Friday, July 16, 2010

Death, destruction, and a lovely hike in the woods

Sixty-five years ago this morning, General Leslie Groves and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and other members of the Manhattan Project watched the first atomic bomb detonate in the desert of southern New Mexico. The Trinity test, it was called — so named by the cultured Oppenheimer, inspired by a line in a John Donne poem, "Batter my heart, three person'd God."

I had always assumed, along with probably most folks who know the basic outline of the story of the Manhattan Project, that the Trinity test was a key step on the way to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It turns out that the pieces of the "Little Boy," the bomb that devastated Hiroshima, were already on their way to the Pacific. The scientists were confident enough of the design of the Little Boy (a uranium "gun-type" bomb) that it could be sent off without testing — the Trinity test was a test of a plutonium "implosion-type" bomb, like the "Fat Man" which was dropped on Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima.

I learned this yesterday when I spent much of the day visiting the town of Los Alamos. Los Alamos is a little surreal. As a modern American city, it was pretty much created from scratch during WWII to house the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country — an island of wealthy white people in the midst of a state that is poor and majority people of color. It is where the technicians of the Empire's nuclear death stars keep the arsenal humming, and they are well rewarded for that service.

Nonetheless, it is quite a charming place to visit. Unlike Santa Fe, which is more of a playground for the rich, Los Alamos is just where they live, so they're not looking to make a buck off of visitors. In fact, I suspect much of the tourist infrastructure, such as it is, is designed to entertain the wives and children of visiting scientists and military-nuclear-chemical industrialists (Los Alamos National Labs has partnerships with a variety of capitalist corporations, in which our tax dollars go to subsidize the creation of proprietary technologies, which are then resold to us for a profit). The downtown is compact and walkable, with a couple of free museums, a nice public library, a bustling Farmer's Market on Thursday morning, and a pleasant park with a pond and fountain.

The children of the nuclear elite must be a rambunctious bunch: I think the city has more "no skateboarding" signs per capita than anywhere else I've ever been.

Los Alamos is situated on a plateau right below the Jemez mountains, on the edge of canyons that stretch down into the Rio Grande Valley. Here's a view from the highway driving back down into the canyon:

The canyons divide the town into little fingers of land, and hiking trails are maintained in the canyons in between. The trailheads are right in the town — behind the pool, or the high school, etc. Sadly enough, this was the only hiking I've managed to get in on this trip.

* * *

The official science museum in town, maintained by the Los Alamos National Lab, is (not surprisingly) quite the propaganda piece for nuclear weaponry, technology in general, and nuclear technology in particular. My favorite was a display explaining how radiation is all around us, only a small percentage of the radiation a typical American experiences comes from nuclear fallout (which was actually a bit of a shock — we're all getting a small amount of radiation every day just from all those tests done from the 50s through the 80s), so really, nuclear radiation isn't so bad. Really.

They did, however, let a few things slip, like this wonderful statistic:

Thirty-two accidents have occurred involving U.S. nuclear weapons. Nearly all occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Although none of these resulted in a nuclear explosion, two accidents — one in Palomares, Spain, and the other at Thule, Greenland — caused widespread radioactive contamination.

The small history wing was much more tolerable. They even gave some coverage to the debate among the Manhattan Project scientists about using the bomb. Most of them had clearly been motivated primarily by fear that the Nazis would develop a bomb before the U.S. did, and by the time they developed a workable bomb, the war in Europe was over. Japan had not yet surrendered, but was clearly losing the war — and one of the stumbling blocks was not so much Japan's unwillingness to surrender as such, but the Allies' demands that they surrender unconditionally.

On July 3, 1945, physicist Leo Szilard drafted a petition to the president, signed by 58 other Manhattan Project participants:

Atomic power will provide the nations with new means of destruction. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of this development. Thus a national which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.... In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned, respectfully petition that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief to rule that the United States shall not, in the present phase of the war, resort to the use of atomic bombs.

Of course, as Gar Alperovitz has argued, in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb And the Architecture of an American Myth and elsewhere, the decision to use the atomic bomb had much less to do with ending the war or avoiding American casualties in an invasion of Japan, and it had everything to do with establishing the U.S. as the sole world nuclear superpower following the war.

But not to worry, the U.S. is really the best nation to be trusted with that kind of power. As President Truman wrote in his diary July 25:

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. ... He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I'm sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler's crowd or Stalin's did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.

The death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is estimated to be at least 200,000 — most of them civilians, including women, children, and the elderly. The deaths were not merely those incinerated at once by the blast, but those who died horribly of burns and radiation poisoning in the following days, weeks, months, years.

* * *

When the federal government decided to establish the town of Los Alamos to house the Manhattan Project, they built almost everything from scratch. There was one institution on the site (forcibly purchased by the feds), a private boys' school. Founded in the early part of the century by a former member of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, the school was devoted to taking the weak, sickly or effeminite sons of the wealthy (Gore Vidal was one of the students) and turning them into hale, heartly, manly "leaders of men" by putting them through a gruelling regimen of physical exercise, sleeping outdoors, horseback riding, and so forth.

A few of the old buildings from the school — which of course became housing and meeting spaces and so forth for the Manhattanites — are still preserved today, and one of them serves as a small but excellent history museum run by the Los Alamos Historical Society.

The volunteer who greeted me when I came in took pains to explain how the history museum differed from the science museum (the one run by LANL) — it wasn't just about the bomb, it also had exhibits about the geological history of the place, and the history and culture of the indigenous people who lived there for thousands of years. There was a room devoted to the history of the boys' school, and the Manhattan Project rooms focused less on the gee-whiz science than on the daily life at Los Alamos in the 40s. These mostly young people (the average age was 24) were charged with a project that was all at once overwhelming, all-consuming, fascinating, compelling and terrifying. They were sequestered from the outside world in a remote location and provided with only primitive facilities (by mid-20th-century standards). They worked hard, partied hard, and clearly let their hormones run wild. A phenomenal number of children were born to Manhattan Project workers during the war years.

* * *

I am become Death, destroyer of worlds
— Krisha, in the Bhagavad Gita, as (mis-)quoted by Robert Oppenheimer upon seeing the Trinity test

The geography around Los Alamos was created by a massive eruption of lava sometime in the distant past, and much of the soil and rock originated as volcanic ash. The Jemez Mountains to the west are not volcanos, but they are bulges pushed up by hot magma around the edges of the crater created by that anicent explosion.

Reading that no volcanic activity had happened in the area for 150,000 years or so, my first reaction (thinking in geological time) was, "wow, that's pretty recent." But of course by human historical standards that is unimaginably long ago. I was reminded of Stephen Jay Gould's point that, whatever dumb-ass things we humans do in terms of pollution and nuclear destruction and climate change, the earth has time to recover and adapt, and almost certainly will — though we, as a species, do not.

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