Patricia A. O’Brien, Georgetown UniversityThis year marks 75 years since the United States launched its immense atomic testing program in the Pacific. The historical fallout from tests carried out over 12 years in the Marshall Islands, then a UN Trust Territory governed by the US, have framed seven decades of US relations with the Pacific nation.
Due to the dramatic effects of climate change, the legacies of this history are shaping the present in myriad ways.
This history has Australian dimensions too, though decades of diplomatic distance between Australia and the Marshall Islands have hidden an entangled atomic past.
In 1946, the Marshall Islands seemed very close for many Australians. They feared the imminent launch of the US’s atomic testing program on Bikini Atoll might split the earth in two, catastrophically change the earth’s climate, or produce earthquakes and deadly tidal waves.
A map accompanying one report noted Sydney was only 3,100 miles from ground zero. Residents as far away as Perth were warned if their houses shook on July 1, “it may be the atom bomb test”.
Australia was “included in the tests” as a site for recording blast effects and monitoring for atom bombs detonated anywhere in the world by hostile nations. This Australian site served to keep enemies in check and achieve one of the Pacific testing program’s objectives: to deter future war. The other justification was the advancement of science.
The earth did not split in two after the initial test (unless you were Marshallese) so they continued; 66 others followed over the next 12 years. But the insidious and multiple harms to people and place, regularly covered up or denied publicly, became increasingly hard to hide.
Radiation poisoning, birth defects, leukaemia, thyroid and other cancers became prevalent in exposed Marshallese, at least four islands were “partially or completely vapourised”, the exposed Marshallese “became subjects of a medical research program” and atomic refugees. (Bikinians were allowed to return to their atoll for a decade before the US government removed them again when it was realised a careless error falsely claimed radiation levels were safe in 1968.)
In late 1947, the US moved its operations to Eniwetok Atoll, a decision, it was argued, to ensure additional safety. Eniwetok was more isolated and winds were less likely to carry radioactive particles to populated areas.
Dissenting voices were initially muted due to the steep escalation of the Cold War and Soviet atomic weapon tests beginning in 1949.
Opinion in Australia split along political lines. Conservative Cold War warriors, chief among them Robert Menzies who became prime minister again in 1949, kept Australia in lockstep with the US, and downplayed the ill-effects of testing. Left-wing elements in Australia continued to draw attention to the “horrors” it unleashed.
The atomic question came home in 1952, when the first of 12 British atomic tests began on the Montebello Islands, off Western Australia.
Australia’s involvement in atomic testing expanded again in 1954, when it began supplying South Australian-mined uranium to the US and UK’s joint defence purchasing authority, the Combined Development Agency.
Australia’s economic stake in the atomic age from 1954 collided with the galvanisation of global public opinion against US testing in Eniwetok. The massive “Castle Bravo” hydrogen bomb test in March exposed Marshall Islanders and a Japanese fishing crew on The Lucky Dragon to catastrophic radiation levels “equal to that received by Japanese people less than two miles from ground zero” in the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts. Graphic details of the fishermen’s suffering and deaths and a Marshallese petition to the United Nations followed.
When a UN resolution to halt US testing was voted on in July, Australia voted for its continuation. But the tide of public opinion was turning against testing. The events of 1954 dispelled the notion atomic waste was safe and could be contained. The problem of radioactive fish travelling into Australian waters highlighted these new dangers, which spurred increasing world wide protests until the US finally ceased testing in the Marshalls in 1958.
In the 1970s, US atomic waste was concentrated under the Runit Island dome, part of Enewetak Atoll (about 3,200 miles from Sydney). Recent alarming descriptions of how precarious and dangerous this structure is due to age, sea water inundation and storm damage exacerbated by climate change were contested in a 2020 Trump-era report.
The Biden administration’s current renegotiation of the Compact of Free Association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and its prioritisation of action on climate change, will put Runit Island high on the agenda. There is an opportunity for historical redress for the US that is even more urgent given the upsurge in discrimination against US-based Pacific Islander communities devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are peoples displaced by the tests.
Australia is also embarking on a new level of engagement with the Marshall Islands: it is due to open its first embassy in the capital Majuro in 2021.
It should be remembered this bilateral relationship has an atomic history too. Australia supported the US testing program, assisted with data collection and voted in the UN for its continuation when Marshallese pleaded for it to be stopped. It is also likely Australian-sourced atomic waste lies within Runit Island, cementing Australia in this history.
Fifteen seconds before 5.30am on July 16 1945, above an area of New Mexico desert so unforgivingly dry that earlier travellers christened it the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man), a new sun flashed into existence and rose rapidly into the sky. It was a little before dawn.
