Early in February 1946 the 167 inhabitants of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a remote U.S. possession in the Pacific Ocean, were told that in order to “end all world wars” they would have to leave this, their ancestral home, and pick up their lives again on a distant island.
The order was issued by the authority of the U.S. Navy. A fleet of 95 decomissioned ships, ranging from battle cruisers to small amphibious vehicles, was going to be anchored in the large lagoon encircled by the Atoll’s reefs.
The plan was to drop two atomic bombs on these vessels, the first on July 1. No atomic bomb had been used since two were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August the previous year. In 1946 the U.S. had an arsenal of only seven atomic bombs. Those to be used at Bikini were of the same type as the one dropped on Nagasaki, named Fat Boy.
Although World War II had ended with the dropping of the bombs on Japan, the exact workings of the new weapon that introduced the atomic age were little understood—except for its destructive force. Bikini would be the first public view of the invention that had transformed America into a superpower. (The U.S. defense establishment was divided on the wisdom of stripping away the mystery of the bomb’s abilities: some feeling it would effectively intimidate the Soviet Union into abandoning its expansionism while others thought it would achieve exactly the opposite—spur the Soviets to match it.)
The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been photographed at the moment of explosion. Obviously there were no cameras on the ground to record that. Film and photographs taken by U.S. airplanes over the targets showed mushroom clouds reaching into the stratosphere, but nothing of the cities themselves.
When photographs showing that the center of Hiroshima had virtually been vaporized, along with more than 100,000 of its citizens, that in itself was enough to introduce the world to the future scope of atomic annihilation.
Yet the awesome power released in a fraction of a second by the bomb—the power first comprehended as an exercise in nuclear theory by European scientists in the 1930s—remained unseen by the world. Even the men now charged with handling and deploying this power, the scientists who designed the bombs and the U.S. military, did not understand with any certainty its full effects.
The main purpose of the Bikini tests was, therefore, to record in finite detail the degree to which a bomb used against warships would destroy or disable those ships—and what the fate of their crews would have been.
To this end the Navy placed scores of still and motion picture cameras on towers around the atoll, more cameras on airplanes that flew a safe distance from the blast and on eight remotely-controlled B-17 Flying Fortresses that flew into the mushroom clouds with cameras, radiation detectors and devices to collect air samples.
There was another and unintended result of this intense coverage: it created what would become, when publicly released, the first visual library capable of describing Doomsday. There was a collection of 50,000 still pictures and thousands of reels of motion picture film.
Nothing was any more left to the imagination. At the core of the spectacle, recorded in color and black and white, was an unprecedented release of energy. And it was impossible not to see a terrifying beauty in the symmetry of Nature’s force: a gigantic expanding blister of heat altering the state of everything it touched—boiling water, dissolving steel, compressing and heating air and dispatching fearful winds heavy with radioactive ash.
Beyond the U.S. military, two distinct audiences were informed by the Doomsday images: the Soviet Union (Stalin was not intimidated and was already committed to having the bomb) and the stirring world-wide movement that would be dedicated to the banishment of nuclear weapons.
As it turned out, the 1946 tests were only the overture of what would bake the images of Bikini into the world’s consciousness.
The yield of the Fat Boy bombs—the measure used for their destructive force—was the equivalent of 23 kilotons of TNT. That seemed terrifying enough at the time. But in 1954 a new weapon, the hydrogen bomb, was tested at Bikini and its yield was 15 megatons—15,000 times more powerful than Fat Boy. In fact, that force was far greater than the H-bomb’s designers had expected—at most they predicted eight megatons.
That was a significant miscalculation, but it was not the only one. As the great fireball was unleashed there was a change in wind direction, sending radioactive fallout to other Marshall Island atolls and around the world.
On the morning of March 1 the Lucky Dragon, a tuna fishing boat with a crew of 23 was more than two months out from its home port of Yaizu in Japan, in the southern Pacific fishing fields close to the Marshall Islands. The engines were stopped and the fishing lines had been cast during the night.
Most of the crew were still sleeping, or getting ready for breakfast. But one of them went up on deck to check the buoys marking where the lines were. Suddenly, to the west, a great flare of whitish yellow light erupted, changing to a yellowy red and then flaming orange.
The seaman rushed below, shouting “The sun rises in the west!”
