Meditations

Hiroshima and Nagasaki at 70

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 21st, 2015

This month marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the cessation of hostilities in World War II. Anniversaries are interesting times to test the cultural waters, to see how events get remembered and talked about. I was exceptionally busy this summer, doing my part to try to participate in the discourse about these events. In case you missed them and wished you had not, here are a few of my appearances:

I also published a second blog post with the New Yorker on the often-overlooked second use of the atomic bomb: “Nagasaki: The Last Bomb.” I am proud of it as a piece of writing, as I was really trying to pull off something deliberate and subtle with it, and feel that I somewhat accomplished that.

New Yorker - Nagasaki - The Last Bomb

On this latter piece, I would also like to say that very little of what I wrote would come as a surprise to historians, though the particular arrangement of Nagasaki-as-JANCFU (that is, with an emphasis on the less-than-textbook aspects of the operation, as a herald of the later chaotic possibilities of the nuclear age) is usually under-emphasized. We tend to lump Hiroshima and Nagasaki together when we talking about the atomic bombings during World War II, and I think they should probably be separated out a bit in terms of how we regard them. The first use of the bomb, at Hiroshima, was in many ways a very straightforward affair, both in terms of the strategic and ethical considerations, and the tactical operation. Whether one agrees with the strategic and ethical considerations is a separate matter, of course, but a lot of thought went into Hiroshima as a target, and into the first use of the bomb. Nagasaki, by contrast, was less straightforward on all counts — less thought-out, less justified, and was very nearly a tactical blunder. For me, it reflects on the very real dangers that can occur when human judgment gets mixed with the extremely high stakes that come with weapons as powerful as these. Any bomber crew can have a mishap of a mission, but when that mission is nuclear-armed, the potential consequences multiply.

The one notable exception to the “very little would come as a surprise to historians” bit in this piece is that Nagasaki was never put on the “reserved” list. For whatever reason, the idea that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “reserved” from conventional bombing is very commonly repeated, but it is just not true. The final “reserved” list contained only Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata. Aside from the fact that no documentation exists of Nagasaki being put on the list (whereas we do have such documentation for the others), we also have the documentation actively rescinding the “reserved” status for Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata, so that they could become formal atomic targets.

Detail from a damage map of Nagasaki, produced by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946. I have the original of this in my possession. I find this particular piece of the map quite valuable to examine up close — one gets a sense of the nature of the area around "Ground Zero" very acutely when examining it. There were war plants to the north and south of the detonation point, but mostly the labeled structures are explicitly, painfully civilian (schools, hospitals, prisons). Click to enlarge.

Detail from a damage map of Nagasaki, produced by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946. I have the original of this in my possession. I find this particular piece of the map quite valuable to examine up close — one gets a sense of the nature of the area around “Ground Zero” very acutely when examining it. There were war plants to the north and south of the detonation point, but mostly the labeled structures are explicitly, painfully civilian (schools, hospitals, prisons). Click to enlarge. Here is a not-great photo of the whole map, to compare it with, and here is a detail of the legend. At some point, when finances allow, I will get this framed for my office, but it is quite large and not a cheap endeavor.

John Coster-Mullen’s book provided a lot of documents and details about the bombing run. One thing I appreciate about John is his dedication to documentation, even though his views on the meaning of the history are not always the same as mine. I thoroughly believe that rational people can look at the same facts and come up with different narratives and interpretations — the trick, of course, is to make sure you are at least getting the facts right.

It would be interesting at some point for someone to do a scholarly analysis of the popular discourse surrounding each decade of anniversaries since the bombs were dropped. 1955 was a fairly raw time, right after McCarthyism had peaked and the hydrogen bomb had been developed. 1965 marked an outpouring of new books and revelations from those involved in the bomb project, enabled by new declassifications (allowed, in part, because of the fostering of a civilian nuclear industry) and the fact that some of the major participants (like Groves) were still alive. I have no distinct impressions of 1975 being a major anniversary year, but 1985 resulted in a lot of hand-wringing about the relationship between the birth of the nuclear age and the nuclear fears of the 1980s. 1995, of course, was the first post-Cold War anniversary and one of the “hottest” years of controversy, catalyzing around the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit controversy and the “culture wars” of the mid-Clinton administration. We are still dealing with the hyper-polarization of the narratives of the atomic bombings that became really prominent in the mid-1990s — where there were only two options available, an orthodox/reactionary view or a critical/revisionist view. The 2005 anniversary did not make a large impression on me at the time, and seemed muted in comparison with 1995 (perhaps a good thing), except for the fact that some very noteworthy scholarship made its appearance to coincide with it.

