SEVEN - The Soviet Union: The Bomb and the Cold War

The profound shock felt in Hiroshima on the morning of 6 August rippled outward to the rest of the world, less destructive but hardly less psychologically powerful for its distance from its source. Two days after the bombing, an editorial writer for the Australian Courier-Mail was dumbstruck: ‘What [the bomb] really is no one can begin to describe. Even scientists are lost for words that will describe the full magnitude of its terrifying force.’ ‘We still feel dazed by the implications of the new discovery,’ wrote the editorialist for the Shanghai Evening Post on the 10th. The bomb was ‘a thing to crush the mind’. More than a week later, Quebec’s L’Autorite was still staggered; the bomb had ‘left the civilized world dumbfounded’. In London, Palestine, and Rhodesia there was ‘wonderment’ and ‘awe’, while in Mexico City the bomb was ‘a nightmare and [a] horror’. Little Boy ‘was doubtless heard by human ears for hundreds of miles around, but morally it was heard around the world’. Even in New York, reported the Herald Tribune, ‘one senses the foundations of one’s own universe trembling’.1

When ordinary words and images failed, writers and analysts resorted to myth. J. E. Gendreau, who directed the Institute of Radiology at the University of Montreal, compared the cracking of the nucleus to the theft of fire by Prometheus. A journalist for Le Populaire, in Paris, thought of the biblical Tower of Babel, the handiwork of human arrogance aimed at reaching God. Others invoked Faust; as accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gained circulation, it became easy to believe that scientists and statesmen had been granted the secret of the bomb only by their willingness to deal with the devil. (Bombay’s Statesman offered this judgment: ‘Substantial patent control has been established in America, the United Kingdom, and Canada... All who wish to apply should address communications to S. Lucifer, esq., Evil Patents Universal Unlimited, Nether Region.’) Most often, commentators referred to the bomb as Frankenstein’s monster, the terrible offspring of a science so self-absorbed, so consumed by its own curiosity or hubris, that it had lost sight of the consequences of its work. ‘The legend of Frankenstein came back grimly to life when that bomb was dropped on Hiroshima,’ declared the Rhodesia Herald, while the Trinidad Guardian thought the bomb ‘a Frankenstein more terrible even than Mrs Shelley’s famous creation’, and the Sydney Morning Herald warned that scientists ‘have called into being a Frankenstein monster which, if unfettered, has the power to destroy its creators’—a somewhat optimistic version of the myth in its willingness to make the monster’s destructiveness conditional.2

No one doubted that something very dramatic had happened, something new and revolutionary had been ushered in. Some thought the apocalypse loomed. Humans had fashioned the tools of their ultimate destruction; another war, cautioned Montreal-Matin, would bring ‘the complete annihilation of humankind’. An editorialist in Alberta was more matter of fact: the announcement of the bomb ‘means simply that men now know how to blast the whole world to smithereens’. Future war was now impossible, for, if war happened, human civilization would end. The Palestine Post, echoing a column in the New York Times, imagined a world ‘equipped with underground cities in which a race of modern troglodytes might seek shelter from atomic blasts’. There was criticism of the United States for using the bomb and of the British for presumably having helped build it; the Japanese-controlled Hong Kong News referred bitterly to the Allies’ ‘diabolic nature’, and Bombay’s Free Press Journal inveighed against the ‘savagery’ of destroying whole cities. But other commentary was less accusatory and, sometimes, cautiously optimistic. The bomb was traced not to the Americans or a particular set of perpetrators, but to ‘mankind’, ‘science’ in the abstract, or (most often) ‘humanity’. Because humans had unleashed nuclear energy, the rational and just among them might now find a way to harness it for some good purpose. The French commentator E. Letellier de Saint-Just hoped for ‘a new radiant world where mankind would live in brotherhood’ if the alternative was annihilation. The bomb was a double-edged sword, thought the Trinidad Guardian, embodying ‘undreamed of possibilities... for science knows no barriers’. Recalling the science fiction of H. G. Wells, some writers speculated that the peaceful uses of nuclear energy—supplying power, for example, for lighting, heating, and transportation—might prove the bomb’s truest legacy, as long as human beings foreswore further use of atomic weapons.3

