Here is a photo you have seen before. In all likelihood it is the most iconic image of the Nuclear Age: "Baker" test of Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands, 1946.

I want to draw your attention to something I bet you have never noticed in this photo before, as many times as you've seen it. See this black smudge on the nearly 1/2 mile high column of water thrown up by the underwater detonation?

That's the USS Arkansas. That's a 562 foot long, 26,000 ton battleship.

Look at the full sized photo and use that as a point of reference for scale. The giant destroyer was found later upside down in the lagoon with the side facing the blast crumpled like a soda can.
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The site also became unfathomably radioactive. Pieces of crushed coral and metallic sodium from the seawater were irradiated and flung about the Atoll. 15,000 Navy men were rushed in to scrub down the ships of the ghost fleet that had been set up as target practice and to bury some of the more energetic debris.

No statistics on the amount of radiation those people absorbed (or what it did to them in the long run) are available.

I point this out to emphasize something that has been forgotten since the end of the Cold War during which nuclear weapons were something people thought about regularly. They used to be very real, not abstract, and now the opposite is true. Nuclear weapons are powerful. Staggeringly powerful. They are, in the parlance of The Kids, not fucking around. Crossroads "Baker," the subject of this infamous photo, was a replica of the nuclear device detonated over Nagasaki, which in turn was a replica of the "Trinity" bomb exploded in New Mexico as the first even nuclear device.

In other words, the bomb that caused what you see in this photo was a small one. Primitive. Simple. By modern standards what you see here is puny. But it rendered the area uninhabitable for seven decades and tossed around some of the largest objects humans know how to make.

We live in a world in which people stopped grappling with the reality of nuclear war so long ago that we have whole generations that don't fully understand its implications, and older generations who used to understand it but have let the memories fade. It seems inevitable these days that someone – India, Pakistan, North Korea, or very possibly the US – will blow one up if for no reason other than that the world hasn't seen a mushroom cloud for decades and, well, let's just see if it's really as big a deal as people used to think it was. World leaders ("leaders") like Putin, Kim, and Trump refer to nuclear weapons in terms that show no understanding of or respect for their power. To threaten to use nuclear weapons at the drop of a hat is to admit that you have only the vaguest idea of the effects and consequences of doing so.

Why so many nations simultaneously find themselves led by someone who doesn't quite get it is above my pay grade to figure out. Maybe we've all lost our collective minds.
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Maybe nukes simply aren't the big political issue they used to be, so absenting them from our consciousness leaves a lot of people unaware of the gravity of the problem. Or maybe we are all fated to relive our worst decisions every time a tragedy recedes far enough into the past for people to start thinking "I mean, it can't really be THAT bad…let's just try one and see."

The first lesson we will learn if we go down that road is that a nuclear weapon that can pick up a battleship and fling it like a toy is only a fraction as powerful as the arsenal available today. Thermonuclear weapons – which were only an idea at the time this photo was taken – are almost limitless in their power and radioactive fallout potential. Politicians the world over used to recognize that nuclear weapons are not a thing to be trifled with; now, the more we talk about them casually or in a way that trivializes them brings us closer and closer to the point at which the useful fear of them is overcome by the impulsiveness and anger of the people who control them.

I have a bad feeling about it. All of it.

55 thoughts on “FORGOTTEN”

  • When I went to NCO leadership school (in my post Vietnam days just before getting out) we sat through a training film about how to motivate your platoon/squad to go into an area shortly after it had been "battlefield" nuked. See the Neutron Bomb discussion linked below. I've always felt that it's a matter of when these weapons are used rather than if they'll be used. Strategic exchanges between the U.S. and Russia would create that world inhabited by insects and grass. Local exchanges, India/Pakistan for instance would not be the end of humanity but would encourage other local exchanges once it was shown that life goes on afterwards.

  • Just duck under your desk while your shadow hits the wall.

    Wait. I made that same comment here long ago.

    Er, well. I've actually come to see the possibility of nuke puke happening cause people are stupid. Collective memory corroded.

    The repercussions are beyond comment in this forum.

