Reflections on a Long-Ago Tour of Los Alamos and the Trinity Atomic Test Site
By William J. Astore
May 10, 2023:
Clearing House -- I turn 60
this year. My health is generally good, though I have aches and pains from a
form of arthritis. I’m not optimistic enough to believe that the best years of
my life are ahead of me, nor so pessimistic as to assume that the best years are
behind me. But I do know this, however sad it may be to say: the best years of
my country are behind me.
Indeed, there are all too many signs of America’s decline, ranging from
mass shootings to mass incarceration to mass hysteria about
voter fraud and “stolen” elections to massive
Pentagon and police budgets. But let me focus on just one sign of
all-American madness that speaks to me in a particularly explosive fashion: this
country’s embrace of the “modernization” of its nuclear arsenal at a price tag
of at least
$2 trillion over the next 30 years or so — and that staggering sum pales in
comparison to the price the world would pay if those “modernized” weapons were
Just over 30 years ago in 1992, a younger, still somewhat naïve
version of Bill Astore visited Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New
Mexico and the Trinity test site in Alamogordo where the first atomic device
created at that lab, a plutonium “gadget,” was detonated in July 1945. At the
time I took that trip, I was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, co-teaching a
course at the Air Force Academy on — yes, would you believe it? — the making and
use of the atomic bombs that devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki to end World War II. At the time of that visit, the Soviet Union had
only recently collapsed, inaugurating what some believed to be a “new world
order.” No longer would this country have to focus its energy on waging a
costly, risky cold war against a dangerous nuclear-armed foe. Instead, we were
clearly headed for an era in which the United States could both dominate the
planet and become “a normal country in
Despair is the new hope.
I was struck, however, by the anything-but-celebratory mood at Los Alamos
then, though I really shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, budget cuts
loomed. With the end of the Cold War, who needed LANL to design new nuclear
weapons for an enemy that no longer existed? In addition, there was already an
effective START treaty in place with Russia aimed at reducing strategic nuclear
weapons instead of just limiting their growth.
At the time, it even seemed possible to imagine a gradual withering away of
such great-power arsenals and the coming of a world liberated from apocalyptic
nightmares. Bipartisan support for nuclear disarmament would, in fact, persist
into the early 2000s, when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama joined old
Cold War hawks like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senator
Sam Nunn in
calling for nothing less than a nuclear-weapons-free world.
An Even More Infernal Holocaust
It was, of course, not to be and today we once again find ourselves on an
increasingly apocalyptic planet. To quote
Pink Floyd, the child is grown and the dream is gone. All too sadly,
Americans have become comfortably numb to the looming threat of a nuclear
Armageddon. And yet the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist’s
Doomsday Clock continues to tick ever closer to midnight precisely because
we persist in building and deploying ever more nuclear weapons with no
significant thought to either the cost or the consequences.
Over the coming decades, in fact, the U.S. military
plans to deploy hundreds — yes, hundreds! — of new intercontinental
ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in silos in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and
elsewhere; a hundred or so nuclear-capable
B-21 stealth bombers; and a brand new fleet of nuclear-missile-firing
submarines, all, of course, built in the name of necessity, deterrence, and
keeping up with the Russians and the Chinese. Never mind that this country
already has thousands of nuclear warheads, enough to comfortably destroy more
than one Earth. Never mind that just a few dozen of them could tip this world of
ours into a “nuclear
winter,” starving to death most creatures on it, great and small. Nothing to
worry about, of course, when this country must — it goes without saying — remain
the number one possessor of the newest and shiniest of nuclear toys.
And so those grim times at Los Alamos when I was a “child” of 30 have once
again become boom times as I turn 60. The LANL budget is slated to expand like a
mushroom cloud from $3.9 billion in 2021 to $4.1 billion in 2022, $4.9 billion
in 2023, and likely to well over $5 billion in 2024. That jump in funding
enables “upgrades” to the plutonium infrastructure at LANL. Meanwhile, some of
America’s top physicists and engineers toil away there on new designs for
nuclear warheads and bombs meant for one thing only: the genocidal slaughter of
millions of their fellow human beings. (And that doesn’t even include all the
other life forms that would be caught in the blast radii and radiation fallout
patterns of those “gadgets.”)
The very idea of building more and “better” nuclear weapons should, of
course, be anathema to us all. Once upon a time, I taught courses on the
Holocaust after attending a teaching seminar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
Museum. Now, the very idea of modernizing our nuclear arsenal strikes me as the
equivalent of developing upgraded gas chambers and hotter furnaces for
Auschwitz. After all, that’s the infernal nature of nuclear weapons: they
transform human beings into matter, into ash, killing indiscriminately and
reducing us all to nothingness.
I still recall talking to an employee of Los Alamos in 1992 who assured me
that, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lab would undoubtedly
have to repurpose itself and find an entirely new mission. Perhaps, he said,
LANL scientists could turn their expertise toward consumer goods and so help
make America more competitive vis-à-vis Japan, which, in those days, was handing
this country its lunch in the world of electronics. (Remember the Sony Walkman,
the Discman, and all those Japanese-made VCRs, laser disc players, and the
I nodded and left Los Alamos hopeful, thinking that the lab could indeed
become a life-affirming force. I couldn’t help imagining then what this country
might achieve if some of its best scientists and engineers devoted themselves to
improving our lives instead of destroying them. Today, it’s hard to believe that
I was ever so naïve.
