This morning, instead of a book excerpt, I’d like to mark yesterday’s anniversary of the beginning of the nuclear weapons age by introducing you to a 1980 documentary film, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb“.
At the time of its making, there were several of the original atomic scientists still alive and functional, and able to contribute their memories of the Manhattan Project and the events of July 16, 1945. I don’t think there’s ever been a better documentary movie about the atomic bomb.
The event has personal significance for me. My father served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He’d seen what aerial bombardment could do to troops in the field, and to cities and towns. My mother served as a fire guard during the war, standing on top of buildings armed with a stirrup pump, a bucket of water and a bucket of sand, watching to see where German incendiaries fell and hurrying to extinguish them before they could set the roofs on fire. Both of them knew at first hand the terrible destruction wrought by bombing . . . but that was thousands of relatively small bombs, relying on a cumulative effect to produce their devastation.
The atomic bomb changed that forever. Both of them told me, over the years, how shocked and stunned they’d been by the news of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, each by a single bomb of previously unimaginable power. Mom used to shake her head slowly, as if in pain, as she described how utterly useless she felt as she looked at her stirrup pump and buckets. They might have provided at least rudimentary protection against incendiaries, but against an atomic bomb, she might as well have spat in random directions, for all the good they’d do.
My father also looked old and tired as we talked about the atomic bomb. He’d serviced and maintained bomber aircraft as an engineer officer. He knew how destructive a bomb bay full of 500-pounders or 1,000-pounders could be: but this new bomb was equivalent to dropping 80,000 500-pounders, or 40,000 1,000-pounders, simultaneously. That would have taken an attacking force of five to ten thousand pre-1945 bombers to accomplish over Europe, and they couldn’t have dropped their bombs simultaneously. Suddenly, an even greater devastation could be inflicted by one single bomber. He freely admitted he couldn’t wrap his mind around the magnitude of the jump in lethality. Even the advent of the jet engine towards the end of World War II didn’t make as big an impression on him. The latter was an incremental improvement on propellers and piston engines. The former . . . there was nothing incremental about it. It was transformational. It changed the face of warfare.
I asked Dad once whether, knowing what we do now, he thought that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan had been justified. He unhesitatingly said that it was. He pointed out that few modern commenters had any idea of just how vicious the Japanese defense of the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been, and how it had shaken Allied politicians and military leaders. They knew that if they had to invade Japan by conventional means, they were looking at hundreds of thousands of Allied casualties, probably more than the war-weary populations of their nations were prepared to accept. What’s more, their fanatical resistance could only mean that the Japanese would die by the millions, perhaps by the tens of millions. The atomic bomb cut short that prospect, and ended the war relatively humanely, at the cost of only a few hundred thousand casualties. (My father admitted it was bizarre to put it like that, but on reflection, I think he was right.)
Perhaps most important of all from my selfish viewpoint is that, if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, millions of Allied servicemen – including my father – who’d just won the war in Europe would have been sent to Japan to do it all over again. Untold numbers of them would have become casualties, and the children they later fathered would never have been born. Dad said to me once, almost casually, that I might owe my existence to the atomic bomb, because dropping it meant he wasn’t sent to Japan and into danger yet again. That’s a sobering thought.
At any rate, the Trinity nuclear test – the first explosion of a nuclear weapon in the history of mankind – took place 76 years ago yesterday; and today marks the 76th anniversary of “The Day After Trinity”. I thought it was worth commemorating it by reminding ourselves of the extraordinary events that produced this breakthrough, one that’s simultaneously terrified, intimidated and protected the world since then. May it never be used in anger again!
Here’s the documentary. It’s an hour and a half in length, but I suggest it’s worth your time to watch it. Trinity changed history. Unless we’re very careful, its more advanced descendants may (God forbid!) end history as the human race knows it.