Ecstasy In Evil
The Aftermath of the Tularosa Nuclear Test
By Eric Martin
Image courtesy of Nuclearactive.org
On July 16, 1945, at 5:29 am, God lit up the early morning sky in the New Mexico desert to usher in the end of the world.
Or so went the reports of locals who experienced what is now known as the “Trinity” blast, the first nuclear weapon ever detonated. Preparing to unleash a bomb with previously unseen destructive power on the populace of Japan, the U.S. government and the scientists on the Manhattan Project identified a location they deemed remote in the Jornada del Muerto desert. It exploded with the force of twenty kilotons of TNT, the 1470° Celsius heat creating a new, radioactive glass dubbed “trinitite.” New York Times columnist William Lawrence wrote that some who labored on the project “broke into dance, the rhythm of primitive man dancing at one of his fire festivals at the coming of spring.”
Nearby residents surprised by the test, however, did not share their scientific jubilation. Henry Herrera, an eleven year-old helping his father fill the family truck’s radiator, said, “I got so scared I thought the world is coming to an end.” Three young sisters Elena, Adelaide, and Natividad Peralta were helping their mother Francesquita in their ranch house when they heard a “loud explosion that shook the house, and broke windows.” Their father Demecio was tending to the cows outside and ran in to see if they were safe, and he was covered in a white substance. “Mother thought the world was ending!” they recalled.
Other accounts repeat the same theme of apocalyptic fear and note the “white snow” falling from the sky for days. Citizens of Lincoln, Otero, Sierra, and Socorro counties got their water from cisterns and food from livestock and gardens. There were no grocery stores or refrigerators. They would have to eat, drink, and swim in the radioactive ash. Some children playfully rubbed it all over their bodies. Cows had singed backs and “bridled” skin under their newfound white coating, which also covered the produce. Little is known of the effects on those living on the Mescalero Apache Tribal Lands where less shelter could offer protection. Because the government gave no warning, no one knew what they were touching, breathing, and ingesting. While U.S. officials initially claimed that an “ammunition magazine” exploded with “negligible” damage, some of the affected were still missing full details two years later.
The story of Annie Chavez, then age thirteen, interpreted the incident religiously, as did most of her mainly Catholic community:
“The floor started rocking and rolling. It knocked me to the floor. Mom fell too, but when I tried to get to her to help her, she yelled for me to get Marcie. With my sister in my arms, we both fell and started rolling around the floor hitting the legs of the table. Mom stumbled to her feet and started yelling at us to get our rosaries. She yelled for us to pray that our sins be forgiven and that we go to God. I couldn’t stand, let alone kneel. I thought if we weren’t swallowed up by the ground, then the walls would tumble down on us. Some of our walls had begun to crumble, and a couple of windows broke. Marcie kept crying and wouldn’t stop, which made me cry, but we were scared. The most scared we had ever been. Then my mom said ‘see, it’s Jesus, in the cloud,’ and when I looked out the door, there was the brightest cloud I’d ever seen. It lit up our whole casita. She yelled, ‘don’t look, just pray,’ so we did. I was too curious and every chance I had, I took a peek out of my squinted eyes. But hell, I was scared to death and then this thought crossed my mind; I started my period so I wondered if that was a sin against God and that’s why we weren’t going up with the cloud. Mom kept praying and in between her breaths I could hear her begging God to forgive all her sins and the sins of all her children. Then the light turned dark and mom kept asking God not to leave us, but to take us. She was crying because she thought we had missed going to heaven.”
Annie died of cancer, as did an abnormal amount of people in the area. One extended family had twenty-seven members with cancer, some with multiple forms. According to a recent health impact assessment, their fate is not uncommon but rather “a typical narrative of a family in the Tularosa Basin.” This is in addition to manifold cases of PTSD, drug use to cope with the trauma, fear of having children and passing on cancerous genes, inability to sleep, and other lasting effects.
The bomb was an event, it seems, so powerful that one could only comprehend it theologically, and those dancing with joy also invoked God, though with a different lens. “It was like being witness to the Second Coming of Christ!” exclaimed one. “If the first man could have been present when God said ‘Let there be Light,’ he might have seen something very similar to what we have seen.” The very name “Trinity,” taken by Robert Oppenheimer from a John Donne poem, associates the weapon with the divine. And after Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 200,000 civilians, he proclaimed on a public radio broadcast, “We thank God that [the bomb] has come to us… and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.” Senator Brian McMahon, a Fordham graduate, extolled the occasion on the Senate floor as “the greatest event in world history since the birth of Christ.”
