It was 5:29AM, just past dawn on July 16, 1945. The plan had been to start at 4 but the weather had been unsettled. The place was the Jornada del Muerto, or the trail of death – so named by Spanish explorers centuries before. It was a remote and arid spot in the New Mexico desert – with water so alkaline that drinking water had to be hauled in. The site became known as Trinity, a name it bears to this day. When the button was pushed and the bomb ignited, mankind’s path was changed forever.
The event had staggering consequences. One atomic bomb then; some estimate 19,000 in today’s arsenals. Nine nations have them - and more are eager to acquire them. Pakistan is said to have 120; its neighbor and frequent enemy, India, has its own stockpile. North Korea has 10.
Incredibly, the nickname for the test bomb was “Gadget.” Its blast released 20 kilotons of explosive power and a fireball seven and a half miles high. Observers said the light from the explosion seemed several times brighter than the midday sun. Indeed, the scientist behind the bomb’s creation, Robert Oppenheimer, borrowed a verse from the Hindu holy book to describe what he saw as the “radiance of a thousand suns.”
Not long after that July morning in 1945 a bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and a few days later another on the city of Nagasaki. Both blasts and firestorms killed tens of thousands, with survivors bearing the effects for the rest of their lives. I find it especially hard to think of the innocent children caught in that horror, looking to adults for love, caring, and protection – not bombs and fire.
When the first nuclear bomb was ignited in that remote desert, 70 years ago this week, a bottle was uncorked, a genie freed and the world would never be the same again.
When informed that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, President Truman responded with characteristic bluntness but prescient accuracy. The explosion of the bomb, he said, was “The greatest scientific gamble in history.”
And he had it right. Dice were rolled that day in 1945 – and the game continues today. But the trouble with gambling is that in order for someone to win, someone else has to lose.
And loss of this magnitude is a risk that none of us can afford.