Nuclear Candy-A Cold War Truth of Sorts

The Nevada Test Site is beautiful.  Others have officially re-named it The Nevada National

Test Structure

Test Structure

Security Site, but I shall never call it by that name because it wasn’t.  It was a test site or a proving ground not a politically correct plot of land.  Weighing in with over 1350 square miles in the high Nevada desert, the Test Site is geographically packed with dry lakes, hidden valleys, eroded shield volcanoes and mesas hidden from prying eyes by rugged mountains and bombing ranges.  For over 40 years between 1952 and 1995 the Test Site was the private playground of physicists, chemists, and other ‘ist’s who were into nukes.  The only requirements were brilliance, curiosity and the ability to pass a security clearance process.  The Test site possessed a natural dignity, a proud history, drama, and a tortured soul revealed in the familiar pockmarked landscape and skeletal remains of test platforms.  It was also the home of the new flavors of nuclear candy made ready for the military and political bureaucracies.  Grab your favorite beverage-mine is coffee-sit down and relax, I have a tale to spin about the Nevada Test Site, battling nuclear fathers, a president, and mankind’s baby step in a positive ethical direction.

T-Tunnel: Typical tunnel layout for the Minute Gun series of horizontal line of sight experiments. A Historical Evaluation of the U12t Tunnel, Nevada Test Site, Nye County, Nevada, Volume 1, DOE/NV/26383–109

T-Tunnel: Typical tunnel layout for the Minute Gun series of horizontal line of sight experiments. A Historical Evaluation of the U12t Tunnel, Nevada Test Site, Nye County, Nevada, Volume 1, DOE/NV/26383–109

It was a bright spring Saturday morning in the late 1980s in P-tunnel at Rainier Mesa in Area 12 and I had several hours of free time before the alcove I was as-building was to be grouted.   I threw my safety gear in the truck alongside my lunch and took off for the top of a mesa.  Pahute Mesa remained largely unexplored in my wanderings but I wasn’t sure what Livermore was doing over there and, anyway, I loved the old structures on top of Rainier Mesa so, Rainier it was.  I found an old shed decorated with dusty pinups from the 1950s and loaded with abandoned, musty smelling logs of an event long past.  This crumbling piece of history, probably a watchman’s shed over T-tunnel was from a time when the instrumentation cables ran from ground zero straight through the top of Rainier Mesa’s cap rock.  What could those broken cap rocks tell me?  I grabbed my sandwich and drink and headed for a comfortable looking tree to lean against.  I could see Sedan crater in the distance and hear the haunting cry of the many raptors riding the mesa’s thermal currents.  Perfect!

Sedan crater always brought Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, to mind.

Sedan Crater Photograph: Emmet Gowin

Sedan Crater Photograph: Emmet Gowin

Sedan was his.  Teller believed strongly that the atom’s power could be harnessed for peaceful use and the Sedan shot  was one of the experiments in the Plowshare Program. (click link to watch the actual detonation) Cultural immersion at the Nevada Test Site required baptism in the pool filled from the perpetual spring of the energy of clashes between the physics and politics of Teller and Oppenheimer.   Edward Teller, an Austro-Hungarian immigrant, started life as the brilliant son of a wealthy, educated Jewish family in Budapest in the early 1900s.  Initially a mathematician and chemist, Teller saw the light and crossed over to the dark side, physics, in 1928.  He was studying in Germany as Hitler rose through the ranks.  Reading the handwriting on the wall, Teller immigrated to Denmark in 1934 and on to the U.S. in 1935.  Teller was made to become a legend.  He was tall, opinionated, outspoken to the point of rudeness, determined to have his own way, and walked with a limp that underscored his ability to survive.  The limp was actually the result of a prosthesis he wore to replace a foot that had been amputated in a 1928 street car accident in Munich. [1]

The Hungarian passport Edward Teller carried when he entered the United States in 1935.

