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T Plus 6: All Prams Lead to the Kensington Gardens


‘Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom’s Tomb –
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb –
Than this smart Misery.

— Emily Dickinson

And so, as another Infocom game once put it, it’s all come down to this. We have indeed come a long way, looked at a lot of history. But now it’s time to refocus on the game of Trinity. Fair warning, then: massive spoilers ahead.

Throughout its considerable length Trinity has constantly implicated the Wabewalker, and through him we who pull his strings, in the tragic history of the atomic age, refusing to allow us the comfort of abstraction. We’ve been forced to cold-bloodedly kill a couple of cute, innocent little would-be pets to show us that killing is ugly and heartbreaking, not a mere matter of shifting columns and figures around on a spreadsheet showing projected death counts. We’ve met the same woman in two different times, once as a happy little girl in Nagasaki just before the bomb dropped and again as an old woman still bearing the visible scars of her suffering there many years later. We’ve frolicked with a dolphin who’s about to be stupidly, senselessly cooked alive by a hydrogen bomb in the name of some ephemeral geopolitical advantage, bringing home to us what these terrible weapons do to the fragile ecosystems of our one and only home. We’ve made a bomb of our own and experienced some of the heady rush that comes with harnessing such elemental forces of nature — the same rush that captured and possibly consumed both Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, each in his own way. We’ve watched history being written down before our eyes into a permanent and remorseless Book of Hours. And we’ve located the fulcrum of history in that fateful moment on the morning of July 16, 1945, way out in the New Mexican desert.

It eventually becomes apparent that the overriding objective of Trinity the game is to sabotage Trinity the first test of an atomic bomb. All of our hopscotching through time has been to set us up for that goal. At last, we achieve it. We expect something triumphant. Surely this means that humanity has been steered away from this senseless course, that all this tragic history we’ve been experiencing has been averted.


Well, what we get is this:

You slide the blade of the steak knife under the striped wire and pull back on it as hard as you can. The thick insulation cracks under the strain, stretches, frays and splits...

Snap! A shower of sparks erupts from the enclosure. You lose your balance and fall backwards to the floor.

"X-unit just went out again," shouts a voice.

"Which line is it, Baker?"

"Kid's board says it's the informer. The others look okay. We're lettin' it go, Able. The sequencer's running."

The walkie-talkie hisses quietly.


You turn, but see no one.

"Zero minus fifteen seconds," crackles the walkie-talkie.

"You should be proud of yourself." Where is that voice coming from? "This gadget would've blown New Mexico right off the map if you hadn't stopped it. Imagine the embarrassment."

A burst of static. "Minus ten seconds."

The space around you articulates. It's not as scary the second time.

"Of course, there's the problem of causality," continues the voice. "If Harry doesn't get his A-bomb, the future that created you cannot occur. And you can't sabotage the test if you're never born, can you?"

The walkie-talkie is fading away. "Five seconds. Four."

The voice chuckles amiably. "Not to worry, though. Nature doesn't know the word 'paradox.' Gotta bleed off that quantum steam somehow. Why, I wouldn't be surprised to see a good-sized bang every time they shoot off one of these gizmos. Just enough fireworks to keep the historians happy."

And then we’re stuck right back where we started, in the Kensington Gardens on the eve of World War III, to do everything we’ve already done all over again… ad infinitum.

There are two levels on which to wrestle with this strange, bitter ending: on the physical, as realistic storyworld plot logic; and on the symbolic or poetic. Let’s start with the first.

While it’s hardly crystal clear, we can best surmise that Trinity portrays an alternate reality whose laws of physics dictate that that first atomic bomb — and presumably all the ones to follow, should anyone have been able to create them — should have blown up vastly bigger than the scientists who created it expected — and bigger also than the bombs we know from our own reality. Thus the gadget of this subtly different universe “would’ve blown New Mexico right off the map.” Like so much else in Trinity, it’s an idea with an historical basis, which is discussed at some length in The Day the Sun Rose Twice by Ferenc Morton Szasz. This book, published only shortly before Moriarty started working on Trinity, became his bible for the details of the Trinity test; Szasz himself became an informal personal adviser.

As early as 1922 Nobel Lauerate Francis William Aston warned against “tinkering with angry atoms,” voicing concerns that a physicist might accidentally start a chain reaction that would fuse hydrogen in the earth’s atmosphere into helium, the same process that powers the sun — and the hydrogen bomb. The question of whether a human-induced chain reaction taking place inside a bomb could start a runaway chain reaction in the atmosphere at large would continue to nag in the background for a long time, right up through the Trinity test and even well beyond it. In July of 1942, when the Manhattan Project was just getting started in earnest, Edward Teller of all people produced a series of calculations that seemed to show that a fission bomb could in fact create enough heat to ignite the atmosphere. All work came to a halt for several panicked days while the other scientists checked his numbers. It was decided that a probability of better than 1 in 3 million of such an apocalypse actually occurring would be enough to scuttle the Manhattan Project entirely. In the end some of Teller’s numbers were proved to be in error, the probability judged to be somewhat less than 1 in 3 million, and work resumed.

Yet even after they had checked and rechecked their calculations a certain nervousness persisted amongst the scientist preparing for the Trinity test. Enrico Fermi dealt with the question with his typical black humor, offering wagers on whether the bomb would cause a runaway chain reaction at all and, if so, whether it would take out just New Mexico or the whole world. (In either of the latter cases, the winner was likely to be sadly unable to collect…) When the bomb finally exploded, a number of scientists recall an instant of panic at its sheer scale, an instant of wondering if the runaway chain reaction they had all shoved into the backs of their minds was happening before their eyes. Their relief as it became clear that the explosion had reached its limit was perhaps even greater than their relief and sense of triumph that the Manhattan Project had succeeded in its mission.

So, that’s one important part of Trinity‘s ending. But if we can feel ourselves on firm ground with a supersized version of the Trinity bomb absent the Wabewalker’s interference, the rest of what’s happened is rather less clear. Rather than causing the Trinity bomb to simply not work at all, our act of sabotage has merely reduced the scale of its explosion to the Trinity test we know from our own reality — i.e., to the scale the scientists were expecting all along. It seems very hard to believe that cutting a wire would really have allowed the Trinity bomb to blow up nevertheless, only not as big as it otherwise would. Still, we may have to accept the Wabewalker’s act as having had just that outcome. If we do, we must then assume that “bleeding off that quantum steam” entails that all future nuclear explosions will also be reduced in power to correspond with the one that’s just been sabotaged, as a result of some sort of heretofore undiscovered self-correcting quality of the universe. The Wabewalker, whom we might better name Sisyphus, must cycle again and again through time, (partially) sabotaging the Trinity bomb over and over to prevent that paradox that nature “doesn’t know” — the paradox that must be if he doesn’t perform the actions that give birth to the world he knew when he took his $599 London Getaway Package. We might consider him a hero, except that it’s not at all clear that his actions are a net positive. If “blowing New Mexico right off the map” would have led humanity to stop this madness and thus averted the nuclear apocalypse that comes in the Kensingtion Gardens, then according to the terrible logic of war in the nuclear age the lives of all those New Mexicans would better have been sacrificed in the name of saving billions more all over the world. Our victory in Trinity is the very definition of Pyrrhic.

This chain of conjecture is a sometimes flimsy one, some of its logic a bit wobbly. Yet one feels that trying to parse Trinity‘s ending any more closely gets us into the fan-fiction territory of, say, hardcore Ultima fans trying to reconcile with itself Richard Garriott’s ever-changing world of Britannia, of frantic ret-conning to make sense of things that just, well, don’t make sense. As Andrew Plotkin once said of Trinity‘s ending, “I’ve always been uncertain about how well it hangs together. But just uncertain enough that I think it might be cooler than I am capable of grasping.” It’s Trinity‘s ability to evoke the doubt expressed in that second sentence that may just be its saving grace as a time-travel fiction.

But you know what? I’m not sure how much I care about the real-world logic behind Trinity‘s ending, simply because it’s so powerful on a poetic and philosophical level. Taken as just the culmination of a time-travel puzzle, it’s very clever, yes, if not quite clever enough to feel entirely bulletproof. (Where did the umbrella actually come from? If, as would seem to be implied, that’s your corpse you meet in the magical land, how to reconcile that with the apparently eternal loop you’re stuck in?) It’s clever in a way that any science-fiction fan has seen many times before, clever in the way of that cool twist at the end of a great thriller. Taken more abstractly, however, it becomes much more than merely clever. And it’s on that more abstract level that I find I really want to discuss it.

Before I do that, though, I should take a moment to talk a bit more about why I’m so willing to forgive Trinity its faults as realistic fiction. It’s a question I’ve spent quite some time considering, using as a point of comparison Trinity‘s perpetual point of comparison, Infocom’s other unabashed striving for the mantle of Literature A Mind Forever Voyaging. As many of you doubtless remember, I dinged that game pretty hard for its own various failings as realistic fiction. I therefore owe it to you to explain why I’m so blasé about this aspect of Trinity. One possibility is of course that I simply like Trinity better, and am thus more willing to excuse its failings. However, while the first part of that statement is certainly true, I’m not so sure about the second. Roger Ebert (every gamer’s favorite critic, right?) often used to say that every movie deserves to be reviewed on its own terms — i.e., on the terms of what it’s trying to be. If a movie wants to be a moody art-house character study, how much insight does it give into the proverbial human condition? If it’s a fast-paced action flick, how well does it get the adrenalin pumping? If it’s a porno… well, you get the idea. Unless I’ve misjudged its intent entirely, A Mind Forever Voyaging wants to be a compelling piece of hard science fiction, a realistic extrapolation of current trends in the spirit of the fictions it references on its back cover, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Trinity, though, wants to be something quite different, more poetic than realistic, more a philosophical meditation than a plot-driven story. Particularly when we’re in the magical land that serves as the hub of our historical explorations, we’re literally wandering through a landscape of symbolism, of ideas cast into physical reality. Trinity is a philosophical meditation given the superficial form of a story, like Gulliver’s Travels or Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

I think it’s fair to judge its ending in particular on those terms. I consider Trinity‘s ending to be both the bleakest and the most profound in the Infocom catalog, much more so than that of Infidel in that Moriarty’s ending serves as the essential culmination of his game’s message, not as a mere experiment to see whether a tragic ending could “work” in an interactive medium. Indeed, one could use the word “experiment” to describe most of Infocom’s pre-Trinity nods toward Literature. The ending of Infidel, the friendship and sad fate of Floyd in Planetfall, arguably even the political message and puzzleless structure of A Mind Forever Voyaging were treated almost as technical challenges: “Can we use interactive fiction to do XXX?” Trinity alone feels like a mature, holistic statement rather than an experiment. It doesn’t even bother wasting time on the question: “Of course we can, and now here’s an historical tragedy for ya.”

I want to come back to the idea of Trinity as a tragedy, but first I want to look more closely at another phrase I’ve thrown out there from time to time in this series of articles: this idea of Trinity as a “meditation on history.” Ridiculously simplified, there are two ways of viewing history, of viewing time itself: as a ladder or as a wheel.

History as a ladder is an ongoing process of improvement and perfection. Wars and other terrible things sometimes happen that knock us a notch or two back down the ladder, but we always pick ourselves up and start to climb again. As long as we keep working at it, the lives of most of the people on earth will most of the time continue to get better. It’s an idea that by this point seems intertwined into the very DNA of most Western societies. You can find it in the Christianity — particularly Protestant Christianity — whose moral precepts are still at the root of our systems of laws: a Christian, born into a heritage of sin, spends her life striving to overcome that heritage and improve both herself and the world around her, after which she’s rewarded with the ultimate perfection of Heaven. You can find it in our economic systems: capitalism is based on the assumption that we can always make more money than we did the previous year (an assumption which, as Karl Marx among others have pointed out, may not be sustainable in the long term). The United States, amongst the most Christian and the most unabashedly capitalist of Western societies, hews to the idea particularly closely: what else is the American Dream but an idealized narrative of personal improvement and eventual perfection, a secular version of Christianity’s spiritual journey? In the euphoric aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, American historians started enthusiastically writing about “the end of history,” declaring the world to have reached the top of the ladder and attained perfection at last — in, naturally, the image of the United States. But I’m not here to condemn the notion of history as progress. Far from it. As an American myself, it’s largely the way I too see the world — and, I would even say, with good reason. Still, we should give due weight to the other point of view.

Circumstances come and go, says the circular view of history, but through it all there is the Eternal Now. As the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of the most beloved and most theologically problematic books of the Old Testament, says: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” It’s a view that’s actually even older than Ecclesiastes, stretching back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers whose works often survive only as fragments. Since then it’s tended to be most prevalent in non-Western societies. Certainly we can see it in Hinduism and Buddhism with their nearly perpetual reincarnation of the soul rather than the single life as a journey toward perfection (or damnation). It was resurrected in the West only in the last few hundred years by the school of European continental philosophy, whose tolerance for ambiguity and subjectivity tends to stand it in opposition to the analytic tradition that dominates in Britain and the United States, with its emphasis on rationalism and empiricism. Thus you can find it in Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Recurrence. You can find it in our old friend Robert Pinsky’s metaphor of the Figured Wheel. You can find it in its most nihilistic incarnation in many apocalyptic fictions of the Cold War, such as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which posits a humanity destined to pull itself out of the Dark Ages only to destroy its civilization as soon as nuclear weapons are (re)invented, over and over again in a futile cycle of stupidity spanning endless millennia. And of course you can find it in Trinity, which posits your grand adventure to be a perpetual loop — or, to choose another symbol from the game itself, a Klein bottle with no beginning, no end, and no measurable property of progress in between.

Trinity‘s despairing nihilism is a result of Brian Moriarty’s own conviction as of 1986 that nuclear war was inevitable, that it was only a question of “when” and “how,” never “whether.” Any thoughtful person studying the history of atomic weapons and the Cold War as of 1986 could experience the same sense of predestination, the sense of the futility of the individual, that permeates Trinity. Time and time again the reasonable men had been battered down by the paranoid and the power-mad. Robert Oppenheimer’s case is just one example. Another, perhaps more immediate one for Moriarty would have been the story of President Carter, who entered office determined to reduce the United States’s nuclear arsenal to a “minimal deterrence” level of just 100 to 200 missiles and reach reasonable accommodations with the Soviet Union on a host of issues; he exited four years later amidst boycotts and spiking tensions, and having initiated the arms buildup that would go on to become the most extreme in the peacetime history of the country under Ronald Reagan. Against the forces of history, it seemed that even a good and powerful man like Carter was ultimately powerless.

Can I, the individual, alter the course of history? My answer must first depend on whether I believe in free will. Trinity would seem to tell us that we do have free will on an individual, granular level. The Book of Hours we discover in the magical land shows the Wabewalker’s actions in its pages only as he performs them, not before. Yet on the other hand, virtually everything else in the game is set up to make us feel, as Moriarty put it in an interview published immediately after Trinity, “the weight of all this history, crushing you.” There’s not a lot of individual agency allowed by that description, is there? The magical land of metaphor that serves as the spine of the game would certainly seem to represent a view of time that’s mechanistic and eternally recurring. The sun sweeps around and around its perimeter under the control of the mechanical sundial at its center — literally a wheel of time — its shadow falling again and again on the same set of historical events. “No new thing under the sun” indeed. This is the tragic view of history.

And now, having stumbled upon that word yet again, I think it’s time for us to really think about it. Like so many words, it has at least a couple of valid usages. In everyday speech we use it pretty much any time something really sad or really unjust happens to anyone. So, yes, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen were tragic. But they weren’t tragedies in the philosophical or literary sense that Trinity is a tragedy.

Most of us were inculcated as schoolchildren in another version of tragedy: it’s all about the “tragic flaw.” A noble, virtuous, and capable man is utterly undone by a single failing in his character: perhaps Lust, perhaps Greed, perhaps Ambition, perhaps Jealousy. The tragic hero must of course die for his failing, but in the process of doing so he will be redeemed and restored to at least a measure of his former greatness through self-discovery and acknowledgement of his sins. Originating with Aristotle in roughly 350 BC, it proved to be a conception very well-suited to later Christian societies, for the cycle forms a neat allegory of the central narrative of Christianity: the Creation, the Fall, and Redemption in the after-life. How appropriate then that the earliest great tragedy of the Elizabethan era, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, not only follows this outline perfectly but has its protagonist directly interacting with metaphysical specters of Christian good and evil.

Still, despite lots of hammering and prodding over the centuries, the tragic flaw actually sits rather uncomfortably upon lots of tragic heroes. What’s the tragic flaw of Oedipus? He quite sensibly did everything he reasonably could to derail the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, only to have the universe screw him over anyway. What’s the tragic flaw of Hamlet? Some critics have tried to say it’s indecisiveness, but one can’t help but feel that wishy-washyness lacks a certain moral grandeur. What’s next? Messiness as a tragic flaw? (If so, and as anyone who’s ever seen my office will attest, I’m screwed.)

