By Edward McPherson

How to Survive an Atomic Bomb

True Story, Issue #05

In this issue, we travel back to the anything-goes days leading up to the July 1945 detonation of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Edward McPherson takes readers on a tour of the site, exploring the history of the atomic bomb, as well as the modern-day challenges still posed by our nuclear arsenal.

From The History of the Future: American Essays (May 2017, Coffee House Press)

In July of 1945, the men came down from the mesa to set off a bomb. They drove for hours from the secret wartime city of Los Alamos, New Mexico, to a desert test site called Trinity, which they had been readying for months. They came in cars, in trucks, in buses, in Packard limousines—an inconspicuous convoy winding south into the wastelands of the Jornada del Muerto, a dry and deadly shortcut on the ancient Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or “Royal Road of the Interior Land.” One of the longest and oldest trails in North America, the route carried Indians, Mexicans, and conquistadors north from Mexico City for centuries, and since at least 1680—when some six hundred colonists and converted Pueblos died in the crossing—this stretch has lived up to its name: “Journey of the Dead.”

The scientists were supposed to use Americanized code names, but they were properly known as Drs. Fermi, Segrè, Bohr (father and son), Weisskopf, Ulam, Teller, Rabi, Bethe, and von Neumann, among many others—an international mix of past and future Nobel laureates, refugees, and recent immigrants from Italy, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Russia, and such, with a pair of Americans to lead them: J. Robert Oppenheimer and Major General Leslie R. Groves. With his crumpled brown hat, Oppenheimer would become the iconic atomic cowboy, a New Yorker turned California physicist who had chosen Los Alamos as the site for a secret weapons lab because it was near the ranchland he had come to love. The army had converted a former boys’ school into barracks for the scientists; the compound quickly grew into a town. Accommodations were spartan, but the intellectual atmosphere was heady, electric—in some ways, they were still a bunch of boys at play. The scientists mocked the heavyset, bullheaded General Groves, who obsessed over security and—before taking control of the country’s brand-new nuclear program—had supervised the construction of the Pentagon.

For years they had worked tirelessly in fear of Hitler’s getting the bomb; nuclear fission had been discovered in Nazi Germany, after all. (That German atomic efforts were flailing was discovered only after the war.) The best minds of Britain and Canada had chipped in. Shipments of uranium and plutonium arrived from secret plants in Tennessee and Washington State. The American Counter Intelligence Corps dogged the scientists and tried to impose discretion: nuclear fission was to be called “urchin fashion,” while the bomb was known as “the Gadget.”

• • •

I fly from St. Louis to New Mexico on April Fools’ Day, 2015. I am coming to tour the Trinity site, which the army opens to the public only one or two days a year. This July will mark the seventieth anniversary of the first detonation of an atomic bomb. The blast area—which remains radioactive—occupies an abandoned section of a massive and still very busy missile range.

Descending through choppy air into the Albuquerque International Sunport, I look across the expanse of the adjacent Kirtland Air Force Base. I find the startling green patchwork of the base golf course and—just to the southwest—the pentagonal swath of desert that hides the Underground Munitions Maintenance and Storage Complex, the nation’s largest nuclear-weapons depot, whose blast doors alone cost $7 million. Thanks to the Kirtland base, New Mexico houses more nukes than any other state. The doors to the underground bunker aren’t visible from this height, but I can picture the twin ramps—one in, one out—that disappear into the earth, where some two thousand warheads wait underground.

• • •

In 1945, atomic bombs came in two kinds. The first was a gun-type assembly, in which a cordite explosion would fire rings of enriched uranium onto a smaller uranium plug. Because the device was so simple—and highly enriched uranium so scarce—this bomb (later known as “Little Boy”) could be dropped without ever being tested.

Meanwhile, the genius of the Gadget was implosion. In this more complex—and more powerful—design, a series of explosions would compress a core of plutonium into a critical state. Thirty-two shaped charges, called lenses, were arranged in panels around a giant sphere—twelve pentagons and twenty hexagons, just like a soccer ball. All thirty-two lenses needed to fire simultaneously, producing shock waves that, as they traveled inward, would overlap to form a perfectly symmetrical spherical force, which would uniformly compress the plutonium into a dense, supercritical core. This bigger bomb, which would be tested at Trinity, would be named “Fat Man,” though—because of the implosion method—it initially was called “the Introvert.”

• • •

At this moment, some sixteen thousand nuclear weapons are sitting on the earth. Nine countries have the bomb: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. Russia and the United States account for more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. The United States keeps its nuclear weapons in eleven states (New Mexico, Missouri, Washington, Georgia, California, Montana, North Dakota, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska) and five European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey).

• • •

A towering red-white-and-blue Redstone missile marked usa stands by the roadside at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. Tumbleweed blows across the parking lot. The entrance to the museum is guarded by twin surface-to-air missiles; a giant model of an atom hangs from the facade. Inside, a bunch of kids rush toward the bathroom to wash paint off their fingers; a brochure announces the museum’s summer camp offerings. Here, the atomic story is told in objects: bulky machines from Tennessee used to process uranium; the custom army-green 1942 Packard limousine that ferried scientists and officers down from Los Alamos, plus the American flag that greeted them at the Trinity base camp; a seismograph used in the Trinity test; green chunks of sand—called “trinitite”—fused into glass by the blast; huge weapon casings for Fat Man and Little Boy next to models of the B-29s that dropped them; a mock-up of the Gadget itself, wrapped in wires; a photo from Hiroshima of a dead three-year-old’s tricycle; a charred license plate from Nagasaki; a fallout shelter stocked with cans of General Mills Multi-Purpose Food; a backpack nuke.

A visitor describes the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) to his grandson: “And then we fire our missiles, and then they fire all their missiles . . .” The kid’s father walks up. The old man says, “I’m trying to explain it all to the boy.” A nearby poster talks about “a stable but tense peace.”

• • •

The US nuclear stockpile peaked in 1967 at 31,255 warheads. We have far fewer now—around 4,670 warheads, according to current estimates, plus another 2,300 in the slow process of being dismantled—but that doesn’t mean our war power is impaired; one needs only so many bombs to lay one’s enemy to waste, particularly when each modern thermonuclear warhead might produce ten to fifty times the yield of the Gadget. Even though the Cold War is supposedly over and the geopolitical reality has shifted away from two superpowers straddling the globe, East versus West, we are in no rush to get rid of our nukes. In fact, our arsenal seems to be leveling out.

