We could have been nuke-free

The Manhattan Project need never have happened.

Fallout: Conspiracy, Cover-Up and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb
Peter Watson
Simon & Schuster, 2018
423 pages

Nuclear weapons need never have been built. Our world could have been free from the “frozen tableau of terror” of 9500 nuclear warheads capable of destroying the world 100 times over, as Peter Watson comprehensively shows in Fallout: Conspiracy, Cover-Up and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb

It is pure fable that the atomic bomb was only brought into being as a necessary defence against Nazi Germany acquiring nuclear weapons during World War II.

Nazi Germany never had an atomic bomb and, from 1942, had definitively stopped trying to build one. The top tiers of British and US military and intelligence services knew this at the time, but barrelled ahead with building the super-weapon anyway because of its political use in the West’s coming Cold War against the Soviet Union.

With the discovery in 1932 of the neutron (the sub-atomic particle that makes a runaway nuclear chain reaction possible), followed by experimental confirmation of controlled nuclear fission in 1938, the genie of a frightening new war was out of the bottle.

These scientific developments sparked a nuclear gold rush by the US, Britain and Germany for the fissionable raw material of uranium. It prompted a war mobilisation of universities for nuclear fission research.

Courageously led astray by anti-Nazi German physicists who sent nuclear research off on theoretical wild goose chases, in 1942 the Nazis pulled the plug on building an atomic bomb, deciding it impracticable during the timeframe of the war.

German scientist-spies passed news of this major decision on to Britain, but the British civilian and military leadership failed to act on it. They also kept the new intelligence from their bomb-making US partners.

British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, feared that if news of the mothballing of a Nazi bomb were to become known to the world’s leading physicists working on an Allied bomb, then they might down tools.

This fear was well-placed. Against their better moral nature, most nuclear physicists, especially the European and Jewish émigré scientists, had reluctantly taken up the devil’s work on an atomic bomb as a deterrent against a Nazi bomb. If they had found out there would not be a Nazi bomb to deter, there was a high chance they would not have built an Allied bomb either.

Many prominent nuclear physicists, led by Albert Einstein, had already decided not to have anything to do with nuclear weapons. Many physicists working on an Allied bomb in the huge US$23 billion, 130,000-employee Manhattan Project in the US were terrified by the thing. They would have gladly walked away once the purported rationale of a Nazi atomic bomb had evaporated. The Manhattan Project’s US military chief General Leslie Groves regarded many of the scientists in his charge as “soft” for their unwarlike ways.

The West needed its scientists at their lab stations, making an atomic bomb that would give it powerful new leverage in imposing an anti-Soviet post-war settlement on Western terms. For the West, Nazi Germany had only ever been a temporary military inconvenience; it was the inconvenient and strictly temporary ally, the Soviet Union, which had been the real Western target all along.

Anti-Soviet aims suffused all the strategic thinking of the Allies. As then-US President Harry Truman put it, the bomb would “put us in a position to dictate our own terms by the end of the war”. Groves concurred, approving the A-bomb as a means of securing an “American-administered Pax Atomica”.

The British Minister of Aircraft Production appreciated the “unprecedented political clout” that an Allied nuclear weapon would confer. Churchill’s advisor on scientific matters, Lord Cherwell, said the bomb would enable the US and British atomic partners to “be able to dictate terms to the rest of the world”.

In this spirit, the militarily unnecessary but politically pertinent US atom-bombing of Japan was all about flaunting US nuclear muscle to make the Soviet Union more manageable post-war. Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, got the point of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the US atom bombs that destroyed these cities, he said, “were not aimed at Japan but rather at the Soviet Union”.

Stalin got it, too, saying: “There was no need to use it. Japan was already doomed.” Perceiving, accurately, that “A-bomb blackmail is American policy”, Stalin ordered a Soviet nuclear bomb program in response.

The politically perceptive among the US and British physicists had foreseen this predictable outcome of a dangerous nuclear arms race. On their behalf, Denmark’s Neils Bohr (the “Great Dane”, as the key Manhattan Project physicist was referred to by his peers) tried, in vain, to prevent this outcome. He lobbied Allied leaders to invite the then-bombless Soviet Union to participate in establishing joint controls on the development of uniquely destructive nuclear weaponry in a good faith display of international trust and openness.

Stalin was receptive to such an idea. Stalin was, says Watson, “a brute but he was a rational brute”, a political pragmatist and a Russian nationalist who could see the value in effectively outlawing a weapon that could destroy without political or national favour.

In a 1944 speech to the Third Anti-Fascist Meeting of Soviet Scientists, Pyotr Kapitsa, Russia’s pre-eminent nuclear physicist and a Hero of Socialist Labor (the Soviet Union’s highest civilian honour), sent out Kremlin-sanctioned diplomatic overtures to the West, welcoming international curbs on nuclear weapons.

The diplomatic window was, however, slammed shut by the West. Churchill, the doctrinaire anti-communist, rudely rebuffed Bohr. Then-US President Franklin Roosevelt was more urbane but duplicitous — while sympathetically nodding along with Bohr’s ideas, he had just weeks earlier signed an agreement with Churchill for Britain and the US to control the world’s supply of uranium to secure a nuclear bomb monopoly.

For his part, Roosevelt’s successor Truman couldn’t care less about needlessly provoking Stalin into a nuclear arms race, provided the US stayed ahead in it.

The point of the bomb had swiftly changed from beating a potentially nuclear-armed Nazi Germany to “winning global dominance after the war”, says Watson. Because Nazi Germany never had a nuclear bomb, there was never any military necessity for the Allies to build one. If the Allied politicians had been honest with their scientists about this, there may well have been no nuclear bombs built at all.

This is, admittedly, a speculative, and possibly naïve, historical what-if, but international cooperation, or a physicists’ renunciation of nuclear bomb-making, stood a better than even chance of success.

We shall never know, however, because the opportunity to chain the nuclear monster at birth under cooperative guard was cynically spurned by the West. The fatalist view that “because a nuclear bomb could be built it would be built” was far from the settled dogma of conservative apologists for nuclear weapons that it is now.

Watson is no Marxist, and so doesn’t put it in the relevant language, but it is no surprise that, in the grand capitalist scheme of things, democratic socialism is the supreme existential threat. This is why the leaders of the capitalist West, who had never forgiven the Russian socialist revolution of 1917 (for which any old socialist-in-name-only Stalinist dictatorship would serve as its proxy), were content to initiate an unnecessary nuclear arms race and threaten global annihilation to defend the rule of profit.

Become a Green Left supporter today

Green Left aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. We rely on regular support and donations from readers like you.