The Hungarian passport Edward Teller carried when he entered the United States in 1935.

Teller and his friend, Leo Szilard, decided to take the fear that Germany was developing a nuclear bomb to Roosevelt.  They knew that in 1939 German scientists had discovered nuclear fission, which meant that it was theoretically possible to split the atom, releasing energy as heat. Teller and Szilard roped Albert Einstein into the team for credibility and they headed to Washington to warn the government.  This cabal convinced Roosevelt of the danger and the Manhattan Project was born.   Toward the end of the Project, Roosevelt died, but his successor saw it through.

Two additional favorite actors on the 1940s and 1950s Cold War stage are Harry S. Truman (no middle name just an initial that suited both grandfathers Shipp and Solomon) and Julius Robert Oppenheimer. They are poles apart on the physical, philosophical, educational, and political scales and each has his own significant following of vehement detractors and name callers. What is not appreciated is that they set the opposing goal posts between which the truth lies.

Harry Truman, a small, wiry man with a high school education and a quick wit replete with a ready smile, ascended the presidency with the unexpected death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a man of few words, an attribute I like in a politician. When he spoke, though, his words were memorable. Like him or hate him, he took his office and its responsibility seriously.

When Truman took office on April 12, 1945, he was finally ‘read-in’ (allowed to know about

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, left, and Maj. General Leslie Groves check the remains of a tower at ground zero of the first atomic explosion weeks after the detonation at Trinity Site, N.M.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, left, and Maj. General Leslie Groves check the remains of a tower at ground zero of the first atomic explosion weeks after the detonation at Trinity Site, N.M.

a classified project) on the Atomic Bomb project in New Mexico.  He advised those briefing him that “If it explodes, as I think it will, I’ll certainly have a hammer on those boys” as he called the Russians. Thirteen days later the Trinity atomic bomb was successfully tested without lighting the atmosphere on fire as had been feared by some. The Russians, of course, knew about the Atomic Bomb well before the former Vice-President became aware. When Truman let the bomb nugget drop at Potsdam in July 1945, Stalin played the Russian bear well; he showed zero reaction although he knew all about it. The nuclear football was in play and Russia would soon have its own atomic weapon.  The race had already started before Truman knew the gates were open.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, a tall, attractive, introspective theoretical physicist educated at Harvard University, Georg-August University of Göttingen (where Edward Teller had taught), and University of Cambridge (to name a few) headed the Manhattan project.  His intellect drove him forward in pursuit of the atomic bomb; his philosophical underpinnings added the misgivings. Teller may have been the father of the hydrogen bomb, but Oppenheimer was the father of theoretical physics.  According to his brother, Frank, Oppenheimer exclaimed “It worked” as the Trinity shot at Alamagordo, New Mexico changed the world in July, 1945.

During an interview for the documentary, The Decision to Drop the Bomb (1965),[2] Oppenheimer expressed the fruits of his introspection.  “We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Oppenheimer, worried the human nature being what it was, would use the bomb and the

Potsdam Conference 1945 (Courtesy of the Truman Library)

Potsdam Conference 1945 (Courtesy of the Truman Library)

world would be destroyed.  He and a group of scientists begged Truman not to use the bomb on Japan.  Teller argued that the force was so terrible that mankind would be afraid to start such a war.  Once the world saw the horror of the atomic bomb in action, Teller reasoned, it would never be used again.  As usual, Oppenheimer and Teller were on opposite sides of the nuclear bomb issue and Teller wasn’t nice about it.

