On July 16, 1945, the world ended. Or at least it seemed that way to residents of the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico.
Unbeknownst to local civilians, J. Robert Oppenheimer had chosen their backyard as the proving ground for the world’s first nuclear weapon. The explosion, which U.S. officials publicly claimed to be an accident at a local ammunition depot, tore through the morning sky, leaving a 40,000-foot-tall cloud of radioactive debris that would cake the surrounding area with dust for days on end.
Tina Cordova, whose hometown of Tularosa lies just 45 miles from ground zero, remembers her grandmother’s stories about wiping that infernal dust off every nook and cranny of her childhood home. No one knew what had happened quite yet, but they figured it must have been something special. After all, a local paper reported that the explosion was so bright that a blind woman had actually seen it.
When the initial shock wore off, the 40,000 locals who lived within 50 miles of ground zero returned to their daily lives. They drank from cisterns full of radioactive debris, ate beef from cattle that had grazed on the dust for weeks on end, and breathed air full of tiny plutonium particles. Only later would the real impact become clear.
Bernice Gutierrez, born just eight days before Oppenheimer’s “Trinity Test,” moved from a small town near the blast site to Albuquerque when she was 2 years old. Cancer followed her like a specter. Her great grandfather died of stomach cancer in the early 1950s. She lost cousins to leukemia and pancreatic cancer. Her oldest son died in 2020 after a bout with a “pre-leukemia” blood disorder. In total, 21 members of Gutierrez’s family have had cancer, and seven have died from it.
“We don’t ask ourselves if we’re gonna get cancer,” Gutierrez told RS. “We ask ourselves when, because it just never ends.”
“Oppenheimer” — the latest film from famed director Christopher Nolan — is a three-hour-long exploration of the “dilettante, womanizer, Communist sympathizer,” and world-historic genius behind the ultimate weapon. The movie, based on the book “American Prometheus,” delves deeply into Oppenheimer’s psyche, from his struggles as a young student at Cambridge to his profound melancholy over the world he helped create.
Yet nowhere in the film will viewers find an acknowledgement of the first victims of the nuclear era. Indeed, the movie repeats the myth that the bomb site was in a desolate area with “nothing for 40 miles in either direction.” This was not for lack of effort, according to Cordova, who leads an activist group called the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. (“Downwinders” refers to those who live in the fallout zone of nuclear tests.)
When Nolan’s team got to New Mexico to film, Cordova and her team published an op-ed in the local newspaper that called on the Oppenheimer crew to “grapple with the consequences of confronting the truth of our stories, of our history.” When that didn’t work, she reached out to the production through Kai Bird, the journalist who co-wrote American Prometheus, in an attempt to get a meeting. She received a flat “no.”
Cordova says she was “aggravated, angry, and disappointed” that the filmmakers had come to New Mexico to shoot the movie (and rake in state-funded tax breaks) but showed little interest in engaging with locals affected by Oppenheimer’s work. “Tens of millions of people are going to flock to theaters to see this movie, and a lot of them have never been exposed to this history,” she added. A short mention at the end of the movie could have changed that, Cordova argues. (Universal Pictures, which produced the film, did not respond to a request for comment from RS.)
And her concerns are not just about recognition. In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which gave insurance and lump-sum payments to the people affected by decades of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. RECA payouts to date total more than $2.5 billion. But New Mexican downwinders were not included in the original law or a broader version of it passed in 2000, a fact that former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson attributes to a simple lack of awareness about their plight.
Cordova and her team have lobbied for years for an expanded version of RECA that would include New Mexican downwinders and some previously ineligible uranium miners, many of whom had little knowledge of just how dangerous their work was. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a RECA expansion bill earlier this month.
“Imagine having radioactive waste fall down like dirty snow on your homes and communities causing cancer and disease,” said Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), who sponsored the bill in the House, in a statement. “Then think about the despair when you learn that the U.S. government compensated other communities exposed to radiation during the nuclear testing program but not yours.”
Lawmakers have introduced similar proposals several times in recent years, but, with limited public awareness behind their efforts, the proposal has never quite gotten enough support in Congress to pass.
“It’s an inconvenient truth,” Cordova said. “People just don’t want to reflect on the fact that American citizens were bombed at Trinity.”
Born in 1947 in Alamogordo, New Mexico, John Greenwood grew up a short distance from the Trinity Test site. Years of radiation exposure caught up with him in 2008, when he was first diagnosed with colon cancer.
