"And then..." (choking up) "...the whole sky lit up. It was
just like daylight. It was awesome. And down by the gas pumps the Army
guys were jumping up and down and slapping each other on the back, and I
heard one of them say 'We've got the world by the tail now!'"
--Bucky Gilmore, who saw the Trinity test at age 12, to our tour group
As sacred places go, Trinity is unusually uninspiring. It is hard to
get a feel for what happened there in 1945. But that is largely because
of the ambivalence, and to a certain extent the profanity, of its keepers.
At Trinity there are big signs warning you that the place is a
national treasure and that, in particular, removing
is a crime. Yet the site's biggest vandal in the last 59 years has been
the Army itself.
In 1947 the embarrassingly expensive and unused
was "tested" to semi-destruction; an off-center detonation blew the ends off but left
the 180 ton central cylinder intact. In the early 1950's the Army
scraped up and buried much of the Trinitite crust and filled in the
central depression. Through the years they also allowed the historic
McDonald ranch house
which survived the blast to deteriorate as it lay abandoned.
Only in 1965 did the White Sands Test Range officials decide to mark
Ground Zero with the
lava rock obelisk
that still stands there, and only
in 1975 did the Park Service designate the place a National Historic
Landmark. Only in 1982 were efforts started to preserve and restore
the McDonald ranch house.
Without the marker and fencing or a radiation detector, you could pass
the site a hundred times without realizing its significance. The
desert ecosystem has claimed the new soil that was added in the early
1950's, so that you must step over desert scrub and jackrabbit droppings
to hunt for the remaining small bits of Trinitite, which in turn are
unnoticeable unless you know to look for them by their signature green
color. A low, anonymous, windowless building covers a few hundred
square feet of the crater to preserve the original surface for future
Near the marker, the largest surviving tower footing is protected by
a little guard
made of welded rebar. A second footing survives only as a bare patch of
bald concrete almost level with the desert sand. The presence of a third
footing is revealed by a single piece of half-inch rebar, perhaps two
inches long, sticking out of the sand. Of the fourth footing there is no
evidence at all. Scattered around the site are hundreds of fist-sized
chunky bits of metal which are probably bits of Jumbo's blown-off ends.
Away from the fenced-in central crater rows of cedar posts survive to
mark the cable runs to some of the remote instrumentation bunkers. Only
one of those bunkers, West 800, still exists; and it was only recently
restored and marked. All of the rest of the infrastructure -- the
instruments and cameras, the bunkers with their concrete slab roofs
supported by massive oak beams, the controls and cables spanning
twenty kilometers of desert -- is gone, removed and discarded soon
after the test.
Events of mythic proportion inspire mythic tales. The popular understanding
of atomic history is riddled with falsehoods that range from understandable
simplifications to poor justifications to outright lies spread to maintain
the secrecy of design elements.
Probably the biggest myth to emerge in the years since 1945 is that Fat Man
and Little Boy ended the war. It's even printed right there in black and
white in the brochure that White Sands passes out to visitors. It's the
kind of simple story that makes perfect sense, is easy to beleive, and makes
us feel better about the awful way the world's second and third atomic
explosions were used.
The only problem is, it isn't true.
By July of 1945, the Japanese Empire was on the ropes. Secretary of War
Henry Stimson summed it up for President Truman on July 2 thusly:
On the other hand Stimson went on to warn that an invasion would be
horribly costly to us, and that he thought the Japanese would be amenable
to an appropriately worded demand for surrender. He even recommended
- Japan has no allies.
- Her navy is nearly destroyed and she is vulnerable to a surface and
underwater blockade which can deprive her of sufficient food and supplies
for her population.
- She is terribly vulnerable to our concentrated air attack upon her
crowded cities, industrial and food resources.
- She has against her not only the Anglo-American forces but the
rising forces of China and the ominous threat of Russia.
- We have inexhausible and untouched industrial resources to bring
to bear against her diminishing potential.
- We have great moral superiority through being the victim of her
first sneak attack.
"if we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present
dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance."
