Seventy-four years ago yesterday, the U.S. dropped the first-ever atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, a non-military target of several hundred thousand, instantly vaporizing some 70,000 people, mostly civilians, and causing the painful, slower death of another 70,000 who died of burns and radioactive damage to their bodies over the next four months. Another 60,000 died later over the years of cancers caused by the bomb’s radioactive pulse and subsequent fallout.
It was, of course, only the first of two such bombs. The first, nicknamed “Little Boy” was made with Uranium 235. The second, nicknamed “Fat Man,” was based on the man-made element Plutonium. Both were developed by the Manhattan Project based at Los Alamos, NM, along with the world’s first atom bomb, a Plutonium device exploded in the desert near Alamogordo and called “Trinity.”
It was the start of the nuclear age. Both bombs dropped on Japan were war crimes of the first order, particularly because we now know that the Japanese government, which at that time was having all its major cities destroyed by incendiary bombs that turned their mostly wooden structures into towering firestorms, was even before Aug. 6, desperately trying to surrender via entreaties through the Swiss government.
The Big Lie is that the bomb was dropped to save U.S. troops from having to invade Japan. In fact, there was no need to invade. Japan was finished, surrounded, the Russians attacking finally from the north, its air force and navy destroyed, and its cities being systematically torched.
Actally, the U.S. didn’t want Japan to surrender yet though. Washington and President Harry Truman wanted to test their two new superweapons on real urban targets, and even more importantly, wanted to send a stark message to the Soviet Union, the supposed World War II ally which U.S. war strategists and national security staff actually viewed all through the conflict as America’s next existential enemy.
As authors Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod, two theoretical physicists, wrote in their frightening, disturbing and well-researched book To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans (South End Press, 1987), the US began treacherously planning to use its newly developed superweapon, the atom bomb, against the war-ravaged Soviet Union, even before the war had ended in Europe. Indeed a first plan, to drop 20-30 Hiroshima-sized bombs on 20 Russian Cities, code-named JIC 329/1, was intended to be launched in December 1945. Fortunately, that never happened because at that point the U.S. only had two atomic bombs in its “stockpile.”
They describe how as the production of new bombs sped up, with 9 nuclear devices by June 1946, 35 by March 1948 and 150 by January 1949, new plans with such creepy names as Operations Pincher, Broiler, Bushwacker, Sizzle and Dropshot were developed, and the number of Soviet cities to be vaporized grew from 20 to 200.
Professors Kaku and Axelrod write that Pentagon strategists were reluctant to go forward with these early planned attacks not because of any unwillingness to launch an unprovoked war, but out of a fear that the destruction of Soviet targets would be inadequate to prevent the Soviet’s still powerful and battle-tested Red Army from responding by over-running war-ravaged Europe in response to such an attack—a counterattack the U.S. would not have been able to prevent. These strategists recommended that no attack be made until the U.S. military had at least 300 nukes at its disposal (remember, at this time there were no hydrogen bombs, and the size of fission bomb was constrained by the small size of the core’s critical mass). It was felt, in fact, that the bombs were so limited in power that it could take two or three to decimate a city like Moscow or Leningrad.
So the plan for wiping out the Soviet Union was gradually deferred to January 1953, by which time it was estimated that there would be 400 larger Nagasaki bombs available, and that even if only 100 of these 25-50 kiloton weapons hit their targets it could “implement the concept of ‘killing a nation.’”
The reason this epic U.S. Holocaust never came to pass is now clear: to the astonishment of U.S. planners and even many of the U.S. nuclear scientists who had worked so hard in the Manhattan Project to invent and produce the atomic bomb (two types of atomic bomb, really), in August 29, 1949 the Soviets exploded their own bomb, the “First Lightning”: an almost exact replica of the “Fat Man” Plutonium bomb that destroyed Nagasaki four years earlier.
And the reason the Soviet scientists, brilliant as they were but financially strapped by the massive destruction the country had suffered during the war, had been able to create their bomb in roughly the same amount of time that the hugely funded Manhattan Project had done was primarily the information provided by a pair of scientists working at Los Alamos who offered detailed plans, secrets about how to work with the very tricky and unpredictable element Plutonium, and how to get a Plutonium core to explode in a colossal fireball instead of just producing a pathetic “fizzle.”
Those two physicists, working separately as spies without knowledge of each other’s also being a spy, were the German Communist Klaus Fuchs, and Harvard physics undergrad Ted Hall. Fuchs had fled the Nazis in 1933 for Britain, where he later worked on the British effort to create an atomic bomb before later being recruited to Los Alamos. Ted Hall, a brilliant Harvard physics major only 18 years old, was recruited to Los Alamos before he had even earned his BA.
