Hamlet was The Bomb

Arnold Schwarzenegger spoofs Hamlet
in The Last Action Hero (1993)
Whose ideas was it to nickname a nuclear bomb after Hamlet?
How does Shakespeare’s tragedy of the melancholy prince provide insight to the dilemmas of the nuclear age?

   The United States conducted 1054 nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1992, mostly in Nevada and The Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. Sub-critical tests continue to this day.

List of American Nuclear Tests Series Above and Below Ground,1945-1992. Many of these were test series that included a number of "shots," each with their own names.
Hardtack I
Hardtack II
Little Feller
Project 56 
Project 57
Project 58 
Project 58A 
Roller Coaster 

   I have been unable to find information on who chose these names, or the thinking behind the choices.* There seems to have been a lot of thought put into them, perhaps by officers and soldiers who tossed around suggestions during long, boring nights in the desert. The names evoked traditional weaponry with crisp, explosive imagery. Within each series, many of the shots were named after women. There is no way to know if this was meant as a compliment (as in she’s the bomb) or if it was an ugly form of payback on relationships that had gone sour. The names all seem to have arisen from the clipped syllables and drawls the Old West, as if they had been uttered by saddle-hardened cowboys and gunslingers. The tradition seems to have been lost because the recent sub-critical test in Nevada (Dec. 2012) was given the urbane, gentrified name “Barolo B” – a name seemingly phoned in from a wine bar in Washington, D.C.
The strangest series name of all must be Upshot-Knothole, and within this there were ten shots, mostly named after women. A sampling of names: Annie, Nancy, Ruth, Dixie, Ray, Badger, Simon, Encore, Harry (the test event was Harry, and the device used in it was nicknamed Hamlet), Grable, and Climax. The most exceptional one in the list is Harry. The Nuclear Weapons Archive describes it thus:

12:05 19 May 1953 (GMT)
05:05 19 May 1953 (local)
Nevada Test Site (NTS), Area 3
Test Height & Type:
300 Foot Tower
32 kilotons

This device, known as Hamlet was designed by Ted Taylor at Los Alamos and holds the distinction of being the most efficient pure fission design with a yield below 100 kt ever exploded (the most efficient fission weapon of any size was the 500 kt Ivy King also designed by Taylor). This implies an unusually effective compression of the fissile material....
Hamlet used the TX-13D heavy weight strategic bomb design. The system was 56 inches in diameter and 66 inches long and weighed 7000 lb (without the outer bomb case), full weight was 8000 lb. A betatron was used for initiation. This design was never deployed because the design optimization chosen--using a large heavy bomb to get an efficient yield out of a small amount of fissile material--was obsolete in an era of rapidly expanding fissile material supply and with thermonuclear weapons nearing deployment status.
The Harry shot is notable for another reason. It resulted in the heaviest contamination of "downwinders"--civilians living downwind of the Nevada test Site--of any U.S. continental test, as measured by external gamma ray exposure. For the period up to the end of 1958 (through Operation Hardtack II) it is estimated that a cumulative total of 85,000 person-roentgens of external gamma ray exposure occurred. Of this, Harry contributed 30,000 by itself.

   It’s is especially noteworthy that the bomb was “never deployed” and was soon “obsolete” with the arrival of the era of mega-yield hydrogen bombs. In other words, this heavy contamination of downwinders was utterly unnecessary, both in terms of forethought and afterthought. It was just boys with their toys on an unstoppable bureaucratic juggernaut.
One year later, in the Bikini Atoll, the Castle series of hydrogen bomb tests completely reshaped strategic thinking about nuclear warfare. It was no longer realistic to think about using small warheads on the battlefield. Now it was obvious that a superpower could be defeated in a single strike that could wipe out an urban agglomeration the size of the Washington to Boston corridor. If not every building and person were destroyed, the fallout and collateral damage would destroy the social fabric and the ability to wage war.
   The nickname Hamlet got me wondering about the thinking that went into this curious choice. At first glance, the early 17th century tragedy appears to have nothing to do with a technology and a social structure that Shakespeare could not have imagined.
Tom Stoppard wrote, in what is perhaps the most concise summary of Hamlet, (in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead):

Your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice… Now... why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?

