Cold war 1950-59

L to R, Hans Bethe, Eleanore Roosevelt, David Lilienthal, Robert Oppenheimer. Einstein was in a Princeton, NJ studio. (Library of Congress photo).

1950, Feb. 12 — Leading atomic scientists argue against secrecy and for international arms supervision during the premier of a talk show with Eleanor Roosevelt. The former First Lady brought Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, David Lilienthal, Hans Bethe and others together for a discussion of the problems of the nuclear age. Einstein said that the idea of national security through nuclear weapons was “a dangerous illusion.” He also said that “radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere and hence annihilation of any life on earth has been brought within the range of technical possibilities.” The only way out of the impass, Einstein said, is “a supra-national judicial and executive body” and “a declaration of nations to collaborate loyally in the realization of such a restricted world government.”

1950 — Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit identifies causes of smog in LA as interaction of hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen from auto exhaust.

1950 — Van Mahotsav, a week-long tree-planting celebration in India, is initiated by Kanaiyalal Manekial Munshi, journalist, minister for agriculture and governor of Uttar Pradesh. (Source: Bishwa Nath Singh)

1950 — Aug. 5 — B-29 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon crashes and burns trying to make an emergency return to b ase after taking off from Travis Air Force Base (then Fairfield-SuisunAir Force Base) in California. Eighteen killed, 60 injured. Apparently this is the first of dozens, if not hundreds, of nuclear weapons accidents (also known as “Broken Arrow” incidents). See US Nuclear Weapons Accidents by Jaya Tiwari and Cleve J. Gray

1950, Nov. 24 — Poza Rica killer smog incident leaves 22 dead, hundreds hospitalized in Mexico. The killer smog was caused by gas fumes from an oil refinery.

1950 — President Harry Truman says government and industry should join forces in a battle against death-dealing smog. 


1951 — Rachel Carson writes The Sea Around Us, published by Oxford University Press. 

1951– The Nature Conservancy formed Oct. 22. By the year 2000, the conservancy has 900,000 members and has protected 10 millioin acres.

1951, April 17 — American Steel and Wire Co. settles the Donora, Pennsylvania smog disaster suits for a reported $235,000 in Pittsburgh April 17. Some 130 suits seeking $4,643,000 were filed as a result of the 1948 disaster in which 20 persons died and 5,190 were made ill. [Facts On File print edition, 1949, p. 336K]

1951 — Christine Stevens founds the Animal Welfare Institute, influential in winning passage of most of the present federal animal welfare and endangered species conservation legislation, often with the help of Washington D.C. journalist Ann Cottrell Free, who covered the White House during the Eisenhower administration. Stevens headed AWI until her death in 2002.


1952 — US Congress passes Dingell-Johnson Act, an excise tax on fishing tackle used to fund conservation projects,

1952 — Testimony in Justice Dept antitrust suit against Du Pont focuses on anti-competitve association between it, GM, Standard Oil and leaded gasoline maker Ethyl Corp. 

1952, Dec. 4 thru Dec. 8 —  Killer fog hits London, causing an estimated 4,000 t0 12,000 deaths. Vehicles use lamps in broad daylight, but smog is so thick that busses run only with a guide walking ahead. By Dec. 8 all transportation except the subway had come to a halt. People died in all age groups, but most were over 45 and 80% had a history of heart or respiratory problems.  The peak density of the smog was 4,460 µg/m3 of particulates.

1952,  Dec. 12 — Chalk River nuclear test reactor explodes in Ontario. No one is killed, but thousands are exposed to highly radioactive waste.


1953 — British begin nuclear weapons testing at Maralinga nuclear test site in Southern Australia.

