Posts Tagged ‘Trinity’


The plutonium box

Friday, March 28th, 2014

I’ve found myself in a work crunch (somehow I’ve obligated myself to give three lectures in the next week and a half, on top of my current teaching schedule!), but I’m working on some interesting things in the near term. I have a review of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control coming out in Physics Today pretty soon, and I’ll post some more thoughts on his book once that is available. And I have something exciting coming up for the 60th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s security hearing.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the results of one little investigation. I’ve posted a few times now (Posing with the plutoniumLittle boxes of doom, The Third Core’s Revenge) on the magnesium boxes that were used to transport the plutonium cores used for the Trinity test and the Fat Man bomb:

The magnesium cases for the world's first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core's case at Los Alamos, 1946.

The magnesium cases for the world’s first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core’s case at Los Alamos, 1946.

Just to recap, they were a design invented by Philip Morrison (the Powers of Ten guy, among other things), made out of magnesium with rubber bumpers made of test tube stoppers. They could hold the plutonium core pieces (two in the case of the Trinity Gadget, three in the case of Fat Man), as well as neutron initiators. Magnesium was used because it was light, dissipated heat, and did not reflect neutrons (and so wouldn’t create criticality issues). All of this information is taken from John Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs, an essential book if you care about these kinds of details.

But all of the photographs of the box I had seen, like those above, were in black and white. Not a big deal, right? But I find the relative lack of color photography from the 1940s one of those things that makes it hard to relate to the past. When all of Oppenheimer’s contemporaries talked about his icy blue eyes, it makes you want to see them as they saw them, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just me.

The only place where I almost saw a color photo of the box is in a photo that the late Harold Agnew had taken of himself on Tinian. It’s one of a large series of posing-with-plutonium photos that were taken on the island of Tinian sometime before the Nagasaki raid. Only this one is in color! Except… well, I’ll let the photo speak for itself:

Harold Agnew with plutonium core redacted

Yeah. Not super helpful. This was scanned from Rachel Fermi and Esther Samra’s wonderful Picturing the Bomb book. They asked Agnew what had happened, and he told them that:

I was in Chicago after the war in 1946. The FBI came and said they believed I had some secret pictures. They went through my pictures and found nothing. Then like a fool I said, “Maybe this one is secret.” They wanted to know what that thing was. I told them and they said that it must be secret and wanted the picture. I wanted the picture so they agreed if I scratched out the “thing” I could keep the slide.

Thwarted by nuclear secrecy, once again! You can try to look extra close at the scratches and maybe just make out the color of the “thing” but it’s a tough thing to manage.

Ah, but there is a resolution to this question. Scott Carson, a retired engineer who posts interesting nuclear things onto his Twitter account, recently posted another  photo of the box — in color and unredacted! His source was a Los Alamos newsletter from a few years back. It is of Luis Alvarez, another member of the Tinian team, in the same exact pose and location as the redacted Agnew photograph… but this time, un-redacted! And the color of the box was…

Luis Alvarez with the Fat Man core, Tinian, 1945.

…yellowNot what I was expecting.

Why yellow? My guess: it might be the same yellow paint used on the Fat Man bomb. Fat Man was painted “a mustard yellow rust-preventing zinc-chromate primer” (to quote from Coster-Mullen’s book) that made them easier to spot while doing drop tests of the casings.

The box for the Trinity core doesn’t look painted yellow to me — it looks more like raw magnesium. Maybe they decided that the tropical atmosphere of Tinian, with its high humidity, required painting the box to keep it from oxidizing. Maybe they just thought a little color would spruce up the place a little bit. I don’t know.

Does it matter? In some sense this is pure trivia. If the box was blue, green, or dull metallic, history wouldn’t be changed much at all. But I find these little excursions a nice place to meditate on the fact that the past is a hard thing to know intimately. We can’t see events exactly as they were seen by those who lived them. Literally and figuratively. The difficulty of finding out even what color something was is one trivial indication of this. And the secrecy doesn’t help with that very much.