    Yet, (geez, can't let up tonight) I really don't think we're screwed that way. It's the water.

    Never mind. Bed beckons.

  • John M. from Ct. says:

    Jonathan Schell's 'The Fate of the Earth' made the point decades ago that nuclear weapons can never be abolished, only regulated, and remain one of the biggest long-term threats our world civilization faces.

    Since then global warming has become competitive with nukes for that grim prize, but there's room at the top.

    I agree that the current president's casual ignorance about nuclear war is terrifying; unlike the other two leaders you mention, he matches that ignorance with ignorance of his nation's interests, history, and conduct of international relations.

  • Truly, you are the only sentient being to have considered these issues in the past seventy years and I wish you well in getting what you want.

  • I suspect that posturing has become a substitute for substance to such a degree that both world leaders and their publics just assume these casual threats are just for show, and no one would every actually do such a thing. I also suspect they – and the rest of us – may be in for a tragic shock when someone takes the act a bit too far and things get really out of hand.

  • Nuclear weapons are one of those things, like real pensions, religious strife, and economic collapse, that Francis Fukuyama told us was no big deal any longer now that neoliberalism had _guaranteed_ we'd all work upper-middle class white collar jobs for the rest of eternity, get rich off of our home and stock investments, and that don't worry all those poor loser countries were only one generation behind.

    Good times! (Literally, they kinda were. Ignorance was bliss.)

  • The thing that should REALLY scare the crap out of you is that a nuclear armed gas station lead by a former secret policeman turned mafioso is probing EVERY piece of vital technological infrastructure that's connected to the internet. A few well placed "logic bombs" could literally decimate our ability to respond to a first strike, and having a compromised stooge as our chief executive and commander in chief can't help but make it seem like a "winnable" scenario to Vladimir Vladimirovich.

  • @Major Kong:

    Do we have to kill ourselves now that you've shared that?! {;>0

    I used to live in Omaha–maybe 10-11 miles as the ICBM flies from HQ ATRS*. It was a given in the minds of everyone I knew that if the "Football" ever got tossed we were well within the blast radius of the nukes that would be converging on Offutt AFB down in Bellevue.

    Our only hope, at least us young cath-o-lick mens' only hope–was that we would have gotten laid and shit-faced, at least once before being incinerated in a nuclear holocaust and spending the rest of eternity in a lake of fire. As most of us were still virgins (and some of us had not yet been shitfaced by the time that we graduated) getting out of the middle of bullseye by JOINING the USAF and going to Germany for most of 4 years was like hitting the lottery of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

    Where I live now we only have slow nuclear weapons in the form of aging reactors. OTOH, we aren't that far from anything–we're still on the planet.

    * Annihilate The Russian Scum

  • The standard response in those days was "I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of nuclear weapons on this base" but everyone know they were there.

    We had 12 cruise missiles at 150 kt each, that's about 7 Nagasaki bombs each.

    In addition we carried four "crowd pleasers" in the bomb bay. These were around 1.2-1.4 megatons, so 60 times the power of the Nagasaki bomb, each.

    Keep in mind that we would have been putting the third or fourth weapon on any given target. Basically "bouncing the rubble".

  • "Basically "bouncing the rubble"

    Or, re-fusing the refuse.

    I'm remembering a part of the lyric from a song I co-wrote back in the mid-70's.

    "And when the bomb bay opens wide–only a prayer can save me".

    It got darker as it went on.

    And of course we had another tune that said, in part.

    "When they're not arming the arabs, or cancelling some checks–they're groovin' to the music of Bowie and Beck.".

  • The worry in recent months about Crazy Kim and Crazy Trump presumes a background faith in Serious, Responsible Powers (as opposed to "rogue nations") with S. R. Leaders who *can* be trusted with the power to use these weapons on 15-30 minutes' notice. A look at the last 500 years of nation-states — or just the twentieth century — inspires doubts about that.

  • Check out Simon Winchester's fantastic book "Pacific" for a more in-depth look at exactly with what you began this entry and the nuclear program in the Pacific in general.

