Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2019

Trinity, by Louisa Hall

Trinity by Louisa Hall (b. 1982) was an impulse loan from the New Books stand at the library.  It was nominated for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize, which was won by Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (which I reviewed here).

Trinity, set in the US in the 20th century, is narrated by seven (fictional) people who knew Robert Oppenheimer.  Some people call him the Father of the Atom Bomb, but I think that ‘father’ is too benign a word to use (even though, of course, I know that not all fathers are benign).  Oppenheimer was not the sole instigator of the nuclear age, but he was head of the Los Alamos laboratory that developed the first nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project, and he oversaw the first successful detonation in July 1945.  He was essential to the project.

There are plenty of people who interpret Nagasaki and Hiroshima as events which shortened the war against Japan and saved lives.  There are also people who thus judge the motivation for the decision to drop those bombs as humane.  I am not one of them.  Even if I accepted those grounds (which are disputable) and could theoretically acquiesce to the decision to bomb Hiroshima, the decision to bomb Nagasaki shortly afterwards is insupportable.  I think the decision to use those bombs was about demonstrating not only that the US was the supreme military power, but also their capacity to dismiss the cost to human life.  Stalin won his war by ignoring the cost of casualties on his own side, and the US won the peace by demonstrating that they could be equally pragmatic about the cost of human lives in the pursuit of their objectives.  Those bombs were intended to show Stalin that the US would not be squeamish if the Cold War escalated.

So you can see that I read this book without much sympathy for Oppenheimer.  The ‘Testimonials’ include

  • Sam Casal, a secret service agent who tailed Oppenheimer in 1943;
  • Grace Goodman, a rather star-struck WAC (Women’s Army Corps) among the military at Los Alamos in 1945;
  • Andries Van Den Berg, a former colleague now working on a project in Paris in 1949, a man denied a visa to return to the US (probably due to Oppenheimer’s betrayal);
  • Sally Connelly, a wannabe novelist with an eating disorder, who works for Oppenheimer in 1954 at Princeton;
  • Lía Peón, on the holiday island of St John in 1958, one of a gay couple and has an unhealthy curiosity about Oppenheimer’s court room appearances under McCarthyism;
  • Tim Schmidt, a student in Massachusetts, 1963, reflecting on the ‘rehabilitation’ of Oppenheimer’s reputation in the Kennedy era
  • Helen Childs, Princeton, 1966, a journalist interviewing Oppenheimer just before he dies.

Trinity, however, is about more than Oppenheimer and his contrary behaviour: his affairs; his support and betrayal of his Communist friends; and his on-again/off-again support for nuclear weapons.  The novel also explores the way people believe what they want they want to believe: how they delude themselves and how they can justify unethical behaviour when it suits them.  These characters with their testimonials often tell us more about themselves than they do about Oppenheimer.  They reflect on their own betrayals, their refusals to admit reality, their inability to see the truth, and their folly in acquiescing to what’s expected of them rather than choosing for themselves.  The saddest and most convincing of these characters is Sally, whose sister is devastated by the images she sees of Japanese victims, and who can see no future in a world where these weapons threaten everyone.

There are scenes in the novel that make me wonder if they really happened.  In Grace Goodman’s chapter (p.82) she reports on a meeting where scientist are demurring against the use of the bomb and Oppenheimer manages to swing the mood of the audience in favour of conceiving it as a lifesaver.  In Sally Connolly’s chapter, she hears a radio report where panellists were discussing the war in Korea and how Truman had ordered atomic devices to be assembled at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

Apparently B-29 bombers were flying practice runs from Okinawa to North Korea, dropping dummy atom bombs.  The panellists on the radio were debating the effectiveness of using nuclear weapons against North Korea, despite the fact that every important building in the country had already been destroyed by our bombers, and despite the fact that the Soviets had nuclear weapons as well, and had already tested two additional bombs since their original 1949 test. ( p.132)

Is this true? I looked it up at Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links):

The U.S. dropped a total of 635,000 tons of bombs, including 32,557 tons of napalm, on Korea, more than during the whole Pacific campaign of World War II.

Almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed as a result. The war’s highest-ranking US POW, Major General William F. Dean, reported that the majority of North Korean cities and villages he saw were either rubble or snow-covered wasteland. North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground, and air defences were “non-existent.” In November 1950, the North Korean leadership instructed their population to build dugouts and mud huts and to dig underground tunnels, in order to solve the acute housing problem. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay commented: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.” Pyongyang, which saw 75 percent of its area destroyed, was so devastated that bombing was halted as there were no longer any worthy targets. On 28 November, Bomber Command reported on the campaign’s progress: 95 percent of Manpojin was destroyed, along with 90 percent of Hoeryong, Namsi and Koindong, 85 percent of Chosan, 75 percent of both Sakchu and Huichon and 20 percent of Uiju. According to USAF damage assessments, “Eighteen of twenty-two major cities in North Korea had been at least half obliterated.” By the end of the campaign, US bombers had difficulty in finding targets and were reduced to bombing footbridges or jettisoning their bombs into the sea.

I find this shocking, and I’m embarrassed that I had to read a novel to learn about it. (No wonder North Korea wants nuclear weapons to defend itself!)

Sally, in her testimonial, says that she feels an affinity with Oppenheimer because they both had no control of the system. He told Truman that he had blood on his hands, and Truman wouldn’t meet with him after that.  His erratic behaviour, she thinks, was because he was trying to retain influence at a time when opposition to the H-bomb was seen as traitorous—as was any suggestion that there should be transparency about nuclear secrets, to eliminate the need for an arms race.  Continually under suspicion because of his connections with communists, he was desperately trying to persuade Truman not to test the first H-bomb. 

And we all know how that worked out.

It’s true, of course, that the Nazis were developing nuclear weapons, so it was only a matter of time before they were available, and it isn’t reasonable to blame just one man for their use, especially not when he seems to have tried to put the genie back in the bottle.  Louisa Hall’s novel doesn’t give Oppenheimer a voice to explain himself, but it does make one thing clear: the thirst for knowledge is not an unambiguous good, and now that so many states are nuclear armed, there is no redemption for any of those who brought these monstrous weapons to fruition.

Author: Louisa Hall
Title: Trinity
Publisher: Corsair, an imprint of Little Brown, London, 2018, 324 pages
ISBN: 9781472154057
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Trinity: Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize

 


Responses

  1. An unusual novel but very thought-provoking. I similarly had no idea that North Korea had been used for target practice in essence. How it is even possible to consider that exterminating entire settlements can be humane???

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    • We have a beautiful book here at home, about Korea. It’s the work of a photo-journalist, and I got it out to look at it when I came to that part that I’ve quoted above. Apparently without too much trouble he travelled all over the country, from north to south, some time in the 1980s. He makes mention of the fact that North Korea’s development had been more rapid because they had to start from scratch after the war. But he doesn’t say why. I guess that a bit about that aspect of their history isn’t wanted in a pretty coffee-table book…

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  2. The scale of the horror is too hard to take in at times. My dad was a veteran of WW2. He was a stoker in the Royal Navy based in the Indian Ocean when that catastrophe took place. His anti war rhetoric was relentless all of my childhood and up until his passing less than a year ago. He gave my brother when a toddler his medals to play with and they vanished somehow. My mother the daughter of a WW1 veteran was of the same ilk. Can we ever be liberated from the barbarism of war?

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    • It doesn’t seem possible, when you think of all the wars that are ongoing.
      I remember teaching a lovely and highly intelligent girl from Afghanistan, a refugee family from the Taliban but before 9/11 when nobody knew or cared anything about that part of the world. I remember her saying wistfully what a beautiful country it was and how she yearned to go back there but they had been at war for 20 years and she didn’t think it would happen in her lifetime. Well, she would be middle-aged by now, and so far she’s been right.

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  3. I’m not sure I’d ever read the book but I really appreciated your commentary. The US were focussed on containing the USSR from 1917 on and I’m sure they rushed into Hiroshima and Nagasaki just to intimidate the Soviets (and because what guy has a weapon he doesn’t want to try out). No, I didn’t know N Korea had been levelled in that way either. Over and over when you look at the US’s enemies you can see them being goaded into a posture which can only lead to war – and yes, I’m talking about Iran now.

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