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.

(6) comments

Michael Welsh

I wrote a history of the Army Engineers who built the Los Alamos and Trinity site facilities. They had done research on the estimated death toll for Allied forces if they had had to force their way into Japan to end WWII. Their calculations were that it would take 18 months and result in 1.5 million Allied dead (not to mention the numbers of Japanese military and civilian deaths). When presented with those statistics, American military planners decided to use the new weapon as soon as feasible. This, of course, is the problem with "what if" history.

Khal Spencer

I think those numbers are conjectures if the Japanese had fought to the last bullet. But even a less prolonged war or even a blockade would likely have resulted in high casualties, perhaps even approaching Hiroshima and Nagasaki in magnitude. The Battle of Okinawa is a good example of how gruesome the war had become.

From Wiki: " the Cornerstone of Peace monument at the Okinawa Prefecture Peace Park identifies the names of each individual who died at Okinawa due to World War II. As of 2010, the monument lists 240,931 names, including 149,193 Okinawan civilians, 77,166 Imperial Japanese soldiers, 14,009 U.S. soldiers, and smaller numbers of people from South Korea (365), the UK (82), North Korea (82) and Taiwan (34)..."

Michael Grimler

"...Thus, the deal in Iran to curb that nation’s nuclear program..."

I have a bridge to sell you.

Khal Spencer

It has been a good series, and I thank the New Mexican and staffers like Staci Matlock and Bill Stewart for the work on the subject.

There will always be disagreement on whether The Bomb was worth it, but without Mr. Peabody and the Wayback Machine, one can only say that we dropped two bombs and days later, the Japanese surrendered. They may have done so anyway, but one will never know how long the Japanese may have held out. But with the surrender there were no more Hell Ships, Okinawas, and kamakazis, Unit 731 was out of business, and the Allied sailors and marines who fought bloodbaths across the Pacific were able to come home. That's what was on the table. Sixty million died in WW II. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible, but paled in comparison to what humans did when world war was merely politics by other means.

The nuclear enterprise is not alone in its mess to clean up. Superfund sites abound, including Love Canal, not far from my parent's house near Buffalo. Soil lead concentrations along major urban highways in the U.S. are of concern to anyone with kids. We have learned a lot since WW II about our ability to crap our nest. Greg Mello said it particularly well: the contamination around Los Alamos is not the issue--the arms race, conventional and nuclear and its baggage, is the issue.

WMDs are a lousy way to keep the peace. Humanity must move beyond them.

Patricio R. Downs

Amen, brother. Having grown up in the Cold War, it was something fearful to think that at any moment, you and yours could be incinerated by a nuclear weapon... and that's if you're lucky enough to be caught in the blast. The alternatives would be to die a painful death of radiation poisoning and burns about your body, or to die slowly due to the poisoning of the earth and sky, most likely of some form of cancer. It would be nice if there were a way that humankind could figure out a way to live together without one class, nationality, color, creed, etc., exercising hegemony over others, for really, that's the root of it. Sadly, it'll take a lot more than good intentions for that ever to happen, and we'll have to put up with a world where things are going to get worse before it gets better.

Khal Spencer


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