And here’s a startling fact: even after adjusting for inflation, we spend more on nuclear weapons today than we did during the Cold War.

• • •

The war in Europe was winding down. Hitler was dead. So was Mussolini. Berlin had fallen. Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau had been liberated. With the fall of Germany, the race for the bomb had become one-sided—but it never slowed down. On May 7, 1945, the day of Germany’s surrender, the Trinity scientists conducted a preliminary test detonation of one hundred tons of TNT to which was added some radioactive material that would be scattered by the wind. This “dirty bomb” was meant to test blast effects and fallout, but the spectacular explosion—the largest to date, and seen sixty miles away—was ultimately pointless in terms of predicting the performance of the Gadget, which would approach the equivalent of twenty thousand tons of TNT. The physicists were mainly concerned with getting the bomb to work; radioactive fallout was something for the physicians to worry about, though, in the end, fallout would depend on two unknowns: the strength of the blast and the force and direction of the day’s winds.

Even the physicists weren’t without worry; they theorized calamities both mundane and spectacular, from earthquakes shaking far-flung cities to the birth of a new star. One early fear involved setting fire to the earth’s atmosphere. In 1942, when scientists first raised this possibility, Oppenheimer rushed to meet with his superior at the time, Arthur Holly Compton, who was at a summer cottage in Michigan. Compton drew a line. If the chances of apocalypse were more than three in a million, he would scuttle the bomb project. The scientists came back with odds just below that, and Compton decided it was worth the risk.

• • •

At the Museum of Nuclear Science and History, slightly unnerving explosions are coming from the children’s area, called Little Albert’s Lab. (It turns out the blasts are from the water electrolysis demonstration.) A medical bay shows the beneficial uses of radiation. We didn’t always fear this stuff—in the 1920s, the recommended dose from a radium-lined Revigator ceramic water jug was six glasses a day.

An exhibit on New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant features cross sections of drums containing fake radioactive waste. The nation’s only long-term storage crypt for nuclear waste, WIPP stands twenty-six miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the southeast corner of the state. Four shafts sink nearly half a mile into an extensive mine hollowed out of a 250-million-year-old salt bed below the Chihuahuan Desert. WIPP buries nuclear-weapon waste, not material from commercial nuclear power plants; it holds only “transuranic” waste, meaning material with an atomic number higher than that of uranium. Imagine rooms the size of football fields stacked with drums of contaminated tools, clothing, soil, and such, as well as plutonium once meant for bombs.

Since it began receiving nuclear waste in 1999, WIPP has entombed nearly twelve thousand shipments, totaling ninety-one thousand cubic meters of waste, at a cost north of $7.5 billion. The mine has been closed since 2014, when a drum of waste spontaneously exploded and leaked radiation to the surface; repairs are expected to stretch into 2021.

When it is completed and sealed, WIPP will become a monument to man-made poison, a time capsule of our own folly. Eventually, the salt beds will collapse, trapping the waste. The Environmental Protection Agency certified that WIPP would last at least ten thousand years (a time frame that seems rather arbitrary, given that the most common isotope of plutonium lasts more than twice that long), and a series of redundant warnings—giant earthen berms, massive granite monuments, engravings, and pictographs—is meant to remain legible for the duration. A 1993 report from the Sandia National Laboratories, Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, claims that no lasting barrier is feasible; there is no way to keep the future out, even once the site is sealed. The report recommends building menacing earthworks—fields of spikes and irregular blocks—around an empty center to suggest that there is nothing consecrated here, no treasure to be taken. The report also proposes the use of facial icons that are not merely pained, panicked, and nauseated, but also mournful, bitter, and woeful. There is a tension inherent in the endeavor, a mix of pride and shame: while the site should be understood to be worthless, the markers must also inspire awe—or else they might be overlooked, vandalized, or erased. Ultimately, the report envisions WIPP not as a mine or a monument but as a message—a system of meaning pantomimed across time, a history never forgotten, a past that must intrude eternally into the present:

“Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.”

“This place is not a place of honor.”

“What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us.”

“The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.”

“The danger is to the body, and it can kill.”

Illustration by ANna Hall

• • •

By July 1945, the month of the test, nearly three hundred people were housed at Trinity, a number that would rise to 425 two weeks later for the test weekend. A laboratory now occupied the alkali plain, which was crisscrossed with five hundred miles of instrument lines stretched between wooden T-poles standing about the height of a man. More wires were buried in garden hoses in the sand. There were impulse meters, geophones, and peak pressure gauges. More than fifty cameras (motion-picture and still) were assembled to capture the explosion—everything from high-tech Fastex devices recording ten thousand frames per second behind bunkers of steel and glass to a simple pinhole camera, operating under the ancient principles of the camera obscura. Photographers were given incomplete information, told simply to be ready to film something historic that would begin with the light of ten burning suns. (The only successful color photo of the blast would be taken by a technician who—as an amateur photographer—had brought his own camera.) Three shelters with concrete-slab roofs were buried ten thousand yards to the north, west, and south of ground zero, where a one-hundred-foot steel tower rose above the desert. At the top stood an oak platform shielded by corrugated iron. The tower was anchored by concrete footings buried twenty-five feet deep.

The test was originally targeted for July 4, but by mid-June Oppenheimer said the thirteenth was the earliest it could be. Eventually, a date came down from Groves: July 16, during the predawn hours, despite the fact that it was not within the first or second range of days the chief meteorologist had deemed optimal but instead would fall during a period of predicted storms, which might carry the fallout in one direction before raining down concentrated amounts.

• • •

At the museum, I step outside into Heritage Park, where the thirty-foot sail of a nuclear sub rises improbably out of the sand. A B-29 bomber looms beside the atomic cannon; a sign warns keep off. A military plane drones low overhead, coming in for a landing at Kirtland, and beyond the fence I see the glass-faced tower of the Sandia National Laboratories complex, one of the country’s three remaining nuclear labs, where the parking lot is full. Behind a B-52 stands an enormous Mark 17 bomb, just like the one that on May 22, 1957, accidentally slipped out of the bay of a bomber landing at Kirtland. The 41,400-pound thermonuke—the largest the United States ever deployed—fell just outside of Albuquerque on land owned by the University of New Mexico, blowing a twenty-five-foot crater and killing a cow. Had the bomb been armed, the explosion would have been five hundred times that of the Trinity blast.

