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Before Hiroshima & Nagasaki


The First Atomic Bomb: The Trinity Site in New Mexico
Janet Farrell Brodie
University of Nebraska Press. 318 pp. $60

By Kay Matthews


    The First Atomic Bomb is a deeply researched history of the weapon developed by the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and tested at the Trinity site in the Tularosa Basin on 16 July 1945. Dubbed “the gadget” by the scientists and workers who manufactured it during the last years of World War II, it was identical to the second bomb dropped on Japan—aka “Fat Man,” a plutonium implosion bomb detonated over Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Three days earlier, “Little Boy,” a Uranium-235 fission bomb, had exploded over Hiroshima.

    The book begins with an overview of the policies, people, and places that contributed to the Trinity explosion and its complicated aftermath, which is helpful for readers unfamiliar with the history of the bomb. The Manhattan Project, a thirty-five month endeavor that cost of enormous cost (estimated at $21.6 billion in 1996 dollars), brought together the scientists, most famously Robert Oppenheimer, and the military, General Leslie Groves, but also an “industrial and engineering construction effort” of thousands of workers—civilian and military—all over the country that somehow managed to maintain a curtain of secrecy until the bombs were dropped over Japan.

    Brodie’s focus on the workers—not scientists—who helped make “the gadget,” and her knowledge of previous scholarship familiar to many New Mexicans, are impressive. In Chapter Two, “Dispossessions,” she details the stories of Tularosa Basin residents who were forced to relocate after the Trinity site was chosen for the bomb test, mostly Anglo and Hispano ranchers. They were inadequately compensated and never allowed to return post-Trinity for complex of reasons, including the expansion of the nearby Alamogordo Army Base (which became Holloman Air Force Base), and the White Sands Proving Ground (which became White Sands Missile Range).

    To put this in context, Brodie devotes a subsection of the chapter to the history of land conflict in New Mexico and references the work of writers who have documented the displacement of both Native American and Hispano populations in the long history of the territory’s journey towards statehood. Historian Malcolm Ebright’s book, Advocates for the Oppressed, documents the confrontations between wealthy Hispano families and Natives over control of valuable irrigable land. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, Roots of Resistance, provides an analysis of how a succession of conflicting land tenure patterns and practices dispossessed and disenfranchised the indigenous people of New Mexico. Historian David Caffey documents the inability of the United States legal system to justly adjudicate Hispano and Native land grants.

    While Brodie provides a detailed description of the day of the Trinity test in this first section, the bulk of the book is divided into two main sections: 1) building of the site; and 2) post-test events regarding disposition of the site, the afterlife of Trinity radiation, and historical preservation.

Choosing the Site

    Then Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes instructed General Groves that no Native American tribes or reservations should be displaced in choosing the site. Yet many Hispano and Anglo farmers and ranchers would be forced to leave, as noted above. In choosing the uppermost portion of the infamous Jornada del Muerto (Dead Man’s Journey) basin, part of the Camino Real trail from Las Cruces to Socorro, they figured they had secured as much isolation and secrecy as possible. The workers who came to build the site from Los Alamos and the army—military police, construction workers, engineers (SEDs), technicians, and the scientists in charge—worked under brutal wind and heat conditions. Brodie notes that despite an integrated work force at LANL—Native Americans and Hispanos—there are no records that reveal how many people of color worked at the Trinity site (ditto for women).

    After the successful explosion, technicians and workers stayed at the site to clean up and conduct additional experimentation while the military provided security. They all wore radiation-detecting dosimeter badges, but as Brodie jumps back and forth in time over the post-explosion years, the haphazard nature of the cleanup and status of the site becomes obvious.

    A telling example is that of the handling of the trinitite, or the “semi-glossy agglomerations” from sand thrown into the air by the blast that fell to the ground around the site (and that people took home as souvenirs). There was little agreement about its radioactivity, whether it should be removed, or be preserved as part of White Sands National Monument, until finally the Atomic Energy Commission, which took civilian control of the Trinity site, hired a contractor to scoop it up and bury it. No records of that removal were kept, however, and confusion remained as to where and how it was buried. Brodie attributes the general lack of records on post-Trinity activities to the pressures to ready the bombs for use in Japan.

    Post-bomb control over the Trinity site was complicated by its location within the Alamogordo Army Base and the rapidly expanding White Sands Proving Ground. In the build up to World War II and especially post war, New Mexico became the outdoor laboratory for more than nuclear weapons. Public lands were withdrawn for bombing ranges, fighter pilot practice, and missile testing. Competing requests from the US army, air force, and navy expanded the military presence in New Mexico, which now hosts four massive military bases ranging from 50,000 acres to 3,200 square miles.

    Brodie devotes a chapter to the radioactive fallout from Trinity, something New Mexicans are all too familiar with as a “nuclear sacrifice zone”: Los Alamos National Laboratory; the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP); uranium mining and milling (impacting Native pueblos); and a proposed temporary nuclear reactor waste storage facility. LANL workers and miners were finally compensated under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program and Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) of 1990. But compensation for nuclear test “downwinders” was limited to those residents of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona—not New Mexico Trinity site downwinders. In research at the National Archives Brodie found that two items from a folder labeled “Secret: Classified Information. National Security Information” had been pulled from the file but their labels remained, addressing “Disposition of Alamogordo Test Area” and “Disposition of Holloman.” Both documents were pulled in the 1990s, just as the RECA act was promulgated. Brodie questions whether this information was censored to prevent the likelihood that the Trinity downwinders would be included in RECA.

    Amendments to RECA law over the past few years have added eligibility to additional geographical areas but despite the intense lobbying of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, the act continues to exclude them (the act includes only those government employees who were present at and after the explosion). Brodie ends this chapter with another reference to a work of New Mexico scholarship, Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico by Jake Kosek. He found that many New Mexicans suspect, rightly or wrongly, that scientists who collected data about Trinity radiation were also responsible for hundreds of cattle mutilations in the 1970s and 1980s, using the soft tissue to test radiation levels!

    Just as complicated as military control over the site was the National Park Service’s (NPS) attempt to preserve the Trinity site as a national monument. The fact that the White Sands National Monument, a magnificent desert field of gypsum dunes was already wedged between the Alamogordo Air Base and White Sands Proving Ground may have contributed to the enthusiasm. The monument superintendent, Johnwill Faris was disabused of his hope that it could coexist with the military when the air base took over the monument’s water supply and condemned surroundings lands (Johnwill Faris’s son lives in Santa Fe and corrected Brodie’s spelling of his father’s name: Johnwill, not Johnwell). But the monument survived and is now a National Park. No such luck for a Trinity National Monument.

    Brodie quotes a NPS bureaucrat: “I believe that this country should not establish a national monument to commemorate a bomb—any more than we would want to commemorate the use of poison gas.” After much squabbling and the advent of new federal rules that affected NPS designations, the Trinity site was listed as a National Historic Landmark in the Federal Resister of Historic Places on 15 March 1972.

    Kudos to a writer who, despite a few minor mistakes on place and people names, wrote a book that is meticulously researched and sensitive to the people of New Mexico, whose lives have been forever impacted by the nuclear weapons industry since that fateful day in 1945.

Kay Matthews lives on a farm in El Valle, New Mexico and works as a freelance journalist and publisher of La Jicarita, an online journal of environmental politics. An earlier version of this review appeared in La Jicarita in July.

©2023 by Kay Matthews

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