A small sampling of some of the international press coverage of the NUKEMAP around the Hiroshima anniversary.

A small sampling of some of the international press coverage of the NUKEMAP around the Hiroshima anniversary.

And what of 2015? There were, of course, many stories about the bombings. Nagasaki got a better representation in the discourse than usual, in no small part because Susan Southard’s Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War received heavy promotion. (I have not read it yet.) The general discussion seemed less polarized than they have been, though I did see a fair share of hand-wringing and defending editorials pop up on my Google Alerts feed. I have speculated that I think anniversaries from this point forward will be somewhat more interesting and reflective than those in the recent past, in part because of the declining influence of American World War II veterans, who were such a strong force in the more recent ones. My (perhaps overly idealistic) hope is that our narratives of the bombings can settle into something more historically informed, more quietly reflective, and less keyed to contemporary politics than in the past.

For my part, I was impressed by the number of people online who were interested in re-creating Hiroshima on their hometowns. The featuring of NUKEMAP on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog drove an incredible amount of traffic to the site. It was one of those stories that could be essentially lifted and re-written to fit a wide variety of different cities or countries, and there were variations of the “What would happen if Hiroshima happened here?” written in dozens of languages over the days leading up to and beyond the anniversary. The result is that NUKEMAP’s traffic had an all-time high spike over 300,000 people on August 6. The traffic is a typical long-tail distribution, so in the week of August 5-12, there were well over 1 million pageviews for the NUKEMAP. There have been other spikes in the past, but none quite as big as this one.

Locations where the Little Boy bomb was "dropped," August 5-12, 2015. These are unweighted (each dot represents an indeterminate number of detonations). Here is a heatmap (capped at 1,000 detonations — the actual cap is 28,116 — to make it easier to see the broader spread) showing where repeat detonations occurred. Here is a version where I have thrown out all locations where fewer than 10 detonations took place, and scaled their size and color by repetition. Total detonations is 266,483.

Locations where the Little Boy bomb was “dropped,” August 5-12, 2015. These are unweighted (each dot represents an indeterminate number of detonations). Here is a heatmap (capped at 1,000 detonations — the actual cap is 28,116 — to make it easier to see the broader spread) showing where repeat detonations occurred. Here is a version where I have thrown out all locations where fewer than 10 detonations took place, and scaled their size and color by repetition. Total detonations is 266,483.

Where do people nuke, when they recreate Hiroshima? Well, all over the world, not surprisingly, though the biggest single draws are New York (which is a NUKEMAP default if it cannot figure out where you probably live) and Hiroshima itself (re-creating the actual bombing). I’ve exported the log data for people using the Little Boy bomb setting (15 kiloton airbursts) for the week of August 5-12, and the maps are shown and linked to above. Obviously it correlates very heavily with both population and Internet access, but still, it is interesting.

Lastly, a week after the anniversary, what more reflection is there to be had? A new poll came out in late July of a thousand Americans, asking them what they thought about the bombings. Overall, 46% of those polled thought that the dropping of the bombs on Japan was the “right decision” to do, while 29% thought it was the “wrong decision,” and 26% said they were “not sure.” Which one can interpret in a number of ways. The feelings appear to correlate directly with age — the older you are, the more likely you think it was “right,” and the younger, with “wrong.” It also correlates with a few other factors, notably political affiliation (Republicans strongly in favor, Democrats and Independents not so much), race/ethnicity, and income. I suspect all of these variables (age, political affiliation, race/ethnicity, and income) to be pretty highly correlated in general. Separately, the gender gap is pretty extreme — men defend the bombings by a very large margin compared to women.

The head of the Nagasaki mushroom cloud — like a monstrous brain.

The head of the Nagasaki mushroom cloud — like a monstrous brain. Source: National Archives/Fold3.com.

None of this is extremely surprising, I don’t think. But I was taken aback by another question in the same poll, a strictly factual one: “Which country was the first country to build a nuclear weapon?” Only 57% of the total polled correctly identified the United States, and it gets very depressing when one looks at how this breaks down by age. Less than half of Americans under the age of 45 could correctly identify that their country was the first country to develop nuclear weapons. I don’t really mind if a lot of people can’t identify when the first weapons were used (another question in the poll); exact years can be hard for people, especially on the spot, and the differences between the options given were not so vast that they represent much, in my view. But 23% were “not sure” who made the first bomb, 15% thought it was the USSR, and 3% thought it was China! (Almost nobody, alas, thought it was France.) This is not a minor factual error — it is a fundamental lack of knowledge about the historical composition of the world. It reflects, I suspect, the waning attention given to nuclear issues in the post-Cold War.