On the other side of the park, a rusting three-stage Minuteman missile lies along the fence. I turn, and the wing of a B-47 bomber almost clips my brow. I put my head into the blackened thruster of a colossal Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile lying in stages on the ground and imagine the heat, smoke, and smell of all that it burned.

• • •

On the morning of Friday the thirteenth, in the master bedroom of a ranch house two miles from ground zero, Canadian physicist Louis Slotin began assembling the bomb’s plutonium core, which was about the size of an orange but weighed a startling thirteen pounds. Slotin Scotch-taped a small neutron initiator made out of polonium and beryllium—called an “urchin”—into a hollow pit in the middle of two plutonium hemispheres. Upon being crushed by the shock wave of the explosions, the urchin would release a burst of neutrons to start the chain reaction.

Slotin would come to be known as the “chief armorer of the United States.” Ten months later, he would be killed after deciding—on a whim—to show some colleagues a criticality demonstration called “tickling the dragon’s tail,” in which he lowered the top half of a tamper onto a plutonium core using nothing but a flat-head screwdriver to hold the hemispheres apart. The screwdriver slipped, the sphere became whole, and there was heat and a bright blue flash. Slotin flung off the tamper, but it was too late—he soon began vomiting. Three of the other seven witnesses would later die from radiation-related diseases.

At 3:18 p.m., the Trinity core arrived at the base of the tower, where it was to be inserted into the two-ton, five-foot ball of explosives. The body of the bomb was a carefully calibrated device: the implosion lenses had been X-rayed, and each tiny air pocket had been drilled and filled with explosives. The blast waves had to arrive at the core in precise synchronicity. Some of the charges were made to fit snugly with tissue and Scotch tape. A declassified film shows the scientists working under a large canvas tent. Oppenheimer leans over his Gadget, hat on, sleeves rolled up. The men—some topless, others in T-shirts and tanks—stick their arms deep into the top of the bomb. There was a moment of panic when the cylindrical plug containing the plutonium core didn’t fit, but someone realized the metal had simply expanded in the heat. Once it cooled off, it slid in perfectly. One step at a time, the scientists followed the painstaking assembly instructions set down for the “hot run”: “Place hypodermic needle in right place. (Note: Check this carefully),” and so on. When they were done, some men went swimming in a water tank. The next morning, a $20,000 winch raised the Gadget to the top of the tower, where the detonators were installed. As it went up, a pile of striped GI mattresses was placed beneath the bomb. A handwritten sign advised wear a hard hat.

• • •

That night in Albuquerque, I dream of bombs going off. In the morning, I wake to hear Russia is threatening to use nukes over Ukraine. Later, over huevos rancheros, I read that a break has come in nuclear talks with Iran. Driving south out of town, I see the ballpark for Albuquerque’s minor-league team, the Isotopes. Winds whip across the desert, throwing a mattress off the roof of a car and onto the highway. I keep the dark mountains on my left as dust storms roll through the valley like fog. I pass a dead coyote on the road.

• • •

We are facing a future of fewer but better bombs. The average US warhead is twenty-nine years old. The government expects to spend more than $350 billion in the next decade—and at least $1 trillion in the next thirty years—to update its nuclear arsenal. Plans include designing a new nuclear sub, a long-range bomber, and an air-launched cruise missile, as well as looking into the next generation of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Older designs will be retrofitted. One bomb, the B61, which dates to 1963, is scheduled to get a new tail assembly, making it less of a gravity bomb and more of a guided weapon, greatly increasing its accuracy (and lessening the need for a huge yield). The B61 upgrade will cost more than $10 billion, which, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has pointed out, means each new bomb will cost more than if it were made of gold. Waste is one thing, but analysts have noted an even more troubling drawback: with more precision—and fewer unintended casualties—comes a greater enticement to actually use a nuke.

• • •

I spend the night in Truth or Consequences (pop. 6,100). A spa town, “T or C” originally was incorporated as Hot Springs, but, in a 1950 publicity stunt, renamed itself after the popular quiz show. I stand in the parking lot of my motel ogling the moon, which blazes nearly full, ringed by a double halo. Someone strolls by and says, “Wow, look at that.” The air smells of woodsmoke. I go back inside and prowl around my room. The hot springs that bubble up into the historic bathhouses downtown are heated by the same natural radioactive decay that fires the inner earth. Last night, in my atomic nightmares, I was stranded between terror and wonder—panicked, but giddy to be at ground zero. How I wanted to see the blast, to witness the fallout. Tonight is so quiet. You can hear every stray voice and dog, every screen-door slam, every car hit the gas as it decides to keep on rolling through the valley. I know the name is just a worn-out gimmick—one that doesn’t ring many bells anymore—but tonight the choice feels dire, fatalistic. Truth or Consequences. Well, which is it going to be?

• • •

The point of a nuclear weapon is fear: the fear that someone, somewhere (either us or them), will get pushed too far, and everything—everything!—will come to an end. Mutually assured destruction is a position of pure reason and pure madness, and it’s not a line to be crossed, or a point to tip past, but a delusional dream state that we’ve inhabited for more than sixty years. The logic of deterrence is a closed circle, a serpent eating its own tail. There will always be another enemy—monolithic, inscrutable, duplicitous—that must be kept cowed. There is pleasure and comfort in that. But what use is a nuke against a man with a box cutter?

Policy-wise, the United States occupies a weird middle ground—we want to manage a reduced but still-robust nuclear stockpile, while somehow imparting the idea to our nonnuclear allies and enemies that atomic weapons aren’t the way to go. The official government rhetoric has long walked a curious line, downplaying our commitment to nukes while at the same time confirming our willingness to use them, if pushed. And these days, we’re all up to our old Cold War stunts again, with Russia buzzing Europe and Alaska with its nuclear bombers while we test-launch two ICBMs in a single week. Putin rattles his nuclear saber in the Russian press, and Trump responds, “Let it be an arms race.”

• • •

At the northern edge of White Sands Missile Range, the vast army installation that eventually swallowed up the Trinity test site, a notice says the road can be closed for missile firing and gives a number to call for more information. Seventeen miles past the gate to the range—which won’t be open to the public until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow—a tall, weathered wooden sign springs out of nowhere. ROCK SHOP. I pull over, and two big dogs start going nuts behind a fence. The yard is full of metal tables piled with colorful slabs, geodes, agates, jaspers, boulders, and, strangely, seashells. A woman in a tank top appears and asks what I want. I tell her I’d like to see the rocks.