Was Stimson right? By July of 1945 we had cracked Japan's military codes,
and on July 10 and 11 we intercepted top-secret cables indicating that the
High Command was seriously considering surrender. There was just one caveat:
"It is his Majesty's heart's desire to see the swift
termination of the war ... however, as long as America and England
insist on unconditional surrender our country has no alternative
but to see it through in an all-out effort for the sake of survival
and the honor of the homeland."
So we basically knew that the Japanese were ready to surrender and what
approximate terms they would accept. On July 2 Stimson recommended
that we offer them such terms. But on July 16 Trinity lit up the sky
over New Mexico, and when the Potsdam Declaration was announced --
having been delayed until after the test -- it contained the very
language we knew Japan would never accept.
How important was our demand for unconditional surrender, a demand we
made knowing it would cause the war to go on when it might be stopped?
It couldn't have been very important, because after the atomic bombings
and after the Japanese were forced to lick our boot heels, we ended up
giving them what they wanted anyway. The Emperor was in fact allowed
to retained his always largely symbolic throne, and the Japanese nation
retained its polity.
So what we got for prolonging the war for several weeks and killing
several hundred thousand people was almost exactly nothing.
I could not justify travelling to New Mexico just to tour Trinity. Our "real"
reason for going there was the
Festival of the Cranes
at Bosque del Apache
National Wildlife Refuge. One of the earliest and most successful species and
habitat preservation projects, the Bosque provides magnificent opportunities for
birding; but as Fate would have it, it's also close to some high geek tourist
spots such as the
Very Large Array,
just 50 miles away, and even closer at 20 miles the Trinity test site. Wanting
to give us every possible reason to come visit, the Friends of the Bosque put tours to
both places on the Festival schedule.
During one bus tour of the Bosque our guide rightly bragged that the refuge had
allowed a vanishing population of only 17 wintering Sandhill Cranes in 1939
to become over 11,000 today, through their deliberate efforts to mimic the shallow
wetlands which once flanked the now dammed and channeled Rio Grande. "We have
fossils which show that these cranes have been coming here for nine million years,"
she added. "They've survived volcanoes and mountain uplifts, and hopefully we'll
just be another blip for them too."
She then turned beet red as she realized what she had just said, but not one person
in that bus full of humans spoke up to suggest that our own species might have
a future as impressive as the Sandhill Crane's past.
The atomic explosion wasn't just a New Thing for human beings. We can be
reasonably sure it was a New Thing in the entire history of our planet.
And absent the meddling of another intelligent life form like ourselves,
it may have been a New Thing in the entire 13.6 billion year history of the
There are more energetic spectacles to be found out in the depths of space,
but in the microseconds after the fission reaction runs its course the heart
of an atomic bomb is one of the most extreme environments anywhere -- even
compared to the heart of a star, even compared to a supernova. And we know
of no mechanism that could create such extremes of temperature and particle
flux without also involving extremes of gravity and mass that tend to keep
one away from the action. We know of no natural situation that could create
such conditions and loose them upon the surface of an otherwise inhabitable
world, before the eyes of witnesses who might survive.
Everything about an atomic bomb is spectacular. The separation of pure
isotopes, whether U235 or Pu239, is a difficult and unnatural thing to
arrange. They must start out in a subcritical arrangement, then be very
quickly assembled into a critical mass; Little Boy performed this operation
by firing a gun, Fat Man by implosion.
And then, in the brief moment when the assembly is
critical -- because forces strong enough to assemble it fast enough will
also blow it apart if the nuclear reaction doesn't materialize -- you have
to introduce seed neutrons to make sure the reaction starts. Again, this
must be done very quickly. The device that does this in an atomic bomb
is called the initiator, and in some ways it's even more unnatural
and difficult to engineer than the rest of the bomb.
We are a nation of savages. That is what we decided last night. We belong to the
"most advanced" society in the history of the world, and we decided that we would
rather be barbarians, hunched over fire pits, ripping meat off the bones of our
enemies, raping our women, howling out at the gods for peace in the afterlife.
