By Gary G. Kohls, MD
“Down in New Mexico we were trav’lin’ along. Stopped in Los Alamos, didn’t stay long, But we wanted to see the scene of the crime Where they made the A-bomb and then created a shrine.”—From Keeping the Peace, by singer-songwriter Sara Thomsen
70 years ago this week (July 16, 1945), an assortment of foreign scientists, the original group of which were mostly refugees fleeing European fascism, succeeded in exploding the first experimental atomic bomb.
The site of detonation of the plutonium bomb (which was essentially identical to the one that ambushed and destroyed Nagasaki a few weeks later on August 9) was in the desert outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. The site of the blast was to become blasphemously known as the Trinity Site. Trinity was the code name for the experiment and the Manhattan Project was the code name for the US Army’s secret project to develop atomic bombs, with the stated intent to use them against military targets in Nazi Germany. That is, until Germany surrendered before any of the bombs were ready to launch.
Then mission creep entered the picture and a scramble for other targets ensued. As I have previously written in this column, despite the certainty that Japan was trying to find a way to surrender with honor, the US military started looking for Japanese targets.
Motivating factors for not just mothballing the massively expensive project included 1) the huge secret costs that would be difficult to explain to Congress if the bomb hadn’t been used, 2) the momentum that had been built up was impossible to stop, 3) the unquenchable desire to achieve retribution against Japan for its ambush at Pearl Harbor (killing only 2,500 soldiers), and 4) the need to demonstrate to the USSR that we had “the bomb” and to warn Stalin to stay away from the spoils of the already defeated Japan.
The ragtag team of mostly English-as-a-second-language immigrant scientists had been ably headed by two American citizens, the physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (the first director of the Los Alamos [New Mexico] National Laboratories, which was code-named Project Y) and by US Army Colonel (soon to be promoted to brigadier general) Leslie R. Groves. Each had been charged with organizing the hugely diverse number of scientific teams and, in the case of Groves, the organizations necessary to produce the materials that could complete such a complex and expensive mission.
The project, called the Manhattan Project because it began in New York City, started in 1939 and cost $2 billion 1940s dollars to complete ($26 billion in today’s dollars). 90 % of the money was spent in the manufacturing processes and only 10% in research and development. 130,000 people had been employed over the war years. The project was slated to end at the successful conclusion of the war, but as is typical for Pentagon and corporate mission creep any number of megacorporations like Dow Chemical, ICI, Raytheon, and assorted investment banks interested in exploiting the publicly-financed nuclear research kept Los Alamos in business. Indeed the nuclear weapons research, development and production were accelerated, rather than stopped, and the world became immeasurably more unstable.
Illegal, or at Least Poorly-documented Aliens Were the Inspiration and the Brains Behind America’s Manhattan Project
Many of the “alien” scientist leaders in the Manhattan Project were refugees from Europe and many of them would become Nobel Prize winners for their achievements in nuclear physics; but at the time of their service, they had come to America mostly to escape Hitler’s fascist regime. Significantly, following the war, the Pentagon, showing its right-wing leanings, not only purged the leftist Oppenheimer (because of his family’s anti-fascist/communist/socialist history) but it recruited scores of pro-fascist, ex-Nazi scientists in Project Paperclip. There was, in fact, a race between the US and the USSR to recruit Hitler’s scientists. It is uncertain which nation won the race; perhaps both sides lost.
Each of the two leaders had certain characteristics that enabled the success of the mission. “Oppie”, as Oppenheimer was affectionately known, easily acquired loyalty from his co-workers and subordinates not because he was an authoritarian type like the military man Groves, but because he was respected and loved and therefore obediently followed.
Groves also achieved obedience and productivity from his underlings through classical military discipline that was accomplished, not out of love, but out of fear of punishment if performance wasn’t up to Groves’ standards. A military colleague of Groves, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Nichols, considered Groves “the biggest sonafabitch I’ve ever met”. That “drill sergeant brutality” approach also works (but only temporarily) when K-9 dogs are tortured in training until they are sufficiently vicious (but afraid of their masters) to attack any victim that is fingered. (But trainers are advised to watch their necks if they ever let down their guard.)
