EIGHT - The World’s Bomb

From mutual suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union came tension, rivalry, and finally Cold War. An arms race, conventional and nuclear, precipitated out of that. Both of the powers demanded loyalty of the nations on their side of the Cold War barrier, and these nations in turn, having chosen a side or having been compelled, by force or persuasion, to join one, required from their citizens dedication to the Cold War cause. The alliance system that had emerged by the mid-1950s—the North Atlantic Treaty for the United States and its allies, the Warsaw Pact for the Soviet-dominated world—triggered a psychological turning inward by people seeking to maintain their autonomy in an international system that threatened to dissolve the bonds of nationhood. (Renewed affection for one’s country was in any case widespread following the liberation of nations from German and Japanese occupation and the growing antipathy for colonialism.) And, in the shadow of the powers’ arms race, men and women around the world feared for their safety, now apparently in the hands of officials residing in Washington and Moscow. There was, thus, a natural temptation on the part of smaller or less powerful nations to explore the possibility of building nuclear weapons. Scientific curiosity promoted the pursuit; national pride predicted it; the desire for control of one’s own security gave it logic and urgency. As neither the Americans, as the Baruch Plan indicated, nor the Soviets, despite a bit of rhetorical generosity toward fellow Communist states, seemed interested in sharing control of nuclear-weapons development, governments elsewhere began to consider nuclear programs of their own.

Scientists were recruited for this purpose, or in some cases recruited themselves and pressured their governments to act. In the United States, many came to see the Cold War as a continuation of the Second World War, with the Soviets replacing the Nazis. There remained dissenters, as we will see, physicists and chemists who clung to the hope of international control of atomic energy or even the creation of a world government. Still, what Robert Gilpin has called the ‘containment school’ of scientists assumed greater prominence in the nuclear field. The Americans plucked from defeated Germany scientists they felt might stimulate their nuclear progress, and whose capture by the Russians might dangerously tip the nuclear balance east. This recruitment effort, codenamed by its military sponsors ‘Operation Paperclip’, made it clear to the Germans, many of whom had worked on ‘reprisal weapons’ before May 1945, that bygones were bygones and no hard questions would be asked about their previous political affiliations—though the US government did hope it would not be necessary to recruit ‘ardent Nazis’. The Soviets, for their part, snatched whatever German scientists they could. Elsewhere, scientists who had before and during the war been involved in studying the nucleus resumed their work, often determined to do for their countries what American scientists had done and Soviet scientists would do for theirs. Beginning in 1946, scientists in the employ of their governments once more immersed themselves in the growing literature of the bomb. The British, the French, the Israelis, South Africans, Chinese, and Indians all moved thereafter, with various degrees of speed, to hunt nearby sources of uranium, to buy or manufacture moderators for nuclear reactors or the reactors themselves, to solve problems of initiators and implosion lenses and the derivation of plutonium, and finally to imagine themselves in possession of a nuclear weapon, with all the strategic and moral dilemmas such a condition would present.

Along with this nationalist involution, there was at the same time a countertendency among the world’s scientists to restore the borderless ‘scientific republic’ of the interwar era. Decrying the security regime their government tried to impose on them, some American scientists sought a return to the days when international conferences and uncensored physics journals allowed the fullest exchange of views among colleagues. The ‘fraternity’ of physicists, as Fortune magazine called it, was in its natural state disinclined to admit secrecy to its ranks. ‘Progress belongs to us all’, insisted Laura Fermi, ‘and secrecy cannot for long restrict it within limited boundaries’—loftily said, and close to the mark for many scientists. Physicists joined philosophers and political figures in pleas to create ‘One World’, a world government, and the gadfly Leo Szilard suggested the full-scale international exchange of scientists (and their families) to serve as monitors of nuclear control agreements and dispensers of information, or even the ‘mining’ of American and Russian cities with nuclear bombs, as deterrents to either nation contemplating a pre-emptive strike against the other. In some cases, scientists returned from exile—perhaps from productive nuclear work in the United States, Canada, or Britain—to their home countries and their prewar colleagues. The Dane Niels Bohr remained the conscience of the international community of physicists. In his diffident way, he emphasized the unity of humankind bound by the common threat of annihilation, and urged a return to scientific community and openness.2

