The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

In the Shadow of Oppenheimer

Aug 21, 2023

The first test of the atomic bomb, dropped 78 years ago in Los Alamos, New Mexico, left civilians caught in the fallout twisting in the wind. The pre-dawn test blast jolted communities across southern New Mexico. It shot a mushroom cloud ten miles into the sky, and then rained radioactive ash on thousands of unsuspecting residents. The new movie, Oppenheimer, spotlights the scientist most credited with the bomb. But the movie completely ignores the people who lived in the fallout zone. Many have since died from resulting cancers.

The site of the bomb test was chosen supposedly for its isolation. Oppenheimer picked the site in northern New Mexico for the Manhattan Project, the government’s secret project to build an atomic bomb during WWII, because it was hard to find and hard to get to—situated where four mesas are separated by deep canyons. In the movie, Oppenheimer is quite proud of the location he picked. But there were nearly half a million people living within a 150-mile radius of the site. The Manhattan Project scientists and leaders knew these people were at risk. But secrecy was the government’s priority, not the civilians, who were not informed, not warned, and not evacuated—that might have compromised security. In fact, the military came up with a cover story for the bombing: an ammunition magazine explosion.

The July 16, 1945 blast was more powerful than Oppenheimer and others expected. It was equivalent to 25,000 tons of TNT, according to recent estimates. Witnesses said the plutonium ash fell for days on areas where people grew their own food and drank rainwater from cisterns, and into irrigation canals that made the desert fertile. Weeks later, chickens began to die.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 covers people who were downwind of above-ground tests in all the test sites except the first one. It does not cover the first test in New Mexico. So, those who got government compensation were in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Uranium industry workers and military personnel at the Los Alamos site are also covered. The government has already paid out 2.5 billion dollars. Some in Congress say that expanding compensation to people living in New Mexico would be too costly.

The U.S. government, in the service of the U.S. bourgeoisie, had no problem with injuring its own citizens with radiation in order to test and later, mass produce this new weapon. They did it in order to accomplish their agenda of demonstrating that they were the dominant power of the world. They did not hesitate to use these barbaric weapons, within one month, on millions of human beings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.