The Atomic Genie Escapes

1945: Alamagordo

Never have scientists so fervently prayed. Slumping against a wooden post, Robert Oppenheimer reminds himself not to weaken: “I must remain conscious!”

The countdown proceeds: “five . . . . four . . . . three . . .  two . . . ” Afraid it may electrocute him, the normally unflappable Sam Allison drops the microphone at the last second. At 5:29 a.m. he shouts, “Zero!” 

Interminable silence . . . then suddenly the horizon ignites and a reddish-orange fireball infinitely brighter and ten-thousand times hotter than the sun rises majestically over the desert, turning darkness to light for hundreds of miles around. On this day, even a blind woman reports that she has seen the dawn.

A New York Times reporter is reminded of Genesis: “Let there be light!” Physicist Isidor Rabi fears the fire will burn forever. Colleague Dick Feynman, momentarily blinded, turns away in pain. Oppenheimer recalls a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds!”

The boiling mushroom cloud swirls into the heavens, presaging catastrophe.

Under a curtain of radioactive fallout, jubilant scientists break into a jig on the desert floor.

— Michael K. Smith, Portraits of Empire, pps. 12-13

1945: Hiroshima, A Sun Of Fire

A violent light never before seen in the world, rises slowly, cracks the sky open, and collapses. Three days later a second sun of suns bursts over Japan. Beneath remain the cinders of two cities, a desert of rubble, tens of thousands dead and more thousands condemned to die little by little for years to come.

The war was nearly over, Hitler and Mussolini gone, when President Harry Truman gave the order to drop atomic bombs on the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the United States it is the culmination of a national clamor for the prompt annihilation of the Yellow Peril. It is high time to finish off once and for all the imperial conceits of this arrogant Asian country, never colonized by anyone. The only good one is a dead one, says the press of these treacherous little monkeys.

Now all doubt is dispelled. There is one great conqueror among the conquerors. The United States emerges from the war intact and more powerful than ever. It acts as if the whole world were its trophy.

— Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, p. 126

Michael Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire." He co-blogs with Frank Scott at He co-blogs with Frank Scott at Read other articles by Michael.