Silent Curtain

Dec. 1, 1955
On March 5, 1946 at Fulton, (Mo.), Winston Churchill made his prophetic speech of warning, a speech immortalized by the first use of the phrase “Iron Curtain.”

I want to talk about the development of another curtain. It might well be called “the Silent Curtain”—and it might be an equally dangerous, though not so dramatic, threat to our way of life.

The Silent Curtain has grown rapidly in recent years. It is being woven by administrative orders. It is the result of bureaucratic censorship, an increasing tendency to hide from the American people facts they should know about our nation’s relative military strength, about governmental operations, about waste and errors.

To combat the dangers of this “Silent Curtain,” we must understand not only what has happened, but also why, and what the effects have been . . ..

In the field of defense, including weapons development, the American people have the right to know every bit of information that will not aid a possible enemy. The hydrogen era is no time for soothing syrup statements of partial truths. An uninformed people at peace today may be destroyed by surprise attack tomorrow.

On March 1, 1954, following the Bikini H-Bomb tests, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a statement on the range and effects of the blast. The statement was phrased in a manner intended to reassure an apprehensive American public. It did not give the facts as to the incredibly terrible potential of this new weapon.

On February 19, nearly a year later, Stewart and Joseph Alsop, famous Washington newsmen, wrote in the Saturday Evening Post:

“The facts about the H-bomb that are really needed to insure a realistic and informed public opinion are precisely the facts about the H-bomb that the enemy knows already. Our Government has sought to hide the bomb’s real power, the extent and effects of its noxious fall-out of radioactive particles, and the degree to which it may create an enduring radiological hazard in the air we breathe. Thus our government has hidden from our people essential information that is wholly familiar to the masters of the Kremlin, who also have their H-bomb.”

After this statement was published, the AEC issued an additional press release, revealing part of the truth about the H-bomb. Only then did we discover the government had withheld the following facts:

The Bikini blast itself was far more powerful than the scientists had expected.

The H-bomb fall-out was as deadly as the blast itself.

The fall-out could contaminate an area the size of the entire state of New Jersey.

Under such conditions, our current Civil Defense program was virtually worthless.

The Soviet Union knew these facts.

The American people did not.

According to our scientists, even the latest fall-out report still did not tell the story as it should be told, without endangering our national security.

Further indications of continuing and unnecessary secrecy about this new weapon were made public in September.

Professor Hermann J. Muller, Nobel prize-winning geneticist and the world’s leading authority on the effects of radiation on heredity, was barred by the Atomic Energy Commission from reading a paper, or participating in discussions, at the recent Geneva “Atoms for Peace” Conference.

The title of Professor Muller’s proposed paper was “How Radiation Changes the Genetic Constitution.”

Apparently Professor Muller was barred because he openly criticized the Atomic Energy Commission statement that no genetic damage has thus far resulted from atomic explosion radiation.

If this great scientist has such additional information about these new weapons, should he be muffled by some official who thinks the information might be untimely

As I have said many times in recent years, official statements have misled and are misleading the American people as to our country’s relative military strength against that of the possible enemy.

The fact we are stronger than ever before in peace time means exactly nothing. Relative strength is all that counts. Anything else has exactly the value of the second best poker hand.

Just this past summer, the Secretary of Defense issued a directive and supplementary memorandum, stating that in the future no news should be given out from the defense Department unless it was in accordance with policy, timely, constructive, and proper.

Any “mistake” is neither timely, constructive, nor proper. In the future, therefore, unless information suits the purposes of the Department, and won’t lead to possible criticism, it may well not be released.

The story of the fiasco of these jet engines at McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis was successfully withheld from the public over a long period. It was finally released as the result of the work of some enterprising reporters.

The American press, by insisting on the people’s right to know, are performing a most necessary public service.

America will continue a free nation only as long as all newspapers, and other mass communication media are able to give the people of America the truth . . ..

[The Chairman] of the Freedom of Information Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors . . . could not have been more right when he said:

“The acts and judgments of those who are fully informed are their own acts. The acts and judgments of those who are only partly informed are, in reality, the act and judgments of those who partly inform them.

“History does not record a free government that was secret or a secret government that was free. So those who defended the right to know, in a practical way are defending freedom and self-government.

“Both are threatened in our generation. They have been threatened seriously since World War I.” . . .

Let’s each and every one of us pledge ourselves to try to tear down any “Silent Curtain” of censorship, whenever there is an effort to draw it around governmental activities which should be made know to the people.

Let the people have the truth; and they will do whatever is necessary to remain free.

This article is an address made October 12, 1955, by Sen. W. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) at the centennial celebration of the Mexico Ledger, Mexico, Mo. Before entering the US Senate, Mr. Symington was AF Secretary.