To an extent, international reaction to the bomb followed the accounts of American newspapers and American-based news organizations. American sources presumably knew more about the bomb than did others, and authority attached itself naturally to scientists who built the device, some of whom were quoted in reports during the weeks followingJapan’s surrender. Phrases drawn from US newspaper stories, especially from the New York Times, found their way unedited into English-language papers across the globe. In that way did the discourse surrounding the atomic bomb begin with a common source, and one not inclined to criticism of the decision to use the weapon. Relief that the war was over, and the conviction that the bombs had contributed enormously to its ending, seemed to cascade in all directions from US and Western media capitals. So too, it should be said, did a measure of sobriety and reflectiveness concerning the means used to end the war. President Harry S. Truman had first exulted when he heard of the Hiroshima bombing—‘the greatest thing in history’, he had called it—but his tone was different three days later, prior to the Japanese surrender, when he wrote to a belligerent senator: ‘I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the “pigheadedness” of the leaders of a nation and, for your information, I am not going to do it unless it is absolutely necessary.’ Winston Churchill, a strong advocate for the bomb project, by the early autumn sounded subdued: ‘This revelation of the secrets of nature, long mercifully withheld from man, should arouse the most solemn reflections in the mind and conscience of every human being capable of comprehension.’ And Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Resistance during the war, while professing not to be surprised at the news of the atomic bombings, nevertheless confessed himself ‘no less tempted to despair at the birth ofmeans that made possible the annihilation of the human race’.4

Though influenced by American interpretation of the bomb’s meaning, representatives of other nations also responded to the event with images and idioms that were very much their own. The most common description of the exploded bomb, offered first by the air crews who observed the bombings and then in the United States but frequently repeated elsewhere, was a great, mushroom-shaped cloud. But descriptions also corresponded to phenomena, both miraculous and disastrous and always powerful, that were local and familiar. El Nacional, the organ of the Mexican government, reported on 7 August that ‘the first earthquake-bomb’ had struck Hiroshima and focused on the bomb’s effects on the city’s trains. ‘It is interesting’ writes Regis Cabral, ‘that the newspaper associated the A-bomb with two matters of concern to Mexico, one of them quite serious: Earthquakes and railroad performance.’ In Japan the bomb was likened also to an earthquake or typhoon. The Rhodesia Herald brought the bomb’s impact close to home by pointing out that a single bomb produced enough devastation to destroy the center of Johannesburg—or enough power ‘to drive the Witwatersrand gold mines for perhaps weeks’. A Trinidad paper compared the bomb to a volcano, much like Mont Pele, which had erupted recently on nearby Martinique. (The Reuters news agency called on readers to suggest names for the bomb. ‘Doomsday Bomb’ and ‘Earth-Shaker’ earned mention in Reuters stories, but ‘The Japatomiser’ won a headline in the Pretoria News.)5

The psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, who interviewed survivors of the Hiroshima bombing during the early 1960s, concluded that many of them regarded the attack and its results as ‘unnatural’ or even ‘supernatural’ occurrences, in which ‘Buddhist hell’ or an utter void had replaced an earthly city of human beings. That may have been a first reaction, allowing as it did some distancing between living victims of the atomic bomb and what they had experienced: what had happened was beyond comprehension because it was part of another world, and one could not get one’s mind around it, so it was pointless trying to do so. But the subsequent comparison of the bombing to natural phenomena, in Japan and elsewhere, created a memory of the attack that was at once familiar and abstract. Ifthe bomb was like lightning or an earthquake or a volcano, it was something that a nation had suffered before, and from which it had recovered. It was a horror, but it was nevertheless oddly comforting to connect the unknown impact of the bomb to something as natural as a storm. Making this sort of comparison also permitted people to avoid blaming anyone in particular for having unleashed the bomb. No one is responsible for an earthquake; one can shake one’s fist at the earth or God, for all the good it will do. Scientists who built the bomb would tell themselves that the weapon’s secret was always somewhere out there, waiting to be discovered, and that they had stumbled on it first. Mushrooms need not be planted by humans—they just appear. Even giant ones can, of course, be picked and eaten and thus tamed.6

