What 'Oppenheimer' Didn’t Tell Us
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | Sept. 9, 2023
The Manhattan Project was essentially a collective of brilliant American physicists united for the sole purpose of using science to create a bomb capable of destroying the entire planet. Never has so much raw brain power been dedicated to such a monstrous purpose. Oppenheimer, the movie, reveals that the physicists involved acknowledged this horrific possibility.
Oppenheimer reassured his boss, Gen. Leslie Groves, that the chances the test detonation of the bomb would destroy the world were “near zero.” Not “zero.” Nevertheless, they plunged ahead because they believed the potential rewards outweighed the risks.
Oppenheimer, adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s brilliant book, American Prometheus, is currently blowing up in theaters around the world. (Sorry; I couldn’t resist.) The explosive film sparked furious debates about what the movie means in hindsight.
At its core, Oppenheimer is a lesson about unintended consequences. Unlocking nature’s secrets can backfire, and as Steve Wozniak, cofounder of the Apple computer, stresses, “When engineers create something…that creation could be used for bad or good. Like the atomic bomb.” Such is the promise and perils of science.
In “Andrea del Sarto” Robert Browning wrote “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / or what’s a heaven for?”
The scientific method brings changes and improvements to everyday life. But these advances occur well before their potential consequences are known.
Oppenheimer believed the atomic bomb would forestall future wars. He also opined that, although possible, he was “fairly certain” that the nuclear explosion could be contained and would not destroy the entire planet. He was right about one claim, and profoundly wrong in the other.
The devastation that the bomb detonation visited upon Japan is well documented. Less well known is the devastation United States citizens suffered. The ghastly impact the fallout from the cataclysmic explosions had on the lives of Americans living in any proximity to the explosion continues to this day.
The Trinity test was conducted on March 17, 1953. In Las Vegas, St. Patrick’s Day always arrives with a bang. But never like it did 70 years ago when the physicists detonated the 16-kilo-ton atom bomb atop the Nevada Proving Grounds, a mere 65 miles north of the city. To determine what effects the bomb would have on people within the range of the blast, the government constructed an entire fake town within a couple of miles of the test site. It was populated entirely by mannequins. In a macabre twist, the workers who constructed the fake town referred to it as “Doom Town.”
I have viewed the iconic black and white video of the impact the blast had on Doom Town. One test house was built a mile from ground zero, which, it turned out, was not nearly far enough away. The video shows the house being seared by the power of the nuclear flash; it is completely blown away by the force of the pressure wave.
No official records of the fate of mannequins used in Doom Town appears to exist. All we know for certain is that the mannequins were taken from the test site and were subsequently used as window dressing at a JCPenny store as silent, glowing “evidence” of the bomb’s power.
It turns out that the government could have gotten more reliable data by examining the effects the radiation fallout had on real people living in and around New Mexico. Hundreds of New Mexicans were harmed during the Trinity test. As Tina Cordova, a seventh generation New Mexican, wrote last month in The New York Times, “[t]he people of New Mexico were the first human test subjects of the world’s most powerful weapon.”
She continues, “[t]he area of southern New Mexico where the Trinity test occurred was not, contrary to the popular account, an uninhabited, desolate expanse of land. There were more than 13,000 New Mexicans living within a 50-mile radius. Many of those children, women and men were not warned before or after the test. Eyewitnesses have told me they believed they were experiencing the end of the world. They didn’t reflect on the Bhagavad Gita, as Oppenheimer said he did. Many simply dropped to their knees and recited the Hail Mary in Spanish.”
In 2005, Ms. Cordova co-founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which works to bring attention to the negative health effects of the Trinity test. Tragically, New Mexicans exposed to radiation fallout from Trinity have never been eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This, despite thousands of unusual cases of cancer that continue to plague New Mexicans.
Ms. Cordova’s emotional response deserves the last word in this essay as she laments the physical, mental, and emotional toll Oppenheimer’s “achievement” gifted New Mexicans: “This, too, is the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the government he worked for. I will never be able to forgive them for wrecking our lives and walking away.”
Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.