By Gerrett M. Graff
SUNDAY NIGHT, AXIOS’S Jonathan Swan broke news that Donald Trump—among his many often random musings—appears to have considered one of the worst-but-most-persistent ideas in public policy: Nuking hurricanes.
The truth, though, is that Donald Trump’s apparent brainstorm—as terrible an idea as it is—actually has a long history. Seventy years ago, it was at the forefront of American scientific thought. What makes Trump’s embrace of nuking hurricanes unique is that, broadly speaking, no policymaker has seriously considered it a good idea since the days that the 73-year-old president was wearing diapers.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—when the US unleashed a destructive technology more powerful than anything in history—at first spurred unbridled excitement over the power of the atom, an era where the very idea of the “atom” was so new that many people mispronounced as “a-TOME.”
Books flourished touting the newly acquired power of the sun. “When the bomb was dropped,” writer Isaac Asimov explained, “atomic-doom science-fiction stories grew to be so numerous that editors began refusing them on sight.” Cereal giant General Mills got into the act with an offer that children could mail in 15 cents’ postage and a Kix cereal box top in exchange for an “atomic bomb ring,” where kids could “see genuine atoms SPLIT to smithereens.” (General Mills “guaranteed” that the ring was not actually able “to blow everything sky high.”) Some 750,000 children were soon running around their neighborhoods pretending to launch nuclear explosions in all directions. Atomic-themed music became its own genre, atomic cocktails filled American bars—the first, at the Press Club in Washington, DC, was a mix of Pernod and gin—and advertisers embraced the moment. As historian Paul Boyer recounts in his early cultural history of the atomic age, By the Bomb’s Early Light, one jewelry company advertised a “pearled bomb” pin and earring that were “as daring as it was to drop the first atom bomb.”
Engineers dreamed of the day when nuclear engines would replace gasoline-powered automobiles, when a lump of Uranium-235 the size of a vitamin pill would power the family car for years at a time.
In those heady early years of the atomic age, many scientists imagined a world where humans could routinely use nuclear weapons to cleave the earth and remake its climate. Decades before climate change became a major concern, one book, Almighty Atom: The Real Story of Atomic Energy, suggested using atomic weapons to melt the polar ice caps, gifting “the entire world a moister, warmer climate.”
Thought experiments exploded over how harnessing the power of the atom would finally unleash humans’ ability to control and reshape their environment through geo-engineering. “For the first time in the history of the world, man will have at his disposal energy in amounts sufficient to cope with the forces of Mother Nature,” science writer David Dietz explained. Atomic artificial suns, mounted on tall steel towers, would ensure crop growth and guarantee good weather. Radiation was a problem “merely one of detail” to be sorted out later, Dietz said.
Julian Huxley, brother of novelist Aldous Huxley and a renowned biologist who would become the founding director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, was particularly enthusiastic. He suggested at one point that nuclear weapons could be used to flood the Sahara, allowing the arid landscape to “blossom.” He argued in favor of “atomic dynamite” for “landscaping the earth.”
On the other side of the burgeoning Cold War, the Soviet Union was no less enthusiastic about the geo-engineering possibilities of nuclear power and atomic weapons. In fact, the Stalin-era Soviet government was particularly enthused with the idea of hurrying climate change along for the possibilities of opening its frigid Siberian east to thriving agriculture and bringing subtropical crops to the shores of the Black Sea. In a 1956 book called Soviet Electric Power, Arkadii Borisovich Markin suggested that, “Atom explosions will cut new canyons through mountain ranges and will speedily create canals, reservoirs, and seas [and] carry out huge excavation jobs.” The author brushed aside the obvious concerns, assuming that science would soon “find a method of protection against the radiation.” Soviet scientists proposed how to dam the Bering Strait and use massive nuclear-powered pumps to heat the Arctic Ocean.
America’s public fascination with nuclear weapons continued into the 1950s. In fact, for much of that decade, the United States regularly exploded atomic bombs in the deserts north of Las Vegas, adjacent to what is now Area 51. One of the first tourist attractions in Las Vegas was the chance to wake up early, stand outside your hotel, and watch the flash and mushroom cloud from the bombs rolling into the sky.
The after-effects of radiation—the invisible and inescapable poison spread by nuclear explosions—became clear soon enough. With that awareness, early atomic enthusiasm waned, particularly as bombs leapt from nuclear to thermonuclear, the atomic bomb’s power of kilotons—that is, a thousand tons of TNT—growing to the hydrogen bomb’s megatons, the equivalent of a million tons of TNT.
During a brief window during the Eisenhower era, the US government still seriously explored the peaceful uses of the atom—a program known as PLOWSHARE, after the Biblical phrase about beating swords into plowshares.