  • I'm old enough to remember pre-Reagan days and the end of the Cold War. Maybe that's why this stuff is terrifyingly real to me. I actually know someone who has a fallout shelter/safe room in his house; he didn't build it, but apparently the person who owned the house first, or even the original contractors did. It has a "secret" door that opens from the basement, and contains bunk beds, a light, electrical outlets, and lots of shelves.

  • I find that, collectively, we only have about 60 years of front of mind memory as a species. That's roughly three generations of 20 years each. After that, people are content to try theories that have already proven to fail over again, under the guise of 'the old days weren't that bad' or 'this time we'll get it right'.

    This is no different.

  • Interrobang:

    Maybe because I am old, have no wife or children, and tend to the depression (life at all costs sounds iffy to me) anyway, but I never understood doomsday preppers. Why would anyone want to survive in a post-nuclear war apocalypse?

    Not me. I hope I am near the epicenter of the bomb.

  • To be honest, Trump is the only one of the three "leaders" you mention who really worries me. Kim, for all his crazy sounding bluster, is acting entirely rationally–he knows that there may at some point be an American president who's willing to gamble with the existence of Seoul, but probably not with the existence of Hawaii or the West Coast. For Kim it's never been about winning a war against the US; he and his predecessors have always known that's essentially impossible. It's about changing the calculus so he doesn't find himself in the same spot as Hussein or Gaddafi.

    Putin, meanwhile, is doing more or less the same thing the Soviets always did–matching the sphere of political influence with the projection of nuclear power. In 1956, Kruschev looked at the United States and asked if they really wanted to start nuclear war over a bunch of Hungarians; the US predictably responded that no, no they did not, and Soviet tanks entered Budapest. Putin is betting that we'll have the same response if he asks if we want to start a nuclear war over Crimea or Georgia, and it's a safe bet.

    Trump, on the other hand, is not acting rationally. His threats do not match to any clear goal. He is not attempting to deter anything except maybe threats from North Korea, the nature of which every other president has understood, and understands nothing about nuclear weapons except that they are Big and Powerful and therefore waving them around makes him Big and Powerful. It would not be exceptionally surprising if, when his approval rating dips so low that even his family and other sycophants filling the White House cannot convince him that he is still Big and Powerful, he makes more and more threats and quite possibly attempts to fire a missile before he's thrown out of office. My hope is that Mattis, who understands far more about the world and the military than does Trump, will take any attempt to fire a nuke as evidence that the 25th Amendment has been triggered, but when your best case scenario is the head of the DoD refusing to follow orders, that's not a great sign.

  • Interrobang: I'm old enough to have had a summer job in the late 1960s surveying potential public fallout shelter sites in Manhattan (!?!) — and reflecting that even if they were all prepared and stocked, there'd been no trace for years of the massive, sustained program of public information and practice drills that would be needed to actually get people into them quickly if needed.

    I decided then it was lunatic security theater, and have seen no reason to revise that view since.

  • Brian M, I'm with you. No desire to find out what life is like in an irradiated town. I hate people enough as it is, much less having to deal with them when we are all desperate. Fortunately, I live in a high-value target town. Or so I am told…

  • Ed, I love this website. I'm awfully fond of you.

    When I found that the first sentence of this post not only featured the word "iconic", but that all-too-common, all-too-heinous derivation "x of the most iconic", I shuddered.

    I'm no linguistic reactionary, immune to the living, evolving nature of language (indeed, I am just a humble academic, like yourself). Nor do I object to the current popularity of that vile term out of misplaced nostalgia. I object because it makes smart people sound stupid while making the mediocre think they sound smart – much like other famous buzzwords (see "proactive").

    All I ask is that you begin to notice instances of "iconic" in modern cultural conversation…perhaps you'll notice that it is almost always the laziest choice, that it is often found leading the charge on the front lines of American stupefaction. Perhaps you won't…but as I've always respected your intellect, I'm betting on the former.

  • Know what I've been hearing and reading a lot of? "All of the sudden". Since when did the normal phrase become mutated?

