Experiments · Prologue

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At 7.00am on 1 July 1946, radio listeners in eastern Australia tuned into a live broadcast, relayed via telephone from the National Broadcasting Company of America. The commentary was barely audible above the static, distorted by strange whines and roars. In the background a metronome ticked off the seconds as the much-anticipated moment approached. Tick. Tick. Tick. Finally the call, ‘Bombs away! Bombs away!’, and then, from nowhere, a warning: ‘Listen world, this is the crossroads’. As the people of Australia readied themselves for another day of work or school, the world’s fourth atomic bomb was exploded on the Pacific atoll of Bikini. 1

Some weeks later, a fifth atomic bomb was detonated, again at Bikini. The blue waters of the atoll’s idyllic lagoon erupted skyward with the force of the explosion, signalling a dramatic end to the USA’s first peacetime atomic test program. The ‘target’ for these tests was a fleet of retired American and captured enemy warships, ‘manned’ by pigs, goats and other animals, some dressed in uniform to test the effectiveness of protective clothing. 2 By blowing up this junkyard menagerie the USA confirmed its status as the world’s only atomic power, marking its usual independence celebrations, commented the communist Tribune, with an ‘outsize in fireworks’. 3 Indeed, while the first three atomic explosions were planned and executed in secrecy, the Bikini atomic tests were conducted amidst well-organized publicity and accompanied by ‘all the apparatus of showmanship’. 4 The responsible authority, Joint Task Force One, arranged for extensive media coverage, aiming to make the test program ‘the best-reported as well as the most-reported technical experiment of all time’. 5 Absolutes abounded in descriptions of this scientific spectacular, with the chief of the air force photographic crew boasting that the first test would be ‘the most photographed event in history’. 6

Australia was not left out of the 42,000 strong cast of this atomic circus. By virtue of its appointment to the newly-formed United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC), Australia was invited to send press and government representatives to observe the tests. 7 SHK Spurgeon, Australia’s Naval Attaché in Washington, attended on behalf of the government and the armed services, finding his way into the Official Pictorial Record of the tests amidst a group of ‘foreign’ observers. 8 EW McAlpine, the Editor-in-Chief of Consolidated Press Ltd, was nominated as press observer by the Australian Newspaper Proprietors Association, which undertook to make his coverage available to all media outlets. 9 McAlpine joined 200 or so other journalists from a variety of press agencies, even travelling aboard the ‘Atomic Express’, a US Navy train that carried journalists and scientists across America on their way to Bikini. 10

As a result of this massive public relations effort, a steady stream of newspaper articles appeared in the weeks leading up to the tests, detailing some of the preparations and helping to establish a feeling of expectation. 11 On 27 June, an evening lecture on cosmic rays by Melbourne University’s professor of physics, Leslie Martin, drew an unexpectedly large crowd of 500 people, overwhelming the 200 seat lecture theatre. This sudden interest in nuclear physics, it was claimed, was ‘whetted by the forthcoming atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll’. 12 ‘All the world is waiting for the results of the atomic bomb tests’, claimed the Listener-In. 13 Even the Sydney Morning Herald, which commented in an editorial that the event had been ‘heavily dramatised in the American fashion’, included a ‘Programme for Bikini’ which summarised the bomb test as if it was the latest Hollywood epic, listing ‘Title’, ‘Scene’, ‘Target’ and ‘Director’. 14

The publicity barrage helped fashion the tests into an opportunity denied by the suddenness of Hiroshima. A cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald showed the world nervously tugging the cover from a large, gleaming statue, labelled ‘ATOM’. 15 Bikini was to provide the Atomic Age with its formal ‘Unveiling Ceremony’, a chance to bring the inchoate anxieties of the past year into focus. ‘It is as though the first, not the fourth atomic bomb were being discharged’, the newspaper noted. 16 Just in case there might be any lingering doubts about the event’s significance, US authorities labelled it ‘Operation Crossroads’. ‘Civilization itself literally stands at the crossroads’, the Commander of Joint Task Force One usefully explained. 17 Editorial writers eagerly followed suit, finding upon an isolated coral atoll the latest ‘crossroads of mankind’. One last chance to mend our ways, to bend the power of science towards survival and not destruction. Or were we all but a bunch of pigs in fancy dress, awaiting our doom aboard a rusty, sinking ship.

