Political Abuse In The Atomic Age
When Don Pedro was in Atlanta Penitentiary from 1937-1943, the health issues resulting from the conditions he faced were severe enough at the time to lead those close to him to believe he might soon die. His experience at La Princesa in the 1950s was significantly worse. In fact, even before he was taken to La Princesa on November 13, 1950, his health had already been seriously impacted.
During this brief period following his arrest, Don Pedro was kept in police headquarters in a room that served as an archive. This room had reinforced concrete walls, no windows, toilet, water, or electricity, and no ventilation besides whatever came through the iron door that was the room’s entrance. Given food for only the first few days, in this room Don Pedro developed a nosebleed and suffered a heart attack.
Once transferred to La Princesa, Don Pedro was kept in solitary confinement in a cell without ventilation and without access to lawyers or visitation rights. Finally able to write letters to prison officials six months later, on May 10 Don Pedro informed them of the presence of projections of light in his cell. He stated that these light rays were causing burns on his body and that they constituted radiation attacks conducted against him by the U.S. military. After prison officials sent a doctor to examine him, Don Pedro was transferred to a cell with slightly better ventilation on May 18, 1951.
The first attack, according to Don Pedro, took place on February 18, 1951, and caused him to fall unconscious for the first time in his life. Over the next three years, Don Pedro claimed he was regularly subjected to these rays of light emanating from the walls of his cell. Whenever they appeared, after only a few minutes he noticed swelling in the parts of his body where the rays seemed to be focused—his legs, feet, arms, hands, stomach, head, neck, ears, and even his private parts. Sometimes the rays were invisible, though he could still feel their burns. These attacks caused Don Pedro to suffer from sores all over his body, severe headaches, fevers, high blood pressure, infections, and even visual impairment. By the time he was allowed to receive visits, Don Pedro had to be assisted walking down the stairs and could barely walk.
According to Don Pedro, when his cell was changed the warden of the prison said, “The bad thing about this is that I have nowhere to put him, as they have the entire prison building under radar control and they will locate him wherever he is.”
Don Pedro’s feeling was that he was being targeted by the U.S. government, and that they were using this method to produce a heart attack, stroke, or a death “that can be alleged is from the heart or a brain hemorrhage resulting in hemiplegia (paralysis).” He felt that by subjecting him to this unbelievable attack by radiation, his resulting death could be argued to be due to the complication of health issues rather than the assassination that it was. FBI agents kept detailed notes on everything and sent regular reports to their director.
Response To Don Pedro’s Experiences
Having studied chemistry and physics in the University of Vermont and Harvard, Don Pedro called what he was experiencing both “atomic attacks” and “nuclear attacks.” The only remedy available to Don Pedro, which he developed himself, was wrapping his head and body in cold, wet towels and sheets, surrounding himself with bottles of water, and keeping the floor covered with water when possible. He explained: “It is a scientific affirmation that if an atomic bomb falls while it is raining, when it falls it loses fifty percent effectiveness, because radioactivity goes down.” Prison officials, on the other hand, offered only a dose of the barbiturate Seconal sodium to help him sleep. Refusing to take the drug because it affected his memory and left him physically disabled, Don Pedro said, “It is better to be burned alive than to be an idiot.”
Even though FBI reports to Director J. Edgar Hoover detailed all of the symptoms Don Pedro was experiencing, one time saying, “he might not recover from his present illness,” the series of doctors and psychiatrists sent by prison officials ignored all of these symptoms in their reports. Instead, everything they documented centered on the portrayal of Don Pedro as insane. They wrote about him suffering from “psychosis,” “paranoia,” “hallucinations,” “delusions of grandeur,” and the like. It was these reports the FBI then distributed widely within the U.S. government and military, controlling the narrative that the U.S. would go on to provide the press and, through them, the world.
The Puerto Rican newspaper El Imparcial, among others, began to print regular articles detailing the state of Don Pedro’s delicate and declining health. Publications in Mexico, Cuba, and other countries also began to focus on his condition. In Argentina, one magazine published an article with the headline “The Atomic Lynching of a Martyr for Liberty,” stating very clearly that Don Pedro was “slowly being murdered in jail by means of electronic rays.”
The Cuban House of Representatives, on May 28, 1951, even passed a resolution that called for his release and transfer to Cuba for treatment, “taking into consideration the very grave state of the Puerto Rican patriot Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.”
