8. To Alamogordo, July 1945

That decisions needed making, that self-delusion seemed necessary, were results of the Manhattan Project’s success in producing a functional atomic bomb. While Truman struggled to find his footing as president, while Byrnes, Groves, and especially Stimson tutored him about the bomb, while the Interim Committee discussed how to use the bomb, and scientists, generals, and government officials debated targets, Oppenheimer’s army in New Mexico labored to solve the bomb’s technical problems and thus fulfill its destiny. Szilard, Franck, and several others thought the bomb should not be used automatically against Japan. Oppenheimer was having none of it. He turned aside Szilard’s provocative petition, and threw himself so fully into the work of finishing the plutonium test bomb that Groves wondered if he would have time for policy meetings in Washington and friends worried about his health. There remained difficulties with the implosion mechanism, the series of detonators that needed to fire simultaneously, ‘within a fraction of a millionth of a second’, if the bomb’s plutonium was to chain react properly. Equally troublesome was the bomb’s gumball-sized initiator (codenamed ‘urchin’), which lay within the plutonium core and would start the release of neutrons. A brave Canadian named Louis Slotin spent his days at a gunmetal desk, pushing toward each other, then quickly separating, two hemispheres of plutonium. He was trying to figure out exactly how much of the volatile element would be needed for the shot. No one had a more dangerous job; ‘tickling the dragon’s tail,’ it was called. (Nearly a year later, Slotin was still tickling. His screwdriver slipped, the hemispheres joined for a split second of criticality, and Slotin, who threw his body over the hemispheres even as he wrenched them apart, died an agonizing, and secret, death nine days later.43)

It was serious and sophisticated work. Preparing the test bomb gave the male scientists a sense of masculine power: they named their bombs Little Boy and Fat Man and planned to label any unsuccessful test device ‘a girl’. The work allowed them to presume to control nature. Nuclear energy was the fundamental force in the universe; to command it ‘in a pint pot’, wrote the physicist Freeman Dyson, was to ‘produce an illusion of illimitable power’. Oppenheimer called the test site (and ultimately the shot itself) Trinity, inspired by the ‘three-person’d God’ of a John Donne sonnet. Preparation for the test was, at times, almost shockingly quotidian. Once the Trinity bomb was under assembly, scientists found several holes in its volatile core, which they plugged with shreds of facial tissue. Some of the bomb’s detonator charges required snugging by means of Scotch tape. The bomb was taken by car and truck to the test site at Alamogordo, 200 miles south of Los Alamos; the core, separated of course from the rest of the assembly, traveled in two suitcases with thermometers attached. As the test gadget was hoisted into a tower, wherein it was to be detonated, technicians threw dozens of army-issue mattresses beneath it, hoping to cushion it if it tore loose from its fittings and plunged to earth. As the bomb lay in place throughout the day and night of 14 July, thunderstorms sparked throughout the area, making the scientists jittery and more than once inspiring them to gallows humor.44

Through the next day and night they figuratively held their breath. Groves fretted about the unstable weather and unhappily contemplated postponing the test. Oppenheimer, agitated, worried that postponement would mean that ‘I’ll never get my people up to pitch again’, as he put it. Vannevar Bush, onsite for the shot, was awakened prematurely when the wind blew down his tent; he gave up on sleep and walked to the makeshift mess hall for breakfast at 3.45 in the morning of 16 July. Men chainsmoked and drank coffee. Enrico Fermi, oddly, tore a piece of paper into scraps. (After the blast, he would use these as primitive but effective indicators of the test bomb’s power.) At 4.45 project meteorologists reported a short break in the storms. Groves and Oppie decided to test Trinity at 5.30. Those witnessing the test got pieces of smoked welder’s glass through which to watch. Richard Feynman, the brilliant trickster, refused to use his, reasoning that at a distance of 20 miles his eyes would be protected sufficiently by the windshield of the truck in which he sat. Edward Teller, on the other hand, put on gloves, a pair of sunglasses under the welder’s glass, and a generous portion of anti-sunburn cream. Samuel Allison, from Chicago’s Met Lab, read the countdown on a radio station that crossed frequencies with another playing a Tchaikovsky serenade, which provided surreal background music for Allison’s steady voice. At 5.29 Allison reached zero. A split second later, ground and heaven burst open.45