The idea that the detonation of a horrific new weapon could somehow hold hope of future peace and prosperity was best understood by regarding the whole extravaganza as something more than a mere bomb test—it was an ‘experiment’. In the break between the two tests, a group of high-powered American scientists, politicians and military officers, flew into Australia from Bikini to share their thoughts on the crossroads dilemma. The Bikini tests could be justified in terms of ‘the human interests of…people everywhere’, Senator Salstonall explained to a luncheon gathering, for they were ‘entitled to know how atomic energy might be controlled and used for the good of mankind’. 18 ‘I prefer to call it an experiment of atomic energy’, he added, ‘we want it for peace not for war’. 19 Likewise, Karl Compton told physicists in Melbourne that ‘the tests could be regarded as well-planned long-range scientific experiments’. 20 As an ‘experiment’ the bomb tests were destined to play a role in the broader progress of science. They were, newspapers agreed, ‘not wholly military in character’, but rather ‘a further milestone in the advancement of knowledge’. 21

Experiments are open-ended, they generate new knowledge, their results are never entirely predictable. This is not altogether reassuring when one is experimenting upon weapons capable of mass annihilation, but progress could not be hampered by fear. Progress demanded new knowledge, the conquest of new dangers, but an ongoing program of experimentation required trust.



Notes:

  1. A recording of the broadcast is available as ‘Bikini Atom Bomb Test’, Screensound: 7HT Collection, AUDN d16 2051. For details and description see SMH, 1 July 1946, p. 1; 2 July 1945, p. 3.
  2. The Australian Women’s Weekly (AWW) explained that the skin of pigs closely resembled human skin, 29 June 1946, p.17. In fact the fate of the test animals caused one of the major public relations problems for American authorities, see Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C Bell, and Rory O’Connor, Nukespeak, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1982, p.73.
  3. Tribune, 2 July 1946, p. 4.
  4. SMH, 1 July 1946, p. 2.
  5. Quoted in Hilgarter, Bell and O’Connor, Nukespeak, p.73. See also Neil O Hines, Proving ground: an account of the radiobiological studies in the Pacific, 1946-1961, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1962, p. 32.
  6. Quoted in, Paul Boyer, By The Bomb’s Early Light: American thought and culture at the dawn of the atomic age, Pantheon Books, New York, 1985, p.83
  7. ‘United States Atomic Bomb Tests on War Vessels’, memorandum from the Secretary of Defence to the Minister, 23 May 1946, NAA: A5954, Box 1384/3. The USA invited observers from all of the countries represented on the UNAEC, Hines, Proving Ground, p.32. See also: Argus, 31 May 1946, p. 2.
  8. The photograph of Spurgeon and others is titled ‘The Eyes Have It’, Joint Task Force One, The Office of the Historian, Operation Crossroads – The Official Pictorial Record, WH Wise & Co., New York, 1946, p. 214.
  9. Memorandum from SS Brown (PM’s Department) to the Secretary of External Affairs, 23 May 1946, NAA: A461/2 H341/1/1; Argus, 31 May 1946, p. 2.
  10. SMH, 11 June 1946, p. 3.
  11. For example: ‘How atom bomb test will be recorded’, Age, 6 May 1946 p. 2; ‘Question marks surround atoll in West Pacific’, Age, 29 May 1946, p. 2; ‘Three Australians to see atomic bomb tests’, Argus, 31 May 1946, p.2; ‘Atom bomb tests grimly awaited’, SMH, 4 June 1946, p. 3; ‘Observers leave for Bikini’, SMH, 11 June 1946, p. 3
  12. Argus, 28 June 1946, p. 1.
  13. Listener-In, 29 June-5 July 1946, p. 2.
  14. SMH, 1 July 1946, p. 1, 2.
  15. SMH, 1 July 1946, p. 2.
  16. SMH, 1 July 1946, p. 2.
  17. Joint Task Force One, Operation Crossroads – The Official Pictorial Record, p. 6.
  18. Age, 16 July 1946, p. 2.
  19. Argus 16 July 1946, p. 2.
  20. ‘The Bikini atomic bomb trials’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 9, no. 2, October 1946, p. 72.
  21. SMH, 1 July 1946, p. 2; Age 1 July 1946, p. 2.

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