1. The American response

Among leading American statesmen, reactions to the atomic bombings ranged widely. Secretary of State James Byrnes avoided any open remorse, continuing to treat the bomb as a happily found instrument of war and diplomacy. When, at a foreign ministers’ conference in London in September 1945, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov asked Byrnes whether he had ‘an atomic bomb in his side pocket’, Byrnes responded: ‘You don’t know southerners. We carry our artillery in our pocket. If you don’t cut out all this stalling and let us get down to work, I’m going to pull an atomic bomb out of my hip pocket and let you have it.’ It was a bizarre reply, but one with a point—Byrnes did not see himself as treading on atomic eggshells. Henry Stimson, on the other hand, had long worried that the bomb would complicate, not clarify, the postwar situation. By his efforts the Japanese shrine city of Kyoto had been spared; he had gone forward with the decision to use the bomb willingly but with a sense of gravity and even occasional torment. On the day of the Nagasaki bombing, Stimson told a radio audience that American elation at having built the bomb ‘must be overshadowed by a deeper emotion. The result of the bomb is so terrific that the responsibility of its possession and its use must weigh heavier on our minds and on our hearts.’ Several weeks later, on the verge of retirement, the Secretary of War handed Truman a remarkable memorandum in which he urged that the bomb’s ‘secrets of production’ be shared with the Soviet Union: ‘The chief lesson I have learned in a long life’, he wrote, ‘is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show him your distrust.’ Truman himself remained publicly steadfast in his statements. The bomb(s) had been necessary to end the war quickly and save American lives, he said. Robert Oppenheimer may have detected blood on his hands, but the President impatiently reproved him and soon after complained about the ‘ “crybaby” scientist... wringing his hands’ in Truman’s office. Yet others sensed anguish in the President. There was the note to Senator Russell on 9 August, in which Truman said that he hoped he could avoid ‘wiping out’ the Japanese population. The next day, Truman told his cabinet, according to Vice President Henry Wallace, that he had decided to stop the atomic bombing while surrender negotiations proceeded. ‘He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible,’ Wallace wrote in his diary. ‘He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, “all those kids”.’ The vehemence with which Truman later asserted his lack of doubt about the bombings might well suggest an element of insecurity concerning the decision.7

Leading American military men also experienced a range of emotions concerning the use of the bomb. Fleet Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, would place the atomic bomb in the same category of opprobrium occupied by chemical and biological weapons, and concluded his 1950 memoir by declaring: ‘Employment of the atomic bomb in war will take us back in cruelty toward noncombatants to the days of Genghis Khan.’ Others escaped remorse. ‘Like taxes, radioactivity has long been with us and in increasing amounts,’ wrote Ralph Lapp of the Office of Naval Research. ‘It is not to be hated and feared, but... treated with respect, avoided when practicable, and accepted when inevitable.’ Curtis LeMay professed himself unbothered by the need to kill Japanese, by whatever means necessary, in order to end the war, and he made pointed comparison between the atomic bombings and the burning of Japanese cities by incendiaries. In early 1946 the Americans presented Japanese officials with a draft of the new constitution, then removed to the garden while the Japanese reviewed the text. When, having finished reading, Jiro Shirasu joined the Americans among the flowers, General Courtney Whitney remarked: ‘We have been enjoying your atomic sunshine,’ suggesting not just a lack of remorse but an astonishing callousness concerning the fates of many thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.8

Robert Oppenheimer wrung his hands in Truman’s office after the bombs had been dropped. When he left Los Alamos that fall, honored with a certificate of appreciation from Stimson via Leslie Groves, he warned: ‘If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.’ So, he added, ‘the peoples of the world must be united, or they will perish’. Many physicists shared this hope, that their ‘traveling seminar’ would now be reconstituted, that Niels Bohr’s model of sharing scientific information without regard for inconvenient national borders would rekindle trust and ensure peace. Along with Oppenheimer and Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Albert Einstein, and James Franck all agreed with Eleanor Roosevelt, who several days after Hiroshima told a radio audience that the bomb had been made by ‘many minds belonging to different races and different religions’, a fact that ‘sets the pattern for the way in which in the future we may be able to work out our difficulties’. Secrecy in science was artifice, a sham made temporarily necessary by world war but ultimately doomed to failure. There were no atomic secrets; physicists everywhere, properly funded and sufficiently motivated, would quickly learn how to build a bomb. Arthur Compton, predictably, found religious meaning in the bomb’s discovery. It was ‘God’s will’ that America had secured atomic power, and the bomb had been used appropriately to win the just war. He cautioned, however, that humankind must undergo ‘a rapid growth in moral stature’ if it was to avoid destruction.9

