The Road from Trinity: Reflections on the Atom Bomb

Photos by Naonori Kohira
(Published in Japan by Shoga Kukan Press)

Chapter 1: Trinity

The wind talks in this empty place. It whispers through the chaparral, and traces crows-feet hieroglyphs in the soft desert sand. “This is the place of the world-changers,” it whispers. “Here men wielded terrible knowledge, transmuting equations into energy stolen from the atomic heart of matter.” For an instant, men became like Gods. Now the men are shadows, but their dark magic remains — a legacy for all mankind.

I came to Trinity seeking answers, but the wind’s harvest was a new burden of questions. Was the bomb necessary? Was it inevitable? Were its builders detached Prometheans, or debased cogs in an inhuman machine? Did they think their gadget would make war too terrible to contemplate? Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki pointless sacrifices, or did their destruction avert some later, yet-greater horror? What lessons are hidden in this nuclear bequest? Certainty leaked from my being like water seeping into parched sand.

Trinity is a strange and empty crossroads, a place of stark beauty cradled in the bowl of the New Mexico sky. Names of unintended irony hang on its terrain, conferred by anonymous travelers hastening to unknown destinations. It is as if this place anticipated its destiny. Awed by its hostile desolation, the Spaniards called this broad plateau the “Journada de Muerto,” the Trail of Death. The Sierras Oscuras, the dark mountains, loom over Trinity, their ridges bannered with ragged clouds raveling like Tibetan prayer flags. “Funny how the mountains always inspire our work,” Robert Oppenheimer is said to have remarked to a toiling colleague while looking up at the Oscuras from Ground Zero during a rare break in the race to rig the Trinity device. To the south are the Mockingbird Mountains, and to the northeast, Stallion Gate and the Cerro de la Campana, named after the church bell it resembles.

But no label captures the paradox of this place more than Trinity itself. A code name conferred by Oppenheimer to both the test and the place, “Trinity” is a deeply religious term in the Christian canon, referring to the Divine Creator in its tripartite form. Oppenheimer himself never explained the choice, except to note that it may have been inspired in part by a passage from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets that begins, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…”

“Oppenheimer blasphemed, to call this place Trinity,” the agitated minister muttered to me. We and several hundred others — a rag-tag collection of protesters, history buffs, and Los Alamos veterans — were huddled by our cars in the pre-dawn gloom outside the Stallion Range Station Gate. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the Trinity test, and we were all waiting for White Sands base security to convoy us to Ground Zero. Behind us, the shoulder of Cerro Campana blocked the starlight. Somewhere up there at this moment fifty years ago, physicists Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and others from Los Alamos also huddled in the gloom, waiting for the Trinity shot. What would they have said to the minister? I started to venture a reply, but just then a bullhorn-amplified voice announced that the gates were opening, and our conversation was cut short by the sound of car doors slamming and engines slipping into gear.

We approached Trinity from the west, our convoy trailing a dust-plume along a dirt road that rises gradually toward the Oscuras. A chain-link fence rings the shallow depression that is Ground Zero. One must look closely for signs of the violence unleashed here fifty years ago. Bits of greenish glass, atom-fused desert sand, crunch underfoot, and in the center of the ring, eroded footings of the converted fire tower that cradled the wire-festooned bomb. It yielded barely twenty kilotons, a mere pop compared to the thermonuclear monsters that sat cocked in silos during the Cold War. Its mate dropped on Nagasaki would kill a multitude and wreck a city. Here, the bomb did little besides incinerate sagebrush and varnish the desert floor. The tower was vaporized, but barely two miles away the McDonald ranch house weathered the blast intact, surrendering only its windows to the over-pressure. Even the shallow crater is deceptive, more the consequence of bulldozers removing radioactive glass than of the erosive effects of the first blast.

But for the assorted memento mori assembled here, a passing hiker would hardly guess that history hung in the balance at this place fifty years ago. Weathered photos of the blast are wired to the inside of the perimeter fence. A model of the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki sits awkwardly on a rotting transporter. An elephantine steel containment vessel nicknamed “Jumbo” lies abandoned a quarter of a mile to the south. All but untouched by the atomic blast, the engineers later tried to destroy it by detonating eight conventional 500-pound bombs inside it. The blast merely blew off both ends, leaving the central cylinder raggedly intact. It resembles the rusting peach cans one finds in desert ghost towns, only blown up to monstrous size like some atomic mutant from a 1950s science fiction movie. The engineers dragged the hulk over to what is now the parking area as a curiosity. It now serves as a windbreak for a hot dog stand and a booth selling souvenirs.