Curiously, the counterthrusts of secrecy and openness found a common result. Those who sought security through secrecy argued that the national interest would be served best by building or buying nuclear apparatus and implying, as least, that a nuclear weapons program might be under way. An open proclamation of nuclear intentions might aggravate the great powers, invite imitation and espionage by jealous neighbors, provoke domestic opposition, or embarrass scientists and technicians should their efforts fail; secrecy seemed to many nuclear-weapons advocates a logical policy. Secrecy, or ‘ambiguity’, or ‘opacity’, about one’s nuclear plans might also serve strategic purposes, as Israel and South Africa concluded. Those who urged openness in nuclear matters generally did so because, they claimed, only international trust inspired by sharing information would prevent an arms race by nation states, who in the absence of donated wisdom about the bomb would be more likely to pursue, and jealously guard, an arms program. International control of the nuclear industry would allow nations to relax, secure in the knowledge that advances in nuclear physics would be accomplished and witnessed by everyone. If the sharing of nuclear knowledge meant that any interested and well-equipped state could build a bomb, so be it—though most of those who championed the return of ‘fraternity’ to world physics hoped instead that sharing would obviate the need felt by nations to make weapons of their own. This was, it turned out, too fond a hope.

The world’s first nuclear power harbored its own ambivalence about sharing nuclear information. President Harry Truman believed there was a single, magical nuclear secret; as long as the magician refused to show his audience how his best trick worked, no one would figure it out. He thus supported Bernard Baruch’s quest to avoid any equitable international control of atomic energy, endorsing instead a naive reliance on perpetuating the US nuclear monopoly, with secrecy to be assured with the passage of the McMahon Bill in July 1946. The shock of the Soviet atomic test in August 1949 brought only an escalation of the arms race and renewed determination to expose the spies who were said to have divulged to the Russians the magician’s secret. Yet the administration’s futile commitment to secrecy did not prevent Leslie Groves, one of secrecy’s staunchest exponents, from authorizing the 1945 publication of the Smyth Report (after its principal author, the physicist Henry Smyth), a surprisingly frank survey of the science and engineering of the atomic bomb, and an account that Russian and other scientists found valuable for keeping their physicists on the right track. Physicists to some extent resumed their travels after the war, and while their governments’ sensitivities made them watch their words, they could not and did not totally abjure old habits of candor and collaboration. Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, shared some of Truman’s secretiveness about nuclear matters—he would not, for instance, endorse a ban on testing more powerful and innovative hydrogen bombs in 1952 because, he said of the Soviets, ‘they could make tremendous advances where we would be standing still’. But Eisenhower also conceived the ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative that resulted in the creation, in 1957, of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, and thereafter the distribution of US nuclear equipment to nations seeking the benefits of peaceful nuclear power. Eisenhower seemed to recognize, as had an editorialist for the New York Times just two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, that ‘the very nature of science makes secrecy impossible’ and that eventually ‘all military powers will recruit enough scientists to develop their own atomic bombs’.3

That, of course, is precisely what happened during the half century following the end of the Second World War. Nations fashioned nuclear programs for different reasons: fear of annihilation was prominent among them, but also present were scientific curiosity and ego, bureaucratic momentum (like the kind that took the Americans seamlessly from research to testing to use of the bomb against the Japanese), a desire to prove masculine toughness, an interest in creating substantial diplomatic bargaining chips, and, perhaps above all if difficult to substantiate, a growing sense across the globe that atomic weapons conferred status. The British and French empires were shrinking. Smaller states, including Israel and South Africa, were more and more criticized for their treatment of nonwhite majorities or minorities, and risked becoming pariahs. China felt threatened by the United States and, increasingly, the Soviet Union, and its supreme leader, Mao Zedong, concluded that his revolutionary regime would not gain international stature until it developed a bomb of its own. India felt threatened by China and Pakistan, and Indian scientists and political leaders thought they were not being taken seriously by their counterparts in the West; they decided that possession of a nuclear device might win them respect.