Greenwood and his family spent four years fighting for his life. Their insurance covered 80 percent of costs, but the remaining 20 percent added up quickly given that a single chemotherapy treatment could cost $100,000. Other expenses fell by the wayside. One after another, utilities companies cut off their electricity and phone lines. Their car was repossessed.
But Laura Greenwood, John’s wife, knew their only option was to keep going. “I can’t tell you how stressful it was,” she remembered. “You go to bed crying every night wondering what you’re going to do the next day.”
John passed away in 2012, just six months after learning that the cancer had metastasized to his liver. He was the thirteenth member of his family to die from cancer since the Trinity Test.
Greenwood’s story highlights the devastating economic impact that years of health problems have had on downwinders. This, in part, is why RECA expansion has struggled to get off the ground in Congress, according to Laura. Many lawmakers argue behind closed doors that it would simply be too expensive to compensate downwinders and cover future medical costs related to radiation exposure.
Advocates of RECA expansion also have limited data to back up their claims of a link between the test and later cancers, which they blame in part on government secrecy surrounding the event. “The specter of endless lawsuits haunted the military, and most of the authorities simply wanted to put the whole test and its after-effects out of sight and mind,” according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the history of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
A years-long study from the National Cancer Institute found that “no firm estimates can be established” of how many cancer cases came from the test due to limited radiation data from Oppenheimer’s team and a lack of reliable information on cancer rates and daily habits in rural New Mexico at the time. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), who supports RECA expansion, called the NCI research “limited” when it was released.
But one impact of the test is clear. In the months after the explosion, the entire state of New Mexico saw an unprecedented spike in infant mortality, with 56 percent more New Mexican babies dying during live births in 1945 than in 1944. That number went back down in 1946 and has never reached such high levels since, a statistical anomaly with a 0.0001 percent chance of being caused by natural conditions, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
To Nolan’s credit, “Oppenheimer” includes affecting scenes in which the scientist wrestles with the pain wrought by his life’s work. While it leaves out some notable parts of the history, the film offers a powerful and largely accurate account of Oppenheimer’s quest to build — and later try to contain — the ultimate weapon, according to Stephen Schwartz, an expert on the history of nuclear weapons and a non-resident senior fellow with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
“I don't think it glorifies nuclear weapons at all, which was the concern that some people had,” Schwartz told RS. Viewers will leave with “a better understanding of why he did what he did and all the complications that ensued,” he added. “I hope that it sparks many conversations.”
But Cordova sees the lack of engagement with downwinders as a major missed opportunity. She remembered back in 2018, when the Santa Fe Opera put on a production of “Dr. Atomic,” an opera about the lead-up to the Trinity Test. When Peter Sellars, who wrote the show’s libretto, found out about the problems faced by downwinders, he invited Cordova and her team to talk about their experiences on stage before each performance.
At a climactic moment of the show, Sellars portrayed a general arguing with scientists over whether to warn locals about the blast as a group of downwinders quietly watched on from the other side of the stage. “History is about what’s happening to people you’ve never met,” Sellars told RS. “Their bodies are carrying the traces of what you did.”
Sellars says the engagement with locals affected by the blast — most of whom were Latinos or native New Mexicans — helped make the show a hit. “The show was sold out, and the talks were packed,” he remembered.
Despite her lack of luck with the Oppenheimer team, Cordova remains optimistic. She hopes the movie will encourage people to learn more about the impacts of nuclear tests and boost support for her cause. “Every movement that has ever been started has a tipping point,” she said. “This movie could [have been] that tipping point. And it still might be that tipping point.”
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
A mushroom cloud grows above the site of the first ever atomic bomb test, known as the Trinity Test, on July 16, 1945. (Shutterstock/ Everett Collection)
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.
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A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position in a trench at a front line on the border with Russia, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Sumy region, Ukraine January 20, 2024. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
For a conflict discussed in starkly moralistic terms, the ways the Ukraine war is talked about by its most enthusiastic Western supporters can be remarkably cynical about the human carnage involved.
“Aiding Ukraine, giving the money to Ukraine is the cheapest possible way for the U.S. to enhance its security,” Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of the Economist, recently told the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “The fighting is being done by the Ukrainians, they’re the people who are being killed.”
This view is not unique to Beddoes. It’s been widely expressed by those most in favor of an open-ended, prolonged war and most against the kind of peace negotiations that would shorten it.
