Sixty years ago, Las Vegas hosted parties in celebration of atomic explosions. These days, ‘nuclear tourism’, while still possible, is far more serious, says Chris Leadbeater
It seems a remarkable and unlikely image now – but 60 years ago, this was the scene that played out in hotels around Las Vegas.
On February 18 1955, at 11:59:59am, local time, the US government launched Operation Teapot, the latest of its experimental nuclear programmes on the sands of the closely guarded Nevada Test Site – established exactly 65 years ago, on January 11, 1951.
Wasp, the device at the heart of the show, was a tubby item, 1.5 metres in diameter, 3.25 metres long – a Mark 6 atom bomb that bore similarities to (while being an upgrade on) the Mark 3 ‘Fat Man’ which had been dropped onto the Japanese city of Nagasaki ten years earlier. Its mushroom cloud was visible for 100 miles – and the state’s biggest city watched in awe.
• Las Vegas – and other cities – in miniature
Such was the naivety of the era. A generation of Americans, flushed in the afterglow of victory over Germany and Japan in 1945, but wary of the increasingly chill context of the Cold War and the iciness of relations with the Soviet Union, were suddenly in thrall to their nation’s status as one of the planet’s nuclear powers. And Uncle Sam was happy to demonstrate his new muscle, pulling deadly shapes for a pleased and patriotic audience.
Nowhere was this more the case than in Las Vegas, where explosions became cultural phenomena and reasons for parties. Hotels like the Desert Inn and Binion’s Horseshoe, which faced north towards the test site, were among the most enthusiastic embracers of the idea – assisted by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, which printed calendars with upcoming detonation times.
Four searches were held – in 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1957 – for ‘Miss Atomic’, a beauty queen who could represent these ground-breaking hours. Most famously, Lee Merlin was crowned ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ in 1957.
Atomic-bomb tourism remains a possibility, of course – but the process in 2015 will be one of reflection. Both Hiroshima (visithiroshima.net) and Nagasaki (visit-nagasaki.com) will host considered commemorations of their most desperate minutes – while the bomb sites in both cities (see below) are compelling monuments whenever you choose to visit.
Read more at Nuclear tourism: travels in the shadow of the atomic bomb