ABQjournal: N.M. Gave Birth to Atomic Bomb


Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

E-mail a link to this story to a friend

Sunday, September 19, 1999

N.M. Gave Birth to Atomic Bomb

By Larry Calloway
Of the Journal
Asked for his first thought when the Trinity bomb went off, J. Robert Oppenheimer said: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
He was quoting his beloved poem The Bhagavad-Gita, which also talks of a god appearing in "wondrous forms not seen before," and as "the light of a thousand suns" and as "time grown old, creating world destruction."
That's the way it was, for some, at Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert at 5:30 a.m. Mountain War Time, July 16, 1945. For those who understood what was happening, it was a cosmic revelation that would change the world forever. For those who didn't, it was still one hell of a big explosion.
Georgia Green, 18, of Socorro was in a car 50 miles north on Highway 85. She was being driven by her brother-in-law, Joe Wills, to a music lesson in Albuquerque. There was a tremendous flash. "What's that?" she said. Georgia was blind.
Richard Harkey and his dad, Sparkey Harkey, were waiting in the dark for a train at Ancho station. "Everything suddenly got brighter than daylight. My dad thought for sure the steam locomotive had blown up."
They were 50 miles and a mountain range away from Trinity Site, built in super secrecy in a place so desolate the Spanish called it Jornada del Muerto, or journey of death.
John R. Lugo was flying a U.S. Navy transport at 10,000 feet 30 miles east of Albuquerque en route to the West Coast. "My first impression was, like, the sun was coming up in the south. What a ball of fire! It was so bright it lit up the cockpit of the plane." Lugo radioed Albuquerque. He got no explanation for the blast, but was told: "Don't fly south."
Rowena Baca, among those interviewed by the Journal's Fritz Thompson on the 50th anniversary, remembered the red light reflecting off the walls and the ceiling in her grandparents' house at San Antonio, 35 miles northwest of Trinity Site. "My grandmother shoved me and my cousin under a bed," Baca remembered, "because she thought it was the end of the world."
Her grandfather, Jose Miera, owned the Owl Bar, where scientists and soldiers had been stopping for months. Although they were working on the world's most important secret, he knew from watching and listening that something was up. And the night before, some MPs had tipped him that if he would stand in the street before dawn he'd see something he had never seen before. Sure enough.
Grace Lucero of San Antonio said soldiers who stopped at her husband's place, another bar in the little roadside town, disclosed they were building a tower in the desert. "They said they didn't know what it was for."
At daybreak, rancher Dolly Onsrud of Oscuro woke up and looked out her window and saw a strange cloud rising from the other side of the mountains -- right about where her cattle-grazing land had been before the U.S. Army took it over three years earlier.
William Wrye and his wife, Helen, on their ranch 20 miles northeast of Trinity, also had slept through the event. They were eating breakfast when some soldiers with a black box appeared near the stock tank. "I went out there and asked what they were doing, and they said they were looking for radioactivity. Well, we had no idea what radioactivity was back then. I told them we didn't even have the radio on."
Later that summer, Wrye's whiskers stopped growing. When they came back a few months later, they were white, then returned to black. Cattle sprouted white hair along one side. Half the coat on Wrye's black cat turned white.
Bill Gallacher, then 15, was up early at the family ranch at the north end of the Oscura range, 30 miles from Trinity. The flash lighted the sky and the rooms in the house, much brighter than a bolt of lightning. His father, evidently a man of few words, was just getting out of bed.
He said: "Damn." Then he went to have his morning coffee.