1. Great Britain

Let us begin with Britain. In 1933 Harold Nicolson had imagined that Britain was first to fashion an atomic bomb, monopolizing its fuel, Deposit A, and testing the weapon in the North Atlantic, inadvertently wiping out much of South Carolina into the bargain. The British were among the world’s leaders in nuclear physics before the war, and with the Frisch-Peierls memorandum and the formation of the MAUD Committee in 1941 they became the first to contemplate seriously building an atomic weapon. Marcus Oliphant carried to the United States his message of urgency late that summer. Following a period of coolness in late 1941 and early 1942, resulting from a British belief that they were ahead of the Americans in caring about a bomb and planning for it, the British government had resumed attempts to collaborate with the Americans and hoped for a full sharing of information concerning nuclear matters. Prime Minister Churchill thought he had achieved a partnership with agreements with President Roosevelt at Hyde Park in June 1942 and Quebec in August 1943. The admission of a British scientific team at Los Alamos late that year was useful and promising.

Yet uncertainty remained—or Churchill’s doubts did, and Roosevelt’s vagueness, and his advisers’ (especially Groves’s) skepticism concerning the desirability of collaboration. Churchill went to Hyde Park again in September 1944 seeking greater clarity. There he and FDR produced a brief aide-memoire. It contained three points. First, it rejected the pleas of Niels Bohr that the ‘secret’ of the bomb be shared with the Russians after the war. Second, it reassured Churchill, stating: ‘Full collaboration between the United States and the British Government in developing tube alloys [the British codename for the a-bomb] for military and commercial purposes should continue after the defeat of Japan unless and until terminated by joint agreement.’ Third, the note, with seeming casualness, suggested that ‘when a bomb [not “tube alloys”] is finally available, it might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese, who should be warned that this bombardment will be repeated until they surrender.’ ‘Well done indeed,’ a Churchill adviser in London cabled his boss, when word of the Hyde Park Agreement was received. There was no similar reaction from Roosevelt’s advisers because the President neglected to inform anyone else about the agreement. (Two months after Roosevelt’s death, a British member of the tripartite nuclear Combined Policy Committee, created at Quebec and including the Canadians, ‘reminded’ the Americans about it. The Americans had not heard of the agreement and asked the British for a copy. Some years later, Roosevelt’s copy turned up in a file folder kept by the President’s naval aide, evidently because the title, ‘Tube Alloys’, sounded like something to do with torpedoes.)

American casualness or inconsistency concerning postwar collaboration rightly told the British that the issue would not be easily managed after Roosevelt’s death. Like his predecessor, Harry Truman dangled before the British the prospect of nuclear cooperation, in November 1945. He acknowledged the substantial British contribution to the Manhattan Project, in its earliest days and especially at Los Alamos. But in early 1945 Marcus Oliphant, again visiting Berkeley, concluded that British entreaties concerning collaboration gave ‘only the impression that we are trying to muscle in on a racket we have been too dumb to develop ourselves’. Oliphant recommended that Britain start work on its own racket when the war was over. ‘I am quite sure help from the US is not necessary to enable us to carry out this project in England,’ said Sir James Chadwick. ‘We can stand on our own feet.’ The experience in America and with the Canadians and French at a parallel nuclear project in Montreal during the war—on which more later—had already helped. British engineers understood gaseous diffusion and had worked with irradiated fuel rods from Oak Ridge. William Penney, who was to lead the British nuclear project, rode in the B-29 that served as the observer plane for the Nagasaki mission and gathered from that torn city samples of bent poles and crushed fuel cans just ten days after the bombing. Like other nations, Britain learned from the Smyth Report. And the British had uranium, or access to it, from Canada and Africa, by way of the Belgians and the Portuguese.

US policy was moving, by early 1946, toward greater restriction on the sharing of nuclear knowledge. Truman became fixated on the felt need for greater security, interpreted earlier agreements on collaboration with the British very narrowly, and moved away from the Acheson-Lilienthal plan for international oversight to the Baruch version that sought protection for the American monopoly. The McMahon Bill, which passed the Senate on 1 June and the House on 20 July and was signed by Truman on 1 August, would, as Gregg Herken has written, ‘so restrict the interpretation of scientific interchange as to make it meaningless, and would outlaw sharing US technology on atomic energy’s “industrial uses” with foreign nations by 1947’. Anyone helping another nation gain nuclear information would thereafter be subject to a large fine, up to twenty years in prison, or both. During debate on the Bill, lawmakers revealed ignorance of previous agreements on American-British-Canadian cooperation and showed no inclination to want to know more. Such behavior indicated to British observers, and everyone else, that the United States was no longer interested in participating in a republic of nuclear science and engineering.