Aristotle’s word that is generally translated as “tragic flaw” is “hamartia.” It’s a term with its origins in archery, where it’s used to refer to a “missing of the mark.” It was removed from this context by Aristotle, and extended to mean any general mistake or failing. Later, Christian translators may have anachronistically inserted the concept into their own worldview, giving it a moral, even spiritual dimension it does not generally possess in Greek tragedy. There is no grand Christian narrative of guilt, punishment, and redemption to be found here, but rather a sort of cosmic joke and an illustration of the powerlessness of even the mightiest in the face of a universe determined to have its way with us no matter what we do. This is the conception of tragedy hinted at in the works of the philosophers who lived during and before the time of Sophocles, well before the time of Aristotle. It’s the conception of tragedy that Nitszche would rescue and begin to expound in the nineteenth century after centuries of neglect. Trinity also connects itself to these classical currents, not least via another in its arsenal of symbols: the ferryman Charon. In Greek mythology, he carries souls from the land of the living to that of the dead. In Trinity, he carries the Wabewalker to the Trinity site, the beginning of the end.

The ancient Greeks called the elemental, irresistible force of the universe, the “what will be must be” of existence, “physis.” Some people prefer to call it God; some prefer to call it science — or, more specifically and interestingly, physics. Whatever you call it, it can be a bitch sometimes. The real key to Trinity the tragedy may lie in those lines from Hamlet quoted on the back of its box:

The time is out of joint;
O cursed spite, That ever I was
born to set it right!

Hamlet is arrogant enough to believe he’s some sort of Aristotlian tragic hero, destined to “set it right” through his redemptive, sacrificial heroism. What he fails to understand is that the universe is destined to kick his ass no matter what he does. The Wabewalker is arrogant enough to believe in his sweet, clueless American way that he can “fix” history and make everything better. He’s likewise about to get a swift kick in the ass to disabuse him of that notion. Oedipus the King, Hamlet, and Trinity all in fact share a protagonist who’s deluded enough to believe he can prevent or correct a monstrosity that should not be: a son married to his mother in Oedipus; a brother who has committed fratricide and married his sister-in-law in Hamlet; the atomic bomb in Trinity. The joke’s on them. The universe is, as Trinity‘s climactic text implies and as a little game called Zork once stated outright, “self-contained and self-maintaining.”

So, are we left with nothing more than a sick cosmic joke? An essential component of the Aristotelian conception of tragedy is the hero who is redeemed at last through his suffering. Where is the Wabewalker’s redemption? Those of us who play Trinity today can of course take comfort in the fact that what Moriarty saw as inevitable did not come to pass. Instead a hero emerged named Mikhail Gorbachev who, it turned out, actually was capable of breaking the tragic cycle and just possibly saving the world in the way that Oppenheimer, Carter, the Wabewalker, and so many others were not. Because of him life did not imitate Trinity‘s art.

But playing the Gorbachev card is kind of cheating, isn’t it? Is there redemption to be found within Trinity without recourse to external events? I’m not sure I know how to answer this question, how to describe or explain the way that Trinity makes me feel, but I’ll try.

The ancient Greeks talked about something called the “kairos moment,” the orgiastic instance when physis wells up and Great Change happens. Call it God time if you prefer; call it the ineffable transcendence. At that moment we’re at one with the universe, at one with time. The time is no longer out of joint; we’re living in time, oblivious to it. Those scientists in the New Mexico desert experienced a kairos moment when they saw their gadget explode — so awful and so awe-full. Somehow, in a way nobody has ever adequately described and that I certainly can’t begin to, we can also experience a vicarious kairos time at the culminating moment of tragedy, stare into the abyss and come away redeemed. It’s not about seeking redemption for Oedipus or Hamlet or the Wakewalker. It’s redemption for us.

When Nietzsche wrote of a wheel of time, of the Eternal Recurrence, it wasn’t an exercise in nihilism. Just the opposite. He was looking for a way to escape from the tyranny of linear chronology, from the eternal tragedy of the human condition, which is to live out of joint with time, always casting our mental gaze forward or backward, almost never living in the Eternal Now that is Life. If you’re like me, maybe you feel a bit wistful from time to time when you watch your pets play or eat or love, completely in the moment. They have something we can only touch occasionally, unpredictably. And yet it’s important to try. Because even if the world is headed to hell, even if the missiles are going to fly tomorrow, we have the Now. Because even if our individual Books of Hours are already completely written and we can’t do a damn thing about any of it, we still have the Now. Inside Trinity, we wind up after the supreme futility of the sabotage that wasn’t quite the sabotage we thought it was back in the Kensington Gardens. Okay, fair enough. Let’s take a stroll, feel the sun on our skin, enjoy the happy babble of life around us. Who cares if this is the last moment ever? It’s a moment, isn’t it? Pity to waste it. Anyway, last I checked there was a soccer ball and a perambulator and an umbrella to be gathered…


Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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T Plus 0: The Fulcrum of History


We’re interdimensional travelers of time and space, Wabewalkers on the go. We’re going to visit a nondescript spot way out in the New Mexico desert between Socorro and Alamogordo, approximately latitude 33 degrees north, longitude 106 degrees west, late in the evening of July 15, 1945.

If you were a novelist scripting a place to unleash an elemental force of nature, you hardly could have done better than the place we stand now. There’s something different about New Mexico; not for nothing do they call it the Land of Enchantment. It’s a quality of the air, of the light, of the harsh, otherworldly landscape itself which is in no way conventionally beautiful but beautiful all the same. New Mexico captures dreamers for reasons no one can fully articulate. Dreamers like Georgie O’Keeffe, who fled her circle of New York City sophisticates to roam the desert alone and obsessively paint, paint, paint not just the stuff around her but the light that baked her skin brown as a nut. Dreamers like D.H. Lawrence, who wandered to New Mexico as part of his “savage exile” from Britain and stayed long enough to write several books here; he declared New Mexico “the greatest experience I ever had,” one that “changed me forever.”

I know what he meant. When I was young and at loose ends, I took a solitary road trip around the state in my old 280Z, staying at hostels at night and roaming the dunes during the day. I still remember the dust and the sweat and the light, and how good a beer and a dive into a watering hole felt at the end of the day. New Mexico still calls to me. I’ve gone back several times with various companions since, and I suspect I’ll continue to look for excuses to do so for the rest of my life. Still, it’s never been quite the same as it was that first time. I think the desert is best experienced alone.

The part of the desert we’re visiting today was once part of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro — “The Royal Road of the Interior” — that ran all the way from Mexico City to San Juan Pueblo near the northern border of the present-day state of New Mexico. This stretch of the Camino Real was and is known as Jornada del Muerto — “Journey of the Dead.” It’s so-called because this basin, stretching 100 miles north to south, is bereft of food and water throughout its length. Only yucca and scattered scrub grows here. Native Americans knew from time immemorial to avoid it at all costs, while the Spaniards who died trying to make their way across it became the source of the ominous name it has held since before 1700. The Spaniards named the town they built at its northern tip Socorro — “succor” or “sustenance” — because that’s exactly what it represented to weary travelers from El Paso del Norte heading north toward Santa Fe. Various settlers over the centuries have tried to make a go of life in the Jornada del Muerto, digging wells and bringing in sheep and cattle; we’ll meet in a bit a part of what they left behind. But it’s always a hardscrabble existence, their numbers always few.


This particular night in the Jornada del Muerto is an unusual one for two reasons. First of all, it’s raining, something that happens very seldom here. In fact, it’s raining hard, a violent thunderstorm of the sort that visits the desert only once or so per year. The storm will dump four inches of rain in a few hours onto a region that normally only gets about eight per year. That the rain gods should choose this of all nights to have their frolic seems poetically portentous. Because, you see, perched incongruously in the middle of nothing is a 100-foot-tall tower, Ground Zero of a new era in human history.

Base of Tower

A steel tower rises overhead, black against the cloudy sky. Your eyes follow the tapered frame up the ladder, past dangling ropes and cables, to the platform at its summit.

Paved roads and instrument lines lead off into the surrounding desert.


Let’s travel up the tower’s length and peek inside the flimsy metal shed perched at its top (what barrier is height to an interdimensional traveler?). Inside we see the “gadget,” the world’s first atomic bomb, an ungainly contraption of steel and cabling. We’ve arrived at Trinity.


You're in a metal shack, barely twelve feet square. The oak floor is littered with discarded bits of rope, pulleys and other hardware. A dark light bulb hangs from the ceiling. You can see an exit in the west wall.

A five-foot sphere rests on a bracket in the middle of the floor. Its surface is studded with bolts and crossed with electrical cables, all converging in a boxlike enclosure nearby.

Sitting in the corner (luckily, we interdimensional travelers are also invisible) is a young man flipping nervously through a cheap paperback. His name is Donald Hornig, and he’s 25 years old. He’s a prodigious chemist who’s already earned his PhD, an expert on explosives who was plucked out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute by James Conant, President of Harvard, to join the Manhattan Project. He did important work on the implosion process that will, if all goes well, start in a matter of a few hours a nuclear chain reaction in the gadget with which he now shares the shed. He will go on to a long career as a professor and administrator in some of the pinnacles of academia: Brown, Princeton, Harvard.

Right now, however, Hornig is just a glorified babysitter, perched up here because General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer are paranoid about sabotage and don’t trust any ordinary guard to get too close to the gadget. He must know at some level that, brilliant as he is, he’s no Oppenheimer or Edward Teller; he’s up here at the top of a 100-foot tower babysitting a cobbled-together nuclear bomb in the middle of a violent thunderstorm because he’s expendable. That’s the way it always is; when the Oppenheimers and Groves of the world start their grand projects, there always have to be lots of Hornigs to see that they get done. He tries to forget his predicament, tries to read his book — The Desert Island Decameron, a collection of light essays and stories written by popular authors and sold cheap to keep the troops entertained — under the light of the single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling, trying to ignore the flashing lightning and howling wind. At last, at midnight, with the storm still raging, his telephone rings: “Come down!” Hornig climbs carefully down the side of the tower, then gets into a jeep and heads off to the canteen at the base camp for a cup of coffee. He will be the last person to see the gadget.

As the hours pass and the bomb sits alone up there in its shed, the temporary bunkers and camps that surround it are buzzing with activity. The plan was to explode the gadget at 4:00 this morning, but the weather causes a delay and much uncertainty. It’s considered urgently important to do the test this morning if at all possible, as President Truman is now in Potsdam and awaiting word of the Manhattan Project’s success — or failure — to know how he should conduct himself with Soviet General Secretary Stalin; as a whole raft of dignitaries and representatives have made the trip down to New Mexico to see the blast; as everyone is so damn tired — most of the people working onsite haven’t slept for two days — that they’d need a week or two just to rest and recuperate and prepare everything again for a rescheduled test.

Thankfully, the rain stops at dawn.

At 5:10, a physicist named Samuel King Allison begins intoning the final twenty-minute countdown over loudspeakers mounted all over the complex. His voice booms out for our ears only from the base of the tower itself. Countdowns sounding much like this one will later become familiar to everyone who watches the NASA space launches on television. This one, though, is like the gadget itself the first of its kind in the history of the world. A local radio station is broadcasting on a similar wavelength; Allison’s dulcet tones are occasionally overlaid with snatches of The Nutcracker Suite. Indeed, radio interference has been a constant problem at the Trinity site. The frequency chosen for short-wave communication among the scientists is the same as that used by a railway freight yard in San Antonio, Texas. Throughout the last weeks of frenzied preparation, the scientists could occasional hear the train dispatchers — and the train dispatchers could presumably occasionally hear the scientists. Even more alarmingly for security, Trinity also occasionally gets its bandwidth crossed with shortwave transmissions from the Voice of America. Hopefully their dialogs are esoteric enough that no one is likely to make sense of them.

At 5:25 we see a signal rocket flash into the sky, at 5:29 another; there was supposed to be one at 5:28 as well, but it was a dud. Let’s freeze time now (we interdimensional travelers do have many powers, don’t we?) and look around to see what else these men have wrought out here in the desert.


If we begin to streak outward from the tower in concentric circles — like, say, a hyperactive roadrunner — the first interesting thing we come to is an enormous metal non sequitur perched about half a mile west of the tower.

West of Tower

A tall framework of steel has been erected here, cousin to the larger tower visible not far to the east. Suspended within the frame is an enormous metal barrel, at least twenty feet long and ten wide, with rounded end caps. It looks like a king-sized cold capsule.

>examine barrel
Why would anyone hang a giant barrel in the middle of nowhere like this? There don't seem to be any openings, windows or markings of any kind; as far as you can tell, the thing is utterly useless.

The cold capsule, known colloquially as “Jumbo,” is a sign of the sheer urgency of the Manhattan Project and its associated willingness to expend resources lavishly on things that may actually prove pointless. (This is, you may remember, the same Manhattan Project that designed and built not one but two completely different atomic bombs, one using uranium and the other — the sort being tested this morning — using plutonium, in the hope that at least one of the things would turn out to work.) For a time plans for the Trinity test called for the gadget to be completely enclosed within Jumbo, which was designed to be strong enough that if the explosives mounted around the bomb’s plutonium core fired but failed to trigger the expected nuclear chain reaction its walls would not be breached. Thus it would be easy to collect and reuse the precious plutonium. Manufactured in Ohio, the heart of steel country, to exacting specifications, just getting its 214-ton bulk to the test site turned into a major effort of logistics. A railroad car had to be specially modified to carry this, the largest item ever shipped by rail. Because many sections of track simply couldn’t support something of this weight, the train had to take a circuitous route, from Barberton, Ohio, down to New Orleans, and then west across Texas. A special spur had to be constructed south of Socorro to unload it. Jumbo was then loaded onto a specially constructed 64-wheel trailer and pulled to the Trinity site by nine tractors along a 25-mile road that also had to be constructed from scratch.

And by the time it arrived here at last, two months ago, it was already superfluous. The scientists were feeling more and more confident that the test would be a success, plutonium was beginning to come out of the Manhattan Project’s complex of nuclear reactors in Hanford, Washington, in relatively good quantities, and it would make for a better, easier-to-monitor test if the bomb was exploded in the open air rather than inside a giant steel tube. And so after all that effort Jumbo has ended up here; the scientists lamely explain that they can use it to see what effect an atomic bomb has on… well, on a giant, pointless 214-ton metal tube sitting half a mile away from it. The answer will turn out to be, unsurprisingly, pretty much none at all, although the tower in which it’s mounted will be blown down. Jumbo will eventually end up sitting in the Trinity memorial parking lot for the benefit of the tourists who will be allowed to visit on one or two days out of every year, while scientists will later realize what a blessing it was that Jumbo wasn’t used: it would have been vaporized by the gadget, spewing 214 tons of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.


Continuing to circle outward, we come now to a strange artifact of another type not quite a mile southeast of the shot tower.

Shallow Crater

You're standing at the edge of a shallow depression in the desert floor, a few hundred feet across. The ground within is gray and pulverized, as if by a powerful explosion.

This is indeed the remnant of a powerful explosion, of a dress rehearsal of sorts for Trinity that was conducted two months ago. A rather staggering 110 tons of TNT were stacked atop a 20-foot tower, along with a sprinkling of radioactive plutonium for realism’s sake. Then the whole thing was blown up remotely from the control bunker destined to be used for the main test. The plutonium was scattered widely by the explosion, giving the scientists a way to check and calibrate their instruments.


Moving along brings us to something more interesting about two miles southeast of the shot tower: an everyday-looking if somewhat worse-for-wear house sitting alone in the desert.

>examine house
The ranch house is squat and ugly, with adobe walls and a cheap tin roof. A deck is attached to the front.

The ranch house was built in 1913 by Franz Schmidt, a German immigrant and homesteader who lived a lonely existence here with his family for about ten years, raising sheep and cattle on land which he leased from the New Mexico government; the state owns most of the Jornada del Muerto. The Schmidts eventually sold the house and their lease on the land to another family, the McDonalds. But in 1942 the McDonalds were forced off their land by the federal government, who needed a wide open space for the testing of artillery and bombs.

When this part of the Jornada del Muerto was selected for the Trinity test in 1944, the house was a convenient bonus. It became a headquarters of sorts for the scientists. The interior was largely stripped, workbenches, maps, and equipment moved in, generators set up just outside for electricity. The doors and windows were weather-stripped as part of an oft-futile battle against the gales of dust and sand that constantly blow over the desert plains. The walls were tar-papered and the roof painted with aluminum paint in a truly futile battle against the searing heat of summer. The scientists found a more effective remedy to be the reservoir out back, perfect for spirit-renewing afternoon dips when the work became exhausting and the heat unbearable.

Let’s peek inside the house, see what they were up to in there…

Assembly Room

Whoever used this room was paranoid about dirt. The floor is swept spotless, and the edges of both windows are carefully sealed with tape. A closed front door leads east, and there's an open closet door in the north wall. Other exits lead south and west.

