(This is the second installment of a series. Click here to read the first installment, Duck and Cover.)
“I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discovery one of these days
of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation
and men’s fears will force them to keep the peace”.
English author Wilkie Collins,
writing at the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
It took only 75 years for Collins’ speculation to come to fruition.
And his comments are recognized as probably the earliest reference to the concept dubbed during the Cold War as “Mutual Assured Destruction.”
There was, of course, no mutuality in August 1945 when the US dropped the first … and only … two nuclear bombs ever used in an actual act of war. At the time it was the only nation with such capability. But this was not because it was the only nation that had been working on such “terrible” weapons. US leaders suspected from US spy efforts that they were in a frantic race with Germany to see whose scientists could unravel the mystery of “splitting the atom”… and use the knowledge first to build a “terrible destructive agent.”
There is little doubt that if the Germans would have managed to pull off such a coup, they would have brandished the weapon before the astonished eyes of the world, and the history of civilization would have been quite different than it has turned out to be in the 21st century.
Instead, the US really did “beat the Germans to the punch.” But the US never used the weapon on the German front of World War 2…Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, two months before the first Terrible Agent was tested and found ready for use.
US scientists began serious work on a nuclear bomb in 1941, just months before the US entered the war.
In August 1939, prominent physicists Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner drafted the Einstein–Szilárd letter, which warned of the potential development of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type”. It urged the United States to take steps to acquire stockpiles of uranium ore and accelerate the research of Enrico Fermi and others into nuclear chain reactions. They had it signed by Albert Einstein and delivered to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
(Einstein had added his own comments: “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might well destroy the whole port with some of the surrounding territory. Letter from Albert Einstein to U.S. President Roosevelt in 1939)
Roosevelt called on Lyman Briggs of the National Bureau of Standards to head the Advisory Committee on Uranium to investigate the issues raised by the letter. Briggs held a meeting on 21 October 1939, which was attended by Szilárd, Wigner and Edward Teller. The committee reported back to Roosevelt in November that uranium “would provide a possible source of bombs with a destructiveness vastly greater than anything now known.”
Briggs proposed that the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) spend $167,000 on research into uranium, particularly the uranium-235 isotope, and the recently discovered plutonium.On 28 June 1941, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8807, which created the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD),with Vannevar Bush as its director.
This led directly to the establishment of what was dubbed the “Manhattan Project.”
At a meeting between President Roosevelt, Vannevar Bush and Vice President Henry A. Wallace on 9 October 1941, the President approved the atomic program. To control it, he created a Top Policy Group consisting of himself—although he never attended a meeting—Wallace, Bush, Conant, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Marshall. Roosevelt chose the Army to run the project rather than the Navy, as the Army had the most experience with management of large-scale construction projects. He also agreed to coordinate the effort with that of the British, and on 11 October he sent a message to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, suggesting that they correspond on atomic matters.
Four years later, the scientists involved in the project had indeed created the prototype of “an extremely powerful bomb of a new type.” In an extremely powerful instance of understatement, those involved in the project nicknamed the creation “the gadget.”
A test of The Gadget was arranged for July 16, 1945, in the desert about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, at the Alamogordo Test Range, in the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man) desert. (Now the White Sands Missile Range.) The code name for this test—in a powerful instance of irony—was “Trinity.” Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army Corps of Engineers, director of the Manhattan Project oversaw the test.
At 05:30 on 16 July 1945 the gadget exploded with an energy equivalent of around 20 kilotons [20,000 tons: 20KT] of TNT, leaving a crater of Trinitite (radioactive glass) in the desert 250 feet (76 m) wide. The shock wave was felt over 100 miles (160 km) away, and the mushroom cloud reached 7.5 miles (12.1 km) in height. It was heard as far away as El Paso, Texas, so Groves issued a cover story about an ammunition magazine explosion at Alamogordo Field.
The Genie was out of the bottle, and it would not be returned. You can experience a tiny bit of the real-life drama of the moment in this short clip from a BBC docudrama about the Trinity explosion, which includes actual footage of the real blast in the background behind the actors.
Confident that The Gadget worked satisfactorily, and with the end of the War with Japan not clearly in sight, the extremely controversial decision was made to use two similar gadgets on the (primarily) civilian population of two large cities in Japan.
Less than a month after the Trinity test, an August 6, 1945, an Atomic Bomb code-named “Little Boy” was exploded over the Japanese city of Hiroshima (population approximately 350,000). It yielded the destructive power of 20 thousand tons (20KT) of TNT.
A rare color image, taken by a 16 mm movie camera aboard a B-29 dubbed The Great Artiste, shows the first atomic weapon exploding over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. This film was donated to the Hoover Archives by Harold Agnew, a physicist who monitored the blast from the air with scientific instruments.
Before and after pictures of Hiroshima from the sky show the effects of Little Boy.
And from the ground it is even more obvious how little was left standing.
The plan was to detonate a second bomb, code-named “Fat Man” (with the same 20KT destructive power) three days later, on August 6, over the city of Kokura. But as the plane with the bomb neared that city, a cloud cover prevented effective implementation of bombing plans, and the plane headed instead to the secondary target that had been decided on, the city of Nagasaki (population approximately 240,000).
Before and after photos of Nagasaki from the sky show the effects of Fat Man.
But the photos above only show primarily the damage to “man-made structures.” Not shown is the effect on the (mostly civilian) population of humans.
Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day. The Hiroshima prefecture health department estimated that, of the people who died on the day of the explosion, 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness.
Six days later, on August 15, the government of Japan announced its surrender to the Allies.
It was undisputed at this point that the US had the biggest, baddest weapons in the world.
But, as it turned out, this reputation didn’t last long. And the rival to fear in the Atomic Race was not Germany after all. It was a US Ally in WW2, the Soviet Union.
In August 1945, the United States accepted the surrender of Japan after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Four years later, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its own nuclear device. At the time, both sides lacked the means to effectively use nuclear devices against each other. However, with the development of aircraft like the Convair B-36, both sides were gaining a greater ability to deliver nuclear weapons into the interior of the opposing country. The official nuclear policy of the United States was one of “massive retaliation“, as coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, which called for massive attack against the Soviet Union if they were to invade Europe, regardless of whether it was a conventional or a nuclear attack.
From that point on, both nations entered an “arms race” that was much like kids playing “king of the hill.” Both kept making bigger and better bombs and testing them…sometimes secretly, sometimes with great fanfare.
And for a while it certainly wasn’t clear if Wilkie Collins’ theory, later dubbed “Mutual Assured Destruction,” would work …before the world WAS indeed annihilated.
But once again … is this just all “ancient history,” a little more recent but no more relevant to your 21st century daily life than the Wars of Napoleon or the US Civil War?
To continue the exploration of this question, click here for the next installment of this series, More MADmen.