Thursday, July 16, 2015

Seventy Years and Counting

The Atomic Age began seventy years ago today. On July 16, 1945, in a part of New Mexico that the Spanish explorers had called the Jornada del Muerto, a nuclear device was detonated for the first time, demonstrating the viability of bombs fueled by nuclear fission.

It was a portentous moment. Exhausted scientists and technicians, having worked feverishly for months with little time off, were on edge. The weather--unsettled, with thunder and lighting perilously close to "the Gadget"--contributed to the tension. Even Enrico Fermi's attempt at humor--he was taking wagers from other physicists on whether the atomic bomb might detonate the atmosphere and, if so, whether New Mexico only or the entire world might be destroyed--rubbed many people the wrong way.

Away from the McDonald Ranch where the device and the measuring instruments were being readied, many other important things were happening. The U.S. Government's Interim Committee was finalizing plans for the first use of nuclear weapons against Japan. President Truman was en route to Germany where he would meet with Stalin and Churchill and Churchill's successor, Clement Attlee, at the Potsdam Conference, ready to talk tough in the knowledge that the U.S. possessed "the winning weapon." In Washington, London, Moscow, and other capitals governments were trying to determine what could be expected from the new organization created by the United Nations Charter that had been signed just weeks earlier in San Francisco. Ongoing preparations for war crimes trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo were laying the groundwork for a renewal of international humanitarian law. All of these things would have an impact on the way nuclear weapons would be regarded. And the very existence of nuclear weapons--for the last seventy years and counting--would profoundly affect these things, from U.S.-Soviet/Russian relations, to the functioning of the United Nations, to the character of the laws of armed conflict, to views on terrorism and transnational organized crime and failed states, to the evolution of economic sanctions.

"The Gadget" worked--and we are different because of that.