A workbench covered with loose sheets of brown paper runs along the north wall. You see bits of wire and other debris scattered across the paper.


Just a few days ago, on the evening of July 12, the two halves of the gadget’s plutonium core arrived at the ranch house under the stewardship of a young Army sergeant named Herbert Lehr, having ridden down from Los Alamos in the backseat of a sedan. The next day Louis Slotin arrived at the house’s “clean room” — the doors and windows had been sealed with tape and plastic against the ever-present dust and sand — to assemble the core. He placed a beryllium/polonium neutron initiator inside one half of the plutonium core, then gently lowered the other half into place to produce an apparatus about the size of a tennis ball but about the weight of a bowling ball. The scientists call these operations “tickling the dragon’s tail,” as one slip can send the core supercritical, irradiating the surrounding area and anyone within it. In the future such things will be done by machines inside shielded real clean rooms, attended by radiation-suited operators. But in 1945 the scientists place all of their faith in Slotin’s steady hand and steely nerves, and in the jeeps waiting outside with their engines running — as if radiation could be outrun. Luckily, Slotin was an experienced hand at this. The assembly went off without a hitch, the assembled core delivered to the shot tower to be placed inside the gadget the next day. Slotin’s luck, however, won’t hold out forever. Less than a year from now, he’ll make a mistake when performing a similar operation, absorbing a huge dose of radiation and dying agonizingly a week later.

The ranch house, judged too close for safety to the shot tower and thus empty now, will weather the blast none the worse for wear, apart from some blown-out windows. The ravages of time and weather will not be so kind. It will sit, abandoned and ignored, for decades after the Trinity test while David McDonald, patriarch of the family that once owned it, burns with outrage. The McDonalds, David will later claim, had been promised that the lease and the land would be returned to them once the war was over and the need for such large-scale artillery testing disappeared. But after the war that need will be replaced by another: the artillery range will become the White Sands Proving Grounds, where captured V-2 rockets are tinkered with to inaugurate the United States’s missile program. And then the White Sands Proving Grounds will become the modern White Sands Missile Range. Meanwhile David McDonald will continue to insist that the land was “stolen” from his family. The story will take a bizarre turn in 1982 when David McDonald, now 81 years old, will take possession along with his niece Mary of what’s left of the house — by then it will be little more than a ruin — armed with two rifles and a pistol. They will post signs about the property: “Deeded Land — No Trespassing” and “Road Closed to U.S. Army.” Eventually, with the aid of one of New Mexico’s Senators and the district’s Congressmen, they will be talked into leaving the property peacefully.

Whether as a result of David McDonald’s actions or just coincidence, the military will at last decide at about that time to do something with the house. It will be restored to its 1945 condition by the National Park Service and, beginning in 1984, opened to tourists who come to the Trinity site.


Continuing our circles, we come at last to some people. Three bunkers are set up about six miles northwest, southwest, and south of the shot tower, each with a handful of inhabitants. Let’s stop at the largest and most interesting of these, the “Baker” bunker south of the tower, from which the explosion is to be actually controlled and monitored.

>examine shelter
The square shelter is built of heavy timber, covered with a thick layer of earth on the north side. Bright light spills across the desert from the open south entrance.

A thin man steps into view, standing just inside the shelter's entrance.

>examine man
The thin man near the shelter is drawn and haggard; it looks as if he hasn't slept in days.

Pushing back his porkpie hat, the thin man peers up at the overcast sky.

The thin man is Robert Oppenheimer. Others out of our sight inside the bunker include Enrico Fermi, the first man to institute a nuclear chain reaction; George Kistiakowsky, head of the group that designed the high-explosive lenses that will collapse the gadget’s plutonium core; Kenneth Bainbridge, who has supervised the practical details of this test on behalf of the Los Alamos scientists; meteorologist Jack Hubbard, who was for most of the previous night the most anxiously consulted man on the site; and Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, General Groves’s right-hand man. Groves himself tore off from the control bunker in a jeep twenty minutes ago, toward the base camp further south, in accordance with a rule that he and Farrell should never place themselves into danger at the same time. All of the people I’ve just mentioned are worthy of articles in their own right. But now, for today, what of Oppenheimer?

Yes, what of Robert Oppenheimer? That’s a question that family, friends, and colleagues have been asking and will continue to ask all his life. As enigmatic a man as you’re ever likely to meet, he seems almost uniquely capable of inspiring either the most fervent admiration or the most contemptuous dislike — and sometimes, as in the case of Edward Teller, both in the same person. Perhaps an old story might help me to begin to explain.

Shortly after a young Oppenheimer accepted a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, he went on a date with a graduate student. They apparently didn’t hit it off very well, and she fell asleep in the car on what should have been a romantic drive up into the Berkeley hills. Oppenheimer simply parked the car and walked away, leaving the girl to wake up alone in a car to which she had no key several miles from home. To his admirers, this became another amusing story about the Oppie the great eccentric, doubtless walking home mulling some fundamental property of the universe, the dull girl long forgotten. To his detractors, it was just a story about a jerk who left a girl stranded in the middle of nowhere for the crime of failing to be his dream date. Far from being natural, they claimed, Oppenheimer’s whole eccentric-intellectual schtick was carefully calculated; he knew exactly the effect he was trying to create when he said, for instance, that he hadn’t been aware of the 1929 stock-market crash until six months after it happened.

Oppenheimer’s famous cultural omnivorism is similarly polarizing. He cooks exotic Indonesian cuisine, studies ethical philosophy, and speaks several languages fluently; when in the Netherlands many years before the war, he would give his physics lectures in Dutch. He collects Renoir, Picasso, Vuillard, Rembrandt, and van Gogh for his walls. He loves classical music, the thorny later works by Beethoven being a particular favorite. He once read the entirety of Das Kapital on a single cross-country train trip. He’s fascinated by Eastern spiritualism, particularly Hinduism, and has learned Sanskrit so as to read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. And yet, while his range of accomplishments is certainly impressive, even Oppenheimer’s friends can sometimes get exasperated with his insistence on working convoluted classical allusions into a discussion on where to eat lunch today. He is, some say, at bottom a poseur.

Yes, for every Oppenheimer admirer there’s a detractor who senses that all of his almost frantic erudition and epicurianism is mere artifice — or part of a striving to fill some basic emptiness at the center of his personality.  One of his Dutch colleagues spoke to this impression when Oppenheimer was still in his twenties: “Robert, the reason you know so much about ethics is that you have no character.” While still an undergraduate, Oppenheimer once expressed to some friends the unbearably adolescent sentiment that “the kind of person I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but still maintains a tear-stained countenance.” One might say that Oppenheimer has spent the last twenty years trying to create just that persona from whole cloth, Byron and Darwin all rolled into one, with all the pretension that implies. The sense so many have that there’s something just not quite honest about Oppenheimer, and the almost visceral loathing this impression can create in them, perhaps does much to explain, if by no means to excuse, the persecution he will suffer in the years to come.

Oppenheimer’s life before the war was a rather shockingly bohemian one by the straitlaced standards of the American physics community, involving flashy cars, a flashy pad in the hills, and, prior to and even after his marriage in 1940, rumors of sexual dalliances. His wife is three-time divorcée Kitty Harrison, a well-known Berkeley radical and former Communist Party member who became pregnant with Oppenheimer’s child while still married to her previous husband.

What many of his supporters will later label mere “flirtations” with communism are in reality much more than that. While he apparently never officially joined the Communist Party himself, Oppenheimer met regularly with most of its prominent members in Berkeley, organized rallies with them for manifold causes, and in 1940 personally edited and wrote much of the content for two pamphlets that hewed very closely indeed to the Communist Party line about the war in Europe:

Europe is in the throes of a war . It is a common thought, and a likely one, that when the war is over Europe will be socialist, and the British Empire gone. We think that Roosevelt is assuming the role of preserving the old order in Europe and that he plans, if need be, to use the wealth and the lives of this country to carry it out. We think, that is, that Roosevelt is not only a “war-monger” but a counter-revolutionary war-monger. We think it is this that has turned him from something of a progressive to very much of a reactionary.

The FBI opened its first file on Oppenheimer in March of 1941.

Still, even many of those who will go on to condemn him would have to admit today that his handling of the Manhattan Project has been spectacular. Placed in charge of the most brilliant single collection of scientific minds of the twentieth century, Oppenheimer has found ways to bend virtually every one of them to his will, despite the fact that lots of them have international reputations that far exceed his own; tellingly, Oppenheimer was chosen by General Groves for his position precisely because he wasn’t already engaged in any other research that looked to be vital to the making of the atomic bomb or any other aspect of the war effort. This gifted scientist has risen to the occasion, proving, at least for these few years, to be an if anything even more gifted politician, leader, and administrator. His charges, even those who didn’t have much use for him a few years ago, have gradually come to love him for always making the sensible choice when a big decision comes to his desk and otherwise keeping the nonsense to a minimum. He gives them clear directives and all the resources they need and then trusts them to see their projects through with minimal interference.

But Oppenheimer has also done something else for the Manhattan Project: as the most notable aesthete amongst its ranks, he’s given it its aesthetic character. Oppenheimer first came to New Mexico as a sickly teenager, sent there by his wealthy New York City family to recover from colitis in the clean air of the high desert. Like so many others with artistic souls, he fell in love with the place. As an adult, he bought a little log cabin east of Santa Fe, and spent time there every summer, sometimes alone, sometimes with his closest friends. Many remarked how free and unaffected Oppenheimer became there. Physics and the desert, he remarked on one of these unguarded occasions, were his only real loves. Oppenheimer must have been thinking what a perfect match the Land of Enchantment made for the elemental power of the atomic bomb when he convinced Groves to buy the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boarding school for boys perched atop a 7200-foot mesa 175 miles north of the place where he now stands, to become the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The name for this test is also classic Oppenheimer. One’s first assumption upon seeing the name is that “Trinity” must be a Christian allusion, one that might seem vaguely disrespectful or even blasphemous except for the fact that it really doesn’t make any sense at all in that context. Another possibility that will be mooted by later scholars is that the name refers not to the Christian Trinity but to a Hindu concept that would be very appealing to a physicist like Oppenheimer. According to Hinduism, all of the universe is under the sway of three gods: Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. Nothing in the universe is ever created or destroyed; it merely changes form at the behest of one of this trinity of gods. It’s the First Law of Thermodynamics as religion.

The likely true story, however, is a much more personal one. Prior to his marriage, Oppenheimer had a passionate, turbulent romantic relationship with a young woman named Jean Tatlock. It was in fact Tatlock, an ardent member of the Communist Party, who introduced Oppenheimer to left-wing politics and to many of the associations he will come to bitterly regret after the war. She also introduced him to the great English metaphysical poet John Donne. One sonnet in particular may have become indelibly linked with Tatlock in Oppenheimer’s mind:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The relationship apparently didn’t die even with Oppenheimer’s being “betroth’d unto” another. He met and spent the night with Tatlock on at least one occasion after assuming control of the Manhattan Project; we know this because a pair of government agents tailed them to her apartment and sat outside the entire night. Six months later, in January of 1944, Tatlock committed suicide. Oppenheimer broke down and wept upon hearing the news. It seems very likely that he named the first American test of an atomic bomb after this noted communist with whom he had conducted an extramarital affair. Yes, that’s a horrible, unfairly moralizing reduction of a woman’s life, of a relationship that clearly affected — scarred? — both parties deeply. But, sentiment aside, there’s a part of Robert Oppenheimer that would have slyly enjoyed putting one over on the military command, would have enjoyed hearing all the rampant speculation around him while he just sat enigmatically and cherished his knowledge of what Trinity really meant. This is the old Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer the polarizer.

Whatever else he is, Robert Oppenheimer is right now very near a nervous breakdown as the moment of Trinity, destined to be either the great achievement or the great fiasco of his life, draws near. Always of a nervous disposition, he’s now at the ragged edge. For the last couple of hours General Groves has been periodically leading him out of the bunker on walks to try to calm his nerves. Groves, Oppenheimer’s opposite in every way — rotund where Oppenheimer appears almost emaciated, a blunt personality as devoid of Oppenheimer’s melancholy as he is of his intellectualism — is nevertheless oddly sympatico with the man he hand-picked to lead the scientists. It’s a strange, unlikely bond, but a bond nevertheless. Groves greatly admires Oppenheimer, pronouncing him a “genius”: “Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up. Well, not exactly. I guess there are a few things he doesn’t know about. He doesn’t know anything about sports.” His betrayal will thus hurt Oppenheimer even more than that of Edward Teller when, almost nine years from now, he will state at Oppenheimer’s security hearing that he feels that Oppenheimer’s security clearances should be revoked.


In the here and now, Groves left Oppenheimer to manage as best he can about 20 minutes ago. Now he’s at the Trinity base camp, a makeshift little town for several hundred scientists, engineers, soldiers, and workers about 10 miles from the shot tower.

There are lots of other people around the site that we could talk about. There is, for instance, Klaus Fuchs, the quiet German exile who has been passing vital secrets of the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union for months now and will continue to do so for years to come. And look, there’s our old friend Edward Teller. He’s standing on Compañía Hill, a good observation point about twenty miles northwest of the shot tower, along with dozens of other scientists and dignitaries who have just arrived to view the test. Like others all around the site, they’ve been smearing themselves with suntan lotion for protection against the blast. Now most of them are lying, as they’ve been instructed, with their feet facing the blast and their eyes looking away from the direction of the shot tower. One or two, like physicist Richard Feynman, will ignore the instructions and suffer temporary blindness as a result.

Yes, we could say so much more about these people standing at the fulcrum of history, but it’s time to end Oppenheimer’s torment. Let’s return to the shot tower and restart time.

At 5:29:45, a spark leaps from the control bunker to the gadget, jumping across the 32 detonators attached to the 32 lensed explosive charges spaced about the inside of the sphere. The sphere implodes with tremendous force, crushing the plutonium core into a supercritical mass. Its atoms begin to fission, releasing energy and freeing neutrons. The free neutrons strike more atoms of plutonium, causing them to fission in turn; a nuclear chain reaction has begun. As the quantity of fissioning atoms increases exponentially, the superheated core expands outward, until the atoms are no longer close enough together to sustain the chain reaction. And just like that, it’s all over — except for the boom, as the radioactive material, hotter now than the surface of the sun, explodes outward with a force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT.


At the Baker bunker, one person says, “My God, it’s beautiful.” “No,” replies another, “it’s terrible.” “Now we’re all sons of bitches,” says yet another.

Ed Lane, engineer of a passing train:

All at once it seemed as if the sun had suddenly appeared in the sky out of darkness. There was a tremendous white flash. This was followed by a great red glare and high in the sky there were three tremendous smoke rings. The highest was many hundreds of feet high. They swirled and twisted as if being agitated by a great force. The glare lasted about three minutes and then everything was dark again, with dawn breaking in the east.

H.E. Wieselman, passenger on another train:

Suddenly, the tops of high mountains by which we were passing were lighted up by a reddish, orange light. The surrounding countryside was illuminated like daylight for about three seconds. Then it was dark again. The experience scared me. It was just like the sun had come up and suddenly gone down again.

L. Don Leet, a seismologist monitoring the blast from 50 miles away:

When it let go, it lit up 180 degrees of the horizon, not like one but a dozen brilliant suns. It stayed lit up and made chills run up my back because I knew what might happen if it was not controlled. It was followed by a brilliant red wall of flame. Fifty miles away it was like an earthquake.


Physicist William Laurence, on Compañía Hill along with Teller and the others:

There rose from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one. It was a sunrise such as the world had never seen, a great green super-sun climbing in a fraction of a second to a height of more than 8,000 feet, rising ever higher until it touched the clouds, lighting up earth and sky all around with a dazzling luminosity. Up it went, a great ball of fire about a mile in diameter, changing colors as it kept shooting upward, from deep purple to orange, expanding, growing bigger, rising as it was expanding, an elemental force freed from its bonds after being chained for billions of years. For a fleeting instant the color was unearthly green, such as one sees only in the corona of the sun during a total eclipse. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies had split. One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World—to be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord said: “Let There Be Light.”

New Mexicans in the vicinity believe the state has just experienced an earthquake, or that a meteor has just come to earth. Many of a religious inclination believe this must be the end of the world. Others assume “the Japs” have unleashed some horrible new weapon.

The military will quickly claim that the explosion was the result of an accident at an ammunition dump, but those relatively close to the blast will have cause to be skeptical of that story. In the weeks to come, ranchers will notice that many of their cows have begun losing their hair. It will eventually grow back in, but when it does so it does so in white. After the atomic bombing of Japan, when everyone knows at last what really happened at the Trinity site, these “atomic cows” will become press favorites. Unpainted fences will also turn white, as will some of the ranchers’ beards and half of a black cat. Fallout, apparently borne in waterways, will turn the products of paper mills in Indiana and Iowa mildly radioactive, spoiling a whole production run of Kodak film which used the mills’ product for its packaging. Unusual atmospheric radioactivity will be detected as far away as Maryland, while traces of plutonium will be detected in plants and in cattle feces 100 miles from the shot tower. Ornithologists will notice signs of radiation sickness and, later, unusual deformities amongst the local bird populations. Plenty of ranchers living in the vicinity of the blast as well as personnel at the site itself will later die of cancer, but their numbers will not be vastly larger than one might expect from any random sample, nor will there be any smoking guns to definitively attribute their deaths to this event. As scientists study the situation, they will soon conclude that the Trinity test got very, very lucky. Had the rain started again soon after the blast, the fallout it would have brought back to earth with it could have been disastrous. Future Stateside testing will be moved to an even more remote area, in the Nevada desert.

