Saturday, August 12, 2017

31.3 - Noting August 6 and 9: the start of the nuclear weapons age

Noting August 6 and 9: the start of the nuclear weapons age

I'm going to spend the rest of the show on something I do every couple of years around this time, in fact it is largely based on something I did two years ago. This time out it carries extra resonance and we daily have the spectacle of two egomaniacal, sociopathic, man-babies spluttering threats at each other across the Pacific Ocean like it was a 4th grade schoolyard. It is the anniversary - the 72nd anniversary, to be exact - of the bombings of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9 and the birth of the age of nuclear weapons.

Leo Szilard
Albert Einstein
Most people date the start of the American nuclear arms effort to a famous 1939 letter composed by physicist Dr. Leo Szilard but sent to President Roosevelt over the signature of Albert Einstein because it was thought his name would be more impressive to Roosevelt and his advisors).

The letter noted the possibility of developing an atomic bomb. By the time of Pearl Harbor, the US already had a small nuclear bomb project going that had made real progress.

The political argument given for building the atomic bomb, for investing the enormous amounts of time, money, resources, and scientific talent in what became known at the Manhattan Project, was that some intelligence reports said that Nazi Germany may have been working on one. If so, we had to have one and we had to have it first. Although it must in fairness be noted that it may not have been known at the time, the fact is that although the Germans were indeed doing some experiments in that direction, they were going about it in an extremely inefficient way and it would've taken them decades to develop a bomb - if it was possible at all.

Some of late have tried to resuscitate that threat of "the Nazi bomb" by claiming the Germans were "closer than we knew." The argument, however, is based on their progress in enriching uranium and relies on the supposition that in the 1940s the German scientists working on the project could have suddenly changed gears and adopted a sharply different approach to fashioning a bomb - that is, do exactly what they had decided against doing years before. (Which would also entail admitting to their superiors that they had wasted a whole lot of time and money on a dead end.) At least one writer added the argument of a commando raid that destroyed an enrichment facility in occupied Norway, claiming that set back the German's bomb project significantly. That undoubtedly slowed production, but it didn't affect the problems with the design process itself. That is, the "closer than we knew" assertion in based on a series of "what ifs," which makes for interesting speculation but not a persuasive argument.

But no matter what you think on that point, what's important here is that it was the claimed threat from Germany that supposedly provided the logic, the argument, the purpose of the Manhattan Project. And yet....

By late 1944 US intelligence knew that the German nuclear experiments had failed. The Manhattan Project didn't even slow down.

Trinity test
In fact, Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 - 10 weeks before the first successful test explosion of an atomic bomb. (Code-named Trinity, it took place at Alamogordo Testing Range, 230 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.) With the surrender of Germany, the entire founding logic of the Manhattan Project evaporated, vanished, dissolved. But the project by then had too much momentum - it had become its own purpose, its own logic. So instead of stopping or even slowing down, the project accelerated, in part because some on the staff were afraid the war would end before they got the bomb built. We simply switched myths: from the myth of Nazi atomic bombs to the myth of the fanatical Japanese. The weapon that was supposedly designed for defense against Germany now "had" to be used on Japan.

And here is what's probably the most important myth of all, because it provided the logical (if you can call it that) underpinnings for actually carrying out the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for actually vaporizing tens of thousands of human beings in the flash of an instant and opening the door of the atomic age, a myth that gets replayed, reproduced, re-pronounced, re-proclaimed every time Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned, a myth that people continue to believe today, as polls show that a clear majority of Americans approve of the bombings: the myth that the Japanese were so fanatical that the only possible alternative to the devastation of those cities was a bloody land invasion of Japan.

It's just not true. It's more than a myth, worse than a myth, it's a damned lie. A damned lie that is now more than 70 years old.

To begin with, the yearly claims, sure to be heard again this week, that such an invasion would've cost 250,000 or 500,000 or 1,000,000 American lives (the numbers vary unpredictably) is utter nonsense. Even President Truman originally cited an estimate of 250,000 casualties (not deaths) - although in later years he doubled it, then doubled it again, each time for no discernible reason other than self-justification. More to the point, the War Planning Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff never expected more than 40,000 American deaths, and thought they might've been as low as 20,000 because they thought it a fair likelihood that Japan would surrender during the first part of such a campaign.

