Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Test at Bikini Atoll by Jonathan M. Weisgall. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994. 415 pp., $59.91.
My upcoming professional assignment is increasingly driving my reading selection and has led me to this well-chronicled and terrifying account. With excellent sources and adequate narration, Weisgall documents the atomic tests that took place in the Marshall Islands immediately following the end of World War II. Coded Operation Crossroads, the exercises were hailed as an attempt to gauge the effects of atomic weapons on naval forces and prepare the United States for the nuclear age. In reality, the tests merely served to highlight the danger of hubris in confronting the unknown.
Immediately following the end of World War II, all eyes turned towards the atomic bomb. The true victor of the war, the bomb captivated public and private discussion. A mixture of fear, awe, and confusion led many Americans to almost revere this newfound instrument and the "priests" of the atomic age stationed in Los Alamos. The public's reverence was not matched by those in the military however. With remarkable speed, the Army and Navy quickly utilized the bomb as an instrument to increase spending, prestige, and position vis-a-vis each other. The Army (which included the nascent Air Force) argued that aerial bomb delivery systems negated the value of the Navy and demonstrated the growing importance of air power in the new age. The Navy for its part downplayed the potential damage the bomb would have on ships and argued that navy power was more important than ever. From this adolescent feud sprang the joint exercise Crossroads.
The test itself was enormous in scale and ambition. Over 42,000 men participated in the exercise, though only a small percentage actually understood the true nature--and risks--of the experiments. Two bombs were dropped in quick succession in the summer of 1946, less than one year after the first bombs exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although far from populated areas, the Bikini bombs still led to serious radiation fallout and contamination. The second bomb was exploded underwater, leading to enormous contamination of the water and ecosystem throughout the lagoon. Indeed, after harried attempts to decontaminate naval ships, the experiment was aborted as radioactive contamination reached unhealthy levels. The Army and Navy retreated from Bikini atoll, returning only later in order to explode another 65 nuclear weapons.
The author's narrative is coherent and utilizes excellent firsthand sources. The pictures are compelling, and I particularly appreciated helpful details about the plight of the Bikinians forced to evacuate from the island, becoming the world's first--and hopefuly only--atomic nomads. At times Weisgall's biases shine through (he litigated three lawsuits on behalf of the Bikinians against the U.S. government) and the book lacks depth in areas such as the international context and scientific aspects of the fission process. The book ends abruptly too; I would have appreciated a larger discussion of the later tests of thermonuclear bombs in the area as well as the political consequences of the tests. Still, on the whole the book was an excellent introduction to the atomic legacy in the Marshall Islands and an important cautionary tale against acting rashly with the unknown powers of nature.