And what (again) of Robert Oppenheimer? Well, he will later claim that a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita was the first to flash through his mind: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Be that as it may, when he opens his mouth to speak in the first instant after the explosion his erudition for once seems to fail him. Turning to Enrico Fermi, relief spreading over his countenance, he says just two words: “It worked.”


Posted by on February 19, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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T Plus 1: Bombing Japan




A set of children's swings moves slowly back and forth in the humid breeze. Behind them stands a long building, its windows hung with flowers and birds folded from colored paper.

Mounds of dirt are heaped around a dark opening to the east. It appears to be a shelter of some kind.

Several small children are happily chasing dragonflies north of the swing set. Turning south, you see a group of adults (schoolteachers, by the looks of them), wearily digging another shelter like the first.

A little girl races between the swings, hot on the trail of a dragonfly. She trips and sprawls across the sand, laughing with hysterical glee. Then she sees you.

At first, you're sure she's going to scream. Her eyes dart back and forth between you and the teachers; you can see a cry forming on her lips.

Suddenly, the umbrella in your hand catches her eye. You watch her expression soften from fear to curiosity.

>examine girl
The girl is a cute four or five years old.

The girl can't keep her eyes off the umbrella.

You've noticed a faint sound coming from somewhere overhead. The girl turns to stare at the sky.

>girl, hello
The girl blinks uncomprehendingly.

The sound overhead grows louder. There's no mistaking the drone of aircraft.

The girl looks at you expectantly and tries to pull you towards the shelter.

Muttering with exasperation, the teachers drop their spades and begin to trudge in the direction of the shelter.

One teacher, a young woman, sees you standing in the sandpile and shrieks something in Japanese. Her companions quickly surround you, shouting accusations and sneering at your vacation shorts. You respond by pointing desperately at the sky, shouting "Bomb! Big boom!" and struggling to escape into the shelter.

This awkward scene is cut short by a searing flash.

On August 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets dropped the second atomic bomb ever to be exploded in the history of the world — and the first to be exploded in anger — on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later another B-29, piloted this time by Major Charles Sweeney, dropped another — the second and, so far, the last ever to be exploded in anger — on Nagasaki; it’s this event that Trinity portrays in the excerpt above. On August 15, Japan broadcast its acceptance of Allied surrender terms.

The cultural debate that followed, condensed into four vignettes:

In the immediate aftermath of the event, the support of the American public for the bombings that have, according to conventional wisdom, ended the most terrible war in human history is so universal that almost no one bothers to even ask them about it. One of the few polls on the issue, taken by Gallup on August 26, finds that 85 percent support the decision versus just 10 percent opposed. Some weeks later another poll finds that 53.5 percent “unequivocally” support the country’s handling of its atomic arsenal during the war. Lest you think that that number represents a major drop-off, know that 22.7 percent of the total don’t equivocate for the reason you probably think: they feel that the United States should have found some way to drop “many more” atomic bombs on Japan between August 6 and August 15, just out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Newspapers and magazines are filled with fawning profiles of the “heroes” who flew the missions, especially of their de facto spokesman Tibbets, who comes complete with a wonderfully photogenic all-American family straight out of Norman Rockwell. He named his B-29 the Enola Gay after his mother, for God’s sake! Could it get any more perfect? Tibbets and the rest of the Enola Gay‘s crew march as conquering heroes through Manhattan as part of the Army Day Parade on April 6, 1946. The Enola Gay becomes a hero in her own right, with the New York Times publishing an extended “Portrait of a B-29” to tell her story. When she’s assigned along with Tibbets himself to travel to Bikini Atoll to possibly drop the first Operations Crossroads bomb, the press treat it like Batman and his trusty Batmobile going back into action. (The Enola Gay is ultimately not used for the drop. Likewise, Tibbets supervises preparations, but doesn’t fly the actual mission.)

Fast-forward twenty years, to 1965. The American public still overwhelmingly supports the use of the atomic bomb, while the historians regard it as has having saved far more lives than it destroyed in ending the war when it did and obviating the need for an invasion of Japan. But now a young, Marxist-leaning economic historian named Gar Alperovitz reopens the issue in his first book: Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. It argues that the atomic bomb wasn’t necessary to end World War II, and, indeed, that President Truman and his advisers knew this perfectly well. It was used, Alperovitz claims, to send a message to the Soviet Union about this fearsome new power now in the United States’s possession. The book, so much in keeping with the “question everything your parents told you” ethos of the burgeoning counterculture, becomes surprisingly popular amongst the youth, and at last opens up the question to serious historiographical debate in the universities.

Fast-forward thirty years, to the mid-1990s. The Smithsonian makes plans to unveil the newly restored Enola Gay, which has spent decades languishing in storage, as the centerpiece of a new exhibit: The Crossroads: The End of World II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Cold War. The exhibit, by most scholarly accounts a quite rigorously balanced take on its subject matter that strains to address thoughtfully both supporters and condemners of the atomic bombings, is met with a firestorm of controversy in conservative circles for giving a voice to critics of the bombing at all, as well as for allegedly paying too much attention to the suffering of the actual victims of the bombs. They object particularly to the charred relics from Hiroshima that are to be displayed under the shadow of the Enola Gay, and to the quotations from true-blue American heroes like Dwight Eisenhower voicing reservations about the use of the bomb. Newt Gingrich, the newly minted Republican Speaker of the House, condemns the Smithsonian and its director, Martin Harwit, as “cultural elites” telling Americans “they ought to be ashamed of their country.” Tibbets, still greeted as a hero in some circles but now condemned as an out-and-out war criminal in others, proclaims the proposed exhibit simply “a damn big insult” whilst reiterating that he feels not the slightest pang of conscience over what he did and sleeps just fine every night. In the end the grander ambitions for the exhibit are scuttled and Harwit harried right out of his job. Instead the Smithsonian sets up the Enola Gay as just another neat old airplane in its huge collection, accompanied by only the most perfunctory of historical context in the form of an atomic-bombing-justifying placard or two.

Fast-forward another ten years. On November 1, 2007, Paul Tibbets dies at the age of 92. The blizzard of remembrances and obituaries that follow almost all feel compelled to take an implicit or explicit editorial position on the atomic bombings, which are as controversial now as they’ve ever been. Conservative writers lay on the “American hero” rhetoric heavily. It’s the liberal ideologues, though, who become most disingenuously strident this time. Many resort to rather precious forms of psychoanalysis in trying to explain Tibbets’s lifelong refusal to express remorse for dropping the bomb, claiming that it means he had either been a sociopath or deeply troubled inside and holding himself together only through denial. They project, in other words, their own feelings toward the attack onto him whilst refusing him the basic human respect of accepting that maybe the position he had steadfastly maintained for sixty years was an honest, considered one rather than a product of psychosis.

If support for the atomic bombings of Japan equals mental illness there were an awful lot of lunatics loose in the bombings’ immediate aftermath. If we could go back and ask these lunatics, they’d likely be very surprised that people are still debating this issue at all today. Well before 1950 the history seemed largely to have been written, the debate already long settled in the form of the neat logical formulation destined to appear in high-school history texts for many decades, destined to be trotted out yet again for the bowdlerized version of the Enola Gay exhibit. Japan, despite being quite obviously and comprehensively beaten by that summer of 1945, still refused to surrender. But then, as the Smithsonian’s watered-down exhibit put it: “The use of the bomb led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. Such an invasion, especially if undertaken for both main islands, would have led to very heavy casualties among American, Allied, and Japanese armed forces, and Japanese civilians.” The bombings were terrible, but much less terrible than the alternative of an invasion of the Japanese home islands, which was estimated to likely cost as many as 1 million American casualties, and likely many times that Japanese.

For a sense of the sheer enormity of that figure of 1 million casualties, consider that it’s very similar to the total of American casualties in both Europe and the Pacific up to the summer of 1945. Thus we’re talking here about a potential doubling of the the United States’s total casualties in World War II, and very possibly the same for Japan’s already much more horrific toll. The only other possible non-nuclear alternative would have been a blockade of the Japanese home islands to try to starve them out of the war, a process that could have taken many months or even years and brought with it horrific civilian death and suffering in Japan itself as well as a slow but steady dribble of Allied casualties amongst the soldiers, sailors, and airmen maintaining the blockade. For a nation that just wanted to be done with the war already, this was no alternative at all.

Against the casualties projected for an invasion or even an extended blockade, the 200,000 or so killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki starts to almost seem minor. I’d be tempted to say that you can’t do this kind of math with human lives, except that we did and do it all the time; see the platitudes about the moderate, unfortunate, but ultimately acceptable “collateral damage” that has accompanied so many modern military adventures. So, assuming we can accept that, while every human life is infinitely precious, some infinities are apparently bigger than others (Georg Cantor would be proud!), the decision made by Truman and his advisers would seem, given the terrible logic of war, the only reasonable one to make… if only this whole version of the administration’s debate wasn’t a fabrication.

No, in truth Truman never had anything like the debate described above with his staffers — unsurprisingly, as the alleged facts on which it builds are either outright false or, at best, highly questionable. Far from being stubbornly determined to battle on to the death, Japan was sending clear feelers through various diplomatic channels that it was eager to discuss peace terms, with the one real stumbling block being the uncertain status under the Allies’ stated terms of “unconditional surrender” of the Emperor Hirohito. Any reasonably perceptive and informed American diplomat could have come to the conclusion that was in fact pretty much the case in reality: that many elements of this proud nation were still in the Denial phase of grief, clinging to desperate pipe dreams like a rescue by, of all people, a Soviet Union that suddenly joined Japan against the West — but, as those dreams were shattered one by one, Japan as a whole was slowly working its way toward Acceptance of its situation. Given these signs of wavering resolution, it seems highly unlikely that an invasion of Japan, should it have been necessary at all, would have racked up 1 million casualties on the Allied side alone. That neat round figure is literally pulled out of the air, from a despairing aside made by Truman’s aging, war-weary Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall engaged in a similar bit of dead reckoning, based on nothing but intuition, and came up with a figure of 500,000. Others reckoned more in the range of 250,000. The only remotely careful study, the only one based on statistical methods rather than gut feelings, was one conducted by the Army that estimated casualties of 132,500 — 25,000 of them fatalities — for an invasion of Kyushu, 87,500 casualties — 21,000 of them fatalities — if a follow-up invasion of Honshu also became necessary. Of course, nobody really knew. How could they? The only thing we do know is that 1 million was the highest of all the back-of-the-napkin estimations and over four times the military’s own best guess, meaning it’s better taken as an extreme outlier — or at least a worst-case scenario — than a baseline assumption.

The wellspring for the problematic traditional narrative about the use of the atomic bomb is an article which Henry Stimson wrote for the February 1947 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This article was itself written in response to the first mild stirrings of moral qualms that had begun the previous year in the media in response to the publication of John Hersey’s searing work of novelistic journalism Hiroshima. Stimson’s response sums up the entire debate and the ultimate decision to drop the bombs so eloquently, simply, and judiciously that it effectively ended the debate when it had barely begun. The two most salient planks of what’s become the traditionalist view of the bombing — Japan’s absolute refusal to surrender and that lovely, memorable round number of 1 million casualties — stand front and center. This neat version of events would later be enshrined in the memoirs of Truman and his associates.

Yet, as we’ve seen, Stimson’s version of the debate must be, at best, not quite the whole truth. I want to return to it momentarily to examine the biggest lie therein, which I consider to be profoundly important to really understanding the use of the bomb. But first, what of the stories told by those of later generations who would condemn the use of the bomb? They’ve staked various positions over the years, ranging from unsubstantiated claims of racism as the primary motivator to arguments derived from moral absolutism: “One cannot firmly be against any use of nuclear weapons yet make an exception in the case of Hiroshima,” writes longtime anti-nuclear journalist and advocate Greg Mitchell. Personally, I don’t find unnuanced tautologies of that stripe particularly helpful in any situation; there’s always context, always exceptions.

By far the strongest argument made against the use of the atomic bomb is the one that was first deployed by Gar Alperovitz to restart the debate in 1965: that external political concerns, particularly the desire to send a message to the Soviet Union, had as much or more to do with the use of the bomb than a simple desire to end the war as quickly and painlessly as possible. While the evidence isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as many condemners would have it, there’s nevertheless enough fire under this particular smokescreen to make any proponent of the atomic bombing as having merely been doing what was necessary to end the war with Japan at least a bit uncomfortable.

It was the evening of the first day of the Potsdam Conference involving Truman, Stalin, Winston Churchill, and their respective staffs when Truman first got word of the success of the Trinity test. Many attendees remarked the immediate change in his demeanor. After having appeared a bit hesitant and unsure of himself during the first day, he started to assert himself boldly, almost aggressively, against Stalin. Suddenly, noted a perplexed Churchill, “he told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting.” Only when Churchill got word from his own people of the successful test did all become clear: “Now I know what happened to Truman yesterday…”

There follow Potsdam in the records of the administration’s internal discussions a disturbing number of expressions of hopes that the planned atomic bombings of Japan will serve as a forceful demonstration to Stalin that the United States should not be trifled with in the fast-approaching postwar world order. Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes in particular gloated repeatedly that the atomic bomb should make the Soviets “more manageable” in general; that it would “induce them to yield and agree to our positions”; that it had given the United States “great power.”

But we have to be careful here in constructing a chain of causality. While it’s certainly clear that Truman and many around him regarded the bomb as a very useful lever indeed against increasing Soviet intractability, this was always discussed as simply a side benefit, not a compelling reason to use the bomb in itself. There were, in other words, lots of musing asides, but no imperatives in the form of “drop the bomb so that we can scare the Russians.” Truman’s diary entry after learning of the Trinity test mentions the Soviets only as potential allies against Japan: “Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure they will when Manhattan explodes over their homeland.”

If we consider actions in addition to words the situation begins to look yet more ambiguous. Prior to Potsdam the United States had been pushing the Soviet Union with some urgency to enter the war against Japan, believing a Soviet invasion of Manchuria would tie down Japanese troops and resources should an American-led home-island invasion become necessary. The Truman administration also believed a Soviet declaration might, just might, provide the final shock that would bring Japan to its senses and cause it to surrender without an invasion. But in the wake of Trinity American diplomats abruptly ceased to pressure their Soviet counterparts. The Soviet Union would declare war at last anyway on August 8 (in between the two atomic bombings), but the United States, once it had the bomb, would seem to have judged that ending the war with the bomb would be preferable for its interests than having the war end thanks to the Soviet Union’s entry. The latter could very well give Stalin postwar justification for laying claim to Manchuria or other Japanese territories, claiming part of the spoils of a war in which the Soviet Union had participated only at the last instant. An additional implicit consideration may have been the conviction of Byrnes and others that it wouldn’t hurt postwar negotiations a bit to show Stalin just what a single American bomber could now do. The realpolitik here isn’t pretty — it seldom is — but what to make of the whole picture is far from clear. The words and actions of Truman and his advisers would seem ambiguous enough to be deployed in the service of any number of interpretations, from condemnations of them as war criminals to assertions that they were simply doing their duty in prosecuting to the relentless utmost of their abilities their war against an implacable enemy. Yes, interpretations abound, most using the confusing facts as the merest of scaffolds for arguments having more to do with ideology and emotion. I won’t presume to tell you what you should think. I would just caution you to tread carefully and not to judge too hastily.

In that spirit, it’s time now to come back to the biggest lie in Stimson’s article. Quite simply, the entire premise of the article is untrue. Actually, there was no debate at all over whether the atomic bomb should be used on Japan.

Really. Nowhere is there any record of any internal debate at all over whether the atomic bomb should be dropped on Japan. There were debates over when it should be used; on which cities it should be used; whether the Japanese should be warned beforehand; whether it should be demonstrated to the Japanese in open country or open ocean before starting to bomb their cities. But no one, no one inside the administration ever even raised the shadow of a suggestion that it should simply be declared too horrible for use and mothballed.  Not even among the scientists who built the bomb, many of whom would become advocates in the postwar years for atomic moderation or abolition, is there even a hint of such an idea. Even Niels Bohr, who was frantically begging anyone in Washington who would listen to think about what the bomb might mean to the future of civilization, simply assumed that it would be used as soon as it was ready to end this war; his concern was for the world and the wars that would follow. Interestingly, the only on-the-record questioners of the very idea of using the atomic bomb are a handful from the military who had no direct vote on the strategic conduct of the war in the Pacific, like — even more interestingly — Dwight Eisenhower. Those unnoticed voices aside, the whole debate over the use of the atomic bomb on Japan is largely anachronistic in that nobody making the big decisions at the time ever even thought to raise it as a question. The use of the bomb, now that it was here, was a fait accompli. I really believe that this is a profoundly important idea to grasp. If you insist on seeing this conspicuously missing debate as proof of the moral degradation of the Truman administration, fair enough, have at it. But I see it a little bit differently. I see it as a sign of the difference between peace and war.