In as much as the play is about an offense of both legal and natural practice, Hamlet might, in fact, be very relevant to the nuclear era. I can imagine that whoever applied the nickname to the bomb must have been contemplating themes from the play during his time in the Nevada desert. There are many lines which can be taken from their context in the plot and reapplied to aspects of nuclear weapons development. If we substitute mother earth for the queen, military and political leadership for the king, and everyone else for Hamlet, then the play is transposed readily to the Cold War of the 20th century.
The psychologist Theodore Litz believed Hamlet illustrates "… the many fundamental issues of … how primal sin corrupts; how corruption disillusions; how disillusion breeds preoccupation with death and destroys Eros; and how avengers lose their souls in the inexorable conflict and turmoil that afflict them." (Litz, 1975)
In the analogy set out here, the citizens of the world have been the witnesses and victims of the “foul and most unnatural murder” of nature, and we have reacted like Hamlet. We hesitate, we look away, lose sense of purpose. If we regain it, we lash out impulsively at a Polonius behind the curtain. Eros is destroyed, at least with regard to the diminished interest in having children. Jim Morrison spoke for the baby boom generation when he said, “I'm gonna get my kicks before the whole shit house goes up in flames.”
When the lines from Hamlet are re-contextualized for the nuclear age, they seem to have been written for the occasion, always maintaining the connection to the offense of both legal and natural practice.

1. The Existential Question

For starters, there is the most obvious existential question spoken by Hamlet:

To be or not to be, that is the question.

2. Quintessence

Hamlet described mankind, or the world, as a “quintessence of dust,” but what is that supposed to mean? Look it up and you see that quintessence is:
  1. the fifth and highest element in ancient and medieval philosophy that permeates all nature and is the substance composing the celestial bodies
  2. the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form
In the nuclear age we learned about the common elements that permeate all nature and compose celestial bodies, while enriched uranium was the essence of a thing desired (energy) in its purest and most concentrated form.

3. Strange Eruption

Upshot Knothole-Harry (Hamlet)

the time is out of joint…

our state to be disjoint and out of frame…

this bodes some strange eruption to our state…

something is rotten in the state of <fill in your own blank>.

4. Awesome Beauty

The eruptions and lights in the sky had something awesome and beautiful about them. Even though they were secret, some people living close enough in Las Vegas and in southeastern California knew that if they went to rooftops before dawn they would sometimes see a special fireworks display.

But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill

5. As Bright as a Sun

If you look too long at this energy of the sun brought forth on earth, you will say:

I am too much i' th' sun.

6. Dust to Dust

Disposal of radioactive isotopes is impossible, and they pass through rich and poor alike. You can move the poison around in so-called “decontamination work,” and have some limited success in isolating it from the ecosystem, but you cannot dispose of it or render it into a harmless form. Cesium, the element of most concern in the food supply, goes through the ecosystem, but is never disposed of until it decays away over a few hundred years.

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm… Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

7. God Laughs When We Make Plans

For the hubris behind every failed nuclear technology, or, specifically, about the unintended consequences of that bomb called Hamlet:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

8. Poison

The potent poison quite o'ercrows my spirit...

Yet have I something in me dangerous

9. The Fallout

now pile your dust upon the quick and dead…

foul deeds will rise…

but this most foul, strange, and unnatural…

this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory;
this most excellent canopy, the air,
look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament,
this majestical roof fretted with golden fire-
why, it appeareth no other thing to me
than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours

10. The Double Helix

How could Shakespeare have known that 350 years later scientists would describe the code of life as a coiled double helix, liable to being damaged by the energy of the atom that we unlocked just at the time we were learning the genetic code.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil?

11. Madness

Though this be madness, yet there is a method in't...

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on...

That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft...

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw...



     Nuclear history has its own example of a character, who, like Hamlet, faked madness in order to disorient his opponents, but came to a bad end nonetheless. In 1969, President Nixon was growing frustrated with the unwillingness of North Vietnamese leaders to budge in negotiations. He got the idea that he would repeatedly send stratofortress bombers loaded with hydrogen bombs to the edge of Soviet air space – for no apparent reason. He and Henry Kissinger believed this would frighten the Soviets into thinking they were dealing with a madman, and this would lead them to pressure the North Vietnamese to make concessions. The historian Jeremi Suri recounted:

"The madman theory was an extension of that doctrine [flexible response]. If you're going to rely on the leverage you gain from being able to respond in flexible ways--from quiet nighttime assassinations to nuclear reprisals--you need to convince your opponents that even the most extreme option is really on the table. And one way to do that is to make them think you are crazy…. The nuclear-armed B-52 flights near Soviet territory appeared to be a direct application of this kind of game theory. H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, wrote in his diary that Kissinger believed evidence of US irrationality would 'jar the Soviets and North Vietnam.' Nixon encouraged Kissinger to expand this approach. 'If the Vietnam thing is raised' in conversations with Moscow, Nixon advised, Kissinger should 'shake his head and say, 'I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but [the president] is out of control.'"

   The flights ended abruptly, also for no apparent reason, in order to lend a further appearance of irrationality. Nixon and Kissinger maintained that the strategy was effective, but as the historical record shows, the North Vietnamese outlasted Nixon. By 1974, it was over for Nixon, as he was forced to resign to avoid impeachment. In the feigned madness ruse he was hoist with his own petard. As was the case with Hamlet, no one was sure anymore whether the madness had ever been truly fake. The public and the Washington establishment had been slow to react, but by this time they were ready to say:

Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.

12. Readiness

   And if we should hesitate to do something now about the dangerous nuclear legacy still threatening civilization, fearing the personal costs, we might eventually come to accept what is laid out for us to do. After all his hesitations and distractions, Hamlet goes to his fateful duel saying only:

the readiness is all…

13. Wisdom

Finally, what should have been obvious to those who came to drop bombs on deserts and tropical islands:

Let be.

*Robert Jacobs, associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute and expert in American nuclear history, was able to provide (in email correspondence) some information about how names were chosen for weapons tests:

"...the names are all from randomized lists. Some were proper names, some were names of elements, some were names of places. These were for security reasons, so that they could be discussed in documents with no indication of what they referred to. The early ones, for example at Bikini in 1946 used standard military abc sequences, Able, Baker, Charlie. But later tests involved larger numbers, so they picked topics and randomized the names. In terms of the famous Dirty Harry test (as the downwinders called it) the device being tested was called Hamlet. This is separate from the name given to the test as an event, which was Harry. This was not uncommon when specific technologies were being tested rather than effects. The device in the Bravo test was called Shrimp."

(This post was updated on June 4, 2015)

William Shakespeare. Hamlet.

Theodore Lidz, Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in 'Hamlet' (Vision Press, 1975.) (the description of the book, paraphrased above, is from the book jacket)

Karen Dorn Steele, "Time Bombs Keep Going Off for Cancer-Plagued Families in Idaho who Lived Downwind of Nuclear Testing in the 1950s." The Spokesman Review. Spokane, Idaho. October 24, 2004.

Alex Wellerstein. "The Secret Song." The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. February 25, 2013.

William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, "Nixon, Kissinger, and the Madman Strategy during Vietnam War: Using Nuclear Threats to Intimidate Hanoi and Moscow," Global Research, May 29, 2015. http://www.globalresearch.ca/nixon-kissinger-and-the-madman-strategy-during-vietnam-war-using-nuclear-threats-to-intimidate-hanoi-and-moscow/5452705 


  1. Stretched, but I like it.
    Not that you care, but run the line
    'To be or not to be, that is the question.'
    in your head.
    I promise you - you are ignoring Shakespeare.
    He wrote in iambic pentameter, of course, which puts the strong accent on the word 'is' and on the fragment 'quest.'
    Hamlet was considering suicide before the play opens.

    1. I do care, and you're right. I ignored Shakespeare a bit to make the stretch here.