Of course, as occurs in all chain-of-command organizations (like most corporations, monarchies, fascist organizations, police states and in many punitive child-rearing families), Groves was motivated to succeed because of his own fears of punishment or disrespect from his superior officers. Like most of us, Groves was also motivated to succeed out of fear of demotion or failing to advance in his career or pay grade.
At the time of his appointment to manage the Manhattan Project, the grossly obese Groves (estimated to weigh up to 300 pounds, he was a chocolate candy and sugar addict) had been in charge of constructing the world’s largest office building, the Pentagon. The appointment to the Manhattan Project was initially regarded by Groves to be a demotion but being promoted to brigadier general helped to make the change more palatable.
The Day After Trinity
At the conclusion of the documentary film (nominated in 1980 for the Academy Award for best documentary film) The Day After Trinity, Oppenheimer was filmed answering a question about Senator Robert Kennedy’s efforts to initiate talks to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer replied “It’s 20 years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity.”
Here are excerpts from some Amazon.com reviews of The Day After Trinity. They express much of what I wanted to say in this essay.
“The Day After Trinity is a haunting journey through the dawn of the nuclear age, an incisive history of humanity’s most dubious achievement and the man behind it–J. Robert Oppenheimer, the principal architect of the atomic bomb. Featuring archival footage and commentary from scientists and soldiers directly involved with the Manhattan Project, this gripping film is a fascinating look at the scope and power of the Nuclear Age. (Amazon.com Editorial review)
“’I have become death’,” declared nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer upon first witnessing the terrible power of the atomic bomb. The Oscar-nominated documentary The Day After Trinity uses newsreel footage and recently declassified government film to trace the growth of the Manhattan Project under Oppenheimer’s guidance. The New Mexico A-bomb tests are shown, as are the aftermaths of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“The final scenes detail Oppenheimer’s transformation from the ‘father of the A-bom’ to one of the most tireless opponents of nuclear power. The Day After Trinity received its widest distribution when it was telecast over PBS on April 29, 1981.
“The Day After Trinity covers both the day after, but more importantly the days before Trinity as experienced by the scientists who built the atom bomb. The story of the bomb is usually told from its public debut (at the Trinity test site), though the story begins long before. Here it is told very well, through fascinating interviews with the men and women who lived in the strangely utopian Los Alamos.
“Day After Trinity connects the humanity of the project with the horror of the result. The destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki make it hard to imagine the sort of people capable of creating such mass destruction. Perhaps for that reason, the creators are sometimes written off as mad scientists, or lumped in under Oppenheimer’s personality. But the people on the screen are brilliant, insightful, agonized, and funny. It contributes a great deal toward our understanding of the bomb, without making it any easier.” (http://docuwiki.net/index.php?title=The_Day_after_Trinity)
Keeping the Peace or Sowing the Wind?
In one of her early songs, “Keeping the Peace”, Duluth’s singer-songwriter Sara Thomsen wrote:
“Down in New Mexico we were trav’lin’ along. Stopped in Los Alamos, didn’t stay long, But we wanted to see the scene of the crime Where they made the A-bomb and then created a shrine.
“Not too far from my own back door Is a trigger that would signal up a nuclear war It travels down to the ground, across the sea And up from the water comes a nuclear submarine.
“Walkin’ through the woods with an old Swede saw Are some people who decided to uphold the law. They said, “Keepin’ the peace is a whole lot bigger And they cut down the pole of that nuclear trigger.”
Motivated by the same outrage (as expressed in Thomsen’s song) over what America’s warmongers have been doing to the planet and its creatures, every July 16 since 1990 a group of Catholic Christians have been gathering at the Trinity Site for a vigil. Similar to the School of the America’s watch efforts, the gatherings at Trinity have been important parts of the many nonviolent antiwar resistance efforts that attempt to raise the public’s consciousness about the diabolical evil that was unleashed at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945.
