The "Baker" Explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a US Army nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25, 1946.
Original: United States Department of Defense (either the U.S. Army or the U.S. Navy). Derivative work: Victorrocha, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The thermonuclear bomb and I practically share a birthday—that was the first hydrogen fusion device with the power of 800 Hiroshima bombs. They called it the superbomb, the “city killer.” Physicist Enrico Fermi said its “practical effect is almost one of genocide.” I always knew that the fear-begotten arms race and I grew up together. Now all these years later, my father is holding an exploding bombshell out to me.
He’s ninety-two, living a mile or so from the house where I grew up. Dad’s no longer standing erect, fists confidently on hips—he uses a walker. His blue eyes are fading and his hair isn’t black and combed back, but his white widow’s peak is mostly intact. I visit from Seattle a couple of times a year and sharing stories helps keep his memory active—birthdays and Christmas, family vacations, his life growing up.
I’m an artist but my father is of a more linear persuasion. With an engineer’s attention to detail, he organized his photos into plastic sleeves in binders. We sat down at his dining room table a while back to share his recollections.
One album holds me and many siblings, lined up in Easter dresses outside the houses we outgrew or picking monkeyflowers at Yosemite.
“There’s the glass fisherman’s float I found on a Japanese beach.” Dad pointed to overexposed photos of a patio barbeque; he’s wearing a floppy chef hat. “And I built the arbor its hanging from.”
There’s a fat binder for him and his big family, the places where he was raised and their 1944 cross-country trip—he’s a cocky teen, nonchalant against a ’42 Lincoln Zephyr. Another binder holds photos from his various jobs, and a few pages are devoted to my father and his shirtless buddies enjoying leisure time on Bikini and Enewetak Atoll in the South Pacific, at the end of sticky tropical days testing atomic bombs.
In sepia stop-motion, the images blew past my retinas into my brain.
Here’s my smiling dad, his wide arms corralling small tow-headed daughters in matching dresses. There’s my smiling dad, doing his part for the arms race, testing weapons to incinerate countless thousands of girls and boys.
This was the mid-1950s. They knew what they were building. What was the attraction for him—the breathtaking physics? The chance to work with elite scientists? Was it the paranoid, win-at-all-costs mindset of the Cold War?
Scott Fitzgerald said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Since I learned from those binders that my father helped build nuclear weapons, I’ve struggled to reconcile the dissonance of those opposing images, to understand that this smiling man, this daughter’s father, was helping carry the Atlas burden of his time; they thought they were holding up the sky. It’s been so easy for my generation to think the past is past, the mistakes of nuclear one-upmanship are behind us. Are they though?
I find myself turning around now and peering backwards in light of this reverberating secret. Turns out, there’s a reason I lived in Livermore—that sprouting town on the dry east side of San Francisco Bay was the place to be for a post-war engineering nerd like my father. Turns out, that small red square he clipped to his belt was his radiation-detector.
Not long out of school, he heard about a new U.C. Berkeley research lab and found a home for his ambitions. Sister to Los Alamos, the Lawrence Radiation Lab came to life as a “new ideas” facility to advance nuclear weapons technology. The lab was planted on an expansive former naval base outside Livermore. It was run by physicist Edward Teller (“Father of the Hydrogen Bomb”) during Dad’s tenure. But as a child, I just heard he worked at “LRL.” Assisting the techs on the ninety-inch cyclotron—invented at Berkeley for studying nuclear structure—he learned vacuum technology, then was transferred to the weapons division.
Over those binders stacked across his dining room, he told me, “That’s where the fun began!”
Around 1955, the Cold War escalating, my father was sent to the government’s Nevada Test Site, a desiccated sweep of cratered desert ringed with mountains.
“I worked on top of a 500-foot tower installing ‘light pipes,’ an array of tubes inserted into different parts of the ‘device.’”
An oblique look and a tenuous smile crossed his face; he said, “We never called it a bomb.”
During a detonation, those six-inch stainless tubes under vacuum allowed escaping energy to be captured by astronomically high-speed cameras (ten thousand frames per second!) located at the far end of long, drawn-out pipes.
Dad took a pen from his pocket and pulled over a scrap of paper, sketching a diagram of the apparatus that enabled scientists to record data from afar in that fraction of an instant before the thing vaporized itself.
For his Nevada experience, Dad had just one alarming adjective: “Awesome!”
Next, he was sent to the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands in 1956, where he installed light pipes on ground shots (land-based nuclear tests) during the Redwing series of detonations on Enewetak—one of the chain of narrow coral islets ringing the atoll’s dying lagoon. He lived in a trailer with a couple of other LRL guys and worked in the steamy island air.
How can I describe this vaporous disturbance? I inhaled his words: “We never called it a bomb.” Late afternoon light shifted in; miasma sifted through me. The air in Dad’s dining room felt measurable. Heavy air. Thoughts moved ponderously, like in water or in very dense atmosphere.
