‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’
The first explosion of the atom bomb, on July 16, 1945, was summed up by Robert Oppenheimer with these words from a Hindu poem.
Peter Millar reports on the race led by Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to create the weapon that would end the Second World War.
In the foothills of the New Mexican mountains, on a dusty desert plain known as the Jornada del Muerto – Dead Man’s Journey – camped the greatest collection of scientific brains on earth. They were men who would redefine the 20th century: Robert Oppenheimer (American), Enrico Fermi (Italian), George Kistiakowski (Ukrainian), Otto Frisch (Austrian), General Leslie Groves (American), Edward Teller (Hungarian) and Klaus Fuchs (born in Germany, but a naturalized Briton).
Better than any men in the world, they should have known what to expect in those still minutes before dawn in the desert. But none of them knew for sure what would happen. The explosion at 05.29 on the morning of July 16, 1945, stunned its creators and changed the world: the atomic bomb worked.
There was several eye-witness accounts of that first atomic explosion. ‘It blamed; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It seemed to last forever. You longed for it to stop. Altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally it was over.’
Another observer wrote: ‘It was like a ball of fire, too bright to look at directly. The whole surface of the ball was covered with a purple luminosity.’ His report ends: ‘I am sure that all who witnessed this test went away with a profound feeling that they had seen one of the great events in history.’
Los Alamos today supports a community of just over 18’000 people. On first impressions it is like many other small towns in western America: full of low twostorey buildings, dusty, with rather dingy shopping malls, a couple of banks, filling stations, Mexican and Chinese fast-food joints, a motel, and a McDonald’s. But there are plenty of indications that this is no ordinary town. Big blue signs along State Highway 84 advise travellers that the road and land on either side belong to the US government. A notice declares that it is ‘forbidden to remove dirt’. At one point a high watchtower stands sentry behind a twenty-foot barbed-wire fence.
Before 1942, however, Los Alamos had no history because it didn’t exist. It was created for one purpose only, to house the technicians who would make the bomb before anyone else did. All mail was censored, and everyone was sworn to secrecy. The US government did not even trust its own protégés. Oppenheimer, who had mixed with left-wing groups in his youth, was tailed by FBI men. Einstein, who had written to President Roosevelt in 1939 urging him to develop the atomic bomb, was ruled out because of his outspoken pacifism and Zionism. Yet the real villain went undetected. Klaus Fuchs was revealed in 1950 as Stalin’s spy.
What is interesting is that the scientists were much more interested in sharing the bomb with the Russians than the politicians were. Some physicists dreamed of the bomb as an end to all wars, a possible means of establishing global government. As it progressed from a theoretical possibility to an experimental reality, concern grew among some of those involved about how it would be used. By early 1945, Germany, the original target, no longer needed an atomic explosion to force its surrender. Attention switched to Japan.
In 1943, Harold Argo was a graduate from Washington University when he was summoned to New Mexico. Now over 80m he describes his time at Los Alamos as ‘the most exciting two years of my life’. He dismisses those whose consciences troubled them. ‘I don’t understand all those sceptics who had second thoughts. I had two brothers out there in the Pacific. If Harry Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb, the war could have gone forever.’
Carson Mark is more reflective. ‘At the time, we thought it would out an end to organized war, because no one can put up with destruction on that scale. But we didn’t know how imminent it was that the Japanese would have to call it quits. Why kill all those people if you don’t need to?’
In May 1945 nobody was sure just how devastating the bomb would be. There was general agreement that the simpler type of bomb would work, but the more complicated plutonium implosion device would need testing. Oppenheimer named the test Trinity, partly because of the Christian concept of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but mainly because of the Hindu three-in-one godhead of Uishnu, Brahma and Siva, the power of life, the creator and destroyer.
The site selected was 33 miles from the nearest town. The VIP observation site was located 20 miles away. The scientists had a bet with each other to guess how many tonnes equivalent of TNT their bomb would produce. So imprecise was their knowledge that Oppenheimer conservatively suggested 300. Teller, wiser, speculated an incredible 45’000. Radiochemical analysis revealed the blast had equalled 18’600 tonnes of TNT, four times what most of those involved on the project had guessed.
Even as they were celebrating at Los Alamos, hours after the explosion, the warship Indianapolis sailed out of San Francisco harbour, carrying the atomic bomb nicknamed Little Boy on its fateful voyage to the island of Tinian in the Pacific. After unloading its deadly cargo, the ship sailed on towards the Philippines. On July 29 it was sunk by a Japanese submarine; of the 850 who survived the sinking, more than 500 were eaten alive by sharks.
On Tinian, group commander Paul Tibbets had his B-29 bomber repainted, and he gave it his mother’s name, Enola Gay. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the citizens slept.
Just three weeks after the test. The bomb was used for real. As the historian Richard Rhodes wrote in his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ‘Once Trinity proved that the atomic bomb worked, men discovered reasons to use it.’