One last reflection: How do I, a historian of these matters, find myself thinking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki these days? Increasingly I find myself uninterested in the question of whether they were “justified” or not, which contain so much predictable posturing, the same old arguments, with very few new facts or analyses. I think the bombings were a very muddy affair from an ethical, strategic, and historical perspective, and I don’t think they fit into any simplistic view of them. I’ve come to feel my position on these could be described as an “inverse moderate,” where a moderate seeks to make everyone feel comfortable, but my goal is to make everyone feel uncomfortable. If you think this history supports some easy, straightforward interpretation, you are probably throwing out a lot of the data and filling it in with what you’d like to believe. It is complex history; it does not boil down easily.

News and Notes

“Nagasaki: The Last Bomb”

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 7th, 2015

This is just a quick place-holding note (a longer post on this will follow next week): I have an article up on the New Yorker’s Elements blog about the bombing of Nagasaki, which took place 70 years ago this Sunday. Check it out: Nagasaki: The Last Bomb.

New Yorker - Nagasaki - The Last BombAnd a few other media appearances by yours truly from this crazy, busy week:

 

Meditations

Were there alternatives to the atomic bombings?

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 3rd, 2015

As we rapidly approach the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been all sorts of articles, tributes, memorials, and so forth expressed both in print and online. I’ve been busy myself with some of this sort of thing. I was asked if I would write up a short piece for Aeon Ideas about whether there were any alternatives to these bombings, and I figure it won’t hurt to cross-post it here as well.

Unusual photograph of the late cloud of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. This was probably taken by aircraft that arrived several hours after the bombing to do damage reconnaissance; they reported the target was obscured by huge amounts of smoke. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via Fold3.com.

An unusual photograph of the late clouds of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. This was probably taken by aircraft that arrived several hours after the bombing to do damage reconnaissance; they reported the target was obscured by huge amounts of smoke. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via Fold3.com.

The point of the piece, I would like to emphasize, is not necessarily to “second guess” what was done in 1945. It is, rather, to point out that we tend to constrain our view of the possibilities generally to one of two unpleasant options. Many of those who defend the bombings seem to end up in a position of believing that 1. there were no other options on the table at the time except for exactly what did occur, and 2. that questioning whether there were other options does historical damage. As a historian, I find both of these positions absurd. First, history is full of contingency, and there were several explicit options (and a few implicit ones) on the table in 1945 — more than just “bomb” versus “invade.” These other options did not carry the day does not mean they should be ignored. Second, I think that pointing out these options helps shape our understanding of the choices that were made, because they make history seem less like a fatalistic march of events. The idea that things were “fated” to happen the way they do does much more damage to the understanding of history, because it denies human influence and it denies choices were made.

Separately, there is a question of whether we ought to “judge” the past by standards of the present. In some cases this leads to statements that are simply non-sequiturs — I think Genghis Khan’s methods were inhumane, but who cares that I think that? But World War II was not so long ago that its participants are of another culture entirely, and those who say we should not judge the atomic bombings by the morality of the present neglect the range of moral codes that were available at the time. The idea that burning civilians alive created a moral hazard was hardly unfamiliar to people in 1945, even if they did it anyway. Similarly, I will note that the people who adopt such a position of historical moral relativism never seem to apply it to nations that fought against their countries in war.

Anyway, all of the above is meant as a disclaimer, in case anyone wonders what my intent is here. It is not to argue that the leaders of 1945 necessarily ought to have done anything different than they did. It is merely to try and paint a picture of what sorts of possibilities were on the table, but were not pursued, and to try and hack away a little bit at the false dichotomy that so often characterizes this discussion — a dichotomy, I might note, that was started explicitly as a propaganda effort by the people who made the bomb and wanted to justify it against mounting criticism in the postwar. I believe that rational people can disagree on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


What options were there for the United States regarding the atomic bomb in 1945?

Few historical events have been simultaneously second-guessed and vigorously defended as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred seventy years ago this August. To question the bombings, one must assume an implicit alternative history is possible. Those who defend the bombings always invoke the alternative of a full-scale invasion of the Japanese homeland, Operation Downfall, which would have undoubtedly caused many American and Japanese casualties. The numbers are debatable, but estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions — an unpalatable option, to be sure.

These unusual before-and-after images come from the Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Volume I, "Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs," NP-3036 (April 1951). I apologize for the poor image quality. I thought that even so they provide striking contrasts, and are much more easy to grasp that the familiar "view from above" photographs. This one is of the Hiroshima Commercial Museum, only 300 m from ground zero, and now known as the famous "Genbaku dome."