Inside, I buy a small piece of trinitite that was picked up by a miner before the blast field was bulldozed in the 1950s. The glazed green rock is illegal to collect, but my piece is grandfathered in, the woman tells me. She says it emits .08 millirem per hour of alpha radiation. (A Geiger counter will measure somewhat less than that when I’m back in St. Louis.) I ask if the rock is dangerous. “Just don’t crush it up and snort it,” she says. She’s not joking: while alpha particles usually can’t penetrate the skin, they are bad news inside the body. She doesn’t mention the beta particles, which I know the piece is sending out, too, though they’re also relatively weak and can be stopped by a thin layer of metal.

What was borne in that green glass? A mottled chunk of plutonium, uranium, sand, steel, minerals, and dust, forged in fire and rained down from above, the shiny side cooling to reflect the sky. I’m not sure why I buy the sample. Partly out of guilt for making the woman open the shop just for me—the last visitor signed the guest book a month ago—but that’s not entirely it. I’m standing about 18.5 miles to the northeast of zero. This tiny town—now essentially gone—was bathed in radiation that day. The readings were some of the highest measured. As I drive away, I will think of roving monitor Arthur Breslow, who—chasing the cloud—left his respirator at an observation station he had been forced to evacuate, and so drove on through the radioactive valley with his windows rolled up, breathing through a piece of bread. One family who lived off this road was advised to stay indoors—for days. This hot rock is a terrible memento mori. I put it far away on the floor of the passenger seat. The last thing the woman at the shop told me: “Tomorrow is going to be a wild day.”

• • •

The scientists’ to-do list for Sunday, July 15, the day before the test, included “look for rabbits’ feet and four-leaved clovers.” Late that night, a thunderstorm moved in. The youngest scientist, Don Hornig, who had designed the electric trigger, was dispatched to the open metal shack at the top of the tower, where he sat alone with the bomb, which was now wrapped in thirty-two thick detonation cables set to simultaneously explode. Everyone was worried about sabotage and lightning. A week before, static electricity had prematurely triggered the firing unit. Hornig was unarmed and unclear what to do in the case of an emergency. He passed the time reading humorous essays by the light of a dangling bulb. Later, he would advise Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ, and become the president of Brown University. He was the last to leave the tower.

At 1:00 a.m., General Groves, trying to catnap in a poorly secured tent, was awakened by canvas flapping in the wind. At 2:00 a.m., just as the buses of VIPs were arriving from Los Alamos, more violent thunderstorms rolled into the area, lashing the control bunker and base camp with high winds, but for the most part sparing the tower. The shot was scheduled for 4:00 a.m., but at 2:00 a.m. it was decided to postpone the test until at least 5:00 a.m., when the meteorologist thought the storms would clear. General Groves threatened to hang him if he was wrong.

At 2:45 a.m., the general called the governor of New Mexico and alerted him that it might become necessary to enforce martial law. The single reporter from the New York Times had left several press releases back in New York, including one describing an unfortunate (but unremarkable) accident at Oppenheimer’s mountain ranch that had claimed the lives of many prominent scientists, as well as the writer’s own. Base camp began serving breakfast at 3:45 a.m.: powdered eggs, French toast, and coffee. Meanwhile, two physicists observed a heap of frogs breeding noisily in a rain-flooded hole. The weatherman made his last forecast at 4:15 a.m. At eight minutes past five, the test director examined it. Both men had been awake for two days. The conditions were far from ideal, but by a stroke of luck, the winds were favorable.

Twenty-nine people were in the north shelter, thirty-seven in the west, and thirty-three in the south, the control bunker, where Oppenheimer was stationed with other crucial personnel. General Groves watched separately—at base camp—to lessen the chances of both men being killed (which would be a terrible setback for the project). In an attempt to frighten the guards there, one Nobel laureate began taking bets on whether the bomb would destroy the whole world, or merely New Mexico.

On the observation hill twenty miles away from the Gadget, theoretical physicist Edward Teller, who would become known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” passed out suntan lotion, which everyone applied in the dark. Teller wore heavy gloves and welder’s goggles—to the dismay of some of the more unsuspecting MPs standing by. Down the road, a man named J. E. Miera, who grilled hamburgers for the scientists in his popular Owl Bar and grocery store, was awakened by soldiers sitting outside with seismographs. They told him to come out front to witness “something the world has never seen.”

• • •

The Owl Bar and Cafe still stands in the little town of San Antonio. No longer in the grocery business, it remains a beautiful old dive adorned with autographed photos and dollar bills pinned to the walls. Tonight, a tattooed older vet in a black T-shirt is drinking tequila and a beer. He used to work at Los Alamos and tells the bartender, “I don’t exactly see why everyone gets so worked up about visiting where they set the bomb off.” The bartender tells him about local kids who grew up with problems, special needs, cancer. Despite his nonchalance, the man says he’s thinking about finding a spot and sleeping by the side of the road to avoid the line of cars in the morning. “There’s nothing posted against it,” he says.

Rowena Baca, the owner, is the granddaughter of J. E. Miera, the grocer who was woken early and told to come outside. “The men—I don’t know whether they were soldiers or scientists—would rent cabins from my grandpa,” she tells me, as she has told many others who have come through her bar. “They said they were prospectors. Daddy always said they were really nice guys.”

• • •

Just after 5:00 a.m., the test director unlocked the switches. Soldiers stood in slit trenches. Radiation monitors swung from blimps that would relay their data before being vaporized. At 5:03 a.m., as the timer began, the order was repeated for everyone, everywhere: lie facedown on the ground, feet to the blast—don’t look until the first flash is over. Two minutes later, the last men left the base of the tower, calmly driving five and a half miles to the southern shelter. At 5:10 a.m., Samuel K. Allison of the University of Chicago began the first countdown in history, broadcast over a loudspeaker. (He came up with the idea to count backward to the blast.) General Groves rode a jeep to base camp, where one man insisted on facing the explosion. Everyone else lay down in the trenches.

