Monday, April 7, 2014

Nuclear Panaceas

This is something of an expansion on yesterday's post, which was itself more of a placeholder than a fully thought out piece. There were literally so many things swirling in my mind yesterday, like the whirlwinds on the Jornada de los Muertos, the Journey of the Dead, the name the Spanish conquistadores gave to the plain on which the Trinity Test took place.

"Other-worldliness" was very much a factor in the adventure. Even getting to the Site -- especially the slower-than-slow progress through the Stallion Range Gate -- was part of the Other World sense of it all. Once inside the gate, we passed by the site where I remember seeing ruins of temporary classroom and other buildings, fabric walled, torn to shreds, with desks and chairs and chalkboards still in them when I was there before, but now they were gone, just the platforms and concrete pads on which they stood still visible.

That reminded me somehow of a place near where I once lived in California. It had been a transit camp for Japanese internees, one that was quite notorious in its day. It once consisted of row on row of drab and dreary barracks into which the Japs (as they were known) were crammed until transport was available to haul them to their final camp at Tule Lake or Manzanar or wherever.

Apparently after the War, there had been a big fire, and all the hutments and barracks and latrines and whatnot had burned to the ground. The site had been abandoned and had pretty much returned to the wild. If the military or anyone else owned it, there was no sign.

However, though the buildings were gone, the concrete pads on which they stood were still there when I was living nearby (I was then about 12 or 13). And the pads were littered with charred wood and broken and fused glass, a lot of which was green. There were no artifacts that I can recall, though there might have been some basins or door knobs or what have you lost in the weeds that surrounded the pads and had grown up through the cracked asphalt that had once been roadways between the buildings.

I didn't know what this place had been for some time after I first explored the ruins. Then my mother told me. She knew. She'd been stationed at the air base not far from this site during the War. She knew what it was and what it was for because it was right there when she was stationed at the base (she'd joined the Women's Army Air Corps) and everyone on base knew why it was there and what it was for. It was the transit camp for the Japs -- both when they were headed out to the distant concentration camps and when they were finally allowed to return to what was left of their homes in 1945. In between times, the military had occupied the buildings as additional base housing.

At that time, I could barely imagine what had happened during the War, though talk about it and movies about it, and reminiscence about World War II were ever-present during my childhood. We often think about the Depression as being the formative social and cultural factor of 20th Century America, but it was actually World War II -- the War which changed everything.

My mother had been friends with a Japanese American farm family before the War, and briefly, once they were rounded up for the concentration camps, she had taken care of their farm, hopeful that they would not be away for very long. But the farm was much more than she could handle, and when she heard that they would be gone "for the duration," she turned its care  over to an Anglo neighbor who was not particularly friendly with the family who was sent to Manzanar or Tule Lake or one of the other internment camps.

Soon thereafter, she joined the Women's Army Air Corps, she found herself stationed near where the Japanese American family had been held before they were taken to wherever it was they were going.

Photo by Dorothea Lange, May, 1942, Japanese American family being escorted to their barracks at a transit camp for internees
These were quite miserable shelters, not even up to standards of chicken coops, which is what my mother had called them. "Not fit for human beings". She said that what had happened to these people was an outrage, completely uncalled for. And she blamed a single individual for it: Earl Warren, in 1942 California Attorney General, who was the force behind the forces that sent the Japs to the concentration camps. He was the one who demanded it incessantly, went to Washington and got the orders from the President that put the whole dreadful business into motion. Earl Warren, who would become governor. He had ambitions, didn't he? It was easy to pander to the prejudices of California's Anglo population. And Warren was no slacker when it came to pandering...

But after he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Eisenhower, he changed. 180°, almost. Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 started a process of anti-Jim Crow and civil rights legislation and court findings that would transform the deep racial animosities and other prejudices held by so many Americans into... something else. They're not gone, not by a long shot, but they no longer hold such sway over American society and sense of justice.

Well, not like they once did at any rate.

After we passed by the pads and platforms of the no longer present temporary buildings inside the Stallion Gate on the way to Trinity Site, I spotted something reddish-brown by the side of the road. I couldn't make out what it was until we were passing right beside it and I saw the ribs sticking up: OMG, it was a cow, the carcass of a cow which had apparently perished right beside the base road and whose innards had been consumed by ravens and buzzards and coyotes and whatnot, leaving only hide and bone...