The United States has visited war upon quite a number of nations in recent decades, but the vast majority of Americans have never known war — real war, total war, war as existential struggle — and the mentality it produces. I believe that this weirdly asymmetrical relationship with the subject has warped the way many Americans view war. We insist on trying to make war, the dirtiest business there is, into a sanitized, acceptable thing with our “targeted strikes” and our rhetoric about “liberating” rather than conquering, all whilst wringing our hands appropriately when we learn of “collateral damage” among civilians. Meanwhile we are shocked at the brutal lengths the populations of the countries we invade will go to to defend their homelands, see these lengths as proof of the American moral high ground (an Abu Ghraib here or there aside), while failing to understand that what is to us a far-off exercise in communist control or terrorist prevention is to them a struggle for national and cultural survival. Of course they’re willing to fight dirty, willing to do just about anything to kill us and get us out of their countries.

World War II, however, had no room for weasel words like “collateral damage.” It was that very existential struggle that the United States has thankfully not had to face since. This brought with it an honesty about what war actually is that always seems to be lacking in peacetime. If the conduct of the United States during the war in the Pacific was not quite as horrendous as that of Japan, plenty of things were nevertheless done that our modern eyes would view as atrocities. Throughout the war, American pilots routinely machine-gunned Japanese pilots who had bailed out of their stricken aircraft — trained pilots being far, far more precious a commodity to the Japanese than the planes they flew. And on the night of March 9, 1945, American B-29s loosed an incendiary barrage on Tokyo’s residential areas carefully planned to burn as much of the city as possible to the ground and to kill as many civilians as possible in the process; it managed to kill at least 100,000, considerably more than were killed in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and not far off the pace of Hiroshima. These scenes aren’t what we think of when we think of the Greatest Generation; we prefer a nostalgic Glen Miller soundtrack and lots of artfully billowing flags. Our conception of a World War II hero doesn’t usually allow for the machine-gunning of helpless men or the fire-bombing of civilians. But these things, and much more, were done.

World War II was the last honest war the United States has fought because it was the last to acknowledge, at least tacitly, the reality of what war is: state-sponsored killing. If you’re unlucky enough to lead a nation during wartime, your objective must be to prosecute that war with every means at your disposal, to kill more of your enemy every single day than he kills of your own people. Do this long enough and eventually he will give up. If you have an awesome new weapon to deploy in that task, one which your enemy doesn’t possess and thus cannot use to retaliate in kind, you don’t think twice. You use it. The atomic bomb, the most terrible weapon the world has ever known, was forged in the crucible of the most terrible war the world has ever known. Of course it got used. The atomic bombings of Japan and all of the other terrible deeds committed by American forces in both Europe and the Pacific are not an indictment of Truman or his predecessor Roosevelt or of the United States; they’re an indictment of war. Some wars, like World War II, are sadly necessary to fight. But why on earth would anyone who knows what war really means actually choose to begin one? The collective American denial of the reality of war has enabled a series of elective wars that have turned into ugly, bleeding sores with no clear winners or losers; somehow the United States is able to keep mustering the will to blunder into these things but unable to muster the will to do the ugly things necessary to actually win them.

The only antidote for the brand of insanity that leads us to freely choose war when any other option is on the table is to be forced to stop thinking about it in the abstract, to be confronted with some inkling of the souls we’re about to snuff out and the suffering we’re about to cause. This is one of the services that Trinity does for us. For me, the most moving moment in the entire game is the one sketched out at the beginning of this article, when you meet a sweet little girl who’s about to become a victim of the world’s second atomic-bomb attack. Later — or earlier; chronology is a tricky thing in Trinity — you’ll meet her again, as an old woman, in the Kensington Gardens.

>examine woman
Her face is wrong.

You look a little closer and shudder to yourself. The entire left side of her head is scarred with deep red lesions, twisting her oriental features into a hideous mask. She must have been in an accident or something.

A strong gust of wind snatches the umbrella out of the old woman's hands and sweeps it into the branches of the tree.

The woman circles the tree a few times, gazing helplessly upward. That umbrella obviously means a lot to her, for a wistful tear is running down her cheek. But nobody except you seems to notice her loss.

After a few moments, the old woman dries her eyes, gives the tree a vicious little kick and shuffles away down the Lancaster Walk.

That scene breaks my heart every time I read it, and I’m still not entirely sure why.

I like the fact that Trinity goes to Nagasaki rather than Hiroshima. The Hiroshima attack, the more destructive of the two bombings in human lives by a factor of at least two and of course the first, normally gets all of the attention in art and journalism alike. Indeed, it can seem almost impossible to avoid emphasizing Hiroshima over Nagasaki; I’ve done it repeatedly in this article, even though I started out vowing not to. “We are an asterisk,” says Nagasaki sociologist Shinji Takahashi with a certain bitter sense of irony. “The inferior a-bomb city.” Nagasaki wasn’t even done the honor of being selected as a target for an atomic bomb. The B-29 that bombed Nagasaki had been destined for Kokura, but settled on Nagasaki after cloud cover and drifting smoke from a conventional-bombing raid made a drop on Kokura too problematic. An accident of clouds and wind cost 50,000 or more citizens of Nagasaki their lives, and saved the lives of God only knows how many in Kokura. As the Japanese themselves would say, such is karma. And such is the stuff of tragedy.


Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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T Plus 2: The Bomb at the Crossroads



This narrow platform is attached to the north side of a huge steel enclosure, fifty feet high. All around you, a frozen wasteland stretches off to a horizon lined with gray mountains.

A loudspeaker barks, "Sorokpyat sekund."

You descend the ladder.

Under Platform

A network of cables snakes down the side of the enclosure, then trails southwest across the tundra. Grim tracts of permafrost greet your eyes every way you turn.

A ladder leads up to a platform overhead.

A loudspeaker intones, "Treetsat sekund."

Something touches your sneaker.

You kick it away with a shout. A rodent sails through the air, lands unharmed and scrambles out of sight.


A prehistoric river bed cuts a narrow pass through the mountains rising north and east. The enclosure is a gray sentinel on the southwest horizon.

The ground is covered with rodents! They're racing northeast, oblivious to you or anything else in their path.

"Pyatnatsat sekund."

You follow the stream of rodents.

Cliff Edge

The river bed ends here, on a cliff overlooking an Arctic sea. But where ancient waters once fell, there now pours a living stream of rodents. Driven by mindless instinct, too stupid or frightened to turn away, they plunge by the hundreds into the crashing waves below. You recognize the species now. Lemmings.

The ground underfoot is split by a narrow fissure, almost hidden by the scrambling lemmings.

"Pyat, chetirye, tree, dva, adeen," barks the loudspeaker.

A searing glare engulfs the mountaintops! You turn, and stare in horror at a seething mass of flame billowing above the tundra.

Seconds later, a gale of radioactive debris sweeps you over the edge of the cliff, where you founder for a while in the Arctic waters.

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb at what would soon become known as the Semipalatinsk Test Site, in a remote area of the Kazakhstan steppe. Although the successful test was not immediately announced, the radiation it produced was detected by one of a cordon of spy planes that patrolled the edge of the Kamchatka Peninsula. President Truman rather than General Secretary Stalin thus became the first to tell the world on September 23: “We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.” The Soviet Union soon gloatingly confirmed the test, and the world shuddered. The era of mutually assured destruction had just begun.

Looking back on the event from today, we might be tempted to ask whether it had to be this way, whether there were things the West could have done during its brief era of nuclear monopoly to assure that the world didn’t get plunged into a seemingly irresolvable stand-off whose only realistic end point would seem to be nuclear war. Or, conversely, was the history we got a pretty lucky one considering some of the alternatives? Or is the whole debate moot because the course of history is driven by bigger forces than the individual actors strutting and fretting their hours on its stage — or simply because what will be will be, the course of history inevitable? Those are some profound questions, involving, depending on how you approach them, historiography, philosophy, psychology, even religion. They certainly aren’t questions I pretend to be able to answer for you here. Yet it might be important to ask them and to think about them, not least because I think it might help us to better understand Trinity‘s own view of history.

The period immediately after the end of World War II in the United States wasn’t quite the undilutedly joyous homecoming that the more sentimental popular histories of that time might make you think. The economy went through a brief but wrenching dislocation as the United States transitioned back from what had amounted to socialism in the name of maximal military production during the war years to consumer-driven civilian capitalism. And many women who had found unprecedented opportunities and responsibilities outside the home during the war must have felt at least a bit wistful when the men all returned and they found themselves back in their proverbial kitchens. But most of all there was a deep sense of uncertainty about the world the war had wrought. How would the United States and the Soviet Union, suddenly staring into each other’s eyes from either side of a bifurcated Europe, get along? What did the atomic bomb mean for that relationship, for the future in general? Journalist Edward R. Murrow, the veritable voice of the Greatest Generation, sounded a note of worried confusion rather than triumph during his broadcasts from this period: “Seldom if ever has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear, with such a realization that the future is obscure and survival is not assured.”

The end of a major war is always a fertile time for utopianists looking for a way to ensure that another one never starts. In the historical timeline we know, World War II begat the United Nations, an imperfect collective which, if it hasn’t quite ended war, has done what it could over the years and has at least managed to be markedly more successful and long-lived than the League of Nations that preceded it. Many at the time, however, had in mind much more than a meeting place for the diplomats of the world, as useful as that’s occasionally proved to be. A major movement was in fact afoot, prompted largely by the atomic bomb and its implications, for nothing less than a world government.

In 1946 a little 86-page collection of essays with a big title appeared on bookstore shelves: One World or None: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb. Many of its essays advocated turning the United Nations into the legislative branch of a new government to have sovereignty over all the nations of the world. The contributors who wrote the essays were hardly the bunch of anti-establishment dreamers you might expect. They included some of the most prominent scientists on the planet, including many — among them Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer,  and Leó Szilárd — who had worked as part of the Manhattan project to build the bomb in the first place. Also among the contributors were Hap Arnold, commander of the Army Air Force during the war, and Walter Lippman, a prominent journalist who would go on to coin the phrase “Cold War.” Other public supporters of the book and the world-government movement that had spawned it included the president of Standard Oil of Ohio and the chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, along with Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, even current Army Air Force commander Carl Spaatz. The book became a bestseller. A few months after its release, a poll found that an astonishing 54 percent of the American public wanted the United Nations to become a world government with sovereignty over the United States as well as everyone else.

As the title of its manifesto would imply, the one-world movement saw the atomic bomb in mythic terms, destined to be either humanity’s savoir or its downfall. This vision of a post-atomic utopia as the only alternative to extinction can be traced back to The World Set Free, a 1914 novel by H.G. Wells which posits not only nuclear weapons but a world government as the only rational response to their existence. This new government “had to see the round globe as one problem; it was impossible any longer to deal with it piece by piece. They had to secure it universally from any fresh outbreak of atomic destruction, and they had to ensure a permanent and universal pacification.” Science, Wells wrote, must provide “the basis of a new social order.” How appropriate, then, that the one-world movement included so many scientists in its ranks. While Wells provided it with its broad outlines, it was one of these scientists who first drilled down to grasp the full implications of the historical atomic bomb. In the process, he became the first to understand, or at least to articulate, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that must follow from it. This scientist was Niels Bohr.

Born in 1885 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Bohr had become by the 1930s as important and brilliant a physicist in his way as Albert Einstein. His most obvious among countless contributions was the so-called “Bohr Model” of the atom: protons and neutrons clustered into a central nucleus, electrons orbiting in neatly predictable clusters (“energy levels”). But just as important as his own work was his founding of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen in 1920. It became during the inter-war years the foremost gathering point for physicists from all over Europe and the world. Coincidentally or not, this period was perhaps the most fertile in the history of the field, marked by a whole series of quantum leaps (sorry!) in our understanding of the basic structures of the universe. Bohr knew everyone and was respected and liked by just about everyone, not just for his scientific genius but for a certain fundamental humanity that he was about to demonstrate to the world.

He was aboard a ferry returning to Denmark from a lecture tour to Norway when Germany invaded both countries early on the morning of April 9, 1940. Denmark surrendered within a few hours. As such a prominent figure, and one whose scientific genius could very well make him valuable to the war effort, Bohr was soon contacted by British agents bearing an offer to sneak him away to exile. But Bohr, like the Danish King Christian X, declined, saying his place was here with his people.

Niels Bohr during the war years

Niels Bohr during the war years

Initially, the German occupation wasn’t that bad as such things go. In return for a promise to behave themselves reasonably well and to produce food sufficient to feed many millions of German soldiers and civilians from the fertile soil of Jutland, Denmark was granted a level of autonomy and freedom unique amongst the occupied countries — a situation born not only of Germany’s need for the food Denmark could supply but also the country’s decision to surrender without a fight and Nazi racial theories that placed the Danes, being a Germanic people, only one rung or so down the ladder from the Germans themselves. Bohr himself, again like Christian X, took a principled but pragmatic stance, never hesitating to denounce the occupation and refusing to participate in any conference or other activity which involved the occupiers, but not actively resisting either.

After having dismissed an atomic bomb as possible only if “you turned the United States into one huge factory,” Bohr learned that others were less sanguine through a very surprising source. In September of 1941, Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who had touched off the whole debate with his discovery of nuclear fission, came to Copenhagen, where he had a long conversation with his old friend, mentor, and confidant Bohr. Heisenberg was now conducting experiments with chain reactions in heavy water aimed at synthesizing plutonium for a potential atomic bomb. Speaking in circumspect terms, mindful of the Nazi ears that could be anywhere, Heisenberg shared the gist of his current research. We’ll never know exactly why he decided to open the topic with Bohr, who, old friend though he may have been, made no secret of his opinion of Nazi Germany. Was he, as his wife Elisabeth would later claim, suffering a crisis of conscience and reaching out for moral wisdom from his erstwhile mentor? Was he trying to tell Bohr that a Nazi atomic-bomb program was underway, in the hope that Bohr might be able to pass that information along to Britain? Or was he hoping to learn what if any research was going on in the other camp? To further muddy these waters, Heisenberg actually gave to Bohr a diagram of one of his heavy-water reactors, an act which would have been punishable as treason — if, that is, it wasn’t a planned act of counterespionage. Regardless, both men came away from the meeting unsatisfied, Bohr disappointed and angry that a former protege would contemplate creating such a terrible weapon for such an evil regime, Heisenberg having comprehensively failed to get the understanding and information — whichever, or both — he sought. The only thing the meeting accomplished was to make Bohr very nervous about the prospect of an atomic bomb.

But soon Bohr had more immediate worries. As the Danish resistance movement, feeling increasingly emboldened in response to Germany’s strategic setbacks over the course of 1942 and 1943, got more active, Denmark’s cushy arrangement with its occupier grew more and more fractious. At last, on August 29, 1943, the occupiers dissolved the Danish government and instituted martial law. Bohr was informed soon after by Denmark’s ambassador from Sweden that he was slated to be arrested. Underground fighters hid him and his family in a shed near Copenhagen’s pier until a boat could be sneaked in under cover of night. Dodging minefields and German patrol boats on a windy, miserable night, they made it across the Øresund to neutral Sweden.

Bohr had made his own escape, but he was frantic with worry over another group. He had received word that Denmark’s modest population of about 8000 Jews were also slated to soon be rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps. Their only possible escape would be to follow in Bohr’s footsteps and come to Sweden. Unfortunately, the Swedish government, very nervous of angering the Germans and thus bringing their wrath down upon their own country, had refused them permission to enter. Almost through sheer force of will alone, Bohr won a personal meeting with the Swedish King Gustaf V, and persuaded him to put pressure on his Foreign Minister to accept Denmark’s Jews. Working in coordination, the Swedish Coast Guard, the Danish resistance, and countless ordinary Danes methodically spirited away the Jews with typical Scandinavian efficiency. When the Nazis came to round them up, virtually all of those Jews who weren’t already out of the country were well-hidden in preparation for the trip. More than 99 percent would survive the war. It makes for one of the most remarkable stories of the Holocaust, and one of the vanishingly small number that have a happy ending. The Danes are justifiably proud of what they were able to do to this day; it says a lot about them as a people. It also, of course, says a lot about what kind of man was Niels Bohr, without whose assistance it never could have happened.

