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Unsung Heroes of Los Alamos: Rethinking Manhattan Project Spies and the Cold War

high southwest view aerial of Los Alamos Los Alamos National Laboratory (left) and Los Alamos townsite (middle and right)

75 years ago before dawn on July 16, 1945, a cataclysmic explosion shook the New Mexico desert as scientists from the top-secret Manhattan Project tested their nightmarish creation: the first atom bomb, called “the Gadget.”

This birth of the Nuclear Age, was quickly followed a few weeks later, first on August 6 by the dropping of a U-235 atom bomb on Hiroshima, a non-military city of 225,000, and then, three days after that on Aug. 9, by the dropping of a somewhat more powerful Plutonium atom bomb on Nagasaki, another non-military city of 195,000. The resulting slaughter of some 200,000 mostly civilian Japanese men, women and children naturally leads to talk of the horrors of those weapons and to discussions about whether they should have been used on Japan instead of being demonstrated on an uninhabited target.

What goes unmentioned, however, as we mark each important anniversary of these horrific events — the initial Trinity test in Alamogordo, the “Little Boy” bombing of Hiroshima and  the “Fat Man” plutonium bombing of Nagasaki — is that, incredibly, in a world where nine nations possess a total of nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons, not one has been used in war to kill human beings since the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

And that’s not all. Over those same 75 years, despite seven and a half decades of intense hostility and rivalry, as well as some major proxy wars, between great powers like the US and USSR, and the US and China, no two superpower nations have gone to war against each other.

The reason for this phenomenal and almost incomprehensible absence of catastrophic conflict of the type so common throughout human history is the same in both cases:  No country dares to risk the use a nuclear weapon because of the fear it could lead other nuclear nations use theirs, and no major power dares to go to war against another major power because it is obvious that any war between two such nations would very quickly go nuclear.

Things could have gone very differently, however, with the dawn of the nuclear age.

At the end of WWII, the US was the world’s unchallenged superpower. It had emerged from war with its industrial base undamaged while Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and much of China and were all smoking ruins, their dead numbering  in the tens of millions. The US also had a monopoly on a new super weapon — the atom bomb — a weapon capable of vaporizing a city. And the this country had demonstrated that it had no moral compunction about using its terrible new weapon of mass destruction.

Some important scientists involved in the creation of the bomb urged the sharing of its construction secrets with America’s ally in the war against the Axis powers, the Soviet Union. These scientists, many of them Nobel-winning physicists, said negotiations should begin immediately at that point to eliminate nuclear weapons for all time, just as germ and chemical weapons had already been banned (successfully as the history of WWII showed).

But military and civilian leaders in Washington balked at the idea of sharing the bombs’ secrets. In fact, after Bohr’s visit, President Roosevelt reportedly had the FBI monitor Nobelist Nils Bohr, one of the Los Alamos scientists who directly pleaded with him to bring the Russians into the bomb project, and even considered barring him from leaving the US. The Truman administration considered deporting Leo Szilard, and after Robert Oppenheimer proposed to Truman the sharing of the bomb with the Russians, his top-secret security clearance was revoked.

Instead of sharing the bomb with the USSR, which, remember, was America’s ally in World War II, and then working for its being banned, the US began producing dozens and eventually hundreds of Nagasaki-sized atom bombs, moving quickly from hand-made devices to mass produced ones. The US also quickly started pursuing the development of a vastly more powerful bomb — the thermonuclear Hydrogen bomb — a weapon that theoretically has no limits to how great its destructive power could be. (A one-megaton bomb typical of some of the larger warheads in the US arsenal today is 30 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.)

Why this obsession with creating a stockpile of atomic bombs big enough to destroy not just a country but the whole earth at such a time as the end of WWII?  The war was over and American scientists and intelligence analysts were predicting that the war-ravaged Soviet Union would need years and perhaps a decade to produce its own bomb, yet the US was going full tilt building an explosive arsenal that quickly dwarfed all the explosives used in the last two world wars combined.

What was the purpose of building so many bombs? One hint comes from the fact that the US also, right after the war, began mass producing the B-29 Super Fortress — planes like the Enola Gay that delivered the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima — and de-mothballing and refurbishing hundreds that had been built and declared surplussed right at the war’s end. A B-29 could only carry one plutonium or  two uranium bombs for any significant distance. But the US was building several thousand of them in peacetime. Why?

The answer, according to a 1987 book, To Win a Nuclear War authored by nuclear physicists Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod, is that the US was planning to launch a devastating nuclear first strike blitz on the Soviet Union as soon as it could build and deliver the 300 nuclear bombs that Pentagon strategists believed would be needed to destroy the Soviet Union as an industrial society and its Red Army as well, eliminating any possibility of the USSR responding by sweeping over war-ravaged western Europe. And the B-29 was at the time the only plane it had which could deliver the bombs.