Although the Rude One was writing of something much more mundane, he goes on to
correctly observe that we have been a nation of savages since long before this
year's ugly election cycle. In addition to the genocidal way we dealt with the
original inhabitants of our country, there is that little dust-up back in the
1860's when we proved we are equal-opportunity savages, quite willing to turn
our savagery inward upon ourselves under the right conditions. And a consistent
history of not being able to go more than a few years without some kind of war
to keep us entertained shows that we haven't really changed.
--The Rude Pundit,
on November 3, 2004
My wife hates it when I say things like this. She likes to say "there is no 'We.'"
She doesn't like being grouped with people she thinks of as Neanderthals (and that
might even be an insult to our extinct cousins) because of the accident of her
place of birth and inherited citizenship.
To a certain extent she has a point, but I think it would be a hard point to
explain to one of the many, many, many, many people brutally murdered in our
many, many quasi-legal "adventures" in places like Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, or Iraq.
Our tax money pays for the bombs and death squads whether or not we personally fly the
planes or train the goons.
What is really true, I think, is that we are two nations commingled in uneasy
detente. The nation of savages certainly is there and has always been part of
us; as Plato observed it will be a part of any democratically run state.
But there is also within us a nation of civilized, noble people who actually
believe in the words and the philosophy behind them on the documents produced
by the people who founded our nation.
Sometimes the savages are ascendant and we have things like the Civil War and
Vietnam and our current adventure in Iraq. Sometimes they are in eclipse, but
being savages they still slink around doing savage things like Iran/Contra,
and on a smaller scale generally making the lives of our neighbors miserable
when they can, whether by gay-bashing the local fags or making sure
every source of pleasure carries with it the risk of making the rest
of your life a living hell.
The striking thing about the Manhattan Project is the number of civilized,
noble people who played indispensible roles, knowing what it was they were
trying to create. For various noble-sounding reasons that made sense at the
time, they helped to create the ultimate tool of savagery -- and handed it
to the savages to use as they pleased.
The second biggest myth of the atomic era is the idea that we had to
build atomic bombs on the chance Germany might build them first. And
in the early years of the war that was a valid concern.
But the German atomic program was beset by several factors that
doomed it. Foremost was Hitler's suspicion of "Jewish science,"
which forced many of his brightest physicists to come work for us.
Second, the engineering enterprises we built to realize our bomb
such as the Y-12 isotope separation plant and the Hanford reactors
were probably beyond the Reich's means. (If Hitler hadn't bungled
Operation Barbarossa and gotten stuck in Russia, that situation
might have been different.)
The Germans might have taken the istope-separation route to
build a U235 bomb, but they had the resources to pursue only one
avenue. They tried thermal diffusion, since its inventor Klaus Clusius
was on their side. But it turns out as Otto Frisch learned in
1941 that the Clusius method doesn't work for Uranium Hexaflouride.
We went on to successfully explore gaseous barrier diffusion
and electromagnetic separation, but the Germans abandoned the whole
And Germany's ability to follow the Plutonium path was mostly
blown by a single mistaken
measurement. When Walther Bothe measured the neutron absorption
cross-section of carbon in January 1940, he came up with a value
high enough to rule it out as a moderator for nuclear reactors.
Bothe didn't know that, like Von Halban and Kowarski on our side,
he probably had graphite contaminated with boron; but the Germans
could not cross-check their result with Enrico Fermi, whose different
methodology gave a much more promising number. That mistake denied
them carbon as a moderator for the reactors that would be needed to
breed Plutonium. Their only other option was
heavy water, and when we bombed the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant
in Vermork and British commandoes sunk the ferry carrying the train
with the last of its output, the German atomic program became
Did we know any of this at the time, though? In 1943 Leslie Groves
intelligence unit (Alsos is greek for "grove," get
it?) charged with locating German nuclear assets as the Normandy
invasion rolled inland. By April 1944 Alsos had located all of the
uranium ore known to be in Nazi hands and all of their scientists, and
we knew that they had never had a chance at a bomb, had built only one
reactor, and that their one reactor had never sustained a chain
Groves' reaction to this happy news was to clamp it under a tight
lid of secrecy. Too many of the Manhattan Project physicists were
working on the project only because of the German threat, and
he knew that they would not be as eager to unleash such technology
against the more primitively armed Japanese.