With Denmark’s Jews now offered a safe harbor, Bohr was eager to get to Britain and learn what if anything had been going on in the field of atomic-bomb research. The British offered him passage aboard one of the fast two-man Mosquito fighter-bombers they were using to carry diplomatic messages to and from the isolated Swedish government. With no other space available, the crew stuffed Bohr into the Mosquito’s tiny bomb bay. If attacked, the pilot announced, he would have to drop Bohr into the North Sea to save weight for maneuvering. Bohr was given a parachute and signal flare, but was highly unlikely to live more than a few minutes in that frigid water. Although the Mosquito made it back to Britain unmolested, Bohr failed to put on his oxygen mask properly and fainted en route. Once back on land again, however, he was none the worse for wear. By the end of 1943 he had completed his odyssey, arriving safely in Los Alamos.

He found there some of the greatest scientific minds of the generation, many of them his former colleagues, students, and/or friends, all well about the practical business of making an atomic bomb. He could now share with them at last the diagram Heisenberg had passed to him more than two years before. The design it depicted was so inefficient, so far behind those the Manhattan Project had constructed, that many thought it must indeed be a counterespionage ploy. Otherwise, as Bohr himself later said, Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues “didn’t need my help in making the atom bomb.” He instead made an intellectual leap in another realm entirely, a leap as dazzling as the one that had led to the Bohr Model of the atom. While at Los Alamos, Bohr said something positive but also ambiguous to Oppenheimer. Nothing like the massive conflict still raging in Europe and the Pacific would, he said, “ever happen again.” Even the perceptive Oppenheimer initially missed the full impartation of this statement.

Bohr meant it literally. Total war between great powers as the world had come to know it over the centuries simply could not happen in a post-atomic world because no one would be able to win. This didn’t mean that war of another sort would be impossible; one nation could attack another, or two could attack one another. However, the result would not be an extended struggle ending with a victor standing proud, but merely a short orgy of unimaginable destruction ending with two smoking losers. The atomic bomb was far, far more than just a new weapon. It would be the ultimate leveling force amongst nations, capable of reducing all of them to identical smoking ruins, “a far deeper interference with the natural course of events than anything ever attempted.” The very survival of civilization therefore required that war itself must be not a universal but a historical phenomenon. If war was, as Claus von Clausewitz had once so famously said, “the continuation of politics by other means,” this means of politicking was about to go off the table. “We are in a completely new situation that cannot be resolved by war,” said Bohr. The choice was not now between peace and war but between peace and guaranteed self-destruction. The major powers were about to enter a stalemate from which victory would be impossible. They could continue to jockey pointlessly for advantage, risking mutual annihilation all the while, or they could… what? That was the question.

“It appeared to me,” Bohr writes, “that the very necessity of a concerted effort to forestall such ominous threats to civilization would offer quite unique opportunities to bridge international divergencies.” There must be “a universal agreement in true confidence” to ban the atomic bomb and to ban all future war. Any such agreement would bring with it an important corollary: because nations were hardly likely to simply trust one another on a matter as deadly as the atomic bomb, there must also be an end to state secrets. As Oppenheimer would later express it, “Everything that might be a threat to the security of the world would have to be open to the world.” “What it would mean,” said Bohr, “if the whole picture of social conditions in every country were open for judgment and comparison need hardly be enlarged upon.” Could characters like Hitler and Stalin commit their genocides in such conditions?

Bohr’s logic was essentially that the atomic bomb was about to change everything anyway, whether we liked it or not. By planning for the atomic future we could make of that change a positive historical development rather than the potential end of civilization. As the country about to become the first with access to the bomb, the United States had the opportunity and the duty to initiate the process that could lead to this better world order by talking openly about this new power, inviting the world to join in the dialog. The “secrets” of the atomic bomb that the United States believed it possessed were merely trade secrets, technical secrets; the fundamental physics that had made its creation possible were accessible to the world. Thus the American atomic monopoly was destined to be a very short one. But what the country did while it had that monopoly, Bohr claimed, could cast the die for the next hundred years or more — indeed, could determine whether civilization itself lived or died.

Bohr’s stature was sufficient to win him separate meetings with American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to argue his case in 1944. The meeting with Roosevelt turned into little more than a noncommittal formality. The meeting with Churchill, on the other hand, was a disaster. The irascible Churchill, preoccupied with final preparations for the D-Day invasion, had little interest in being lectured to on the vagaries of geopolitics by a pedantic Danish physicist. The styles of the two men did not, to say the least, mesh. Bohr had a way of circling around and around his points that could infuriate even his admiring students and coauthors; he liked to say that accuracy and clarity were complementary — “and so, a short statement could never be precise.” Churchill failed to grasp anything that Bohr tried to tell him. “I cannot see what you are talking about,” he said. “After all this new bomb is just going to be bigger than our previous bombs. It involves no difference in the principles of war.” His main takeaway from the meeting seems to have been that Bohr wanted the Western Allies to immediately turn over the bomb to the Soviet Union as well as anyone else who wanted it, when in fact Bohr was just asking them to initiate an open preliminary discussion about the bomb and what it meant for the world. After half an hour — half the scheduled time — Churchill all but threw Bohr out on his ear. He soon after wrote a memo saying that Bohr should be closely watched, and consideration even given to “confining” him to make sure he didn’t commit “mortal crimes” — presumably in the form of an attempt to give the bomb to the Soviets of his own accord.

Churchill’s reaction certainly isn’t impossible to understand. He still had this war to fight, after all. And Bohr’s plan wasn’t necessarily the most practical. It does have that distinct whiff of the utopian about it, an odor that a practical politician like Churchill would have learned to detect and detest many years ago. Parts of the argument do rather sound like a scientist trying to impose a rigid frame of cause-and-effect logic on complicated, messy international affairs that just won’t admit one. Still, one wishes Bohr could at least have been able to get Churchill or Roosevelt to think about the implications of his greatest insight: the still-in-the-offing but unavoidable prospect of MAD. As it was, neither man seems to have remarked the concept at all, lost as it was in Bohr’s typical sea of verbiage. Almost as depressing is Churchill’s immediate leap from “advocate for reasoned diplomacy with the Soviet Union” to “traitor”; this exact fallacy would ruin many lives over the course of the Cold War to come. Bohr — a great, even heroic man, whatever the practical failings of some of his ideas — spent the rest of the war trying fruitlessly to get further meetings with either leader. He had saved Denmark’s Jews from the Holocaust, but he couldn’t save the world from the Cold War.

Or, better said, he couldn’t do it alone. Ideas, if repeated often enough, have a way of spreading themselves around. By 1945, Bohr’s ideas were, as nuclear historian Richard Rhodes puts it, “in the air” in both Washington and Los Alamos. Vannevar Bush and James Bryant Conant, Roosevelt’s two closest science advisers, expressed concern as the fateful day of the first test neared that it was dangerous to assume that the United States’s atomic monopoly could possibly last for very long. If Roosevelt’s government didn’t talk to the Soviets about it before using it, it could lead “to a very undesirable relationship indeed on the subject with Russia.” Showing some prescience of their own, they imagined that someday atomic bombs might be able to reach all the “cities of the world” from anywhere in the world via a “robot plane or guided missile.” They proposed that the United States initiate a dialog which could lead to the formation of an “international office” to share and regulate the secrets of the atom: “We recognize that there will be great resistance to this measure, but believe the hazards to the future of the world are sufficiently great to warrant this attempt.” Robert Oppenheimer also said that the time may be right to “open up this subject” with the Soviet Union “in a tentative fashion.”

After Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, his and his successor Harry Truman’s war-hating Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had personally overseen the Manhattan Project from its beginning, made a much more forceful statement, saying that as the inventor of the atomic bomb the United States would bear “a certain moral responsibility” for any “disaster to civilization which it would further.” Thus the country had a moral imperative to try to arrange a world order which could avert such a disaster, via a “world peace organization” which could eventually be entrusted to “share” the atomic bomb with everyone. No less a military mind than Army Chief of Staff George Marshall said it might be a good idea to invite a Soviet delegation to get an overview of what had been done at Los Alamos and to witness the upcoming Trinity test.

Stalin, Truman, and Churchill at Potsdam, 1945

Stalin, Truman, and Churchill at Potsdam, 1945

It’s of course impossible to say how Roosevelt would have reacted to such advice from two of his oldest and wisest friends. Certainly it’s much harder to accuse them than Bohr of political naiveté. The new President Truman, however, was very much under the sway of his new Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, who would become one of the early architects of the country’s Cold War posture, pushing for a hardline, take-no-prisoners approach to the Soviet Union. Told of the atomic bomb’s massive destructive potential, Byrnes was not disturbed but delighted, saying it would greatly improve the United States’s negotiating position with the Soviet Union, that a forceful “demonstration of the bomb” in action — in the form of its being unexpectedly dropped on Japan — “might impress” the un-forewarned Soviet Union. At the Potsdam Conference just eight days after the Trinity test, Truman mentioned almost offhandedly to Stalin that the United States had developed “a new weapon of unusual destructive force”; that was as far as all of the suggestions for a dialog with the Soviet Union would ever stretch. Stalin, who knew all about the Manhattan Project’s existence thanks to his espionage network and knew perfectly well that it was more than just “a new weapon,” almost smirked visibly at this confirmation of his supposed ally’s perfidy: “He said he was glad to hear it and he hoped we would make ‘good use of it against the Japanese.'” Both men then dismissed the topic. With the last war not yet over, a new standoff was already beginning. Would it be an intractable one? That’s a question much of the world would soon be asking.

Truman may have squandered his first and best opportunity to really talk with the Soviets about the bomb, but well before Japan’s surrender was a year old the voices calling for international controls became too loud and popular for a seasoned politician like him to ignore. So, like any seasoned politician, he hedged his bets. Even as the Navy was assembling a fleet of ships to be blasted by atomic bombs at Bikini Atoll as a blunt demonstration of the United States’s new military might, he sent a patrician financier and longtime policy adviser named Bernard Baruch to the United Nations to explore the formation of a United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. “We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead,” Baruch announced to the assembled delegates. “We must elect world peace or world destruction.” He offered a plan that would place the United Nations in control of “all atomic-energy activities potentially dangerous to world security,” with the power to inspect all nuclear facilities and punish anyone found to be attempting to make weapons. The Soviets, not in a good humor after the Bikini tests, replied that the Americans should begin by destroying all of their own atomic bombs as a sign of good faith, and negotiations quickly reached an impasse from which they would never emerge. The Soviets’ undisguised mistrust of American intentions was part and parcel of an ever-widening gulf between the world’s two remaining superpowers that would soon make dreams of worldwide arms control and world government sound as quaint as… well, as quaint they sound to our ears today. Meanwhile the atomic bomb was becoming, almost in spite of itself, an increasingly vital part of the United States’s strategic picture.

The problem was one of conventional-force disparity. When the forces of the Western and Eastern Allies had met one another in the middle of Germany at the close of the war, they had been roughly equal. Now, though, the Americans and British were coming home by the millions, leaving behind their rifles and their uniforms and returning to lives as business executives, shopkeepers, and farmhands. Meanwhile the Soviet Union, a centralized economy driven largely by military spending which had no private jobs to which to return, wasn’t demobilizing to anywhere near the same degree. And Stalin was reneging on all of his promises to allow the countries of Eastern Europe free determination, bringing down an “Iron Curtain” — the term was popularized by Winston Churchill in a speech on March 5, 1946, ironically at almost the same moment as the publication of One World or None — across the middle of Europe. The stage was thus set for a stand-off that would last more than forty years, the democratic peoples of the West staring down the totalitarian nations of the East. The West had no hope of matching Soviet numbers in Europe unless it was willing to keep most of its young men in arms for terms of as much as eight or ten years each. This the civilian societies of the West, eager to rebuild and enjoy the fruits of the hard-fought peace, had no interest in doing. Thus by 1947 Soviet armies in Europe outnumbered Western by as much as ten to one. But there was a great equalizer: the atomic bomb.

Indeed, some believed the atomic bomb should be more than a mere equalizer, should be used to solve the problem in a more direct way. As relations worsened with the Soviet Union and the clock ticked down to the inevitable reality of a Soviet bomb, the pendulum of public sentiment swung wildly in a new direction. A public that just a year before had been dreaming of a peaceful world-government utopia now began to seriously mull the notion of a preemptive nuclear strike. It would be a painful undertaking, strike proponents said, but it had to be done now, before the Soviets had atomic bombs of their own. Some of the hawkish voices were those of respected military men, like General Leslie Groves, who had built the Manhattan Project from the ground up, and General Orvil Anderson, who thought nuclear war would be the most Christian thing to do at this juncture: “I think I could explain to Him that I saved civilization.” The dogged old warrior Churchill reminded everyone how well appeasement policies had worked against Hitler, and advocated an ultimatum: pull out of all of the countries you’ve occupied and give to them the right of self-determination you promised them or prepare to be nuked. Other voices advocating preemptive nuclear war were more surprising. The great British philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose pacifism had led to his imprisonment during the First World War, was among them, as was Hamilton Holt, just a year before the organizer of a major world-government conference. World government in his view should now entail that any nation that attempted to develop atomic bombs, as the Soviet Union obviously was, “should be wiped off the face of the earth” by the United Nations with a taste of its own medicine. (The role and fate of the United States, still the only nation actually in possession of atomic bombs, was unclear in this formulation.)

Thankfully, such voices didn’t get their way before August 29, 1949, made the point moot. There could be no preemptive strikes on a Soviet Union in possession of a bomb of its own. With the Soviet bomb ended this crazy few years when the direction of history seemed a veritable smorgasbord of divergent possibilities, some wonderful, some terrible. Now the world must settle in for the long, tense, grinding nuclear stalemate of the Cold War, and the United States must exchange dreams of world government for paranoid communist witch hunts.

Looking back at that crossroads of history of 1945 to 1949, we’re left to wonder whether it all could somehow have turned out differently. Could some great leader willing to really listen to what Bohr and all those who followed him were saying have harnessed the idealistic fervor of the world-government movement, and in so doing changed the course of history as we know it? If Roosevelt had lived longer, would he have been that leader, or would he have pretty much done what Truman did? Was there any real possibility for a peace not founded on threats in a world that contained the paranoid maniac Stalin, just possibly the most prolific mass murderer in the history of the world? These aren’t questions I can answer for you; you’ll have to ponder them on your own. Perhaps, given the situation at the end of World War II, the Cold War really was inevitable. Perhaps any more earnest attempt to prevent an arms race and/or institute international controls on nuclear weapons would have merely ceded the advantage to the Soviet Union and resulted in a Soviet first strike (Stalin, alone among the Soviet General Secretaries, strikes me as just possibly crazy and genocidal enough to do it if he thought he could get away with it).

For its part, Trinity takes the tragic view of history. Its attitude toward the Cold War and the societies it involved is summed up in the extract that opened this article: a horde of lemmings running pell-mell toward their destruction, “too stupid or frightened to turn away” — certainly not one of the game’s more subtle examples of symbolism but nevertheless one of its most striking and effective. Less impressive is Trinity‘s recreation of the actual scene of that first test, which it gets thoroughly wrong; the actual test took place on the landlocked steppes of Kazakhstan, nowhere near the Arctic Ocean. One must assume that Brian Moriarty’s research simply failed him for this, the only scene in the game that shows the Soviet side of the Cold War. The larger point of the scene, however, stands. Trinity postulates that the inevitable end point for the lemmings of the world is an apocalyptic fall off of an unthinkable nuclear cliff. So far — fingers crossed! — that hasn’t happened. I admire Trinity greatly, but I hope that history continues to prove it less than prescient in this regard.


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T Plus 3: Edward Teller and His Superbomb



Whoever threw this place together wasn't too worried about permanence. Tin walls rise on flimsy studs to a ceiling that sags under its own weight. It reminds you of a prefab tool shed, several stories high.

You're standing beside a monstrous conglomeration of pipes, compressors and pressure valves that fills most of the building.

A stairway leads downward.

You descend the stairway.

Bottom of Scaffold

A maze of plumbing rises before you like the back of a giant refrigerator. Stairs lead up to a scaffold overlooking the equipment. Turning south, you see a closed set of sliding doors, with a small box and a loudspeaker mounted on the wall beside them.

>open box
You swing the box open.

A toggle switch and a red button are mounted inside.

>turn on toggle switch
You turn on the toggle switch.

The loudspeaker emits a burst of static, then a steady hiss.

"Zero minus two minutes."

>push red button
You push the red button.

With an electric whirr, the heavy doors slide open.

"Zero minus ninety seconds."

South Beach

The waters of a peaceful lagoon reflect the tropical dawn like a fiery mirror. A few stars are still visible in the rosy sky.

The glorified tool shed dominates this little island, leaving room only for a narrow strip of sand that curves to the northeast and northwest. A red button is mounted on the wall beside the open sliding doors of the shed.

"Zero minus one minute."

You follow the curve of the shore.

East Beach

Palm trees far across the lagoon stand in dark relief against the eastern sky. The shore continues northwest and southwest, around the equipment shed.

"Zero minus thirty seconds."

You follow the curve of the shore.