At T minus five minutes, a green warning rocket flared. Another, three minutes later, refused to fire. With a minute to go, Oppenheimer is said to have remarked, “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.” He gripped a post and seemed to hold his breath. At T minus forty-five seconds, a member of the arming party threw the final switch. The bomb would now fire automatically. A chime accompanied Allison on the countdown. At ten seconds, a gong clanged in the control shelter. One physicist cried to another, “Now I’m scared!” Most everyone was praying. At nine seconds, interference with a local radio station cut in over the loudspeaker—and the scientists were treated to Tchaikovsky’s sunny Serenade for Strings, which was currently featured in the MGM musical Anchors Aweigh. At base camp, General Groves lay on the ground between two scientists, thinking of what he would do if the zero came without a bang.

• • •

At the Owl, Rowena Baca sits at the twenty-five-foot solid mahogany bar her grandfather installed in his store more than seven decades ago. She says, “Daddy paid me fifteen dollars a week when I was twelve—and I’ve been in the grocery business ever since.” She has noticed a steady rise in tourists attending the Trinity open house. She says Japanese visitors have started to show up in recent years, too. She brings up the protesters who will come from across the state to be here tomorrow—they want recognition and compensation for being atomic test victims. Baca says, “We were the ones closest, but all the old-timers are gone. There’s nobody left to get the money.”

Baca was a toddler that morning in 1945. She remembers, “Grandma thought it was the end of the world. Everything was red. She threw me and my cousin under the bed.” Then she adds, “We were crying under there. I don’t know why she thought the bed would save me.”

• • •

Finally, on July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 Mountain War Time, the Gadget exploded in the predawn dark with the light of twenty suns.

Someone said it smelled like a waterfall. But first came a flash, visible from three states, which dimmed to reveal a boiling mushroom cloud that shot skyward in perfect silence, burning red then luminous purple as it ionized the atmosphere. In seven minutes, the column would stretch more than seven miles tall. The MP guarding the door of the control bunker went pale; nobody had thought to explain to him what would unfold. At the sight of the roiling cloud, an officer worried, “The longhairs”—or scientists—“let it get away from them,” while General Groves deadpanned, “Well, there must be something in nucleonics after all.”

A physicist remembered, “It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up.” The War Department officially reported a radiance “golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue” that “lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described.” From a car headed to Albuquerque, a partially blind music student saw the flash. Physicist I. I. Rabi on the light: “It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you.”

The heat struck hard in the cool morning. To observers in base camp—ten miles away—it felt like standing in front of a fireplace. A glowing yellow turbulence raced across the desert floor, whipping up sand—the shock wave beating the ground toward them. Unable to keep still, one scientist dropped pieces of paper before, during, and after the wave’s arrival, and measured how far they traveled—just another way of calculating the force of the blast. The shock took forty seconds to hit base camp, and with it finally came the sound—a deep booming that ricocheted through the valley and canyons until the echoes collapsed into a continuous roar. Thirty-four years later, one witness would write, “I can still hear it.”

Outside the control bunker, the shock wave flattened the explosives expert, who had neglected to duck. He got up and hugged Oppenheimer. A conga line broke out, and people took turns shouting over the PA. Elsewhere, a man who had burned his corneas was given morphine.

The New York Times journalist would write, “One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World—to be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord said: Let There Be Light.” Oppenheimer strutted around like a cowboy. The test director told him, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” One scientist passed whiskey.

Another asked, “What have we done?”

• • •

I wake before dawn to a blood moon setting over the western mountains. An inauspicious alignment: the total eclipse of a full moon, the earth’s shadow casting it a fearful red—an ancient sign of apocalypse. Recently, a few fringe Christian ministers have prophesized that this blood moon—one of four in a row—foretells the end of the world. (Revelation 6:12: “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.”) From my hotel parking lot, I stare dumbly at the red orb as a biker straps gear onto his ride. The air is cold and clear; the sun won’t be up for a while.

In the lobby, a flyer advertises a religious revival called “the minor prophets’ guide to the end times.” It’s at a place called Quemado—or burned—Lake, and promises “good old Bible preaching.” Yesterday was Good Friday. Last night, Passover started. A time of great biblical death—Christ on the cross, all those firstborn Egyptian sons. Today is Holy Saturday, the day Jesus descended into hell. Tomorrow will be Easter. And so I go to Trinity.

• • •

The fireball blasted a half-mile crater. Everything within another half mile beyond that was dead—down to the ants. The smoke covered the ground for an hour. The smell lasted three weeks. Doors were torn off a farmhouse three miles away. Downwind, cattle would die. Twenty miles out, a black cat’s fur would go white. Five miles beyond that, monitors found a stunned mule, tongue lolling out. The air blast broke windows in Silver City and Gallup, the latter some two hundred miles away. In a 1965 television documentary, Oppenheimer recalled, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multiarmed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Four hours after Trinity, the Indianapolis slipped out of San Francisco Bay, headed to the western Pacific and carrying in its hold the Little Boy bomb that three weeks later would explode over Hiroshima.

At base camp, General Groves wanted to wait out the fallout by discussing the logistics of the next assignment—dropping a bomb on Japan—but found, to his disappointment, that the scientists weren’t in the right “frame of mind.” Oppenheimer’s younger brother, also a physicist, described a feeling of dread: “I think the most terrifying thing was this really brilliant purple cloud, black with radioactive dust, that hung there, and you had no feeling of whether it would go up or drift towards you.”

Within fifteen minutes, the mushroom cloud had divided into three, a most unholy trinity. The lowest portion moved north, while the middle went west. Some fifty thousand feet up, the largest and highest part drifted northeast—exactly as desired. Another fifteen minutes later, the top of the mushroom was said to resemble North America, while the remaining clouds formed a reddish-brown question mark. Five minutes later, the lowest, heaviest cloud swept over the north shelter, forcing the observers to evacuate. But for two hours, very little fallout came down, which raised hopes—until the top cloud irradiated a long stretch of land one hundred by thirty miles. (That day, gamma rays would be detected 260 miles away in Colorado.)

Twin B-29s followed the high white cloud for miles, before losing it in the thunderheads. Other aircraft tracked it for several hours beyond that. The head meteorologist, at the controls of his own plane, estimated that in thirty-six hours it would circumnavigate the globe. On its way, the first radioactive cloud slowly sailed east over Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, New York, and New England.

