Big Bang At Bikini


In the autumn of last year, France’s Prime Minister Jacques Chirac ordered a series of test explosions of French nuclear weapons at the center that his government maintains for this purpose on Fangataufa and Mururoa atolls in French Polynesia. He thereby set off a chain reaction (so to speak) of political protests from world capitals, especially those of Pacific nations. These did not prevent the tests from proceeding to their end last January, but they testified powerfully to how little the human race likes to be reminded of the terrible threat to its existence that its own ingenuity created in giving birth to atomic and hydrogen bombs. What strikes me hardest in the story is the coincidence of time and place that puts these latest controlled nuclear explosions not far, as Pacific distances go (some forty-five hundred miles), from another atoll where the United States conducted the world’s first public A-bomb tests just fifty years ago, on the first and twenty-fifth of July 1946. That anniversary may not provoke the controversy that flared last year over commemorating the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, but it is in some ways an even more significant one.


I call to mind the memory of Bikini. Does it mean anything now to anyone under sixty, except for the name of a wispy bathing suit (explanation to follow)? Probably not. Yet it was full of portents and omens in that first postwar summer. Bikini Atoll was a lagoon surrounded by coral reefs in the Marshall Islands. A fleet of oncegreat but now expendable warships of every type, some our own and some our former enemies’, would be moored there. Before an international audience (not including the Russians), the world’s fourth, fifth, and sixth atomic bombs were to be set off consecutively in the condemned armada’s midst- one air-dropped, one in relatively shallow water under the hulls, a third in deeper soundings. Experts would then see what had survived, and why, and what could be restored.

The tests were part of the interservice jockeying to see who would play lead roles in future war plans. But much more was involved. Not for nothing was the operation named Crossroads. The tests would plunge into the furnace of nuclear explosion itself in a way not previously possible, monitoring the devastation by the millisecond. Piloted observation aircraft would swarm like gnats around the mushroom cloud; instrumented drone planes would fly through its deadly radiation. Hundreds of cameras and instruments would be aimed from surface ships to record the impact of heat and blast on structures, materials, and a variety of hapless animals brought aboard the target ships like passengers of some reverse Noah’s ark.

All this activity was genuinely crossroads work. The public mind was full of questions. What did the bomb (or The Bomb, as it often appeared in print) mean for the future not merely of war but of humanity? Could its power be controlled or would it run amok? That context of anxiety suffused the tests with special meaning. The euphoria of V-J Day was fading, the first chill winds of the Cold War were blowing, and horrifying reports of Hiroshima’s agonies were emerging. The best was John Hersey’s article occupying the entire August 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker , a journalistic blockbuster still unequaled.

Some military leaders scoffed at fear. The Bomb was simply a super blockbuster, against which countermeasures could and doubtless would be devised, as they had been since the invention of gunpowder. One might call these men “users.” Far at the other end of the spectrum were the “abolitionists,” who argued that the weapon’s extraordinary nature made war itself impossible. We must end it or it would end us. So thought the founders of the new Federation of Atomic Scientists, whose periodically issued Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists carried on its cover the “doomsday clock” with hands set at two minutes to midnight. So opined Norman Cousins in a widely read banthe-bomb essay titled “Modern Man Is Obsolete.”

Counterbalancing such claims were promises that atomic energy, if applied to peaceful ends, could be history’s greatest blessing. It could run the machinery of civilization; it could bring Utopia instead of apocalypse.

Keeping it peaceful would be the trick. If the bomb could not be abolished, could it be internationalized? In June the United States proposed to the United Nations the Baruch Plan, calling for an international atomic agency with veto-proof authority to control the production and application of fissionable materials in any and all forms. It was rejected in that form by the Soviet Union, but that probably spared it a comparable fate in a United States Congress highly unlikely to yield up the U.S. monopoly of what was then thought to be the impenetrable secret of the bomb.