“Success” at Hiroshima
My next stop on that tour was Alamogordo and the
Trinity test site, then a haunted, still mildly radioactive desert landscape
thanks to the world’s first atomic explosion in 1945. Yes, before America nuked
Japan that August at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we nuked ourselves. The Manhattan
Project team, led by
J. Robert Oppenheimer, believed a test was needed because of the complex
implosion device used in the plutonium bomb. (There was no test of the uranium
bomb used at Hiroshima since it employed a simpler triggering device. Its first
“test” was Hiroshima itself that August 6th and the bomb indeed “worked,”
So, our scientists nuked the desert near the
Jornada del Muerto, the “dead man’s journey” as the Spanish conquistadors
had once named it in their own febrile quest for power. While there, Oppenheimer
famously reflected that he and his fellow scientists had become nothing short of
destroyer of worlds.” In the aftermath of Hiroshima, he would, in fact, turn
against the military’s pursuit of vastly more powerful hydrogen or
thermonuclear, bombs. For that, in the
McCarthy era, he was accused of being a Soviet agent and
stripped of his security clearance.
Oppenheimer’s punishment should be a reminder of the price principled people
pay when they try to stand in the way of the military-industrial complex and its
pursuit of power and profit.
But what really haunts me isn’t the “tragedy” of Opie, the
American Prometheus, but the words of
Hans Bethe, who worked alongside him on the Manhattan Project. Jon Else’s
searing documentary film, The Day After Trinity, movingly catches
Bethe’s responses on hearing about the bomb’s harrowing “success” at Hiroshima.
His first reaction was one of fulfillment. The crash program to develop the
bomb that he and his colleagues had devoted their lives to for nearly three
years was indeed a success. His second, he said, was one of shock and awe. What
have we done, he asked himself. What have we done? His final reaction:
that it should never be done again, that such weaponry should never, ever, be
used against our fellow humans.
And yet here we are, nearly 80 years after Trinity and our country is still
devoting staggering resources and human effort to developing yet more “advanced”
nuclear weapons and accompanying war plans undoubtedly aimed at China, North
Korea, Russia, and who knows how many other alleged evildoers across the globe.
Fire and Fury Like the World Has Never Seen?
Perhaps now you can see why I say that the best years of my country are
behind me. Thirty years ago, I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my
eye (Pink Floyd again) of a better future, a better America, a better world. It
was one where a sophisticated lab like Los Alamos would no longer be dedicated
to developing new ways of exterminating us all. I could briefly imagine the
promise of the post-Cold-War moment — that we would all get a “peace dividend” —
having real meaning, but it was not to be.
And so, I face my sixtieth year on this planet with trepidation and
considerable consternation. I marvel at the persuasive power of America’s
military-industrial-congressional complex. In fact, consider it the ultimate
Houdini act that its masters have somehow managed to turn nuclear missiles and
bombs into stealth weapons — in the sense that they have largely disappeared
from our collective societal radar screen. We go about our days, living and
struggling as always, even as our overlords spend trillions of our tax dollars
on ever more effective ways to exterminate us all. Indeed, at least some of our
struggles could obviously be alleviated with an infusion of an extra $2 trillion
over the coming decades from the federal government.
Instead, we face endless preparations for a
planetary holocaust that would make even the Holocaust of World War II a
footnote to a history that would cease to exist. The question is: What can we do
to stop it?
The answer, I think, is simply to stop. Stop buying new nuclear stealth
bombers, new ICBMs, and new ultra-expensive submarines. Reengage with the other
nuclear powers to halt nuclear proliferation globally and reduce stockpiles of
warheads. At the very least, commit to a no-first-use policy for those weapons,
something our government has
so far refused to do.
I’ve often heard the expression “the nuclear genie is out of the bottle,”
implying that it can never be put back in again. Technology controls us, in
That’s the reality we’re all supposed to accept, but don’t believe it.
America’s elected leaders and its self-styled warrior-generals and admirals have
chosen to build such genocidal weaponry. They seek budgetary authority and
power, while the giant weapons-making corporations pursue profits galore.
Congress and presidents, our civilian representatives, are corrupted or coerced
by a system that ensnares their minds. Much like Gollum in The Lord of the
Rings, the nuclear button becomes their “precious,”
a totem of power. Consider President Trump’s boast to Kim Jong-un that “his”
nuclear button was
much bigger than theirs and his
promise that, were the North Korean leader not to become more accommodating,
his country would “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The
result: North Korea has
vastly expanded its nuclear arsenal.
It wouldn’t have to be this way. To cite
Dorothy Day, the Catholic peace activist, “Our problems stem from our
acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” Don’t accept it, America. Reject it.
Get out in the streets and protest as Americans did during the
nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s. Challenge your local members of
Congress. Write to the president. Raise your voice against the
merchants of death, as Americans proudly did (joined by Congress!) in the
If we were to reject nuclear weapons, to demand a measure of sanity and
decency from our government, then maybe, just maybe, the best years of my
country would still lie ahead of me, no matter my growing aches and pains on
what’s left of my life’s journey.
Not to be morbid, but I suppose we all walk our own Jornada del Muerto.
I’d like what’s left of mine to remain unlit by the incendiary glare of nuclear
explosions. I’d prefer that my last days weren’t spent in a hardscrabble
struggle for survival in a world cast into darkness and brutality by a nuclear
winter. How about you?
Copyright 2023 William J. Astore
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