The Seeds of Fukashima’s Whirlwind Were Sown at Trinity
Jesus joined many other moral philosophers in saying “as you reap so shall you sow”. Gandhi said that your means are your ends in embryo. What those sayings mean is that if one wants to achieve, for example, truth (an end), one cannot choose lying as the means to attain it. If one uses violence as a means to an end, one will not achieve peace. If one wants peace, one must choose peaceful means. In other words, one can predict failure or success of a desired end result according to the means that were chosen.
So nations that choose violence and war as a tactic in dealing with other nations and then claim that peace is the desired end, you will know that they are either deceiving themselves and others or are ethically severely compromised. And that is why the development and threat to use nuclear (or other) weapons, will not result in world peace, but rather endless war and retaliation.
Refusing to think about the long term consequences of our nation’s militaristic dominative power strategies (as usual) in the nuclear weapons proliferation that poisoned and bankrupted the two superpowers after WWII, the US military and certain of its civilian and corporate partners in crime have kept sowing the proverbial wind, and now the rest of us are reaping the whirlwind.
The Lethal Consequences of Radiation Exposure
The inevitable lethal consequences of widespread radiation from nuclear weapons testing and use (ex: depleted uranium armor piercing shells) and the huge unaddressed, impossible problem of widespread radioactive waste from nuclear power installations keeps coming back to haunt us, again and again, in the form of uncountable tens of millions of radiation-induced cancers, congenital deformities, physical and mental disabilities, neurodevelopmental disorders (of exposed soldiers, as in Gulf War Syndrome) toxic food, toxic habitats (Ex: Chernobyl and Fukashima), unaffordable nuclear arms races, permanent cold and hot wars (many of which were provoked by the Reagan-era escalation of America’s nuclear weapons industries in the 1980s), which provoked similar escalations by our fearful enemies. Our so-called American ingenuity and blind trust in the moving hand of the holy market can be so pitifully short-sighted (usually only looking out as far as the next quarter’s earnings reports), that corrupt crony capitalism can be rightfully blamed for having produced numerous international war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the peace.
In his antiwar poem “Armageddon” poet William Dickey identifies one of the major root causes of war and why our military leaders always seem to do what is best for the longevity of their military professions. Provoking endless war is good for the business of the Pentagon and all the industries that profit from war.
“Leonard Woolf said that there would be war because the generals,
having devised their weapons, and seen them manufactured …
would have to try them out, and it is true.
There is no invention of man that has not been used if it was capable of being used, and these are.
Electric cattle prods defame the soft personal testicles.
But from this Armageddon, the storm’s center, not even a cry…
“There are thieves among us.”
As vilified as Harry Truman has been over the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then claiming to have lost no sleep over those decisions, he has been quoted as saying “All through history it has been the nations that have given the most to the generals and the least to the people that have been the first to fall.”
Truman was a neophyte on the world stage when FDR died so suddenly right before VE Day, and he was immediately surrounded by overwhelmingly militaristic types who were all in favor of using the new bomb. Nobody, even the physicists, fully understood the tremendous lethality of nuclear bombs nor could they have predicted the condemnation that would be leveled at America for being the first and only nation to use that weapon.
One civilian opponent of using nuclear weapons against civilian targets (an international war crime) was Oswald Brewster, a Manhattan Project contractor from New York. He wrote a heartfelt 3000 word letter to President Truman that said.
“This thing must not be permitted on earth. We must not become the most hated and feared people on earth, however good our intent may be. I beg of you, sir, not to pass this (letter) off because I happen to be an unknown, without influence or name in the public eye. There surely are men in this country to whom you could turn, asking them to study this problem.”
Truman’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson and his military advisor (and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) George Marshall were so impressed with the sentiment and logic of Brewster’s letter, that they actually delivered it to Truman. But nothing could slow down the momentum towards the satanic, and the letter probably wound up in the circular file.
Dr Kohls writes a weekly column for the Reader Weekly, an alternative newsweekly magazine that is published in Duluth, Minnesota, USA. Many of his columns are archived at http://duluthreader.com/articles/categories/200_Duty_to_Warn.