COVER

Playing for the bomb

'I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds'

CARL MOLLINS August 7 1995
COVER

Playing for the bomb

'I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds'

CARL MOLLINS August 7 1995

Playing for the bomb

COVER

CARL MOLLINS

Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King was in the loop early, aware of “the secret process which has such appalling possibilities of enormous destruction,” as he noted in his personal diary in April of 1944. His minister of munitions and supply, C. D. Howe, sat on a six-member Anglo-American-Canadian Combined Policy Committee co-ordinating “the matter of tube alloys,” official code words for King’s “secret process.” The Americans in charge of the project, while keeping some other allies and many of their own leaders in the dark, had to inform Canada’s wartime prime minister and include Howe on the committee. They needed Canadian-refined uranium to develop the weapon that, 50 years ago, was to transform human history in a midsummer cataclysm.

On Aug. 6, 1945, one of the only two atomic bombs then in existence dropped from a U.S. bomber over the southwestern Japanese port of Hiroshima as the city went to work that Monday morning. The bomb’s timer triggered a furious explosion of its uranium payload 600 metres above the city. The enormous blast, 6,000 times more powerful than any normal bomb, spread deadly radiation.

Three days later, the other A-bomb, almost twice as potent as the first, exploded over Nagasaki, 300 km southwest of Hiroshima. The attacks destroyed the two cities and, including those who died later of wounds and radiation sickness, at least 200,000 lives.

On Aug. 15, Japan closed the Second World War in surrender. Fifty years later, despite advances in taming atomic power for peaceful uses, the world remains in thrall to the menace that dates from the furious birth of the nuclear age in the skies of Japan.

Canada, while fostering its role as a peacemaker, was an active if quiet player from the nuclear age’s beginnings (page 24). On the day that Mackenzie King’s “appalling possibilities” became a terrible reality in Hiroshima, the diarist

_____ ______ expresses none of the remorse that plagued many

others involved in the weapon’s development On the contrary, he turns in his diary that Aug. 6 to the darker narrows of his mind. ‘We now see what might have come to the British race had German scientists won the race” to perfect a nuclear weapon, he notes. And although the A-bombs were not ready until after Nazi Germany’s defeat, King adds: “It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.” (In fact, U.S. military planners had designated Japan as the A-bomb target two years before Germany’s surrender on May 7,1945.)

As for the event’s lasting importance, and the danger it posed to the postwar world, the King diary mundanely rates the bombing of Hiroshima as one of “the two great events of the day.” The other: his personal byelection victory in the Ontario riding of Glengarry, after losing in a general election two months earlier in Prince Albert, Sask.

Much less ready to equate the bomb to mere competitive success were scientists closely connected to the bomb’s production— notably refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe who played key roles in the atom-splitting project in both Canada and the United States. They pressed for an early public warning to Japan and the rest of the world, possibly supported by a public demonstration of the weapon in a test explosion. Nuclear physicists Niels Bohr, a Nobel laureate from Denmark, and Hungarian Leo Szilard, with the support of German-born Albert Einstein, led a campaign for openness and an international system of control.

The official history of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission records that President Franklin Roosevelt was impressed enough by the unease among the scientists to ask his American advisers, on Sept. 22, 1944: “Should the bomb be used against the Japanese, or should it be tested in the United States and held as a threat?” Roosevelt’s advisers, caught up in the momentum of what the official history calls “the race for the bomb,” postponed an answer. Whatever hesitation Roosevelt may have harbored died with him on April 12,1945.

His successor, Harry Truman, expressed no such doubts, from the time he was fully

briefed on the “secret process” until his death in 1972. Apart from his open reluctance to proceed with an American invasion of Japan, at the risk of heavy casualties, Truman was intent on displaying U.S. power to the Soviet Union, which had emerged as America’s chief competitor for global influence. While at a summit with Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at Potsdam, near Berlin, where Soviet intervention in the war against Japan was discussed, Truman received word from Washington of the successful ground test of a plutonium bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. At the close of the Potsdam summit, Truman casually mentioned to Stalin the U.S. development of “a new bomb of unusual destructive force.” Truman, like King a diarist, confided to his journal a belief that “Japs will fold up before Russia comes in” and “I am sure they will when it appears over their homeland.” Within days, Truman issued orders to A-bomb Japan.