Now, 20,000 is a lot of people - then again, it's about 1/7 to 1/10 of the death which we inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Which in turn raises the more important question of whether such an invasion was necessary at all.

It wasn't.

By the spring of 1945 Japan was already a defeated nation. It no longer had any navy to speak of, its air force had been decimated, its army driven back to its own shores. It was incapable of mounting any offensive action or even of defending itself against US air raids. Critical materials and even food were in short supply.

The situation was so bad that even attempts to justify the bombings wind up confirming Japan's desperate condition: Several years ago I had an email debate with a man who tried to project the classic image of a well-defended Japan bristling with military forces. At one point, trying to show the determination of the Japanese to defend the homeland no matter what the cost, he said "Japan pulled some 500 loaded ships out of China and not one of them made it back to Japan," because of attacks by high-altitude bombers. In response, I noted that he had thereby agreed, if unintentionally, that Japan's air force was so thoroughly destroyed that it couldn't even provide air cover to get its own retreating troops back safely.

In fact, the situation was so bad that before - before - the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan had already made secret overtures to the United States through Sweden and the Soviet Union stating that it was ready to surrender. All of this was known to the US military, all of this was known to Truman, who rejected the offer because it wasn't unconditional: Hirohito would've kept his throne as Emperor.

What was also known to Truman was the USSR's intent to declare war on Japan and its likely impact: In his journal about his meetings with Stalin at the Potsdam conference, Truman wrote on July 17, 1945, "He'll be in Japan War on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about." (Sidebar: Truman stalled at the beginning of the conference because he wanted to know that the Trinity test, which occurred the day before he wrote that, had been a success before he dealt with Stalin.)

The atomic bombings were simply unnecessary. But we refused to accept the idea, refused even to accept surrender - because by then peace was not enough, even victory was not enough: It had to be utter, smashing, devastating, total victory.

So it was that early on the morning of August 6th, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress bomber nicknamed "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island in the Pacific, headed for Hiroshima, a city in Japan of about 250,000 people. It carried a single bomb, code-named "Little Boy." At 8:15 AM local time, Little Boy was dropped.

I want to pause for a moment to give you a sense of the kind of power we're talking about here. The bomb contained 64 kilograms - about 141 pounds - of highly-enriched, fissionable uranium. Of that amount, only about .7 kilogram, or about 1.5 pounds, actually fissioned - that is, the atoms split - and only about 600 milligrams was actually converted into energy. That 600 milligrams equals six-tenths of a gram, or a little more than 1/50 ounce.

"Little Boy"
Hiroshima
The energy released by that 1/50 of an ounce had the explosive force of 14,000 tons of dynamite. It was enough to devastate Hiroshima. Around 70,000 people died instantly; some of them were literally vaporized. Another 20,000 died shortly thereafter, some thousands more by 1950, due to injuries, radiation poisoning, and cancer.

Just three days later, another nuclear bomb, code-named "Fat Man," did the same to Nagasaki, with tens of thousands more dead, thousands more condemned to die of injuries, radiation poisoning, and cancer, and another city destroyed.

So we destroyed Hiroshima and then we destroyed Nagasaki when Japan didn't surrender fast enough.

"Fat Man"
Nagasaki
We destroyed them even though many US officials and top military officers, including such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Adm. William Leahy as well as Gens. Dwight Eisenhower, "Hap" Arnold, and Douglas MacArthur, declared it unnecessary. That judgment was proved correct by US analysts sent to Japan in 1946 who concluded that nation would've surrendered before November 1, 1945 "even if atomic bombs hadn't been dropped, Russia hadn't entered the war, and no invasion was planned."

Bombing Hiroshima was unnecessary and the US government and military knew it was unnecessary. It was a crime, a war crime, one that we compounded, more than doubled, by bombing Nagasaki before the impact of the first bomb had time to settle in. The Nagasaki bomb was made ready in a day-and-night effort and the city wasn't even the primary target. Kokura was. In fact, Nagasaki was not on the original list of the top three targets for the second bomb and wound up being devastated only because Kokura had too much cloud cover that day for a clean bomb run.

