Howard Hughes’ Atomic Horror

Lots of things freaked Howard Hughes out.

Sometimes, it was downright silly: “the peanuts, popcorn, and kids,” side of Circus Circus, which he once raged against in a memo to Bob Maheu, “and also the Carnival Freaks and Animal side of it.” Other times, it was the kind of thing Joe Sixpack would also shake his tiny fist at: television commercials being so much louder than the programs. Often, it started in a well-placed concern but morphed into a crippling phobia: his well-publicized fear of germs.

Case in point: his relentless opposition to nuclear detonations at the Nevada Test Site. The very thought of invisible rays against which no defense was possible seeping through his walls and causing sickness—this was disturbing for a well-adjusted person, but for Hughes, it was sheer horror.

When Hughes moved to Las Vegas, explosions had been rattling the town for 15 years. Although above-ground blasts had ceased with 1963’s Limited Test Ban Treaty, underground tests continued. Hughes didn’t notice two small detonations in early December, but the December 20, 1966, Greeley blast got his attention: At 780 kilotons, it was large enough to shake his Desert Inn penthouse. Hughes already contended with a variety of daily frustrations, from contaminating germs to an antitrust division that had the gall to block his acquisition of the Stardust. Now, his own government, run by people he’d been giving money to for years, was out to kill him.

The prospect of being shaken and irradiated was particularly galling because Hughes had moved to Las Vegas to escape cataclysm, rejecting the Bahamas as too hurricane-prone. “Well I promise you,” he wrote in a memo to Maheu, “that I did not come here to avoid hurricanes only to be molested by some stupid assholes making like earthquakes.”

The Boxcar test, scheduled for April 26, 1968, roused Hughes to action. At 1.3 megatons, it would be the biggest explosion yet felt in the United States. “I want you to call Gov. at once and the Senators and Congressman,” he ordered Maheu. “If they do not cancel this one I am going direct to the President in a personal appeal and demand that the entire test program be moved.”

Above ground nuclear atomic test site in Nevada Circa 1960

Hughes was so appalled at the giant test that he allied with the antinuclear activist Barry Commoner and recruited a slate of scientists, including Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, to oppose the test. While attempting to steer public opinion against the bomb, he also worked the corridors of power, enlisting everyone from Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt to newly appointed Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford (whom Hughes kept on retainer in his previous career as an attorney). Hughes offered to pay, out of his own pocket, the costs of relocating all explosive tests to Alaska, and produced Alaska senator Mike Gravel to endorse the idea.

Hughes begged for, at the very least, a 90-day delay to consider alternatives, and enlisted everyone from the United Auto Workers to the Federation of American Scientists in his effort to stop the blast. Taking on the Department of Defense and Atomic Energy Commission pushed the country’s wealthiest man to his limits. He demanded Maheu offer President Lyndon B. Johnson
$1 million in cash, if only he would stop the test. Maheu received an immediate audience with Johnson on the strength of being “Howard Hughes’ man,” but declined to deliver the bribe. Hughes went without sleep for three days, trying angle after angle to prevent atoms from being split so close to his haven.

All for naught. The test went off as planned on April 26, although it was delayed for an hour because of fears that high winds might carry vented radiation. The blast, which registered at 6.5 on the Richter scale, was felt, albeit faintly, as far away as Los Angeles.

In Las Vegas, the ground rolled for 90 seconds, with hotel towers shaking. In his suite, Hughes watched as the chandelier swayed for more than four minutes. The worst had come to pass. Physically and emotionally spent, Hughes knew when he was beaten.

“I would not,” he wrote to Maheu, “repeat last week for all the money in
the world.”

For its part, the Atomic Energy Commission never detonated anything of Boxcar’s size again, and, while at the time it insisted that all tests were of no danger whatsoever to the public, the very real concerns posed by nuclear testing have since come to light.