An enormous Mosler bank vault sits abandoned and forgotten on the dry lake bed of Frenchman Flat. It is ugly, and rusting, a big cookie jar from Hell — yet it is in some sense America’s greatest monument to hope and clear thinking.

That giant safe at the Nevada Test Site is a relic of an Atomic Energy Commission experiment in 1957 (“Response of Protective Vaults to Blast Loading”). Filled with stocks and bonds, gold and silver, cash and insurance policies, it confirmed that our official valuables, contracts and financial instruments, could survive nuclear war. The test must have seemed like a good idea at the time, a masterpiece of steel-and-concrete realpolitik. After all, safes had tested well — quite by accident — at Hiroshima in 1945, when four Mosler vaults in the basement of the Teikoku Bank near Ground Zero were discovered in the ruins with their contents miraculously intact. In fact, American troops entering Hiroshima some weeks after the bombing, reported hundreds of small safes resting in the city’s ashes.

Today at the Nevada Site all that remains of the vault’s reinforced concrete “bank building,” itself specially constructed for the test, are a few shards of blasted concrete and a tangle of rusting, arm-thick steel reinforcing rod, swept back like so many cat’s whiskers in the wind.

Just before dawn on June 24 1957, a 37-kiloton fission bomb, code-named “Priscilla,” was suspended from a helium balloon about half a mile from where the big safe stands. In the path of Priscilla’s shock wave the Atomic Energy Commission had built its own tiny twentieth century city. Priscilla rocked that mini-civilization in southern Nevada with twice the explosive force of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Its flash — far brighter than the sun — was reflected back off the moon, and soldiers covering their eyes in trenches two miles away claim they were able to see the bones in their hands.

Domed shelters of 2-inch thick aluminum alloy were flattened like so many soda pop cans stamped flat on a job site. The shock wave hammered reinforced concrete shelters, industrial buildings, cars in an underground parking garage, community shelters, a railroad trestle, a 55-ton diesel locomotive, parked airplanes, dummies in Russian and Chinese protective clothing, and a man-made pine forest rooted in concrete on the desert floor. Anesthetized Cheshire pigs in little protective suits were roasted alive in Priscilla’s thermal pulse. We’ll never know for sure but Priscilla’s heat, like that of the Hiroshima bomb, must have instantly incinerated unsuspecting ravens in mid-flight. Later that morning, the fallout cloud drifted eastward, where in the months to come it mingled with residual radioactive products from other atmospheric tests and eventually dispersed around the globe. Today, anyone in the world born after 1957 carries in his or her bones at least a few atoms of Strontium-90 fallout from Priscilla.

In 1957, at about the moment that human self-extinction first became possible, many policy-makers already believed all-out nuclear war with the Soviets to be an inevitability. In fact, some of those planning the Priscilla shot, and assumedly curious to discover whether our stock and insurance certificates could survive it, must have known that full-scale nuclear war could theoretically end all life on earth. That year, hardly a decade after the atomic bomb had been but an exotic laboratory device, it was already a commodity; Priscilla was just one of 6,744 nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile. (The Soviets had 660.)

Here at Frenchman Flat we rehearsed our failed attempt at global suicide. It would have been a grand, charismatic gesture, spectacular pornography — the human species going out with a great bang, nothing dreary and plodding like AIDS or global climate change. It would have been visible throughout the solar system; and as Priscilla did indeed show, our valuables, safely locked away, would indeed have survived us.

The Nevada Test Site, a particularly desolate thousand square miles of the Great Basin, was chosen in 1951 for our nuclear tests partly because it’s ringed by low mountains, naturally shielded from the prying eyes of the outside world. Today, if you stand amid the charmless wreckage at Frenchman Flat, another thing is clear: It is also impossible to see out of the basin; the place is disconnected from the rest of Nevada, from America, from civilization itself. It is a lifeless, humorless, Planet of the Apes location. These could have been the ruins of a future we stopped in its tracks — the ruins of Las Vegas, Vienna, or Tokyo, your town or my town, bombed back to the Stone Age.