If Trinity had not happened, what happened at Hiroishima and Nagasaki might
be forgivable. It was widely believed that an atomic bomb would not be
as effective as conventional bombs delivering equivalent energy, because
the bomb's output would not be spread out over the target. Before Trinity
nobody had any idea what such a blast would look like or what it would do
to the landscape.
And in some respects, the Trinity test was almost defiantly arranged to
prevent such knowledge from being acquired; with so much at stake you'd
think they would have put some test structures around Ground Zero to see
how well they survived. But one of the fairy tales told early on about
Trinity is that it was more of a pure science experiment than a weapons
test, even though they were using the opportunity to test tool kits and
procedures necessary for assembling and dropping the bomb in the field.
When the shot worked and we had hard data about the yield and pressure
wave and temperatures it created, we had no idea how such extremes
would affect real buildings.
But we did have a plan to find out.
By April of 1945, when serious consideration began to be given to where
to drop something like an atomic bomb, Curtis LeMay had already bombed
and burned out most of Japan's larger cities. This is why Tokyo wasn't
atomic-bombed; it was already mostly
bombed out already.
Hiroshima rose to the top of the Target Committee's list mainly because it was the biggest city
LeMay's bombers hadn't gotten to yet, and on their advice LeMay continued
to spare it, so that we might accurately assess how much damage was
done by the atomic bomb without the confusion of other damage to cloud
And even after the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima on August 6 we didn't
really know just how much damage it had done; we had aerial photos but no
hard information from the ground. We were shocked that Japan didn't
immediately surrender. Didn't they understand what they were up against?
What we didn't realize was that Little Boy had destroyed Hiroshima so
thoroughly that reports of the devastation took time to get out, and
those reports were so astonishing they were hard to believe.
So, on a schedule set even before the Trinity test, we dropped Fat Man
on August 9. This mission was beset by glitches; a malfunctioning
fuel selector limited the B-29's range and weather obscured the primary
target at Kokura. Bock's Car was able to make Nagasaki, a city
added to the Target Committee's list only at the last minute. One
fortuitous hole opened up in the clouds and Fat Man was set loose.
By now the news was getting around about what had happened in Hiroshima,
and the Japanese government began to frantically assess the situation
even as preparations were made to deliver a third bomb. That bomb
wouldn't be coming; Truman had ordered a stop to the atomic bombing.
Henry Wallace recorded in his diary that Truman "didn't like the idea
of killing all those kids."
"Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."
Oppenheimer, the single most important man in the Manhattan Project, studied
Sanskrit and read the Hindu holy text the Bhagavad-Gita as a hobby.
The juxtaposition of a scientific peacenik like Oppenheimer and congenital war
hawk Leslie Groves is enough to make one's head explode. One can understand
how Groves was able to deal with Oppenheimer; he was simply ruthless about it.
Oppenenheimer was on the short list of people who could get the job done, and
he agreed to try. Then Groves put every invasive apparattus at his disposal
into the 24/7 task of following and spying on Oppenheimer to make sure he wasn't
slacking or spilling secrets to his many card-carrying Communist friends.
But what motivated Oppenheimer to enter such an obviously Faustian deal?
Historians find Oppenheimer "complicated" and "interesting." But I personally
think most people are ultimately motivated by simple things. Like most of us
Oppenheimer had fealty to several interests which were not always congruent.
He had his sympathies with the working man and his hopes for the ennoblement
of humanity, and he had his worries and warnings encoded in the holy texts
he liked to read. But he was also a scientist, and to offer a scientist the
resources Groves offered to study a problem of such laser-like clarity
and pinnacle importance is like offering a 15 year old boy the chance to fuck
Paris Hilton. I think he saw that if he declined the opportunity he'd spend
the rest of his life getting drunk and kicking himself. It probably wasn't
even a very hard decision for him to make.
Oppenheimer's decision is interesting to me, though, for another reason.
