Submitting proposals for paper presentations at academic conferences can be very competitive, which is why I often try to improve my odds by selecting topics that have direct connections to the conference venue. For instance, I have successfully proposed papers for recent American Folklore Society conferences on John Dillinger’s legendary escape from Wisconsin (when AFS met in Milwaukee), a Kentucky outlaw hero (Louisville), Shoshone-Bannock portrait photographs (Boise), and the reception of Robert Altman’s film Nashville (…guess where).
So, when I learned that the 2014 AFS meeting would take place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that the conference theme would be “Folklore at the Crossroads,” I immediately sought a local connection. I knew that the first atomic bomb test (codenamed Trinity) had occurred two hundred miles south of Santa Fe on the White Sands Proving Ground on July 16, 1945, and that almost exactly one year later, on July 1 and July 25, 1946, the second and third atomic bomb tests occurred in the Bikini Atoll of the South Pacific. The codename for those Pacific tests was (cue the music) Crossroads. Given that the development of the atomic bomb was shrouded in secrecy, it seemed certain that there would be a great deal of folklore—including legends, rumors, and conspiracy theories—associated with both Trinity and Crossroads.
One of the earliest such legends claimed that Georgia Green, an eighteen-year-old blind university student, from Socorro, New Mexico, was able to “see” the flash of the Trinity test from fifty miles away—or even from one hundred or 120 miles away, according to some variants. Rays of the sun curing blindness is a common folk motif—even classified F952.2 in the Motif-Index of Folk Literature and found in Greek mythology, when Orion’s blindness is cured “by turning his face towards the rays of the rising sun.” Georgia Green’s miracle was reported in newspapers—and makes for a compelling legend—but according to Snopes.com, Georgia “could still distinguish between light and dark,” which removes any mystery or supernatural explanation for her being able to “see” the brilliant flash of the Trinity explosion.
The existence of several variants—such as the number of miles separating Georgia from White Sands—and a formulaic structure are usually good clues that a particular “fact” is legend. One such story concerns the first words uttered in shock and awe by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s chief scientist, upon witnessing the success of the Trinity test. By some accounts, Oppenheimer recalled words from the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”; or a slightly different variant, “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” These words are both chilling and prescient, but no one at the time remembered any such pronouncement at the testing site, according to James Hijiya’s definitive article. What Oppenheimer may actually have said was plain and simple: “It worked.”
Similar folkloric variants surround the choice of “Trinity” for the codename. Did it come from Oppenheimer, who may have been familiar with a poem by John Donne, which refers to “a three-personed God”—even though Oppenheimer himself was Jewish and thus presumably not a believer in the Holy Trinity? Or did it come from Major W.A. Stevens, a devout Roman Catholic? Oppenheimer’s literary prowess makes for a better story, but the facts remain obscure—just like the origin of “Crossroads.” Folklorists know that crossroads are often where human beings encounter supernatural creatures. For instance, a well-known blues legend posits that Robert Johnson sealed a midnight deal with the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in order to gain prowess on the guitar. Johnson was an extraordinary bluesman, but he also died mysteriously at the age of twenty-seven. Crossroads are thus associated with demons, death, and mystery—all of which are integral parts of the first atomic bomb tests.
There are legends about the so-called “Demon Core,” which was used in the first Bikini test. This fourteen-pound mass of plutonium led to the accidental deaths through radiation poisoning of two scientists working at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico: Harry Daghlian Jr., who died on August 21, 1945, and Louis Slotin, who died on May 21, 1946. There are also mysterious legends about the significance of the number thirty-three in the tests. The site of the Trinity test is on the thirty-third line of latitude north; the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki straddle the thirty-third parallel; and their destruction was authorized by Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third president of the United States, who was also a thirty-three-degree Freemason.
It is no surprise then that the thirty-third line of latitude north also crosses both the Bermuda Triangle and Roswell, New Mexico. Many mysterious disappearances have occurred at the former; the latter is where an extraterrestrial spacecraft allegedly crashed in July 1947. According to legend, the technologically superior aliens were on their way to the White Sands Proving Ground to warn the United States of the inherent dangers of nuclear weapons when their spacecraft crashed.
Much more folklore could be cited—including the myths and legends of the Marshallese Islanders displaced from Bikini so that the Crossroads tests could take place; the beliefs that atomic bomb testing awakened supernatural creatures, or created radioactive monsters, such as Godzilla, giant leeches, scorpions, crabs, and ants; or that the clouds formed by the explosions resemble mushrooms, which may be poisonous—and thus associated with witchcraft and death. Some of the first atomic bomb test observers thought the resulting clouds resembled geysers, cauliflowers, funnels, parasols, and even raspberries. But the folklore associated with fungi seems to have clinched the mushroom shape as the defining metaphor.
According to the proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act, the development and use of the atomic bomb during World War II was “the single most significant event of the twentieth century.” Not surprisingly, the development and testing of the atomic bomb has also been a highly significant source of folklore.
James Deutsch is a CFCH curator who has helped plan and develop Folklife Festival programs on the Peace Corps, China, Hungary, NASA, Mekong River, U.S. Forest Service, and Silk Road. Two CFCH interns—Emma Louise Backe and Alexandra Karpa— provided invaluable research for this article.