Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.
One of the principal questions to be asked about heroes is how long it will take before they are shown to have feet of clay. In the case of Major Claude Eatherly, it did not take long to show that it was not his feet alone that were of clay: but in the meantime, philosophers such as Gunther Anders and Bertrand Russell swallowed the myth in its entirety.
Eatherly was a major in the US Air Force who flew the B29 bomber that checked that the weather was clear for the bombing of Hiroshima. He neither dropped the bomb nor saw the explosion, nor did he take part in the mission to bomb Nagasaki.
After the war, he flew a mission to Bikini to measure the radioactivity in the atmosphere. After that, he was disappointed not to be commissioned permanently as a pilot; and because of his misconduct he was lucky to escape dishonourable discharge. The evidence is that he was disappointed not to have been selected for the actual bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Bikini; he was bitterly disappointed not to be commissioned.
Once he left the Air Force, he drifted; he was unfaithful to his wife and was neglectful of his children; he began to drink; in 1947 he involved himself in illegal gun-running to Cuba, whose capital, Havana, he agreed to bomb preparatory to a coup d’etat for a fee of $100,000 (he and his associates were arrested before any of this could take place); he passed forged cheques and finally indulged in armed robbery.
It was then, thanks to a story written in Newsweek in 1957, that a myth emerged and rang round the world: Major Eatherly had committed his crimes because of something his psychiatrist called a ‘guilt complex;’ Eatherly had so bitterly repented bombing Hiroshima that he committed crimes in order to be caught and punished for his role in the killing of tens of thousands. The Austrian philosopher, Gunther Anders, wrote to him and their correspondence was published in many languages. Eatherly became almost a sainted figure, a martyr to the cause of world peace.
The inaccuracy of the myth was brilliantly exposed by an American journalist and novelist called William Bradford Huie (1910 – 1986). The unwitting originator of it was Dr Oleinick Pavlovitch Constantine (1908 – 1983), a psychiatrist with the Veterans’ Administration in Waco, Texas, who knew practically nothing of Eatherly’s previous history, and believed the highly selective, dramatised and exaggerated account that Eatherly gave him in 1956. It was he who relayed the theory of the guilt complex to a law court, from which it spread round the world.
Dr Constantine was not Eatherly’s first psychiatrist. When Eatherly was arrested for his various crimes, he often (and successfully) tried to get himself admitted to psychiatric hospital to avoid imprisonment. There is no evidence, though, that he was ever mad or even highly disturbed; nevertheless, he was on one occasion given a great deal of insulin coma therapy. He was also an early recipient of chlorpromazine, given illogically in conjunction with methylphenidate.
The world believed Dr Constantine’s theory because it wanted to do so; it paid no attention to the opinion of another psychiatrist, Dr Ross, who knew Eatherly much better than Constantine:
This patient has no moral feelings toward his wife or children, or toward any human being that he comes in contact with. He has no feeling or responsibility or moral obligation to an individual or group or to society as a whole.