Oppenheimer was more interested and better versed in human concerns like
poverty and power and transcendance than most of us are today; yet when his
scientific interest came into conflict with his human interest, it was the
scientific interest that prevailed. Which might be a Good Thing or a Bad
Thing depending on how you look at it, but it undeniably was a Thing that
was Used to turn a contemplative, introspective person into a tool which
would ultimately turn against everything he ever held dear.
One of the myths of the atomic era is that Ethel and Julius
Rosenberg sold the secret of the atomic bomb to the Russians, and
that's why Russia was able to acquire its own nuclear arsenal.
It's most likely true that Julius at least passed on important
details of Fat Man's design. But that wasn't the secret that
made it possible for other countries to acquire their own
The secret of the atomic bomb is that it is possible to build
them at all.
Leo Szilard understood this and warned James Byrnes that to use
the bomb against Japan and possibly even to test it would be
tantamount to giving it to the Russians; but Szilard, who had
pretty much gotten the whole affair rolling by conceiving of
the basic idea of the nuclear chain reaction back in 1933, was
widely regarded as a peacenik troublemaker and the Powers that
Be ignored him.
The problem is that atomic bombs require an enormous industrial
effort, but they are not really all that complicated. If you
don't know whether a bomb is possible it is very hard to justify
the cost necessary to refine enough fissionable material to find
out. In 1939 Neils Bohr had insisted it would be necessary to
turn the whole country into factory to pursue isotope
separation, and when he came to America and saw the scale of
Manhattan Project constructions, he said to Ed Teller, "and
you have done just that."
But we had turned the whole country into a factory anyway to
face the war, and we could afford the distraction of the possibly
unworkable but oh so tantalizing atomic explosive. Few other
countries could, and outside the context of World War II it's
unlikely we would have put in such a grand effort either.
It's a dead certainty the Soviets wouldn't have; in their
years of rebuilding they "borrowed" many industrial secrets from us
but Stalin instructed his spies to concentrate on proven
technologies. As Harry Gold related,
"...I was told that the Soviet Union was so desperately in need
of chemical processes that they could afford to take no chances
on one which might not work."
Of course, once you know atomic bombs are possible and especially
that your neighbor has them the equation reverses. The only
possible defense against atomic attack is the ability to mount an
atomic retribution; having bombs of your own becomes a survival
imperative worth whatever it costs.
And history shows that once you make that commitment, you'll
probably get the same results we got; as Richard Rhodes points out,
every country that has ever set out to create an atomic weapon has
succeeded on the first try.
Another myth is that we developed the bomb to
use against Germany and Japan. That's certainly what our leaders
told us back in 1945, but as early as 1943 it was no longer really
true. And this gets back to the question of why the Japanese were
goaded into continuing to fight by the unacceptable wording of the
Potsdam Declaration, and why the bombs were used at all when Japan
was more than ready to throw in the towel to our satisfaction.
Once we had the Battle of the Atlantic in hand and Russia ostensibly
on our side, and once it was clear there would be no surprising
new technologies on the Nazi side, Allied victory was only a matter
of time. Hitler may not have seen it but both the Americans and
Russians did, and both nations began laying plans for after the war,
when it seemed inevitable that without a mutual enemy to force us
into alignment we would turn on one another.
A major part of our strategy in this regard was the atomic bomb.
What the atomic bomb got us was nothing Japan could have offered;
it showed the world in general and the Russians in particular what
would happen to them next if they annoyed us. By actually using
the bomb against a real target we showed that we were willing
to use it. This is why the Potsdam Declaration was delayed until
after the successful Trinity test. Although we were pretty sure
Little Boy would work without testing, it was a harder bomb to
build; our hopes for near-term mass manufacture rested with Fat Man.
Little Boy was an ace that could be played once and perhaps
occasionally, but Fat Man was a whole pocket full of aces and
it allowed us to adopt a more aggressive strategy.
This attitude is reflected in the recorded comments of many people,
from Leslie Groves to Henry Stimson to the nameless Army guys
overheard by Bucky Gilmore on the morning of the Trinity test.
