Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Sweet, Sweet Side of Nuclear Weapons

As I write about the NPT Review Conference and nuclear disarmament, this image deserves--nay demands--its own post.

Readers may click on the picture to enjoy its full-sized magnificence.

It's been making the rounds of the Internet with varying attributions.

Fortunately, its provenance is documented in the on-line archives of Time Magazine from November 18, 1946:

In Washington last week, at the Army War College's sumptuous officers' club, two admirals and their wives gave a little party to commemorate the dissolution of Joint Army-Navy Task Force No. i, which staged Operation Crossroads at Bikini. An East St. Louis group of bakers sent a cake, made out of tiny angel-food puffs, in the shape of an atomic explosion. Vice Admiral W.H.P. ("Spike") Blandy, Crossroads commander, and Mrs. Blandy were photographed gaily cutting the cake, while Rear Admiral F. J. Lowry stood happily by .

The picture made the Washington Post's society page.
It also made a lot of people indignant and unhappy...the Rev. Mr. Davies [pastor of a Unitarian church in Washington--ed.] thundered: "An utterly loathsome picture. If I spoke as I feel I would call it obscene.... How would it seem in Hiroshima or Nagasaki to know that Americans make cakes of angel-food puffs in the image of that terrible diabolical thing". . . .

Time concluded mordantly: These were probably the harshest words ever spoken of a dessert.

Operation Crossroads, by the way, represented the first two nuclear tests conducted after World War II, Able and Baker. It was something of a cock-up--and not just for the residents of Bikini Atoll, who saw their home atoll largely obliterated and totally irradiated, and its name applied to risque swimwear.

Wikipedia has a superb article on the Crossroads tests.

The U.S. Navy was apparently quite anxious not to concede any ground to its despised rivals in the Air Force, even though it seemed that strategic doctrine had permanently shifted away from big ships lobbing big shells to big planes dropping really big bombs.

The first Crossroads test was therefore run by the Navy as an experiment--and hopefully a demonstration--of the ability of a surface fleet to survive in a nuclear attack zone and continue to operate.

It was understood from the beginning that humans would not do well, but it was considered important to learn if carbon based life forms would be able to survive, at least for a while, and do their duty.

Patriotic livestock volunteered to stand in for human sailors during the tests.

Ships not in the immediate blast area survived, to the Navy's gratification.

However, the takeaway, especially after the spectacular and spectacularly dirty underwater detonation of the Baker test, was that the Navy's role in nuclear warfare would not involve blithely replacing the dead and dying with a fresh crew and continuing with its military business.

The ships were hopelessly irradiated and could not be made safe even after many dreary months of decontamination. Unless the sailors were to be outfitted in lead suits, the ships were unusable.

Fortunately for the U.S. Navy, submarine-based nuclear-tipped missiles emerged to guarantee the relevance--and budget--of the salty service into the 21st century.

The four photos of the Crossroads tests are from the Wikipedia article cited above. The goats were exposed during the Able (airburst) test. The second and third photos show stages in the Baker (underwater) test. The test flotilla is clearly visible in both pictures and gives an idea of the size of the blast. The final photo shows Navy crews during their unsuccessful attempts to decontaminate the Prinz Eugen, one of the ships in the flotilla.


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