• • •

The protesters carry signs that read New Mexico is Not Radiation-Proof and speaking up for those who have been silenced by the bomb. After I pass them, I spend about an hour in a four-mile-long line of vehicles waiting to get to the entrance of the missile range. A tiny Yorkie hangs its head out of the Jeep behind me, which makes me think of the army dogs that used to sniff out exploded missile fragments in the sand. I see cattle and smell burning rubber. A motorcycle cruises by in the left lane, cutting the line, and people honk.

At 3,200 square miles—the size of Rhode Island plus Delaware—White Sands Missile Range is the largest military installation in the United States. A brochure details its mission: “We shake, rattle, and roll the product, roast it, freeze it, subject it to nuclear radiation, dip it in salt water, and roll it in the mud. We test its paint, bend its frame, and find out what effect its propulsion material has on flora and fauna. In the end, if it’s a missile, we fire it, record its performance, and bring back the pieces for postmortem examination. All test data is reduced, and the customer receives a full report.”

• • •

Later on the test morning, a lead-lined Sherman M4 tank—complete with its own air supply—rolled into the blast zone to scoop up soil samples. Even though the ground immediately beneath the tower had been paved to reduce the amount of earth picked up by the blast (which would become fallout), the fireball vaporized between 100 and 250 tons of sand, much of which rained back down as the radioactive glassy green residue dubbed trinitite. The desert floor had been glazed for nearly half a mile. The tower was reduced to a few fingers of rebar—the remainder of the footings—sticking up from a red stain on the ground. The half-mile crater sloped down about ten feet—as if the earth had been pounded in, not blasted apart. When General Groves saw the hole, he was reported to have said, “Is that all?”

To preserve secrecy, officials had not evacuated the surrounding area beforehand. But food and water were stocked, and trucks and jeeps stood ready to move the population. Base camp was prepared to hold an extra 450 people. Other military installations could take in evacuees. The local press was fed a cover story about the explosion of a munitions dump at Alamogordo Air Base.

Fallout monitors roved the countryside, taking readings; after one day, the cars themselves became radioactive. The doctors were chiefly concerned about high-intensity exposure, not long-term consequences, which weren’t fully understood at the time. Two towns were nearly evacuated, but radiation levels dipped once the “hot” cloud moved on, and residents were left in place.

Decades later, the doctor in charge of the Trinity medical group would admit, “We just assumed we got away with it.”

• • •

At the gate, security officers check IDs and peer into cars. A tall metal sign warns in English and Spanish: area may be contaminated with explosive devices. More protesters hoist homemade signs. Some carry the names of people—even entire families—killed by cancer. A man in a dust mask holds the phrase gone too soon while another man waves the winds of despair. A poster quotes the book of Revelation: i will destroy all those who destroyed the earth. A woman in a black-and-white Day of the Dead mask brandishes a sign that reads: remember downwinders. Through my window, I ask if I can take her picture. She says, “Please do,” then shouts, “No more silence after seventy years!”

After the bombing of Japan, the US government continued testing atomic weapons until 1992, setting off more than one thousand nuclear blasts, or an average of one every 16.5 days. (In 1962 alone—as a ban on atmospheric testing loomed—the military conducted ninety-eight tests.) Two hundred ten of the explosions were aboveground, eight hundred thirty-six were underground, and five were underwater, as the military experimented with bigger bombs, better designs, and different delivery mechanisms. The nukes blew up in the Pacific, the south Atlantic, New Mexico, Alaska, Mississippi, Colorado, and Nevada, where a government site held a staggering 925 tests (one hundred of which were atmospheric). These tests were witnessed by some 220,000 official participants—to say nothing of nearby civilian populations.

Citing local cancer rates six to eight times the national average, the protesters outside my car want New Mexicans to be included in the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides assistance to nuclear-test participants, uranium workers, and those downwind from the Nevada Test Site. A 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that the Trinity test exposed parts of New Mexico to ten thousand times the radiation permissible today. The CDC has also reported that everyone living in the continental United States after 1951 has received radiation—in every organ and tissue—from now-banned nuclear tests.

• • •

By the day after the test, fifty-seven Manhattan Project scientists had signed a petition asking President Truman to consider the morality of using such a weapon. As the bomb was prepared for Japan, someone asked Oppenheimer why he was so glum; he replied, “I just keep thinking about all those poor little people.” Some scientists were told the bomb would spare hundreds of thousands of US soldiers whose lives could be lost in a ground invasion; they did not sign the petition. Nor did physicist Edward Teller, who had decided, “The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls.”

The petition was circumvented by General Groves, who ensured it took a circuitous route to Washington, where the president wasn’t in residence, anyway.

• • •

The soldiers sell brats and burgers, shirts and shot glasses. They are young and polite, calling everyone “sir” and “ma’am.” A record 5,534 visitors will show up today—even more than came twenty years ago for the fiftieth anniversary. (Later, I will shake hands with Brigadier General Timothy R. Coffin, the commander of the missile range, who stands tall in digital desert camo with his name—Coffin!—on his chest as he tells me each open house costs the army $60,000.) Meanwhile, people take selfies in front of radiation warnings posted on the chain-link fence. A film crew walks by, speaking Japanese. A woman’s ball cap reads we need more heroes beneath an American flag.

• • •

Three weeks after the Trinity test, at 8:16 a.m. on August 6, 1945, the Little Boy uranium bomb exploded above Hiroshima. Three days later, the Fat Man plutonium device was dropped on Nagasaki. The latter blast was bigger—at twenty-two kilotons—but the damage was mitigated by the surrounding hills. Estimates vary, but by 1950 some 200,000 were dead at Hiroshima and 140,000 dead at Nagasaki.

Truman was at lunch when he received news of the first successful atomic bombing; he told his tablemates, “This is the greatest thing in history.” In a radio address, he would explain to the nation, “The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East. . . . We have spent more than two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history—and we have won. But the greatest marvel is not the size of the enterprise, its secrecy, or its cost, but the achievement of scientific brains in making it work.”