At the very center of Ground Zero, in the middle of the square formed by the four piers of the vaporized tower, is a small obelisk made of volcanic rock. On it is a plaque memorializing the Trinity shot. This morning, visibly nervous Air Force MPs flank the monument, an awkward and ironic honor guard. Visits to Trinity are nothing new, but this “open house,” as the White Sands Public Affairs Office describes it, is something different. Ordinarily, the site is opened twice a year, but in April and October and not on the actual date of the Trinity shot. Weather is the proffered reason: summer in the Journada de Muerto is searingly hot, and even the scorpions have the sense to lay low.

The date-shuffling also works to keep the “open houses” low-key, attended mostly by history buffs, veterans and retirees, schoolchildren, and a few peace activists. Today was clearly going to be different. Barely after 5:00 a.m., the dusty lot was all but full, and hundreds were milling around the obelisk at Ground Zero, its face eerily lit by video lights. Just outside the ring sat a CNN satellite truck, a military communications van, and, inexplicably, a nerdy pack of ham radio operators under a war-surplus canteen tent. Out on the horizon, the road from Stallion Gate twenty-five miles away was necklaced by a garland of headlights: hundreds more visitors trekking to Ground Zero.

White Sands prohibits demonstrations of any kind at Trinity. No ceremonies, no speakers, no banners. On this day, the visitors had other ideas. Scruffy twenty-somethings affecting hippie tie-dye tried to throw a human ring around the obelisk, and ended up playing cat-and-mouse with the unhappy guards. Off to the side, a World War II veteran was eagerly lecturing the CNN reporter about the moral rightness of the bombs dropped on Japan. A stately group of gaijin Buddhists from somewhere north of Santa Fe were gathered just inside the fence, quietly chanting sutras as a puzzled and dispirited MP looked on, unsure what to do. The atmosphere was charged with the emotion of utter, conflicting certainty. The wind whispered its questions past unlistening ears.

At 5:29 a.m., the exact moment of the detonation’s anniversary, a protester threw a vial of liquid on the obelisk (Reuters reported that it was blood), and was promptly hustled off by the guards. I recognized his face in the camera lights; he had wandered up to the minister while we were waiting outside Stallion Gate. “I live near Three Mile Island,” he volunteered with an odd, unbalanced look in his eyes, and muttered something about evening the score. The MPs added to the farce by bringing up a HumVee-mounted fire-pumper to wash off the monument, even though the liquid thrown by the protester had promptly evaporated into the dry desert air. The result was a media circus of the absurd: a poor sergeant under orders dutifully hosing off an invisible fluid as the erstwhile hippies chanted, “You can never wash it off.”

But amidst the antics of the certain, one gesture stood out in its quiet dignity. A woman had come with 1,000 origami cranes folded by children in New Mexico and Japan. When told that she could not place the cranes on the obelisk, she silently obliged the order and stood immobile, holding the garland as high and as close to the monument as the guards would allow.

I retreated from the circus at Ground Zero to the quiet of the McDonald ranch house two miles to the south. It was here that the final assembly of the atomic heart of the Trinity device was completed. Physicists “tickled the tail of the dragon,” coaxing a sphere of plutonium the size of a marble to the edge of criticality before placing it in its nest of high explosive. At the very moment of their desert toilings, delegates to an infant United Nations were gathering in San Francisco to forge a new world order. They had no idea that it would be a world order based on the rarest — and deadliest — of elements in the atomic table.

Even in the isolation of the McDonald ranch, one can feel a restless agitation in this place. Through an empty window frame, I watched as thunderheads gathered over the Oscuras, much as they did fifty years earlier when a storm first delayed and then nearly canceled the Trinity shot. Like some echo of that unearthly detonation, a distant clap of thunder rumbled down off the mountains and across the empty desert.

A black-and-white photo of Oppenheimer sits on my desk as I write this. His eyes stare through the camera as if tracing a point on the edge of infinity. It is a gaze that is too wise, and vastly sad. It bespeaks a message as subtle and ambiguous as that whispered by the wind at Trinity. Do not race to answers. Do not flee from contradiction, and do not yield to the counsel of despair. The shade of Donne joins in: Trinity is three made into one. It speaks not just of death, but also of resurrection and redemption. Trinity is a place for asking questions, not finding answers. At this spot half a century ago, history collapsed into a singularity and then raced outward at lightspeed, riding the photons of that first unearthly blast. History is racing outwards still, carrying the wind’s questions. The questions that once troubled Oppenheimer and his colleagues now belong to us all.

 

Chapters

1. Trinity
2. Hiroshima
3. Nagasaki
4. Kokura
5. Los Alamos

Download: The Road from Trinity: Reflections on the Atom Bomb (PDF)

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