Little boxes of doom

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

I was at a (very interesting) conference last week and didn’t get a chance to do a regular blog post. I’ll have a real post on Friday, as usual, but I thought in the meantime people might enjoy this little passage I came across in William L. Laurence’s Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb (1946):

The secrecy frequently led to tragicomic situations. A trusted courier was dispatched by automobile to deliver a small box of material, the nature of which he was not told, to a certain locality several hundred miles away. He was cautioned that at the first sign of any unusual behavior inside the box he was to abandon the automobile in a hurry and run as far away from it as his legs would carry him.

The magnesium box used for transporting the plutonium core to the Trinity site. Via Los Alamos.

The magnesium box used for transporting the plutonium core to the Trinity site. Via Los Alamos.

Our courier asked no questions and went his way, taking frequent glances at the strange box behind him. Things went well until he came to the middle of a long bridge. Suddenly, from directly behind him, came a terrific boom. Out of the car he dashed like one possessed, running faster than he had ever run in his life. Out of breath and exhausted, he stopped to examine himself to make sure that he was still in one piece. Meantime a long line of traffic had gathered behind his driverless car and the air was filled with the loud tooting of impatient motorists.

Slowly he made his way back to his automobile and found to his amazement that it was still all there. Peering cautiously inside, he was even more amazed to find his precious box on the same spot as before. He was used to strange things, this courier, so he took his place at the wheel and was about the continue on his mission when once again he heard a loud boom directly behind him.

Once again he made a dash for his life, heedless of the angry horns that by this time were sounding from a line more than a mile long. Still exhausted from his previous mad dash, he nevertheless managed to put a considerable distance between himself and his mysterious box.

Eventually he made his way back, to find his car and his box in the same spot where he had left them. This time, however, he found an irate traffic officer waiting for him. Beyond showing the officer by his credentials that he was a Government employee, there was nothing he could tell him. It turned out that there had been blasting going on underneath the bridge.

Who knows how much of the story is true and how much of it is embellished by either Laurence or the original teller, but I thought it was highly amusing. One suspects, by the description of the box, the particular safety concerns, and the distance, that they are talking about the movement of the Trinity core from Los Alamos to the Trinity site.

John Coster-Mullen, in his fantastically interesting Atom Bombs (a newly-updated copy of which he recently sent me), has a somewhat related anecdote from the plane that transported the Fat Man core to Tinian in late July 1945: “During the flight to Tinian, they ran into a storm. [Raemer] Schreiber was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and one of the guards came forward and tapped him nervously on the shoulder. ‘Sir, your box is bouncing around back there and we’re scared to touch it.’ Schreiber went back, corralled it, got a piece of rope and tied it to one of the legs of the cots.”


The Third Core’s Revenge

Friday, August 16th, 2013

By the end of August 1945, there had been a total of three plutonium cores created in the entire world. Everyone knows about the first two. The first was put into the Gadget and detonated at Trinity in July 1945. The second was put into the Fat Man and detonated over Nagasaki in August 1945. The third, however, has been largely overlooked. The third core was the one that was destined to be the Third Shot dropped on Japan, had there been a Third Shot. Instead, it has a different story — but it was still not a peaceful one.1

The magnesium cases for the world's first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core's case at Los Alamos, 1946.

The magnesium cases for the world’s first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core, July 1945. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core, August 1945. Right: The third core’s case at Los Alamos, early 1946.

One of the questions I got from people regarding the “Why Nagasaki?” post I wrote last week was “When would the Third Shot really have been ready?” The reason for the question is that since the Third Shot was unlikely to have been ready by the time Hirohito announced Japan’s acquiescence to the American surrender demands (August 15), that satisfies the question of why another one wasn’t used. In a very practical sense, it does, but it ignores the fact that Truman actually put a “stop” on all further atomic bombings on August 10 — when the effect (if any) of the bombs on Japan’s high command was yet unknown. (He did not, it is worth noting, put a stop on firebombing: huge B-29 raids continued up until the surrender announcement.)