Fuchs provided his Soviet handlers a vast trove of detailed information about both the U-235 and the Plutonium bomb. Hall, meanwhile, while not a Communist, came to fear a U.S. monopoly on atomic weapons when the war ended, and decided to volunteer his information to the Soviets. He ended up searching out a Soviet NKGB agent to give it to in a rather comic escapade during a trip home to his family in New York City. His bomb information, while less voluminous and detailed than that provided by Fuchs, may have provided the decisive information about the implosion device for the “Fat Man” bomb — the project on which he was working — as well as the secret discovery of how to reduce the amount of Plutonium needed to achieve criticality, and to improve the predictability of the explosion, by adding Beryllium and Polonium to the fissionable Plutonium. Hall’s information, provided later than Fuchs’s, also may have helped convince skeptical Russian scientists that both men were not ringers seeking to steer their project into a dead end but were, rather, both telling the truth, since the two men didn’t really know each other.
In the end, the spying by Fuchs and Hall led the Soviet project to drop efforts to obtain enough hard-to-get U-235 for a Uranium bomb and to instead immediately focus all efforts and resources just on developing a Plutonium bomb. That narrowing of focus, and the plans for how to do it, are what gave the Soviets their bomb in time to deter any likely early U.S. first-strike.
Fuchs, while working after the war on the hydrogen bomb in the U.K., ultimately confessed to his spying for the Soviets in 1950, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Hall, while suspected in the early ’50s of having been a spy at Los Alamos along with his Harvard friend, roommate and messenger Saville Sax, was never arrested, indicted or prosecuted, and only disclosed what he had done in 1995 after the public release of translations of coded Russian spy messages (the Venona transcripts) included garbled but decipherable versions of their names. Hall died in Cambridge, England in 1999 of kidney cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
On this terrible 74th anniversary of the first atomic bomb’s leveling of a city full of human beings, it’s appropriate to acknowledge that what Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall did. For however much U.S. patriots might wish to condemn them as spies and traitors (Fuchs had been granted British citizenship, and Hall was a native-born American born in New York to two immigrant Russian Jewish parents), the secrets they gave the Soviets, objectively viewed, led to an improbable era of no nuclear weapon being dropped on human beings in war, and indeed to no third great-power conflict, over the last 74 years, or almost three quarters of a century.
The U.S. never did dare launch a first strike on the Soviet Union, or in these later years against Russia, once Russia also had nuclear bombs of its own. Nor has it ever directly pitted its military forces against Russian forces. It’s not that the U.S. government hasn’t wanted or perhaps still wants to annihilate the Russians, but rather that its hands have been tied by the reality that even if it were to launch that first strike blitz that the U.S. has never been willing to disavow, its leaders, venal and power-hungry as they may be, have never been able to confidently know that at least some of Russia’s massive ICBMs wouldn’t get through after a surprise strike, or before one struck, to land unacceptably destructive nuclear bombs on the U.S. in response.
I’m currently working on a documentary film about Ted Hall and his youthful act of impetuous heroism. Together with Oscar-nominated filmmakers Steve James and Mark Mitten, as well as my videographer son Jed, we just spent three days interviewing Ted’s widow Joan Hall and their two daughters Ruth London and Sara Hall. They told us that while Ted, in the 1990s when he was in failing health, confessed that had he known about or believed all the stories about the brutality of Stalin’s dictatorship he “might not” have done what he did in 1945. But he also told them he was convinced that, looking back, he also felt that the young man that he was at the time had done the right thing in sharing the secrets of a bomb to prevent the US getting a nuclear monopoly.
“The bomb was,” he insisted, “not the property of the United States, but of the scientists from the U.S. and Europe who had come together to invent it.”
And indeed, as the atomic bomb was getting close to its first test in the summer of 1945, and later, both before and after it had been used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a number of leading scientists at the Manhattan Project, notably including Niels Bohr, perhaps the most famous physicist after Albert Einstein, had gone to Washington to argue for its being shared with Russia, and for negotiations to prevent the weapon’s ever being used again.
Those efforts at reason failed miserably, but Ted’s bold personal act, along with the courageous spying by Fuchs, accomplished what the Nobel laureate Bohr and his celebrated colleagues had wanted, the avoidance of an intended U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons and of a likely reign of terror that monopoly power would have enabled.
Instead, of course, we endured the terrible anxiety of decades of costly Cold War nuclear rivalry and an era of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Sadly, with the Trump administration’s pull-out from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, its launch of a new Space Force, and the earlier Bush/Cheney Administration’s abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, followed by Russia’s response of developing a new hypersonic nuclear missile, this MAD era appears to be returning with a vengeance.
Looking at the obliterated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki though, as we recall those two days of horror on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, we should all be grateful for what Fuchs and Hall and the other Soviet atomic spies did, considering the alternative.
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