Of course the project itself also had the kind of inhuman momentum
that builds up when enough money and effort is spent on anything;
as James Byrnes lectured to Leo Szilard,
"How would you get Congress to appropriate money for atomic energy
research if you do not show results for the money which has been
Or as Stimson remarked upon hearing of the successful Trinity test,
"I have been responsible for spending some two billions of dollars
on this atomic venture. Now that it is successful I shall not
be sent to prison in Fort Leavenworth."
But for two billion dollars, in an era when gasoline only cost
15 cents a gallon, lighting up the Jornada del Muerto may not
have been enough. Knowing that as the war wound down the
secrecy would lift and Congress would have time to start
looking into exactly where all the money went, they may have
felt only flat enemy cities could justify their actions.
It is interesting to wonder how things might have happened if
President Roosevelt had not died on April 12, 1945, leaving
Truman to decide the fate of a huge secret that was new
and unfamiliar to him. With more experience and confidence
might Roosevelt have made the decision after Trinity that
Truman made only after Nagasaki? Or would he, too, have gone
along with the idea that we had to impress the Russians?
Some things history denies to us entirely. All we know is
that it took Truman two atomic bombings before, as the most
powerful human being on Earth, he stood up and acted like a
human being and put a stop to something he saw was awful.
Perhaps the biggest myth of the American national character is
that we are the Good Guys.
Whenever this atomic subject comes up and my views come out I often get
some pretty hostile responses. A lot of that is just the
but some of it comes from people who should be a bit
smarter about things. A lot of it comes from people who are just
like I was, before I happened to see Plate 42.
And I think it's because it's hard, it takes a real shock to the
system, to admit to yourself that your country didn't just needlessly
and horribly kill a few hundred thousand people; your country does shit like
that all the time. To recognize the magnitude of the problem
is to realize that we are not, in fact, the Good Guys. And that's a
very traumatic thing to have to accept.
From America's beginning we have been a nation of high ideals but
low values. We're the kind of nation that can accept the 3/5
compromise on slavery right after ratifying a document that says
"all men are created equal." We can hear something like the Dred
Scott decision and most of us are fully capable of saying
"sure, that makes perfect sense." Then
we can have a big old knock-down drag-out civil war on the issue
that kills a few million people, as we trip over ourselves finding
ever newer and cleverer ways to kill each other. Then we can
pick silly fights like the Spanish-American war just because we
don't have anything else to do.
In a sense it was an accident that we came out of WWII looking like
the Good Guys; it helped that we were sneak-attacked and that the
Germans really went out of their way to make us look good by
comparison. Under other circumstances the atomic bombings of two
inhabited cities would have been roundly and widely criticized.
But it seems that Teflon, which was invented for sealing surfaces
at the Y-12 diffusion plant (not as popularly believed for the
Apollo space program) kept the dirt of our misdeeds from sticking
even before we started to apply it to cookware.
We went on after WWII to do a lot of Not Very Good Guy things,
from the Cold War missile buildup to the Cuban Missile Crisis
to Vietnam to Iran/Contra to Iraq. Now there's a typically
American approach to something we don't understand very well;
befriend both sides in a nasty long-standing conflict and then
screw them both over! How to win friends and influence
people, American style. When you've got the world by the tail
you can do whatever you want.
I have some familiarity with godlike fictional characters, and
one of my favorites is the Gaia being in John Varley's wonderful
trilogy. Gaia is introduced to human culture by television a hundred
years before humans come calling on her, and she is finely attuned
to the human sense of drama. As the heroine Cirocco Jones notes
in the runup to the big battle in the last book,
Demon, Gaia has decided to be a movie
character (in fact incarnating herself as a 50-foot-tall Marilyn
Monroe), but "she knows she isn't the good guy." And the reason
she isn't the good guy is simple; the really interesting
character in any drama is the bad guy.
Now as interesting things go, building the atomic bomb is one of
the most interesting things ever to happen, and the fact that
we still argue about it sixty years later is a testament to just
how interesting it is. But it also, when you get down where the
short hairs grow, isn't a very Good Guy thing to have done. And
America tends to be cool with things like that, even if we saw
John Ford movies
to admit we're wearing the black hats in this show.