My father’s words were saying, “We called it ‘the device.’” But his face said something too: I’m self-conscious telling you this. I know what I’m saying. Perhaps I didn’t fully understand then, but I do now.
Perhaps we’re on another planet, where the air is many times its weight on earth.
I turned the slick pages of the album, inhaling the yellowing photos he took on Bikini and Enewetak. I sensed the breeze moving palm fronds. Felt the heat raising sweat on men’s naked chests. My father is looking across at the camera; is that awareness of the errand he’s on? As he’s helping the human race along to destruction?
Did he ask a friend to take the photo? So, he could say, “I was there”—is that what’s written on his face? “That’s me, making my mark, my contribution to the race that never ends.” Did he think anyone could win that race? In an LRL trailer they’re looking up from their instruments, smiling, breathing the damned air of a nuclear bomb test site.
I’m staring at a fading record of his time in such a place, which displaced sanity with madness. A place that mushroomed out of men’s impotence to master human conflict in humanity’s interest. That commemorated fear and power-greed as a murdered atoll—black coral. Crystalline reefs, spits of sand, salt and liquid sapphire, contaminated, vaporized. Sunk.
Over that binder my father told me, “That’s where the fun began!”
The following year he was again at the Nevada site, but “I was itching for more time on the big tests in the Marshall Islands,” he said. Having disclosed his long-ago work on nukes, at his late age, pent-up words are pouring out.
Finally, he got back to Bikini Atoll in the summer of ‘58 during the Hardtack series, when the U.S. nuclear establishment crammed in as many tests as possible before Eisenhower’s test ban went into effect.
“I stayed to see ‘the shot’—it was unbelievably awesome!” he marveled.
His group rose at dawn, headed to the beach and wore welding-style goggles with a knob in the center.
“We were told to turn the knob to darken our view and wait through the countdown,” he said.
The blast illuminated the beach, the island, searing the world white through blackened goggles. It takes about a millionth of a second—just stop and try to conceive of that increment of time—for the nuclear chain reaction to trigger the whiteout, the multiplied intensity of staring into the sun. Tens of millions of degrees cauterized the air, which expanded in shock faster than the speed of sound. Even twenty-six miles across the lagoon, the pressure wave, radiating outward from ground zero, knocked into my dad. He didn’t recall hearing the explosion but felt dense compression in his ears, followed by an equally fierce decompression wave.
Gradually, as unearthly radiance dimmed, he turned the knob to lighten his view.
Dad said, “I saw ‘sparklets,’” ionized gasses discharging flashes in the ascending mushroom cloud of iridescent rose-pink, expanding in every direction. An electrical tang infused the air.
“It was mesmerizing. The experience of seeing and feeling an atomic bomb up close and personal is something I will never forget.”
My dad gave me his Redwing badge revealing his boyish twenty-eight-year-old face.
Who is this man? Was there a reason he never talked about his still-vivid nuclear experience in all the years since? Why didn’t I know until he was almost ninety that he worked on atomic bombs? That he was a cog in the military industrial complex I protested in my teens?
I knew he was a vacuum engineer (having been tasked with countless American Vacuum Society mailings around our kitchen table). Later I knew he worked with scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. How could I not know that? Every science teacher from ninth grade wanted a class tour of the two-mile atom smasher from my father. But I wasn’t curious enough to ask, never put the pieces together to grasp how his early work pointed toward the war machine. Now, the father I thought I knew was shapeshifting into someone perplexing, changeable.
In this unsettling new light, I brooded on the course he carved out. From Livermore to leafy Palo Alto, he found a path that fed our family and his ambition, doing technical work he loved, helping the world understand the elemental nature of the atom by way of nuclear bombs.
I feel a rattled empathy for this man, my father. A man with good intentions, a son of his time, who overlooked inconvenient truths.
Yet, my life experience conferred a different perspective. Haunted by subliminal cold-war fears and incubated in the righteous 1960s anti-war imperative, I have a fair horror of atomic weapons.
After learning of my father’s pursuits, I grappled with the context in which he made his choices. I steeped myself in the science, the history and the people who birthed our atomic age. Read stacks of military reports, scientist bios, first-hand accounts of hibakusha (nuclear explosion survivors). I delved beneath the Truman justification for using the bomb. I was appalled at the mistakes made by fixed-focus military men, how close we came to extermination for want of a forty-six-cent computer chip in NORAD’s warning system.
I adopted Niels Bohr, an affable Dane with a vigorous conscience, as my personal hero. I sought to understand the checkerboard of choices made by fallible, fearful, brilliant people; the well-meaning, sometimes corruptible pathfinders who first deconstructed the atom. Physicists like Leo Szilard, who conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction in 1933 and agonized over the implications ever after. And James Franck, who resigned his prestigious position at Göttingen University to protest Germany’s Jewish exclusion laws, eventually heading the Manhattan Project’s chemistry division at the University of Chicago. These men confronted the fundamental conflict of the project: the information-sharing culture of the scientific community clashed with the military culture of secrecy.