This strange, early daybreak was the Trinity Test: humanity’s first encounter with the atomic bomb. Within a month two bombs were dropped on Japan: the first, “Little Boy”, a uranium weapon, at Hiroshima; the second, “Fat Man”, a plutonium weapon of the implosion design tested at Trinity, on Nagasaki. Casualty estimates varywidely, but perhaps as many as 150-250,000 people died as a direct result of these two events. The following half century was one of intense nuclear testing, the residue of which might be the signature for the proposed new epoch of the Anthropocene.
The extraordinary story of the Manhattan Project, which led to this point, has been told many times. It begins with the realisation that atomic weapons, releasing vast amounts of energy via a nuclear chain reaction, were possible. It includes a 1939 letter, signed by Albert Einstein, alerting President Roosevelt to the dangers of a German atomic bomb programme, and tells how, following the United States’ entry into the second world war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the programme accelerated rapidly under the control of General Leslie Groves.
The Manhattan Project absorbed the British and Canadian “Tube Alloys” atomic programme, and drew on a dazzling array of scientific talent. More than a purely scientific endeavour, it was an engineering and industrial enterprise on a massive scale, employing about 130,000 people at its peak, and perhaps half a million cumulatively.
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Site Y was a town built from scratch to build the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Here, under the scientific directorship of J Robert Oppenheimer – a complex, charismatic figure (so famous after the war that he was instantly recognisable by his porkpie hat) – scientists, including many who’d fled Nazi persecution in Europe and were acutely aware of what a Nazi bomb might mean, built the “gadget” tested at Trinity.
By then, though, circumstances had changed. In late 1944, as Allied forces advanced across Europe, it became apparent that the German bomb programme had stalled years before. After Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 and Germany’s defeat in May, the Trinity Test was prioritised so Harry Truman, the new president, would have news of it when he met Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at the Potsdam conference.
Trinity is a striking moment. Scientists, military personnel and observers gathered in observation bunkers 10,000 yards from ground zero, at a base camp ten miles away, and at Compañia Hill, 20 miles away. Overnight, thunder, lightning and rain swept across the area, imperilling the test.
Don Hornig, the last man to “babysit” the bomb in its metal shack at the top of a 100ft tower, recalls passing the time by reading an anthology of humorous writing, Desert Island Decameron, by the light of a 60-watt bulb. He hoped the wet tower would act as a lightning rod if there were any lightning strikes. The alternative was sobering, but he appears to have been philosophical: “It would set the bomb off. And in that case, I’d never know about it! So I read my book.”
At a 2am conference, Groves threatened hard-pressed project meteorologist, Jack Hubbard, insisting he sign his forecast predicting conditions would clear by dawn and promising to “hang” him if they didn’t. Groves then roused New Mexico’s governor by phone, warning him he might have to declare martial law if things went wrong. By 4am the skies were clearing.
As 5.30 approached, people readied themselves with welder’s glass to view the test. At Compañia Hill, the physicist, Edward Teller, passed around sun cream. At S-10000, the main control bunker, an exhausted Oppenheimer leaned against a post to steady himself as the final seconds ticked away, and was heard to mutter: “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.”
The story of the Manhattan Project often ends with the controversial use of the bomb on Japan, or goes on to tell about the leaking of atomic secrets by Klaus Fuchs and the first Soviet atomic test in 1949. It might add that Oppenheimer, frequently portrayed as a tragic figure, had his security clearance revoked amid the anti-communist hysteria of the early 1950s.
A new world
Now, 75 years on, it’s worth isolating Trinity from this complex history to ask what that early morning moment in the remote desert meant. It was here, after all, that humans first encountered phenomena that were to haunt the cold war imagination, and still shape how many imagine potential nuclear futures: the atomic flash, the mushroom cloud and radioactive fallout.
Although this was a new human experience (Norris Bradbury, who succeeded Oppenheimer as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, noted that “the atom bomb did not fit into any preconceptions possessed by anybody”), it was processed through cultural traditions with long histories. It’s become an origin story in nuclear mythologies.
This fascination with Trinity shows how it’s not only an important historical moment, but a critical cultural one too. As the old sun crept above the horizon a few minutes after the test, many present were in little doubt it was rising on a new world.
The brightest light
In both eyewitness accounts and in fiction, Trinity is described as a moment of rupture and rapture: rupture because it marks the transition from a pre-nuclear to a nuclear age; rapture because the encounter with dazzling light and a power overwhelming the senses has the quality of religious experience.