  • Way to slam Trump, Kim and Putin while failing to mention that Obama was the one who put in place a plan to modernize our nuclear arsenal at the cost to you and me of $1 trillion. The Cold War, lest we forget, was a BIPARTISAN initiative.

  • "@Safety Man

    If it's named after a State, it's a battleship.

    Destroyers are named after people."

    So, okay, what sort of ship would be named the "Wanda Nevada"?

    @KKKrazzee KKKarlkin:

    Thanks for your input, moron. It gives us a "low bar" marker.

  • I live in a heavily populated non-high-value city close to a high-value city. So those lucky bastards will fry while I languish here for, what?, two or three weeks of grisly hell, skin peeling off, organs withering, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other desperate people in the same condition. My only hope is that some of them will be just hale enough to use their guns.

    At least my death will be… interesting? Sigh. Kind of makes me envy the battleship/destroyer/whatever.

  • No, Karl's right: since the Cold War took off, being "soft on defense" — especially about nukes, which were Magic Secret Expert stuff to most voters Science — has been politically toxic, and especially so for Democrats, who as we all know hate America anyway.

    It's painful to acknowledge that Truman, JFK and Carter pushed some of the largest rounds of US nuclear build-up. It's painful to acknowledge that only Reagan, with his unassailable reputation for anti-Communism, could sell the first of the agreements that have brought the US + Soviet/Russian stockpiles from a baroquely mad 85,000 in the mid-1980s to a merely insane 14,000 today. (Like Nixon's surprise trip to China, which would have finished any Democratic president at that time.)

    Obama did put in some effort to pare down the big 30-year modernization program now getting under way, and I'm sure he would have liked to shrink it more. But he'd used all his political capital in that domain on the Iran deal, and he *did* sign off on it. So yeah: like it or not, bipartisan all along.

  • My apologies if I missed previous discussion of this, but your post called to mind Jane Mayer's March NY-er portrait of the behind-the-scenes Bannon/Breitbart/Trump enabler Robert Mercer that I haven't been able to get out of my mind:

    Another onetime senior employee at [Mercer's company] recalls hearing Mercer downplay the dangers posed by nuclear war. Mercer, speaking of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, argued that, outside of the immediate blast zones, the radiation actually made Japanese citizens healthier. The National Academy of Sciences has found no evidence to support this notion. Nevertheless, according to the onetime employee, Mercer, who is a proponent of nuclear power, “was very excited about the idea, and felt that it meant nuclear accidents weren’t such a big deal.”

    … Arthur Robinson—the biochemist, sheep rancher, and climate-change denialist. The Mercers became his devoted supporters after reading Access to Energy, an offbeat scientific newsletter that he writes. The family has given at least $1.6 million in donations to Robinson’s Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Some of the money was used to buy freezers in which Robinson is storing some fourteen thousand samples of human urine. Robinson has said that, by studying the urine, he will find new ways of extending the human life span.

    Robinson holds a degree in chemistry from Caltech, but his work is not respected in most scientific circles. (The Oregon senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, has called Robinson an “extremist kook.”) Robinson appears to be the source of Robert Mercer’s sanguine view of nuclear radiation: in 1986, Robinson co-authored a book suggesting that the vast majority of Americans would survive “an all-out atomic attack on the United States.”

    You'll never guess what what Mr. AR thinks about climate change.

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  • @ Monte Davis:

    You I don't know. KKKarl's a troll.

    As for bi-partisanship on the nuclear build-up.

    Since at least 1943 the OSS/CIA/NSA and other U.S. "intelligence" agencies have been run by hardliners. Those hardliners have two drivers. The first is absolute conviction that they and only they understand the "enemy" and they and only they are privy to certain items of information. The second is their fealty to the un

  • @ Brian M

    I orbit some survivalist circles, and one community celebrity has gone on record that his nuclear war survival plan was a pistol with a single bullet.

    Tl;dr People who obsess over this stuff agree with you.

  • I hate this fucking chromebook.

    The second is their fealty (I almost typed "fellation"–it is more accurate) to the unrepentant reactionaries of the cold war and their deep pocketed coroporate sponsors.