• • •

After the war, the US Strategic Bombing Survey decided that dropping the bomb had not been necessary to defeat Japan. Most likely, the country would have surrendered on its own before November—even without any plans for an Allied invasion. (The firebombing of Tokyo earlier in the year had killed more people—and destroyed more square miles of city—than the immediate effects of either atomic blast.) Even before Hiroshima, General Eisenhower told Secretary of War Henry Stimson that nuking Japan was “completely unnecessary” and “no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” Many military voices echoed his thoughts. In a press conference six weeks after Nagasaki, General Curtis LeMay, the man in charge of the bombers, insisted that “the atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”

One British physicist would remember General Groves saying—in 1944—that the bomb’s “real purpose” was “to subdue the Soviets,” our allies in the war. The following year, about a month before he became secretary of state (and more than two months before Hiroshima), James Byrnes explained the rationale for using the bomb to a Manhattan Project scientist, who recalled the idea was to make “Russia more manageable in Europe.” In 1949, P. M. S. Blackett, a British Nobel laureate and wartime advisor, wrote, “The dropping of the atomic bombs was not so much the last military act of the Second World War as the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia now in progress.” That August, Russia tested its own atomic bomb, dubbed “First Lightning,” which fused the soil of the Kazakh steppes a startling blue-black.

Some say Truman didn’t really make a decision—that the bomb was so costly that it had to be used. He never doubted his actions and in fact wrote in 1963, “I would do it again.” In late 1945, when Oppenheimer told the president, “I feel I have blood on my hands,” Truman cut off dealings with him, calling him a “crybaby.” Oppenheimer died of throat cancer in 1967.

• • •

Last summer, in the bookshelves in the den of my father’s childhood home, I found a copy of the paperback How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, published in 1950. The cover shows a nuclear family (a term that predates Trinity; here, a father, mother, sister, brother) standing united to bravely face, if not a new shining day, then perhaps the initial blast, the front of their bodies lit by a searing light (in which case, they’re most likely goners). Written by a naval senior radiological safety monitor, the book promises no “scare talk” or rumors. The cover proclaims, “If there’s ATOMIC WARFARE this book may save your life!” There are several mistruths: “There is one fact you must remember—and it definitely is a fact. Not one person in Hiroshima or Nagasaki was killed or injured by lingering radioactivity.” Also: “Facts will help kill the fear that causes panic.”

• • •

I join the quarter-mile march to the fenced oval that is ground zero. An Asian woman drags a wailing little girl by the arm. The crowd circles the lava-rock obelisk, erected twenty years after the fact on the spot where the Gadget’s tower stood. A guy in a NASA shirt holds a yellow Geiger counter. (A brochure I received upon entering the range reminds me that “although radiation levels at ground zero are low”—no more than ten times the natural background amount—“some feel any extra exposure should be avoided.”) Trinitite is still easy to find. A sign threatens thieves with fines and jail. Some teens huddle around a large green pile, which they have collected and washed off with water. I spot a fair number of little kids, plus at least three or four babies. Ahead of me, a father struggles to push an infant in a stroller through the sand, from which europium, cesium, cobalt, strontium, and plutonium are currently emitting alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. (The latter can be stopped only by one inch of lead or eight of concrete.) Historical photos hang on the far fence. A bomb casing similar to Fat Man’s sits on a trailer. Later, I will ride a hot, dusty bus two miles to the ranch house where the scientists assembled the core. There, a guy will look to the mountains and say, “I figure it would make you goofy, being out here.” Inside the house, I’ll hear a voice from another room offer some kind of summary: “It’s just the power of nature, the power of God, whatever you want to call it.”

• • •

There is no doubt atomic blasts are aesthetically beautiful: incomparable and illicit expressions of nature’s hidden physics—the micro blown up to such a macro scale that something, or maybe everything, inside you is stirred. In time, awe gives way to a grim connoisseurship. As it is so often said, fear quickly becomes something like desire. I could watch the declassified films for hours. There are so many stunning details: how the air rushes forward—with the blast wave—then blows briefly backward as it is sucked up to form the towering mushroom. That’s how I feel watching these awful films: pushed and pulled—shocked, devastated, repulsed, but then drawn into the cloud.

I stumble across an amazing artifact from the National Archives: a black-and-white army film that contains the actual sound of the blast. I put on headphones and I’m at Yucca Flat, Nevada, in the early morning of March 17, 1953, for the Annie test of Operation Upshot-Knothole, which was open to reporters, who watched 7.5 miles away from “News Nob.” The announcer counts down to the flash, which is blinding. Thirty seconds of murmuring as the sixteen-kiloton fireball climbs. “Oh, look at that. Oh boy, George.” The cloud billows up. “Woo-hoo!” The announcer warns the shock wave will soon arrive. Suddenly, a shotgun blast that crescendos louder and louder to become a rolling thunder. When it has receded, a man shouts, “Holy shit!” Then he shouts it again.

There were tests in the desert and under the sea. Rows of burning trees whip one way, then the next. Plumes of roiling water toss battleships like toys in a tub. In an instant, the paint on a bus burns off before the smoking black frame is flattened by the blast. Heat sears rows of caged pigs wearing military uniforms, the exposed flesh meant to mimic human skin. (Imagine some 1,200 porcine subjects in 1957 alone. Sheep and monkeys, too, the latter’s eyes taped wide open.) From inside a house, there’s a flash at the window; the blinds billow gently inward, then begin to smolder—before the entire structure is blown away. More interior scenes with nattily dressed mannequins posed in quiet domestic dramas: couples having cocktails, Junior riding the arm of the couch, Baby penned in front of the TV, Mom sitting dreamily at the window, moments before the panes impale her and slam her body across the room.

I watch the films; I sift through photographs. The images veer from the inconceivable to the insane. A live fish so radioactive that it makes its own X-ray (the algae it recently ingested glowing in its stomach). Marines clowning around for the camera, their hands “holding up” a mushroom cloud. Rows of VIPs in goggles and khaki shorts, watching from Adirondack chairs, their stern faces lit by the flash. A ballerina in a black leotard performing a pas de deuxwith the atomic cloud that climbs over her shoulder.

The height of bravado: a 1957 film of five volunteers standing in a huddle while an F-89 jet fires a two-kiloton nuclear air-to-air rocket that explodes 18,500 feet directly above them. A handmade sign stuck in the dirt reads Ground Zero. Population: 5. The men shield their eyes with their hands; only one bothers to wear sunglasses. The center man delivers the play-by-play. After the blast, they rejoice with hearty handshakes; one produces a cigar. The honey-voiced announcer calls the experience “just a wonderful thrill,” while the one of the men, a colonel, effuses for those watching at home: “My only regrets right now are . . . that everybody couldn’t have been out here at ground zero with us.” All five men would eventually contract cancer.