These unusual before-and-after images come from the Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Volume I, “Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs,” NP-3036 (April 1951). I apologize for the poor image quality. I thought that even so they provide striking contrasts, and are much more easy to grasp that the familiar “view from above” photographs. This one is of the Hiroshima Commercial Museum, only 300 meters from Ground Zero, and now known as the famous “Genbaku dome.” The photographs are not labeled with when they were taken; the “before” photos seem like they are from the late 1930s, the “after” photos are likely no earlier than September 1945, and may be from 1946.

But is this stark alternative the only one? That is, are the only two possible historical options available a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands, or the dropping of two nuclear weapons on mostly-civilian cities within three days of one another, on the specific days that they were dropped? Well, not exactly. We cannot replay the past as if it were a computer simulation, and to impose present-day visions of alternatives on the past does little good. But part of the job of being a historian is to understand the variables that were in the air at the time — the choices, decisions, and serendipity that add up to what we call “historical contingency,” the places where history could have gone a different direction. To contemplate contingency is not necessarily to criticize the past, but it does seek to remove some of the “set in stone” quality of the stories we often tell about the bomb.

Varying the schedule. The military order that authorized the atomic bombings, sent out on July 25, 1945, was not specific as to the timing, other than saying that the “first special bomb” could be dropped “as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945.” Any other available bombs could be used “as soon as made ready by the project staff.” The Hiroshima mission was delayed until August 6th because of weather conditions in Japan. The Kokura mission (which became the Nagasaki mission) was originally scheduled for August 11th, but got pushed up to August 9th because it was feared that further bad weather was coming. At the very least, waiting more than three days after Hiroshima might have been humane. Three days was barely enough time for the Japanese high command to verify that the weapon used was a nuclear bomb, much less assess its impact and make strategic sense of it. Doing so may have avoided the need for the second bombing run altogether. Even if the Japanese had not surrendered, the option for using further bombs would not have gone away. President Truman himself seems to have been surprised by the rapidity with which the second bomb was dropped, issuing an order to halt further atomic bombing without his express permission.

"Komiya street (750 meters [from Ground Zero] before and after bombing. The archlike heavy lamp posts have fallen. One lies at the left of the lower photograph."

“Komiya street (750 meters [from Ground Zero] before and after bombing. The archlike heavy lamp posts have fallen. One lies at the left of the lower photograph.”

Demonstration. Two months before Hiroshima, scientists at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, one of the key Manhattan Project facilities, authored a report arguing that the first use of an atomic bomb should not be on an inhabited city. The committee, chaired by Nobel laureate and German exile James Franck, argued that a warning, or demonstration, of the bomb on, say, a barren island, would be a worthwhile endeavor. If the Japanese still refused to surrender, then the further use of the weapon, and its further responsibility, could be considered by an informed world community. Another attractive possibility for a demonstration could be the center of Tokyo Bay, which would be visible from the Imperial Palace but have a minimum of casualties if made to detonate high in the air. Leo Szilard, a scientist who had helped launch the bomb effort, circulated a petition signed by dozens of Manhattan Project scientists arguing for such an approach. It was considered as high as the Secretary of War, but never passed on to President Truman. J. Robert Oppenheimer, joined by three Nobel laureates who worked on the bomb, issued a report, concluding that “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” But was it feasible? More so than most people realize. Though the US only had two atomic bombs in early August 1945, they had set up a pipeline to produce many more, and by the end of the month would have at least one more bomb ready to use, and three or four more in September. The invasion of the Japanese mainland was not scheduled until November. So by pushing back the time schedule, the US could have still had at least as many nuclear weapons to use against military targets should the demonstration had failed. The strategy of the bomb would have changed — it would have lost some of its element of “surprise” — but, at least for the Franck Report authors, that would be entirely the point.

Changing the targets. The city of Hiroshima was chosen as a first target for the atomic bomb because it had not yet been bombed during the war (and in fact had been “preserved” from conventional bombing so that it could be atomic bombed), because the scientific and military advisors wanted to emphasize the power of the bomb. By using it on an ostensibly “military” target (they used scare quotes themselves!), “located in a much larger area subject to blast damage,” they hoped both to avoid looking bad if the bombing was somewhat off-target (as the Nagasaki bombing was), and so that the debut of the atomic bomb was “sufficiently spectacular” that its importance would be recognized not only by the Japanese, but the world at large. But the initial target for the bomb, discussed in 1943 (long before it was ready) was the island of Truk (now called Chuuk), an ostensibly purely military target, the Japanese equivalent of Pearl Harbor. By 1945, Chuuk had been made irrelevant, and much of Japan had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, but there were other targets that would not have been so deliberately destructive of civilian lives. As with the “demonstration,” option had the effect not been as desired, escalation was always available as a future option, rather than as the first step.