But still, it’s an interesting question to consider. There are two components to it: when did they think the third core would be ready, and when was it actually ready? On the first question, we know that on August 10, General Groves wrote to General Marshall that:

The next bomb of the implosion type had been scheduled to be ready for delivery on the target on the first good weather after 24 August 1945 . We have gained 4 days in manufacture and expect to ship from New Mexico on 12 or 13 August the final components. Providing there are no unforeseen difficulties in manufacture, in transportation to the theatre or after arrival in the theatre, the bomb should be ready for delivery on the first suitable weather after 17 or 18 August.2


It was on this document that Marshall scrawled, “It is not to be released on Japan without express authority from the President” — the Truman “stop” order. But we also know, from the Seeman-Hull document I discussed in an earlier post, that Marshall was still interested in the atomic production rate on Monday, August 13, 1945. At that time, Seeman claimed that:

Seeman: There’s one ready to be shipped now — waiting on order right now. [...] The whole program is phased according to the best production. There is one of them that is ready to be shipped right now. The order was given Thursday [August 9?] and it should be ready the 19th.

Hull: If the order is given now, when can it be ready?

Seeman: Thursday [August 16] would be its readiness; the 19th it would be dropped.

Hull: In other words, three or four day advance notice before it can be shipped, and six days after that when it can be dropped.

So that’s a pretty interesting conversation — it tells us that the core was in some kind of almost-finished state by August 13. In a 2012 interview, physicist Lawrence Litz told Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation that:

Levy: What was—how did—do you remember working on casting the plutonium for the third bomb?

Litz: The particular day that remembers—that remains in my memory was the day that we cast the plutonium for the third bomb because we weren’t sure that the Japanese would surrender even after the second bomb was dropped. We had to cast the atmospheres for the third, and because time was short we had to cast the two hemispheres at the same time. But it was dangerous to cast them in the same laboratory at the same time so we set up two adjacent laboratories with the high vacuum apparatus and the—so we could cast one hemisphere in each one of the two labs.

Levy: How long did that take to cast?

Litz: About twenty-four hours and we had to work straight through.

Which gives some indication of the tenor of the day, and the fact that Truman’s “stop” order didn’t mean that they weren’t expecting to potentially keep atomic bombing. (As does the Seeman-Hull conversation.)

How much plutonium was on hand in August 1945? I’ve been hunting around for anything that would give me some hard numbers on this, and finally, basically when I’d given up on the effort, I was surprised to stumbled across a document that did:

1945-08-30 - Los Alamos plutonium inventory

“49 Interim Processing Program No. 24,” dated August 30, 1945, indicates that by that date that Los Alamos had, by their assessment, received 26.136 kg of plutonium from Hanford.3  Figuring out what was done with all of that requires a little decoding of the terminology. 12.292 kg of the material is listed as having been transferred to the US Army with the notation “HS-1, 2, 3, 4; R-1″ after it. I haven’t seen this notation before, but I think it’s almost certain that ”HS” means “hemisphere,” i.e. half of a sphere of plutonium. So two full spheres worth were transferred to the Army and were at that time “non-usable,” along with “R-1.” R-1 is almost certainly an “anti-jet” ring developed for use in the Fat Man core (and not present in Trinity’s core).4 So HS-1+HS-2 were the Trinity core components, and HS-3+HS-4+R-1 was the Fat Man core. The first two cores were “non-usable” because they had been detonated.

So we can see from the document that HS-5, HS-6, and R-2 had already been cast and were in the hands of Quality Control at the lab (QC). HS-7 and R-3 had been already cast by then, but still needed hot pressing and nickel coating. HS-8 was scheduled to be pressed on August 31, and finished by September 5. Which is the finest-grain look at the early nuclear production schedule that I’ve ever seen. (And as you can tell I’m quite proud of myself for finding it and deciphering it!)

But the story of the third core doesn’t end there. 

The core was cast sometime around August 13th, but still likely needed to be pressed and coated, ergo the need to take until August 16th to finalize. By August 15th, it became clear that it wasn’t going to be needed in the war. So it was kept at Los Alamos.

A mockup of the third core's experimental setup, August 21, 1945. (Source: Los Alamos)

A mockup of the third core’s experimental setup, August 21, 1945. (Source: Los Alamos)

What it was doing between August 15th and August 21st, I don’t know. But I do know that on August 21st it was being used for critical mass experiments — “tickling the dragon’s tail.” The experiments in question involved surrounding a full 6.2 kg core with tungsten carbide, getting information about the effect that different tamper arrangements had on criticality. (The tamper reflects neutrons back into the core, thus increasing the overall neutron economy and thus lowering the effective critical mass.)

