6/27/12 - bombs and bikinis

In today's excerpt - the hydrogen bomb, first tested in 1952, was 750 times more powerful and destructive than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just seven years earlier. The Russians had stunned the Americans by developing their own atomic bomb by 1949 -- much sooner than the world expected -- and President Harry Truman authorized the development of the hydrogen bomb as a means of staying ahead in the arms race. Operation Castle Bravo was a subsequent, more powerful 1954 test made on the Bikini atoll in the Pacific Ocean. (In a move laced with superficial irony, Frenchman Louis Reard named a new bathing suit he designed in 1946 the "bikini" in reference to earlier U.S. nuclear tests on the Bikini atoll -- he chose the name in reaction to a competitive design called the "Atome" and presumably because of the stir he thought it would create):

"Truman made his decision [to authorize the hydrogen bomb] on the dubious grounds that all these bomb-building decisions were made: If the Russians could build one, the United States had to build one also. (Critics would say that if the United States had enough bombs to create a catastrophe in the Soviet Union -- as indeed it did -- then it had enough bombs, without building any new ones.) But Truman decided to make the big bomb, and the Americans exploded the world's first hydro­gen bomb at Eniwetok, an atoll in the South Pacific, on November 1, 1952, just two and a half months before the end of Truman's presidency. This explosion, set off from a control ship thirty miles away, was in an alto­gether different realm from the atomic bomb; even those who had wit­nessed atomic blasts were stunned by this explosion. The fireball reached 57,000 feet; the cloud, when it had reached its farthest extent, was about one hundred miles wide. The eruption wiped the island of Elugelab off the face of the planet, leaving only a crater behind, and it destroyed life on the surrounding islands. Human beings who saw it were particularly struck by what happened to birds for miles around: They were inciner­ated, singed, sick, grounded, struggling to fly. The blast yielded 10.4 megatons of explosive energy, 750 times greater than the explosion that leveled Hiroshima. ...

"The ... explosion came ... just at the end of the Truman administration, not much more than two months before Ike [Dwight Eisenhower] became president. The world was just begin­ning to assimilate that event when Ike took over. And, as we have seen, in March the Soviets would have new leaders when Stalin died. These new men in the Kremlin would then have their first thermonuclear explo­sion, in a remote area of Kazakhstan, on August 12, 1953. And the effect on those who saw it would be the same as that of the American explo­sion nine months earlier: awe and wonder. Those Russians who actually saw the tests found themselves staggered, overwhelmed, awestruck, just as the Americans at Eniwetok had been. Ideologies differ, but the impact of raw physics is universal. The effect of the earlier atomic bombs had not necessarily been so great on those who saw the explosions, but it was on those who actually witnessed the explosions of the vastly more powerful H-bomb. These explosions were so profound as to have a psychological effect; the Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov said 'something within you changes.' Another key Soviet scientist, after seeing the actual effect of a thermonuclear explosion he had worked to produce, vowed to work on it no more.

"The American test code-named Bravo, on Bikini, an atoll in the Pacific, on March 1, 1954, carried the impact to another level; it was the largest blast with which human beings had ever assaulted their earthly habitat to that point, and showed the damage the tests themselves would do. Bravo had been planned to yield five megatons but yielded fifteen. It led to the first human illness and death produced by nuclear weapons since Naga­saki; the radioactive fallout spread hundreds of miles from the huge blast site, and affected some Americans, some Marshall Islanders, and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, one of whom died. Among those deeply affected by the huge destructive explosion was Georgy Malenkov, for a moment the Soviet leader, himself. The impact was powerful enough to move him to reject, for a time, the received Marxist line that there had to be a war with the capitalist world. Another staggered by the new bomb, reversing previous positions, was the aging Winston Churchill, who noted that it would not take many such explosions to obliterate Great Britain (eight bombs, Harold Macmillan would say repeatedly at a later stage)."

Click to view the 1954 Castle Bravo Hydrogen Bomb Test


William Lee Miller


Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World


Random House


Copyright 2012 by William Lee Miller


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