Oppenheimer thought of a regnant Brahma from the epic Mahabharata. ‘A foul and awesome display,’ was Kenneth Bainbridge’s verdict. Fermi, seemingly oblivious to the light and heat and shock, dropped his paper scraps and watched as the blast wave carried them. Cocky Richard Feynman turned away, temporarily blinded. Others cheered and danced. The Trinity shot produced a light brighter than any seen previously in the world, bright enough to have been seen from space. Its core temperature was four times greater than that at the center of the sun. The pressure from the blast was unprecedented; the radioactivity it threw off, as Lansing Lamont calculated, was a million times more than that emitted by all the radium on earth. The light, then blast wave, reached Groves, Bush, and Conant, lying side by side and facing away from the tower at a distance of about 16,000 yards. The men shook hands, then Groves said, ‘we must keep this whole thing quiet’. An army major standing nearby tapped Groves on the shoulder: ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I think they heard the noise in five states.’ If not quite that, Trinity nevertheless drew a good deal of attention. An 18-year-old blind woman named Georgia Green, in a car with her brother-in-law on the road to Albuquerque, registered the bomb’s light. Windows broke in Texas, terrified people called police or newspaper offices to report an earthquake or plane crash; a New Mexico man named Hugh McSmith found himself shivering in bed, the sheets and blankets having been blown off him. Groves put it out that an ammunition dump had exploded. In his memorandum to Stimson on the test, Groves included an account written by Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell, who had witnessed the blast from the Alamogordo control room 10,000 yards south of the blast site. ‘The effects’, wrote Farrell, ‘could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying.’

The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue.. . Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental, and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.46

As Groves struggled to contain information about the test—a harbinger of American efforts to prevent specific knowledge of the bomb’s works from reaching the international community once the war had ended—he faced a dangerous, related problem. Soon after the shot was fired, Robert Wilson led an observation team north out of Trinity. Needles on the Geiger counters carried by the team members suddenly jumped. Radioactivity, in a reddish-brown cloud, was drifting north, threatening small communities and cattle ranches and raising the distressing possibility that these might have to be evacuated. Updrafts from the narrow canyons intensified the winds and caused them to blow promiscuously across the area. The small town of Carrizozo was endangered, as were larger communities such as Coyote, Ancho, and Vaughn, 112 miles north of Trinity. A radiation monitor named Joe Hirschfelder drove through the worrisome landscape and returned to Base Camp with radioactive tires and a skin exposure reading so disturbing that he found it impossible to hitch a ride to Albuquerque with nervous colleagues, even after a shower. Several cattle ranches on a mesa west of Carrizozo were contaminated with radioactive ash, a circumstance the government labored to keep secret. Groves’s report to Stimson on the test did not alert the secretary to any potential problem with radioactivity from a bomb blast, though Groves admitted that assessments were not yet final.47

At the site itself, among the scientists especially, reflection and sobriety soon set in. Initial jubilation gave way to a silent breakfast, for those with an appetite. Project director Kenneth Bainbridge shook hands with Oppenheimer and said to him quietly: ‘Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.’ Oppie discovered on the desert floor a turtle struggling on its back, having been overturned by the bomb’s blast wave. Oppie flipped him over and watched him scuttle away; ‘that’s the least I can do,’ he thought. ‘I am sure’, said George Kistiakowsky after the test, ‘that at the end of the world—in the last millisecond of the earth’s existence—the last men will see what we saw.’ And yet they were at least as sure of something else: that the atomic bomb would prove to be the winning weapon against the Japanese. When Thomas Ferrell saw Groves after the test, the first thing he said was: ‘The war is over.’ ‘Yes,’ replied Groves, ‘after we drop two bombs on Japan.’48

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