Franck exhorted the army to demonstrate the first atomic bomb in an uninhabited area instead of on a city, saying, “If the United States would be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race of armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.”
Fatally prescient on all counts.
The study I plunged into since learning of Dad’s work has manifest as anti-nuke protest in my art, following the footsteps of conscience.
In my subterranean studio along the blue-grey Puget Sound, I mark the emergence of a new age of nuclear one-upmanship. I imprint the testimony of Hiroshima survivors on reclining effigies and ghost kimonos. Douse figures in black rain.
I walk the Hanford nuclear site, on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington’s far corner, to behold the looming lead face of B Reactor with my own blue eyes. This monstrous machinery churned out plutonium until 1987, enough to cinder many millions of souls in the name of homeland security. I read the newsprint on the wall, announcing: “It’s atomic bombs!” Fifty thousand people built Reactor B in one year. All but a handful were unaware of what they were building—they just wanted to protect the sons they had sent over the oceans to fight.
Then I weave August 9, 1945, “conversations” between Nagasaki survivors and the workers who brewed “Fat Man” bomb fuel in Hanford. And I join my voice with arms control and anti-nuke groups. I protest the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons twenty miles across the Sound from Seattle at the Bangor Naval Submarine Base, which is—I couldn’t make this up—guarded by military-trained dolphins.
My father was bred in a 1940s grasp of morality. I’ve bookended my life with 1960s ideals (and my sons will hopefully, undoubtedly, live and learn from my confounded choices too). Having unearthed a siloed secret, I found that sometimes, the more you learn about someone the less you understand them. And I wondered, tunneling backwards in time, trying to fill the holes in my nuclear family’s story: how can we move forwards towards hope?
My bias to hope took me, in spirit, to an iconic hall in Oslo, Norway. On December 10, 2017, Setsuko Thurlow stood in black kimono before a blue podium, facing the whole world.
She accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) with fervent words:
“I speak as a member of the family of hibakusha – those of us who, by some miraculous chance, survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For more than seven decades, we have worked for the total abolition of nuclear weapons….
“We were not content to be victims. We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight ... We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist….
“Whenever I remember Hiroshima, the first image that comes to mind is of my four-year-old nephew, Eiji—his little body transformed into an unrecognizable melted chunk of flesh. He kept begging for water in a faint voice until his death released him from agony.
“To me, he came to represent all the innocent children of the world, threatened as they are at this very moment by nuclear weapons. Every second of every day, nuclear weapons endanger everyone we love and everything we hold dear. We must not tolerate this insanity any longer.”
She spoke of those who refuse to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as atrocities, who called them bombings that ended a just war. “It was this myth that led to the disastrous nuclear arms race – a race that continues to this day.
“Nine nations still threaten to incinerate entire cities, to destroy life on earth, to make our beautiful world uninhabitable for future generations. The development of nuclear weapons signifies not a country’s elevation to greatness ... These weapons are not a necessary evil; they are the ultimate evil.”
Setsuko Thurlow then turned to The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the focus of ICAN’s mission. “History will judge harshly those who reject it. No longer shall their abstract theories mask the genocidal reality of their practices. No longer shall ‘deterrence’ be viewed as anything but a deterrent to disarmament. No longer shall we live under a mushroom cloud of fear.
“To the officials of nuclear-armed nations – and to their accomplices under the so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’—I say this: Listen to our testimony. Heed our warning. And know that your actions are consequential. You are each an integral part of a system of violence that is endangering humankind. Let us all be alert to the banality of evil.
“To every president and prime minister of every nation of the world, I beseech you: Join this treaty; forever eradicate the threat of nuclear annihilation.”
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons opened for signature at the United Nations on September 20, 2017, and entered into force on January 22, 2021. Currently there are eighty-six signatories (countries that signed but haven’t yet ratified) and fifty-eight states parties (which ratified and are now bound by the treaty). Although the accord by itself will not eliminate any bombs, it can further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the worldwide norms against their use.
The U.S. and the other eight nuclear armed countries oppose the treaty and (except Israel) boycotted the peace prize ceremony.
Thurlow, Setsuko. “ICAN receives 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. 2017. Web. Nov. 1, 2021.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.
von Hippel, Frank. “James Franck: Science and conscience.” Physics Today 63, June 1, 2010: page 41.
There are hundreds of organizations working to eliminate the nuclear threat. Two of the most prominent are:
- The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is a coalition of non-governmental organizations in one hundred countries promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
- The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War was launched in 1980 by physicians in the U.S. and Russia to set aside the bitter geopolitical differences of their two countries. A federation of medical organizations in 64 countries, it represents tens of thousands of people with the common goal of creating a more peaceful and secure world. Its U.S. affiliate is the Physicians for Social Responsibility, with state and local chapters, student chapters, and national staff, a nationwide network that targets threats to global survival.