In the end, and as was true for the Russians, the American restrictions may not have been decisive, for the British had already determined to move ahead with a nuclear weapons program. Less than two weeks after Japan had agreed to surrender on American terms, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who had taken office the previous month following Churchill’s shocking repudiation at the polls, declared, in a memorandum to his advisers, that a decision regarding the atomic bomb was ‘imperative’. Already on the drawing board were plans for a plant to enrich uranium. That October, the Chiefs of Staff concluded that a weapons-building project ought to be undertaken at once; ‘to delay production’ while waiting for the Americans to make up their minds about information distribution and international control ‘might well prove fatal to the security of the British Commonwealth’. Churchill, having experienced the frustrations of negotiating Britain’s junior partner status with the Americans, chimed in from the Commons in November that ‘we should make atomic bombs’— indeed, he regarded the decision to do so as ‘already agreed’. Attlee and his Cabinet duly approved the construction of a plutonium pile in December 1945. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was particularly avid. Once the Americans had publicized, in spring 1946, their Baruch Plan, Bevin said: ‘Let’s forget about the Baroosh [Plan] and get on with making the fissle.’ There was a flurry of appointments in January 1946. Charles Portal, now a viscount, who had overseen Butch Harris’s strategic bombing of Germany, was named controller of production of atomic energy. Christopher Hinton, an engineer with experience building weapons’ plants, took charge of constructing a pile in Lancashire. John Cockcroft, late of successful stewardship of joint nuclear work in Canada, became the director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, headquartered at an old airfield called Harwell. Advising the project was Chadwick, who had worked closely with the Americans, including at Los Alamos. And William Penney, who had also been at Los Alamos and over Nagasaki, was appointed on New Year’s Day as Chief Superintendent of Armament Research, ultimately the most powerful post of all, its importance much enhanced by the quality of the scientist who filled it. The government, on 1 May, presented the Commons with an Atomic Energy Bill, preceding by three months Truman’s signature on the McMahon Bill. The secret decision, in January 1947, to move ahead with bomb building thus ratified rather than established the direction in which the British were plainly heading.

‘That autumn’, wrote C. P. Snow in The New Men, his 1954 novel about the British atomic scientists, ‘it was strange to hear the scientists alone, trying to examine their consciences, and then round a committee table.’ ‘ “I don’t think we’ve got any options,” says one of them. “Luke’s [Penney’s?] right, the Barford [Harwell?] boys are right, we’ve got to make the infernal thing.” ’ Attlee would explain the British decision as ‘essential’. ‘We couldn’t allow ourselves to be wholly in their hands,’ he said of the Americans. Britain ‘could not agree that only America should have atomic energy’. Bevin concurred: ‘We could not afford to acquiesce in an American monopoly of this new development.’ Neither man was explicit about building a bomb, but that is what they meant to do. The decision to go for a weapon, as Margaret Gowing has summarized it, was not ‘a response to an immediate military threat but rather something fundamentalist and almost instinctive—a feeling that Britain must possess so climacteric a weapon in order to deter an atomically armed enemy, a feeling that Britain as a great power must acquire all major new weapons, a feeling that atomic weapons were a manifestation of the scientific and technological superiority on which Britain’s strength, so deficient if measured in sheer numbers of men, must depend’. Whether any of these desires, ‘instinctive’ as they were, could have been satisfied by American willingness to collaborate fully on nuclear research and production is a matter of more than a little doubt.

