Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert
© 2010 Michon Mackedon
Which is more breathtaking, the power of the atom bomb or the hubris of governments that use it? Michon Mackedon’s Bombast will leave readers wondering. It reviews the approach of the Atomic Energy Commission to organizing and testing a succession of increasingly more powerful bombs from the Marshall Islands to Nevada, looking at the use of language in particular to frame this testing as innocuous and positive (“bigger bombs for a brighter tomorrow”, to borrow from another history related to this subject). Despite its small pagecount, the book has the heft of a textbook, and sometimes the prose quality of one: it’s not technical, but far more academic than ‘popular’, and will be of interest primarily to those obsessed with the early atomic age. It has much to say on the cold-blooded way the state treats those are in the way of its aims, as well as the means through which dissenters’ concerns are made to look ridiculous, ignorant, and unpatriotic.
There were legitimate fears in the 1940s that the initial test of the nuclear bomb might cause a chain reaction capable of igniting the atmosphere: that the test continued says much about the stakes and excitement around nuclear weaponry’s potential. During World War 2, bombing raids against cities like Hamburg, Berlin, and Schweinfurt would consisted of scores, hundreds, and (in the case of Cologne) a thousand bombers — but the Bomb promised to drastically reduce the number of airplanes and more valuable airmen at risk. Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the destructive potential of the bomb more than adequately to the world, these initial mechanisms were crude: more sophisticated and potent delivery systems were being created, and they needed to be tested — both their scope, and their array of effects. This could be as crude as dropping bombs into the middle of a fleet of obsolete ships, near islands with animals chained at various intervals to test the range of destruction of organic issue, or as elaborate as nuking fake villages in the desert to examine how architecture could deflect and protect against explosive energy. The tricky part, of course, was finding land. The initial Trinity test was conducted in the New Mexico desert near White Sands and Alamogordo, but there were concerns about radiation so close to human settlements. DC had assumed control of the Marshall Islands after evicting the Japanese, and initially that seemed a good candidate for testing — especially since the few hundred people who lived on Bikini Atoll believed DC’s sale pitch that their temporary evacuation of the islands would advance science, progress, and the interests of a lasting peace. They expected to return to the islands after the tests were concluded and the sites cleaned: it would be decades before any Marshallese returned, and they would find that parts of the atolls of sacred memory were simply gone, and that debris was everywhere. In the mid-fifties, the Atomic Energy Commission switched to areas of Nevada that were deemed ‘wasteland’, of no use to anyone. Mackdeon heavily scrutinizes the simplistic approach of the AEC in judging land as useless, and the self-serving way experts were trotted out to assure Nevadans that the tests were harmless. Oh, were there cows giving birth to dead or bizarrely mutated calves? Must be malnutrition. Incidents occurred with nearly every test, as sometimes the wind would shift and radioactive particles would drift into populated areas like Sacramento, or the new devices would have unexpected power. The state often played fast and loose with the tests, at one point ordering soldiers out of a shelter immediately after a detonation to test the soldiers’ ability to perform actions amid the explosion’s aftermath (severe winds and dissipating mushroom cloud).
Despite this, government’s new ally The Science was successful in selling regular explosions as largely innocuous, as pop culture began reflecting an enthusiasm for all things atomic: Las Vegas even hosted a “Miss Atomic Bomb” beauty contest. The creation of better bombs, the continued building of the nuclear arsenal of democracy, was sold as an absolute good. Misinformation wasn’t just a matter of forgetting to communicate inconvenient facts, or thoughtlessly interpreting data in the most positive way possible: when citizens expressed concern about more powerful thermonuclear devices being tested, President Eisenhower suggested keeping the public confused about the distinction between fission (Hiroshima-level bombs) and the far more powerful fusion bombs. Mackdeon argues that the government has continued to keep citizens largely in the dark about the dangers of radioactive byproducts, and ends the book by transitioning to the debate over creating a nuclear waste disposal site in Yucca Mountain.
Although Bombast certainly isn’t for everyone, it’s a fascinating look into the early culture of nuclear testing for the obsessed.
It always amazed me that people never considered the environmental and health issues that would follow from widespread (especially above ground!) nuclear weapons testing. What were they thinking!
I think sometimes our gleeful interest in the potential of a thing overrides completely our potential for rationally scrutinizing it. We see toys, we get excited about them — nevermind that we don’t really need them, or the costs they’ll impose.