Petitions for his release were also filed on the international level. In December 1952 the Nationalist Party filed a petition in both the UN and Organization of American States (OAS). On February 25, 1953, the Writer’s Congress of José Martí, during their commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban patriot, wrote a letter to U.S. President Eisenhower calling for the release of Don Pedro and all other nationalists. The letter had the signatures of twenty-eight prominent individuals spanning eleven countries. The U.S. government ignored all of these pleas for Don Pedro’s release and never increased the amount of medical treatment he received during this entire time.
Of course, for Don Pedro, the approach of sending medical doctors to examine him was missing the point entirely, and the use of psychiatrists was clearly tied to efforts at labeling him a madman. Rather than medical examinations, Don Pedro repeatedly called for experts in nuclear physics to investigate what was being done to him. He repeatedly refused examinations by doctors and made clear that they were not appropriate for the matter as he understood it.
Total Body Irradiation (TBI)
When the Nationalist Party petitioned the UN and OAS in 1952 in defense of Don Pedro, they also consulted and received testimony from Dr. Frédéric Joliot-Curie, France’s first High Commissioner of Atomic Energy in 1945 and the recipient in 1935 of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of “artificial radioactivity.” What Dr. Joliot-Curie’s testimony affirmed was that the technology for “total body irradiation” not only existed, but the attacks Don Pedro claimed to be victim of were possible.
A few years later, in 1957, the rays of light that Don Pedro described finally received a formal name in the scientific community when Columbia University graduate student Gordon Gould coined the term LASER, an acronym standing for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
When Don Pedro was briefly released from prison at the end of 1953, Dr. Orlando Daumy, the president of the Cuban Cancer Association and an expert on radiation, was able to travel to Puerto Rico and examine him. He concluded that the sores on Don Pedro’s body and his other symptoms were the result of exposure to intense radiation, and the effects of the radiation were weakened by the wet towels he wrapped himself with.
While Don Pedro’s allegation that he was targeted with radiation attacks by the U.S. military has not been officially confirmed, revelations many years later all seem to suggest this was the case. The biggest revelation came in August 1995 when the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed that, from 1944-1974, as many as 20,000 people, including people in prison, were subjected to federally funded radiation experiments conducted by doctors, scientists, and military officials.
In a section titled ‘The Case for Albizu’ in his book War Against All Puerto Ricans, author Nelson A. Denis highlights two points that strongly suggest the possibility “that Albizu endured TBI for five years.” First, he notes the visit of Dr. Marshall Brucer to Puerto Rico in February and March of 1951, the same time period when Don Pedro first reported the radiation attacks. Dr. Brucer was the medical division director of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies (ORINS), the same institution that built and operated some of the first TBI chambers. ORINS also received funding from the U.S. Army and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study the effects of radiation on human subjects, in addition to conducting the first radiological warfare field tests for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Second, he points out a multi-million-dollar contract awarded to the Sloan-Kettering Institute in the early 1950s by the Special Weapons Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense for a project studying “Post-Irradiation Syndrome on Humans.” The director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute at the time, who was also a consultant for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was none other than Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads. As Denis points out, “Albizu had hounded Rhoads out of Puerto Rico [in 1932], after Rhoads wrote an infamous letter about ‘killing eight Puerto Ricans’ and ‘transplanting cancer into several more.’” A report summarizing the project stated patients “received total body irradiation” at levels 800 percent higher than what the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission identifies as being fatal without medical treatment.
As Denis wrote in his book, “A great deal of evidence, both direct and circumstantial, supports Albizu Campos’ claim that he was subjected to TBI.” Pedro Aponte Vázquez, a researcher on this topic, provided an in-depth presentation of all this evidence in August 1984 in front of the UN Decolonization Committee. His presentation went on to be published in 1985 and updated with additional research in 2004 as ¡Yo Acuso! Y Lo Que Pasó Después.
Many continue to seek definitive answers and accountability with respect to what Don Pedro endured. In an article published in the Puerto Rico Herald on April 9, 2000, New York Senator José Serrano raised the issue, writing, “Did the FBI play any role in torturing the leader of the independence movement, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, while he was in federal prison? The rumor persists among people in the Puerto Rican government, and elsewhere, that the FBI participated with federal prison officials in torturing Albizu Campos.”
- Bright Idea: The First Lasers (American Institute of Physics).
- Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie: French Chemists (2021, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
- War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror In America’s Colony, by Nelson A. Denis (Nation Books, 2015).
- ¡Yo Acuso! Y Lo Que Pasó Después, by Pedro Aponte Vázquez (2009).