Friday Feature: finding aid for Charter Heslep Papers, newsman & Atomic Energy Commission member

The OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center is pleased to announce the release of a complete finding aid for the papers of Charter Heslep, a newsman and member of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Charter Heslep, in profession and personality, is best examined through his complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with information. As a broadcast journalist, censor, ghostwriter, and government employee–Heslep was a conduit through which information flowed and, in some cases, was dammed. He began his career as a newsman in 1929 at the Washington Daily News and in 1941 was appointed night news editor for NBC. During World War II, Heslep served as chief radio censor for the Broadcasting Division of the Office of Censorship where he oversaw the filtering of wartime news as it passed to the public. After the war’s end, Heslep returned to commercial broadcasting, this time at the Mutual Broadcasting Company. In 1949, he joined the Atomic Energy Commission as Assistant to the Director where was asked to apply his talents to the problem of nuclear energy. In his position at the AEC, Charter facilitated information sharing among research and policy organizations, wrote speeches for public officials including Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and assisted in communicating the role of atomic energy—both peaceful and military—to the American public.

Among his many duties at the AEC, Heslep was charged with overseeing the broadcasting of several nuclear weapons tests. Many of the materials in the Heslep Papers—including correspondence, photographs, and ephemera—date from these assignments. Most notably, a series of letters between Heslep and his wife between 1950 and 1957 describe his participation in Operations Tumbler-Snapper, Upshot-Knothole, and Redwing—early nuclear tests staged at the Nevada Test Site and the Pacific Proving Grounds.

It is in this correspondence that Heslep’s talents as a storyteller shine through. His letters, written in a tone approaching wonderment, detail the almost unsettling cleanliness of Camp Mercury, the strange sites of the Marshall Islands, the complexities of broadcasting across the Nevada desert, and the tenseness of a nuclear bomb test. Letters to his children express a similar exuberance at an impromptu military airshow seen from the USS McKinley or the hermit crab races held by bored sailors on Kwajalein. Moreover, his accounts of life and work among scientists and military brass are punctuated by moments of real excitement. In May 1956, he began a series of letters chronicling the USS McKinley’s search for the pilot of a lost observer plane. He wrote,

Tonight, as never before in my life, I have an idea how big an ocean is, especially the Pacific Ocean. Because, somewhere in the thousands of square miles of dark blue water, a man may be fighting for his life.

Only days later, he witnessed the first airdrop of a thermonuclear weapon, describing it “as if a red hot Washington Monument was being thrust upward into an already fiery sky.”

The personal nature of his family correspondence is complimented by examples of Heslep’s professional interactions with the public. Included in the collection are speeches he authored on behalf of the AEC such as “Radio’s Role in Defense” and “Some Aspects of the Impact of the Nuclear Age in the United States.”  Others like “Ghosting: A Necessity, Not a Sin” defend Heslep’s own work and the sometimes circuitous route information takes.

The Charter Heslep Papers are an incredible resource for scholars interested in nuclear history and policy, history of journalism, the work of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the history of information sharing between the U.S. government and the American public.

Additional related materials can be found on our web site  in the History of Atomic Energy Collection, the Barton C. Hacker Papers, the Barton C. and Sally L. Hacker Nuclear Affairs Collection, and the Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Papers.

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