The experimenter in question was 24-year-old physicist Harry Daghlian, Jr. To quote from a report on the experiment:

[Daghlian] was carrying one brick [of tungsten carbide] in his left hand over the assembly, to place it in the center of the fifth layer. While he had this brick suspended over the assembly, he noticed (from the instruments) that the addition of this brick would have made the assembly supercritical if placed on top of the assembly. Having realized this, he was withdrawing his left hand and the brick from over the assembly and while doing so the brick slipped out of his hand and fell immediately onto the center of the assembly. Knowing that this brick would made the assembly dangerous, he instinctively and immediately pushed this brick off the assembly with his right hand. While doing this, he stated that he felt a tingling sensation in his right hand and at the same time noticed a blue glow surrounding the assembly, the depth of the blue glow being estimated to be about two inches.5

Daghlian was estimated to have received a 510 rem dose of ionizing radiation — a usually lethal dose. He died after an agonizing month. This, incidentally, appears to have been why at the time of the August 30 audit, the core was in Quality Control: they were checking to make sure it had not undergone any “dimensional changes” as a result.

One might think that someone involved with the investigation of the Daghlian accident would be especially cautious around using such a core in further critical mass experiments, even if only for superstitious reasons.

Re-creation of Slotin's fatal experiment with the third core. (Source: Los Alamos)

Re-creation of Slotin’s fatal experiment with the third core. (Source: Los Alamos)

But exactly 9 months later, one of the co-authors of the above-cited report, Louis Slotin, would himself receive a lethal radiation dose from the exact same core in the process of yet another (different) critical mass experiment. Slotin knew the experiment in question was dangerous, and had been told by Enrico Fermi that he would be “dead within a year” if he continued to work with such bravado. Like Daghlian, his hand faltered at a literally critical juncture: he was holding a neutron reflector above the core with a screw driver when his fatal slip occurred, lowering the reflector just a fraction of an inch, releasing a stream of neutrons and the characteristic blue glow. Slotin died 9 days later.

The third core, by now nicknamed the “demon core” for having taken two lives, would not go out with a whimper. By some accounts, it found its final disposition in the first postwar nuclear test, shot “Able” of Operation Crossroads, on July 1, 1946,  just under a year after it had been first cast, in that all-night session, in the closing days of World War II. Encased in a “Fat Man” assembly with “GILDA” stenciled on its hull, it was finally dropped from a B-29, as it was originally intended to be, and it detonated over a fleet of empty ships in the Bikini atoll, with a yield of 21 kilotons. Alas, the journalists who saw it, with perhaps higher expectations for their first atomic bomb test, incorrectly dubbed it a flop.

The final use of the third core: the Crossroads "Able" shot, July 1, 1946.

The final use of the third core: the Crossroads “Able” shot, July 1, 1946.

That a single plutonium core could go through so much may seem remarkable. But it is a reflection of a time when such cores were extremely rare commodities. And so a single core could simultaneously be the one originally destined for the “third shot,” and also be the subject of two fatal criticality accidents, and also still be the first core consumed by postwar nuclear testing. It is a potent reminder of how paltry the American nuclear arsenal once was — when there were less than a dozen pieces of cores, much less cores themselves.

  1. Since a few people have gotten confused, I think I should say somewhere explicitly: the Hiroshima bomb, Little Boy, used a 64 kg highly-enriched uranium core. I’m only talking about plutonium here, in part because it was only plutonium cores that were being manufactured at this point, since the Little Boy design was considered more or less instantly obsolete. []
  2. Leslie R. Groves to George C. Marshall (10 August 1945), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, document NV0137881. []
  3. C.S. Garner, “49 Interim Processing Program No. 24,” (30 August 1945), DOE OpenNet Document ALLAOSTI126018. It is interesting, as well, that the Hanford (W) and Los Alamos (Y) assays were off by 1.376 kg, which is quite a lot in this context (22% of a bomb core, or 44% of a single hemisphere). There are indications in the files that they did quite a lot of sniffing around trying to figure out what each site was doing that led to these different assessments. The problem of Material Unaccounted For never really goes away, but it’s interesting that it shows up this early in the game. []
  4. I discussed the fact that the Trinity and Nagasaki cores were slightly different in a very old blog post; Trinity was just two hemispheres, whereas Fat Man also included the ring. []
  5. Paul Aebersold, Louis Hempelmann, and Louis Slotin, “Report on Accident of August 21, 1945 at Omega Site,” (26 August 1945), LAMD-120, copy reprinted in John Coster-Mullen, Atom bombs: The Top Secret inside story of Little Boy and Fat Man, rev. 2007. []

The bomb and its makers

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

In part of the “make this blog actually work again” campaign, I’ve changed some things on the backend which required me to change the blog url from to Fortunately, even if you don’t update your bookmarks, the old links should all still work automatically. It seems to be working a lot better at the moment — in the sense that I can once again edit the blog — so that’s something!