Gathering of geniuses
The world's top physicists -- Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Emilio Segré and Edward Teller, among others -- knew immediately that the new theory of matter and energy was verified. Six kilograms of an element not found in nature had produced an explosive power equal to 18,600 tons (the calculation was done later) of TNT. They had released the binding energy of the atomic nucleus. The effects were in the ballpark of their predictions, although the deadly mysteries of the radioactive fireball and of the colorful cloud floating away in the wind would not be completely understood for years.
For physicist Joe McKibben, the Atomic Age came in the back door without knocking. For technician Jack Aeby, it slipped blindingly through a crack in his welder's goggles. For photographer Berlyn Brixner, it rose in dead silence like an awesome new desert sun.
The Manhattan Project, as it was code-named, cost about $2 billion at a time when the average annual per capita income in the United States was around $1,000. The brilliant émigré scientists working under the American Oppenheimer were essential, but the project also involved hundreds of engineers, machinists, technicians, photographers, secretaries, police officers, drivers and builders -- military and civilian. And it could not have been done without the wealth of the American government and the ingenuity of American industry. More than 100,000 civilian workers were involved in making the materials for the first atomic bombs. The director for all the sites -- Tennessee, Washington, Idaho as well as New Mexico -- was a military man, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, who had supervised the building of the Pentagon.
The crash program, with all its inefficiencies and trials and errors, had come down to this: 6 kilograms, or about 13.6 pounds, of the new artificial element plutonium, delivered from a massive plant on the Columbia River at Hanford, Wash. The design theory was to slam together two carefully machined hemispheres of the new metal with absolute explosive precision, creating a critical mass and a chain reaction.
The only New Mexican in Oppenheimer's inner circle probably was David Hawkins. Designated as the official historian of Los Alamos, he was high enough on the "need-to-know" pyramid that he had seen one of the super-secret plutonium hemispheres. He held it in his hands. It was warm, like a living thing.
His father was William Ashton Hawkins, a New Mexico lawyer whose work on water law is still classic, who represented railroad developer Charles B. Eddy and who served a long time as chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party. William Hawkins' brother John M. Hawkins had been an editorial writer for the Albuquerque Journal.

New Mexico memories
David Hawkins was born in El Paso, but grew up at La Luz, near Alamogordo. Interviewed in 1995 at his home in Boulder, Colo., he was 82 and a beloved emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. His distinguished career included a McArthur Foundation "genius" award. But on this day, Hawkins fondly dwelled on memories from his childhood in the New Mexico desert.
"I had horses to ride, and I had a Model A Ford pickup truck to drive. We wandered all over the Tularosa Basin, one way or another, looking for minerals, looking for excitement, looking for rattlesnakes, looking for adventure of the desert kind."
His buddy on some of the explorations was Berlyn Brixner, a boy from a poor family who loved photography. As a result of their friendship, Brixner would become chief photographer for the Trinity test and would spend the rest of his life at Los Alamos.
Hawkins and Oppenheimer met at the University of California, Berkeley, where Hawkins was completing his doctoral work in mathematical probability and Oppenheimer was teaching. They had leftist politics and New Mexico in common.
Oppenheimer's parents had sent the brilliant young New Yorker on a horseback tour of northern New Mexico between high school and college. During the trip, he saw the Los Alamos Boys Ranch, which he would choose as the secret site for his laboratory.
The Berkeley politics they had in common would lose them both their security clearances in the McCarthy era of the 1950s. "We were the self-appointed left-wing protectors of political wisdom on the campus," Hawkins said. It seems tame in retrospect: Their main leftist activity was to help organize a teachers union, he said.
Their group also tried to focus political attention on the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi military buildup. Oppenheimer's family, American Jews with relatives in Germany, "knew a lot more about Hitler than most Americans at that time," Hawkins said.
Oppenheimer "had a high-powered intellect of a certain type that would grasp the essence of an argument or a situation and be able to describe it to great eloquence -- in any field he turned his serious attention to," he said.
As a young man, Oppenheimer published poetry and essays in a literary magazine called Hound and Horn that was, Hawkins said, "very elite -- poetry and prose of a rather precious kind."
After his three-year blaze through Harvard with honors, Oppenheimer studied in Germany and Denmark. "He was one of the people who quickly assimilated the ideas of Niels Bohr, which were still new and still causing much distress to traditional-minded physicists," Hawkins said.
When Oppenheimer returned, "he was probably the only physicist in the United States for a while who was a real master of this developing discipline called quantum mechanics. What came out of it was the physics of the atom and in particular the turning of attention to the nucleus of the atom," he said.
Soon, physicists were probing nuclei with high-energy particles. Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago had what Hawkins called "an intuition about the heavy metals, particularly uranium," and Fermi accomplished the first controlled nuclear reaction.
Leo Szilard already had conjectured that some heavy elements might fission in a chain reaction, creating an atomic bomb.
In late 1941, Oppenheimer became scarce at Berkeley, and early in 1943, Hawkins got a call from him on a bad circuit, saying: "We need you."
"I knew immediately that this thing was on, and I didn't want to be excluded from knowing about it. I was intrigued by the thought of being part of this extraordinary development. And it was still of course in those days entirely focused on the terrible thought that the Germans might get this weapon and win World War II."

