A 20th Century Odyssey in Time and Space
A brilliant white flash burned through the clouds at 0900 GMT, changing to an expanding green ball of irradiance extending into the clear sky above the overcast …
Great white fingers extruded from its surface, resembling cirrostratus clouds, which rose to 40 degrees above the horizon in sweeping arcs, turning downward toward the poles and disappearing in seconds to be replaced by spectacular concentric cirrus-like rings moving out from the blast at tremendous initial velocity, finally stopping when the outermost ring was 50 degrees overhead. They did not disappear but persisted in a state of frozen stillness …
All this occurred within 45 seconds. As the greenish light turned to purple and began to fade at the point of burst, a bright red glow began to develop on the horizon at a direction 50 degrees north of east and simultaneously 50 degrees south of east, expanding inward and upward until the whole eastern sky was a dull burning red semicircle 100 degrees north to south and halfway to the zenith, obliterating some of the lesser stars. This condition, interspersed with tremendous white rainbows, persisted no less than seven minutes …
‘Starfish Prime,’ July 9, 1962
Breaking away from the comfortable insularity of small-town America, Charlie Rich thrusts himself onto dangerous international waters. What he experiences there and his growing awareness of the racial divide at home cause him to reconsider the country he thought he knew and his place in it.
This test bore the code-name ‘Starfish Prime,’ one of five high-altitude tests grouped together as ‘Operation Fishbowl’ within the larger ‘Operation Dominic,’ a series of tests in 1962 begun in response to the Soviet announcement on August 30, 1961, that they would end a three-year moratorium on testing. The people of Honolulu, of course, knew nothing of the size and power of such weapons, or where or when the military planned to use them in anger.
To give perspective to the event, imagine a right triangle. The blast was to occur 250 miles above Johnston Island, 900 miles south-southwest of Hawaii, making two sides of our triangle. If one computes a line of sight to the blast from Hawaii—the hypotenuse of our triangle—and ignores the earth’s curvature, the result is 934 miles, equivalent to the distance from Hollywood, California, to Helena, Montana, or Midland, Texas.
A large crowd gathered on the flight deck to witness the event. No one spelled out precisely what they should expect to see, perhaps because no one knew. A bullhorn broadcast the countdown. As naïve about nuclear blasts as everyone else on deck and because currents and swells were rotating the ship, Charlie wondered which way to look so as not to miss anything. He needn’t have worried.
Five, four, three, two, one …
At zero, the night turned instantly to full daylight for several seconds, as though it were high noon. Then, as darkness slowly reclaimed its normal place, the sky changed into a series of alternating red and black vertical stripes moving horizontally until they, too, faded to total darkness. There was no sound on deck except for the collective gasp of the hundreds of sailors and officers, as though, in unison, everyone took a deep breath and muttered in unison, “Oh, my God!”
In as much time as it took to set off the explosion, Charlie knew with unshakable certainty that nuclear war was unthinkable and his purpose in the Navy irrelevant except for the deterrent effect of the ‘Bull.’ His mind raced from shock to depression.
He remembered the haunting final words of the camp doctor, Major Clipton in The Bridge on the River Kwai. From a nearby hill, Clipton watched as a British commando killed the camp commandant, Col. Saito, and a mortar blast fatally wounded the leader of the British POWs, Col. Nicholson. Before succumbing, however, Nicholson fell onto the plunger that set off plastic explosives under the bridge.
The cataclysmic collapse of the bridge into the river, constructed in a strange—perhaps treasonous—collaboration with the Japanese, brought with it a train and everything the mad colonel professed to cherish: Western superiority, his responsibility to command and the morale of his men. ‘Madness,’ Clipton murmured repeatedly from the hilltop as the camera panned upward from the smoldering evidence of war’s illogic and futility.
Charlie wondered if political leaders comprehended the mind-numbing power of the ‘toys’ with which they threatened adversaries and deployed by the thousands, as though such weapons were the ordinary stuff of war. Surely … Surely, leaders in Washington, Moscow and Peking understood that they could never use nuclear weapons; it would be suicidal. What if the military took the leaders of adversarial countries to a remote place for a similar demonstration? Would that bring them to their senses?
He recalled that a handful of atomic scientists at Los Alamos in 1945 had made a similar suggestion to President Harry Truman: persuade the Japanese leadership of the futility of continuing the war through a demonstration of the ‘gadget’ prior to any combat use. He also recalled that the leader of the ‘Manhattan Project,’ Robert Oppenheimer, demurred, believing the world needed to witness the destructive power of this new weapon when used against populated targets. The idealistic Oppenheimer was sure leaders would then choose to implement a system of international control of such weapons. Truman chose to act on Oppenheimer’s first suggestion but not the second.
Apparently, President John Kennedy did understand the danger. Reportedly, when the outgoing Eisenhower administration presented him with the U.S. nuclear attack plan, SIOP, which contemplated the use of multiple warheads per target, Kennedy remarked: ‘And they call us civilized.’ Following ‘Starfish Prime,’ the American president persuaded the USSR to join the United States in banning atmospheric testing.
Charlie, of course, wondered why the questions swirling in his head after seeing ‘Starfish’ never occurred to him before. Beyond being shocked, Charlie was ashamed.