Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Apropos of absolutely nothing, some notes about the atomic bomb

I'm just finishing up an excellent book that asserts a direct continuity between the secrecy and lack of accountability fostered during the Manhattan Project and the roughly six-decade accumulation of unprecedented (and arguably unconstitutional) executive power, which continues essentially unabated to this day. It's a brief volume called Bomb Power by Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills, published last year, and you should read it.* While some of the author's more strident claims may strike you as a bit... aggressive (q.v.: "Our anxiety over nations 'going Communist' was in large part prompted by a fear that this would shrink the area" of the globe in which we could stage nuclear missiles or port our nuclear submarines, p. 44), I'll agree with Walter Isaacson that the book is "persuasive [and] elegantly argued." If you're interested in the creeping militarization (or what I prefer to call the "securitization") of America's engagement with the world in the decades since the Second World War -- that is, the subordination of U.S. foreign policy priorities to the presumed prerogatives of defense and "security" -- then you shouldn't miss this important contribution to the literature.

One of the early chapters provides a few details of the Manhattan Project with which I was either previously unfamiliar or poorly acquainted, and because it's 0427, I'll reproduce recount [EDIT: it occurs to me that this word, plus the use of page numbers, may have given the impression that I'm quoting passages verbatim, which -- unless it's in quotation marks -- I'm not] them here for your comment or general edification.
  • Among the leading physicists in the German atomic weapons program was Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and original exponent of the "uncertainty principle." BG Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, allegedly dispatched former major league catcher and OSS operative Moe Berg to investigate killing Heisenberg if he perceived that Germany was close to the production of a bomb. (It wasn't.) (p. 24)
  • When the war with Germany ended prior to the successful fielding of the atom bomb, President Truman set up what was called the "Interim Committee" to advise him on whether or not the weapon should be used against Japan. The members of the committee (among them the presidents of Harvard and MIT) unanimously recommended on 01 June 1945 "that the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers' homes; and that it be used without prior warning." (p. 25) I'll be honest: I'm more than a little surprised that there was unanimous consent on the stipulation "without prior warning," but Oppenheimer and his colleagues were apparently concerned that a failed detonation after announcement of the bomb's existence would set back the war effort dramatically.
  • The committee that drew up a possible target list for the bomb expressly avoided those cities that had been previously subjected to American firebombing, as the effects of prior raids would make it difficult to evaluate the destructive impact of the atom bomb. (p. 25)
  • The second bomb was initially intended not for Nagasaki but for a city called Kokura. Flak and cloud cover forced the aircrew to divert to a secondary target. Similarly poor weather over Nagasaki meant that the bomb landed off-target, which accounts in part for the more powerful second weapon's comparatively smaller casualty count (40,000 killed and 40,000 injured in Nagasaki versus 70,000 and 50,000 at Hiroshima). (p. 27)
  • Manhattan Project officials had little reason for confidence that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs would be even this effective, as the successful prior test detonation had taken place under controlled conditions and with a stationary warhead. The risk of failure was highlighted in the first post-war test at Bikini Island in 1946: only five ships were sunk when an air-dropped bomb missed its target -- a 90-vessel floating boneyard -- by half a mile.
  • While Secretary of War Stimson speculated an invasion that could cost 1 million American lives would be required to assure Japanese surrender without use of the bomb, other senior U.S. leaders thought continued firebombing and blockade could be effective. This latter viewpoint was supported by the results of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, conducted in 1946, in which "sixty-four percent of the [Japanese] population stated that they had reached a point prior to surrender where they felt personally unable to go on with the war." The Survey's Summary Report asserted that "certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." The emphasis here is mine. (p. 28)
  • Between 1953 and 1955, the U.S. doubled its weapon count from just under 900 to almost 1800, increasing the overall yield of those weapons from around 5,000 Hiroshimas to almost 200,000. By the middle of the decade, the nuclear production complex consumed a staggering SIX POINT TWO PERCENT of total U.S. electrical power. (p. 42)
  • As of 2007, nuclear warheads cost the U.S. only about a quarter of a million dollars each. The vast majority of spending on strategic arms goes to delivery systems and the massive security apparatus that protects the nuclear weapons program. (p. 42)
Maybe you already knew all of this and I'm the only dummy who didn't, but I find the subject fascinating. As much as I admire Wills's work, I find myself making excuses for the various Doctors Frankenstein who brought to life the monstrosity of "Bomb Power." It is, for me, basically impossible to imagine the pervasive and overwhelming fear that must have driven senior leaders in the Project to set up what the author calls "the vast and secret apparatus of the National Security State" (53). One can easily see in the era of the "Global War on Terror" just exactly how simple it is to mobilize public support for questionable policies by cultivating (or more charitably, indulging) a sense of national fear. Imagine if you can how Groves, Oppenheimer, and the rest must've dreaded finishing a close second in the race to beat the Germans to the bomb, and it's easy to see how every bit of extra-legal corner-cutting could have seemed not just excusable, but absolutely essential.

Wills is eager to assign base motives to power-grabbing presidents and their self-satisfied aides, but I'm more of a structuralist on this one. It's sometimes tough to see how things could've turned out any other way considering the politico-historical and geographic realities of the post-war period, which, I suppose, is precisely the sort of resigned inattention against which the author is militating. One thing is for sure: it's very, very difficult to imagine an alternate history in which the U.S. could have played a similarly assertive global role without the centralization of authority over military action and accumulation of responsibility for foreign affairs in the office of the presidency. Whether this is a good or bad thing is for you to decide.

* If you're interested in learning more about the book, read this review-slash-interview with Wills by Rick Perlstein, who, by the way, has two written excellent books about the post-Goldwater evolution of American conservatism and the Nixon presidency.

1 comment:

  1. About the alternative to invasion: The book is absolutely right in that Japan would have surrendered(or be rendered inert, for want of a better term) with or without an invasion, Russian intervention, or Atomic Bomb.

    But the continual blockade and coventional bombing/sea mining that was then on going would have likely killed many millions of Japanese before the population was reduced to a manageable level, food wise. When you're playing with numbers like these expediting the wars end has a certain appeal(especially since the American population is already screaming for the troops to come home with the fall of Germany).