My father was a nuclear physicist. As a child I helped him in the
lab, learned to do all his student experiments, and learned to
irradiate samples with a carefully shielded Californium neutron
source so that a liquid nitrogen cooled gamma ray detector could
read the energies of induced radioactivity, revealing the elements
that were present. Dad taught me to be careful with radioactive
samples but not to fear them, and I used X-ray and gamma-ray
sources from his lab in my senior science fair project.
In all of my childhood I never really connected what my father did
with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. It's the
kind of thing you didn't think about much unless you wanted to
go crazy; the idea that you could be minding your business, and
that at any random moment your whole world could explode in a searing
fireball that would consume everything you ever cared about, is
not really compatible with doing anything useful.
But around 1989 I happened to be surfing the remainder bin at a
local Walden Books when an oversized trade paperback caught my
eye. It was
At Work in the Fields of the Bomb,
a photo essay by Robert Del Tredici. It was priced to go at one dollar. I
flipped through it, thought I might find it interesting, and bought it.
Later I took time to examine the images in order. I appreciated the
effort that had been required on Del Tredici's part to get some of them;
he had rented airplanes and travelled all over the world to build the
"big picture" of how nuclear weapons come to exist.
Some of the images were familiar; I'd seen some of the very exhibits at
the National Atomic Museum he photographed. Some revealed the
mundane details that exist in any industry, which few outsiders ever
get to see. And some were tragic; but I
kept a skeptical awareness that this had obviously been assembled by
someone with an agenda.
Then I came to image 41, the parents of Sadako Sasaki. At that
point I had never heard of Sadako, but from the caption I understood
why her parents might be making an appearance in the book; she had
died at age 12 of "atomic bomb disease," a.k.a. leukemia. Very
tragic. I flipped the page.
42. Sadako's Paper Cranes
I tried to flip to the next picture but my hands were shaking, and
my eyes were welling up with tears. To this day it is hard for me
to express what I felt when I learned of Sadako. There is something
about her that simultaneously shames me and makes me proud of what
it can be to be human, but there is also the ominous question of which would
be worse: That she was discouraged and denied paper and therefore
failed to fold the thousand cranes before she died, or had she been
allowed to finish her project only to find that it didn't save her?
These are the handwork of Sadako Sasaki. When she was 12 years
old Sadako contracted leukemia from earlier exposure to the atomic
bomb. She did not wish to die. She refused all painkilling medication
and took literally a Japanese proverb that says, "if you fold 1,000
cranes, you will get whatever you wish." She folded 645 of the tiny
birds before she died. Kasuga City, Fukuoka, Japan. October 14, 1984.
I'm not the only person to be awe-inspired by
Today there is a statue of her at the Hiroshima Peace Park, and every
year children all over the world fold cranes and send them to Hiroshima,
where they are strung in garlands of 1,000 in her honor.
The next day I regained my composure and completed Del Tredici's
photo essay. Then I started in on the notes, which comprise more
than half the book (and alas don't seem to be available online).
Then I proceeded to read everything else I could find about the
nuclear industry. It became harder and harder for me to see the
technology as value-neutral, especially the technology of making
prompt fission triggered weapons. Despite years of testing no
atomic explosion has ever benefitted humanity, despite several
serious (one might even say desperate) attempts to find positive uses.
was a test of thermonuclear earthmoving; the device that dug this
380 foot deep hole in the ground was 17 inches in diameter, 38
inches long, and weighed 470 lb. It released far more radioactivity
into the environment than its designers expected, and no further such
tests were attempted.
And thanks to the whole nuclear enterprise we are stuck with huge
amounts of toxic waste, legions of people who claim to have been
harmed by exposure to these toxins or radiation, atomic "secrets"
easily penetrated by C students and untrained journalists like
and a vast expenditure dwarfing even the original Manhattan
Project for which we have little positive to show.
