Reflections on a Long-Ago Tour of Los Alamos and the Trinity Atomic Test Site
Also at TomDispatch.com.
I turn 60 this year. My health is generally good, though I have aches and pains from a form of arthritis. I’m not optimistic enough to believe that the best years of my life are ahead of me, nor so pessimistic as to assume that the best years are behind me. But I do know this, however sad it may be to say: the best years of my country are behind me.
Indeed, there are all too many signs of America’s decline, ranging from mass shootings to mass incarceration to mass hysteria about voter fraud and “stolen” elections to massive Pentagon and police budgets. But let me focus on just one sign of all-American madness that speaks to me in a particularly explosive fashion: this country’s embrace of the “modernization” of its nuclear arsenal at a price tag of at least $2 trillion over the next 30 years or so — and that staggering sum pales in comparison to the price the world would pay if those “modernized” weapons were ever used.
Just over 30 years ago in 1992, a younger, still somewhat naïve version of Bill Astore visited Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico and the Trinity test site in Alamogordo where the first atomic device created at that lab, a plutonium “gadget,” was detonated in July 1945. At the time I took that trip, I was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, co-teaching a course at the Air Force Academy on — yes, would you believe it? — the making and use of the atomic bombs that devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. At the time of that visit, the Soviet Union had only recently collapsed, inaugurating what some believed to be a “new world order.” No longer would this country have to focus its energy on waging a costly, risky cold war against a dangerous nuclear-armed foe. Instead, we were clearly headed for an era in which the United States could both dominate the planet andbecome “a normal country in normal times.”
I was struck, however, by the anything-but-celebratory mood at Los Alamos then, though I really shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, budget cuts loomed. With the end of the Cold War, who needed LANL to design new nuclear weapons for an enemy that no longer existed? In addition, there was already an effective START treaty in place with Russia aimed at reducing strategic nuclear weapons instead of just limiting their growth.
At the time, it even seemed possible to imagine a gradual withering away of such great-power arsenals and the coming of a world liberated from apocalyptic nightmares. Bipartisan support for nuclear disarmament would, in fact, persist into the early 2000s, when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama joined old Cold War hawks like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn in calling for nothing less than a nuclear-weapons-free world.
An Even More Infernal Holocaust
It was, of course, not to be and today we once again find ourselves on an increasingly apocalyptic planet. To quote Pink Floyd, the child is grown and the dream is gone. All too sadly, Americans have become comfortably numb to the looming threat of a nuclear Armageddon. And yet the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist’s Doomsday Clockcontinues to tick ever closer to midnight precisely because we persist in building and deploying ever more nuclear weapons with no significant thought to either the cost or the consequences.
Over the coming decades, in fact, the U.S. military plans to deploy hundreds — yes, hundreds! — of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in silos in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and elsewhere; a hundred or so nuclear-capable B-21 stealth bombers; and a brand new fleet of nuclear-missile-firing submarines, all, of course, built in the name of necessity, deterrence, and keeping up with the Russians and the Chinese. Never mind that this country already has thousands of nuclear warheads, enough to comfortably destroy more than one Earth. Never mind that just a few dozen of them could tip this world of ours into a “nuclear winter,” starving to death most creatures on it, great and small. Nothing to worry about, of course, when this country must — it goes without saying — remain the number one possessor of the newest and shiniest of nuclear toys.
And so those grim times at Los Alamos when I was a “child” of 30 have once again become boom times as I turn 60. The LANL budget is slated to expand like a mushroom cloud from $3.9 billion in 2021 to $4.1 billion in 2022, $4.9 billion in 2023, and likely to well over $5 billion in 2024. That jump in funding enables “upgrades” to the plutonium infrastructure at LANL. Meanwhile, some of America’s top physicists and engineers toil away there on new designs for nuclear warheads and bombs meant for one thing only: the genocidal slaughter of millions of their fellow human beings. (And that doesn’t even include all the other life forms that would be caught in the blast radii and radiation fallout patterns of those “gadgets.”)
The very idea of building more and “better” nuclear weapons should, of course, be anathema to us all. Once upon a time, I taught courses on the Holocaust after attending a teaching seminar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now, the very idea of modernizing our nuclear arsenal strikes me as the equivalent of developing upgraded gas chambers and hotter furnaces for Auschwitz. After all, that’s the infernal nature of nuclear weapons: they transform human beings into matter, into ash, killing indiscriminately and reducing us all to nothingness.
I still recall talking to an employee of Los Alamos in 1992 who assured me that, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lab would undoubtedly have to repurpose itself and find an entirely new mission. Perhaps, he said, LANL scientists could turn their expertise toward consumer goods and so help make America more competitive vis-à-vis Japan, which, in those days, was handing this country its lunch in the world of electronics. (Remember the Sony Walkman, the Discman, and all those Japanese-made VCRs, laser disc players, and the like?)
I nodded and left Los Alamos hopeful, thinking that the lab could indeed become a life-affirming force. I couldn’t help imagining then what this country might achieve if some of its best scientists and engineers devoted themselves to improving our lives instead of destroying them. Today, it’s hard to believe that I was ever so naïve.