In all of the new NUKEMAP fuss, and the fact that my blog kept crashing, I didn’t get a chance to mention that I had two multimedia essays up on the website of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I’m pretty happy with both of these, both visually and in terms of the text.

The first was published a few weeks ago, and was related to my much earlier post relating to the badge photographs at Los Alamos. The faces that made the Bomb has so far proved to be the one thing I’ve done that people end up bringing up in casual conversation without realizing I wrote it. (The scenario is, I meet someone new, I mention I work on the history of nuclear weapons, they ask me if I’ve seen this thing on the Internet about the badge photographs, I answer that I in fact wrote it, a slight awkwardness follows.)


Some of the badge photographs are the ones that anyone on here would be familiar with — Oppenheimer, Groves, Fuchs, etc. But I enjoyed picking out a few more obscure characters. One of my favorites of these is Charlotte Serber, wife of the physicist and Oppenheimer student Robert Serber. Here’s my micro-essay:

Charlotte Serber was one of the many wives of the scientists who came to Los Alamos during the war. She was also one of the many wives who had their own substantial jobs while at the lab. While her husband, Robert Serber, worked on the design of the first nuclear weapons, Charlotte was the one in charge of running the technical library. While “librarian” might not at first glance seem vital to the war project, consider J. Robert Oppenheimer’s postwar letter to Serber, thanking her that “no single hour of delay has been attributed by any man in the laboratory to a malfunctioning, either in the Library or in the classified files. To this must be added the fact of the surprising success in controlling and accounting for the mass of classified information, where a single serious slip might not only have caused us the profoundest embarrassment but might have jeopardized the successful completion of our job.” Serber fell under unjustified suspicion of being a Communist in the immediate postwar, and, according to her FBI file, her phones were tapped. Who had singled her out as a possible Communist, because of her left-wing parents? Someone she thought of as a close personal friend: J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Charlotte was also the only woman Division Leader at Los Alamos, as the director of the library. She was also the only Division Leader barred from attending the Trinity test — on account of a lack of “facilities” for women there. She considered this a gross injustice.

What I like about Charlotte is not only that she highlights that many of the “Los Alamos wives” actually did work that was crucial to the project (and there were scientists amongst the “wives” as well, such as Elizabeth R. Graves, who I also profiled), and that the work of a librarian can be pretty vital (imagine if they didn’t have good organization of their reports, files, and classified information). But I also find Charlotte’s story amazing because of the betrayal: Oppenheimer the friend, Oppenheimer the snitch.

I should note that Oppenheimer’s labeling of Charlotte was probably not meant to be malicious — he was going over lists of people who might have Communist backgrounds when talking to the Manhattan Project security officers. He rattled off a number of names, and even said he thought most of them probably weren’t themselves Communists. This, of course, meant that they got flagged as possible Communists for the rest of their lives. Oppenheimer’s attempt to look loyal to the security system, even his attempts to be benign about it, were terrible failures in the long run, both for him and for his poor friends. Albert Einstein put it well: “The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him—the United States government.”

Kenneth Bainbridge

The other one I want to highlight on here is that of Kenneth T. Bainbridge. Bainbridge was Harvard physicist and was in charge of organizing Project Trinity, the first test of the atomic bomb in July 1945. It was a big job — bigger, I think, than most people realize. You don’t just throw an atomic bomb on top of a tower in the desert and set it off. It had a pretty large staff, required a ton of theoretical and practical work, and, in the end, was an experiment that, ideally, destroyed itself in the process. Here was my Bainbridge blurb:

During the Manhattan Project, Harvard physicist Kenneth Bainbridge was in charge of setting up the Trinity test—afterward he became known as the person who famously said: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Years later he wrote a letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer explaining his choice of words: “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’s reply to Bainbridge’s sentiments was simple: “We do not have to explain them to anyone.

