It rose up out of the sea, a fearsome, roaring monster unlike anything humans had ever seen: horrible, primeval, unstoppable, towering, breathing radioactive fire, and leaving total destruction in its wake.
No, this was not Gojira, the lumbering prehistoric beast who hit Japanese movie screens in 1954 and has starred in 30 films since, the most recent of which is just out. This monster was the founding inspiration for Godzilla: the fearsome hydrogen bomb explosion known as Castle Bravo, a test detonated earlier that year in the Pacific that gave birth to far more than cinema’s most famous monster. Castle Bravo played a key role in establishing the deep fear of all things nuclear that persists to this day, helped give rise to modern environmentalism, and even planted the seeds of a basic conflict modern society is struggling with: Are the benefits of modern technology outweighed by the threats they pose to nature itself?
We think now that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki horrified the world, but against the other ghastly horrors of World War II, they didn’t really stand out. The frightening pictures of cities devastated by nuclear weapons didn’t look that much different from Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse firebombing of March 9–10, 1945, that killed more people than either atomic weapon.
Not even the outbreak of “A-bomb disease” several years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leukemia cases among the bomb survivors caused by exposure to high doses of radiation, was enough to instill the global fear that was to come.
But the fearsome, roaring, alien monster of Castle Bravo lit the sky like a false sun, creating a fireball so wide it would have vaporized a third of Manhattan and so tall it stretched four times higher than Mount Everest. The scale of the destruction was massively greater than the atomic bombs dropped nine years earlier on Japan … almost too great, too frightening, to comprehend. Now everyone could feel the fear that Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer felt as he watched the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico in 1945, recalling the words of the god Shiva in the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
As frightening as the explosion of Castle Bravo was its fallout. When the dust settled, radioactivity had contaminated more than 7,000 square miles, nearly the size of New Jersey. One speck in that vast area of contamination was the Japanese fishing boat Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon. It was operating in what were supposed to be safe waters, but the explosion was three times more powerful than scientists had expected. The crew of the Fukuryu Maru got back to Japan and, under the glare of international media attention, fell sick from radiation exposure. The Japanese press called it “the second atomic bombing of mankind.”
Now no one on Earth could pretend they were not at risk, either from the vastly more threatening hydrogen weapons themselves, or from radioactive fallout that caused cancer, a disease that the public was just beginning to openly talk about and fear.
What’s more, nature herself was now in jeopardy, threatened with being poisoned, polluted, contaminated by people daring to play God with the very forces of nature. As Spencer Weart reported in his marvelous book The Rise of Nuclear Fear, newspapers called nuclear weapons “a menace to the order of nature” and “a wrongful exploitation of the ‘inner secrets’ of creation.” Pope Pius XII, in Easter messages heard by hundreds of millions around the world, “warned that bomb tests brought ‘pollution’ of the mysterious processes of nature.”
Upon receiving an honor from the Army for creating the atom bomb, Oppenheimer said of the threat of nuclear weapons: “The people of this world must unite or they will perish.” And unite is precisely what people did in the months following Castle Bravo. In 1955, the annual rally against nuclear weapons in Hiroshima was massive, and international news coverage of the rally helped spawn the “Ban the Bomb” movement against both the weapons and atmospheric testing. It was the first truly global protest movement. People were indeed uniting, brought together by fear.
That movement spawned opposition to atomic power, the new form of electrical generation being developed in the 1950s. Some of the most influential leaders of the movement, including Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson, broadened their attention to other ways that technology seemed to threaten human health or nature itself. The modern environmental movement grew directly out of fear of radiation. In fact, Carson was inspired to write Silent Spring, about the threat of the overuse of pesticides, by the similarities she saw between the threat of both forms of fallout: “[T]he parallel between radiation and chemicals is exact and inescapable.”