I consider August 10 to be a red-letter day. A day of celebration on the calendar of the uniting world. On August 10, 2019, humanity has gone 74 years without using a nuclear weapon in warfare. I have written about the wondrous date of August 10 here, here and here. I had a fleeting thought of purchasing a cake with seventy-four candles, and passing out slices to strangers. I have a whole year to plan for next year.
I consider the period between August 6 and August 10 to be a season of contemplation of nuclear weapons, a season of hope for nuclear restraint. I discovered some things I didn’t know during this season that I would like to share.
We are still here. We are still trying
Bing Crosby won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1945, for his performance in the movie “Going My Way.” But Joseph Stalin gave an even more amazing performance at the Potsdam Conference of 1945. America was hoping to secure Russia’s assistance in defeating Japan. The first successful atomic bomb test was on July 16, 1945. America was planning to use the atomic bomb. Harry Truman didn’t trust Stalin, but couldn’t not tell him about the atomic bomb, and keep him as an ally. US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes writes of the occasion:
“He [Truman] said he had told Stalin that, after long experimentation, we had developed a new bomb far more destructive than any other known bomb, and that we planned to use it very soon unless Japan surrendered. Stalin’s only reply was to say that he was glad to hear of the bomb and he hoped we would use it. I was surprised at Stalin’s lack of interest. I concluded that he had not grasped the importance of the discovery. I thought that the following day he would ask for more information about it. He did not. Later I concluded that, because the Russians kept secret their developments in military weapons, they thought it improper to ask about ours.”
Stalin gave an entirely convincing performance of nonchalance and ignorance. Historian Michael Gordin writes:
Yet, as is now abundantly clear in evidence from the Soviet archives, Truman misjudged his opponent. Stalin knew quite a lot. On August 7, the day after the destruction of Hiroshima by the Little Boy uranium bomb, [Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs] Molotov (now back in Moscow) met with U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman. He told the American: “You Americans can keep a secret when you want to.” Harriman observed “something like a smirk” on Molotov’s face, and later noted that “the way he put it convinced me that it was no secret at all . . . The only element of surprise, I suppose, was the fact that the Alamogordo test had been successful. But Stalin, unfortunately, must have known that we were very close to the point of staging our first test explosion.” Harriman’s intuition was correct.
A number of Manhattan Project employees, such as Morris Cohen, Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and David Greenglass, conducted espionage for the Soviet Union. That’s why Stalin knew quite a lot.
The most difficult decision
We are still here. We are still trying. Many words have been written about Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. I recently read Harry Truman’s diary entry from that time.
“We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.
Anyway we “think” we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling – to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater 6 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked over a steel tower 1/2 mile away and knocked men down 10,000 yards away. The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more.
This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo].
He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.”
I confess to know very little about Secretary of War Henry Stimson. I grasp from what little I have read that he sincerely believed the use of a nuclear weapon would end the war with a minimum casualties and damage. He presented evidence for this idea in the February 1947 issue of Harper’s magazine. There are many people who consider the bombing of Hiroshima to be a war crime. All I know is that anyone who feels that way is obligated to read and respond to Henry Stimson’s presentation.
I spoke to a number of people about this between August 6 and August 10. Most people I spoke with seemed to recognize the difficulty of President Truman’s decision. Most people I spoke with seemed to recognize that whatever decision Truman made, it could have turned out much worse than it did.
A relatively unreported event
We are still here. We are still trying. The German U-boat U-234 left Norway in April of 1945, heading for Japan. Its passengers included civilian engineers and scientists and two Japanese naval officers. Its cargo included 50 lead cubes with 9-inch sides, and “U-235” painted on each cube. The uranium oxide contained in these cubes could have yielded 7 pounds of Uranium 235. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained 140 pounds of Uranium 235. But the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb was created by less than two percent, or about 2 pounds, of the uranium it contained.
Japanese scientists understood the physics of an atomic bomb. Japanese engineers understood the engineering required to build the atomic bomb. They were hindered by a shortage of uranium. The Los Angeles Times reports the widow of a Japanese nuclear scientist as saying, “If we’d built the bomb first, of course we would have used it. I’m glad, in some ways, that our facilities were destroyed.”
What about the alternatives?
We are still here. We are still trying. People who are unhappy about America’s use of the atomic bomb on Japan are obligated to consider the alternatives. Nazi Germany contemplated building an atomic bomb. They had access to uranium mines in conquered Czechoslovakia. Maybe it was a good thing for the world that they drove so many physicists to other countries. Japan contemplated building an atomic bomb. They had scientists and engineers, but not uranium. What if the war in the Pacific dragged on, and the Japanese built a bomb with the uranium from the U-234?
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