Atomic bomb madness: A real blast

July 23, 2008

Truly the lazy days of summer — I missed the anniversary of the Trinity Project, the first atomic bomb ever exploded, at White Sands, New Mexico, early on the morning of July 16, 1945. That was 63 years ago.

The Trinity atomic bomb test, culmination of the Manhattan Project, July 16, 1945

The Trinity atomic bomb test, culmination of the Manhattan Project, July 16, 1945

The New Mexico blast demonstrated that atomic bombs work. President Harry S Truman got the word of the successful test while attending the Potsdam Conference with Winston Churchill of England and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.

The Potsdam Conference, July 1945 - Churchill, Stalin, and Truman at the table - Photo from the Truman

The Potsdam Conference, July 1945 – Churchill, Stalin, and Truman at the table – Photo from the Truman

Truman hoped to avoid a land invasion of Japan, which experts said would leave at least a million dead U.S. soldiers and five million dead Japanese. Truman was a soldier in World War I, who saw the trenches close up. He hoped to avoid anything similar for soldiers, and civilians. From Potsdam, Truman, Churchill and Stalin issued the Potsdam Declaration, ending with an ultimatum to Japan to surrender unconditionally or face terrible consequences.

Japan did not surrender. On August 6, 1945, the U.S. detonated the first atomic bomb used in warfare over Hiroshima, Japan, a city with large military support facilities. Within a few minutes, nearly 100,000 people were dead. When Japan failed to offer unconditional surrender even then, a second atomic device was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9. (Had Japan not surrendered then a scramble would have been on — the U.S. had materials for about four more bombs, but they were not ready to go.)

1945 launched the world into the Atomic Age, by many accounts. The existence of atomic weaponry added to tensions on the planet played out during the Cold War. The creation of thermonuclear weapons, many times as powerful as a simple atomic bomb, only added to the tension. Perhaps we should call it the Atomic Angst Age.

Does that explain the fascination with photos of atomic blasts in recent days?

Wired’s online version noted the anniversary and included a slide show of atomic milestones, featuring a few blasts.

Then this post, from a blog named Picdit — “8 Insane Nuclear Explosions” rode the top of the popularity index of WordPress for the past couple of days. I’m not sure why these photos or the events they portray deserve to be called “insane.” I’m perplexed about why they are so popular.

These events around the creation, testing and use of nuclear arsenals resonate deeply with those of us who lived through any of these times. High school students have tested poorly on these issues during the past five years, however. Many of my history students do not know the significance of the classic mushroom cloud that marks an atomic blast.

I hope the curiosity is genuine curiosity for the historic events, that this curiosity leads to understanding of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, and that those tens of thousands who clicked on those images achieved an iota of understanding. I hope.

The First Bomb at Bikini, Charles Bittinger, 1946 - Captured at the peak of formation, this painting illustrates the classic mushroom cloud shape. The pink color of the cloud is due to the oxidation of nitrogen caused by high heat and radiation from the explosion. The rapidly cooling fireball is the cause of the red glow seen deep within the cloud. The blast wave created the massive waves and steam that engulfed the target fleet at the bottom.

The First Bomb at Bikini, Charles Bittinger, 1946 – “Captured at the peak of formation, this painting illustrates the classic mushroom cloud shape. The pink color of the cloud is due to the oxidation of nitrogen caused by high heat and radiation from the explosion. The rapidly cooling fireball is the cause of the red glow seen deep within the cloud. The blast wave created the massive waves and steam that engulfed the target fleet at the bottom.” From the Naval Historical Center Art Collection.

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