A cow? How did a cow get there? This was on base, and so far as I know, they don't run herds there. There are wild animals and hunting is permitted from time to time, but there are no cattle... are there? Maybe it got through the fence somehow and found itself unable to return to its own herd outside the boundary and perished from... lack of water? The sparseness of the forage? Loneliness? What had happened? I couldn't imagine, but I could easily imagine the presence of the cow was never even noticed by base personnel until it was too late, and then, with no orders to move it from beside the road, it was simply left to the coyotes and ravens and buzzards to deal with...

Much further on down the road, where turned off the main road to get to Trinity Site itself, there were a couple of camouflage tent-like structures near the intersection, somewhat resembling duck blinds, full of electronic equipment and a solitary soldier sitting forlorn inside them. Hum. What could they be? Beside these little tents there were bristling antennae and other sorts of gimcracks of no identifiable purpose, and I wondered, "Are they monitoring wildlife or our own selves as we head ever further into the base?" Were they monitoring our cell phones (which didn't work, by the way -- there wasn't even car radio reception on most of this journey of the dead... ) or our movements? We were ordered not to deviate off the road during our trip to Trinity Site and not to take pictures anywhere on base but at Trinity Site itself. But we saw some vehicles pull off the road here and there and saw people taking pictures where they were ordered not to. There are, after all, bunkers and other artifacts of the Trinity Test along the way to the Site, but I noticed the signs and placards that once identified them weren't maintained and no longer had legible contents.

Unlike formerly, too, at the Site itself, there were no longer any buses out to the restored McDonald Ranch where the Gadget had been assembled (though the nuclear core was inserted right under the tower where it would be hoisted up and detonated on July 16, 1945.) I had missed going to the McDonald Ranch due to time constraints when I visited the Site in 2010 and I had hoped to go this time, but a sign at the Gate said that the McDonald Ranch house was "temporarily closed" for reasons unstated.

Where the Gadget was assembled 

I wanted to go out there (it's about 2 miles from the test site) partly because one of the pioneer houses nearby our own is practically identical. It's a typical style of New Mexico homesteaders and pioneers near the turn of the 20th Century but you'd never know it existed because it doesn't fit the architectural "Style" imposed in Santa Fe and common elsewhere in New Mexico, thanks to Carlos Vierra and his friend John Gaw Meem.

Ah, but no. Not this time. Maybe next time, maybe not. There are houses like this and ruins of houses like this all over New Mexico, pioneer houses that were built of adobe and roofed with corrugated iron (called "tin") with tall, narrow windows and rough stone walls around them, built when the area was opened for homesteading around the turn of the 20th Century. Many are abandoned, as the pioneer ranch house we live in had been abandoned, because it is just too difficult to make a living out on the llano in New Mexico. The weather is too wild and unpredictable, the water is too scarce, the struggle for living too intense. It's hard to settle down and remain. The Native peoples long ago knew this, and they thought perhaps the Spanish and later the Anglos who went out in the desert and high plains to raise their livestock and to grow their crops and to build their towns were a bit mad. Or maybe they were a lot crazy. They may have had a few good years and then the droughts and the winds and the harshness of the land and the tiring work of bare survival drove them out.

Their ruins are everywhere.

The 'Gadget' on the tower before the Trinity Test, 1945 (Los Alamos National Laboratory picture)
One of the tower's stanchions after the test

And that's part of what Trinity Site represents in a less personal way. The McDonalds, at whose ranch house the Gadget was assembled, left -- they say "evacuated under protest" -- when the military took over the site for the Alamagordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in 1942, less than thirty years after the ranch was built. The house sat abandoned until the Trinity test was decided on in 1945.

Afterwards, the place was abandoned again and left to ruin until its restoration in 1984.


McDonald Ranch House, 1974

It is said that the reason for the Trinity Test was to see whether a plutonium implosion bomb would work or not. The Little Boy uranium bomb along with several mockups had been shipped to Tinian Island in the Pacific before the test of the Gadget, and shortly after the Trinity Test, the components for the Fat Man bomb (of which the Gadget was an example of its interior) were flown to Tinian from Kirtland Field, and were assembled on Tinian for use on Nagasaki.

The stated reason for the Trinity Test was scientific, but the actual use of the bombs on Japan was political, both to accelerate the surrender of Japan, and to demonstrate to the Soviets that the United States was prepared to... what, exactly? Do anything?