    With GOP gummints they could sorta tell the truth about what they were up to. With the dems in charge, they simply lied and withheld exculpatory information about our "enemies" in the parlane of the courts.

    It wasn't bi-partisan; it was tri-partisan only two of the parties were aware that there was a third.

  • Back when I was going through nuclear certification in SAC I was shown a graphic of the projected effects of a full-scale nuclear exchange with the Soviets. This would have been with the arsenals we had in the late 1980s.

    Nothing east of the Mississippi lived and very little to the west of it. Maybe a few remote tribal reservations.

    It was much worse than I would have imagined.

  • I expect to expire quickly in a nuclear exchange, even if the Russians knew the Minuteman 2 silos are filled in around here, with B2s at Whiteman AFB, the crater may go from Kansas City to Sedalia.

  • One of Asimov's Robots books concludes with a couple of robots, for the long-term good of humanity, to force us out to the stars, turning the valves that would so irradiate the planet as to render it uninhabitable. Even if we don't toss a few nukes – which is inevitable: smoke if you got 'em – as the environment continues to deteriorate so will the four hundred or so nuclear power-plants scattered about the northern hemisphere.n

  • CTTOI, this is the best blog/essay/op ed I've read in a week. Why wouldn't Rolling Stone or someone pay for this? Charley Pierce, not to mention Robert Bateman, would envy this. Kudos.

  • "Mercer, speaking of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, argued that, outside of the immediate blast zones, the radiation actually made Japanese citizens healthier."

    So why hasn't Mr. Mercer proved his belief by going to Japan himself to study the area around the Fukashima nuke power plant that got ruined in the 2011 tsunami/earthquake? I'm sure they're looking for volunteers of all sorts – especially those who will fearlessly sign any and all disclaimer statements. If his theory is correct, he should return to the U.S. "new and improved" from his radiation exposure…

  • Remember "tactical nukes"? Ronald Reagan used to luuuuuurve him some "tactical nukes." It was one reason so many (but not enough) thought of him as dangerous.

  • I think 90% of the threats and discussions of horrible weapons are the rhetorical equivalent of "so, how bout those {sportsball team of choice}?", in that they are an effective distraction from the primary question of this era –

    How do we intend to divide the products of our collective labors?

    We are not willing to have a legitimate conversation about this, as the traditional answer (the rich get what they want, and the rest of us can fight over the scraps) is no longer really acceptable. Previously there were justifications for inequality – there is a WAR ON, we are in a COLD WAR, the CHURCH says the Masters can own slaves, you PEASANTS are naturally inferior, etc. etc.

    Fewer people are willing to accept these justifications nowadays. So how do you answer that question, when it has been shown time and time again that kids from the slums can grow up to be scientists and poets? There are too many examples to mollify the Proles, and if the truth is ever actually spoken (the Rich are going to take what they want cause they don't care about you, or your opinions, and will fight with every resource at their disposal to keep what they have), the Proles will turn on them.

    Cause the truth is there is NO justification for the inequality we have now, no matter where in the world you live. Human potential runs the gamut, and isn't limited by geography, or wealth. The opportunity may not be there, but that doesn't remove the potential. We have proof, in all the examples throughout history.

    And so we ignore the subject, in the hope that is will never come up, and we can go on blithely ignoring our crimes. But that doesn't mean the issue doesn't exist. It just means that it can be tabled by some lunatic threatening to lob nuclear weapons at some other lunatic. So mission accomplished.

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  • My 90yo Daddy sailed in a tin can through the Bikini radioactive cloud, he has a chart of its path. The destroyer washed the radioactive material off the bombed ships, which were full of sample materials and test animals. He has stories of mutated fish and he lost his hair for a while.
    He is just fine and lives near his kids and is active in his church.

  • Not suggesting radiation is harmless, just putting out his experience. But in the 19th century tourists visited mines for the salubrious radiation and if you didn't die of cancer it acted sometimes to lengthen lifespans like some reset switch. Other potentially deadly acts like sub-lethal poison doses have a similar effect. All bodies are different though, YMMV.

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