"Prefectural Office (900 meters [from Ground Zero]) before and after the bombing. The wooden structure has collapsed and burned. Note displacement of the heavy granite blocks of the wall."

“Prefectural Office (900 meters [from Ground Zero]) before and after the bombing. The wooden structure has collapsed and burned. Note displacement of the heavy granite blocks of the wall.”

Clarifying the Potsdam Declaration. By the summer of 1945, a substantial number of the Japanese high command, including the Emperor, were looking for a diplomatic way out of the war. Their problem was that the Allies had, with the Potsdam Declaration, continued to demand “unconditional surrender,” and emphasized the need to remove “obstacles” preventing the “democratic tendencies” of the Japanese people. What did this mean, for the postwar Japanese government? To many in the high command, this sounded a lot like getting rid of the Imperial system, and the Emperor, altogether, possibly prosecuting him as a “war criminal.” For the Japanese leaders, one could no more get rid of the Emperor system and still be “Japan” than one could get rid of the US Constitution and still be “the United States of America.” During the summer, those who constituted the “Peace Party” of the high council (as opposed to the die-hard militarists, who still held a slight majority) sent out feelers to the then still-neutral Soviet Union to serve as possible mediators with the United States, hopefully negotiating an end-of-war situation that would give some guarantees as to the Emperor’s position. The Soviets rebuffed these advances (because they had already secretly agreed to enter the war on the side of the Allies), but the Americans were aware of these efforts, and Japanese attitudes towards the Emperor, because they had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code. No lesser figures than Winston Churchill and the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had appealed to President Truman to clarify that the Emperor would be allowed to stay on board in a symbolic role. Truman rebuffed them, at the encouragement of his Secretary of State, James Byrnes, believing, it seems, that the perfidy of Pearl Harbor required them to grovel. It isn’t clear, of course, that this would have changed the lack of a Japanese response to the Potsdam Declaration. Even after the atomic bombings, the Japanese still tried to get clarification on the postwar role of the Emperor, dragging out hostilities another week. In the end, the Japanese did get to keep a largely-symbolic Emperor, but this was not finalized until the Occupation of Japan.

Waiting for the Soviets. The planned US invasion of the Japanese homeland, Operation Downfall, was not scheduled to take place until early November 1945. So, in principle, there was no great rush to drop the bombs in early August. The Americans knew that the Soviet Union had, at their earlier encouragement, agreed to renounce their Neutrality Pact with the Japanese and declare war, invading first through Manchuria. Stalin indicated to Truman this would happen around August 15th, to which Truman noted in his diary, “Fini Japs when that comes about.” Aside from cutting Japan off from its last bastion of resources, the notion of possibly being divided into distinct Allied zones of influence, as had been Germany, would possibly be more of a direct existential threat than any damage the Americans would inflict. And, in fact, we do now know that the Soviet invasion may have weighed as heavily on the Japanese high command as did the atomic bombings, if not more so. So why didn’t Truman wait? The official reason given after the fact was that any delay whatsoever would be interpreted as wasting time, and American lives, once the atomic bomb was available. But it may also have been because Truman, and especially his Secretary of State, Byrnes, may have hoped that the war might have ended before the Soviets had entered. The Soviets had been promised several concessions, including the island of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (giving them unimpeded access to the Pacific Ocean) for their entry in the war, but by late July 1945, the Americans were having second thoughts. As it was, once Stalin saw that Hiroshima did not provoke an immediate response from the Japanese, he had his marshals accelerate the invasion plans, invading Manchuria just after midnight, the morning of the Nagasaki bombing.

I find this one to be one of the most haunting — by filling in the missing structures, it contextualizes all of the "standard" Hiroshima photos of the rubble-filled wasteland. "Rear view of Geibi and Sumitomo Buildings before and after bombing. Taken from Fukuya Department Store (700 meters [from Ground Zero]) looking toward center. Complete destruction of wooden buildings by blast and fire. Concrete structures stand." In other places in the text, they usually point out that where you see a concrete structure like this, it has withstood the blast but was gutted by the fire.

I find this one to be one of the most haunting — by filling in the missing structures, it contextualizes all of the “standard” Hiroshima photos of the rubble-filled wasteland.
“Rear view of Geibi and Sumitomo Buildings before and after bombing. Taken from Fukuya Department Store (700 meters [from Ground Zero]) looking toward center. Complete destruction of wooden buildings by blast and fire. Concrete structures stand.” In other places in the text, they usually point out that where you see a concrete structure like this, it has withstood the blast but was gutted by the fire.