I’ve had that Bainbridge/Oppenheimer exchange in my files for a long time, but never really had a great opportunity to put it into print. To flesh out the context a little more, it came out in the wake of Lansing Lamont’s popular book, Day of Trinity (1965). Bainbridge was one of the sources Lamont had talked to, and he gave him the “sons of bitches” quote. Oppenheimer’s full reply to Bainbridge took some digs at the book:

“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.”

The “obscure lines” was some kind of code supposedly sent by Oppenheimer to Kitty to say that the test worked. In Bainbridge’s files at the Harvard Archives there is quite a lot of material on the Lamont book from other Manhattan Project participants — most of them found a lot of fault with it on a factual basis, but admired its writing and presentation.

Bainbridge makes for a good segue into my other BAS multimedia essay, “The beginning of the Bomb,” which is about the Trinity test and which came out just before the 68th anniversary, which was two weeks ago. It also was somewhat of a reprise of themes I’d first played with on the blog, namely my post on “Trinity’s Cloud.” I’ve been struck that while Trinity was so extensively documented, the same few pictures of it and its explosion are re-used again and again. Basically, if it isn’t one of the “blobs of fire” pictures, or the Jack Aeby early-stage fireball/cloud photograph (the one used on the cover of The Making of the Atomic Bomb), then it doesn’t seem to exist. Among other things related to Trinity, I got to include two of my favorite alternative Trinity photographs.

Trinity long exposure

The first is this ghostly apparition above. What a strange, occult thing the atomic bomb looks like in this view. While most photographs of the bomb are concerned about capturing it at a precise fraction of a second — a nice precursor to the famous Rapatronic photographs of the 1950s — this one does something quite different, and quite unusual. This is a long exposure photograph of several seconds of the explosion. The caption indicates (assuming I am interpreting it correctly) that it is an exposure of several seconds before the explosion and then two seconds after the beginning of the detonation. Which would explain why there are so many pre-blast details available to see.

The result is what you see here: a phantom whose resemblance to the “classic” Trinity explosion pictures is more evocative than definite. And if you view it at full size, you can just make out features of the desert floor: the cables that held up the tower, for example. (Along with some strange, blobby artifacts associated with dark room work.) I somewhat wish this was the image of “the atomic bomb” that we all had in our minds — dark, ghastly, tremendous. Instead of seeing just a moment after the atomic age began, we instead see in a single image the transition between one age and the next.

Trinity mushroom cloud

Most of the photographs of Trinity are of its first few seconds. But this one is not. It may be the only good photograph I have seen of the late-stage Trinity mushroom cloud. It is striking, is it not? A tall, dark column of smoke, lightly mushroomed at the top, with a larger cloud layer above it. “Ominous” is the word I keep coming back to, especially once you know that the cloud in question was highly radioactive.

One of the things I found while researching the behavior of mushroom clouds for the NUKEMAP3D was that while the mushroom cloud is an ubiquitous symbol of the bomb, it is specifically the early-stage mushroom cloud whose photograph gets shown repeatedly. Almost all nuclear detonation photographs are of the first 30 second or so of the explosion, when the mushroom cloud is still quite small, and usually quite bright and mushroomy. The late-stage cloud — about 4-10 minutes, depending on the yield of the bomb — is a much larger, darker, and unpleasant thing.

Why did we so quickly move from thinking of the atomic bomb as a burst of fire into a cloud of smoke? The obvious answer would be Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where we lacked the instrumentation to see the fireball, and only could see the cloud. But I’m still struck that our visions of these things are still so constrained to a few examples, a few moments in time, out of so many other possibilities, each with their own quite different visual associations.


The 36-Hour War: Life Magazine, 1945

Friday, April 5th, 2013

When NUKEMAP first got very hot, the Washington Post’s blog declared its popularity a sign of our jittery times. Those were Iranian jittery times, if we remember back all the way to a year ago — today we are jittery again, this time regarding North Korea. And so people are flocking to the NUKEMAP again, trying to see what North Korea’s latest weapons would do to their cities if they were used. I’m almost tempted to push out the new one early, just to take advantage of the interest, but I have faith that we will be jittery again whenever the new one is done. Nuclear jitters aren’t a new thing.

