a place between the towns of Carrizozo and Socorro, New Mexico, in the Jornada del Muerto in the southwestern United States (33.6773°N 106.4754°W)
a name derived in part from the poetry of John Donne, for example “Batter my heart, three person’d God”
a 100-foot high steel tower
the time, after delays because of weather, 5:29:45 AM Mountain War Time
the force equal to an explosion of approximately 20,000 tons of TNT
the crater in the desert of radioactive glass 3 meters deep and 330 meters wide
I am not a scientist. Nor am I either engineer or military strategist.
My entire life has, however, been lived under the shadow of the only real weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, which have no trouble destroying entire cities and annihilating more than 100,000 people in less than a second.
In my youth, we practice “duck and cover” as if somehow hiding under our desks might somehow protect us. By the time I was ten I knew better: we lived less than 25 miles from Times Square. Most of our fathers worked in Manhattan and would be vaporized in a nuclear exchange. And we might well suffer from serious radiation sickness.
My sister’s closest friend growing up was Japanese-American, and had been born in one of the internment camps. As bad as that was, I was also aware that we used the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not on the Nazis. Nagasaki was not even an intended target, with little military significance, and was the center of Christianity in Japan. No matter, we were at war, and Japan refused to surrender.
Or did it matter that we used these weapon on people of a different “race” and culture? Those arguments continue today, and I will not attempt to resolve them.
When I was 16 I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. That may have been as close to a nuclear exchange as the world has ever been. I can remember that when we went to bed on some night we were not sure if we would wake up. What if the Soviet ships did not turn around? What if we bombed the missile sites in Cuba as some on the joint chiefs had wanted and killed Soviet soldiers?
Mankind builds things because we can. One person or nation having done so, others will try to equal that achievement, however vile the results.
For all the efforts at non-proliferation, there are two things to bear in mind
1. It is somehow immoral that some nations can claim the right to maintain nuclear arsenals that then can be used to blackmail other nations while denying the other nations the right to build their own weapons as a deterrant
2. Many nations could produce nuclear devices: with enough raw material it then becomes a simple engineering process – build the centrifuges, enrich the fuel, build the device.
The nickname for that first weapon was “the gadget.”
United States, Russia (as successor to the USSR), United Kingdom, France, China (with the change from the KMT regime to the Communist regime): the “legitimate” holders of nuclear weapons. Also the permanent members of the Security Council.
India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea – the unofficial members of the “club” of possessors of these gadgets, one of which can destroy a city.
In naming the test, Oppenheimer thought of the poetry of Donne. I read the line I previously mentioned and cannot help but rephrase, for the souls of all of us should be battered by the awful knowledge we have, the ability to kill millions, or even billions.
I have no appointment as moralist to the world.
I am a human being. Like all humans I have the right to think and express on issues of moral content.
If one pays attention, I think one might, as do I, feel obligated to reflect – even aloud – on moral issues, on moral consequences.
This is a political site. In that vein I offer the following political litmus test to be applied to all candidates for high office: would you trust this person with the power of unleashing the US nuclear arsenal? On that question, if you have the slightest doubt, should not that be disqualifying?
That is not a matter of party identification. I can think of current Democrats I would not trust. I certainly can remember that Dwight Eisenhower said no to those among his military commanders who wanted to use our nuclear arsenal to help the French at Dien Bien Phu. The
late (apparently still going strong) Mark Hatfield was as a naval officer a person who visited Hiroshima almost immediately after the Japanese surrender: what he saw affected him for the rest of his life. Unlike some of his Senate contemporaries he was never reckless or foolhardy in advocating even the threatened use of our nuclear arsenal.
Nuclear weapons will not, at least in my lifetime, disappear from the earth. That is, not unless someone initiates a total nuclear catastrophe and destroys all of humankind and all of civilization. For better or worse we must live with the consequences of our inventiveness, our ability to create which gives us our ability to destroy.
The greatest assemblage of scientific talent in history was probably that groups of scientists and engineers based in Los Alamos under the direction of Oppenheimer, especially if one includes those working at other sites in support of the effort to build the bomb. We viewed the effort as a matter of necessity, of national urgency, because we feared that the Nazis might beat us to a bomb with consequences that would be devastating. It was only after the War that we learned how poorly the Nazi effort had advanced.
I wonder what we could accomplish with the other crisis that face this nation and the world were we willing to similarly concentrate scientific and engineering talent and devote a fraction of the treasure of the nation that we did to developing the bomb? Alternative energy sources, for example. Energy efficiency. More efficient production of healthier food. So many possibilities . . .
Yet as a student of history I realize that it is rare for any nation to make such an effort except in the case of war, of national survival, easily understood. Energy and food and pollution should be seen as issues of national and global survival, but they are not. So we do not mobilize as this nation did. Then, in the 1940s, we produced ‘the gadget’ which lead to Fat Man and Little Boy, and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed.
For someone who is deeply faithful, as my wife is as an Orthodox Christian, using the title of the three-person deity is more than somewhat offensive. I would counter that Oppenheimer might have been wiser than he knew. I would explain this by reference to the Jewish Bible, to Genesis. We sought the knowledge of good and evil, and in the process achieved a power like a deity, a power to destroy on a scale previously unimaginable.
Oppenheimer realized this. He said that when he saw the Trinity test he was reminded of a line from the Bhagavad Gita:
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
I prefer the line spoken to Oppenheimer by Kenneth Bainbridge, a physicist from Harvard who was the director of the Trinity test:
Now we are all sons of bitches.
Anniversaries are, or at least can be, occasions for reflection. We can look back and see how we have progressed – or regressed – since the event we could commemorate on that day.
We may not have advanced as far as we sometimes imagine.
We may tend to gloss over the less pleasant aspects of the event in question, perhaps of its impact.
It can benefit us all to take a few moments, and consider honestly.
This I can say. For whatever reason, since early August 1945 no one has again unleashed a nuclear “gadget” on other human beings, for which we can be grateful, all of us.
We still live under a nuclear shadow.
Yes, we can kill people in thousands of ways.
We can kill hundreds with poison gas releases.
We might kill thousands or tens of thousands with biological weapons.
We can kill with guns, with IEDS, by cutting the brakelines of motor vehicles, by crashing planes into buildings.
We can shock by how we kill and who we kill.
For me, still, the idea of vaporizing entire cities in a fraction of a second remains in a unique category.
If we can contain that power, that possible destruction, I have hope that we will be able to contain much of man’s other destructive capabilities.
July 16, 1945.
In the high desert of what is now White Sands
the world entered the nuclear age
and knowing that, remembering that, reflecting on that, my final word becomes even more urgent.