The first third of August is observed worldwide as something of an awareness week
against the global nuclear threat. During this ten-day period, in paying homage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, peace gatherings calling for global nuclear disarmament and peace are held across the world.
The world has since continued to read about or hear that the first atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy” (How innocent!) was detonated over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, followed by another, nicknamed “Fat Man” (How symbolic!) on Nagasaki, three days later, on 9 August 1945 – in what were the first and, so far, the only use of atomic bombs.
Without going into the absolute annihilating capacity of the two atomic bombs, their devastating and ever-since catastrophic impact and repercussions, or without also considering their unjustified use even in war situation, it is important to understand that such a widely held narrative on the first use of the atomic bomb on an unsuspecting public in Japan is open to question. To state it simply, it needs to be understood and repeated that Hiroshima was not the place that saw the first detonation of the atomic bomb on an unsuspecting public.
If fact, the atom bomb was actually first used, about three weeks earlier, on 16 July 1945. The bomb, developed as part of The Manhattan Project at the specially created Los Alamos laboratory, was conducted in a desert south-east of Socorro, New Mexico, USA. The detonation was code-named Trinity, the name inspired by the poetry of John Donne and given by J Robert Oppenheimer, in the Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory and the chief architect of the bomb. The bomb, according to Oppenheimer, was tested, “where the energy release is comparable with that contemplated for final use” and had the same plutonium (Plutonium-239) based design as the one that was detonated over Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. The bomb exploded over Hiroshima was a more powerful Uranium-235 based, and can be said to have been used without any actual ‘prior testing’. So, among the three detonations, two were actually “tests”. Indeed, the USA, in its records till as long as 1980, actually continued to include Hiroshima and Nagasaki along with Trinity, under “test” category!
The 16 July 1945 Trinity exploded with an energy equivalent to 24.8 ± 2 kilotons of TNT. The desert sand, largely silica, melted. The explosion created a crater approximately 1.4 mt deep and 80 mt wide. The shock wave was felt over 160 km away, and the mushroom cloud reached as high as 12+ km.
According to official statements released at the time, the test was conducted in a desert and the only structures originally in the immediate vicinity were the “McDonald Ranch House and its ancillary buildings”. This was blatantly untrue as the detonation site, a desert, was not a god-forsaken location with no human habitation.
Contrary to the popular account, the area of southern New Mexico where the Trinity test occurred was not an uninhabited, desolate expanse of land. The region was home to thousands of people, who actually lived closer to the test site than would have been allowed under guidelines adopted for subsequent tests in the USA. The US government and especially its military establishment were totally secretive and in denial mode on the issue of Trinity’s fallout. However, in a recent article in the New York Times, Tina Cordova writes “The events of July 16, 1945, weigh heavily on us. And why wouldn’t they? They changed everything. The people of New Mexico were the first human test subjects of the world’s most powerful weapon.” Tina Cordova is a seventh-generation New Mexican, born and raised in Tularosa in south-central New Mexico, who co-founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in 2015, which works to bring attention to the negative impacts of the Trinity test on the people.
Cordova states that at the time of the Trinity explosion, US officials didn’t care one whit about the damage to the health of thousands of people who were living nearby. The people were not given significant and meaningful pre-test warnings nor provided with post-test advisories. Cordova’s organization has documented many instances of families in New Mexico with four and five generations of cancer, since that fateful day. She writes, “My family is typical: I am the fourth generation in my family since 1945 to have had cancer. My 23-year-old niece has just been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.”
Critical of the recent film ‘Oppenheimer’, which depicts the making of the atom bomb and Trinity, she states that it is only one part of the entire story and does not explore in any depth the costs of deciding to test the bomb in a place where my family and many others had lived for generations and “A new generation of Americans is learning about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, and, like their parents, they won’t hear much about how American leaders knowingly risked and caused harm to the health of their fellow citizens in the name of war.”
On watching the film, she writes, “I wept during the scenes in the film leading up to the detonation and during the test itself. I thought about my dad, who was 4 years old that day. His town, Tularosa, was idyllic back then. After the test, after radioactive ash covered his home, he carried on as he always had drinking fresh milk, eating fresh fruit and vegetables that grew in the contaminated soil. By age 64, he had developed three cancers that he didn’t have risk factors for, two of which were primary oral cancers.”
For the Manhattan Project leadership, radiation safety was never a priority concern compared to its foremost goal of producing a deliverable weapon. Soon after Trinity, Manhattan Project Chief Medical Officer Dr Stafford Warren stated in a top secret report that, “the dust outfall from the various portions of the [mushroom] cloud was potentially a very serious hazard over a band almost 30 miles wide extending almost 90 miles northeast of the site.”
Later investigations by Warren and others indicated there had been “significant fallout” up to 100 miles from the test site. Some years later, more research showed that “fallout in the mountainous desert was much more widespread than had been suspected.” According to a recent study, fallout from the Trinity test spread across large parts of the United States. In fact, recent research has revealed that it spread across much of the United States, as well as to Canada.
A study in 2020 conducted by researchers as part of the National Cancer Institute documented that five counties in New Mexico experienced the greatest radioactive contamination. New Mexicans, despite the devastating health consequences as a result of exposure to radioactive fallout from Trinity have never been made eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a 1990 federal law that has provided billions of dollars to people exposed during subsequent tests on US soil or during uranium mining.
As for the US government, in December 1965, the Trinity Site was declared a National Historic Landmark district and in October 1966, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A special tour of the site was conducted on 16 July 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Trinity test. Since then, it is open to the public twice a year, on the first Saturdays of April and October. In 2014, it was decided that the site would be open for public only once a year, but the very next year the provision was restored to the original ‘twice a year’. The then base commander, Brigadier General Timothy R Coffin argued that the “Trinity Site is a national historic testing landmark where the theories and engineering of some of the nation’s brightest minds were tested with the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, technologies which then helped end World War II.”
In truth, the Trinity and continued overground and underground nuclear testing since then across the world, have posed devastating consequences for the earth and all life thereon. But this fact almost always remains noted, if at all, in the margins of secret files and is not allowed to become part of our collective understanding, conscience and discussion. The voice against nuclear weapons or tests, even though growing, still gets weighed against dominant national security narrative and behind-the-scene large corporate interests.
Biju Negi, Hind Swaraj Manch