller starts to say, ’How can we enforce it? Suppose they go underground. Suppose they go out into space? Suppose they go to the dark side of the moon? We’ll never be able to detect them.’”

Teller was a consultant at Lawrence Livermore until his death in 2003. He once said, “We must overcome the popular notion that nuclear weapons are more immoral than conventional weapons.” He has been immortalized in popular culture by Bad Religion’s song “The Biggest Killer in American History.” Part of the lyric reads, “I think of Edward Teller and his moribund reprise/ Then I look to Nevada and I can’t believe my eyes.”

A ban on underground testing finally materialized, but not until the 1990s, and it is not a legal treaty, merely an informal moratorium that has been breached, notably by India and Pakistan. In 1999, the Senate rejected a comprehensive ban.

Stone published I.F. Stone’s Weekly until Dec. 14, 1971, when he discontinued publication and began writing for the New York Review of Books. By then, he had been discovered by a mainstream press, which guiltily lionized him as an honest reporter. Many of his books came back into print. (Some copies of his early books sell for hundreds of dollars.) “I’m getting so damn respectable,” he told Nat Hentoff in 1971. “Am I doing something wrong?”

His Nevada scoop became a legend in journalism circles, the classic example of I.F. Stone journalism, taught in journalism classes.

In 1974, the Columbia Journalism Review carried an unforgettable description of the Rainer exclusive: “Very simple, and what all of us expect all of the time from newsmen. But really not so simple. For one thing, it takes energy (Stone actually got in his car and went over to Commerce, and had actually to copy down the seismological figures), and it takes a commitment to be suspicious of whatever government—any government—says.”

This is one of the constructive outcomes of the Rainier incident—it happened at a time when citizens unwisely believed the U.S. government told them the truth, and it foreshadowed a series of episodes that dispelled that unhealthy attitude. After Rainier came the U-2 incident, the Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, Iran Contra. Unfortunately, while the public has learned a healthy skepticism toward the government credibility, it is one that vanishes in times of tension, such as the aftermath of September 11.

Many published collections of quotations contain one from Stone about assumptions reporters should make: “The first is that every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed. That’s a prima facie assumption, unless proven to the contrary.”

In his later years, Stone learned classical Greek so he could investigate the trial of Socrates and in 1988 published a book on the trial that became his first best seller. That year, a good friend took me to I.F. Stone’s 80th birthday appearance at the auditorium in San Francisco where he had once covered the founding of the United Nations. This gnarled, elderly little man seated on the stage had once disrupted the operations of Republican and Democratic administrations alike, and he became such an admired figure that right wingers began smearing him as a Soviet agent. It’s an accusation that has been discredited repeatedly, but it lived on—much like the myth about the undetectability of underground atomic tests.

Stone died on June 18, 1989. His New York Times obituary cited the Nevada scoop as a sample of the “important exclusive reports” the Weekly produced. A decade later, the body of work in I.F. Stone’s Weekly was voted number 16 on a list of the 100 best works of U.S. journalism of the 1900s.

Ralph Nader: “If I.F. Stone had been born in ancient Athens over 2000 years ago, there would now be statues of him in front of major newspaper buildings.”