Spirit of excitement
Hawkins, with his wife, moved to New Mexico. "The spirit at Los Alamos was one of excitement about this extraordinary new technology. These were academic physicists, but they were on their way to becoming -- we invented the word -- weaponeers."
Soon he was Oppenheimer's unofficial troubleshooter, and his first task was to mediate disputes between the Los Alamos scientists and the Army. "The military created the place as an Army post, and being in their own traditions accustomed to the fact that the military in such a place would be on top and the civilians would be under them, it was a hard struggle to accept the attitude of the scientists, which was that the military were their servants."
The usual story, not based on much evidence, is that Oppenheimer and Groves were natural-born adversaries. But Hawkins never saw them fight. "They were like this," he said, holding together two fingers. "They needed no mediation."
He went on: "It is well known that Groves picked Oppenheimer against the advice of other physicists who considered themselves perhaps senior to Oppenheimer. But Groves had a belief that Oppenheimer was the man who could do this job, and he was right. Oppenheimer had a kind of presence, a kind of style, that enabled quite senior physicist types to accept his leadership happily. It's a remarkable talent.
"He could be quite obtuse about some things. That's not too surprising. Many people with tremendous rapid intellectual qualifications can miss the boat," the retired professor said.
Groves, on the other hand, "wasn't an ideologue. He had some kind of imagination. It didn't make him more attractive, but it made him more respectable," Hawkins said, adding: "Oppenheimer really did, I think, make a deal with Groves."
The deal was that Oppenheimer would be free to run the lab as he wished and Groves would protect him from the FBI and G-2 military intelligence. "They'd already reported to him about Oppenheimer's left-wing activities, and of course this was a time when the anti-Communist scare wasn't what it became later publicly, but it was very powerful then. Communists were demons, especially in the intelligence world," Hawkins said.

