Image: Las Vegas News Bureau
Image: Las Vegas News Bureau
The neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip have been left behind; the slot machines and craps tables are nothing but a fading memory. Here inside the Binion’s Horseshoe casino, a crowd has gathered with something more spectacular than gambling on its mind. Someone checks their watch as, filling the room, there comes a low hum of excitable chatter, accompanied by the clink of glasses accommodating a specially created “atomic cocktail.” As time ticks over into the wee small hours, the crowd becomes more gregarious; then what they’re all waiting for finally happens: a blinding flash followed by a deadly cloud. Welcome to Las Vegas in the mid 1950s – the perfect place and time to celebrate and witness the detonation of an atomic bomb.
At that time – in what might stand as one of the greatest PR campaigns of the 20th century – the American government managed to persuade the public that nuclear weapons were not, actually, that dangerous. And with atom bomb testing happening within view of Las Vegas, there was also the enticing possibility – and subsequent reality – of drawing even larger crowds of tourists and their money to the area. As a result, during the 1950s and early 1960s Las Vegas became “Atomic City USA.”
Furthermore, in the U.S. the Cold War was becoming an ever-looming menace. The devastating atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II had confirmed America’s status as a global nuclear power. And faced with a communist Soviet threat, it made sense for Uncle Sam to at least develop and test its nuclear weaponry in case it were ever deemed to be needed again for real.
As a result, toward the end of 1950 President Harry S. Truman sanctioned the creation of the Nevada Proving Grounds – a 680-square-mile site for trying out the latest atomic weapons. And as Las Vegas was only 65 miles southeast of the Proving Grounds, those in Sin City were in a prime position to witness the first surface-level nuclear test.
This first test, codenamed Able, came at the beginning of 1951. The nuclear device exploded more than 1,000 feet above the ground, with its almighty flash visible as far away as San Francisco, more than 400 miles to the northwest.
The awestruck general public became more entranced with each new blast. The following year, a nuclear detonation from the Tumbler-Snapper series of tests was broadcast on television sets for the first time, and the lust for everything “atomic” began in earnest.
More detonations were to follow with Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953 and Operation Castle in 1954, the latter of which devastated much of the Bikini Atoll archipelago. Operation Teapot, meanwhile, arrived in 1955 and featured a centerpiece device named Wasp – measuring 10.5 feet long and almost five feet in diameter. Las Vegas had a front row seat as the enormous cloud that Wasp’s detonation created rolled and billowed into the sky.
And the tests proved something of a boon for Las Vegas. Indeed, supported by the government and encouraged by growing public curiosity, Vegas businesspeople were quick to jump on the potential for nuclear tourism.
Schedules of nuclear tests were even produced by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, eyes there no doubt flashing with dollar signs at the potential influx of tourists. At this time there was at least one blast happening every month and no shortage of excited visitors eager to witness the events.
Such activity also meant that the Nevada Proving Grounds were employing thousands of on-site workers, and the Las Vegas Strip would understandably become a favorite retreat for employees looking to blow off some steam of their own.
Cannily, the Strip’s entertainment businesses got hold of the testing schedules and organized their nightlife around the dramatic events. Those casinos with the best vantage points, in particular, went on to host incredible “Dawn Bomb Parties.”
Famously, the Desert Inn and Binion’s Horseshoe took advantage of their ideal positions, holding bomb-watching get-togethers complete with atomic-themed cocktails. The crowds gathered at around midnight and socialized until a warhead illuminated the distance in spectacular fashion a few hours later. These soirees were almost akin to New Year’s celebrations, except that the discharge of fireworks was replaced, almost unbelievably, by the spectacle of atomic clouds.
However, some visitors to the area didn’t need the company of party guests to enjoy the nuclear sights. Instead, they climbed the nearby Mount Charleston for the closest possible view, tucking into their “atomic box lunches” while waiting for the ultimate bang and flash.
The time of the nuclear tests also coincided with the rise of Las Vegas as an entertainment hotspot. Casinos and resorts such as the Sands and the Sahara opened in the early 1950s, while burgeoning stars Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley played their inaugural concerts in the city during the same decade. Indeed, by 1955 almost eight million visitors were flocking to Sin City annually.
And while many arrived for Vegas’ more conventional, and indeed more famous, entertainment offerings, a minority was no doubt drawn by the lure of the atom bomb. If they attended an atomic party, they would join other revelers for a drink or three before ending the night with a – literal – bang.
Indeed, Las Vegas embraced the nuclear phenomenon like nowhere else could. The iconic mushroom cloud was slapped on every conceivable piece of Vegas merchandise – from playthings to postcards – and sometimes pushed the boundaries of taste as a result.
Las Vegas even held the first atomic-themed beauty pageant in 1952, with judges searching for a woman “radiating loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles.” In 1957 Lee A. Merlin became the final – and perhaps most recognized – “Miss Atomic Bomb.” The picture of her smiling while wearing a mushroom cloud-mimicking bathing suit has been seen all over the globe.
The bomb testing took place near Las Vegas for 12 years in total – and a whopping 235 explosives were detonated during that period. Along with further boosting Vegas’ profile and creating huge numbers of jobs, the testing also brought over $176 million of government capital into the city.
By the early ’60s, however, people had gotten wise to the bombs’ effects. Residents of parts of Nevada and Utah near the site protested about detonations harming cattle, while instances of cancer had also begun to rocket in St. George, Utah, 120 miles from Las Vegas. Then, following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty came into force, putting a definitive end to airborne nuclear testing.
Nuclear tourism will rear its head once more in August 2015, but this time in contemplation rather than celebration. Hiroshima and Nagasaki will, with citywide memorials, honor the passing of 70 years since their darkest days. It will be a far cry from the heyday of atomic tourism, though, when for a few short years America – and Las Vegas in particular – learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.