Churchill was more fully briefed than Stalin on the New Mexico test of the rotund plutonium device that its builders christened “Fat Man”—after the British prime minister. (The slighter “Little Boy” uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima, never tested in prototype, succeed-

ed an early version named “Thin £

Man,” after Roosevelt.) For g Churchill, the first atomic expio-1 sion was an apocalyptic event, i Declared the wartime leader: “This & is the Second Coming, in wrath.”

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the New Mexico laboratory near Los Alamos where the bombs were built, was similarly moved to cite scripture when he

observed the test explosion. Quoting Hinduism’s Bhagavad-Gita, the awed scientist exclaimed: “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” Oppenheimer later objected to the development of the yet more powerful hydrogen bomb—and its testing in 1952 on Eniwetok atoll in the South Pacific. As a result, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission cited the father of the A-bomb as a security risk in 1953.

The prevalent doubts and dangers found a voice in the first editions of Maclean’s to appear after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The coming of atomic power,” declared one article, “may prove to be the most important single event in the whole history of mankind.” Another, under the headline “We Can’t Risk War Now” declared: “The fate of humanity hangs in the balance.” But for the practical Mackenzie King, it was business as usual. After the war, even as his envoys joined in efforts at the new United Nations Organization to outlaw the bomb, or at least place nuclear power under UN control, King’s government continued to assist the postwar buildup of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Added to supplies of uranium from Crownowned mines and a government refinery in Port Hope, Ont, was bomb-

grade plutonium from the nuclear reactor that began producing in Chalk River, Ont., a month after Hiroshima. Britain received the same service in the postwar development of its bomb.

King’s successors maintained Canada’s profitable contributions to the nuclear arms race into the 1960s, even as they piously abstained from building an all-Canadian atomic arsenal and preached disarmament. As “ban the bomb” demonstrations flourished around the world, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China joined the nuclear club, others less openly. India did so with firepower from a Canadian-provided research reactor in 1974. The club poisoned the atmosphere with weapons tests and the earth with noxious nuclear wastes. And with the growth of rocket delivery systems, nuclear dealers of death in many shapes and sizes fuelled nuclear anxiety. At the peak of the Cold War arms race in the nervous 1980s, an estimated arsenal of more than 70,000 nuclear weapons littered the earth.

Canada joined in the arms race, mostly quietly, by borrowing in the 1960s from the United States. The unquiet exception was the acquisition of 56 Bomarc anti-aircraft missiles, split between bases at North Bay, Ont., and La Macaza, Que. When John Diefenbaker, then prime minister, balked at accepting the nuclear warheads for the Bomarcs, Nobel Peace laureate Lester Pearson, Liberal Opposition leader, changed his stand and said he would. But the electorate replaced Diefenbaker’s minority Conservative government with a minority Pearson administration on April 8, 1963. The Bomarc warheads arrived the following I New Year’s eve, and % stayed until the obsoz lete weapons were re| moved in 1971.

The two Cold War superpowers are also reducing their nuclear stockpiles now, although to target levels of thousands of warheads from tens of thousands. China recently tested new weapons, as France plans to next month. (Last week, Canada joined the international chorus of nations calling on France to abandon its controversial South Pacific nuclear testing program.) Israel, India and Pakistan are among present or ready-tobe nuclear powers who refrain from signing onto the UN Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Next to join the club may be Taiwan, says its government.

There is an argument made that the nuclear age has promoted peace, or at least freedom from massively destructive warfare of the kind that closed 50 years ago. The certainty of nuclear retaliation and the difficulty of defence against atomic bombardment deters any sane hand on the trigger. In that sense, the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki inoculated the world against repeating such slaughter.

Reinforcing that argument, 50 years of unscathed life with the bomb seems to have immunized the world to its menace. No longer prominent are the conscientious concerns of the Oppenheimers nor the anti-bomb protests that peopled the streets with fury and fear. But in several ways, the nuclear threat has never been greater. The sundering of nations after the Cold War, the hawking of their nuclear weapons on black markets, the rise of populist fanatics impelled by anger, the refinement of the bomb into packages that fit a terrorist’s backpack—all are cause for at least as much anxiety as the example of a great nation, unimpeded by fear of equal retribution, in obliterating two communities 50 years ago. Those developments are also cause to conclude that the nuclear age remains, as much or more than ever, a perilous time for humanity. □

'I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds'