Thursday, August 06, 2015

70 Years After Hiroshima: Nuclear Threat Remains

“If I were asked to name the most important date in the history and prehistory of the human race,” wrote author Arthur Koestler in the 1978 prologue to his final book, Janus: A Summing Up, “I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945.”

Before then, each person lived with the prospect of individual death, he explained.  But “since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.”

Seventy years later, the danger of instant eradication in a global nuclear war seems past, and we are becoming more conscious of ecological threats to long-term human survival. But the nuclear threat is not over, nor is it confined to the possibility of isolated terrorist attacks. The threat of human extinction that begins with a nuclear exchange may still exist.

While most attention has focused on the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the near future, some 15,700 nuclear bombs are in the hands of 9 other countries right now, including some 5,000 weapons in active deployment.

All 9 countries with nuclear bombs are either expanding their arsenals, building new delivery systems or modernizing old weapons and systems.

Though the U.S. and Russia have reduced the number of weapons from Cold War levels, together they maintain about 1800 missiles carrying thermonuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire within minutes and therefore most susceptible to momentary miscalculation and accident.

Those of us who lived through the Cold War could read and see films about how powerful each one of these bombs can be: vaporizing every living thing for miles, igniting firestorms and spreading radiation for hundreds of miles or more, killing and maiming for years, with documented cases of genetic deformities in the next generation.

These terminal dangers were embedded in popular culture for decades. But as memories of Hiroshima and the Cold War recede, so apparently does awareness of the nature and danger of nuclear weapons.

 The US has ten times the number of nuclear weapons that US citizens believe there are, according to polls.  A survey of members of Congress revealed that almost none of them knew how many nuclear weapons are in the US arsenal.  But the US is not the exception--several studies show that knowledge about nuclear weapons today is low.

In popular culture today, nuclear war has been reduced to the bright explosions and apocalyptic fantasies of video games, including the latest version of Fallout Shelter. “Simulate a beautiful nuclear war right in your browser,” says the headline of a recent Popular Mechanics post.

More worrisome are movies and TV dramas that treat nuclear bombs like conventional explosions, only a bit bigger and more colorful. For example, in the 2014 Hollywood remake of Godzilla, a nuclear bomb many times more powerful than the Hiroshima device was detonated on the water apparently within view of the San Francisco shoreline without damage to the city or its people. Not even a wave. 

This is an irony worthy of Doctor Strangelove, since the original Japanese Godzilla movie was a response to the radiation dangers of hydrogen bomb tests in 1954, directed by a man who had seen Hiroshima shortly after its atomic destruction.

To misconstrue the true nature and difference of nuclear weapons could lead to horrific mistakes. The Physicians for Social Responsibility calculated that a relatively small nuclear “bunker buster” attack on Iran would result in 3 million deaths within 48 hours, and expose some 35 million to radiation. Radioactive fallout would reach into Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.  Radiation killed almost twice as many people in Hiroshima over the following five years than died on August 6, 1945.

But even without radiation as a factor, research conducted a few years ago found that a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan (for instance) could lead to global famine within a few years, due to ozone layer damage caused by massive urban firestorms. If that study is correct, it’s another reason that a larger nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia could still lead to human extinction.  
In particular, the danger of instant nuclear annihilation remains because of those missiles on hair-trigger alert, especially with tension between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and other matters, and both sides talking about nuclear options.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama are among the many leaders who have advocated an end to hair-trigger status. President Obama has the authority to take at least the 450 land-based ICBMs off hair-trigger. If Russian President Putin is serious about recent conciliatory statements, he could match that action. The 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb would be a powerful moment to do so.

My essay on the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima, and my essay that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on the 60th anniversary.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Return of the Bomb (2006)

This week in 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on human beings in Hiroshima, Japan.  It is yet another year in which awareness of the danger of nuclear weapons seems to be dangerously waning.  In a few days, I will post a new essay on that.

But that ignorance has recurred for at least a decade, as the end of the Cold War and the dogs of war unleashed by 9-11 continue to encourage that blithe ignorance, that stupid bravado, that sooner or later might well end the human race.  For that danger is just as alive now as at any other time since 1945.

The idea of using nuclear weapons has been raised in 2015 by both Russia and (in veiled language) by US and European allies, all around the time that the Ukraine was a hotspot.  Before then, the last time it was seriously discussed was in 2006, when the Bush administration was caught suggesting that nuclear bunker-buster bombs could be deployed against sites in Iran that were suspected to be gearing up for possibly creating an atomic weapon at some unknown time in the future.

As I write this, the treaty negotiated with Iran by the world's major power to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon is being opposed by ranking Republicans and others, some of whom contend that only the destruction of Iran will be sufficient.

The following is a slightly re-ordered essay I wrote in 2006, that was posted at Daily Kos and several other political community blogs.

Return of The Bomb

When he read the first detailed reports on the development of the atomic bomb in the same issue of the New York Times that told of that bomb’s first use in destroying Hiroshima, Norman Cousins wrote an essay that would be published within days in the magazine he edited, the Saturday Review of Literature. Though it may sound like a sedate and specialized publication now, it was widely read, with over a half million subscribers. It became a well-known and much discussed essay, especially when Cousins expanded it into a small book, titled Modern Man Is Obsolete.

 Cousins advanced several philosophical and political arguments in this essay, but he began with the most vital assertion: the dropping of the bomb meant that humanity had entered an entirely new era. Total destruction of civilization and possibly of humankind, perhaps of most life on earth, was now possible.

 This fact had to brought into the consciousness of the species, so humanity could try to take control of its fate. The power of the atomic bomb “must be dramatized and kept in the forefront of public opinion, “ he wrote. “The full dimension of the peril must be seen and recognized.”

Operation Crossroads Able July 1, 1946
But that task was always going to be difficult, as he learned just a year later. Cousins was one of the reporters who witnessed the first postwar atomic bomb test at Bikini island, in the summer of 1946. The bomb was dropped into the ocean, with numerous naval vessels in the vicinity to test the extent of its destructive power. But the observation ship was far away, and the bomb had missed the target so the devastation it caused was not immediately obvious. The first reports to the world gave the impression, Cousins wrote, “that the bomb had been ‘oversold’—that it was ‘merely’ another weapon.”

Operation Crossroads Baker July 25, 1946
That bomb had indeed been highly destructive, and the second bomb exploded in this series surprised even the bomb-makers with its ferocious power, sending a half-mile wide column of water a mile into the sky in a single second, and spewing quantities of radiation farther than the military anticipated. But government officials would deny and then minimize the dangers of radiation for years. Even after the hydogen bomb and the era of overkill capacity on hairtrigger alert, what Cousins called the “standardization of catastrophe” became almost patriotic, as the knowledge and the fears were turned inward, to be expressed mostly in low budget science fiction movies featuring giant ants and death-rays from space.

 Now [in 2006] it’s been some 15 years since the Soviet Union dissolved, and the threat of thermonuclear war apparently ended, or at least disappeared from national consciousness. Could it be that today some young policymakers again consider “nuclear” to be only a bigger, better bomb?

 Seymour Hersh suggests that civilians in the Bush administration are pushing the nuclear option for Iran, to the dismay of some of the military. He quotes a former senior intelligence official: “Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout—we’re talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don’t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out”—remove the nuclear option—“they’re shouted down.”

According to various reports (beginning with Hersh but confirmed by several articles in the Washington Post and elsewhere), the use of tactical nuclear bombs is being considered in order to penetrate underground bunkers in Iran that may house nuclear research sites or command and control centers.

 In her strong denunciation of any imminent bombing of Iran, California Senator Dianne Feinstein also condemned the nuclear option: “As a matter of physics, there is no missile casing sufficiently strong to thrust deep enough into concrete or granite to prevent the spewing of radiation,” she wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Nuclear ‘bunker busters’ would kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people across the Middle East.This would be a disastrous tragedy. First use of nuclear weapons by the United States should be unthinkable.”

 Senator Feinstein has been monitoring the Bush regime’s interest in new nuclear weapons for several years, so she also notes this: “There are some in this administration who have been pushing to make nuclear weapons more "usable." They see nuclear weapons as an extension of conventional weapons. This is pure folly.”

 Others are pointing out the nature of this “folly.” The National Academy of Science estimates that a nuclear bomb powerful enough to penetrate a bunker a thousand feet deep (1.2 megatons) would send 300,000 tons of radioactive debris some fifteen miles into the sky.

The Federation of American Scientists "the bombs would penetrate at most only a few metres into rock, causing no reduction in blast, fire, or fallout damage on the surface. The largest would have blown out a crater almost a thousand feet across and thrown a cloud of radioactive fallout tens of thousands of feet into the air where it would be blown hundreds of miles downwind."

 Physicians for Social Responsibility calculate that a nuclear attack on Iran of this kind would result in 3 million deaths within 48 hours. Radioactive fallout would reach into Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, exposing some 35 million, including some 20,000 Americans deployed in the war against terror. There would be more fatalities from radiation illnesses as medical and emergency systems fail.

 On its website, the Union of Concerned Scientists has an animation which shows the effect of nuclear bunker busters on the bunkers (a single bomb is unlikely to reach the target), the contents of bunkers hit (the bomb could spread biological agents kept in bunkers into the atmosphere) and the spread of blast and radiation to surrounding areas.

The first three atomic bombs of 1945 were all about the same size, between 15 and 20 kilotons. The first bomb, tested in the New Mexico desert, killed every living thing inside a mile. The Hiroshima bomb leveled a city and reduced human beings a half mile from the blast to lumps of charcoal. Five years later, radiation had more than doubled the death toll.

In Nagasaki, a boy playing in the river with friends dove to the bottom to retrieve an object. When he rose to the surface, his friends were blackened corpses, the city around him was in smoking ruins. Again, the number of deaths doubled from radiation.

 Though aspects of the U.S. nuclear arsenal are obscure, the nuclear bunker-buster bomb B61-11 (which cannot penetrate to 1,000 feet) has a variable yield of up to 340 kilotons. Though these would not explode high in the air as those bombs did, one such bomb would be the equivalent of 30 Nagasaki bombs, the last nuclear device to be used as a weapon. One of the airmen in the Nagasaki plane described the bright, fiery cloud shooting up with enormous speed as “a living thing, a new species of being” with “many grotesque masks grimacing at the earth.”

 For sixty years, humankind has held that monster at bay. Can we now allow it to be unleashed so casually? It seems likely that at the very least, the nation that unleashes it will quickly become the pariah and the shame of the world. It is time we think very seriously about the consequences of opening this ultimate Pandora’s box, and join with others to stop it. The world may have changed on 9-11. But it certainly changed even more radically in August 1945, and we must not forget it.

Radiating Lies (2006)

Another long piece that appeared on various community blogs in 2006, as news continued that the Bush administration was considering nuclear attacks on Iran. 

Secrets and lies have driven the history of the Bomb. We see this pattern repeated today, in an effort to make nuclear weapons seem no different from other explosives. But with continuing signs that the Bush administration may be heading for war on Iran, with reports of U.S. officials considering using nuclear weapons in Iran, these lies become even more dangerous.

 The most important secrets and lies concerned radiation, the distinguishing effect of the Bomb, beyond its sheer power. The effects of radiation were denied, dismissed and minimized for decades. Today they are not even mentioned.

 It is especially important to revisit this history because, according to the the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nuclear earth penetrating weapon “would actually create more fallout than a ground-burst or airburst weapon, due to the increased distribution of radioactive debris from detonation at a shallow depth in soil or rock."

 Radiation and the history of denying it and confronting it is the subject of this essay. From its very beginnings, the atomic bomb has been mysterious. Even the physicists who lived together in Los Alamos to develop it did not know what they had invented. They didn’t know how powerful the first Bomb would be—they had a betting pool on the yield, and many seriously underestimated and overestimated the result. About half the scientists didn't think the device would explode at all. Enrico Fermi was taking bets on whether it would burn off the Earth's atmosphere.

 But most of the mystery was deliberate. The Bomb was developed in complete secrecy so as not to tip off the Nazis, who were believed to be working on their own Bomb project. Even after Germany’s defeat, the Bomb was kept secret from the remaining enemy of Japan, but also from America’s war allies.

 Then after the war, as the truth of what the Bomb’s effects became clear to scientists, the American military and Washington policymakers tried to keep some of those effects secret from U.S. citizens, even to the point of outright lies.

 The Bomb produces three effects: blast, heat and radioactivity (commonly called radiation.) The blast is immensely more powerful, and the heat is immensely more intense, than any other manmade device can produce. Together they resulted, in the Bomb’s first test, in killing every living thing within a mile, including insects.

A single Bomb each virtually leveled the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Human beings were vaporized. Nothing was left of some but their shadows burnt into concrete. Others were seared to a small pile of ashes. The remains of some were fused with metal doors and other objects. Those effects were immediately apparent. But it took some time for the effects of radiation to be understood, and even longer to be acknowledged.

 What We Know Now 

 The first humans exposed to an atomic bomb blast were those living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. These included some American children of parents who were Japanese or of Japanese ancestry or origin living in the U.S. who were sent to internment camps. These children were sent to “safe” areas in Japan, such as Hiroshima. Some of those who survived the initial blast and heat but were heavily exposed to radiation began to develop radiation poisoning symptoms after about twenty-four hours: severe nausea, fever and vomiting.

In his 2005 book, “The Bomb: a Life”, scholar Gerard DeGroot writes: “The damage to cells was so widespread that recovery was impossible. Death occurred after about a week, before doctors had any inkling of what was wrong.” For others, symptoms didn’t begin for ten to fifteen days. They suffered from bloody diarrhea, “a loss of appetite, general malaise, persistent fever and hair loss.”

 The symptoms were delayed because gamma rays attack bone marrow where new blood cells are formed, and begin to produce defective cells. “In the worst cases of radiation poisoning, the gamma rays virtually destroy the entire bone marrow.. The cessation of red cell formation leads to progressive anemia. Deficiency of platelet formation causes thin blood to hemorrhage into the skin and the retina of the eye, and sometimes into the intestines and kidneys.

The fall in the number of white cells lowers the victim’s resistance to infections. When infections occurred among Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, it usually spread from the mouth and was accompanied by gangrene of the lips, tongue and throat. Patients often emitted a terrible smell---they had effectively started to decay from the inside.”[pages 107-08]

 Those who escape this severe radiation poisoning, who may be farther from the blast, will not know for years, and perhaps will never know, the extent of the damage caused by radiation. “Ionizing radiation released in a nuclear explosion passes through the skin without causing external damage. It interacts immediately with tissues within the body, causing an irregular pattern of cell damage. ”

 Those who survive the attack on high turnover tissues, such as those involved in blood formation, may suffer effects on tissues with slower turnover, in the brain, liver or thyroid gland. In these, “…the effects of radiation damage may not become apparent for months or years, and can eventually manifest themselves as cancers.”

 Then there is danger to the unborn. Damaged or destroyed cells in a fetus may impair the development of organs and parts of the body. “Radiation can also damage DNA in the reproductive system, causing mutation in future generations. While scientists once thought that a ‘safe’ level of exposure existed, current medical opinion olds that there is no threshold dose below which an effect is not produced.”

 These effects were caused by the Bomb dropped on Hiroshima (approximately 20 kilotons) and Nagasaki (about 15 kilotons.) The nuclear bunker-busters that could be used in Iran may have a yield up to 10 kilotons, but most believe the yield goes up to 340 kilotons, more than 22 times more powerful than the Bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. More than half of those who died from the effects of that Bomb within the first five years after it was dropped, and more than two-thirds of those who died within five years after Nagasaki, had survived the blast and fire.

 A Generation of Lies 

 Although radioactive fallout from the first Bomb test in 1945 contaminated cattle, the effects were kept secret, along with everything else about the test. But even after the war, the secrecy continued. In “Bombs in the Backyard”, a self-described balanced account of nuclear testing, A. Costandina Titus writes that “Even Congress has been denied access to information.”

General Leslie Groves had ridden herd over the Manhattan Project that developed the Bomb, and he continued the policy of secrecy, which soon became a policy of denial. When the first reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima surfaced, he dismissed them as “Japanese propaganda.” William Laurence, the only reporter permitted to follow the Bomb’s development, echoed the charge.

 Later, when radioactive fallout entered the news, American officials insisted that radiation exposure was painless to humans and test animals. General Groves testified to Congress that radiation poisoning was "a very pleasant way to die."

 Few precautions were taken for service personnel involved in the first postwar Bomb tests in the South Pacific in 1946, nor for many subsequent tests there and in Nevada. When military personnel and others exposed to test fallout either deliberately or accidentally later became ill, the government refused to consider that the nuclear explosions were related or responsible, and they maintained this heartless lie for decades.

 But one of the doctors involved in monitoring radiation and physical effects from those 1946 tests would be among the first to sound a public alarm. David Bradley’s book, “No Place to Hide”, was published in 1948 and became an immediate best seller. He later revised it to include further information as well as medical studies from later atomic and hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific. He reported for example that after 406 Pacific islanders were exposed to H-bomb fallout in 1954, nine children were born retarded, ten more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be "not recognizable as human."

 But the first writing to bring some of the reality of radiation to Americans was John Hershey’s Hiroshima, published in the New Yorker in August 1946, and soon after as a best-selling book. The stories of six Hiroshima survivors ended with riveting accounts of the ongoing effects of radiation.

This was the occasion for more stories (and more denials) about the effects of radioactivity. Still, Bomb testing went on, as necessary to the national defense, particularly when the Soviet Union unexpectedly exploded their first atomic Bomb in 1951. The U.S. returned to exploding atomic Bombs within its borders that same year, and radiation from a Nevada test was detected in the snow that fell on Rochester, New York.

 By early 1953, there had been 20 tests in Nevada. A seven year old boy 70 miles from Ground Zero in Nevada who died of leukemia “became possibly the first baby boom casualty of the atomic age.” (Great Expectations by Landon Y. Jones, p59.)


 The undercurrent of news about radiation’s effects continued throughout the 1950s, as the U.S. and Soviet Union exploded hundreds of atomic bombs, including hydrogen bombs (which some say are to atom bombs what atom bombs are to conventional explosives.) Testing and its effects became a campaign issue in the 1956 presidential election. Strontium 90, a radioactive isotope that lodges in bones and causes cancer, was discovered in cow’s milk across America. Still, the official word was there was nothing to worry about.

 The likelihood (since proven) that U.S. nuclear secrets were passed to the Russians, added fuel to what became McCarthyism in the 1950s. Now dissent concerning the Bomb could be criminal treason as well as unpatriotic. So much of the fear Americans had about nuclear radiation and the Bomb itself was driven underground, into the collective unconscious, and to the popular expression of that unconscious: the movies.

 Monsters created or unleashed by nuclear explosions became the decade’s B-movie cliché. But one of the first remained one of the best: “Them!” released in 1954. The film is fascinating today partly because several relatively unknown actors became stars, mostly in the new medium of television: James Arness in “Gunsmoke,” James Whitmore in “The Law and Mr. Jones,” Leonard Nimoy (with a very small part) in “Star Trek,” and Fess Parker, a young actor Walt Disney saw in this movie and cast as Davy Crockett, the first TV hero to be a national phenomenon.

But the fact that these actors were unknowns in 1954 led credibility to the story, which was mostly a step by step investigation into a horrific phenomenon---radiation from atomic testing mutated a colony of ordinary ants into a race of giant ants, killing, breeding and preparing to swarm on Los Angeles and other cities, where they could begin their conquest of humanity.

 The movie dealt with a number of themes related to the Cold War and the Bomb, but it was remarkably forthright about the source of the fears it symbolized. "If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb tests in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" asks James Arness, the FBI man of action. "I don't know," says the beautiful woman scientist. "Nobody knows," says her father, the elder scientist. "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world nobody can predict."

 There would be many more Bomb-themed films (including the original Japanese version of Godzilla, which dealt more forthrightly with Bomb themes than the version Americans saw. The original will be available on DVD for the first time in September.)

 In his book, “Apocalypse Movies”, Kim Newman makes the valuable point that the B movie divisions of major studios tended to glorify the military in their Bomb-theme movies, while independent films were more questioning, and revealed more of the real horror. They also tended to extend mutations to human beings, as in “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”

 But as these eruptions from the unconscious became formulaic “bug-eyed monster” movies, a few filmmakers began to deal openly with the effects of nuclear war. The most influential of the 1950s, and the one that dealt most directly with mass death by radioactive fallout as the ultimate outcome of nuclear war, was Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach,” starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. Set in Australia after the U.S. and the Soviet Union have destroyed each other, the characters learn they are doomed from the fallout heading their way.

 There are no explosions, no monsters, no gruesome deaths. Yet Nobel Laureate and anti-Bomb activist Linus Pauling said, “It may be that some years from now can look back and say that ‘On the Beach’ is the movie that saved the world.”

 Throughout the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, there were films and TV movies that tried to bring the horror into public consciousness. “The War Game” by Peter Watkin, a docudrama about the effects of a nuclear war in one English village, was made for BBC-TV in 1965 but the BBC refused to show it until 1985. It was seen in art houses in the U.S. and elsewhere as a feature in the 60s and 70s.

Also on British TV in the 1980s was “Threads,” which carried the effects of radiation past one generation. While a survivor society struggles in a burnt-out and irradiated world, a 12 year old giving birth screams at the sight of her deformed stillborn baby. It was a harrowing ending to a truly horrifying film.

There were two prominent TV films in the U.S in the 80s, which also showed survivors of nuclear war struggling valiantly and hopelessly. The better known was The Day After” directed by Nicholas Meyer, starring Jason Robards and JoBeth Williams. Set in Lawrence, Kansas, it centers on a doctor (Robards) who deals with an impossible emergency over days and weeks as he and everyone else gradually succumbs to radiation poisoning. The TV movie ends with the warning that as fatalistic as the story seemed, a full-scale nuclear war would have far worse effects. “The Day After” had an effect on American consciousness in the 1980s similar to “On the Beach” in the late 1950s. “

 But another TV film brought the effects home. “Testament” by Lynne Littman, starring Jane Alexander, followed events in an isolated northern California town. Without graphic images, it simply shows a family and a town living to the end of the world, as radiation poisons everyone and everything. Radiation from hundreds of thermonuclear bombs is enough to destroy civilization. But radiation from a single Bomb of relatively low yield killed hundreds of thousands in Japan. It could happen in Iran and perhaps the surrounding region, with some dying in days, some in weeks, and some in years or even decades. Yet no one is talking about this. It is time to start.

Hiroshima: The Birth of Nuclear Warfare

This piece appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

On July 16, 1945, the cruiser Indianapolis sailed from Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, carrying one 15-foot crate. Inside were the components for the first atomic bomb destined to be dropped on a city.

It was being shipped to Tinian Island in the western Pacific, and its final destination a few weeks later would be Hiroshima. It left San Francisco just four hours after the first successful atomic bomb test in history, in the New Mexico desert.

Sixty years is a long time to keep even such an immense memory alive, but several books published recently bring these events into sharper focus than ever before. Several are biographies of key figures like Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, but one is billed as a biography of the bomb itself. "The Bomb: A Life" by Gerard DeGroot (Harvard University Press), professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, benefits from newly available records, especially concerning the Soviet nuclear program. But mostly it is a skillfully condensed narrative of the nuclear era, fascinating in the selection of details and riveting in its revelations of how possessing nuclear weapons changed those involved, and changed America.

 On the day of that first test in July 1945, no one knew what would happen. About half the scientists didn't think the device would explode at all. Enrico Fermi was taking bets that it would burn off the Earth's atmosphere. It did explode, with such brightness that a woman blind from birth traveling in a car some distance away saw it. "A colony on Mars, had such a thing existed, could have seen the flash," DeGroot writes. "All living things within a mile were killed, including all insects."