This genocidal nightmare envisioned by Truman and the Pentagon’s nuclear madmen never happened because the initial slow pace of constructing the bombs meant that the 300 weapons and the planes to deliver them would not be ready until early 1950. Meanwhile, Russia’s first bomb, a plutonium device that was a virtual carbon copy of the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, was successfully exploded on August 29, 1949, in a test that caught the US by complete surprise.  At that point the idea of a deadly first strike was dropped (or at least deferred indefinitely) by Truman and Pentagon strategists.

A new era of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) had arrived, and according to Kaku and Axelrod, just in time.

For that bit of good fortune, I suggest, we have to thank the spies who, for whatever  their individual motives, successfully obtained and delivered the secrets of the atomic bomb and its construction to the scientists in the Soviet Union who were struggling, with limited success, to quickly come up with their own atomic bomb.

To most Americans, those spies, especially the US citizens among them like Julius Rosenberg and notably Ted Hall, the youngest scientist at the Manhattan Project, hired out of Harvard as a junior physics major at 18, were modern day Benedict Arnolds. The truth is quite different.

Hall, who was never caught, and who was not recruited to be a spy but volunteered plans for the plutonium bomb on his own initiative after searching for and finally locating a Soviet agent, and another spy, the young German Communist physicist, Klaus Fuchs, working independently of each other, both delivering critical plans for the US plutonium bomb to Moscow, clearly prevented the US from launching a nuclear holocaust.

By decisively helping the USSR develop and test its own bomb quickly by mid-1949, half a year before the US could attain a stockpile of 300 bombs, they forced the US to have to consider the unacceptable risk of retaliation. Had the Soviets taken longer to create their own atomic bomb, the US could have gone through with its criminal plans, which would have dwarfed Hitler’s slaughter of the six million Jewish and Roma people. (Pentagon experts estimated that over 30-40 million Russians would be killed by a US nuclear blitz.)

Hall, in public statements made in the mid-1990s after de-encrypted  Soviet spy codes became public and his name was identified in them, explained that he had acted to share the plans for the plutonium bomb because he felt that the US, coming out of WWII with a nuclear monopoly, would have been a danger to not just the Soviet Union, but to the entire world. (The Russian bomb exploded in August, 1949 was a virtual carbon copy of the Nagasaki plutonium bomb Hall had worked on in his two years at Los Alamos.)

Looking back to the US decision to use its first nuclear weapon not as a demonstration on an empty island or military base, but on two undefended civilian cities, and to catastrophic US carpet bombings using non-nuclear bombs, of North Korea and later Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it’s hard disagree with Hall’s thinking. His concern about US nuclear intentions is further borne out by how close the US came to using its nuclear bombs in crisis after crisis during the late ’40s and early ‘50s  —  against China and North Korea during the Korean Warin support of the French expeditionary force trapped at Dien Bien Phu, by JFK in the 1961 in the Berlin crisis, in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. and later when US Marines were trapped by Vietnamese troops in Khe Sanh. Each time, it was fear of the Soviets responding with their own bomb that saved the day and largely kept American bombs on the ground (actually in the Khe San case in 1968 atom bombs were actually delivered close to the Indochina front, but President Johnson called a halt to the military’s plans).

The truth is, if the Soviets had not had their own bomb during any of the above listed crises, it is hard to imagine that the US, with a monopoly on the bomb, would not have used it to full advantage. If we’re honest, The MAD reality enabled by Russia’s Los Alamos spies proved to be a lifesaver for tens or perhaps millions of people around the world.

Americans may (and should!) decry the hundreds of billions of dollars (trillions in today’s dollars) that have been poured into a massively wasteful arms race with the Soviet Union and later Russia and China — money that could have done incalculable good if spent on schools, health care, environmental issues etc. — need to consider what the alternative would have been to Cold War and MAD.  With MAD (and considerable good luck) we have had no world wars, and no nuclear bombs dropped on human beings. Without it, with the US having a monopoly on the bomb for perhaps as long as a decade following WWII, this country would have nuked cities all over the world, almost certainly destroying the Soviet Union entirely, and the US would today be known today as the ultimate genocidal monster of history, rather than having Germany left holding that eternal badge of shame.

In reconsidering the work of Soviet atomic spies, Americans also need  to know the truth about the goal of the Manhattan Project. While the push to develop the bomb began with a letter from Albert Einstein to Roosevelt warning that the Germans might develop such a weapon, by the time the program got underway, it was clear that the real target was America’s Ally in the fight against the Nazis:  The USSR.

Of course we must work to ban nuclear weapons and war. Such weapons are incomparably evil and if the world agrees that germ warfare and poison gas weapons should not exist, certainly nuclear weapons a million times worse should not!  But we should nonetheless, as we look back at the grim 75th anniversary of those three first nuclear bombs exploded by the US, admit a debt of gratitude to those spies at Los Alamos who kept the US from committing an atrocity that humanity would have never forgiven, and for giving us this amazing three-quarters of a century of no nuclear or world war.

 

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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