It was in 1942, at the University of Chicago, that physicists working under Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi, and others produced fission of the uranium isotope U-235. In other words: a nuclear chain reaction. With an ultra-secret $2.2 billion investment (the equivalent of $26 billion today), the Manhattan Project began that same year. Nearly 200,000 workers toiled in 37 installations in 19 states and Canada.
On July 16, 1945, an atomic bomb was successfully detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico after which Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut called it “the most important thing in history since the birth of Jesus Christ.”
THE FIRST GROUND ZERO
While the long-term effects of Alamogordo are still being calculated, the initial consequence of this Second Coming, of course, was felt in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to the August 15, 1945 edition of the New York Daily News, 60 percent of Hiroshima, a city with a population of roughly 343,000, was destroyed on August 6, 1945. A Tokyo radio broadcast on August 8 described how “the impact of the bomb was so terrific that practically all living things, human and animal, were seared to death by the tremendous heat and pressure engendered by the blast.”
Tokyo radio went on to call Hiroshima a city with corpses “too numerous to be counted…literally seared to death.” It was impossible to “distinguish between men and women.” The Associated Press carried the first eyewitness account: a Japanese solider who described the victims as “bloated and scorched-such an awesome sight-their legs and bodies stripped of clothes and burned with a huge blister.”
“Two days after the first bomb, Moscow declared war on Japan,” explains journalist Stephen Shalom. “[Army Chief of Staff George C.] Marshall ordered a crash propaganda campaign to inform the Japanese public about the bomb in order to get them to press for surrender. Propaganda leaflets were dropped on many cities, but Nagasaki did not get its full quota of leaflets until August 10, the day after it was obliterated.”
The dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki has never been explained. “Was it because this was a plutonium bomb whereas the Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb?” Howard Zinn asks. “Were the dead and irradiated of Nagasaki victim of a scientific experiment?”
These shocking images and postulations have become a footnote to the atomic bomb myths-a sideshow, at best. Still, the primary question remains: Why was the bomb really used?
The most common answer is that President Harry S. Truman ordered the attack to avoid an American invasion of the Japanese homeland. Such an invasion, we have been told for nearly six decades, would have resulted in millions of American deaths. But is this justification accurate?
BLAME IT ON ADOLF
Before confronting Truman’s reasoning for unleashing the bomb, there is another, lesser-known myth surrounding the Manhattan Project that must be dealt with: the life-and-death race with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi scientists he had working on an atomic program of their own. “Working at Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” writes historian Kenneth C. Davis, “atomic scientists, many of them refugees from Hitler’s Europe, thought they were racing against Germans developing a ‘Nazi bomb.'”
Surely, if it were possible for the epitome of evil to produce such a weapon, it would be the responsibility of the good guys to beat der Führer to the plutonium punch. While such a desperate race makes for excellent melodrama, it bears more resemblance to the never-ending supply of arms “gaps” produced by Cold War propagandists than to reality.
Simply, the German bomb effort fell far short of success.
Thanks to the declassification of key documents, we now have access to “unassailable proof that the race with the Nazis was a fiction,” says Stewart Udall, who cites the work of McGeorge Bundy and Thomas Powers before adding: “According to the official history of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), those agents maintained ‘contacts with scientists in neutral countries…'” These contacts, by mid-1943, provided enough evidence to convince the SIS that the German bomb program simply did not exist.
Despite such findings, U.S. General Leslie Groves, military commander of the Manhattan Project, got permission in the fall of 1943 to begin a secret espionage mission known as Alsos (a name chosen by Groves, Greek for “grove”). The mission saw Groves’ men following the Allies’ armies throughout Europe with the goal of capturing German scientists involved in the manufacture of atomic weapons.
While the data uncovered by Alsos only served to reinforce prior reports that the Third Reich was not pursuing a nuclear program, Groves (with the help of Secretary of War Henry Stimson) was able to maintain enough of a cover-up to keep his costly pet project alive. The criminal concealment of the truth about the Nazis and their lack of atomic research kept the momentum going in the New Mexico desert and, according to Udall, “swept it, following Germany’s defeat, onto a path that led to Hiroshima and to the creation of misinformation that has obscured essential truths concerning the Manhattan Project and the epoch it initiated.” THE INVASION THAT NEVER WAS
The most commonly evoked rationale for the dropping of atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians was to save lives, but was it true that an Allied invasion of the Japanese homeland would have cost many American lives? In an August 9, 1945 statement to “the men and women of the Manhattan Project,” President Truman declared the hope that “this new weapon will result in saving thousands of American lives.”
“The president’s initial formulation of ‘thousands,’ however, was clearly not his final statement on the matter to say the least,” remarks historian Gar Alperovitz. In fact, in his book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, Alperovitz documents but a few of Truman’s public estimates throughout the years:
* December 15, 1945: “It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities.”
* Late 1946: “A year less of war will mean life for three hundred thousand-maybe half a million-of America’s finest youth.”
* October 1948: “In the long run we could save a quarter of a million young Americans from being killed, and would save an equal number of Japanese young men from being killed.”
* April 6, 1949: “I thought 200,000 of our young men would be saved.”
* November 1949: Truman quotes Army Chief of Staff George S. Marshall as estimating the cost of an Allied invasion of Japan to be “half a million casualties.”
* January 12, 1953: Still quoting Marshall, Truman raises the estimate to “a minimum one quarter of a million” and maybe “as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy.”
* Finally, on April 28, 1959, Truman concluded: “the dropping of the bombs…saved millions of lives.”
