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A-Bomb Sunrise


This is an excellent set of photographs documenting how atmospheric nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site lit up the night sky in Los Angeles:

The light from the tests seems to light up the entire sky, a dull incandescence sharply outlining anything between it and the camera. At first, the images seem rather mundane for looking so much like a sunrise — the difference of course is that this fission-born light comes straight from man’s handiwork, and heralds the beginning of an arms race that in the 1960s tilted perilously close to Armageddon. An interesting theme in the handwritten captions accompanying these photos is the regular reminder that the blast is much more powerful than any previous, which makes sense given that during this period the yields of nuclear tests were definitely on the rise.

The pictures with people in them demonstrate the utter (and now seemingly morbid) fascination with nuclear weapons that many Americans had at the time (e.g the Hulk). The Nevada detonations became such a source of interest for the City of Angels that on April 22, 1952, local TV station KTLA joined several other networks in broadcasting the massive Tumbler-Snapper test detonation. The event got surprisingly high ratings for 5:30 in the morning — before that, they had to broadcast tests secretly. Unless a TV station told you tune in for one, the only way anyone within eye- or ear-shot of a test would know a bomb had gone off was when they saw or heard it announcing itself over the horizon.

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  • postmodulator

    If you’ve ever driven from Nevada to LA, this provides instant perspective. It’s not that far by west-of-the-Mississippi standards, but it’s not close either.

    • Mike G

      A friend grew up in Barstow in the fifties, and says watching the nuke tests was one of the leading forms of local entertainment. Not that there was much else to do.

  • Linnaeus

    The cultural history surrounding nuclear weapons is really interesting and something that, were I ever to teach my history of the nuclear age course again, I’d go into in more depth.

    • Nathanael

      Ah. The period when the US government was completely, irretrievably, insane. It’s a good thing that there was some pushback against the nuclear madness later.

  • Scotius

    Beautiful sunrise! It’s a shame about the radiation poisoning.

  • Back in the bad-old Cold War days of the 60’s, when I was a mere lad, if there was a nuclear attack against the US, maybe other parts of the country might have seen a beautiful nuclear sunrise – before radiation poisoning killed them – but we in NYC knew we’d never see a nuclear sunrise.

    We knew we’d be PART of the nuclear sunrise somewhere else for others to enjoy – before they died of radiation poisoning.

    And everyone, from the Principals, to the teachers, to the 1st Graders, knew that the “Duck-and-cover” and other drills they had us practice were a complete waste of time – except give everyone something to do, and offer some tiny little glimmer of hope to the kids, to an entirely hopeless situation.

    • rea

      I still, sometimes, have nightmares about witnessing a nuclear attack from the basement of a New Jersey elemetnary school.

      • Yeah, me too.
        And I went to PS 13 in Queens, so for some reason or other, I didn’t feel like I’d be too lucky if the Russkies decided to launch their nukes at us.

        • Deptfordx

          Yeah nobody living in a major city like New York or my own London wouldn’t have had to worry about ‘The day after’. Between multiple targets in the same city, and multiple missiles on each ‘to make sure’, there would have hardly been a brick standing on another by the time the rubble stopped bouncing.
          I believe credible estimates are that London would have taken about 10 warheads, god alone know how many Moscow and Washington would have.
          I read recently, i think it may have been in the recent book ‘Command and Control’, that a Cold war American general had his staff do a study. They calculated that without a single weapon falling on Moscow city limits the city would have become a radioactive dead zone just from fallout from all the targets surrounding it.

          • Deptfordx

            Wow, i was wondering what a New York attack would look like and found this.


            To describe the south-east corner as Overkill seems understatement.

            • Barry Freed

              You may enjoy playng with Alex Wellerstein’s amazing Nuke Map:


              or try the newer 3D version:


              • Deptfordx

                Oh i have dropped the Tsar Bomb on southern England for my own amusement?! many a time.

                • Barry Freed

                  Have you played with the 3D one yet? It’s fairly new. You get animated mushroom clouds, simulated airbursts, estimated casualties, fallout patterns, etc. C U N D, I just nuked your old school in Elmhurst!

                • Barry,
                  Thank you!
                  But my Junior High School in Upstate NY deserves nuking much, much more!!!

              • Linnaeus

                Shall we play a game?

            • See that clump of bombs north of Albany? That’s the Watervliet arsenal, about two miles from my college. So I was doomed at home in NYC and at school.

          • SIS

            It would depend on the yield of those warheads. Since the Soviets fielded relatively higher yield ones, I find it hard to think that anything more than 6 or 7 10M warheads would be necessary to cover the important areas of NYC within the 95% + fatality area of a nuclear detonation.

            Hitting DC with that kind of megatonnage would make little sense given how much smaller it is unless you were aiming at taking out bunkers by detonating the warheads almost at ground level as opposed to a couple miles up.

            • Deptfordx

              Which is entirely possible, there were so many nuclear weapons floating around back in the day that the SIOP (or it’s Russian equivalent) got crazy. Command facility, hit it with 3 weapons to be sure. Parliment building barely a mile away? Hit that twice too, there’s probably a secret bunker there anyway. Army base 2 miles from both, nuke it. Realistically one weapon could take out multiple targets (2 to be sure). But the targets seem to have been considered in isolation, which is how you end up with attack profiles that look like a Jackson Pollack painting.