1953,  May 4 — Gilbert N. Plass presents paper on global warming at American Geophyical Unioin. The Washington Post story (May 5) says:

World Industry, pouring its exhausts into the air, may be making the earth’s climate warmer, a Johns Hopkins physicist, reported here yesterday. Releases of carbon dioxide from burning coals and oils, said Dr. Gilbert N. Plass, blanket the earth’s surface ‘like glass in a greenhouse.’ So much carbon dioxide has been released in this industrial century that the earth’s average temperature is rising 1 1/2 degrees (F) a century, he said. Similar but more naturally caused changes in the air’s carbon dioxide content may account for the ice ages and warm intervals in geologic time, he added… Latest experimental and theoretical calculations, he reported, show that doubling the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere causes surface temperatures to rise four degrees (F) if no other changes occur. But, he added, still other earth warming factors may also be triggered by increased carbon dioxide in the air. It could cause less rainfall by its effect on the clouds and less cloud cover for the earth,’ both tending to make the climate warmer and drier,’ he said. Dr Plass said the newer calculations bolster the theory first proposed in 1861 that decreases in the carbon dioxide content of the earth’s atmosphere caused the ice ages in geologic history. The theory, he said, has not generally been accepted because the effects ‘appeared to be too small.’ It appears now, he said, that even the physicists supporting the theory underestimated the climate-changing effects of the carbon dioxide content in the earth’s atmosphere. (“Industrial Gasses Warming Up Earth, Physicist Notes Here,” Washington Post, May 5, p. 5, probably by Nate Haseltine).

See Real Climate’s notes on Glibert Plass. Also see: Spencer Weart’s history of global warming

1953 — New York smog incident kills between 170 and 260 in November.

1953 — President Dwight Eisenhower proposes the “Atoms-for-Peace” Program, an international agency to develop peaceful nuclear technologies.

1953 — Jacques Cousteau’s first book, The Silent World sells more than 5 million copies. His film by the same name wins an Academy Award for best documentary in 1957, the first of three such awards that his films would earn.

1953 — Tests show radioactive iodine in children’s bodies in Utah — an apparent legacy of atomic testing.

1953 — Eugene Odum publishes Fundamentals of Ecology.


1954, January 21 — Launching of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first a nuclear powered submarine. Its ability to cruise underwater for long periods of time is well demonstrated when, on Aug. 3, 1958, the Nautilus passes under the North Pole.

1954, March 1 — Nuclear tests at Bikini atoll prove twice as powerful as predicted,, killing a Japanese fisherman on the Lucky Dragon and reminding the world of the horrors of nuclear weapons. As the radioactivity spread through the Pacific and up the food chain, “scientists began to warn the world of a new reality; a human act at one locality could physically affect the environment across vast distances.” (Weart, p. 187). As many as 856 Japanese fishing boats with some 10,000 crewmen on board were operating in the surrounding area and were exposed to radiation, according to Gensuikyo.

1954, March 20 — Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas leads a “blister brigade” of hikers down the old Chesapeake and Ohio canal from Cumberland, Md. to Washington D.C. Douglas publicized the hike to oppose a highway that he said would spoil the natural beauty of the canal. The area became a 12,000 acre national park in 1971.

1954 — Heavy smog conditions shut down industry and schools in Los Angeles for most of October.

1954 — Formation of the Humane Society of the U.S. by former American Humane Association National Humane Review editor Fred Myers, Cleveland Amory, Helen Jones, and others, mostly formerly associated with the American SPCA or the AHA.

1954, Sept. 17 — “Too Cheap to Meter” — Adm. Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, predicts: “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.” Atomic “furnaces” would supply this power in five to fifteen years, he said, “depending on the vigor of the development effort.” Whether Strauss was referring only to an experimental reactor, or to atomic power in general, has been the subject of a minor debate; however, the press understood the statement to refer to the general development of nuclear power. (“Abundant power from atom seen; It will be too cheap for our children to meter, Strauss tells science writers,” New York Times, Sept. 17, 1954, p. 5.) Many other nuclear experts at the time were not so optimistic over the prospects for nuclear power. See “Too Cheap to Meter” by the Canadian Nuclear Society.

1954 — Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev introduced the first Soviet animal protection law in 1954, a year after the death of Joseph Stalin, as part of an effort to introduce at least a semblance of compassion to the Soviet police state. (M. Clifton, 2007)


1955 — March 2 — Washington Post reports that the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) is proposing a 500 foot religious cross in an Illinois State Park.  “Women’s Club Plan to Erect Cross Opposed.”

1955 — Sept. 19 — Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo) founded. In its statement about Hiroshima, the council said:

The U.S., fearing that if the truth about the A-bombing were disclosed and known to the world, it would be charged with violation of international law, made an official announcement at the beginning of September 1945, only 1 month after the atomic bombing, saying that those who were doomed to die have all died and now there is no one who is still suffering from the A-bomb radiation. A strict Press Code was imposed on all reports regarding the atomic bombing and the damage it caused. The Japanese government, under full occupation of the U.S forces, cooperated with the U.S. and stopped the relief activity for the survivors, leaving them in pain and suffering for a long time.

