Back in March 1976, while working as a young journalist for the Evening Outlook, a conservative family-owned daily paper published until 1998 in Santa Monica, California, I wrote an article about people who had bomb shelters on their property in that otherwise laid-back beachfront city on the western edge of Los Angeles.
I was able to discover the locations of these Cold War artifacts because Santa Monica had required a special building permit for bomb shelters, and the records for those permits had their own separate file. There was also, back in those pre-computer days, something called a reverse phone directory, a staple of newspapers that allowed a journalist to look up an address and obtain the phone number linked to it.
As I dialed those numbers, I discovered that, because most such shelters had been installed or built in the late 1950s or early ‘60s in highly mobile Southern California, very few of the hideaways’ owners were (or would admit to being) the people who had installed them. Some claimed not to know there was a bomb shelter on their property.
One case still sticks in my mind though. I had been having bad luck that day with my calls before I dialed the phone at an address that was answered by a woman with what sounded like a Japanese accent. Explaining I was a reporter, I asked about her bomb shelter. Yoko Yanai seemed genuinely surprised. “Bomb shelter?” she replied. “We don’t have a bomb shelter on our property.”
I assured her that she did as I had a building permit for the home, showing a bomb shelter was installed in 1962.
“Where?” she demanded, suddenly sounding angry.
Feeling embarrassed that she was so upset with me, I described the location from the permit. It was in a corner of her basement and was basically two concrete walls adjoining the two cement walls of the basement itself, and had a reinforced concrete ceiling added.
“Just a moment!” she said. “I want to go look! I will be right back.”
After a couple of minutes, she returned. “I found it!” she said, her voice still agitated. Then, more calmly, she said, “I’m sorry it is there.” She explained it must have been put in by the prior owner named Frank Burger (a worker at McDonald Douglas, I discovered, who back then, ironically, was helping to build the Thor nuclear missile). He had sold the house to Yoko and her late husband Michio several years earlier without mentioning the shelter.
“Why are you so upset?” I asked.
“I remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” said this woman who had turned 12 in Japan on Aug. 8, 1945, two days after the Hiroshima bombing and a day before the bomb on Nagasaki. “I cannot accept the idea of a nuclear war, and I don’t think shelters are a good thing. We Japanese know how disastrous a nuclear war would be. People who are preparing for one here can’t imagine what such a war would be like. No matter how much concrete you used, the disaster would still hit you.”
She noted that hundreds of thousands of Japanese had died in the two bombings and that many were still suffering of the effects of the only two nuclear bombs dropped in anger, a reason why anti-nuclear sentiment even today is still a strong feature of the Japanese political landscape even today.
“Preparing for a nuclear war is a way of making the idea acceptable,” she said. “We should work to prevent a nuclear war instead of building shelters to survive one.”
That revealing conversation happened 46 years ago before scientists realized that a total war with modern thermonuclear weapons each hundreds of times more powerful than the only two atom bombs the US dropped in war in 1945 — would produce so much smoke, dust and radioactive fallout that it would produce a nuclear winter akin to that caused by the dinosaur terminating asteroid 65 million years ago. Even a successful first-strike blitz by just one nuclear power like Russia or the US, each of which has over 4000 such weapons, would do the same thing, even without any retaliation.
Logically then, with a weapon that cannot be used, the nations of the world that have nuclear weapons should have long ago outlawed these horrors, the way chemical and germ weapons were banned. But even though nearly all the nations of the world last year joined in enacting an addition to the United Nations Charter making nuclear weapons illegal, none of the nine nuclear nations, the US among them, has signed on and instead all continue to build, upgrade and replace the nukes they have and to devise more sinister and countermeasure-avoiding delivery systems to get them to their targets.
Genius physicist Albert Einstein launched the US on its frantic race to develop an atomic bomb with a 1939 letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that Nazi Germany might seek to build a city-destroying atomic bomb and that the US needed to get it first. By 1955, in the midst of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race and after several close calls of a nuclear conflict, Einstein came to regret that letter and, bedridden two weeks before his death, confided to visiting Nobel Laureate friend Linus Pauling that his letter was “the biggest mistake I ever made.”
A much younger physics genius, American Ted Hall, who lived in and worked as a research biophysicist at Cambridge University from 1962 until his retirement while living in Newnham, dying of kidney cancer in 1999 at the age of 74, also had regrets. In his case it was that he had agreed to accept a job offer from the Manhattan Project to leave his studies at Harvard January 1944 to become the youngest scientist at Los Alamos on the Project. He spent much of the last year of WWII heading up a team that was fine-tune the complicated implosion system for detonating the plutonium bomb used in the first Trinity test at Alamogordo and later dropped on Nagasaki. Hall realized by late summer of 1944 that Germany, its army by then being battered and driven back on all fronts, was never going to get the bomb. He also learned that the real target of the nearly perfected US bomb had shifted from Germany to America’s wartime ally the Soviet Union.To prevent a frightening US post-war monopoly on the bomb, and not knowing about any other Soviet spies in the Project, he decided that it “fell to” him to provide the secrets of the atomic bomb to the USSR.
That October, he and his Harvard roommate Saville Sax did just that, rather incredibly making a connection in New York with a Soviet NKVD agent. Over the following year, initially with Sax as his courier, Hall sent the Soviets key plans and details for the plutonium bomb that enabled the USSR to successfully build and detonate a virtual carbon copy of the Nagasaki “Fat Man” atom bomb in August 1949, three to five years faster that US scientists and military strategists had expected. His act of courage likely prevented the US from launching a planned preemptive attack with 3-400 or more atom bombs on the Soviet Union as early as 1950 or 1951..
Ted, who was never prosecuted for his spying, had hoped that with two rival nations having the bomb, its futility as a weapon would be evident and lead to its being banned. Instead, the resulting “Mexican stand-off” between and among nuclear powers led to decades of frightening competition to build more and more powerful bombs, and to create delivery systems meant to achieve a first-strike capability — fortunately never achieved by any nation. As costly and terrifying as those decades of the nuclear era have been, with a number of close calls along the way, it is undeniably the case that those years of Mutual Assured Destruction and Cold War have given the world 77 years (and counting) of no new nuclear weapon again used in war.
Hopefully, the same MAD stalemate that still exists will prevent the current war in Ukraine from spreading across Europe or going nuclear too, and also will prevent a nuclear war arising between China and the US over Taiwan or some other flashpoint.
If it does, and we get a 78th or 79th year with a nuclear bomb being used, Ted Hall, the Manhattan Project’s youngest scientist and the Soviet Union’s youngest atomic spy, and his friend and courier Sax (who as reported in The Nation were never caught and prosecuted despite being exposed in decrypted Soviet spy cables as early as 1950), will deserve much of the credit.