North Beach

A square wooden extension juts out of the side of the building, stretching away across the lagoon as far as you can see.

The beach continues around the equipment shed to the southeast and southwest.

"Five. Four. Three. Two. One."

Your tropical vacation is cut short by a multimegaton thermonuclear detonation, centered in the nearby equipment shed.

The first Trinity test of an atomic bomb in 1945 yielded an explosion equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT. Barely seven years later, on November 1, 1952, the United States exploded the first thermonuclear bomb — known colloquially as the “hydrogen bomb” — on Enewetak Atoll, a member of the Marshall Islands group. That first hydrogen bomb yielded an explosion worthy of 10.4 megatons of TNT, 520 times the force of the Trinity blast. Moore’s Law’s got nothing on the early days of atomic-bomb development.

President Truman had likened the Trinity bomb to the wrath of the God of the Old Testament, comparing it to “the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.” What then to make of the hydrogen bomb? It was a destructive force beyond comprehension. That we got there so quickly was almost entirely down to the drive of one man who was there at the meeting that would lead to the Manhattan Project and the first atomic bomb and who would continue to be a major voice in both American politics and American weapons development through the entirety of the Cold War. Driven by scientific genius, patriotism, paranoia, and a titanic ego, he became the nation’s most long-serving Cold Warrior, perhaps the ultimate exemplar of the mentality that spawned and fueled that shadowy conflict and the lurking specter of nuclear apocalypse that accompanied it. His name was Edward Teller.

Born on January 15, 1908, in Budapest as the son of a prosperous Jewish attorney, Teller didn’t say a word until age three, leading his parents to believe he might be retarded. But then, when he did start to speak at last, he spoke in complete sentences. As a young boy his favorite author was Jules Verne: “His words carried me into an exciting world. The possibilities of man’s improvement seemed unlimited. The achievements of science were fantastic, and they were good.” But he wouldn’t be allowed much time for boyish dreams. During 1918 and 1919, amidst the end of the First World War, the breakup of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Revolution that was taking place nearby, governments came and went quickly in Budapest. First there was the relatively benign if chaotic Hungarian Democratic Republic. Then came the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the second communist state in the world, built on Lenin’s model; it was less benign, and even more chaotic. And finally there was the proto-fascistic Kingdom of Hungary, accompanied by the White Terror, a series of bloody purges and brutal repressions aimed at scourging the country of communism and, it often seemed, the Jews who had disproportionately supported it. The institutionalized discrimination of the period may have been the source of the relentless competitive drive that would mark the rest of Teller’s life; his father told him that as a Jew “he would have to excel the average just to stay even.” His father also told him that he would have to emigrate if he wished to really make something of himself. Young Edward therefore worked like mad on his academics, and in 1926 he was accepted to study Chemical Engineering at Karlsruhe University in Germany.

As the political climate in Germany darkened, Teller completed his undergraduate studies at Karlsruhe, followed by a PhD in Physics at the University of Leipzig. He also lost most of his right foot in a streetcar accident in Munich; he would wear a prosthetic, and walk with a pronounced limp, for the rest of his life. He took up a research post at the University of Göttingen, where he published papers like mad. Setting a pattern that would hold throughout his career, he almost always worked with a coauthor, who would be responsible for sorting insights that sometimes came off more as feverish ravings than rigorous science into some manageable, organized form, and who would do the tedious but necessary work of calculating and verifying what seemed to come to Teller unbidden as intuitive truths. Teller was given to occasional fits of brooding, but at other times could be great fun, possessed of an easy, self-deprecating humor and a ready laugh. He was quite an accomplished classical pianist, but his approach to the art said much about an internal drive that he sometimes masked in casual contact with his peers: he played everything fortissimo, treating the composers whose works he played like personal challengers. On the whole, though, he was well-liked, and increasingly well-respected for his theoretical élan.

But soon it was, as Teller later put it, “a foregone conclusion I had to leave” Germany; Hitler had come to power, bringing with him an institutionalized antisemitism that would soon make his run-ins with bigotry in Hungary seem mild. Thankfully, in 1934 his burgeoning reputation won him an appointment to work with the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr at the University of Copenhagen, the very center of the universe of physics at that time. This was followed by a brief stay at University College London. The following year he accepted a professorship at George Washington University. In the company of his new wife, his childhood sweetheart Mici whom he had returned to Budapest one last time to marry, he booked passage to the United States, not at all sure about his decision to leave Europe. His worries were unfounded; he quickly fell in love with the New World with all the patriotic passion an immigrant often musters, and never again wanted to live anywhere else.

In early 1939 a wave of excitement swept an international physics community still struggling to retain its dedication to the open sharing of knowledge in the face of the war clouds gathering over Europe. Two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, had managed a feat most of their colleagues had heretofore considered impossible: they had split an atom of uranium. They had, in other words, achieved nuclear fission. This opened up a possibility that had been long discussed but also long dismissed by most physicists as a fantasy: to create a fission chain reaction capable of releasing almost inconceivable amounts of energy — energy with the potential to create an almost inconceivably powerful bomb. Teller’s fellow physicist and Hungarian émigré Leó Szilárd immediately began agitating for a top-secret crash program to build one of these “atomic bombs,” or failing that to prove definitively that it could not be done. Using logic that would become all too familiar over the decades of atomic history to come, he said that the democratic world had to have the bomb before Nazi Germany. And, having split the atom first, the Germans were obviously already ahead. (Szilárd apparently didn’t consider that the willingness of Hahn and Strassmann to publish their work in scientific journals probably meant that they weren’t, at least yet, thinking all that seriously about its potential as a weapon.) But other scientists, including Bohr, remained unwilling to sacrifice their traditional openness in the name of something which they thought was likely to be impossible anyway. The chief stumbling block was the need for comparatively huge quantities of uranium 235, which no one knew how to produce in any remotely efficient way. “It can never be done,” said Bohr, “unless you turn the United States into one huge factory.” Unconvinced, Szilárd kept insisting that everything had changed as soon as fission was proved to be possible, and that his colleagues denied it at their peril.

It’s at this point that Teller, heretofore a promising but hardly a major physicist, enters the history books for the first time — not as a great thinker in his own right but, as he himself would later dryly put it, as “Szilárd’s chauffeur.” Szilárd didn’t drive, and he needed to get out to Long Island for the second of two meetings with Albert Einstein, now also living in exile in the United States, that would change the course of history. Einstein was just about the only physicist American politicians were likely to be familiar with, the only one they were likely to listen to if he came to them with outlandish science-fictional hopes and fears of a futuristic “atomic bomb.” Thus, barely a month before Germany invaded Poland to touch off the Second World War, Szilárd, Teller, and Einstein sat in the latter’s comfortable sitting room — Einstein still in his slippers — sipping tea. Teller, having already served as chauffeur, now accepted the further indignity of being the secretary, writing down the letter to President Roosevelt that his two older colleagues dictated to him. Hand-delivered to Roosevelt by Alexander Sachs, a well-connected Jewish banker, the letter led to the formation of an “Advisory Committee on Uranium,” forefather of the Manhattan Project, in October of 1939. The Committee included both Szilárd and Teller amongst its members. It was in fact Teller himself who made the first request for funding: for $6000 to finance some early experiments to be conducted by the exiled Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. After considerable argument about the expense, the request was approved.

Still, progress was slow, the government’s support was halfhearted, and even Teller himself was uncertain that he wanted to abandon pure science for weapons research. Then came the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in May of 1940. Teller later claimed that the shocking success of the Wehrmacht convinced him that “Hitler would conquer the world unless a miracle happened.” A speech by Roosevelt galvanized him to action: “If the scientists in the free countries will not make weapons to defend the freedom of their countries, then freedom will be lost.” Teller’s duty as he saw it was clear: “My mind was made up, and it has not changed since.” Actually, records of Roosevelt’s speeches from the period reveal no such formulation as the one in Teller’s recollection. There’s merely an offering of absolution to scientists for having enabled so many technologies which Germany was now putting to such evil use, along with a paean to the search for knowledge, scientific and otherwise, which Germany was now so actively repressing. Nevertheless, Teller would soon believe the “miracle” the world so urgently needed to be within sight in the form of the atomic bomb. His insistence on seeing weapons of mass destruction in such quasi-religious terms would come to define the role he would play in many dramas to come.

In mid-1941, just a few months after he and Mici took the oath of American citizenship, Edward Teller moved to Columbia to work more closely with Fermi and Szilárd, to whose cause he was now a complete convert. Soon after, he was party to yet another conversation that would change the world, this time with he himself as the active agent of that change. When Teller and Fermi were walking back from lunch one day, the latter mused “out of the blue” whether it might be possible to use the as-yet nonexistent atomic bomb as a mere catalyst for a much bigger bomb, one that fused rather than split atoms. Specifically, hydrogen might be fused to helium, like the process that powered the Sun. Fermi estimated that a fusion bomb could be made to explode with three orders of magnitude more force than a simple fission device. He considered the idea a throwaway; the numbers would start to get so big that you kind of had to ask what the point would really be. Teller, however, took it as a challenge.

This was vintage Teller. Already in 1941 he considered the fission bomb essentially a solved problem in theoretical physics. Just as he needed patient collaborators to clean up and finish his research papers, he was more than happy to turn over the practical work on the fission bomb to others while he swam after the next big fish. Within a year he thought he knew “precisely how to do it.” He broke the news to his colleague and best friend, exiled German physicist Hans Bethe:

Teller told me that the fission bomb was all well and good and, essentially, was now a sure thing. In reality, the work had hardly begun. Teller likes to jump to conclusions. He said that what we really should think about was the possibility of igniting deuterium [an isotope of hydrogen, sometimes known as “heavy hydrogen”] by a fission weapon — the hydrogen bomb.

Teller’s idea was soon christened “the Super.” He estimated that it should be able to “devastate an area of more than 100 square miles.”

Teller followed Fermi to the University of Chicago in 1942, where Fermi took charge of the project to build what became known as Chicago Pile 1, the world’s first nuclear reactor. When activated in November of that year, it proved once and for all that an atomic chain reaction, and thus an atomic bomb, was possible. With that proof, the newly christened Manhattan Project now ramped up in earnest under the stewardship of Army Air Force General Leslie Groves, who was placed in charge of infrastructure and practical and military concerns, and American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the scientific research. Teller was one of the first scientists to arrive at Los Alamos, the little community Groves and Oppenheimer constructed to finish the work of making the atomic bomb way out in the splendid isolation of the New Mexico desert. Teller liked and admired Oppenheimer with an enthusiasm that could sometimes verge on hero worship. Oppenheimer was, he said, a “bricklayer,” capable of seeing the whole puzzle and fitting its pieces together, as opposed to the “brick makers” around him who could only see their own small piece.

By now the Manhattan Project was working to develop not one but two types of fission bomb. The first would be a relatively crude device that used uranium 235. Neils Bohr’s words about “turning the United States into one huge factory” were proving to be prophetic, as Groves oversaw a massive industrial effort to enrich enough uranium to power it; this part of the Manhattan Project alone would eventually employ tens of thousands of people. The other bomb was a more elegant and efficient but also much more uncertain design that used the newly synthesized element of plutonium instead of uranium. It would have to be triggered by precisely placed and shaped explosive charges, which would implode its plutonium core into a supercritical mass and start the chain reaction. Teller worked for some time on this implosion process, the trickiest technical problem of all those that the Manhattan Project had to overcome.

Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller hiking near Los Alamos, circa 1944.

Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller hiking near Los Alamos, circa 1944.

Teller, however, soon became aggrieving and aggrieved, building the foundation of yet another lifelong reputation: that of someone who just doesn’t play well with others. As the little community of Los Alamos grew around him, Teller had expected to either be placed in charge of all theoretical physicists or of an entirely new project to work on the Super. He didn’t get either appointment. Instead, his old friend Hans Bethe took charge of the theoretical physicists, leaving Teller so resentful that it spoiled their friendship forever. The Super project, meanwhile, never got started at all; it was declared an idea maybe worth revisiting after the fission bombs were finished, but nothing to use resources on now. Teller began to neglect his assigned tasks in favor of working independently on the Super. Bethe, he recalls, “wanted me to work on calculational details at which I am not particularly good, while I wanted to continue not only on the hydrogen bomb, but on other novel subjects.” George Gamow, a Russian émigré physicist who had known Teller from his years in Germany, notes that “something changed” in Teller after he got to Los Alamos. Before, he had been “helpful, willing and able to work on other people’s ideas without insisting on everything having to be his own.” Now… well, not so much. “Since the theoretical division was very shorthanded,” says Bethe, “it was necessary to bring in new scientists to do the work that Teller declined to do.”

Teller took to prowling about distracting scientists from other, more immediately useful work with his ideas and proposals, driving Bethe crazy. At last in the spring of 1944 Bethe, with Oppenheimer’s approval, relieved Teller “of further responsibility for work on the wartime development of the atomic bomb.” (The man who replaced Teller on the implosion team, Rudolf Peierls, brought with him an assistant named Klaus Fuchs who would share many details of the atomic bomb’s design — most importantly the tricky implosion process itself — with the Soviet Union.) Oppenheimer personally convinced an irate Teller not to leave. After all, he said, this was just what he wanted; now he could work on the Super full-time. And so Teller’s work on those first atomic bombs was largely done.

After the war was ended by the dropping of two examples of Los Alamos’s handiwork — one of uranium, the other of plutonium — on Japan, the little desert community began to disperse. Many of the most important minds behind the bomb, including Bethe, Fermi, and Oppenheimer himself, were eager to put weapons development behind them and return to either pure research or, in Oppenheimer’s case, increasing political engagement with the handling of their creation. Teller was deeply disturbed at this loss of brainpower, and even more disturbed that he still couldn’t get approval of his Super project. He wrote an urgent letter trying to convince his colleagues of the necessity of further weapons development, particularly on the Super, which he said was realizable within five years if they all put their minds to it. Deploying the same paranoid logic that had led to the development of the fission bombs, he said that the Soviet Union might very well be able to make a hydrogen bomb without even bothering with a fission-only bomb; the shadowy threat was now the Soviet Union rather than Nazi Germany, but the formulation was otherwise the same. He pronounced colleagues like Oppenheimer who would prefer to reach diplomatic accommodation with the Soviet Union, accommodation which might even entail sharing the atomic bomb with them, guilty of “fallacy.” And, sounding another thoroughgoing theme of his career, he pronounced thermonuclear explosions to be potentially useful for many peaceful purposes; they would “allow us to extend our power over natural phenomena far beyond anything we can at present imagine.”

Some of his colleagues were able to secure time on the ENIAC, by some reckonings the world’s first real computer, to do calculations which seemed to prove the Super feasible. An official conference held at Los Alamos in April of 1946 produced more general agreement that it should be possible, although by no means did everyone agree with all of Teller’s most optimistic predictions for its timetable. For the time being, though, those remaining at Los Alamos were busy preparing for Operation Crossroads, as well as improving the safety and reliability of the existing arsenal. Thus the Super remained firmly on the back burner. Teller himself had already departed in frustration by the time of the Super conference; he joined Fermi at the University of Chicago in February of 1946.

But thirty months later Teller, proclaiming himself increasingly disturbed by the Chinese Civil War and the by now blatant takeover of all of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, returned to Los Alamos. “I fully realize the menacing international situation,” he said, “and I believe that the United States must develop its military strength to the utmost if we are not to succumb to the danger of communism.” And, casting himself as a martyr to the cause, he proclaimed a sense of patriotic duty to be behind the move, “in spite of the fact that I cannot hope to work as happily and with as much immediate satisfaction in a field of applied science.” More quietly but perhaps more honestly, he admitted to a friend that it was “quite clear that I am needed in Los Alamos more than I am needed in Chicago,” and “being necessary is an extremely important thing for me.” For their part, many of his colleagues noted not so much a considered position behind his decision as a visceral hatred of the Soviet Union that could sometimes seem to verge on the ethnic. The Soviet Union had just completed its takeover of Hungary in June of 1948, when the Soviet-backed Hungarian Communist Party effectively outlawed the democratic opposition and cut Teller off from his remaining family in Budapest. His Hungarian friend and Los Alamos colleague John von Neumann notes that “Russia was traditionally the enemy” of Hungary, subject to “an emotional fear and dislike” among his countrypeople.

Teller’s return to Los Alamos coincided with increasingly urgent consideration of the Super in the halls of government, prompted by clear signs from intelligence sources that the Soviet Union was getting close to a fission bomb of its own. “It would be dreadful,” wrote a White House aide named William Golden, “if the Russians got it [the Super] first.” Teller was on holiday in England in September of 1949 when he got the news that the Soviet Union had just exploded its first atomic bomb, at least a year before the CIA’s most pessimistic predictions.