What should we make of these “alternatives”? Not, necessarily, that those in the past should have been clairvoyant. Or that their concerns were ours: like it or not, those involved in these choices certainly ranked Japanese civilian lives lower than those of American soldiers, as is typical in war. None of the “alternatives” come with any confidence, even today, much less for those at the time, and those making the choices were working with the requirements, uncertainties, and biases inherent to their historical and political positions.

But by pointing out the alternatives that were on the table, one can see the areas of choice and discretion, the different directions that history might have gone — perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. We should see this history less as a static set of “inevitable” events, or of “easy” choices, but as a more subtle collection of options, motivations, and possible outcomes.

Visions

Trinity at 70: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 17th, 2015

A quick dispatch from the road: I have been traveling this week, first to Washington, DC, and now in New Mexico, where I am posting this from. Highlights in Washington included giving a talk on nuclear history (what it was, why it was important) to a crowd of mostly-millennial, aspiring policy wonks at the State Department’s 2015 “Generation Prague” conference. A few hours after that was completed, an article I wrote on the Trinity test went online on the New Yorker’s “Elements” science blog: “The First Light of Trinity.”

The First light of Trinity

Being able to write something for them has been a real capstone to the summer for me. It was a lot of work, in terms of the writing, the editing, and the fact-checking processes. But it is really a nice piece for it. I am incredibly grateful to the editor and fact-checker who worked with me on it, and gave me the opportunity to publish it. Something to check off the bucket list.

On the plane to New Mexico, I thought over what the 70th anniversary of Trinity really meant to me. I keep coming back to the post-detonation quote of Kenneth Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity project: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” It is often put in contrast with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s more grandiose, more cryptic, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer clearly didn’t say this at the time of test explosion, and its meaning is often misunderstood. But Bainbridge’s quote is somewhat cryptic and easy to misunderstand as well.

The badge photograph of Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity project. From a photo essay I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two years ago.

The Los Alamos badge photograph of Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity project. From a photo essay I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two years ago.

Bainbridge’s quote first got a lot of exposure when it was published as part of Lansing Lamont’s 1965 book, Day of Trinity, timed for the 20th anniversary of Trinity. Lamont interviewed many of the project participants who were still alive. The book contains many errors, which many of them lamented. (The best single book on Trinity, as an aside, is Ferenc Szasz’s 1984, The Day the Sun Rose Twice, by a considerable margin.) A consequence of these errors is that a lot of the scientists interviewed wrote letters to each other to complain about them, which means they also clarified some quotes of theirs in the book. Bainbridge in particular has a number of letters related to mixed up quotes, mixed up content, and mixed up facts from the Lamont book in his personal papers kept at the Harvard University Archives, which I looked at several years back.

One of the people Bainbridge wrote to was Oppenheimer. He said he wanted to explain his “Now we are all sons of bitches” quote, to make sure Oppenheimer understood he was not trying to be offensive:

The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.

Oppenheimer wrote back, in a letter dated 1966, just a year before his death, when he was pretty sick and in a lot of pain. It said:

When Lamont’s book on Trinity came, I first showed it to Kitty; and a moment later I heard her in the most unseemly laughter. She had found the preposterous piece about the ‘obscure lines from a sonnet of Baudelaire.’ But despite this, and all else that was wrong with it, the book was worth something to me because it recalled your words. I had not remembered them, but I did and do recall them. We do not have to explain them to anyone.

I like Bainbridge’s explanation, because it doubles back on itself: people will think we were unfeeling and terrible for making this weapon, which makes it sound like the people are not understanding, but, actually, yes, the weapon was terrible. I think you can get away with that kind of blanket condemnation if you’re one of the people instrumental in its creation.

The original map of fallout from the Trinity test. There are several more "hot spots" to the South and West than are in the later more simplified drawings of it. Click to see the entire map at full resolution.

The original map of fallout from the Trinity test. There are several more “hot spots” to the South and West than are in the later more simplified drawings of it. Click the image to see the entire map at full resolution.

I have been thinking about how broadly one might want to expand the “we” in his quote. Just those at the Trinity test? Those scientists who made the bombs possible? All of the half-million involved in making the bomb, whether they knew their role or not? The United States government and population, from Roosevelt on down? The Germans, the fear of whom inspired its initial creation? The world as a whole in the 1940s? Humanity as a whole, ever?

Are we all sons of bitches, because we, as a species of sentient, intelligent, brilliant creatures have created such terrible means of doing violence to ourselves, to the extremes of potential extinction?

