Fashioning Fission: The Bikini A-Bomb Tests

Bikini, which was once inhabited by a hundred Marshallese, which once belonged to the Germans, and then the Japanese, now belongs to an unknown future along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

David Bradley, No Place to Hide

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No: this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.



Seventy-five Julys ago the United States flaunted the grotesque glory of its ‘world-destroying’ Wonder-weapon, the man-made Sun of the Atomic Bomb. The high drama of Operation Crossroads was staged at Bikini Atoll in the Northwest Pacific, part of the Marshall Islands, a UN Trust territory ‘administered’ by Washington for the first four decades of the atomic age. By the time the Americans stopped ‘protecting’ it, they had hideously poisoned its lands, waters, wildlife and peoples in the course of 67 nuclear tests, the equivalent, historian Alex Wellerstein calculates, of “a Hiroshima every day for almost forty years,” sending waves of cancer and birth defects – including ‘jellyfish babies,’ embryos unable to develop bone structure – through generations of Marshallese.

"Baker" explosion, Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll, 25 July 1946

“Baker” explosion, Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll, 25 July 1946 (US Dept of Defense photo)

In 1952, Eniwetok Atoll in America’s ‘Pacific Proving Grounds’ saw the ‘birth’ of the thermonuclear age (“It’s a boy!” the ‘father of the H-Bomb,’ Edward Teller, cabled ecstatically), a 10-megaton detonation over 500 times more powerful than the ‘Little Boy’ Bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Two years later, Bikini endured the 15-megaton ‘Castle Bravo’ test, America’s largest, a 66-mile-wide Cloud poisoning the 23 crew members (and killing one) of the Japanese vessel Fifth Lucky Dragon, fishing 85 miles from Zero. Among other tests were the imperiously code-named ‘Seminole,’ ‘Huron,’ ‘Sequoia,’ ‘Mohawk,’ ‘Aztec,’ ‘Apache,’ ‘Cherokee’ and ‘Dakota,’ a brazen overlay of American conquests and crimes.

And the horror-show all began with the “temporary” removal of 167 islanders to make way for experiments conducted, US Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt assured them, “for the good of all mankind and to end all wars.” The ‘temporary’ was a cynical ruse, designed to secure the ‘approval’ of the tribal leader, King Juda: the Bikinians still await their return to a homeland rendered, as scientists predicted, uninhabitable for decades or centuries. By ‘end all wars,’ Wyatt meant ‘cow all enemies’. And ‘mankind’ gained nothing from the Operation’s two experiments in extravagant violence: the July 1 explosion, 520 feet above ground, of the 23-kiloton  ‘Able’, a plutonium weapon identical to the ‘Fat Man’ Bomb dropped on Nagasaki; and the July 25 blast, 90 feet underwater, of the 21-kiloton ‘Baker,’ of the same ‘model.’

Bikini Islanders board a landing craft, vehicle, personnel (LCVP) as they depart from Bikini Atoll in March 1946

Bikini Islanders board a landing craft, vehicle, personnel (LCVP) as they depart from Bikini Atoll in March 1946 (United States Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Not only was there no peaceful, benign scientific justification for either test, there wasn’t even a malign – military – one. On May 3, Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project which designed and produced ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ – exploding the latter, in the ‘Trinity’ test of July 1945, on stolen Indigenous land in New Mexico  – wrote President Harry S. Truman that “simple laboratory methods” would produce as much or more new data, allowing the US to conserve its stock of just 10 warheads. On May 26, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), founded by Manhattan Project physicists, argued that “nothing of scientific value, and little of technical value” could be expected.


The real reason for the tests was twofold – and contradictory: for the US Navy, to demonstrate conclusively – not least to the rest of the US military – that its relevance in the atomic age was undiminished; for the US government, to memorably illustrate the inordinate potency of a destructive force in its sole possession.

To make the Navy’s point, a ‘ghost armada’ of 96 retired or captured (German and Japanese) vessels was moored in Bikini lagoon, tempting the ‘Mighty Atom’ to land a knock-out blow. The ‘phantom fleet,’ however, held a gruesome live cargo: hundreds of ‘experimental animals’ – mainly goats, pigs, and rats – conscripted to perish and suffer for the enlightenment of a ‘Naval Medical Research Group.’

To make the government’s point, 150 ships (and over 40,000 personnel) transported hundreds of observers to witness the Spectacular, including experts from the very body – the UN Atomic Energy Commission – charged by the inaugural resolution of the UN General Assembly with securing “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.”