Nuclear energy has certainly been useful at times, especially for
space travel, but it never required the vast expenditure for isotope
separation and plutonium production that the Manhattan Project
required. Nearly all of the pure science that was done for the
bomb project would have eventually been done anyway. The techniques
of nuclear medicine could have been developed with a reactor
technology geared more to energy production, and developed at a
slower pace so as to minimize the risk and let us get a more sensible
grip on how to deal with the control and waste issues.
Instead, it seems that nuclear matters of all sorts were rushed into
production precisely because the Manhattan Project needed to be
I tend to think there is a way to use nuclear energy that is not
insane, but we haven't found that way; and today when relatively
sane proposals (like pebble-bed reactors) are put forth, people are
rightly skeptical that things will be different than they were
when we were rushing anything that looked like it might half-way
work into overproduction. The waste problem still isn't addressed,
and the solution that looks best to me, of burying it in deep-ocean
subduction zones, is being ignored because it would be so much
easier to just bury the stuff in Nevada and hope for the best.
So there I was at Trinity, the place where the world changed
in a few millionths of a second on the morning of July 16, 1945,
trying to get a feel for it. But there isn't much to feel about
the fireball of an atomic explosion; one moment you're standing
there, there's a hundred foot tall tower and a bunch of roads
and cables and cameras and instruments and crap, and the next
moment poof, you're very very dead. You wouldn't even have
time to feel pain or even to hear the sound of your own
Sixty years later there are a few chunks of concrete where the
tower once perched, a monument, and a bunch of scrub and
jackrabbit droppings and tourists quietly pocketing little bits
of green glass.
If Trinity had not happened, if we had sat on our knowledge,
then two whole generations might have been spared the fear that
it could all end without warning, an unprecedented state of
terror that has never existed before in human history.
If Trinity had not happened and we had bombed Japan anyway then
we might look back at Hiroshima and Nagasaki differently, for
we could not have known what would happen when such bombs are dropped
on cities. We could say "We didn't know, and we stopped as soon
as we realized just what we were doing."
But Trinity did happen, so the world learned that the bombs could
be made and it learned that we were willing to drop them on mostly
civilian population centers. And then we spent the next twenty
years figuring out how to do the same thing even more thoroughly
and more easily with even less warning for the victims, so that
one wouldn't even see the B-29 flying high overhead before the
world was ripped asunder.
And so the Soviets and the British and the French and the South
Africans (!) all went out and got bombs of their own, and now India
and Pakistan glare at each other across an uneasy border and the tips
of their nuclear missiles, and we wonder where all the damn
radioactive waste will finally end up.
And the Sandhill Cranes, which have been wintering in lower New
Mexico for nine million years, continue to arrive, blissfully
unaware of how thoroughly the flightless newcomers are fucking
up their world. But they've survived volcanoes and mountain uplifts,
and if all goes well we'll just be another blip for them too.
Although I've linked what I could find, most of the forces that
have shaped my attitude toward nuclear matters are not online.
One tragedy of my trip to New Mexico is that I missed the chance
to meet Richard Rhodes, who was visiting Louisiana to promote his
new book about John James Audubon while I was away. Many of
the events I mention can be quickly found by Amazon's search-inside
function (though you'll need an actual copy of the book to use
The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb
This more obscure book also made a big impression on me; the authors
make a strong case that like the Nazi doctors who perpetrated
atrocities for the Reich, the scientists who build nuclear weapons
use a "doubling" mechanism by which the person at work has a
different set of ethics and core beliefs than the person who goes
home each evening to a loving family:
The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat
Here is a meticulously laid out case against the bombings and the
subsequent abuse of "downwinders" who were victimized by unnecessary
atomic testing; the author was Secretary of the Interior under JFK
and LBJ and a congressman from Arizona:
The Myths of August
P.S. I have only now realized, after all these years, that the photo of
Sadako's cranes which changed my life was numbered Plate 42. As anyone
conversant with the landscape of science fiction knows 42 is not just a
random number; in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide it's literally
the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. I made a similar
joke in my own novel. Except that in At Work in the Fields of the Bomb
it's not so much a joke as a surprisingly profound statement.