“Success” at Hiroshima
My next stop on that tour was Alamogordo and the Trinity test site, then a haunted, still mildly radioactive desert landscape thanks to the world’s first atomic explosion in 1945. Yes, before America nuked Japan that August at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we nuked ourselves. The Manhattan Project team, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, believed a test was needed because of the complex implosion device used in the plutonium bomb. (There was no test of the uranium bomb used at Hiroshima since it employed a simpler triggering device. Its first “test” was Hiroshima itself that August 6th and the bomb indeed “worked,” as predicted.)
So, our scientists nuked the desert near the Jornada del Muerto, the “dead man’s journey” as the Spanish conquistadors had once named it in their own febrile quest for power. While there, Oppenheimer famously reflected that he and his fellow scientists had become nothing short of “Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In the aftermath of Hiroshima, he would, in fact, turn against the military’s pursuit of vastly more powerful hydrogen or thermonuclear, bombs. For that, in the McCarthy era, he was accused of being a Soviet agent and stripped of his security clearance.
Oppenheimer’s punishment should be a reminder of the price principled people pay when they try to stand in the way of the military-industrial complex and its pursuit of power and profit.
But what really haunts me isn’t the “tragedy” of Opie, the American Prometheus, but the words of Hans Bethe, who worked alongside him on the Manhattan Project. Jon Else’s searing documentary film, The Day After Trinity, movingly catches Bethe’s responses on hearing about the bomb’s harrowing “success” at Hiroshima.
His first reaction was one of fulfillment. The crash program to develop the bomb that he and his colleagues had devoted their lives to for nearly three years was indeed a success. His second, he said, was one of shock and awe. What have we done, he asked himself. What have we done? His final reaction: that it should never be done again, that such weaponry should never, ever, be used against our fellow humans.
And yet here we are, nearly 80 years after Trinity and our country is still devoting staggering resources and human effort to developing yet more “advanced” nuclear weapons and accompanying war plans undoubtedly aimed at China, North Korea, Russia, and who knows how many other alleged evildoers across the globe.
Fire and Fury Like the World Has Never Seen?
Perhaps now you can see why I say that the best years of my country are behind me. Thirty years ago, I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye (Pink Floyd again) of a better future, a better America, a better world. It was one where a sophisticated lab like Los Alamos would no longer be dedicated to developing new ways of exterminating us all. I could briefly imagine the promise of the post-Cold-War moment — that we would all get a “peace dividend” — having real meaning, but it was not to be.
And so, I face my sixtieth year on this planet with trepidation and considerable consternation. I marvel at the persuasive power of America’s military-industrial-congressional complex. In fact, consider it the ultimate Houdini act that its masters have somehow managed to turn nuclear missiles and bombs into stealth weapons — in the sense that they have largely disappeared from our collective societal radar screen. We go about our days, living and struggling as always, even as our overlords spend trillions of our tax dollars on ever more effective ways to exterminate us all. Indeed, at least some of our struggles could obviously be alleviated with an infusion of an extra $2 trillion over the coming decades from the federal government.
Instead, we face endless preparations for a planetary holocaust that would make even the Holocaust of World War II a footnote to a history that would cease to exist. The question is: What can we do to stop it?
The answer, I think, is simply to stop. Stop buying new nuclear stealth bombers, new ICBMs, and new ultra-expensive submarines. Reengage with the other nuclear powers to halt nuclear proliferation globally and reduce stockpiles of warheads. At the very least, commit to a no-first-use policy for those weapons, something our government has so far refused to do.
I’ve often heard the expression “the nuclear genie is out of the bottle,” implying that it can never be put back in again. Technology controls us, in other words.
That’s the reality we’re all supposed to accept, but don’t believe it. America’s elected leaders and its self-styled warrior-generals and admirals have chosen to build such genocidal weaponry. They seek budgetary authority and power, while the giant weapons-making corporations pursue profits galore. Congress and presidents, our civilian representatives, are corrupted or coerced by a system that ensnares their minds. Much like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, the nuclear button becomes their “precious,” a totem of power. Consider President Trump’s boast to Kim Jong-un that “his” nuclear button was much bigger than theirs and his promise that, were the North Korean leader not to become more accommodating, his country would “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The result: North Korea has vastly expandedits nuclear arsenal.
It wouldn’t have to be this way. To cite Dorothy Day, the Catholic peace activist, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” Don’t accept it, America. Reject it. Get out in the streets and protest as Americans did during the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s. Challenge your local members of Congress. Write to the president. Raise your voice against the merchants of death, as Americans proudly did (joined by Congress!) in the 1930s.
If we were to reject nuclear weapons, to demand a measure of sanity and decency from our government, then maybe, just maybe, the best years of my country would still lie ahead of me, no matter my growing aches and pains on what’s left of my life’s journey.
Not to be morbid, but I suppose we all walk our own Jornada del Muerto. I’d like what’s left of mine to remain unlit by the incendiary glare of nuclear explosions. I’d prefer that my last days weren’t spent in a hardscrabble struggle for survival in a world cast into darkness and brutality by a nuclear winter. How about you?