July 16th, 1945: “It worked.” – Oppenheimer

Sixty-nine years ago today, the first atomic bomb was detonated at the White Sands Proving Ground, in Socorro County, New Mexico.

That was long before I was born, of course, but my entire childhood was lived in the shadow of that day. I was a tag-along baby, born to my mother when she was 40. My youngest sister was 14 when I was born in 1967. The middle one was born in 1950. The eldest was born in 1945 — she was about two months old when the Trinity test happened.

(Yes, that’s the same sister I recently wrote about. She is recovering beautifully after an emergency surgery to remove a bleeding brain tumor that no one knew was there.)

Because of my position in the family, my world was clouded by more nuclear awareness than the worlds of most of my age-mates. My uncle served in the Pacific Theater during WWII. He was a big fan of atomic warfare. My mother seems to have avoided much real political awareness and thus never commented on her feelings about the atom bomb, other than to say she was glad it ended the war. My sisters, on the other hand, actually remember doing duck and cover drills in school, and they mentioned it often as I was growing up. (Apparently that sort of shit will scar you.) The oldest was 17 in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To further intensify my fear of impending nuclear doom, I came of age in the 80s – a time of elevated tensions in the Cold War. I was 16 in September 1983 when a Soviet Su-15 interceptor shot down Korean Air Flight 007, which was en route from New York City to Seoul. Just a month later, NATO, including the US, conducted nuclear war games despite the thick tension between the US and the Soviet Union. The Soviets believed the simulation, called Able Archer, might be a smokescreen for an actual first-strike attack.

Now, in hindsight, many historians assert that November, 1983 was the closest we’ve been to full-scale nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Thank God I didn’t know how close we were to total annihilation at the time.

Not that my paranoia wasn’t already full-blown, thanks to some of the films of the 80s like:

Then there was the publication of The Postman, by David Brin, in 1985 followed by Swan Song, by Robert McCammon, in 1987.

By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I was permanently scarred.

Nowadays, I keep close track of which nations have nuclear capabilities. I worry about the antics of Putin and Kim Jung-un. I continue to have nightmares about nuclear winter. And I still notice the anniversaries of nuclear events. I’ve always figured I’m fairly well-schooled on all things atomic, but I did not know that this memorial existed until today. Now I’m trying to figure out if I want to visit there someday or if I never want to go near it.

What about you?

Trinity Site Obelisk National Historic Landmark

Image from Wikipedia Commons

In an interview in 1965, Oppenheimer was persuaded to reveal the thought that entered his mind after seeing the explosion.

From Wikipedia:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

According to his brother, at the time Oppenheimer simply exclaimed, “It worked.”


11 Comments on “July 16th, 1945: “It worked.” – Oppenheimer”

  1. Glad to hear your sister is on her way to recovery. I remember those grade-school drills and looking back and thinking how silly they actually were – because a school desk would not help if a bomb were truly dropped there. We can watch what is happening in the world with weapon usage, but in generally – we all have our hands tied. So this is one of the things out of our control, which means it won’t help using up your energy stressing over it. That’s where faith comes in.

    • I’m not very good with faith. Well, I don’t know if that’s really true. I do tend to assume that things will work out well, even in the face of difficulties. I guess I have faith in my husband and children. I have faith in some kind of living good, though I go back and forth on what to call that. I have faith in myself. When it comes to people and politics, though, I get more disillusioned as I age.

  2. angryscholar says:

    Interesting post, Renae. My fiancee is from Japan and is there now, mercifully far enough from the disaster site in Fukushima that she doesn’t need to worry too much (except when it comes to buying produce from affected areas). But the threat of nuclear power in all its forms is definitely a truly terrifying thing. I can’t imagine what living through the Cold War must have been like. I’m just old enough to have enjoyed some of the post-apocalyptic fiction to have grown out of those anxieties, without being scarred in the way you describe. That could change at any time, of course.

    Kurosawa had an interesting film called Dreams, actually a collection of shorts, one of which dealt with the threat of nuclear meltdown. Eerily my lady friend and I happened to watch it together shortly before the Fukushima disaster. It’s worth checking out–though it definitely won’t make you feel any better about things.

    Great to hear that your sister is okay.

    • angryscholar says:

      Er, of course I was alive for part of the Cold War. But I was too young for it to make much of an impact.

      Dates=numbers, and numbers=bad for my brainses.

      • I have to admit, I did think to myself, “Good Lord, Scholar, I’m not that old and you’re not THAT young.” 😀

        But I do actually understand what you mean. This stuff isn’t as “real” to my children as it is to me … even though they may have a little more unwelcome awareness than their peers, simply because I raised them.

        Ogre will be THRILLED when I tell him to add a Kurosawa film to my “Yeah, I’ll watch that with you” list.(He gets really tired of my pop-horror tastes sometimes … poor, ill-matched cinephile that he is.)

  3. jokelly65 says:

    ah the cold war, I had an incredible time growing up in that Era. Able Archer, there was a show on, I think the military channel or maybe History channel, essentially the Soviet premier refused to believe their intel, top spies and military commanders that it was an exercise, and gave the order to launch when US forces request to fire was being sent up the chain to the white house. the only thing that averted WWIII that day was the Soviet officer who was in charge of the their nuclear weapons unit, believed it was an exercise and refused to follow the Order to launch. it was shortly after that, that Reagan hearing how close we came stopped with the evil empire rhetoric and met with the Soviets for the first time for START talks.

    just to share an odd Cold war family thing, My dad was in Berlin when the wall went up. I was in Berlin the day the wall came down. .You want to talk about a wild time to be alive.

    • That is SO cool about you and your dad being there. Why were you each there? Relatives? Work?

      • jokelly65 says:

        My Dad was Stationed in Berlin as the wall went up. I was stationed in Central Germany but had taken leave to visit Berlin, and was there by luck more than anything else when the announcement came over the TV that the GDR was opening its borders.

        My dad died when I was four, and I only found out about his being stationed there when I was telling my uncle about the night the world changed.

        I can not even describe the roller coaster of emotions we all went through that night, the thousands of people cheering and dancing, singing, waving candles, passing around bottles of wine and Champagne. I t was on of those rare moments, where there is no doubt that your a part of History.

        There is another story I have about the end of the Cold war I will share some time, It’s one I will never forget and just as important to me as the Wall coming down.

        • Thank you so much for sharing, Joe. I should have thought about military service. I look forward to reading your additional story … if I miss it, and if you think of it, please let me know when it goes up. I really am fascinated with that whole era. (‘Might want to expand on what you’ve written above too … lots of people would be interested in a first person account of that time.)

  4. scoobyclue says:

    This is such a thought provoking entry … I hate that my first thought was WOLVERINES — that’s what happens when you mention Red Dawn to me … and as corny as it is – I will still watch it, at least the old one

    Since my Mom is German, my cold war memories are tinged with my summers there …

    • I clearly need to see Red Dawn again. Ogre reminded me that it belonged on the list of cold war movies, but I honestly don’t remember it well.

      I am constantly amazed by how cosmopolitan other people are. I can’t image spending my childhood summers in another state, let alone another country.

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