Of course, there can be distortion in such accounts. The popular tendency to see the atomic bomb as the definitive nuclear technology marginalises fields like nuclear medicine and ignores the intellectual richness of the nuclear sciences.
And there are other candidates for the beginning of the nuclear age: Hiroshima, for sure, but also perhaps the creation of the first self-sustaining chain reaction by Enrico Fermi’s team in Chicago in 1942, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch’s description of fission in 1939, James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron in 1932, and Ernest Rutherford’s “splitting” (depending how one defines this) of the atom in 1917. The very notion of a singular beginning to the nuclear age is a fiction: each moment exists only in the context of others.
Yet, Trinity was experienced as a new dawn. This is particularly apparent in the recurring metaphor of the explosion as a sun. For William Laurence of the New York Times, observing the test from 20 miles away at Compañia Hill, it was:
Sunrise such as the world has never seen, a great green super-sun climbing in a fraction of a second to a height of more than 8,000 feet, rising ever higher until it touched the clouds, lighting up earth and sky all around with a dazzling intensity.
Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator, noted the transition “from darkness to brilliant sunshine, in an instant”.
Perhaps the description by Isidor Rabi, discoverer of nuclear magnetic resonance (used in MRI scans), is the most compelling:
The brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision that was seen with more than the eye.
The experience is corporeal here: the light has heft and is felt by the body. Its revelatory characteristics are picked up in literature of the Trinity Test. In Lydia Millet’s novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, the flash is a “sear of lightness”. In Joseph Kanon’s thriller, Los Alamos, the protagonist “closed his eyes for a second, but it was there anyway, this amazing light, as if it didn’t need sight to exist”. In John Canaday’s poem, Victor Weisskopf, “a sun erupted”.
Laurence, whose reporting on the bomb won a Pulitzer, saw Trinity as crystallising a new relation with the universe. There, he wrote, “an elemental force [was] freed from its bonds after being chained for billions of years” as, for the first time, humans used an energy source that “does not have its origin in the sun”. “All seemed to feel”, wrote Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, General Groves’s deputy, “that they had been present at the birth of a new age – the Age of Atomic Energy”.
Fire from the gods
Stories of human acquisition of knowledge and power have deep roots in western culture. In Greek myth, Prometheus steals fire from the gods and is punished by being chained to a rock, his liver torn out daily by an eagle, only to grow back that he might be tormented again. One of the most substantial biographies of Oppenheimer names him, in its title, The American Prometheus.
In 1946, reflecting on the moment of the Trinity Test, Oppenheimer himself saw the analogy: “We thought of the legend of Prometheus, of that deep sense of guilt in man’s new powers, that reflects his recognition of evil, and his long knowledge of it.”
The most famous of Oppenheimer’s words to describe Trinity, the lines from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” – first appearing in print in 1948 but frequently repeated subsequently – reinforce this sense of an encounter with divine forces. They are, for instance, the final words in Tom Morton-Smith’s play, Oppenheimer. They are invoked, too, though not actually spoken or sung, when the chorus sings lines from the Gita in John Adams’ opera, Doctor Atomic.
So much part of the mythology are these words, that it’s sometimes erroneously assumed Oppenheimer actually said them at Trinity. His brother Frank’s recollection was that he simply said: “It worked”. It’s important, too, to be wary of where the mythmaking might take us. As the nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein points out, the words from the Gita are unlikely to be the hubristic statement of Oppenheimer’s triumph they might seem. They are often contrasted with the rather blunter assessment of Kenneth Bainbridge, in charge of the test, who commented to Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches”.
The phrase’s attraction is, I think, its ambiguity. It’s portentous, but open to interpretation, gesturing toward something important in humanity’s encounter with greater powers (perhaps a Faustian bargain struck between the purity of physics and the real-world horror of military technology) without quite stating it. A similar suggestiveness surely accounts, too, for the proliferation of the famous (but possibly erroneous) story that Trinity was named by Oppenheimer for a metaphysical poem by John Donne:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
It opens up interesting creative possibilities. In her novel Trinity, Louisa Hall imagines Donne’s poem to be one admired by Jean Tatlock, with whom Oppenheimer had an intense relationship, but who died in 1944. In Doctor Atomic, the poem’s words comprise the lyrics of the moving aria closing the first act.
Unsurprisingly, Christian traditions of the acquisition of knowledge, and of the relation with God, are also invoked at Trinity. Oppenheimer famously stated in a lecture in 1947 that “the physicists have known sin”, a statement controversial among his colleagues.