Tense moments
Early in 1945, the Army began looking for a place to test the bomb code-named "The Gadget." Hawkins remembered his childhood explorations and the isolation of the Jornada del Muerto. He believed he was the first to suggest the general location that became Trinity Site.
By July, the confiscated McDonald ranch was a secret military installation with 20 miles of straight blacktop roads, thousands of miles of cables, a base camp with rows of barracks and hard water, concrete bunkers and a 10-story prefabricated steel tower.
On the day of Trinity, at 5:10 a.m., the amplified voice of physicist Sam Allison began what's now called a countdown. "Minus 20 minutes" boomed over the loudspeakers and shortwave radios in the dark Jornada del Muerto.
By space-age standards, it was a very short countdown, but it probably was the first in the about-to-be-born world of big science. "Sam seemed to think it was," said Joe McKibben, interviewed in his subdivision home at White Rock in 1995 at age 82. "He told me, 'I think I'm the first person to count backward.' ''
Just as Allison is remembered for the Trinity countdown, Joe McKibben is remembered as the guy who pushed the button. "That kind of annoys me," he said, folding himself down on a couch in his cluttered study in White Rock. "I consider it a minor part of my work."
It wasn't minor at the time. McKibben, a lanky Missouri farm boy, sat at the Trinity control panel. For three months, he had been wiring 360 square miles of desert around the 100-foot steel tower. The fat implosion bomb, 5 feet around, 5 tons heavy, squatted in a harness of cables on a platform on top. And the desert floor was scattered with instruments.
Wisconsin-trained physicist McKibben had spent the night at the tower on guard duty with two Harvard physicists, Trinity director Kenneth Bainbridge and Russian explosives wizard George Kistiakowsky, a former Cossack.
It was another night of uneasy thunderstorms in the Jornada. McKibben remembered that the night before, the lightning struck so close that the assembly chief, Navy Cmdr. Norris Bradbury, called him by phone from a bunker. "He said: 'Did lightning strike the tower?' I said, 'Well, I'm still here, aren't I?' ''
McKibben fell asleep under some tarps on the clean linoleum floor at the tower base where the final assembly team had done its job carefully, very carefully, inserting the plutonium core.
And McKibben had a dream. It was simple, peaceful. "I started dreaming Kistiakowsky had gotten a garden hose and was sprinkling the bomb. Then I woke up and realized there was rain in my face."
Soon the rain paused, and Bainbridge rescheduled the shot for 5:30 a.m. After closing the last open circuits, the three physicists drove south in a jeep as fast as they could on the straight blacktop road.
They were the last men out of the zone of lethal heat, blast and radiation. The nearest humans were in bunkers -- called North 10,000, West 10,000 and South 10,000 because each was 10,000 meters, or 6.2 miles, from ground zero.
"We got to South 10,000 (the control bunker) at 5:10, and that was the time I needed to throw the first switch," McKibben recalled. Allison took up the microphone in the countdown booth. A quick young Harvard physicist named Donald Hornig, who would become President Johnson's science adviser 18 years later, took his place near McKibben at an abort switch. Hornig's job was to stop everything if the detonation circuit faltered, in order to save the plutonium.
Kistiakowsky, who would become President Eisenhower's science adviser, was in and out of the crowded room. An 18-year-old soldier named Val Fitch was attending British scientist Ernest Titterton at a set of vacuum tubes that would deliver the detonating voltage across six miles of cable. Fitch would win the 1980 Nobel Prize in physics.
McKibben recalled these men but said he didn't see Oppenheimer. "I was told that he came in the door and observed me at the controls and went away. Just to see that I was sane."

All in position
At North 10,000, Berlyn Brixner was in the open on top of the bunker at the controls of a fast movie camera with a blackened viewfinder. "I was one of the few people given permission to look directly at the bomb at zero time," said Brixner, interviewed at the age of 84 in his living room at Los Alamos.
Brixner's assignment as chief photographer for Julian Mack was this: shoot movies in 16 mm black-and-white, from every angle and distance and at every speed, of an unknown event beginning with the brightest flash ever produced on Earth.
"The theoretical people had calculated a some 10-sun brightness. So that was easy," said Brixner. "All I had to do was go out and point my camera at the sun and take some pictures. Ten times that was easy to calculate."
The theoretical people also knew a little about radiation, which fogs film, and Brixner consequently shielded two of his near-tower cameras behind 12-inch-thick leaded glass. Some of his cameras were so fast they shot 100 feet of film in a second. Some were 20 miles away and ran for 10 minutes.
And now he waited on top of the bunker, gripping the panning-mechanism of his movie camera, which like all the others would be turned on by signals from McKibben's control panel.
At Base Camp, the old McDonald ranch house 10 miles south of the tower, the box-seat audience included Gen. Groves and some presidential overseers -- Carnegie Institute president Vannevar Bush and Harvard president James Bryant Conant. Among the physicists at Base Camp were I.I. Rabi, a New Yorker who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, and Fermi.

