In the dark of night, on July 16, 1945 a few scientists and military personnel gathered in the remote desert of New Mexico, USA. Sixty–six years ago the world was at war. The two key aggressors were Germany under the Nazis and Japan.
The secret desert meeting was code–named Trinity and the purpose was to test the first atomic bomb. Now on July 16, 2011, I’m looking back to understand how to move forward. Two months prior to Trinity, Germany fell, ending the war in Europe. Japan was yet to surrender.
Both states committed genocide and war crimes in their respective drives to conquer surrounding nations. The numbers are sobering. Three to four percent of the world’s population was killed in World War II. Roughly, 40–50 million civilians were slaughtered or died of disease and famine in China, smaller Asian countries and all over Europe. Including soldiers, perhaps seventy million died in total worldwide.
The scientists had agreed to build the bomb and to military secrecy and control because of the war. They carried out their test just before dawn on July 16. It was successful by the standards of the time and place. The first atomic bomb exploded and released its mushroom cloud of dust and radioactivity.
Japan attacked the US in December 1941 and the US joined the Chinese in battle against Japan. US soldiers were reduced to starving, diseased slave laborers in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Between helping to free Europe and fighting the Japanese, the US lost close to half a million soldiers.
The first time I visited Trinity in 2009, I didn’t fully understand the horrific scope of World War II. I understood something of the Nazi’s brutality in Europe and against the Jews, but didn’t realize the Japanese military had committed horrible war crimes in China killing roughly fifteen million people. I didn’t have the equanimity I have today.
I did know that three weeks after the first atomic bomb detonated at Trinity, an atomic bomb was dropped, for the first time, over a civilian target at Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945.
The Japanese refused to surrender and three days later the US dropped a second bomb, this time on Nagasaki, Japan. The total death toll between the two cities, including later deaths from cancer is roughly two hundred thousand. After the Nagasaki bombing, Japan surrendered. World War II ended on August 15, 1945 and the world celebrated.
The Japanese people suffered terribly throughout the war and including this final tragic blow they lost approximately three million people.
What I learned about since my visit to Trinity is the larger context within which the Trinity test and subsequent atomic bombings occurred. New information spurs fresh insight.
It’s easy to miss the big picture for many reasons. Time goes by and immediate memory is lost. Some parts of the story come to represent the whole. Summaries and simplifications skew our understanding of history.
Then too, our frames of reference shift. Who is the enemy? The nations who were enemies are no longer. Is the enemy us?
The legacy of what happened on July 16 is still with us. The Trinity test explosion was much more than a proving of new technology. It led to the end of World War II and to the loss of human life.
For safety and security, the test was carried out in the isolation of the desert. It turned out when it comes to nuclear explosions, there’s no such thing as isolation. According to the Centers for Disease Control, humans, livestock and crops in the immediate area around Trinity were exposed to radiation and fallout. Also fallout from the first atomic bomb test showed up in Indiana contaminating Kodak film.
It turned out there was no such thing as secret when it comes to discovery. In 1945, from a technological point of view, humanity took a great leap forward. Yet, from the standpoint of human behavior, we appear stunted. Trinity was the seed from which nuclear weapons proliferation sprouted and spread across the planet. Many of the same scientists who had built the bomb saw the dangers, and alongside visionary political leaders, called for humane and global controls on nuclear weapons technology. It turned out it was a lot easier to create an atomic bomb than to learn how to wisely abstain from misusing its power.
The first time I visited Trinity in 2009, I was full of inner turmoil. I was born after the war. I never knew a time when Japanese people were my enemy.
I wanted to understand the different points of view. I wanted to understand why people came up to me and told me how grateful they were to the scientists including my grandfather Enrico Fermi who built the bomb and presided over the Trinity test.
The people who seemed to thank me by proxy —many of them, but not all, were old enough to directly remember the horror of World War II. They told me they saw the use of the bomb as an end to atrocities and as a vehicle to save lives. I wanted to understand why others saw my grandfather’s work as evil.
That need to understand drove my visit to Trinity and my desire to learn enough of the history to find some answers. Over a number of years I did my research and read some books. I spoke with Japanese people, with scientists, with my own family members and with families of survivors of the Trinity test.
Despite the two perspectives being diametrically opposed, gradually I have come to be able to look at it from either point of view. Doing so requires letting go and accepting, even if momentarily, another’s frame of reference.
Now, if I look from one point of view, I can find the humanness in it. If I look from the other I can as well. Yet it’s hard to see what the two points of view have in common. That requires a melting of the heart, which I feel as I type these words.
If I take the two views at face value, I can find love of human life at the heart of each. What I notice is the two sides are maintained by doing the opposite — by demonizing and reinforcing of differences. I often wonder what this serves some sixty–six years later.
All families suffer losses and betrayals. When families triumph, their members embrace the whole, through hurt and with love finding healing and new behaviors. Cultures do as well. Perhaps our world is part way through healing from the birth of the atomic era and part way toward maturing enough to handle nuclear technology with sanity and wisdom. It’s what the scientists who detonated that first bomb sixty–six years ago hoped for.
It’s something many of us hope for.
I would like to dedicate this day, July 16 as Trinity Day. Let it be a day of balance, where we contemplate maturing not just individually, not just in our families but culturally and as a species: to act a little bit smarter, wiser and healthier. If we all do it, the world will change. Happy Trinity Day.