July 16th, 1945: “It worked.” – OppenheimerPosted: July 16, 2014
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:
- The Road Warrior (1981)
- War Games (1983)
- The Day After (1983)
- Red Dawn (1984)
- Threads (1984)
- When the Wind Blows (1986)
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?
In an interview in 1965, Oppenheimer was persuaded to reveal the thought that entered his mind after seeing the explosion.
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.”