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The Fascination of the Abomination

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

REVIEW – “The horror! The horror!” murmured Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz as he dies in The Heart of Darkness. Those words and their thinly-veiled reference to European colonial brutality towards indigenous tribes in Africa, echoed in my mind as I read Walter Pincus’s Blown to Hell, a gripping description of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific. Altogether, there were 67 such tests from 1946 until 1958 in what is now the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

When we contemplate the almost unimaginable fury of nuclear weapons, it’s usually about the awesome blast of heat, the terrible shock wave near the speed of sound and immense radiation from the fireball, but not the ultrafine and frequently invisible scourge of radioactive fallout that is produced by a ground burst or near-ground burst. Rather than the very brief duration – milliseconds to a few seconds – of a fireball, however, the lingering devastation of fallout can persist for decades with silent and deadly effect.

Perhaps it is fitting in this pandemic time of another invisible killer, that we have Pincus’s new, masterful and tragic account of these tests, which were conducted too close to a relatively primitive culture of peaceful islanders, whose lives focused on fishing and processing coconuts and its copra biproduct.

Pincus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post on intelligence and national security issues for fifty years and now a Senior National Security Columnist for The Cipher Brief, never accuses the U.S. government of intentionally exposing the Marshall Islanders to this highly radioactive fallout, but his meticulously documented book carefully builds a case for reparations and the damages inflicted on the victims through miscalculations of nuclear yield and weather effects of trade winds and rain, which can be callously summed up by the classic bureaucratic understatement: “mistakes were made.” Indeed, he takes his book’s title from a joke by Bob Hope in 1947, after the Crossroads series of nuclear tests: “As soon as the war ended, we located the one spot on earth that hadn’t been touched by war and blew it to hell.” After you read this book, however, you won’t be laughing.

Pincus expertly discusses nuclear weapon designs and testing as well as radiation effects that the lay reader can easily understand. For example, the pernicious radiation contamination cycle is described as lagoon algae absorbing radioactive particles, which are consumed by small fish, which, in turn are consumed by larger fish, and then is returned to the algae when the larger fish died and the cycle begins again with the long-lived fission products. After the Bikini Atoll tests, scales from the skin of some lagoon fish could emit enough radiation to create an x-ray picture.

The Navy was not completely unmindful of the nuclear weapons effects and did relocate various groups of islanders away from the test sites, but these relocation efforts sometimes far underestimated the yield of the weapon and the distance that fallout would spread on the unpredictable winds.

Pincus rightfully focuses a lot of attention on the 1954 Bravo test of a thermonuclear weapon. The initial predicted yield was six megatons (i.e. six million tons of TNT), but it was in fact fifteen megatons, or two and a half times as powerful. This was one thousand times as powerful as the “Little Boy” fission weapon, which destroyed Hiroshima, killing an initial 80,000 people and tens of thousands more who later died from radiation exposure. To add to the hellacious explosive effect, Pincus points out that Bravo “vaporized an estimated three hundred million tons of sand, mud, coral and water in a mushroom cloud that within five minutes, went through both the troposphere and into the stratosphere.” The uppermost cloud was at one-hundred-thirty thousand feet. One cannot even imagine the huge dispersal area of that radioactive fallout.

The Marshall Islanders, however, suffered no such deficit of imagination as the fallout rained down on them, and over the next several decades contributed to deaths, miscarriages, shortened lifespans and various cancers. To compound their misery, they were frequently relocated to remote uninhabited islands, which were highly unsuitable for their way of life and means of survival. As early as 1948, a decade before Pacific testing was ended, the Honolulu Star Bulletin quoted a Navy official as saying, “The Navy is running out of deserted islands on which to settle these unwitting, and perhaps unwilling, nomads of the atomic age.”

Pincus details the strenuous efforts of the Marshall Islanders over the decades to obtain compensation for their loss of life and lifestyle, health, and happiness. Some U.S. compensation has in fact been made, and then recalculated, and further contributions made over the years. It appears from his account, however, to remain woefully insufficient, and at times only grudgingly made. One should contrast these relatively tiny amounts of money with the many billions, indeed trillions, of dollars spent on our nuclear weapons program and how the Marshall Islanders’ sacrifices contributed ultimately to our national security.

On the penultimate page, Pincus states, “I want to remind people of the long-term health and environmental damage these weapons could cause if ever again used in war…The tiny islands…for the most part, still cannot be inhabited, despite attempts to decontaminate them, more than sixty-five years later…I hoped to show how much is owed to Marshall Islanders who were living simple, isolated lives far away in the South Pacific but who…are symbols of what would be the unthinkable short- and long-term medical results should nuclear weapons ever again be used.”

I should add that, although I abhor nuclear weapons and their horrific devastation and long-lasting radiation damage, I am not so naïve as to favor unilateral nuclear disarmament, especially when confronted by authoritarian and confrontational nuclear weapons states such as Russia, China or North Korea. I have also walked several times on Frenchman’s Flat at the Nevada Test Site, where fourteen above-ground and several below-ground tests were conducted, and personally experienced Conrad’s “fascination of the abomination.” This only added, however, to my sincere belief that intelligence operations to counter the spread of nuclear weapons (or biological weapons) are psychologically righteous. I believe that Walter Pincus would agree.

Book Review: Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders by Walter Pincus / Diversion Books

The Reviewer: James Lawler devoted more than half of his career as a CIA case officer to penetrating and disrupting foreign weapons of mass destruction programs. As Chief of the A.Q. Khan Nuclear Takedown Team, which resulted in the disruption of the most dangerous nuclear weapons network in history, Mr. Lawler was the recipient of one of the CIA’s Trailblazer Awards in 2007. He is the author of Living Lies, an espionage novel about the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and the novel, In the Twinkling of an Eye, about recruiting a spy at the heart of a covert Russian-North Korean genetic bioweapons program to be released April 25.

Blown to Hell earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.

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