America was now in sole possession of the most powerful weapon in history. The first effect of the bomb was in Potsdam, Germany, where President Harry Truman was conferring with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union, then an ally in the war against Japan. After Truman received the news of the successful test, he was "a changed man" and "generally bossed the whole meeting," according to Churchill.

That the second bomb left San Francisco on the day the first was tested suggests the momentum to use it. Whether dropping the bomb was necessary to secure Japan's surrender before an invasion became necessary is still being debated. DeGroot believes that Japan was looking for a way to surrender in June and July.

But there were other considerations, mostly to do with demonstrating American power, especially to the Soviet Union. Using the bomb quickly became a test of patriotism. "For most Manhattan Project scientists the bomb was a deterrent, not a weapon," DeGroot writes.

Szilard and Einstein
Physicist Leo Szilard had done as much as anyone to try to persuade FDR to develop the bomb because Germany was doing so. But on the day after that first test, he sent government officials a petition signed by 69 project scientists arguing that to use the bomb would ignite a dangerous arms race and damage America's postwar moral position, especially its ability to bring "the unloosed forces of destruction under control."

The petition was ignored, and Gen. Leslie Groves, the senior military official in charge of the project, began making a case that Szilard was a security risk. It's a pattern that would be repeated often.

General Groves and Manhattan Project scientists look
at what was left after the first atomic test in July 1945
DeGroot places the decision to drop the bomb on Japan in the context of the brutalization that occurred during the long years of World War II, with an unprecedented scope of savagery on both sides. The bombing of civilians and cities, morally unthinkable in the West before the war, became a major feature of it by its final years, long past the time many military targets were left. Gen. Groves, he writes, was worried that Japan might surrender before the bomb could be dropped.

Hiroshima was selected as the primary target because it had no allied POW camps. However, there were nearly 5,000 American children in the city -- "mainly children sent to Japan after their parents, U.S. citizens of Japanese origin, had been interred." It seems likely some of those children were from San Francisco.

The nuclear era began with the secrecy of the Manhattan Project, which is perhaps partly why it was accompanied throughout its history by lies and denial. They began with Hiroshima. As many as 75,000 people died in the first blast and fire. But in five years the death toll would reach 200,000 because of what the U.S. government denied existed: lethal radiation.

Even after the hydrogen bomb was developed in the 1950s (so powerful that the first test vaporized an island and created a mile wide crater 175 feet deep), the untruths continued. In 1954, Dr. David Bradley reported on 406 Pacific islanders exposed to H-bomb fallout: nine children were born retarded, 10 more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be "not recognizable as human." Such information was denied or routinely suppressed through all the years of testing, even on U.S. soil. Groves even told Congress that death from radiation was "very pleasant."

Even after the war, criticizing the bomb in any way became a threat to national security, an act of disloyalty that only helped the communist enemy. And so people were silent and compliant, and streamed into air-conditioned theatres to see movies about monsters created by atomic radiation.

 This extreme weapon prompted extreme and contrary emotions, often within the same people. Some of the same Los Alamos scientists who cheered madly at the first news of Hiroshima were later shell-shocked with regret. Gen. Omar Bradley called his contemporaries "nuclear giants and ethical infants." Yet he pushed for developing the hydrogen bomb.

This peculiar combination of denial plus the immense power of thousands of bombs contributed to an era of deadly absurdities: the age of Dr. Strangelove. Yet reality was not so different, right down to the preposterously appropriate names: the head of the Strategic Air Command, Gen. Tommy Power, gave his philosophy of nuclear war in 1960: "At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"

The warp in American political life created by the bomb might be summarized in two statements. "In order to make the country bear the burden," said President Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, referring to the Cold War arms race, "we have to create an emotional atmosphere akin to a wartime psychology. We must create the idea of a threat from without."

The second is more famous, but perhaps its connection to the bomb and its effect on America has been forgotten: Eisenhower's farewell address. "We have been compelled to create a permanent arms industry of vast proportions," he said. "We must not fail to comprehend its vast implications. ... We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."