The United States even detonated at least six nukes in space, shorting out terrestrial electronics and creating dazzling atomic auroras that played across the globe. In 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty banned nuclear testing aboveground, underwater, and in space. In 1992, the United States conducted its final underground test, though the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty—signed by President Clinton in 1996 but blocked by the Senate—still awaits ratification.

• • •

Maybe we all go a little mad in the desert of our imaginations. One morning, as the test date neared, Oppenheimer found everyone outside, staring at an unknown object blazing in the sky. The men raced for binoculars. A spy craft? Sabotage? From Albuquerque, Kirtland Air Force Base reported they had no planes able to intercept it. Oppenheimer recalled, “Our director of personnel was an astronomer and a man of some human wisdom; and he finally came to my office and asked whether we would stop trying to shoot down Venus.”

Later, in 1960, NORAD went on highest alert—99.9 percent sure of a nuclear attack—when a US Air Force radar station in Greenland mistook the rising moon for a Siberian missile launch.

• • •

At the site, a man in a denim jacket describes how molten trinitite rains down and collects in puddles on the ground. His name is Robert Hermes, and he’s a retired Los Alamos physicist. He has several chunks of trinitite set out on a table before him, plus a sizable piece pinned to his hat. He holds up a tube of green beads he found in the ant sand this morning. (Anthills are notoriously radioactive, as the insects pile up trinitite.) He says such glassy droplets have appeared worldwide after other big impacts, particularly extinction events. He rattles the tube. “They’re the same size as the beads they found off the Yucatán—where the asteroid hit that killed all the dinosaurs.”

• • •

Scientists who study the health hazards of radiation have discovered a “bystander effect”: irradiate a single cell, and those around it will suffer. In other words, cells communicate. The damage spreads wider and wider, every one a casualty.

In total, I will spend an hour within the inner fence at ground zero, which means I will absorb somewhere between one half and one millirem of radiation—at most, a sixth of a chest X-ray, or the cosmic radiation one receives flying the red-eye across the country, or what we soak up in a year sitting in front of the TV. A web page from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will tell me I have shortened my life expectancy by a minute and twelve seconds. On my way out, I will bite down and feel grit in my teeth. I’ll try not to lick my dusty lips, or think about the half-life of plutonium. I’ll blow my nose, rinse my mouth, and spit once I’m back at my car. But long after I’ve showered and scrubbed and left Trinity behind, I will feel its dust in my nose and taste its dirt in my mouth.

• • •

I’m wary of the line I’m treading. I don’t want to fall too hard for the atomic mystique, or slip into radiophobia—romanticizing the danger of an often-misunderstood science. Nobody would wish all radioactive materials from the earth. Radiation warms the planet from without and within. Many things, from bananas to our own bodies, are naturally radioactive. And I wouldn’t want to live without nuclear medicine—its imaging, scans, and treatments. I stood next to my daughter when she got her first X-rays—for a mysterious pain in her leg that was temporarily crippling but ultimately benign. Only a toddler, she asked, “Daddy, why don’t I get to wear a big apron?” I held her hand while the huge machine made its ugly noise over her tiny bare body, and I remember being grateful for pictures of the unseen.

• • •

Back inside the fence, a retired White Sands public affairs officer is sitting—in some official capacity, I imagine—on a stool from which hangs a sign promising free answers. A freckled girl wrapped in a blanket runs a green rock up to him. She smiles when he says, “Yes, that’s the stuff, all right.” Suddenly, a Japanese interviewer puts a microphone in his face. A cameraman is rolling. We all fall silent. The interviewer doesn’t smile, but asks, “What is the purpose of opening the site? What do you want the people to know?” The answer man thinks for a moment, then says, “We want people to understand what happened, and why it happened, and then go away to make their own judgments.”

• • •

During the war, the average age at Los Alamos was twenty-seven. Over the years, many of the scientists would be gripped by nostalgia for the days when they were young and working on the bomb. Edward Teller would write, “In spite of the difficulties, I (and many others) consider the wartime years at Los Alamos the most wonderful time in our lives.” A British physicist recalled, “Here at Los Alamos, I found a spirit of Athens, of Plato, of an ideal republic.” Nobel laureate Hans Bethe said at Oppenheimer’s memorial service, “There were other wartime laboratories of high achievement. . . . But I have never observed in any one of these other groups quite the spirit of belonging together, quite the urge to reminisce about the days of the laboratory, quite the feeling that this was really the great time of their lives.” As one physicist remembered in 1970, “It was one of the few times in my life when I felt truly alive.”

Lately, a similar Cold War nostalgia has slipped into the national rhetoric, as politicians and pundits yearn for the less confusing world when it was just us versus them. How quickly we forget—and conflate simplicity with safety. I grew up a Cold War kid. In the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war was always in the background, like the TV. Among my childhood possessions, I recently found a 160-page booklet issued by the Department of Defense called Soviet Military Power. Packed with graphs, stats, war plans, and lavish illustrations of tanks, bombers, missiles, subs, and satellites, the book lingers over our enemy’s might with a lover’s eye. Today, I find the book unsettling. I picked up Soviet Military Power in 1987—the year it was published—when I was ten.

• • •

The day grows long. We have been reduced to a bunch of tourists milling about under military gaze. A small crowd stands around the obelisk, which is less of a focal point than a photo op. (We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.) People approach warily, pose, then retreat. Nobody takes turns; everyone goes home with pictures of each other, which is as it should be. We’re all in this together, a kind of bystander effect. (This place is not a place of honor.) Beside the monument stands a fading footprint of concrete and rebar—the remains of a leg of the tower. I don’t think of the invisible rays that may or may not be killing us. (What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us.) We’re all dying anyway, one way or another, as the great clock counts down. (The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.)

What is the half-life of memory? The observation bunkers, where Oppenheimer and the scientists fretted then rejoiced, are long gone. Creosote, yucca, and yellow grass are reclaiming the plain. At ground zero, the hot dust decays, leaching energy into the desert. The event moves into the mind, but we must hold on to the dead: Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The scientists and soldiers who tested and were tested upon. The rest of us standing downwind of history, ongoing casualties of a never-ending Cold War. We’ve come up with so many clever ways to wipe each other off the earth.

Standing here gives only a feeling of emptiness. Not necessarily despair, or sorrow, but absence. We’ve all come to zero. No thoughts, no words—nothing remains. Complete devastation. And isn’t that the point of the bomb?

About the Author

Edward McPherson

Edward McPherson is the author of Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats, and The History of the Future: American Essays.

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