These reactions comprise a moral failure, but also an exceptionally perilous theology. Unlike Eichman’s banal evil, Truman and McMahon provide a kind of Christian ecstasy-in-evil, reveling in the divine call to incinerate hundreds of thousands of people. The god they depict desires that America control life and death by the holy use of atomic weapons and the nation they conceive is one divinely bestowed with the privilege and power to kill. It is a violently convenient theology clothing death in Christian garb, and when the Jesuit-educated McMahon ran for president his platform was to build as many atomic weapons as possible. From its very creation, officials assumed that we wield the bomb, as Bob Dylan mused, “with God on our side.” Theirs is a singularly monstrous doctrine of the Trinity to which we have communally submitted.
Yet a talk with Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Cosortium revealed that an alternative theology is alive and well in New Mexico. The group is lobbying Congress for inclusion in the 1990 federal Radiation and Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which awards reparations to downwinders in Nevada and Utah who were affected by a portion of America’s more than one thousand nuclear tests. Since 2005, the consortium has been asking why New Mexicans remain uncompensated. They hold an annual candlelight vigil (often joined by Bishop Oscar Cantú) every July, organize peaceful demonstrations in April and October with signs reading “I Got Cancer Living Downwind of Trinity” and “Speaking Up for Those Silenced by The Bomb,” and light a candle for each who has died of cancer. Candles now number over eight hundred.
Tina advocates with impressive purpose. Though some ranches were only eight miles from the detonation and forty thousand people lived in a fifty-mile radius, the downwinders are often asked why they didn’t just leave the area. One moment of exposure is already a crime, she counters, as only one millionth of a gram of plutonium will cause cancer if inhaled. She turns the blame around. “What does it say about a government that poisons people and walks away without saying anything for seventy-two years?”
Part of their aim, in fact, is mere recognition for being treated as nuclear guinea pigs. She describes her town of Tularosa as a simple place in 1945. People hunted for food and gathered at St. Francis de Paula Church in the city center to exchange news since there was no radio. The church bells rang at noon to let workers know to break, and again at five to mark the shift’s end. Work, faith, and family were all they had, yet a whole generation of elders disappeared because of the bomb. Her father, age three during the blast, suffered the usual fate. He lost part of his tongue to cancer, was on a feeding tube for two years, removed his lymph nodes, got prostate cancer, and was then diagnosed with a third form. I ask her how that happens. She looks at me and replies, “It doesn’t.”
Now cancer is afflicting the next generation. Her husband is fighting it with little money to pay the bills, matching a problematic theme across the community magnified by a 200-mile drive to treatment facilities in faraway cities. People in the wake of the blast through today have died due to lack of funds or transportation. Some hold bake sales to fund medical dues or sell cows to pay for chemo. Stories abound of people begging for gas money to get to Albuquerque for a diagnosis while billions are spent maintaining our nuclear stockpile.
“We’ve lived under the cloud of this test since 1945,” Tina tells me, and the doctors are willing to admit what the government won’t. Like others, when she was diagnosed with cancer the first question the doctor asked was when, not whether, she was exposed to radiation. And while over $1.7 billion has been awarded through federal funds to downwinders elsewhere, they are stuck raising money for basic care. Even Japanese delegates, who came to visit on the 70th anniversary, have shown more attention than Congress. They were shocked to hear the U.S. government was willing to kill its own people to destroy Japanese cities.
The state theology which places its faith in bombs, that welcomes history’s deadliest invention with celebratory dance, and that thinks God wants us to use it for the “right purposes” remains endemic in America. The Christian ecstasy-in-evil flourishes, out in the open for all to see, itching to further invite what theologian James Douglass calls the “Eschatological Age” forward. It opts for military supremacy over such simple possibilities as communal life and the refusal to solve problems by destroying children, communities, and the earth.
“The way people survive all this, Eric, is through faith,” Tina says. She looks me in the eye with a hard-fought conviction. Like most of her people, she is Catholic. “This is what I’ll do till it happens or until I’m in the ground next to my dad. Faith is what we turn to, it’s what we have.”
I reflect on these words as I write this on the road to the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia, where Trident submarines carry nuclear weapons far more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seven Catholics entered the base the night of April 4, poured blood on a trident insignia, hammered on a trident memorial, held signs that preached disarmament, and acted out the words of the prophet Isaiah, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares.” As three of us approach the base to vigil in support of the seven and resist nuclear theology, the story of the downwinders gives lie to the idea that these weapons are good for even those they supposedly protect. As we come into sight of the gates I wonder if our wider community understands what Tina means, or whether our national doctrine of the Trinity will light up the early morning sky and rain down ash once more.
Eric Martin is an editor at The Flood, is pursuing a doctorate of theology, and will soon be defending his thesis on the life of Fr. Berrigan. He is also the co-editor of The Berrigan Letters (2016, Orbis Books).