According to documents declassified just five years ago, Soviet observer Simon Alexandrov told a US scientist Operation Crossroads was designed primarily “to frighten” Moscow, a suspicion shared by many in the FAS and on the American left, for example Democratic Senator Scott Lucas, who warned in May against any “grandiose display.”  A quicker way of sinking, not just old battleships, but hopes of international control of nuclear energy is hard to imagine; and as Wellerstein wrote on the 70th anniversary of the tests, such sabotage may well have been necessary, as in the first months of 1946 “it looked like the Bomb might just as easily lead to an era of international cooperation as one of arms races.”

Perhaps the most tragic irony of Bikini is that such a ‘grandiose display’ in August 1945 – the preference of many Manhattan Project scientists, and some political and military officials – may have spared not only hundreds of thousands of lives but the world from the terrors and waste of the Cold War arms race. As many historians now agree, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in one sense demonstrations, letting ‘Ivan’ know how far Uncle Sam was prepared to go. With over 20 million of its own citizens killed in WW2, Crossroads merely confirmed the Soviet view that the only way to ensure its own survival was to imperil America’s.


But if one goal of the tests – to induce politically useful awe of the Bomb – was missed, what of the Navy’s attempt to deflate the Bomb’s reputation? For reasons still unknown, the ‘Able’ test was botched, missing the armada by half a mile and sinking an unmanned ship packed with recording instruments. Though it also sank five of the ‘ghosts,’ damaged dozens more, and killed and contaminated 90% of the captive animals, the blast was regarded by most observers (from 20 miles afar) as a ‘dud,’ a ‘flop’ allowing the Navy to claim a degree of ‘mission accomplished.’

Soviet observer Simon Peter Alexandrov greeted by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and his party on board the U.S.S. Panamint. Alexandrov was in charge of uranium ore procurement for the Soviet atomic bomb project.

Soviet observer Simon Peter Alexandrov greeted by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and his party on board the U.S.S. Panamint. Alexandrov was in charge of uranium ore procurement for the Soviet atomic bomb project. (Source: U.S. National Archives)

US experts knew better, and one of them, US Army Colonel Herbert C. Gee, complained on July 23 that Crossroads Commander Admiral William Blandy had spent three weeks painting “a very optimistic picture,” when in fact “the target fleet” had “suffered a staggering blow.” Such “attempts,” Gee cabled the Pentagon, “furnished a source of considerable amusement to our entire group. So much emphasis was placed on the fact that the various vessels remained afloat” – albeit crippled and disabled – “that all of us became convinced the Navy was indeed grasping at straws in attempting to build up a case for the battleships.”

Two days later, the Baker blast – a “giant and unprecedented spectacle,” according to the official history – made undeniable nonsense of Blandy’s blandishments. The immediate, visible impact – eight ships sunk, eight more ‘knocked out,’ many more badly wounded – was indeed ‘impressive.’ But the Bomb wreaked far greater invisible havoc: the “radioactive by-products mixed with water,” Wellerstein writes, “dropped right back down” as rain and mist,” with the “result that, while the bomb’s fallout did not move an appreciable distance, it badly contaminated everything in the immediate vicinity.” And incredibly, “although the weapons designers had cautioned the Navy about this, they were ignored” by “indifferent…hairy-chested” officers who “gave the men little information about radiation hazards and made minimal efforts to monitor their exposure.”

Such was the expert anger – and potential political fall-out – that a third test, Charlie, due to be detonated deep underwater in April 1947, was cancelled. The Navy’s humiliation, though, was short-lived. Perhaps deciding that if it couldn’t beat the Bomb, it better get some, it was soon equipped to deliver Doomsday, forming the third leg of America’s ‘triad’ of land-, air-, and sea-launched weapons. Although the triad today – 30 years after the Cold War! – is still reverenced by many thermonuclear theologians as an almost holy trinity of mass destruction, it is in shabby reality the outgrowth of inter-service rivalry, still one of the great ‘super-spreaders’ of the atomic pandemic


One of the most compelling accounts of Crossroads was provided by a young American doctor, David Bradley, who immediately grasped the incurable nature of the new “plague of radioactivity.” From departing San Francisco on May 29 to returning on October 10, Bradley – one of dozens of doctors recruited and trained in radiology to monitor the tests – kept an increasingly haunted log, published in 1948 as No Place to Hide. “We wanted so much,” he wrote in the last entry, “to return to the America we had left”: but while “everything looked the same,” nothing was. Everything looked basically ‘OK’ on some of the vessels left unsunk by Able and Baker, too; and, as Bradley wrote on August 2, “naturally the Navy” retained “complete faith in…repeated scrubbings,” the “old ritual of ‘a clean sweep-down fore and aft’”:

Tugs equipped with fire-fighting apparatus are engaged in most spectacular hydraulic procedures. Salty water and foamite have streaked the vessels, giving them a cadaverous appearance, but no relief from the ‘damned Geigers.’ Fission products, having fallen like a coat of paint over these ships, cannot be washed off by salt water and suds.

The ‘hard rain’ that fell after Baker contained, Bradley calculated, “the equivalent of tons of radium,” including “plutonium spread atom-thin over most of the contaminated areas,” certain to take human eternities to decay to safe levels. The “terror of the unseen emanations,” he wrote on August 3, “must seem like a very bad dream to the regular Navy men”:

…decks you can’t stay on for more than a few minutes but which seem like other decks; air you can’t breathe without gas masks but which smells like all other air; water you can’t swim in, and good tuna and jacks you can’t eat. It’s a fouled-up world. … Damned Geigers and Geiger men!

American sailors watch the 'Able Test' burst miles out to sea from the deck of the support ship USS Fall River on 1 July 1946.

American sailors watch the ‘Able Test’ burst miles out to sea from the deck of the support ship USS Fall River on 1 July 1946.

The ‘nightmare,’ of course, was worst for the Bikinians, exiled to the barren island of Rongerik, where Bradley and other ‘Geigers’ arrived on September 29. On behalf of King Juda, a struggling translator called Pillip welcomed the small party to “this…very poor island” where “we are very hungry.” When, he asked, would they return as promised to Bikini? It “was no pleasant task,” Bradley wrote, “to have to inform him that we thought it would be a long time yet”. After which “Pillip delivered his shortest and most impassioned oration of the day when he said sadly and respectfully, ‘Oh. We very sorry to hear this.’” “The Bikinese,” Bradley laments:

…are not the first, nor will they be the last, to be left homeless and impoverished by the inexorable Bomb. They have no choice in the matter, and very little understanding of it. But in this perhaps they are not so different from us all.

King Juda (central figure on the right) and the Bikinians shown during a meeting, presumably with Commodore Ben Wyatt [undated photo]. (NARA, Still Pictures Unit, Record Group 374-G, box 7, folder 60 “Tests: Operation Crossroads”).

King Juda (central figure on the right) and the Bikinians shown during a meeting, presumably with Commodore Ben Wyatt [undated photo]. (NARA, Still Pictures Unit, Record Group 374-G, box 7, folder 60 “Tests: Operation Crossroads”).

Bradley believed that both physicists and physicians had a greater sense of the revolutionary situation than others, and a correspondingly greater responsibility to inform and alert policy-makers and the public. This conviction has motivated thousands of doctors, nurses, and scientists throughout the atomic age to speak a truth I believe Bradley summarized, in his entry for September 30, as pithily as anyone ever has –

The question is not so much political as biological. It is not the security of a political system but the survival of the race that is at stake in the indiscriminate use of atomic energy for political coercion. Its unique problems are self-evident… Among them are:
1) There is no real defense against atomic weapons.
2) There are no satisfactory countermeasures and methods of decontamination.
3) There are no satisfactory medical or sanitary safeguards for the people of atomized areas.
4) The devastating influence of the Bomb and its unborn relatives may affect the land and its wealth – and therefore its people – for centuries through the persistence of radioactivity.

In such a vulnerable new world, Bradley insisted in his Prologue, the notion of “national defense” is “a superstition, and a dangerous one”. The only solution to the ‘unique problems’ he identified was and remains disarmament, the abolition of human slavery to the Bomb: the self-same goal of the first UN resolution and the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the ‘Ban Treaty’ which also seeks justice, in the form of victim assistance and environmental remediation, for the acute ongoing suffering caused by the two atomic bombings and over 2,000 atomic tests. In addition, the Treaty acknowledges the disproportionate impact of ionizing radiation on women and girls, and prioritizes the importance of including Indigenous, female, and other hitherto marginalized voices in disarmament diplomacy and the search for transnational human security in the 21st century.

But there is another way – perversely illustrated by the Bikini tests – in which the Bomb has disproportionately impacted women: the objectification and commodification of the female body that it so imperils.