There is, then, a furious mythmaking around both Trinity and Oppenheimer. It transforms Oppenheimer from an actual person into a compelling tragic figure. It transforms the atomic bomb into a technology that symbolises broader anxieties about the relations between ourselves, our technologies and the Earth.
Beauty and terror
Stories about the atomic explosion also conjure up the aesthetic tradition of the sublime, perhaps the dominant means through which encounters with nature have been processed in western societies since the Romantic period. In the art of the sublime, extremity of experience – the wildness and grandeur of nature one might encounter in a storm at sea, for instance – is emphasised.
The sublime evokes both beauty and terror. For Farrell, Groves’s deputy, the explosion was “magnificent, beautiful” and “terrifying”. In Ellen Klages’ young adult novel, The Green Glass Sea, a witness describes Trinity, saying “It was beautiful. It was terrifying”. These are experiences of awe in the sense defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “a feeling of fear or dread, mixed with profound reverence, typically as inspired by God or the divine”.
Farrell said of the test that it appeared as “that beauty that great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately”. He is, in fact, remarkably eloquent, as this description of the desert landscape, lit by Trinity, shows:
The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, violet, grey and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.
Pearl Buck’s novel about the Manhattan Project, Command the Morning (1959), seems to draw on this description. Stephen Coast, a (fictional) project scientist, sees:
The sky burst into blinding light. Miles away the mountains were black and then glittered into brilliant relief in the searing light. Colour splashed over the landscape, yellow, purple, crimson, grey. Every fold in the mountain sprang into bold lines, every valley was revealed, every peak stood stark.
The proliferation of adjectives chase after the experience as if they can’t keep up with the boiling profusion of colours. Characteristically, here, the sublime exceeds language’s capacity to capture it.
Trinitite and transmutation
Of course, what’s important about eyewitness and literary descriptions is not merely that they fit Trinity into established aesthetic traditions, but that the fit is uncomfortable. There are religious connotations to the dazzling light and overwhelming power of the explosion, but the forces encountered aren’t divine. Feelings aroused by the sublime are displaced uncannily when the source is technology, not nature.
In an essay on the atomic sublime, the scholar, Peter Hales, shows how the threat of the mushroom cloud was eventually somewhat tamed by being mediated through the aesthetics of the sublime. Trinity, though, provides a compelling origin story in nuclear mythologies precisely because in 1945 it was too new to be contained by that tradition. Even the familiar term, “mushroom cloud”, wasn’t yet readily available to name what rose into the sky (Frisch thought it both “a bit like a strawberry … slowly rising into the sky from the ground, with which it remained connected by a lengthening stem of whirling dust”, and “a red-hot elephant standing balanced on its trunk”).
Trinity is unsettling. The experience evoked intimations of the world’s end that were later frequently associated with nuclear weapons. George Kistiakowsky, who led the group building explosive lenses for the gadget, said Trinity was “the nearest thing to doomsday that one could possibly imagine”.
As the mushroom cloud boiled upwards, one military official, perhaps spooked by Enrico Fermi’s mischievous taking of bets on whether the explosion would ignite the atmosphere and, if so, whether it would destroy the whole world or just New Mexico (a possibility actually discussed, but ruled out well in advance of the test), apparently lost faith in the “long-hairs”, as the scientists were sometimes referred to by the soldiers at Los Alamos. “My God,” he’s said to have exclaimed, “the long-hairs have lost control!”.
Frequently, then, Trinity is a story about entering an unsettling new era. The Green Glass Sea captures this beautifully. The desert sand was melted by the test into a glassy substance, dubbed trinitite or Alamogordo glass. The novel’s young protagonist traverses this beautiful, alien world, that came into being 75 years ago:
The ground sloped gently downward into a huge green sea. Dewey took a few more steps and saw that it wasn’t water. It was glass. Translucent jade-green glass, everywhere, colouring the bare, empty desert as far ahead as she could see.
It is September 27, 1956. At a dusty site called One Tree, in the northern reaches of the 3,200-square-kilometre Maralinga atomic weapons test range in outback South Australia, the winds have finally died down and the countdown begins.
The site has been on alert for more than two weeks, but the weather has constantly interfered with the plans. Finally, Professor Sir William Penney, head of the UK Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, can wait no longer. He gives the final, definitive go-ahead.
The military personnel, scientists, technicians and media – as well as the “indoctrinee force” of officers positioned close to the blast zone and required to report back on the effects of an atomic bomb up close – tense in readiness.