The second bombing was originally scheduled for August 20 but was moved up to August 11 when the fissionable material became available sooner than expected. It was then pushed forward to August 9 by a day-and-night effort in order to get the next attack in ahead of some days of bad weather predicted for Japan. General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, claimed that speed was the only consideration:
Admiral Purnell and I had often discussed the importance of having the second blow follow the first one quickly so that the Japanese would not have time to recover their balance.

The statement is oddly forced: If a quick second blow was the intent, why not hold off on the first  one until you had a second one in hand? But take Groves at his word. It is then legitimate to ask if the purpose was to stun the Japanese into instant surrender - or to get the second bombing in before it had a chance to.

There is good reason to think the latter. Truman's note about the impact of the expected entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan was not enthusiasm; it was a reflection of concern about Soviet influence in the post-war world and how we could try to prevent that.

James Byrnes (and Truman)
Before the bombings, some officials urged that we stage a "demonstration" blast on a deserted island or in an uninhabited area of Japan to show the Japanese the power of the weapon we had and to give them a chance to surrender before we actually used it. (Among those pushing such an idea was Leo Szilard, who, perhaps having second thoughts about his role in all this, pleaded with Secretary of State James Byrnes not to use the bomb on people and circulated a petition to Truman to rule out its use because it would open the "door to an era of devastation of an unimaginable scale.")

The idea of a "demonstration" blast was supposedly shelved. But, in fact, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were demonstration blasts. They were intended to show the awesome power we held in our arsenal - only the target of the demonstration wasn't Japan. It was the Soviet Union.

Bernard Baruch
US officials, including Byrnes, presidential advisor Bernard Baruch, and some top military leaders had urged the use of atomic weapons on Japan as a means of warning the Soviet Union not to challenge American plans for a postwar world dominated by US interests, to, in Byrnes' words, allow the US "to dictate our own terms [with the USSR] at the end of the war" and "make Russia more manageable in Europe" by showing both our power and our willingness to use it.

Which means, ultimately, that hundreds of thousands of Japanese were destroyed, disintegrated, as sacrificial lambs at the start of a decades-long campaign to "contain" the Soviets if not to bully them into submission. From Nazi bomb scientists through wild-eyed Japanese fanatics to intractable Soviet deceivers, the mythmakers had constructed an image of the United States as appointed to protect and shape the world, with the atomic bomb, as Truman put it, the weapon given us by God that we were to use "for His purposes and His ends." The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the last shots of World War II, they were the first shots of the Cold War, and the Japanese the first of its many victims.

On another note, some, notably Ward Wilson of Rethinking Nuclear Weapons, have claimed that the atomic bombings had nothing to do with Japan's surrender, that in fact it was, as one writer put it, Stalin, not Truman, who ended the war. The argument is largely based on a time frame: Despite the dire situation, the Japanese High Command had never considered unconditional surrender until the morning of August 9, before Nagasaki was struck and nearly three full days since Hiroshima but just hours after the Soviets declared war by attacking Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state on the mainland of Asia.

Certainly Russia's entry into the war had a large impact; even if it had taken no direct military action at all it would still undermine Japan's attempts at a negotiated settlement because the Soviets were no longer a go-between. However, the argument that the nuclear attacks were inconsequential in Japan's surrender is belied by several facts: At that very August 9 meeting being cited, the Soviet declaration and the bombing of Hiroshima were presented by the "peace" faction in the government as twin reasons why the war could not continue; a few hours later it was clear that the claim by the "war" faction that nuclear weapons are so complicated that the US could not have more than one was wrong; and perhaps most importantly, when Japan did surrender on August 15, in his address to the nation Hirohito specifically referenced the use of "a new and most cruel bomb" as a cause for surrender.

It is obviously historically wrong to say the Soviet declaration of war was a sideshow of little importance in ending the war, but to say that it was what made all the difference is to replace one myth with another. At the same time, it's worth noting that to the extent the argument has weight, to that same extent the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki become even greater crimes.

One final bitter note:The ultimate terms of surrender for Japan were strikingly similar those offered by Japan before the bombing of Hiroshima, including allowing Hirohito to keep his position role as Emperor - marking the last several weeks of World War II were a complete and utter waste of time, energy, resources, and most importantly, life.

That, too, is part of the world the Manhattan Project created.

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