Seventy years ago today, 15 July 1945, the world entered the Atomic Age with the successful detonation of “The Gadget,” a prototype atomic bomb device, in the desert of Alamagordo, New Mexico. Code named “Trinity,” the explosion crowned years of intense, sometimes maddening, more than once deadly, and always shrouded in I’d-tell-you-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you levels of secret research at Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Park, Tennessee; and Chicago, Illinois among many other places. It was a project so cloaked in silence and mystery the Vice President of the United States didn’t know of the Manhattan Project’s existence until shortly before he would be called upon to make the decision to use this terrible new weapon in combat against the Japanese.
The entire lead up to the test took on the quality of a March Madness office pool. All the physicists knew the device would work and go kaboom . . . THEORETICALLY. Empirically, no one, including them, had the faintest idea what was going to happen. The scientists placed bets on what would happen during the test. Most wagered on a specific “yield” the explosion would put off. One wag bet on a “fizzle” with nothing happening at all, which would have been ten kinds of disastrous, while a final optimist believed the bomb would go off and ignite the Earth’s atmosphere, incinerating the planet.
Now, we know what happened at the test. Books fill whole library shelves describing the Manhattan Project, the physics of the A-Bomb, and the results of Trinity. We also know that explosion, which turned the desert sand to green glass, ushered in the era of atomic weapons. Two of those weapons would end World War 2 in spectacular, if controversial, fashion. Still, that is not the ultimate legacy of the Manhattan Project and the culminating successful Trinity test.
What really happened in the desert that day in 1945 was the world purchased a revolver with six chambers and three mighty large cartridges. After the two bombs fell on Japan, the final cartridge would remain in the gun and that chamber would spin wildly for the next fifty years as nuclear powers like the USA and the Soviet Union played a dangerous game of Russian roulette with the world.
When that “gadget” worked, mankind, for the first time since God created us or we climbed down from the trees to stand on two legs, whichever scenario works best for you, now possessed the power of complete global annihilation. Before the Atomic Age, we might have been wiped out by a supervolcano explosion like Yellowstone or Toba. We may have bought the farm courtesy of a Texas sized asteroid hurtling into our planet. We may even have contracted some sort of disease no one could survive, but all those scenarios have a single thing in common . . . they are OUTSIDE forces.
With the coming of “The Bomb,” the decision of a few men could set in motion the end of the human race. We image-bearers of God or evolved monkeys now hold the power to kill everyone and everything on this planet except for cockroaches and, possibly, kudzu. I don’t know about y’all, but that is a staggering thought and one my generation was the last to fully appreciate.
See, I grew up in the ’80’s as a member of Gen-X. For eight long years, I watched Ronnie Ray-gun goad and cajole and threaten the Soviet Union into an unsustainable arms race which may or may not, depending on who you ask, have ultimately bankrupted and destroyed the USSR and with it, the USA’s only real rival in the world. Along the way, though, it looked more than once like a big crop of mushroom clouds was going to pop up all around the world as the USSR decided if they couldn’t win the Cold War, no one was going to.
I spent my tween and teen years watching movies and television episodes like Damnation Alley, The Day After, and Amerika. In junior high, we even had a War of the Worlds like moment when some local station started reporting Charleston Harbor and Naval Base had been nuked. It was another “docu-drama” but it scared the Hell out of those of us who hadn’t seen the previews. We knew we lived in a world that could end at any time just because someone on our side or their side got pissed off and pushed a button. We also knew, thanks to Mr. Stoddard and social studies, EVERYONE was going to die because no matter who shot first, the tons of nuclear “boomer” submarines in both superpowers’ navies would finish off whoever was left. I can’t speak to others, but I went to bed scared a lot of nights, but then I always was a sensitive child.
So now, we are seventy years removed from Trinity. The Cold War is over; the remaining ICBMs safely pointed, we’re told, into the ocean. Can we really say we’re any safer though? A nuke remains the Holy Grail of every terrorist organization in the world. Just imagine if one of the planes on 9-11-2001 had carried a suitcase nuke instead of just a full tank of fuel. New York City might not be nearly as crowded. Also, remember, at the fall of the Soviet Union, apparently some generals had a “Nukes-R-Us” type yard sale because several small to medium “devices” are still unaccounted for. Where are those bombs?
If the idea of terrorists with atomic weapons doesn’t chill you enough, keep in mind the nuclear club has gotten a bit bigger since 1945. The Soviet Union / Russia joined up in 1948 followed soon after by China, the UK, and France. Now Pakistan AND India (who HATE each other BTW) are both declared nuclear powers. Don’t forget the lunatic in North Korea. He SWEARS they have at least three small nukes. Who knows for sure? Then there’s little Israel with their Samson Protocol. Sure, they don’t advertise they have nuclear weapons, but it’s a pretty safe bet they do and you can bet the house and kids if Israel is ever invaded or attacked by a nuclear missile, they WILL blow AT LEAST the Middle East all the way to Paradise and back.
Oppenheimer, et. al. let a potent genie out of the bottle on those plains of New Mexico. We’ve got the means of global suicide sitting beneath the Siberian and American Great Western plains. I just hope cooler heads always manage to prevail and if they don’t, then I hope I’m really close to the first wave of nuclear blasts because, as the man said, “It’ll sure hurt bad, but it won’t hurt long.”
Love y’all and keep those feet clean.
One of my friends ran across a sample of that nuclear test glass in her dad’s things. He was a geologist. She grew up with that in their house. She’s normal (or at least as normal as I am and the jury’s still out on that one) and her kids are normal (except the daughter’s into roller derby and the son seems to love makeup, but he’s only 6)