His advocacy now shifted into overdrive. Despite the fact that the Soviets were still very obviously playing catch-up, and largely using stolen American designs to do so (that first Soviet bomb was a virtual clone of the Trinity bomb), he announced that the United States was in “grave danger that we have lost or are losing the atomic armaments race.” “If the Russians demonstrate a Super before we possess one,” he declared, “our situation will be hopeless.” His logic was questionable at best, to the extent that Yet he had at last an eager audience looking for any source of comfort in the face of the Soviet test. Oppenheimer, now increasingly at odds with Teller personally as well as professionally, wrote despairingly of “this miserable thing” that “appears to have caught the imagination, both of the Congressional and of the military people, as the answer to the problem posed by the Russian advance.” Seeing it as “the way to save the country and the peace,” he wrote, “appears to me full of dangers.” Teller took very, very personally Oppenheimer’s advocacy for diplomacy with the Soviet Union and his persistent skepticism about both the moral wisdom and the technical feasibility of the Super.

Advocates of reasoned diplomacy seldom won over advocates of nuclear armaments during the Cold War. On January 31, 1950, President Truman announced to the world that the United States was going forward with work “on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super-bomb.” Announcing the Super publicly in this way made a marked contrast to the top-secret Manhattan Project. The move, driven largely by domestic political calculations on the part of Truman’s staff, explicitly defined future nuclear research as a race to the Super between the Americans and the Soviets, a sort of perverted forefather to the Moon Race in which both sides would seek to be first to unleash the most terrible destructive force in the history of the humanity.

Some scientists declined to work on the project out of moral misgivings; others simply because they didn’t want to work with Teller. Future Nobel Laureate Emilio Segrè, for example, pronounced Teller “dominated by irresistible passions much stronger than even his powerful rational intellect,” and turned his job offer down. The core of the team that was finally assembled included, in addition to Teller, two less visible European veterans of the Manhattan Project, Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann. They didn’t make for a very happy family. Within weeks Ulam was complaining about “Edward’s obstinacy, his single-mindedness, and his overwhelming ambition.” As Ulam and Neumann worked through the sorts of tedious calculations that Teller always found beneath him, a painful reality slowly dawned on them: Teller’s plan for the Super, which he had first conceived even before the fission bomb was a reality, simply wouldn’t work. When they tried to demonstrate this to Teller, the latter, in the words of Stanislaw Ulam’s wife Françoise, “objected loudly and cajoled everyone around into disbelieving the results. What should have been the common examination of difficult problems became an unpleasant confrontation.” “Teller was not easily reconciled to our results,” says Stanislaw Ulam himself more laconically. “I learned that the bad news drove him once to tears of frustration, and he suffered great disappointment. I never saw him personally in that condition, but he certainly appeared glum in those days, and so were other enthusiasts of the H-bomb project.” Teller was soon engaging in conspiracy theorizing, believing that Ulam and von Neumann were deliberately biasing their findings to make him and his Super look bad. He demanded that virtually all of Los Alamos be placed at his disposal, but as 1950 ground on and his theories looked more and more flawed nobody, least of all Teller, seemed quite sure what they should actually be doing.

Then, one day in late January of 1951, Françoise Ulam found her husband staring vacantly into their back garden. “‘I found a way to make it work.’ ‘What work?’ I asked. ‘The Super,’ he replied. ‘It is a totally different scheme, and it will change the course of history.'” The technical details of Ulam’s new scheme, and of Teller’s original, we won’t go into here. Suffice to say that Teller immediately saw the new idea’s potential. “Edward is full of enthusiasm about these possibilities,” wrote Ulam to a colleague. In an indication of just how far their relationship had deteriorated, he then added a stinger: “This is perhaps an indication they will not work.”

There soon followed what

From then on Teller pushed Stan aside and refused to deal with him any longer. He never met or talked meaningfully with Stan ever again. Stan was, I felt, more wounded than he knew by this unfriendly reception, although I never heard him express ill feelings toward Teller. (He rather pitied him instead.) Secure in his own mind that his input had been useful, he withdrew.

Teller would minimize Ulam’s contribution for the rest of his life. Ulam himself never seriously campaigned to be awarded his own proper share of the credit, perhaps because he was much more ambivalent about their accomplishment than Teller. He often compared the hydrogen bomb to the Jewish legend of the Golem, which, having been created as a means of protection, eventually gets out of its maker’s control and goes on a murderous rampage through Prague.

With the Super now looking feasible, the Korean War raging, and the knowledge that, thanks not least to Truman’s grand pronouncement, this was now a race with the Soviets, even the likes of Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Bethe now supported its development. Teller, however, still created chaos everywhere he went. He demanded to be placed in sole charge of the Super project, including not only the research but the logistics, the engineering, and the administration. Knowing that that way lay madness, Los Alamos director Norris Bradbury absolutely refused. On September 17, 1951, Teller quit in a huff. Many of his colleagues mumbled darkly about what seemed a developing pattern: Teller had quit on the fission-bomb project as well just when it needed him most. (Teller himself would likely have replied that, as a theoretical physicist through and through, he was neither terribly interested in nor terribly good at the engineering details of actually building either the fission bomb or the Super.) “Once Teller left Los Alamos,” Bethe remembers, “even though they were working on ‘his’ weapon, he found all sort of reasons why it wouldn’t work. He tried to criticize it wherever possible.”

Nevertheless, Los Alamos soldiered on to shock the world and escalate the nuclear standoff to a potentially planet-wrecking scale when they detonated the first hydrogen bomb on November 1, 1952, a scene evocatively portrayed by Trinity in the vignette whose extracts open this article. It stripped not only Enewetak but every nearby island of all animal life and vegetation, as if someone had taken a giant potato peeler to their surfaces. It blew 80 million tons of highly radioactive material high into the air; parts of the fallout would travel to every corner of the globe. It vaporized birds in midair. It cooked nearby fish as if they had been dropped into a hot frying pan. (Yes, that cute, friendly dolphin that was so helpful to you in Trinity wasn’t long for this world.) Teller’s dubious dream had come to its fruition.

The world's first hydrogen bomb explodes on November 1, 1952.

The world’s first hydrogen bomb explodes on November 1, 1952.

He should have been pleased, but he had other things on his mind. While Los Alamos worked to finish the Super, he was organizing an entirely new nuclear-weapons laboratory that would not be bound by what he saw as the carping pessimism of Los Alamos. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was founded on the site of a mothballed naval air station in Livermore, California, that summer of 1952. Teller claimed to be too busy setting up Livermore to make the trip to Enewetak to witness the blast, but most of his old colleagues attributed his failure to appear to pique; they believed he had been secretly hoping to see them fail, so his new Laboratory could sweep in and save the day. This alleged disappointment did not, however, keep him from claiming his paternity. “It’s a boy!” he announced.

On August 12, 1953, when the Soviet Union exploded its own inevitable first hydrogen bomb, the die for 35 more years of mutually assured destruction was irretrievably cast. On October 30, 1961, almost exactly twenty years after the idle lunch-time conversation that had spawned it, Teller’s baby reached terrifying adulthood when the Soviets detonated over the remote archipelago of Novaya Zemlya the largest atomic bomb and the largest force of any sort ever triggered by humans, a 50-plus-megaton thermonuclear monster that was promptly dubbed the “Tsar Bomba.” It produced a mushroom cloud over seven times the height of Mount Everest; would have caused third-degree burns to someone standing 60 miles away; broke windows over 500 miles away. Even by the standards of the institutionalized insanity of the Cold War this was madness. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans ever tested or built another bomb of anywhere close to that size for the simple reason that no one could quite imagine what to actually do with such a giant. Their 5- and 10-megaton warheads were less expensive, easier to make, and had more than enough megatonnage among them to destroy all life on the planet.

By the time of the Tsar Bomba Teller had largely abandoned the nuts and bolts of nuclear physics in favor of a career as an administrator of the military-industrial complex and as an increasingly visible political advocate for nuclear weapons and the strongest possible anti-communist stance. Just as Los Alamos seemed to have inherited some of its founder Robert Oppenheimer’s personality, being relatively cautious and pragmatic about the terrible weapons it developed, Teller’s Lawrence Livermore developed a reputation for shooting from the hip and a damn-the-consequences drive for ever bigger and dirtier bombs. Teller characterized his transformation from physicist to advocate as a principled move that he made only sadly and reluctantly. He was, he claimed again, a martyr to his thankless cause: “I cannot just go back to physics because I believe that to prevent another war happens to be incomparably more important.” Others questioned whether Teller didn’t enjoy the limelight a lot more than he admitted. Robert Brownlee, a colleague who worked with him during the 1950s, makes this observation:

Edward was, in my experience, two entirely different people. When he was with scientists, just scientists, every idea was interesting and valuable and rational and so on. And the moment a certain kind of person would walk in the room, a person who was outside the family, and therefore might take tales back, a press person, Edward would become a wild man. He would be showing off for the press or for the visitor, would say things that would make you do this: This guy has absolutely lost it, he’s completely crazy. But it was an affectation which he put on when somebody came. So the press, whenever they interviewed him, carried away with them a strange view of Edward. When he was just with us kids, he was not that at all. So when you could talk with Edward with the people right there, it was entirely different than having a stranger in there, because the moment that stranger arrived, Edward became another person. And it had something to do with publicity—I don’t know a better word for it. There must be a better word for it. But I learned that despite what everybody else at the lab said, Edward’s value had to be determined independent of his personality. He was extremely valuable, but nobody liked him because he was, every so often, totally flaky.

It was apparently this “crazy” version of Teller that the American people at large came to know well by 1960. After Teller made headlines across the country through his strident opposition to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that moved all nuclear testing underground, Stanley Kubrick was inspired to make his caricature the eponymous star of Dr. Strangelove. He became for decades the favorite scientist of the American Right largely by telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. For instance, he played a major role, as we’ve already seen, in Ronald Reagan’s foolish SDI initiative of the 1980s, claiming to be able to provide not only its technology but also providing its justification: “If we went into a nuclear war today,” he said in 1980, “there is practically no question that the Russians would win that war and the United States would not exist.” The similarity of this rhetoric to that he had used to justify the Super 30 years before is not, I trust, lost on you. Even as the technologies of warheads and delivery systems evolved, the arguments employed in their justification always had this weird fly-in-amber consistency about them, leaving one to wonder when, if ever, enough would finally be enough. If anything, Teller’s rhetoric grew more extreme over the years; he once claimed that the United States had fallen so far behind the Soviet Union that he fully expected to be in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp — if not dead — within five years. His unapologetic advocacy of nuclear weapons and nuclear power continued until his death at age 95 in 2003. After the Cold War ended, rather than being thrilled at having seemingly achieved the goal he had worked toward for so many years, he merely chose a new bogeyman to fear: Saddam Hussein.

Teller had by then been ostracized for decades from his old Manhattan Project colleagues, who, whilst Teller plunged into Cold War politics, had collected an impressive shelf of Nobel Prizes amongst themselves working with more peaceful applications of nuclear physics. He replaced those old relationships with new ones forged with a group of younger colleagues at Lawrence Livermore who, having had their educations largely funded by the military-industrial complex, saw themselves first and foremost not as scientists but as weapons designers. To them, Teller was a hero. To the old guard, he was nothing less than the traitor in their ranks. The source of their enduring enmity was not his questionable advocacy for the Super or even his slighting of Ulam, but rather another sequence of events involving a man he had once admired greatly: Robert Oppenheimer.

In May of 1952, the FBI questioned Teller on the subject of Oppenheimer, another in a seemingly endless string of pseudo-investigations born of Oppenheimer’s pre-war involvement with communist causes and his current less than gung-ho attitude toward the nation’s nuclear buildup. Teller, who believed Oppenheimer personally responsible for delaying his beloved Super program, laid into his old boss with a vengeance. The country, he claimed, could easily have had the hydrogen bomb a year ago if not for Oppenheimer’s obstructionism. While he stopped short of outright calling him a Soviet spy, he was careful not to exclude the possibility either. Otherwise, he conducted what amounted to a character assassination. Oppenheimer was motivated not by principle but by vanity and jealously in his opposition to Teller’s plans, as he didn’t want to see Teller better his own fission bomb with the Super. He had “great ambitions in science and realizes that he is not as great a physicist as he would like to be.” (Ironically, many of Teller’s colleagues would have happily accused him of this exact deep-seated sense of insecurity and its resulting personal failings.) It would be better for the country, Teller said, if Oppenheimer was “separated” from the corridors of power.

Not quite two years later, with Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt near its peak, Oppenheimer’s enemies pounced openly at last, initiating hearings to revoke all of Oppenheimer’s security clearances; doing so would end his time as a policy adviser since virtually all of the policy about which he advised involved classified weapons systems. In April of 1954, Robert Oppenheimer was effectively put on trial. A parade of hawks from inside the military, the FBI, and the Washington establishment testified against him; a parade of his old Manhattan Project colleagues testified strongly in his favor. Except for Edward Teller. Called to the stand on April 28, Teller was unwilling to support Oppenheimer but also seemingly too craven to repeat his accusations of two years before in the man’s presence. Asked point-blank if he believed Oppenheimer a security risk, he equivocated like mad:

In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer acting —  I understood that Dr. Oppenheimer acted — in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more. In this very limited sense I would like to express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.

I believe, and that is merely a question of belief and there is no expertness, no real information behind it, that Dr. Oppenheimer’s character is such that he would not knowingly and willingly do anything that is designed to endanger the safety of this country. To the extent, therefore, that your question is directed toward intent, I would say I do not see any reason to deny clearance.

If it is a question of wisdom and judgment, as demonstrated by actions since 1945, then I would say one would.

“I’m sorry,” said Teller to Oppenheimer as he left the courtroom. “After what you’ve just said, I don’t know what you mean,” replied Oppenheimer. On May 27, Oppenheimer’s security clearances were formally and permanently revoked. “I think it broke his spirit really,” says an old friend. “He was not the same person afterward,” says Bethe. He spent most of his remaining years sailing and puttering around his beach house in the Virgin Islands. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations made some efforts to rehabilitate his reputation, most notably awarding him the Enrico Fermi Award for his service in 1963, but his security clearances, and with them his political influence, were never restored. He died at age 62 in 1967.

Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller share an uncomfortable handshake on the occasion of the former being awarded the Enrico Fermi Award, 1963.

Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller share an uncomfortable handshake on the occasion of the former being awarded the Enrico Fermi Award, 1963.

After the trial was done and gone, the scientists who had once worked with and admired Teller were left with the same question that we are: what the hell happened to him? How did this brilliant young scientist turn into the paranoid war-monger Americans soon got used to seeing on their television screens, opposing in his thickly accented English every effort at arms control ever mooted during the Cold War? How could a nuclear physicist, raised on science, talk about winning nuclear wars and dismiss the dangers of radioactive fallout as trivial?

There have been thousands of theories deployed in thousands of attempts to figure out Teller. Some have pointed back to that Munich street-car accident in his youth, which they claim — a bit melodramatically in my view — left him “in constant pain” for the rest of his life. Some have noted his deep-seated personal insecurity, which seemed to have its origins even earlier, to when he as a sheltered child with a doting mother suffered constant abuse and harassment at school for the crimes of being smart and being Jewish. Some have traced his hatred of communism to the chaos it brought to the Hungary of his youth — or, as noted previously, traced it to a Hungarian’s ethnic antipathy for Russia and the Russians. Enrico Fermi’s observation is amongst the most telling as well as the most witty: Teller was the only monomaniac he knew, he said, who had several manias.

Edward Teller (right) with Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan

Edward Teller (right) with Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.

Whatever made Teller the man he became, it wasn’t as simplistic as any of the above, taken in isolation or even in combination. For all his legendary arrogance and his willingness to hold grudges, he was also frequently described as a “warm” man and a good, true friend. When his former colleagues all cut him after his testimony at Oppenheimer’s security hearing, sometimes even publicly refusing to shake his hand, Teller reportedly spent hours “weeping” at the spoiling of most of the most important relationships in his life. He even tried desperately to recant his testimony, only to learn it was too late. No, none of us humans are that easy to figure out.

Yet there does seem to be a larger pattern that holds true not only for Teller but for many other architects of the nuclear-arms race: the sheer seductive allure of the Bomb itself. As Trinity‘s box copy proclaims, “The basic power of the universe has been unleashed.” To wield such unprecedented power is a heady drug indeed. The Bomb is the One Ring, the Dark Side of the Force. (Interesting that so many of the most enduring mythic fictions of the Cold War feature such powerful but corrupting temptations…) Some people, like Robert Oppenheimer, were Prosperos, unnerved by its power and eager to eliminate it from the world. Others, like Edward Teller, were Dr. Faustuses, ready to ride this unholy force right down to the depths of Hell. Dueling aphorisms coined by the two men sound like extracts from Paradise Lost. “Physicists have known sin,” says Oppenheimer, eyes downcast. Teller, his trademark bushy eyebrows twitching with passion, replies, “Physicists have known power!”

(For a good history of the relationship between Teller and Oppenheimer — and also Ernest Lawrence, a figure I didn’t have room for in this article — see Brotherhood of the Bomb by Gregg Herken. You can find Carl Sagan’s article on Teller in The Demon-Haunted World.)


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