It is one of the supreme ironies of the nuclear age that the scientists who designed and built the first atomic bomb were, almost to a man, starry-eyed idealists who believed that by unleashing the atom’s destructive energy they were saving the world for their children. Forty years later mankind has learned to equate nuclear warfare with the almost certain extinction of the human race. But in the summer of 1945 the profound immorality of the bomb was not nearly so obvious. The world had been at war for almost six years and it seemed likely that by exploding an atomic weapon over Japan the United States would shock the Japanese into surrender. As a result, without warning on Aug. 6,1945, a lone American B-29 Superfortress, the Enola Gay, appeared in the skies over Hiroshima, released a single bomb and then banked sharply away. Fifty-one seconds later there was a blinding white flash 1,850 feet above ground, and Hiroshima became a writhing city of death.
The bomb destroyed many lives— 78,000 by most Western estimates, 200,000 according to the official Japanese account. But it did much more than that. The sudden obliteration of Hiro-
shima—and the similar destruction of Nagasaki three days later—changed the world in ways that none of the scientists who labored so frantically on the bomb project could have imagined. For most of mankind’s history it has been possible to conceive of war as a kind of heroic crusade, a traumatic but potentially glorious instrument for settling grievances between nations. But with the advent of nuclear weaponry that sort of thinking became dangerously obsolete. In an age in which all-out war means global Armageddon, the bomb has become the centrepiece of power politics, its dustfilled mushroom cloud the universal symbol of death and annihilation.
Forty years ago none of those implications was obvious to the scientists who had gathered to make the bomb in a top-secret government laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M. Even the scientific director of what was known as the Manhattan Project, the charismatic and brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer, had only the vaguest idea of the revolutionary nature of the weapon scientists liked to call “the gadget.” He assured fellow scientists that although the atomic bomb would make a “very big bang,” it would add nothing to warfare except increased destructiveness. Later, in a moment of pessimism, he bet his col-
leagues at Los Alamos that, if it worked at all, the test bomb that was about to be detonated at a remote site in the New Mexico desert—code-named Trinity— would have an explosive yield equivalent to a mere 300 tons of TNT. He was astonished and overjoyed when the actual force of the test explosion turned out to be 20,000 tons.
Ignorance pervaded standing the of and researchers’ the uncertainty underbomb’s invisible also aftereffect, radiation. In estimating its potential impact on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb’s designers naively assumed that, to run the risk of radiation damage, people would have to be so close to the explosion that they would be killed anyway by the force of the blast. Neither they nor the Japanese even remotely suspected that tens of thousands of those who survived the burns and the shock would die later from radiation poisoning and that hundreds of thousands more would suffer in the succeeding years from cancer, leukemia, mental retardation and other lingering abnormalities. Indeed, when the first reports reached the United States about the delayed lethal effects of radiation fallout the director of the Manhattan Project, Brig.-Gen. Leslie R. Groves, dismissed them as a “hoax or propaganda” designed to win Japan international sympathy. Just how mistaken that assessment had been soon became painfully obvious, but even then Groves preferred to minimize the horrors of radiation poisoning. Testifying before a special Senate committee on atomic energy in November, 1945, Groves stated that those who had received a lethal dose of radiation died “without undue suffering. In fact, they say it is a very pleasant way to die.” No one on the committee saw fit to challenge his opinion.
Still, some of the bomb’s pioneers believed from the beginning that its use was immoral. A few, including Leo Szilard, the gifted Hungarian-born physicist who in 1933 first outlined the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction, argued that the United States would lose moral standing in the world if it actually used the new means of indiscriminate destruction. Szilard and other concerned scientists engaged in the bomb project even proposed that instead of dropping a bomb on Japan, the United States
should demonstrate its new weapon on a barren island before representatives of the United Nations. They contended that such an act might shock the world into disarmament. Still others— including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the hero of Normandy—argued that the Japanese were already on the brink of surrender, largely because of the combined air and naval bombardment of the U.S. Third Fleet. To use the atomic bomb against a nation already doomed to defeat, Eisenhower told Secretary of War Henry Stimson, seemed like a needless act of cruelty.
But to President Harry S. Truman, his obligation was crystal clear. In his view, the Japanese, already notorious for their savagery in warfare, would likely mount a fanatical defence of their homeland during an invasion. Indeed, chief of staff Gen. George C. Marshall had estimated that half a million American lives might be lost in the battle. At the same time, Truman was well aware of the political risks in leaving unused a superweapon that had cost $2 billion to develop and which could save American lives. As well, a surprise nuclear attack on Japan would not only win the war, it would demonstrate the bomb’s earthshattering potency to the Soviets, perhaps enabling the United States to dictate the terms of the peace.
But dropped weapon after on that the Hiroshima, the bomb scientists was the had hoped would prevent future wars swiftly became the focus of a new, more deadly, East-West power struggle. The United States had gambled wrongly that its monopoly on atomic power would continue for many
years. Instead, the Soviets, already well on their way to developing the bomb from information provided by agents within the Manhattan Project, flatly rejected any suggestion of international control. The growing rivalry between Washington and Moscow “was our first indication of how things would go after the war,” Frank Oppenheimer, physicist,
and Robert’s brother, later recalled. In August, 1949, the Soviets detonated a test bomb of their own, and the arms race was on.
Stunned by the early success of the Soviets’ bomb project, Truman ordered a crash program to build an even more powerful weapon, the so-called hydrogen or Superbomb that physicist Edward Teller had been promoting. Now Teller was free to pursue his obsession, and in 1952 the world’s first thermonu-
clear device, code-named “Mike,” exploded over the tiny South Pacific island of Elugelab with a blast more than 500 times the yield of Trinity. A year later the Soviets exploded their first hydroJ gen bomb.
Since then, the technology of mass destruction has grown ever more sophisticated. Four decades after the first nuclear blast, the United States and the Soviet Union together possess an esti; mated 50,000 nuclear warheads with a combined explosive yield of 20 billion tons of TNT—one and a quarter million ; times more powerful than the bomb that j destroyed Hiroshima. A single U.S. Trident nuclear submarine (the United States has six) is armed with six times ! as much firepower as was expended in the entire Second World War—enough to flatten every major city in the Northern Hemisphere. Scientists, including the astronomer Carl Sagan, have calculated that even a limited nuclear exchange would result in global disaster by severely altering the planet’s climate. Dust blasted into the upper atmof sphere would block the sun’s rays, damage the protective ozone layer and create what the scientists call a “nuclear winter.” At the same time, there are indications that the governing nuclear theology of deterrence—the doctrine that neither superpower would risk using its nuclear arsenal for fear of being | wiped out itself—has gradually been displaced in both the Pentagon and the Kremlin by a theory that it might be possible to fight and win a nuclear war. Inexorably, as each new weapons system is introduced, as each new round of 1 arms talks fails, the world edges closer to the brink of nuclear holocaust.
Still, in some ways, little has changed i
since the summer of 1945. Many of the veterans of the Manhattan Project, now elder statesmen of physics in their 70s and 80s, dominate the U.S. nuclear debate. One group, led by Teller, now 77, champions the development of a “Star Wars” generation of spacebased defensive weapons to guard against Soviet attack. Others, including Hans Bethe,
79, who headed the theoretical division at Los Alamos, are haunted by the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and have devoted their final years to trying to halt the spiralling arms race. For them, it is an act of penance. As Oppenheimer himself once put it: “In some crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin. And this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.