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Big Bang At Bikini

June 2024
6min read

Some worries surrounded these early atomic-bomb tests, among them: Would the Pacific Ocean explode?

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.

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.

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