Big Bang At Bikini


The atmosphere surrounding the tests was tense for many reasons, all having to do with a first giant step into a scary nuclear future. During the countdown to the first one, opinion pieces reflected the climate of anxiety, sometimes in fevered speculation. The undersea test was especially troublesome. Dr. David Bradley, a young Army doctor on one of the radiologie teams, put it neatly: “Would pieces of our Venerable Navy be spread all over the Pacific? . . . Would a tidal wave sweep the islands clean and surge on to inundate Los Angeles? Would, indeed, the very water itself become involved in a chain reaction until the whole Pacific Ocean disappeared in a colossal eruption? Who was to say? Or who, at least, was to say no?” There were calls for cancelation of the tests by antibomb groups, sometimes joined by patriotic organizations that feared the impact of all those prying foreign eyes on the great secret.

It was a nervous world that turned its ears toward Bikini as July 1 approached. I personally recall the tension of waiting through the final hours by the radio set. (There was coverage by at least one television camera, but it belonged to the military exclusively; the rest of us saw it later in newsreels.) At the appointed moment the poisonous mushroom cloud leaped from a dazzling blast of light to its six-mile height, and when it settled, the world, the atoll, and much of the fleet were still there. Two of seventy-three target ships were sunk at once, and eighteen damaged; three others sank soon after, and the damage assessment increased to twenty-five. From his plane Dr. Bradley saw superstructures “twisted and melted into a tangle of junk.” But Navy Secretary James Forrestal was quick to announce that navies had a future still. Much was made of the fact that some wrecked ships were refloated and repaired. The Army Air Forces, not yet independent, applauded its own work even though the bomb actually exploded wide of and below the target. No one worried much about the radioactively poisoned animals dying in large numbers.

The underwater test on the twentyfifth was more of a shock. It produced the unforgettable image of a gigantic pillar of radioactive steam and water rising from the sea and spreading out under a cloud layer—a tree, not a mushroom, with a great black hole in the “trunk” where a ship had simply disappeared. The damage was much more palpable: The Japanese cruiser Sakawa and the battleship Nagato were destroyed; so was the American carrier Saratoga . Though the commander of the operation, Vice Adm. William H. Blandy, spoke optimistically, the facts were irresistible. More than a month after the detonation, only nine of ninety-two ships were in “serviceable condition.” Not fully revealed at the time was that even where hulls and machinery were salvageable, the vessels were still deathtraps of radioactivity. Though crews in heavy protective gear tried hard, fission products could not, in Dr. Bradley’s words, be “washed off by salt water and suds.” On September 8 the President postponed indefinitely the third and final blast.

By the end of the year, atomic news stories were talking less about a world in ruins and more about a paradise of nuclear energy.

Yet the aftermath was a strange sense of relief, encouraged by official secrecy. The ships were not vaporized, the sea did not catch fire, the second Deluge did not arrive. The Bomb could be lived with after all. Secretary of War Robert Patterson announced that the Army would “plan for atomic warfare pending international control.” Rear Adm. “Deak” Parsons hailed the “lack of accidents” and the tests’ “psychological benefits to the public.” By the end of the year, the atomic news stories were talking less about a world in ruins and more about a paradise of cheap energy. Dr. Bradley, back in a “happy, bustling San Francisco” in autumn, noted that it was “much more pleasant to consider the coming miracles... which people were everywhere promising. . . . Why let in the bogeyman to the sweet dreams of atomic energy for peacetime purposes?”

So the nuclear arms race began. Within three years the Soviets had the A-bomb, by 1952 the United States was testing the H-bomb, and by 1988, many tests, many modernizations, many treaties, and many crises later, the United States and the Soviet Union each were aiming some ten thousand warheads at the other’s cities, in spite of which, or because of which, the Cold War ended without their use. Neither the nuclear abolitionists nor the nuclear users won. And Bikini had pointed the way to those extravagant and imperiled years of survival.

Myself, I think we’ve had a good bit of luck and are far from out of danger, but that’s neither here nor there. About that bathing suit. A French designer found it amusing to name his new minimal swimming outfits appearing on French postwar beaches “bikinis” because of their explosive effect. By now, however, nearnudity, like nuclear weaponry, has lost its power to shake us up.