The Baker test produced a consummation devoutly desired by massed ranks of pressmen: an ‘iconic’ image of terminal violence, a toy-ship fleet dwarfed by over a million tons of water, an expanding column climbing a mile high. According to historian Michael Light in his study of ‘100 Suns’ exploded by the US between 1945-62, Able and Baker were each “photographed simultaneously by 19 Army and 17 Navy aircraft, some of which were remote-controlled unmanned drones”: in total, “1.5 million feet of motion picture film were exposed and more than a million still images were made, causing a worldwide shortage of film stock for months.” And this unprecedentedly intense, overwhelmingly male gaze helped conjure into fashionable being another ‘icon,’ reducing Bikini to ‘the bikini.’

Crew members of "Dave's Dream," B-29 Super Fort atomic bombing plane, prepare for the bombing mission. Circa 1946

Crew members of “Dave’s Dream,” B-29 Super Fort atomic bombing plane, prepare for the bombing mission. (United States. Joint Task Force One, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Able Bomb was named Gilda, the ‘bombshell beauty’ played by Rita Hayworth in the hit film of the same name, by the crew of ‘Dave’s Dream,’ the B-29 that dropped ‘her’; and a scantily-clad image of the actor, in role, was stenciled on the side of the warhead. (Hayworth, according to her then husband Orson Welles, “almost went insane, she was so angry”; though it is not known if she objected to a trailer describing Gilda as “deadly” and “using all a woman’s weapons.”) And at a beauty pageant on July 5, just four days later, French fashion designer Louis Réard unveiled what he called “four corners of nothing,” a swimsuit so daring he had to pay a nude dancer to model it. According to cultural historian Jennifer Le Zotte, Réard “claimed” his design “was sure to be as explosive as the US military tests,” and that “a bathing suit qualified as a bikini only if it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”

As Le Zotte notes, although “equating military conquest and romantic pursuits is nothing new,” and though “the trope got considerably sexed up” during WW2, an “even weirder tone to the innuendoes crept into the lingo once nuclear weaponry appeared”:

Women’s bodies, more readily on display than before, became dangerous and tempting in magazine advertisements, even weaponized in competitions like the 1957 Miss Atomic Bomb champion. The scandalously scant bikini was simply an early example of this postwar phenomenon.

This is not to argue that women should feel obliged to literally re-cover their dignity by conservatively concealing their form, but rather that the atomic age can be seen as the ‘climax’ to millennia of toxic, militarized masculinity  – in much though not all of the world – radically trivializing women’s physical, intellectual, and spiritual power. Even the word ‘trivia’ has been trivialized, now merely connoting ‘nothing of importance’, but once a hallowed term for the Moon Goddess – Tri-Via, the Lady of the Three Ways – and Her truly beautiful cycle of life, death, and re-birth.

Despite his Catholicism, Dante wrote of “the clearness of a full-mooned sky” where “Trivia smiles” as a Queen enthroned. And a traditional place to leave offerings to Trivia was where three roads crossed, symbolizing the meeting – and parting – of ways.

Possible paths, alternative futures. Always a test to choose.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.




Editor’s Note:

During its July 6 meeting, CBRM council passed the following resolution:

WHEREAS: August 6th, 2021, marks the 76th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, followed three days later by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; and;

WHEREAS: hundreds of thousands of civilians died in these attacks and tens of thousands more have suffered and are suffering from the wounds, radiation sickness and multigenerational genetic disorders triggered by the explosions; and;

WHEREAS: today’s 14,000 nuclear weapons, possessed by nine states, are equal in their destructive power to more than one million Hiroshimas; and;

WHEREAS: in 2013, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality joined the global Mayors for Peace coalition, based in Hiroshima, pledged to work for a nuclear-weapon-free world; and;

WHEREAS: in 2017, 122 states adopted the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the ‘Ban Treaty; and;

WHEREAS: in April 2021, a Nanos opinion poll showed 75% of Canadians in favour of Canada signing the Ban Treaty;

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED: that Mayor Amanda McDougall of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality proclaim August 6th, 2021, as “Hiroshima Memorial Day” here in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. A day to remember the devastation of Hiroshima in 1945, and to renew our commitment to ensuring freedom from the threat posed by nuclear weapons, here and everywhere.

Peace Quest Cape Breton congratulated Mayor McDougall and all of council for “taking this symbolic stand for sanity and survival.”