Fortunately, we’re not operating without the benefit of official estimates. In June of 1945, President Truman ordered the U.S. military to calculate the cost in American lives for a planned assault on Japan. Consequently, the Joint War Plans Committee prepared a report for the Chiefs of Staff, dated June 15, 1945, thus providing the closest thing anyone has to accurate: 40,000 U.S. soldiers killed, 150,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing.
While an actual casualty count remains unknowable, it was widely known at the time that Japan had been trying to surrender for months prior to the atomic bombing. A May 5, 1945 cable, intercepted and decoded by the U.S., “dispelled any possible doubt that the Japanese were eager to sue for peace.” In fact, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey reported, shortly after the war, that Japan “in all probability” would have surrendered before the much-discussed November 1, 1945 Allied invasion of the homeland, thereby saving all kinds of lives.
Truman himself eloquently noted in his diary that Stalin would “be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini (sic) Japs when that comes about.”
Clearly, Truman saw the bombs as way to end the war before the Soviet Union could claim a major role in Japan’s terms of surrender. However, one year after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a top-secret U.S. study concluded that the Japanese surrender was based more upon Stalin’s declaration of war than either of the atomic bombs.
TO BOMB OR NOT TO BOMB
Many post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki sentiments questioned the use of the bombs.
“I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives,” said General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not long after the Japanese surrender, New York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote, “The enemy, in a military sense, was in a hopeless strategic position… Such then, was the situation when we wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Need we have done it? No one can, of course, be positive, but the answer is almost certainly negative.”
Was it Cold War hysteria that motivated the nuking of civilians? U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes seemed to think so when he turned the anxiety up a notch by explaining how “our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in the East… The demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia with America’s military might.” General Leslie Groves was less cryptic: “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of [the Manhattan] Project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis.”
During the same time period, President Truman noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson was “at least as much concerned with the role of the atomic bomb in the shaping of history as in its capacity to shorten the war.” What sort of shaping Stimson had in mind might be discerned from his Sept. 11, 1945 comment to the president: “I consider the problem of our satisfactory relations with Russia as not merely connected but as virtually dominated by the problem of the atomic bomb.”
Stimson called the bomb a “diplomatic weapon,” adding,”American statesmen were eager for their country to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip.”
The message was heard…loud and clear.
“The psychological effect on Stalin was twofold,” suggests historian Charles L. Mee, Jr. “The Americans had not only used a doomsday machine; they had used it when, as Stalin knew, it was not militarily necessary. It was this last chilling fact that doubtless made the greatest impression on the Russians.”
Imagine the impression it made on the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Why did we drop [the bomb]?” pondered Studs Terkel at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings. “So little Harry could show Molotov and Stalin we’ve got the cards. That was the phrase Truman used. We showed the goddamned Russians we’ve got something and they’d better behave themselves in Europe. That’s why it was dropped. The evidence is overwhelming. And yet you tell that to 99 percent of Americans and they’ll spit in your eye.”
I’LL TAKE MANHATTAN
Many of the men who helped give Little Harry the cards toiled at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The scientific director at Los Alamos was J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man who, in 1943, pioneered the idea of “poisoning the German food supply with radioactive strontium.”
“We should not attempt a plan,” Oppenheimer explained to his boss, General Leslie Groves, “unless we can poison food sufficient to kill half a million men.” Within a few years, however, Oppenheimer began to see things a little differently.
After learning of the horrors his bomb had wrought on Japan, the scientist began to harbor second thoughts, and he resigned in October 1945. In March of the following year, Oppenheimer told Truman:
“Mr. President, I have blood on my hands.”
Truman replied: “It’ll come out in the wash.”
Later, the president told an aide, “Don’t bring that fellow around again.”
For others at Los Alamos, life (and death) went on. In the case of Louis Slotin, a thirty-four-year-old Canadian physicist, his work would bring home the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here’s how historian Mark C. Carnes described Slotin’s fate:
While other scientists watched in tense silence, Slotin delicately manipulated a screwdriver barely separating two silvery-gray globes of fissionable plutonium. One time, he slipped, the globes touched, and radiation flooded the laboratory. Slotin lunged forward and pushed the plutonium apart, saving the others. His own dosage of radiation, he knew, was lethal; with chalk, he marked the positions of others in the room and calculated on a nearby blackboard that they would live. Then he became nauseated. His arms, legs, and face swelled hideously. Within a week, he became incoherent and died.
The legacy of Alamogordo has infiltrated almost every aspect of our daily lives. Americans now use forks and knives made from recycled nuclear waste to eat irradiated food. There’s nuclear medicine, nuclear payloads on space missiles, and the use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and training bases like Vieques. Many Americans were unwitting laboratory subjects in tests to discover the effects of radiation on the human body and innumerable more have become “downwinders.” These folks lived in the vicinity of nuclear testing grounds and experienced the deadly fallout from the many atomic and hydrogen bombs exploded nearby.
On a personal level, while writing an article about the 60th anniversary of the first successful detonation of an atomic bpmb, I am reminded that the Indian Point nuclear reactor is only about 40 miles from where I sit in New York City. As noted physician and activist Helen Caldicott explains, “A meltdown [at Indian Point] would [trap] millions of people in a radioactive hell, unable to escape, dying within forty-eight hours of acute radiation illness. Such an event is not unlikely according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because this reactor is plagued with safety problems.”
Sixty years into the WMD age, we’re all downwinders.
MICKEY Z. is the author of “50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism (Disinformation). He can be found on the Web at: http://www.mickeyz.net.