Penney was the project’s leader, a brilliant mathematical thinker, resolute and wise in the management of people who worked for him and those who controlled his budget. He decided to build an implosion device, with Fat Man as his model. In June 1947 Penney gathered about three dozen scientists and engineers in the library of the battered Woolwich Arsenal in London and told them, behind drawn shades, that they would build an atomic bomb. He described how they would do this. Construction had already started on a complex of plants where the work would be undertaken: uranium refining at Springfields, Lancashire; at a place dubbed Windscale, in Cumbria, the reactor itself and a facility nearby to extract plutonium; then a gaseous diffusion plant at Capenhurst, Cheshire. The bomb itself was to be assembled at Aldermaston, Berkshire, where, according to the site newsletter, the hasty construction left ‘swamps reminiscent of Passchendaele’. Penney’s participation in the American project helped a great deal as he oversaw the making of a British bomb, but it did not solve every problem. He had not, for example, worked much on plutonium, and did not know what metal or metals to use to fashion the vessel in which to melt the element. His original design for the bomb’s core proved volatile. Penney sought solutions to these and other dilemmas when he and his wife, Adele, invited visiting American nuclear scientists to dinner at their south London home. He had limited success.

There was an unlikely source of help for the first three years of the project: Cockcroft had hired Klaus Fuchs to work at Harwell. Like Penney, Fuchs had benefited enormously from his time at Los Alamos, but unlike Penney he had smuggled out of New Mexico notebooks filled with equations and design sketches, many of which had gone through couriers to Moscow. Now, Fuchs’s expertise in physics and espionage helped the British: ‘The same notes he had used in drafting summaries for his secret Soviet contacts in the United States’, writes Brian Cathcart, ‘provided early assistance to the British atomic bomb programme.’ Fuchs lectured the scientists about the morphology of the weapon, and he wrote a paper evaluating several versions of the arrangement of plutonium at the bomb’s core. The design Fuchs preferred, one in which bomb designers left a bit of space between the plutonium center and the uranium tamper surrounding it, was ultimately chosen by Penney for his test device. (Penney made the decision in 1950, after Fuchs had been imprisoned early that spring.)

By early 1952 Penney had a device nearly ready for testing. A pretrial explosives test blew a 30-foot crater in the Thames Estuary, making a mockery of any lingering efforts to preserve the secrecy of the project. Penney considered detonating his bomb at an American test range, either at Eniwetok in the South Pacific or in Nevada, but when negotiations stalled the British turned instead to the Monte Bello islands, a barren cluster of land forms 50 miles off the northwest coast of Australia. The islands had served as platforms for pearl divers in the past, but without fresh water or much plant life they had been abandoned to birds and sea snakes. The Australian government did not object to an atomic bomb being tested on them. On 8 June 1952 the frigate HMS Plym left the Thames with the bomb casing in its hold, headed for Oceania. The core, assembled at Aldermaston, followed in September, flown in stages to Singapore, wherein it was placed on a fast boat for the Monte Bellos. There it was united with the rest of the bomb in the weapons room of the Plym. The ship was to be the bomb’s container for the test. The operation was called ‘Hurricane’.

They counted down and triggered the bomb just after breakfast on 3 October. Photos revealed a towering fireball and a great spout of seawater borne upward by the blast. Men at the base camp some 8 miles away from where the Plym was anchored felt the earth shake and caught the bomb’s blast wave a half minute after the shot. The blast had yielded at 25,000 tons of TNT. The Monte Bellos were pelted with ‘a torrent of toxic rain’, according to Cathcart. The scientists and engineers congratulated each other with ‘riotous parties’ in which ‘much liquor was drunk and unprintable songs were sung’ (Gowing). Just three weeks later, the Americans tested their first hydrogen bomb at Eniwetok. It was a hundred times more powerful than Hurricane.

The British appear to have been more relieved than elated with their success. Some in government told themselves that their possession of a testable atomic weapon would provide them with a deterrent against a nuclear attack, presumably by the Soviet Union. The bomb had also come to symbolize great-power status by the early 1950s; it was something that anyone with international standing was expected to have. But Hurricane failed to win American or Soviet respect for British physics or military science, in the light of the bigger bombs those nations were developing even as Penney and the others toasted in the Monte Bellos. The Russians evidently ignored the British test. The Americans at first dismissed it as inconsequential, and when asked if he now thought about increasing nuclear collaboration with Britain, a member of Congress said derisively, ‘we would be trading a horse for a rabbit’. The British built more atomic bombs, deliverable ones, in a project called, incongruously, ‘Blue Danube’. And they went to work on a thermonuclear device, making enough progress by late 1957 for even the Americans to be surprised and impressed. In mid-1958 Congress relaxed restrictions placed twelve years earlier on Anglo-American nuclear collaboration.4

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