There was drift in the scientific community, perhaps an inability to grasp the implications of what it had helped to do. Attending a conference of scientists, philosophers, and religion specialists in late August 1945, a reporter for the New York Times was astonished to find the experts seeming to avoid all mention of the bomb, ‘fiddl[ing],’ he said, ‘while the world burned’. At loose ends once Oppenheimer had left the desert, Edward Teller and metallurgist Cyril Smith gathered a group of Taos Pueblo Indians and addressed them concerning the mysteries of the atom. There was much talk, among scientists and others, of the peaceful uses of atomic energy, the hope that from devastation would spring innovation, efficiency, clean energy, and solutions to nearly every problem modernity posed. Physicists found themselves having to disabuse the public of at least the wildest of these schemes. (An Arkansas farmer wrote to scientists at Oak Ridge to ask if they had any atom bombs the right size for blowing stumps out of his fields.) Otto Frisch cautioned that atomic-powered automobiles were not in prospect: ‘A few minutes’ ride in this car would be enough to kill you.’ Bemused by the postwar hype, Fermi said, of atomic power, ‘it would be nice if it could cure the common cold’. But the bomb’s success also conferred status on the physicists, and status translated into lavish federal funding for their atomic projects. I. I. Rabi and Norman Ramsey built a nuclear research laboratory at Brookhaven, Long Island. Leslie Groves provided $170,000 from the Manhattan District for Ernest Lawrence and his brother-in-law Edward McMillan to build at Berkeley a new generation cyclotron, called by McMillan a synchrotron. By the end of the 1940s, notes Daniel Kevles, the number of university physics majors had doubled since the years before the war, and the field was regarded as the most exciting among the sciences.10

‘Isn’t physics wonderful?’ gushed Rabi as the grants rolled in. Samuel Goudsmit was not so sure. Goudsmit had served with Boris Pash’s Alsos team that knifed into Germany late in the war searching for evidence of a Nazi nuclear weapons program. They found only reassurance, but his brush with this threat and his own extensive knowledge of how the weapons worked had left Goudsmit shaken. His young physicist colleagues went off to atomic-bomb tests in the Pacific as ‘jaunty’ as if on a ‘holiday’. They returned not sobered by what they had seen but ‘full of jolly little reminiscences’ about the enormous blasts. This was a kind of hubris Goudsmit found unsettling; it was hardly so wonderful as Rabi proclaimed.11

The American people for the most part reacted favorably to the bombings, believing they had ended the war and thus saved their soldiers’ lives. A Gallup poll in late August 1945 found 85 percent approval for the use of the bombs; that fall, a Roper poll indicated that 53.5 percent of those questioned thought the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been just right, while nearly 23 percent more wished the military had dropped more atomic bombs ‘before the Japanese had a chance to surrender’. (Doubt and even disapproval of the bombings rose over the next two years.) American culture did what cultures do when they feel nervous or threatened: it incorporated the bomb into its language and forms, demystifying and co-opting and even making fun of it. There were Atomic Cocktails (Pernod and gin) and an ‘Atomic Bomb’ dessert, served in Boston. Lifemagazine ran a photo of a model in a two-piece bathing suit—‘Miss Anatomic Bomb’. (Reduced versions of such suits would soon be called bikinis, named after the atoll where the first postwar a-bomb tests took place in July 1946.) There were atomic brooches and earrings, ‘atomic sales’ at department stores, and a child’s ‘Atomic Bomb Ring’ available for 15 cents and a boxtop from Kix cereal, offering a ‘sealed atom chamber’ in which the owner could ‘see genuine atoms split to smithereens!’ There were songs—‘When the Atom Bomb Fell’, ‘Atom Buster’, and ‘Atom Polka’—dances, and poems:

The power to blow all things to dust

Was kept for people God could trust,

And granted unto them alone,

That evil might be overthrown.

A disgruntled fan of the Philadelphia Athletics baseball club urged that team members be administered atomic vitamins.12

Anxiety about the bomb largely resulted from fears that others, less trusted by God than Americans—the Soviets especially—would soon learn how to build one. Publicly, at least, leading US statesmen declared themselves unworried by this prospect. In this, they took their cues from Groves, who, as in all else, tended to substitute his own appetites and wishes for careful analysis of scientific evidence, or even plain logic. In the spring of 1945 Groves had told the Interim Committee that it would take the Russians up to twenty years to develop the bomb; in this estimate he simply gainsaid the views of many scientists, who thought it might take three to five years. James Byrnes chose to believe Groves, reporting to Szilard in May 1945 that ‘there is no uranium in Russia’ (not true), and behaving through that summer and fall as though the US nuclear monopoly was a thing assured. ‘When will the Russians be able to build the bomb?’ President Truman asked Oppenheimer in 1946. ‘I don’t know,’ replied Oppenheimer. ‘I know,’ Truman said. ‘Never.’ Truman would later tell a senator that he doubted ‘those Asiatics’ would ever solve the mysteries of the bomb. This was not the position of experts from the newly created US Central Intelligence Agency in 1947. But agency analysts nevertheless concluded that it was ‘doubtful that the Russians can produce a bomb before 1953 and almost certain they cannot produce one before 1951 ’. ‘There existed toward the end of 1947’, Gregg Herken has written, ‘a remarkable complacency in the military and in the Truman administration concerning the durability of the atomic secret and of the US monopoly of atomic bombs.’13

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