Trinity at 74: When America Became the Most Powerful Nation in History

Today is the anniversary of one of the most significant events in human history. While later this week we will celebrate the Apollo 11 visit to the moon, July 16 stands apart.

But Google “Trinity” or nuclear, and you’ll hardly find a mention today about what happened on July 16, 1945, in a remote corner of New Mexico.

On that day, America detonated the first atomic bomb. The Trinity test was successful. The world would never be the same.

One observer of the blast felt they were at the “bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up.”

Cyril Smith, a British scientist eyewitness to the blast had “a momentary question as to whether we had done more than we intended.”

Halfway around the world at the Potsdam, War Secretary Henry Stimson received a top-secret telegram.

Operated on this morning. Diagnosis not yet complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations. Local press release necessary as interest extends great distance.

Stimson whispered the results to President Truman, who was meeting with Stalin and Churchill. At that moment, the former haberdasher, who had been president for just three months, controlled the greatest military power the world had ever known, exponentially so.

America, a nation that just three lifetimes prior was in a hardscrabble guerilla war with barefoot and frostbitten soldiers on starvation rations fighting the mightiest power on earth. From the improbable and providential destiny of its founding to controlling the atom, America had ascended.

At the time, hardly anyone knew. The amazing secrecy of the vast Manhattan Project is a story on its own. Astonishing measures and countermeasures contained the sprawling project that crossed from Washington to Oakland to Los Alamos to Tennessee to the Pentagon, and finally to North Field on the tiny island of Tinian – a field purchased at the price of nearly four thousand Marines and soldiers.

Nothing would ever be the same. And for the world at war for five long years, the bomb would soon bring peace.

Yet the popular culture has obscured other ramifications of the Big Bang in New Mexico. The history of Europe is a history of marauding armies. So is the history of the world. While pop culture is filled with tales of madmen and madness, like Dr. Strangelove or the absurd ABC special The Day After, the opposite has been true. While Ultravox and Peter Paul and Mary sang of looming nuclear destruction, it hasn’t happened.

One might argue this is akin to tectonic plates building up stress over time but not fracturing, that at some point something has to give.

But that’s the point of today’s anniversary. Trinity was 74 years ago. Seventy-four years. Find another period of seventy-four years where the world has enjoyed the peace and stability between major powers that has endured since that hot July day in 1945. Perhaps this was America’s blessing to the world. Had Hitler, Hirohito, or the murderous Stalin obtained it first, the world would be a very different place today. And for that, July 16 is a day of profound historical importance for which the entire world can be thankful.