Cameras and goggles
Among the 250 lab workers and 125 soldiers was Jack Aeby, a young "4-F" civilian technician. Interviewed in 1995 at age 72, the retired Los Alamos health physics worker recalled how his job in the weeks leading to the test was to help the Italian physicist Emilio Segré set radiation detectors near the tower. Some of the instruments were hung on barrage balloons tethered 800 yards from the tower. They would be vaporized a millisecond after they transmitted their nuclear data.
Aeby carried his own personal 35 mm camera, which Segré got through security, and now as the countdown started he was planning to take an Anscochrome color transparency picture of the bomb. He had carried a chair out into the darkness and was sitting there with the camera propped on the back and pointed north. He put on his government-issue welding goggles, not noticing in the dark that there was a crack in one lens. And he listened to the countdown on the Base Camp loudspeakers.
At the VIP viewing area called Compania Hill, 20 miles northwest of the tower and about 10 miles southeast of the village of San Antonio, two refugee physicists put on sunburn lotion in the dark. They were Edward Teller of Hungary and Hans Bethe of Germany. Teller would become famous, and Bethe would win the 1967 Nobel Prize in physics.
Teller put on gloves to protect his hands, and sunglasses under his welder's goggles for extra protection. "I expected it to work," Teller said in a 1995 Journal interview.

The flash
At minus 45 seconds, McKibben cut in an automatic timing drum he and Clarence Turner had made to generate the final 20 relay signals, including the big one. The drum turned once a second, and McKibben says he had attached a chime that struck once each revolution. So there were 44 chimes before Allison bellowed: "Zero!"
McKibben waited at his brightly lighted console to throw a last "zero plus 10 seconds" switch that sent up a marker flare for the photography. The bunker had a small open door on the south, facing away from the shot.
"Suddenly I realized there was a hell of a lot more light coming in the back door," McKibben says. "A very brilliant light. It outdid the light I had on the control panel many times over. I looked out the back door and I could see everything brighter than daylight."
Aeby had put his Perfex 44 camera on "bulb" and in the dark before "zero" opened up the shutter, figuring that way he would get a good image of the flash. Suddenly the light cut a sharp white line across his vision. "I could see that crack for some time afterward," he says.
Aeby flung off the goggles to reset his camera. "I released the shutter, cranked the diaphragm down, changed the shutter speed and fired three times in succession," he says. "I quit at three because I was out of film."
Brixner, at North 10,000, was stunned. "The whole filter seemed to light up as bright as the sun. I was temporarily blinded. I looked to the side. The Oscura mountains were as bright as day. I saw this tremendous ball of fire, and it was rising. I was just spellbound! I followed it as it rose. Then it dawned on me. I'm the photographer! I've gotta get that ball of fire." He jogged the camera up.
One thing more. He said: "There was no sound! It all took place in absolute silence."
By the time the loud blast hit, 30 seconds after the flash, most of Brixner's 55 cameras in the desert were finished. There would be 100,000 frames to develop in black-and-white and a few in the new temperamental Kodachrome.
In the silence, McKibben stepped out the back door of South 10,000 and looked north over the bunker. "It was quite a pretty sight. Colored. Purplish. No doubt from the iron in the tower and a lot of soil off the ground that had been vaporized. I was surprised at the enormity of it and immediately felt it had gone big."
McKibben ducked behind the bunker just as the shock wave hit. "Then an amazing thing: It was followed by echoes from the mountains. There was one echo after another. A real symphony of echoes. Too bad nobody had a recorder on that. It would have been played many times since then."
As the shock wave hit Base Camp, Aeby saw Enrico Fermi with a handful of torn paper. "He was dribbling it in the air. When the shock wave came, it moved the confetti. He thought for a moment." Fermi had just estimated the yield of the first nuclear explosion. It was in the ballpark.