“Four months into this thing, I like the structural path we're on here. As long as we help Ukraine with the weapons they need and the economic support, they will fight to the last person,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) early into the war, accidentally voicing what the war’s critics have often said about the war — that the U.S. will fight it “to the last Ukrainian.” Later, Graham called it the “best money we’ve ever spent.”
“It is a relatively modest amount that we are contributing without being asked to risk life and limb,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Associated Press last year. “The Ukrainians are willing to fight the fight for us if the West will give them the provisions. It’s a pretty good deal.”
“I call that a bargain,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has said about the war funding, pointing to the damage Ukrainian forces had inflicted on the Russian military.
“No Americans are getting killed in Ukraine. We’re rebuilding our industrial base. The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that,” U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remarked.
Americans “should be satisfied that we’re getting our money’s worth on our Ukraine investment,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), because “for less than 3 percent of our nation’s military budget, we’ve enabled Ukraine to degrade Russia’s military strength by half,” and “all without a single American service woman or man injured or lost.”
But politicians aren’t the only armchair warriors who look at the enormous death and destruction suffered by Ukraine by prolonging the war as akin to a brilliant business decision. Hawkish think tanks have made similar arguments.
“When viewed from a bang-per-buck perspective, U.S. and Western support for Ukraine is an incredibly cost-effective investment,” Timothy Garten Ashe wrote for the weapons maker-funded Center for European Policy Analysis. “Support for Ukraine remains a bargain for American national security,” wrote Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia Peter Rough. “For about 5 percent of total U.S. defense spending over the past 20 months, Ukraine has badly degraded Russia, one of the United States’ top adversaries, without shedding a single drop of American blood.”
And major U.S. newspapers have likewise published similar perspectives. “We have a determined partner in Ukraine that is willing to bear the consequences of war so that we do not have to do so ourselves in the future,” former top George W. Bush officials Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates celebrated in the pages of the Washington Post.
“For all the aid we’ve given Ukraine, we are the true beneficiaries in the relationship, and they the true benefactors,” wrote Bret Stephens at the New York Times, pointing to the fact that NATO is paying in only money, while “Ukrainians are counting their costs in lives and limbs lost.”
What’s distasteful about this is not just the flippant way it treats the unimaginable scale of loss of life, permanentdisability and emerging long-term crises being experienced by Ukrainians — as mere abacus beads to be moved around in a cost-benefit analysis centered on the United States and its NATO allies. It’s also the fact that, far from being “willing,” “determined” and ready to “fight to the last person,” many Ukrainians have demonstrated that they do not want to risk their lives in this war — a share of the population that is getting larger and more vocal the longer the war has gone on.
Since the start of the war, when many fleeing Ukrainian men were stopped at the border and ordered to return to potentially fight, thousands of Ukrainians have defied the government’s ban on men aged between 18 and 60 leaving the country — to the point of spending large sums of money and even risking their lives to get out.
Many hunkered down in their homes to dodge enlistment officers, while tens of thousands signed a petition opposing increasingly aggressive conscription practices. Early last year, Ukraine’s parliament upped the punishment for desertion, which soldiers have this year admitted is still a growing problem.
By November 2023, the BBC determined that a total of nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men had fled the country to avoid being drafted, while the State Border Service revealed a month later that more than 16,500 had been stopped from leaving. At one point, the country’s law enforcement uncovered a massive scheme across nearly a dozen regions that gave out falsified medical certificates declaring someone unfit for military service in return for as much as $10,000.
These plans have engendered massive opposition, with protests by soldiers’ families that have taken place around the country since last year calling for a cap on the length of military service continuing and intensifying; earlier this month. One hundred women blocked a road and mistakenly attacked another woman due to rumors of draft officials coming to take the village’s men away.
“I don’t see the 500,000 more people ready to die,” admitted a former Ukrainian government minister and current army captain last November.
It increasingly appears that many of those who are most enthusiastic to keep the war going and avoid a negotiated end aren’t, as we keep being told, the Ukrainians who are most likely to be killed or wounded in the fighting. Instead they are politicians and commentators far, far away from the front line in other countries who view its attendant death and destruction as akin to a board game — or, in their words, as a “good deal,” a “bargain,” and a satisfying “investment” for their own countries.
In other words, it looks increasingly like all too many other U.S.-led wars.