This is probably not what Bainbridge meant, but it is an interesting road to go down. It recalls the recent discussions about whether we live in a new era of time, the Anthropocene, and whether the Trinity test should be seen as the marker of its beginning,

Visions

Dogs in space

by Alex Wellerstein, published June 26th, 2015

Confession: I once told my students something I knew wasn’t true. It was during a lecture on the Space Race, on Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika into space in November 1957. I told them about how the Soviets initially said she had lived a week before expiring (it was always intended to be a one-way trip), but that after the USSR had collapsed the Russians admitted that she had died almost immediately because their cooling systems had failed. All true so far.

But then one bright, sensitive sophomore, with a sheen on her eyes and a tremble in her voice, asked, “But did they at least learn something from her death?” And I said, “oh, um, well, uh… yes, yes — they learned a lot.”

Which I knew was false — they learned almost nothing. But what can you do, confronted with someone who is taking in the full reality of the fact that the Soviets sent a dog in space with the full knowledge it would die? It’s a heavy thing to admit that Laika gave her life in vain. (In subsequent classes, whenever I bring up Sputnik, I always preempt this situation by telling the above story, which relieves a little of the pressure.)

A Soviet matchbox with a heroic Laika, the first dog in space. Caption: "First satellite passenger — the dog, Laika." Want it on a shirt, or a really wonderful mug?

A Soviet matchbox with a heroic Laika, the first dog in space. Caption: “First satellite passenger — the dog, Laika.” Want it on a shirt, or a really wonderful mug?

I’m a dog person. I’ve had cats, but really, it’s dogs for me. I just believe that they connect with people on a deeper level than really any other animal. They’ve been bred to do just that, of course, and for a long time. There is evidence of human-dog cohabitation going back tens of thousands of years. (Cats are a lot more recently domesticated… and it shows.) There are many theories about the co-evolution of humans and dogs, and it has been said (in a generalization whose broadness I wince at, but whose message I endorse) that there have been many great civilizations without the wheel, but no great civilizations without the dog.

So I’ve always been kind of attracted to the idea of dogs in space. The “Mutniks,” as they were dubbed by punny American wags, were a key, distinguishing factor about the Soviet space program. And, Laika aside, a lot of them went up and came back down again, providing actually useful information about how organisms make do while in space, and allowing us to have more than just relentlessly sad stories about them. The kitsch factor is high, of course.

A friend of mine gave me a wonderfully quirky and beautiful little book last holiday season, Soviet Space Dogs, written by Olesya Turkina, published by FUEL Design and Publishing. According to its Amazon.com page, the idea for the book was hatched up by a co-founder of the press, who was apparently an aficionado of Mutnikiana (yes, I just invented that word). He collected a huge mass of odd Soviet (and some non-Soviet) pop culture references to the Soviet space dogs, and they commissioned Turkina, a Senior Research Fellow at the State Russian Museum, to write the text to accompany it. We had this book on our coffee table for several months before I decided to give it a spin, and I really enjoyed it — it’s much more than a lot of pretty pictures, though it is that, in spades, too. The narrative doesn’t completely cohere towards the end, and there are aspects of it that have a “translated from Russian” feel (and it was translated), but if you overlook those, it is both a beautiful and insightful book.

Soviet Space Dogs cover

First off, let’s start with the easy question: Why dogs? The American program primarily used apes and monkeys, as they were far better proxies for human physiology than even other mammals. Why didn’t the Soviets? According to one participant in the program, one of the leading scientists had looked into using monkeys, talking with a circus trainer, and found out that monkeys were terribly finicky: the training regimes were harder, they were prone to diseases, they were just harder in general to care for than dogs. “The Americans are welcome to their flying monkeys,” he supposedly said, “we’re more partial to dogs.” And, indeed, when they did use some monkeys later, they found that they were tough — one of them managed to worm his way out of his restraints and disable his telemetric equipment while in flight.

The Soviet dogs were all Moscow strays, picked for their size and their hardiness. The Soviet scientists reasoned that a dog that could survive on the streets was probably inherently tougher than purebred dogs that had only lived a domesticated life. (As the owner of a mutty little rescue dog, I of course am prone to see this as a logical conclusion.)

The Soviet dog program was more extensive than I had realized. Laika was the first in orbit, but she was not the first Soviet dog to be put onto a rocket. Turkina counts at least 29 dogs prior to Laika who were attached to R-1 and R-2 rockets (both direct descendants of the German V-2 rockets), sent up on flights hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth starting in 1951. An appendix at the back of the book lists some of these dogs and their flights.

Oleg Gazenko, chief of the dog medical program, with Belka (right) and Strelka (left) at a press conference in 1960. Gazenko called this "the proudest moment of his life."

Oleg Gazenko, chief of the dog medical program, with Belka (right) and Strelka (left) at a TASS press conference in 1960. Gazenko called this “the proudest moment of his life.”