First and second thoughts
Robert Van Gemert of Albuquerque was at Base Camp in the hours after the shot. "I'm just amazed how those scientists whipped out so many bottles of gin or whatever they could find. And it was rapidly consumed, I can tell you that," he said in a 1995 interview.
GIs said things like: "Buddy, you just saw the end of the war!" "Now we've got the world by the tail!"
At South 10,000, Frank Oppenheimer recalled, his brother probably said, "It worked!" Kistiakowsky is supposed to have said to J. Robert Oppenheimer, "You owe me $10," because of a bet they had. Bainbridge is supposed to have told Oppenheimer, "Now we are all sons of bitches."
At Compania Hill, Teller remembered, "I was impressed." Bethe remembered his first thought was "We've done it!" -- and his second was "What a terrible weapon have we fashioned."
At North 10,000, Brixner and the others were thinking suddenly only of a kind of hazard the world had never known. "I was looking up, and I noticed there was a red haze up there, and it seemed to be coming down on us," he said.
"Pretty soon, the radiation monitors said, 'The radiation is rising! We've got to evacuate!' I said, 'That's fine, but not until I get all the film from my cameras.' '' Amid the world's first nuclear fallout, somebody helped Brixner throw his last three cameras in an Army car, and they all got out of there fast. Film badges later showed they received low doses, by the standards of the time.
About 160 men were waiting secretly north of the Jornada with enough vehicles to evacuate the small communities in the probable fallout path, and Gen. Groves had phoned Gov. John Dempsey before the test to warn him he might be asked to declare martial law.
But the radiation readings from people secretly stationed all over New Mexico stayed at what was then considered safe.
Not far from Teller on Compania Hill was German Communist refugee Klaus Fuchs, who would be uncovered as a Russian spy five years later.
And outside the Jornada, all of New Mexico had eyes and ears. Teller said many Los Alamos employees, including his secretary Mary Argo, slipped away to Sandia Crest for a direct 100-mile view of the shot that morning.
In Potsdam, just outside the rubble of bombed-out Berlin, President Harry Truman waited for the coded message that the bomb worked, and he would tell Joseph Stalin that America had a secret weapon. Stalin already knew.
But the rest of the world didn't have a clue. Not the B-29 pilots who that Friday hit Tokyo, again, with 3,000 conventional bombs. Not the 750,000 American troops who were being made ready for the planned Nov. 1 invasion of Japan.
When Teller returned to his Los Alamos office, he said, Mary Argo ran to him, breaking all the secrecy rules, " 'Mr. Teller! Mr. Teller! Did you ever see such a thing in your life?' I laughed. And she laughed," he said with joy in his voice. "Does that tell you something?"
At community radio station KRS in Los Alamos, Bob Porton, a GI, was about to rebroadcast the noon news, courtesy of KOB. "Suddenly about 30 or 40 scientists all came in and stood around," he said. "We knew something was up."
The lead story, Porton said, was this: "The commanding officer of Alamogordo Air Base announced this morning a huge ammunition dump had blown up, but there were no injuries.
"All these scientists jumped up and down and slapped each other on the back," Porton said. "I was familiar with secrecy. I never asked any questions. But I knew it was something big."
Brixner was already on his way to Hollywood to get his film developed by a secured studio lab. One reel would show his "wake-up" jog of the camera.
Aeby developed his color film that night in Los Alamos, using the complex system of a half dozen Ansco chemicals. The first shot of the bomb was overexposed off the scale, but one of the next three became the only good color picture known of the first atomic explosion, Aeby said. The lab said the transparency was lost.

Off to war
Ten days after the Trinity shot, at 4 a.m. on July 26, Raemer Schreiber, accompanied by a detachment of MPs, picked up a box the size of a car battery, only lighter, at a vault in Los Alamos. The 10-inch cube was made of magnesium to dissipate heat from a gentle source. It was protected by four rubber bumpers on each side.
"We had three GI sedans, and we drove in the middle one. With the core in the trunk of the sedan, we drove down to Albuquerque," he recalled. They all flew out of Kirtland Field in two C-54 cargo planes carrying nothing but "a box of documents and some guards and my little box and me."
Nobody talked about the box. Those were the rules. The next day over the Pacific, Schreiber said, "I was sitting up in the copilot's seat. The copilot was sacked out. And the pilot was reading his dime novel, and we ran into this storm. I says, 'Should I get out of here and let the co-pilot come in?' He says, 'No, I need the instrument time.'
"About that time one of guards came up and tapped me on the shoulder and says, 'Sir, your box is bouncing around back there and we're scared to touch it.' So I went back and corralled it and got a piece of rope and tied it to one of the legs of the cots."
At Tinian, Schreiber was met by some of the Los Alamos group that already had received the rest of Fat Man. At the other side of the island base another group had a crude uranium bomb called Little Boy with a core too heavy for one man to carry.
Schreiber put his little box in a fenced, Marine-guarded quonset hut and went to eat.