The idea, obviously, was to instill fear in any potential enemy such as the Soviet Union -- already designated the Enemy of the Moment after the capitulation of Nazi Germany -- of what the United States was capable of and willing to do in pursuit of its national/international interests. While many of the nuclear scientists involved in the creation of these weapons advised against their use on human populations preferring that demonstration detonations be utilized instead, the politics of war then -- and perhaps now -- insisted that only the actual use of these weapons against the Enemy himself would be effective. It's the principle of the only thing these people understand... that we heard all the time during the Afghanistan and Iraq misadventures, and which was a typical perspective regarding "The Enemy" through all the Cold War "police actions."

Burning them alive was considered to be a highly appropriate way of Enemy extermination and disposal, especially in the Pacific and Japan during the later stages of World War II. Firebombing was used in Europe as well, but the results -- in Hamburg and Dresden especially -- seemed far too much like the results of the Nazi concentration camps' efforts to dispose of the super abundance of dead bodies that accumulated toward the end of the war.

On the other hand using flamethrowers against Japanese soldiers was considered a kind of sport, and the firebombings of Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama were celebrated as particularly appropriate punishment for the Japs. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in these pre-nuclear bombings, whereas the total number of casualties from the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is thought to be just over 120,000. The point was that these incinerations took only one bomb each, whereas hundreds of bombs were necessary to obliterate other Japanese cities. Efficiency! American know how!

During the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait in 1991, American forces unleashed a grotesque bombing raid on what is known as the Highway of Death. Thousands of retreating Iraqis were incinerated in that episode, but there were many other incidents in which the US blasted civilian targets as well, most notably on a bomb shelter in Baghdad, in which several hundred civilians were slaughtered.

All this, of course, was long ago. Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy were once seen -- or at least promoted -- as panaceas for a troubled world and suffering mankind, the bombs to "keep us safe," and the nuclear plants to provide us with "unlimited energy." Neither has quite worked out as promised. The bombs don't keep us safe, and nuclear energy is a chimera at best. There is no known way to maintain the radioactive waste products produced, and there is no way to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants in any event.

The nuclear demons unleashed at Trinity Site almost 70 years ago still haunt us and the world in general. Some still believe that enough people could survive a nuclear holocaust to make it worthwhile to consider -- or at least an interesting experiment.

J. Robert Oppenheimer Manhattan Project lead scientist saw it differently:

I'm with Oppie on this.

We'll meet again, I'm sure... in spirit if not in the flesh...


  1. I think what your mother experienced about the Japanese-American family that owned a farm was fairly typical. More commonly than that, I believe many Japanese immigrants worked on the farms of California. They lived on the farms as workers or sharecroppers. I know a man today who was born in California almost one hundred years ago. I asked him if he was a native Californian, but I did not ask him about WWII out of respect and compassion. I did, however, at one time know a woman who had been an intern in one of the prison camps. She was taken with her family to one of the interim camps, then eventually relocated to Washington state. She said that most of the people lost everything that they had ever owned, including their property. She wrote a short book about her experiences. She was able to tell a tale of bravery and tenacity as a community lived through this horrific imprisonment. You understand the conditions that these people were forced to live in. Food was scarce or of a very poor quality. Hygiene and laundry extremely limited. However, the women and girls were able to keep their dignity and beauty intact as best they could. Families stayed together and cooperated with their neighbors. And the one saving grace that gave them a small amount of pleasure and emotional escape was baseball. They were allowed to play games on weekends. It was their only joy.

    1. All very true. It was my understanding that the Japanese American family my mother knew actually owned the farm that they asked her to care for while they were "away," but they may have leased it, since Japanese were forbidden to own property in California at the time.

      When I was a child, I briefly lived in a small town in Northern California where perhaps half the residents were of Japanese ancestry, and the parents of all the Japanese-American students at the elementary school where I spent half a year had been in the camps. I learned some things from them about what had happened, but most really didn't want to talk about it.

      My high school chemistry teacher had been interned as a "Jap" during the War, and we really wanted to know from him first hand what it had been like, and so far as I recall, he only opened up once, and then only to say it was "no picnic, gentlemen" and he wouldn't wish it on any American.

      Despite the racial animosity and prejudice that drove the policies that enabled the internment camps, I hardly knew any Anglo Californians who justified it after the War. Most people I knew were ashamed of it, or like my mother, they were outraged at what had happened.