While most people trace the dawn of the nuclear era to August 6, 1945, and the dropping of the atomic bomb over the center of Hiroshima, it really began three weeks earlier, in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, with the top-secret Trinity test. Its sixty-eighth anniversary will be marked—or mourned, if you will—today, July 16.
Indeed, scientists warned of danger to those living downwind from the Trinity site, but, in a pattern-setting decision, the military boss, General Leslie Groves, ruled that residents not be evacuated and kept completely in the dark (at least until they spotted a blast brighter than any sun). Nothing was to interfere with the test. When two physicians on Oppenheimer’s staff proposed an evacuation, Groves replied, “What are you, Hearst propagandists?”
Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s chief of staff—who opposed dropping the bomb on Japan—placed the bomb in the same category as “poison gas.” And sure enough, soon after the shot went off before dawn on July 16, scientists monitored some alarming evidence. Radiation was quickly settling to earth in a band thirty miles wide by 100 miles long. A paralyzed mule was discovered twenty-five miles from ground zero.
Even as the scientists celebrated their success at Alamagordo on July 16, the first radioactive cloud was drifting eastward over America, depositing fallout along its path. When Americans found out about this, three months later, the word came not from the government but from the president of the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, who wondered why some of his film was fogging and suspected radioactivity as the cause.
Fallout was absent in early press accounts of the Hiroshima bombing as the media joined in the triumphalist backing of The Bomb and the bombings. When reports of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki afflicted with a strange and horrible new disease emerged, General Groves, at first, called it all a “hoax” and “propaganda” and speculated that the Japanese had different “blood.” Then the military kept reporters from the West from arriving in the atomic cities, until more than a month after the blasts, when it controlled access in an early version of today’s “embedded reporters” program.