Visualizing nuclear war is an old media pastime. How old? One of the most vivid early depictions of this sort of atomic apocalyptic thinking come from Life magazine’s issue of November 19, 1945 — only a few months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From the cover of the issue, you’d have little to suspect about its contents. “Ah, big beltsFascinating! I love big belts!”

Life magazine - November 1945 - Big Belts

But once you get beyond that, the interior stories are much more interesting. For people interested in World War II and the Cold War, there are a lot of great stories in here: articles about what should be done with postwar China, what was going on in postwar Poland (with some impressive, awful photographs), plus an article on occupied Tokyo (with some amazing illustrations), and another on the OSS (spies!). There was even, at the very end, a reproduction of the Jack Aeby photo of the “Trinity” test, in full color (which was apparently just “orange,” after going through Life’s printing processes).

But the real stunner story of the issue was something much more grim. Once you get past a lot of fluffy stuff, you’re greeted with this horror:

1945 - Life - 36-Hour War - 1

“The 36-Hour War.” This long, feature story is a description of what nuclear war in the future will look like. It was based on a report by General “Hap” Arnold, the chief of the Army Air Forces during World War II and the later founder of Project RAND, which became the RAND Corporation, the epitome of a Cold War think tank. (He was also, incidentally, the guy who gave Curtis LeMay his job in the Pacific theatre.)

The report in question was the “Third Report of the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces to the Secretary of War.” Hunting around a bit, I eventually located a copy of the original online, if you’d like to look at it. It was published only a week before the Life story on it, which is pretty impressive given the illustrations involved in the article. The report is concerned both with summarizing what had happened in the air war during World War II on both the European and Pacific fronts, as well as a concluding section on “Air Power and the Future,” which is the subject of the “36-Hour War” article. Like many strategic bombing advocates, Arnold downplayed the importance of the bomb for World War II, emphasizing that the only reason the atomic bombs, or any bombs, could be delivered at will was because they had already won strategic superiority over the island. It’s the future where Arnold thought atomic weapons will really matter.

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And it’s a grim future: rockets plus nuclear weapons equals “the ghastliest of all wars,” according to Life. The implications of ICBMs somewhat understood well over a decade before they were technologically realized.

The Life story starts with a large illustration of Washington, DC, getting nuked (hey, at least it’s not New York again, right? But why are they nuking RFK Stadium?), and then follows with a two-page spread showing 13 “key U.S. centers” getting wiped out by the Soviet Union. “Within a few seconds atomic bombs have exploded over New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boulder Dam, New Orleans, Denver, Washington, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Kansas City, and Knoxville.” (Sorry, Boston, but you didn’t rate! Austin, you are fine for now!) They guess that 10 million people would be killed in the initial attack. “The enemy’s purpose is not to destroy industry, which is an objective only in the long old-fashioned wars like the last one, but to paralyze the U.S. by destroying its people.”

Amusingly, the Life writer suggests that these Soviet missiles came from silos in equatorial Africa, “secretly built in the jungle to escape detection by the UNO Security Council.” Ah, the naiveté of 1945, believing that it would be a taboo of some sort to build ICBM sites! Believing that some kind of international order would be assembled that might affect the conduct of nuclear war! Sigh.

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But on the whole the Life story is not bad (except for the ending, which I’ll get to). On the page above, it talks about radar as an early warning technique which they claim would give perhaps 30 minutes warning in the event of an ICBM attack. But they also point out that radar can be evaded by low-altitude missiles and smuggled atomic bobs. And they recognize that 30 minutes is really not that long of a period in time — “even 30 minutes is too little time for men to control the weapons of atomic war.” At best, they suggest, such warning could be used to fire defensive rockets at the incoming rockets, a topic they cover on the next page.

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“Our Defensive Machines Stop Few Attackers.” Dang. In this hypothetical future, the US has a missile defense system that works pretty much like you’d expect one to work today — maybe it might destroy a few of them, “but inevitably it would miss some of the time.” The illustration above shows the enemy rocket “coasting through space” in its final descent, with the interceptor missile coming up from the ground. Some nice copy: “When the two collide, the atomic explosion will appear to observers on the earth as a brilliant new star.” It doesn’t actually work that way, but whatever, it’s a nice sentence.

