The blast was brilliant against the pre-dawn sky and distant black hills. A ball of fire rose in the cool air…It was a satisfactory blast. The first nuclear test, Trinity, followed by “the first ‘mushroom’ cloud ever,” was seen by the author, a budding physicist working at the Los Alamos site, from about twenty miles away, just weeks before the bomb for which it was the prototype would be dropped on Hiroshima.
Drafted into the Army Specialized Training program, chosen for his proclivity for physics, McAllister Hull (1923-2011) recorded his role in the development of the largest and most devastating weapons ever conceived by the mind of man. His memoir is filled with fascinating scientific and historical detail: as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment, he and his cohort were part of the effort to get what was called the “gadget” working as soon as possible. Though he did not know exactly what their assignment would lead to at first, he was able gradually to surmise its implications. As a GI supervisor of handpicked civilians, Hull did not rest or excuse those who wanted to. Their job involved getting bubbles out of the explosives lenses, for which they made repeated trials using a simple candy kettle. On the day of the Trinity test, Hull felt sure the lenses he and his team had produced were bubble-free, and he was justifiably proud of his contribution. In retrospect, while recognizing the necessity of deploying the atomic devices, he waxes rueful. He had hoped, he states, that the bombs might have been used on unpopulated targets, “without making those of us who worked on them accessory to several hundred thousand deaths.”
After the end of World War II, Hull stayed on at Los Alamos, by then married but still living in cramped wooden barracks in the desert, to help in efforts to develop the hydrogen bomb. His recollections include his time at S-Site at Los Alamos and some of his post-war experiences as proctor and professor at the University of New Mexico. He suggests ways that nuclear power can be used for good and makes clear how totally destructive it might be if unleashed for warfare. (He recalls that days before Trinity, Enrico Fermi was taking bets favoring the proposition that the anticipated explosion would turn the entire earth into a burning cinder.)
Hull would like to believe that the threat of nuclear holocaust has been allayed because, for “sensible people,” nuclear war is unthinkable.
But recognizing that not all world leaders are sensible, he urges citizens and scientists alike to exert their influence on issues of further nuclear development. While firm in his conviction that the American way of life was and is worth defending, he warns that “preemptive war without a very clearly defined threat was once contrary to American policy but is no longer so,” and “any nuclear power might use nuclear weapons if attacked.”