              Here’s a question i’ve always wondered. Considering.

              Most military targets are right by civilian ones anyway.
              The probable inherent inaccuracy of ICBM’s being used on flight profiles they’ve never actually been used before.
              The sheer panic of being under a nuclear attack.

              Would anyone on the receiving end have been able to tell the difference between a counterforce and a contervalue attack anyway?

              • Ahuitzotl

                No. Given the unreliability and error rates in the Soviet Rocket Force, simply hitting the right continent would be something of an achievement, so these targetting profiles are a bit eh.

        • HA! I went to PS20Q. I’m seven more than you!

    • Joshua

      They should have told you to hop in your nearest fridge.

      • Barry Freed
        • catclub

          William Perry died??

        • DrS

          Is “Punky Brewster” on Netflix?

    • By the time I was in SAC it was the late 1980s.

      In a full-scale nuclear exchange with the Soviets, nothing East of the Mississippi would have survived and very little to the West of it.

      A few Indian reservations in Arizona or New Mexico maybe. That’s about it.

      • DrDick

        Probably nothing would, since most of the nuclear missile sites were deliberately situated in rural areas like western Arkansas, the Dakotas and Montana. All well away from other targets of interest.

  • Barry Freed

    They were living in the future back then.

  • rea

    Women still wear bikinis, and people still think those women are hot . . .

    • Aim for the body rare, you’ll see it on TV
      The worst thing in 1954 was the bikini
      See the girl on the TV dressed in a bikini
      She doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the H-Bomb

      • howard

        one of the best shows i ever saw was the gang of four on their first tour of america in 1979; all that was out was the ep that included “i found that essence rare” and in those long-ago days, i didn’t even know the names of the band members, since that kind of info wasn’t readily available.

        • I must have seen them on that same tour.
          They were awesome!

          I still have some of their albums in my… uhm… somewhere.

          • rea

            I still have a bunch of their songs on my ipod rotation, and in fact, was thinking of that song when I made the comment.

            (Although my relationship with the bomb is . . . somewhat ambiguous, since my mom spent a big chunk of WWII working at Los Alamos)

            • howard

              fascinating: i helped develop a visitor center for the los alamos national lab in 1983, the 25th anniversary of, well, of when your mom worked there!

              the remarkable thing, really, is they didn’t have much idea of either the true power of the bomb or the after-effects of radiation: there are loads of pictures of people standing out in the desert watching above-ground nuclear tests in the ’40 and ’50s….

              • Remember, most of this was before the Russians developed their own atomic bombs.

                And back then, shortly after the nuclear test, the military even had soldiers run around the ground where the explosion took place, to see what would happen and what the results would be if the US nuked another country, and wanted to invade and occupy it.

                After Russia developed it’s own atomic bomb, both countries realized that there would probably be no survivors – let alone winners – and we all settled on MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, for the kiddies out there) as the deterrent.

                And to this day, MAD has been the deterrent.

                And that’s why no one wants countries like North Korea run by that psychopathic nut-case, or countries run by apocalyptic religious extremists, to develop deliverable nukes.

                That, would, indeed, be MAD!

                • catclub

                  “apocalyptic religious extremists”

                  But both the US and Israel have them.

                • Nathanael

                  What catclub points out is, in fact, the problem.

        • Barry Freed

          This is me sitting here green with envy.

          • howard

            so probably i shouldn’t mention that the headliner was the buzzcocks and the room was maybe capacity 500?

            • Barry Freed

              I didn’t think I could get any greener. What a show! I would have been 14 at the time though so not much chance I’d have been able to go back then.

        • Cheap Wino

          I caught them a few years later. Absolutely great show. Love those guys. I can almost play Entertainment! in my head at will. Red Hot Chili Peppers stole some of their riffs.

          • Barry Freed

            Andy Gill is one of my favorite guitarists of all time.

            • Shall I be mean now and note that they crossed a picket line in Vancouver to play a show?

              • Barry Freed


              • howard

                that’s both a sad and unexpected note: what were the circumstances? i mean, rock stars – even post-punk rock stars – aren’t leftist organizers, but based on various interviews and profiles of the time, they certainly appeared to be sincere leftists.

                • Barry Freed

                  Here’s a contemporary story about it [warning: PDF – only 2 pages though]

                • rea

                  They’d sold 600 tickets (small venue), and no one told them about the picket line until they got to the hall.

              • Cheap Wino

                I can’t hear you. . . lalalalalalalalalala

  • “So beautiful, it’s scary!”

  • James E. Powell

    I am curious. What part of Los Angeles are we looking at there?

    • Linnaeus

      The photo was taken looking northeast from the tower of the L.A. City Hall.

      • James E. Powell

        So that’s Union Station?

        • Anonymous

          Prominent buildings in the middle of the frame are Union Station to the right, Postal Annex to the left.

  • Duck and cover!

  • I was talking to some older folks at a local political meeting, and one of them worked for the park service near a ridge in the southern Sierra Nevada a few decades ago, here in southeastern Tulare county, CA. One late night, the employees were having a party, and all of a sudden there was a burst of light. They knew it was an A-bomb test, what else could it have been?

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