LIFE and Bikini Atoll: The Bomb as spectator sport

Part four in a series.

The terrible specter of nuclear annihilation was now clear in the American mind, a condition that LIFE acknowledged and addressed. But in the months that followed V-J Day an odd thing happened, as military testing of the new weaponry provided an opportunity for bomb-watchers to indulge their awe without having to confront the frightful context of war. In the estimation of President Truman, America was not only the most powerful nation on the planet, it was likely the most powerful nation in history (8/20/45, 32). If the bomb did possess apocalyptic potential, at least it could now be addressed within the relative calm that attends triumph, peace, and unchallenged superiority.

In July 1946, the U.S. detonated a bomb over Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, and the following issue of LIFE presented most Americans with their first images of the test. The five-page photo-essay, a marvel of symbolic complexity, begins in matter-of-fact fashion.

Just before “Mike Hour” on the morning of July 1, the time when the fourth atomic bomb was dropped over 73 old ships at Bikini Atoll, observers put on protective glasses or turned away and covered their eyes. Released from the B-29 Dave’s Dream, the bomb fell exactly on schedule. It missed the paint-splotched target ship Nevada by a few hundred yards but it fulfilled its purpose: to determine how much damage an atomic bomb exploded in the air could do to ships (7/15/46, 25).

The photo-essay’s first page is dominated by a shot of a cruiser’s foredeck, with several seated sailors faced away from the atoll, their heads and eyes covered. The text below the picture contains a brief and bloodlessly detailed accounting of the effects of the blast – initially, the impact appeared to have been “Not so much,” in the estimation of a Russian observer, but “later the details of destruction piled up.” Many of the “goats, pigs, rats and bedbugs which had been placed on the ships had died,” and in the end “man’s first estimate of the bomb’s frightening destructive power had merely been restated” (25).

The following three pages offer several spectacular pictures of the mushroom cloud and its aftermath, which the editors term the “feature attraction of Operation Crossroads” (26). The vocabulary of the editorial comment isn’t exactly festive, but neither is it as foreboding as we might expect in the aftermath of the carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each of the earlier clouds had been an “immense luminescent pillar which sprouted majestically after the bomb’s first flash.” At Bikini, though, “The height of the cloud was disappointing” (26). Apparently what the world wanted was a show, and while Bikini was a nice effort, the sequel failed to live up to the standard of the originals.

However, the following page contains photos of four scorched and mangled ships, and while the tone in the text remains clinical, the pictures themselves (especially the ones of the carrier Independence and the submarine Skate) quickly dispel the notion that the test was anything but dead serious. The page also shows some sailors bathing one of the surviving pigs “to remove possibly radioactive dust” from the explosion. “Pigs were chosen for the experiments because their skin is almost human,” the caption says (28). The final page shows a “battery of cameramen” inside “one of the 73 planes which were in the air over Bikini at the time of the explosion.” If not for the fact that almost all the photographers are in military or military-style garb, we might take the picture for a shot of a movie set. “Almost every conceivable kind of photographic equipment was used to record the effects of the test, from giant telephoto lenses to Fastax cameras which can make up to 8,000 pictures a second” (29).

The overall effect of the photo-essay is mixed. We begin with a scientific accounting of the test, then lapse into wide-eyed sensationalism, followed quickly by a series of sobering shots of devastation, and concluding with a picture that can be read as signifying the thoroughness with which the historic moment was recorded, but which also perhaps attached a show-biz glamour to the proceedings. A brief follow-up in the following week’s issue (7/22/46) shows three more pictures, taken at the moment of the explosion, and sticks to a straightforward, informational tone.

On July 25, another bomb was detonated at Bikini – this one underwater. Pictures from the August 12 issue of LIFE are remarkable in their beauty, a fact that owes at least in part to the main photo’s vantage point from the island. The camera looks down across the beach, dotted with palm trees and thatched-roof huts, out across the water, where a spectacular column of water erupts 5,500 feet into the sky.

The editors called the photos “strange and terrifying,” noting that the battleship Arkansas “appeared to be lifted bodily out of the water, [and] sank before the clouds cleared away” (8/12/46, 30). They seem both horrified and mesmerized by the pictures: “In its effect, as well as in appearance, the second Bikini bomb was more impressive than the first” (31).

With the focus squarely on the splendor of the Nuclear Sublime, readers may not have noticed the second technological story being told through the chronicle of Bikini Atoll. LIFE founder Henry Luce had noted years earlier that his new magazine was itself based on technology, and the editorial staff rarely missed the chance to celebrate their own technical accomplishments. In just two pages, the August 12 issue made at least six references to photographic technique and technology – in fact, at times the photography seems to be the real story, and the nuclear detonation merely an excuse to take pictures.

The automatic cameras that took the pictures from towers on the atoll were the same ones that photographed the over-water explosion a month before. This time, instead of showing the familiar pattern of a towering smoke column, they recorded a thick column of water, topped by a low, flat mushroom of steam. It was perhaps the most awesome man-made spectacle ever photographed (30).

In the last line, it is the perspective, the attention, of photography that lends the events their importance – in a culture evolving from text to image, visual communications technology becomes central to the construction of meaning.

This tendency that pictures seemed to have – to both awe and mortify, to depict the monster so that fascination overrides fear – is precisely the process Clifford Christians has in mind when he notes communications technology’s place at the “meaning-edge” of technological critique. If, as McLuhan says, “the medium is the message,” then we must understand how LIFE’s critique of technology is ever and always more significant than its expressed coverage of technical events such as those at Bikini Atoll. Every picture its photographers take make technological even the simplest and most non-mechanical occurrences, and if this process manages to render the mundane extraordinary or the unspeakable majestic, then it engages in an ongoing meta-critique of the capacity for communications technologies not just to record the world, but to impart meaning, to interpret reality, and to revise truth.

Truly, the meaning is the message.


LIFE and Technology series


Christians, Clifford. “Communications and Technology: an Assessment of the Literature.” Research in Philosophy & Technology 9 (1989): 233-249.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s