1955 — Congress passes Air Pollution Control Act, a forerunner of the Clean Air Act of 1963 and subsequent legislation.

1955 – November 29– EBR-I reactor in Arco, Idaho melts down during a coolant flow test.

1955 — International Air Pollution Congress held in New York City.

1955 — Plans for a dam in Dinosaur National Monument park are dropped after widespread opposition.

1955 — July 9 — Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell issue a manifesto calling for an end to nuclear weapons. All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it


1956 — Congress passes Water Pollution Control Act.

1956 — March 31 — World’s first commercial nuclear electric power plant is opened at Sellafield in the United Kingdom. The 180-megawatt Calder Hall plant opening was seen as the start of the “new atomic age” that would produce electricity “too cheap to meter.” In fact, the plant was secretly intended to produce plutonium for Britain’s nuclear weapons program. According to The Guardian newspaper, Calder Hall was the first of a series of magnox stations, so-called because the fuel cans were made of magnesium alloy. The second one, Chapelcross in Dumfries, was also built for military reasons. Altogether 11 stations, each slightly larger than the last, were eventually built, producing 10% of Britain’s electricity. The official opening ceremony was Oct. 17, 1956, as seen in this British Pathe film.   Within a year,  fire breaks out, nearly destroying the plant, spreading radiation over a wide area.  

1956 — Aug. 29 — Controversy over proposed nuclear reactor in Laguna Beach, Michigan leads United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther to file suit to halt construction, which had begun 21 days beforehand. Reuther said the Atomic Energy Commission had betrayed public trust by moving forward with an “unproven and hazardous” fast breeder plutonium reactor. The controversy shows the fault line that has developed between Democrats and labor against Republicans and nuclear power. (Reuther assails AEC, New York Times, Aug. 30, 1956, p. 49.)

1956, May 1 —  Minamata Disease — Dr. Hajime Hosokawa first reports “Minamata disease” as an “an unclarified disease of the central nervous system” affecting residents of Kumamoto and Minamata, small towns about 570 miles southwest of Tokyo. Symptoms ranged from permanent numbness of face and limbs to severe and crippling birth defects. Fish diets were suspected from the first, and Hosokawa soon narrowed the cause of the disease to mercury dumping by the Chisso Corporation. The chemical company denied the accusations and continued dumping mercury. They also attempted to silence Dr. Hosokawa. By 1959 fishermen began protesting and researchers from Kumamoto University agreed that mercury poisoning was the cause of the “Minamata Disease” In the mid-1970s, the estimate was that 67 people in Minamata had died and another 330 were permanently disabled from the mercury poisoning. By the 1990s, over 3,000 had suffered birth defects and other problems as a result of the mercury pollution. The process of compensation did not begin until the mid 1990s and is still ongoing.

1956, Oct. 28 — A warmer climate may be due to carbon dioxide accumulation in the air, according to a New York Times article about research by Gilbert Plass.

Every century man is increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by 30 percent … The introduction of nuclear energy will not make much difference. Coal and oil are still plentiful and cheap in many parts of the world…”    (Also see Andrew Revkin’s comments about the article).

The article is based on:  Gilbert Plass, 1956, “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change,” Tellus 8 (2): 140-154. which says:

“The most recent calculations of the infra-red flux in the region of the 15 micron CO2 band show that the average surface temperature of the earth increases 3.6° C if the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is doubled and decreases 3.8° C if the CO2 amount is halved, provided that no other factors change which influence the radiation balance. Variations in CO2 amount of this magnitude must have occurred during geological history; the resulting temperature changes were sufficiently large to influence the climate… The extra CO2 released into the atmosphere by industrial processes and other human activities may have caused the temperature rise during the present century. In contrast with other theories of climate, the CO2 theory predicts that this warming trend will continue, at least for several centuries.”