In his report, Arnold outlines three approaches to “defense” against atomic attack. First, you basically try to make sure nobody is making nuclear weapons. Not a bad start, you have to admit. Second, you should try and develop defenses against launched attacks — e.g. missile and bomber defense. A bit more problematic. Third, you redesign the entire country to make it harder to attack with nukes. This is basically the “dispersal” theory of defense — if you don’t have all of your infrastructure and people living in a few, centralized locations, then the vulnerability to all but the most apocalyptic attacks is a lot lower.

But finally, he emphasizes — in the manner befitting a general, I suppose — that the best defense is a good offense. That is, deterrence. And to do that, you need a good second-strike capability, to use the lingo of a later time.

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The Life writer and illustrator decided to combine both of these last two ideas, creating a rather amazing fantasy nuclear installation. Take a look at that spread — it’s a huge underground city devoted to producing ICBMs and launching them en masse. It has underground streets and underground cars and underground trains. I’m not sure that Arnold was suggesting anything like this, but it’s pretty amazing. It doesn’t seem very practical, for a lot of reasons (those firing tubes look pretty vulnerable to attack, which would moot the whole installation), but it’s wonderfully imaginative for 1945. Philip K. Dick wrote about crazy installations like this in some of his short stories, but those were written in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Towards the “war’s end,” enemy troops would show up. This is because, according to the Life writers, “in spite of the apocalyptic destruction caused by its atomic bombs, an enemy nation would have to invade the U.S. to win the war.” Win the war? Here you see a little bit of divergence from what would be a more common narrative: that nuclear war is really just about a “knock-out punch,” as opposed to conventional notions of taking over a country.

The illustration above is pretty interesting. OK, obvious cheesecake fantasy going on there, as gas-masked Soviet thugs step over the somehow-still-beautiful corpse of a telephone operator whose blouse has almost been knocked open by atomic bombs. The Soviet soldiers are attempting to repair the telephone infrastructure and get the country back up to (occupied) speed, and are walking around destroyed streets with bazookas (a less-sung wonder-weapon of WWII). The Life staff estimate that 40 million would be dead at this point “and all cities of more than 50,000 population have been leveled.” New York’s Fifth Avenue is merely a “lane through the debris.” 

But, but! Have some hope! Improbably, “as it is destroyed, the U.S. is fighting back. The enemy airborne troops are wiped out. U.S. rockets lay waste the enemy’s cities. U.S. airborne troops successfully occupy his country. The U.S. wins the atomic war.“ Wait, what? We won the war? How? A little hand-waving was all that was needed. I know, they nuked all our major cities and landed troops with bazookas, but don’t worry, we managed to (within 36-hours, mind you!) launch a devastating counterattack that included occupying his country. Well. I am relieved and can move on to the article on big belts, no?

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Well, hooray. Of course, the country has been reduced to radioactive rubble — “By the marble lions of the New York Public Library, U.S. technicians test the rubble of the shattered city for radioactivity.” But chin up — we won the war!

It’s an amazing place for the article to just… end. A preview of un-defendable, horrible destruction, and then a quick deus ex machina that resolves it. And what a resolution! 40 million dead, no more big cities, but don’t worry, we got ‘em back! It’s really not very satisfying. It has the whiff of a heavy, least-minute editorial hand: “we can’t end on such a grim note, and then expect them to just move on to other articles. We’ve gotta win, in the end! Give ‘em some hope!”

One wonders: what was the public supposed to take away from this? Support for international control of the bomb? Support for better defenses? Fear of the future? It’s really a wonderful mess, the sort of thing you’d expect only a few months after the bomb made its debut, to be sure. Not all of the clichés had codified, the genre was still new.

Speaking of which — remember that devastating sequence from Fog of War, where Robert McNamara describes the firebombing of Japan, telling you what percentage of each Japanese city was destroyed, and then telling you an American-sized equivalent? The Arnold report in question did it first, and may have been the source for the data (the percentages and cities seem to match exactly):

1945 - Arnold map - bombing of Japan

Which makes a wonderful full-circle, doesn’t it? Something originally used to brag about performance has now become a touchstone for explaining the barbarity of the Pacific campaign.