Seventy years after Trinity, the tortured legacy of the atomic bomb lingers — in the world, where the nuclear threat remains, and in New Mexico, where scientists labored to build a weapon powerful enough to end World War II and then set it off in the desert.
All week long, The New Mexican has been looking back at what has happened since that first atomic bomb was detonated in the White Sands Proving Ground, the Trinity Site. That the weapon harnessing the power of the atom would work, many scientists doubted. Yet they toiled night and day in the hidden city of Los Alamos to develop the bomb, code name Manhattan Project.
Once the first bomb exploded successfully, the United States chose to drop two of the deadly weapons on Japan, ending the war. There would be no invasion of Japan. American soldiers, sailors, Marines and flyboys all could come home. The mission had been accomplished, no doubts allowed. As one 91-year-old told reporter Anne Constable: “When I found I was working on a bomb, I was thrilled because I knew it would end the war. I never heard a single person who didn’t agree.”
Decades after, of course, the certainty — at least among citizens who did not work on the bomb — is less assured. The horror of nuclear warfare is a sight the globe does not want to see repeated. One legacy, then, of the atomic bomb, is that it must never happen again.
Because it did happen, the world went through an arms race, with countries spending their economic capital on guns, rather than butter. The cost of weapons could not be questioned, not when the other guy had a nuclear bomb. So countries — particularly the U.S. and the old Soviet Union — built up bombs at the expense of, well, everything else.
As Staci Matlock reported, the environmental legacy has proved costly:“Los Alamos will never be clean.” The legacy is hardly limited to New Mexico, either, with some 108 locations in 29 sites around the nation bearing the burden of waste from the Manhattan Project and subsequent nuclear weapons work. Billions of dollars have been spent cleaning up the mess, and more will be needed to scrub the toxins from our soil and water. Another legacy of the bomb: We cannot stop attempting to clean up the mess.
There remains devastating harm to human beings. Dennis J. Carroll wrote about the people who lived downwind of the test site and whose suffering has largely been ignored. The tens of thousands of deaths after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent pain of survivors, left an indelible mark. There is even a tragic link between New Mexico and Panap, detailed by Margaret Wright. It is estimated that as many as 80,000 people to 100,000 people instantly died at Hiroshima, with another 100,000 people were seriously injured. Three days later at Nagasaki an estimated 74,000 people died, with some 75,000 people severely injured. The legacy of Trinity remains one of destruction and death.
Still, after the destructive power of the atom was unleashed, first in the New Mexico desert and later, over Japan, the world became cowed. No other nuclear bombs have been detonated since. The final story by Bill Stewart concluded that the nuclear threat is as real today as it was in the 1960s, when American schoolchildren crouched under their desks in preparation for the bomb that never came. That’s why another legacy of Trinity must be one of continued vigilance.
We cannot afford nuclear terrorism by fringe groups, meaning that halting the proliferation of weapons and their ingredients is essential. Thus, the deal in Iran to curb that nation’s nuclear program. There must be no brinkmanship, leading to nuclear war, whether between the United States and a foe, or in the ragged world of the Middle East, a place seemingly always on edge. Unleashing the fury of the bomb changed the world. The most enduring legacy, 70 years after Trinity, must be in our resolve that this must never happen again.