Today, as we sweat over whether North Korea has four bombs or six, or whether Iran has any at all, remember that in 1957, only 12 years after the Trinity test, the United States was manufacturing ten nuclear bombs per day, 3000 fission and fusion bombs every year. The largest in our ’57 arsenal was the 5-megaton Mark 21, powerful enough to flatten 400 Hiroshimas (or Fallujas or Oaklands) at a pop.

Filling that vault with stocks and bonds in 1957 now seems a surreal gesture of hope, a vain defense against a future that never happened: Imagine the survivors — a hairless, sterilized post-nuclear Adam and Eve, dry heaving (like the radioactive feral dogs that roamed the deserted streets of Chernobyl) — crawling toward the bank vault in their bloody rags, trying to remember the combination, praying for their Chrysler stock, or grandpa’s gold watch, or their Prudential personal liability policies.

Or imagine another future, one in which no humans remain to open the vault. This is the Twelve Monkeys future in which the global suicide only rehearsed at the Nevada Test Site in 1957 actually succeeds and no one mops up the radioactive slop or collects the insurance — with only ants and cockroaches left to puzzle over a warm, blasted vault on the radioactive sands of what was once Nevada.

But cooler heads prevailed. Someone drifting off on a 47-year nap in 1957, when nuclear war seemed inevitable, might wake today startled to find that those crimes against the future have so far been held at bay. Our nuclear arsenal peaked at 30,000 weapons in 1966, and has stood at about 10,000 for the past five years. We have — so far — spared ourselves that future, mainly because of the hard work and clear thinking of two generations of leaders who understood what the wreckage at Frenchman Flat meant. Give them credit. Give credit to Dwight D. Eisenhower and Henry Cabot Lodge for introducing a plan for nuclear disarmament in 1957, only weeks after the Priscilla shot; and give credit to JFK for the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty; to Richard Nixon for the SALT and ABM treaties; to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev for negotiating START I and START II. Give credit to Carter and Ford for signing strategic arms limitation agreements with Brezhnev. Give credit to thousands of dissident scientists, activists and ordinary citizens whose relentless pressure helped tip the balance away from madness. Above all, give credit to hundreds of clear thinking selfless men and women in the U.S. and Russia who recognized a slippery slope to Hell when they saw one, and were willing to do the hard work of negotiation and compromise.

The insects and sagebrush have returned to the silent desert at the Nevada Test Site, and ravens once again circle above the vault. But the nuclear dog sleeps with one eye open. Weapons far larger than Priscilla are on alert today, no more anachronistic than rifles or anthrax. Twenty miles north of Frenchman Flat, the tower for “Ice Cap,” a shot put on hold in ’92 when George Herbert Walker Bush suspended American nuclear testing, still stands patiently ready to receive its bomb. As mandated in George W. Bush’s current “Nuclear Posture Review,” the Nevada Test Site is today in the process of ramping up its “ready status” from 2 years to 18 months.

Meanwhile, the United States and 70 other nations maintain thousands of deeply buried, hardened underground bunkers for their top military and civilian officials, a defense against future nuclear war. This is the Frenchman Flat vault scenario writ large. And just in case — after withdrawing support for the ABM treaty — the Bush administration is aggressively pursuing the development of “usable bunker busters,” the first new generation of nuclear weapons since the Cold War. On the grounds of the Nevada Test Site, five miles west of the bank vault, stands the just finished $100,000,000 Device Assembly Facility, poised for either the disassembly of weapons from our stockpile, or for the assembly of new weapons.

In these edgy times, when the possibility of nuclear war seems a thing of the past, a visit to Frenchman Flat should be a requirement for holding public office in America. To stand amid the rusty junk, amid the ruins of a ghastly future that was turned back — deliberately and methodically turned back by statesmen — is to reach a deep understanding of what is possible. This is the bone yard of a very bad idea, recognized for what it was.

Jon Else is a documentary cinematographer and director whose films include ‘ Cadillac Desert ‘, ‘ Sing Faster ‘, and ‘ The Day After Trinity ‘. He teaches in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Earlier this year, for a new film about nuclear weapons, he spent several days working at the Nevada Test Site and so visited, not for the first time, the vault at Frenchman Flat.

Published on Friday, August 13, 2004 by