Many of them died. Turkina talks of the sorrow and guilt of their handlers, who (naturally) developed close bonds with the animals, and felt personally responsible when something went wrong. Some of the surviving dogs got to live with these handlers when they retired from space service. But when the surviving dogs eventually expired, they would sometimes end up stuffed and in a museum.

I had thought I had heard everything there was to hear about Laika, but I was surprised by how much I learned. Laika wasn’t really meant to be the first dog in space — she was the understudy of another dog who had gotten pregnant just before. Laika’s death was a direct result of political pressures to accelerate the launch before they were ready, in an effort to “Sputnik” the United States once again. The head of the dog medical program, when revealing Laika’s true fate in 2002, remarked that, “Working with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

The Soviets did not initially focus on the identity of Laika. Laika was just listed as an experimental animal in the Sputnik 2 satellite. Rather, it was the Western press, specifically American and British journalists, that got interested in the identity, and fate, of the dog. The Soviet officials appear to have been caught by surprise; I can’t help but wonder if they’d had a little less secrecy, and maybe ran this by a few Americans, they’d have realized that of course the American public and press would end up focusing on the dog. It was only after discussion began in the West that Soviet press releases about Laika came out, giving her a name, a story, a narrative. And a fate: they talked about her as a martyr to science, who would be kept alive for a week before being painlessly euthanized.

Staged photo of Belka in a space suit.

Staged photo of Belka in a space suit.

In reality, Laika was already dead. They had, too late, realized that their cooling mechanisms were inadequate and she quickly, painfully expired. The fact that Laika was never meant to come back, Turkina argues, shaped the narrative: Laika had to be turned into a saintly hero, a noble and necessary sacrifice. One sees this very clearly in most of the Soviet depictions of Laika — proud, facing the stars, serious.

The next dogs, Belka and Strelka, came back down again. Belka was in fact an experienced veteran of other rocket flights. But it was Strelka’s first mission. Once again, Belka and Strelka were not meant to be the dogs for that mission: an earlier version of the rocket, kept secret at the time, exploded during launch a few weeks earlier, killing the dogs Lisichka and Chaika. These two dogs were apparently beloved by their handlers, and this was a tough blow. The secrecy of the program, of course, pervades the entire story of the Soviet side of the Space Race, and serves as a marked contrast with the much more public-facing US program (the consequences of which are explored in The Right Stuff, among other places).

When Belka and Strelka came back safely, Turkina argues, they became the first real Soviet “pop stars.” Soviet socialism didn’t really allow valorization of individual people other than Stakhanovite-style exhortations. The achievements of one were the achievements of all, which doesn’t really lend itself to pop culture. But dogs were fair game, which is one reason there is so much Soviet-era Mutnikiana to begin with: you could put Laika, Belka, and Strelka on cigarettes, matches, tea pots, commemorative plates, and so on, and nobody would complain. Plus, Belka and Strelka were cute. They could be trotted out at press conferences, on talk shows, and were the subjects of a million adorable pictures and drawings. When Strelka had puppies, they were cheered as evidence that biological reproduction could survive the rigors of space, and were both shown off and given as prized gifts to Soviet officials. So it’s not just that the Soviet space dogs are cool or cute — they’re also responsible for the development of a “safe” popular culture in a repressive society that didn’t really allow for accessible human heroes. Turkina also argues that Belka and Strelka in particular were seen as paradoxically “humanizing” space. By coming back alive, they fed dreams of an interstellar existence for mankind that were particularly powerful in the Soviet context.

Yuri Gagarin reported to have joked: “Am I the first human in space, or the last dog?” It wasn’t such a stretch — the same satellite that Belka and Strelka rode in could be used for human beings, and gave them no more space. A friend of mine, Slava Gerovitch, has written a lot about the Soviet philosophy of space rocket design, and on the low regard the engineers who ran the program had for human passengers and their propensity for messing things up. Gagarin had about as much control over his satellite as Belka and Strelka did over theirs, because neither were trusted to actually fly a satellite. The contrast between the engineering attitudes of the Soviet Vostok and the American Mercury program is evident when you compare their instrument panels. The Mercury pilots were expected to be able to fly, while poor Gagarin was expected to be flown. 

Soviet Space Dogs is a pretty interesting read. It’s a hard read for a dog lover. But seeing the Soviet space dogs in the context of the broader Soviet Space Race, and seeing them as more than just “biological cargo,” raises them from kitsch and trivia. There is also just something so emblematic of the space age about the idea of putting dogs into satellites — taking a literally pre-historic human technology, one of the earliest and most successful results of millennia of artificial breeding, and putting it atop a space-faring rocket, the most futuristic technology we had at the time.