The long-term effects of chemotherapeutic agents on subsequent radiation tolerance of the hematopoietic marrow were studied after a single injection of doxorubicin, 5-fluorouracil, or cyclophosphamide at a maximum tolerated dose. At designated intervals following drug treatment, drug-treated and age-matched control male B6D2F1 mice were exposed to 4.5 Gy of total-body irradiation, and the recovery kinetics of the stem cell (assayed at days 8 and 13 colony-forming spleen units) and progenitor (burst-forming erythroid units, and colony-forming erythroid and granulocyte/macrophage units) compartments were established. Response deficits were calculated for each compartment by comparison of treated and control recovery curves at 5 intervals over 32 weeks. Based on these response deficits, a number of conclusions were drawn: 1) There is selective drug specificity for the more primitive (13d) and mature (8d) CFUs subpopulations; 2) these sensitivities determine the temporal consequences of drug treatment on subsequent radiation tolerance in the marrow (e.g., acute, delayed, or long term); and 3) drugs that influence long-term radiation tolerance of the marrow are dose dependent and initially affect the more primitive stem cells. The data suggest that the initial lesion in the stem cell compartment, resulting in long-term enhancement of radiosensitivity, involves a major restriction (either in cell number or in genetic functionality) of the proliferative potential necessary for recovery from subsequent radiation insult.