And so, at 5pm, Operation Buffalo begins. The 15-kilotonne atomic device, the same explosive strength as the weapon dropped on Hiroshima 11 years earlier (although totally different in design), is bolted to a 30-metre steel tower. The device is a plutonium warhead that will test Britain’s “Red Beard” tactical nuclear weapon.
The count reaches its finale – three… two… one… FLASH! – and all present turn their backs. When given the order to turn back again, they see an awesome, rising fireball. Then Maralinga’s first mushroom cloud begins to bloom over the plain – by October the following year, there will have been six more.
RAF and RAAF aircraft prepare to fly through the billowing cloud to gather samples. The cloud rises much higher than predicted and, despite the delay, the winds are still unsuitable for atmospheric nuclear testing. The radioactive cloud heads due east, towards populated areas on Australia’s east coast.
So began the most damaging chapter in the history of British nuclear weapons testing in Australia. The UK had carried out atomic tests in 1952 and 1956 at the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia, and in 1953 at Emu Field north of Maralinga.
The British had requested and were granted a huge chunk of South Australia to create a “permanent” atomic weapons test site, after finding the conditions at Monte Bello and Emu Field too remote and unworkable. Australia’s then prime minister, Robert Menzies, was all too happy to oblige. Back in September 1950 in a phone call with his British counterpart, Clement Attlee, he had said yes to nuclear testing without even referring the issue to his cabinet.
Menzies was not entirely blinded by his well-known anglophilia; he also saw advantages for Australia in granting Britain’s request. He was seeking assurances of security in a post-Hiroshima, nuclear-armed world and he believed that working with the UK would provide guarantees of at least British protection, and probably US protection as well.
He was also exploring ways to power civilian Australia with atomic energy and – whisper it – even to buy an atomic bomb with an Australian flag on it (for more background, see here). While Australia had not been involved in developing either atomic weaponry or nuclear energy, she wanted in now. Menzies’ ambitions were such that he authorised offering more to the British than they requested.
While Australia was preparing to sign the Maralinga agreement, the supply minister, Howard Beale, wrote in a top-secret 1954 cabinet document:
Although [the] UK had intimated that she was prepared to meet the full costs, Australia proposed that the principles of apportioning the expenses of the trial should be agreed whereby the cost of Australian personnel engaged on the preparation of the site, and of materials and equipment which could be recovered after the tests, should fall to Australia’s account.
Beale said that he did not want Australia to be a mere “hewer of wood and drawer of water” for the British, but a respected partner of high (though maybe not equal) standing with access to the knowledge generated from the atomic tests.
That hope was forlorn and unrealised. Australia duly hewed the wood and drew the water at Maralinga, and stood by while Britain’s nuclear and military elite trashed a swathe of Australia’s landscape and then, in the mid-1960s, promptly left. Britain carried out a total of 12 major weapons tests in Australia: three at Monte Bello, two at Emu Field and seven at Maralinga. The British also conducted hundreds of so-called “minor trials”, including the highly damaging Vixen B radiological experiments, which scattered long-lived plutonium over a large area at Maralinga.
The British carried out two clean-up operations – Operation Hercules in 1964 and Operation Brumby in 1967 – both of which made the contamination problems worse.
Legacy of damage
The damage done to Indigenous people in the vicinity of all three test sites is immeasurable and included displacement, injury and death. Service personnel from several countries, but particularly Britain and Australia, also suffered – not least because of their continuing fight for the slightest recognition of the dangers they faced. Many of the injuries and deaths allegedly caused by the British tests have not been formally linked to the operation, a source of ongoing distress for those involved.
The cost of the clean-up exceeded A$100 million in the late 1990s. Britain paid less than half, and only after protracted pressure and negotiations.
Decades later, we still don’t know the full extent of the effects suffered by service personnel and local communities. Despite years of legal wrangling, those communities’ suffering has never been properly recognised or compensated.
Why did Australia allow it to happen? The answer is that Britain asserted its nuclear colonialism just as an anglophile prime minister took power in Australia, and after the United States made nuclear weapons research collaboration with other nations illegal, barring further joint weapons development with the UK.
Menzies’ political agenda emphasised national security and tapped into Cold War fears. While acting in what he thought were Australia’s interests (as well as allegiance to the mother country), he displayed a reckless disregard for the risks of letting loose huge quantities of radioactive material without adequate safeguards.
Six decades later, those atomic weapons tests still cast their shadow across Australia’s landscape. They stand as testament to the dangers of government decisions made without close scrutiny, and as a reminder – at a time when leaders are once again preoccupied with international security – not to let it happen again.