Truman dropped the bomb, two of them actually; one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki.  And Harry Truman has been accused of being a war criminal because he used the atomic bomb as another tool in the war chest.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was accused of being a communist and drummed out of the federal system to his great sorrow. The hounding of Oppenheimer was evil and reached across generations. Eventually, Oppenheimer was cleared of the charges and his country tried to make amends. Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Johnson attempted to assuage the American conscience by presenting the Enrico Fermi Award to Oppenheimer in 1963.  Even Edward Teller, his most bitter rival who sided with the government bigots against Oppenheimer, tried to make amends.  In spite of the recognition of his innocence, years later the pall had not lifted. Oppenheimer’s daughter, Katherine, committed suicide after being denied a security clearance as a translator at the United Nations because of her father’s accusers. It is the way of the three letter agencies, although not all within them, to destroy, destroy, and destroy again.

By the end of the Manhattan Project and with Trinity’s success the personalities of the roughTest_Buildings_10 and ready Teller and the sophisticated, cultured, equally brilliant Oppenheimer clashed to the point where the U.S. government sent them to their respective rooms.  Oppenheimer stayed at Los Alamos, the New Mexico national laboratory he had founded, and a new national laboratory was built for Edward Teller in Livermore, California.   The Nevada Test Site, located between the two National Labs, was split accordingly; each lab had their very own testing areas.

I enjoyed a nice lunch and a nap in the spring sun on top of Rainier Mesa.  Dreams of nuclear cowboys were still dancing in my head, but the clock said it was time to leave.  The grout in the latest instrumentation alcove would be placed soon and the check-off list had my name on it; my place in the nuclear candy store.

Edward Teller, the crusty, old, outspoken, brilliant bastard, was right.  Who would have thought?   Once the world witnessed the horror, it spent 69 years rattling weapons and proliferating the technology but, so far, never again used it against a population.  To employ an old saw, nuclear weapons are neither fish nor fowl. They are neither tools nor mythical gods of annihilation.

Nuclear weapons are dreadful, horrifying, appalling weapons.  Anyone with any doubts should read Charles Pellegrino’s Last Train to Hiroshima,[3] which describes a two day period following the August bombing s of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In spite of the controversy over one source, Pellegrino is an excellent researcher and master storyteller.

Nuclear weapons have not yet been the destroyer of worlds. That, I think, will be left to the contemporary generation of weaponized nanotechnologies, chemical, and biological weapons.  In fact, nuclear weapons are pretty belt and suspenders stuff compared to other contemporary categories. In spite of the baby step taken to NOT use nukes, we humans seem to be very slow learners when it comes to the development of the ethics and philosophy needed to manage technology.

The danger is out there. You can see it clearly as tensions ramp-up between Russia, the Islamic countries, North Korea, the United States and China.  Nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction will be used again sometime, somewhere, unless we get lucky. Weapons technology and knowledge has permeated new geographic areas bulging with agile, brilliant minds filled with the optimism that they will make the difference through the appropriate use of destruction and force.

Meanwhile back in the United States, few are left who could develop the systems to counter such an attack. It is a knowledge base that is being lost in the mists of time and deaths of the old ones.  It will reach critical mass once all who remember the horrors chemical, biological and nuclear weapons wrought are gone and young bucks take the reins free of the burden of bloody experience.  Only then will we see whether the small tottering step taken by mankind to morally grow into its technology has held its hard gained ethical ground.

[Author’s note:  I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Oppenheimer but I knew many who had.  Many years after my lunch on the Rainier Mesa, I was, by virtue of my position, in the same room with Dr. Teller.  My boss, Raytheon Services Nevada’s president had completed his PhD work under Dr. Teller’s tutelage.  While he could never publicly claim his PhD because of the classified nature of the work, he certainly had stories to tell about this brilliant, eccentric man (which was, of course, the pot calling the kettle black)]


[1] Academy of Achievement; Edward Teller Biography; http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/tel0bio-1

[2] The Decision to drop the bomb; 1965; Authors; Fred Freed; Len Giovannitti; NBC News.; Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, inc.; DVD video; Wilmette, Ill. : Films Inc.

[3] Tantor Media; Charles Pellegrino; THE LAST TRAIN FROM HIROSHIMA; http://www.tantor.com/BookDetail.asp?Product=1563_LastTrain

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