1956 — Echo Park dam proposal defeated in Congress. The dam would have covered a national park area of magnificent sandstone gorges in southern Utah that have become  Dinosaur National Park. This was the first such proposal since the Hetch Hetchy of Yosemite was dammed in 1913. One opponent of the dam, the well known writer Bernard DeVoto, said in Harpers Magazine:

No one has asked the American people whether or not they want their sovereign rights, and those of their descendants, in their own publicly reserved beauty spots wiped out. Thirty-two million of them visited the National Parks in 1949. More will visit them this year. The attendance will keep on increasing as long as they are worth visiting, but a good many of them will not be worth visiting if engineers are let loose on them.

1956 — British Parliament passes Clean Air Act.

1956 — December — Another killer smog in London; 1,000 die.


1957 — March — Controversy over fluoridation of water hits New York City. The public health measure, designed to reduce tooth decay, is also seen as forced medication or even a communist plot.

1957 — April 24 — Dr. Albert Schweitzer broadcasts his “Declaration of Conscience” from Oslo, Norway, under the auspices of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, noting that “radiation resulting from the explosions which have already taken place represents a danger to the human race – a danger not to be underrated – and that further explosions of atomic bombs will increase this danger to an alarming extent.” He described the history and dangers of nuclear weapons tested and said: “The end of further experiments with atom bombs would be like the early sunrays of hope which suffering humanity is longing for.”

1957 — Founding of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE). The committee was inspired by Schweitzer’s Declaration of Conscience. (In 1993 the organization changed its name to Peace Action. )

1957 — September First underground nuclear test in US.

1957-58 — Chelyabinsk-40 nuclear waste explosion in Kyshtym, Russia two million curies spread throughout the region, exposing over a quarter million people to high level radiation.

1957 — October — Fire destroys the core of a plutonium-producing reactor at Britain’s Windscale nuclear complex (now named Sellafield) sending clouds of radioactivity into the atmosphere. An official report 20 years later said radiation could have caused dozens of cancer deaths in the vicinity of Liverpool. See Windscale documentary site. Also this Guardian article.

1957 — Price-Anderson Act limits liability for nuclear utilities and contractors in the event of an accident at a nuclear power plant. This is, in effect, an enormous subsidy for the nuclear power industry which would have to pay high insurance premiums otherwise.

1957 — The first full-scale US nuclear power plant goes into service at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.

1957 — The Soviet Union scores a space-race first by shooting into orbit a small stray dog named Laika. She lived only a few hours, according to recently released Soviet archives, but at the time the world believed she had lived long enough to be burned alive in re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Somewhat naive horror at the fate of Laika outraged animal advocates everywhere. The public was then largely unaware that pound dogs were being experimented upon, electrocuted, decompressed, shot, or gassed by the tens of millions, throughout the world, while the Soviet propaganda machine made Laika probably the most famous dog in history before discovering that millions of people were more upset about her plight, isolated in space, than were thrilled at the scientific triumph that she represented. Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev responded by authorizing the formation of the Animal Protection Society, the first and only Soviet humane organization. It was disbanded and supplanted by independent nonprofit humane groups after the 1990 collapse of Communism. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1957, July, through December 1958 — International Geophysical Year is a global scientific effort to understand the earth and a major step forward for international understanding. It was modeled on the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933 and was intended to allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of geophysical phenomena, according to a National Academy of Sciences history. Some 67 countries are involved. Among the most important results:

Antarctic research on ice depths yields greatly improved estimates of the earth’s total ice content. Antarctic research also contributs to improved weather forecasting and understanding glaciers. On Dec. 1, 1958, Antarctica is protected as a wildlife and scientific preserve by a treaty signed by representatives of the U.S., USSR, Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Britain, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and South Africa.

Charles Keeling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography begins documenting rise of CO2 from 315 parts per million (ppm) base that year. Roger Revell of Scripps writes in a 1957 climate paper: “Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” Ice cores later show that CO2 levels were at 280 ppm in the latter 19th century. CO2 level by the year 2000 is around 370 ppm. Also see: Spencer Weart’s history of global warming and Andrew Revkin’s blog about Revelle’s discussion of CO2 and climate risks.


1958, June 9 — Project Chariot — Atomic Energy Commission asks US Bureau of Land Management to set aside over one million acres of Alaska’s Ogotoruk Valley in order to test what Edward Teller called “the great art of geographic engineering, to reshape the earth to your pleasure.” A series of nuclear detonations would create a harbor at the site, about 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle at Cape Thompson on the Alaskan coast. (See Douglas L. Vandegraft’s Project Chariot site and Dan O’Neill’s Firecracker Boys). The project is stopped thanks, in part, due to efforts of the Alaska Conservation Society.

1958 — UN Conference on the Law of the Sea convened. Major issue is outer continental shelf resource explotation.

1958 — Journalist I.F. Stone catches the Atomic Energy Commission in a lie about their ability to monitor Soviet nuclear explosions. The result is a boost for the test ban treaty and for independent journalism.

1958 — Feb — Founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK and US. Founders include Bertrand Russell, JB Priestley, AJP Taylor, Michael Foot, Pat Arrowsmith, Sheila Jones and Canon John Collins.

1958 — Congressional passage of the Delany Amendment, which mandated animal testing as part of the assessment of consumer products for cancer-causing properties. The Delany Amendment was repealed in 1996.


UNCHAINED GODDESS, a 1958 science education film produced by Frank Capra — “Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization … Carbon dioxide, helps air absorb heat from the sun … It’s been calculated that a few degrees rise in the earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps… and if this happens, an inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi Valley.” (Click on the graphic to see the YouTube video). Obviously, the cartoon is not really an accurate representation of anticipated global sea level rise, but it’s clear that climate change and global warming were well understood in the 1950s. (This is significant since there is a false implication, often used by fossil fuels industries and their apologists, that climate science suddenly switched views from global cooling to global warming when it was convenient to do so in the 1970s. This is a deliberately deceptive misreading of the history of science.)


1959 — California becomes first to impose automotive emissions standards, requiring “blow-by” valve to recycle crankcase emissions back through the carburetor. Automakers combine to fight mandatory use of the $7 device, a fight which leads to an anti-trust suit by the U.S. Justice Dept. that is not settled until 1969.

1959 — July — Accident at sodium nuclear test reactor in Simi Valley, CA.

1959 — George Schaller writes The Year of the Gorilla, a book about mountain gorillas in the Congo. Later, Diane Fossey will credit Schaller’s book as her inspiration.

1959 — Joy Adamson, wife of Kenyan game warden George Adamson, authored Born Free, about her rehabilitation for release of the lioness Elsa. The story became an influential hit film. The Adamsons and George’s brother Terrence remained active in wildlife rehabilitation and protection for the rest of their lives. Joy was murdered by a former employee in 1980, Terrence died from natural causes in 1986, and George was killed while defending a German woman from a gang of poachers and marauders in 1988. Their legacies included establishing the Elsa Appeal and the Born Free Foundation, and helping many other noted African wildlife conservationists to get started, among them Esmond Bradley Martin and Tony Fitzjohn. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1959 — Jane Goodall became the first of “Leakey’s Angels,” a trio of young women sent by anthropologist Louis Leakey to live among and observe wild great apes. Goodall’s observations of wild chimpanzees, Dian Fossey’s observations of wild gorillas, and Berute Galdikas’ observations of wild orangutans substantially revised human perception of our closest relatives. Fossey was murdered in 1985. Goodall and Galdikas remain highly active advocates for animals of all species. Goodall in particular revolutionized the techniques of wildlife study. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1959 — Formation of the Blue Cross of India. Cofounder Chinny Krishna in 1964 introduced the first neuter/return program for street dogs in the world, which he called “ABC,” short for “Animal Birth Control.” In 1997 the Indian goverment accepted the recommendation of the Animal Welfare Board of India that ABC should become national policy, and endorsed the goal of abolishing animal control killing throughout India by 2005.(M. Clifton, 2007)

1959 — Congressional passage of the rarely enforced Humane Slaughter Act, 85 years after Switzerland became the first of 14 nations to pass similar laws before the U.S.

1959 — Breaking with HSUS, Helen Jones founded the National Catholic Humane Society, renamed the International Society for Animal Rights in 1981. The National Catholic Humane Society, an early advocate of no-kill sheltering, was for about 20 years the most militant major U.S. animal welfare organization. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1959, Dec. 2 — Some 420 people die when the Malpasset Dam on the Reyran River collapses and floods Frejus, a town on the French Rivierra. The dam had been weakened by torrential rains and by blasting in a nearby mine.