Five minutes later the ship was hit by a surge of sound and then two explosive concussions. In a while the radio operator, calculating the time lapse between the flash and the sound wave, worked out that they were 85 miles from Bikini.
The weather changed. Clouds gathered and a storm seemed imminent. The clouds mutated into a fog, and then what seemed like light rain began to fall. Falling with the rain was a strange, sandy ash.
The H-bomb tests were supposed to be secret. But on March 2, with the fallout already causing alarm on the Marshall Island atolls, Lewis L. Strauss, the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, announced that “Joint Task Force Seven has detonated an atomic device at the AEC’s Proving Ground in the Marshall Islands.”
Only one crewman of the Lucky Dragon eventually died from the effects of the radioactive ash, although the other 22 were hospitalized for months.
The U.S. government agreed with the Japanese government that it would pay $2 million in compensation. Of this, $71,000 paid for medical expenses. Each crewman got the equivalent of $8,000—equal at the time to many years of earnings.
For the U.S. the main consequence was that the continued testing of weapons with such lethal results to people and the atmosphere built up a protest movement so powerful that the U.S. and Russia agreed a test ban treaty in 1963, limiting tests to underground.
It turned out that Bikini’s photo archive, extending from Fat Boy to the H-bombs, provided iconic symbols of both the beginning of the atomic age and the end of the world. The darkest satire of nuclear power, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, delivers the apocalypse with footage of the 1954 Bikini fireball.
However, the most pervasive cultural and social consequence of the Bikini tests—if also the most frivolous—happened in Paris just five days after the first blast in 1946. Its instigator was Louis Reard, a man who combined two normally inimical skills, automotive engineer and fashion designer.
Reard had been working on the architecture of a risqué two-piece bathing suit, studying how to combine minimal modesty with assured decency—in other words, how to keep the flimsiest of garments in place.
Searching for a name for his creation before revealing it on a model Reard plucked one from the headlines: Bikini, explaining, in a loose translation, that something small could have a very large impact.
(For some reason the men who planned the Navy’s bombing of Bikini had made the same kind of association between their weapons and, in Hollywood jargon, female bombshells. The first bomb was named Gilda, a tribute to Rita Hayworth who played the title role in the film of the same name, and the second was named Helen of Bikini.)
In any event, Reard was right about the impact.
Religious leaders across Europe thought the swimsuit scandalous, but young European women eager to escape the drab austerity of the war years saw it as a liberating symbol and soon the beaches of the French Riviera staged eye-popping parades of pulchritude. The only Mediterranean country to ban the bikini outright was Spain, then under the fascist fist of Francisco Franco. Police patrolled Spanish beaches to insure no navels would ever see the sun.
On the wrong body—and there were many of them suddenly exposed—the bikini could be cruelly unflattering. But when the bikini met the right body it produced, in the febrile language of contemporary publicists, the quintessential “sex kitten” in the form of Brigitte Bardot. The breakout star of Roger Vadim’s cheesy hit movie, And God Created Woman, Bardot introduced the bikini to the Cannes Film Festival where it rapidly became a fixture.
Nobody else matched Bardot’s impact in a bikini until 1962 when, in Doctor No, the first James Bond movie, Bond (Sean Connery) suffers a near failure to control his libido at the sight of Ursula Andress, playing a shell diver named Honey Rider, emerging from the Caribbean in a bikini replete with knife holster. Butch met bimbo in a masterpiece of titillation and the Bond franchise never looked back.
It might be argued that, coming face to face with the reality of a weapon able to send us to oblivion, it was a natural response to pluck from it a diversion like the bikini. The sexual revolution that followed was, for sure, a healthy repudiation of “modesty” invoked as a mask for repression, while at the same time we pushed aside visions of Armageddon by believing in the philosophy supposed to constrain the use of nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction, MAD.
The two life choices, taking a diversion into relaxed carnality while simultaneously building massive stockpiles of a weapon that was never supposed to be used, both began at Bikini 70 years ago. Neither has faltered since then but one is a lot scarier than the other. Even more so, perhaps, now that the Pentagon is asking for a trillion dollars to “modernize” the nuclear arsenal, and Vladimir Putin is reminding the world that he, too, still has a formidable arsenal of nukes.