Deadly consequences
At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Little Boy destroyed the center of Hiroshima. It was a relatively crude uranium bomb with a "gun barrel" design that had never been tested, but the theory had been verified at Trinity. On Aug. 9, the plutonium bomb, the twin of the Trinity device, was exploded over Nagasaki. It's spherical "implosion" design would become the basis of the American nuclear arsenal, and implosion cores would become the triggers for advanced thermonuclear weapons.
Historian Richard Rhodes accepted the estimate that the two bombs in Japan together killed 140,000 men, women and children by the end of 1945 and that the total grew to 200,000 from radiation effects by 1950.
The firebombing of Tokyo by conventional weapons took an estimated 100,000 lives one night in March 1945. Schreiber, mindful of this, said: "Just the fact you could do the same thing with one airplane and one bomb proved the efficiency, but it didn't change the effect very much. But the firebombing, the saturation bombing of the B-29s was not bringing Japan to its knees, and the shock effect of one airplane being able to wipe out a city, I think, is what finally convinced the Japanese military they had to give up."
And as Nobel laureate Bethe put it in a Journal interview, if the bomb wasn't used, "the Japanese would have had far greater casualties than they did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the conventional firebombing would have continued until the Japanese gave up."
That was the standard rationale, widely accepted in the Cold War, even by Japanese political leaders. President Harry Truman stated it first, estimating the atomic bomb saved 1 million American lives, and to this day, World War II veterans will tell you the bomb may be the reason they're alive.
But radical historians, beginning in the 1960s, disputed the numbers, and a theory advanced by Stanford University Historian Barton Bernstein gained favor: It was that Japan would have surrendered anyway and that Truman approved the use of the bombs in order to intimidate the Soviet Union. In this interpretation, Hiroshima was the first shot fired in the Cold War.
Ellen Wilder Bradbury of Santa Fe recalled that weeks after the Japanese surrender, the Wilder family tuned in the only radio they had, in their car, to hear a wire recording broadcast over KRS. Ellen was about 5 and hadn't understood about Hiroshima. And now she was hearing a recording made in the cockpit of "Bocks Car," the B-29 that dropped "Fat Man" on Nagasaki.
She recalled the now-lost recording clearly: "They said, 'We've got an opening in the clouds. OK. We're going ahead.' And then they counted down to drop it. And they did say, 'Bombs Away!' But I had just learned to count, and I was most impressed by the fact that they could count backwards."

Looking back
Hawkins was among the unpublicized few who declined to go to the Trinity test. "I didn't want to see it," he said. He finished his secret history and left Los Alamos, dating the preface Aug. 6, 1946, the first anniversary of Hiroshima.
He devoted his life to philosophy and teaching. In the fall of 1995, Hawkins was invited back to Los Alamos to deliver the 25th annual J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture. He chose to speak of his experience and theory of how to teach scientific thinking to children.
But he opened by reminding the audience in the Los Alamos civic auditorium that they had spent their lives working on something "that can never be used."
During the interview in Boulder, he had said Oppenheimer knew the bomb was inevitable, that "if it wasn't developed in World War II, it would appear secretly in the arsenals of nations after World War II during peacetime. And the greatest hope for coping with this new development was to recognize and to persuade the world to recognize that this was not a military weapon. This destructive power was beyond anything that warfare itself as an institution could tolerate," he said.
"Oppenheimer knew it already in some way," he said. "We all knew it in some way, and we had therefore this idealistic side to the contract with the devil, if that's what it was, that it would be necessary to develop the weapon to have it known to the whole world, in order that the world could protect itself."


This report on the world's first atomic explosion was adapted from a landmark 50th anniversary narrative written in 1995 by veteran Journal columnist Larry Calloway.