Atomic Threat: New Weapon of the 1940s

What follows will be a brief summary and review of three books concerning the advent of the atomic bomb, its use on Japan, the politics and diplomacy involved  and the effects that Truman and his cabinet suspected that the bomb would have on future wars and future politics.  Three authors, Gar Alperoitz, Herbert Feis and J. Samuel Walker present similar information about the development and use of the atomic bomb and the concerns that those few politicians with intimate knowledge of the bomb suspected its existence would have on future global politics.
The authors speak from different perspectives and yet at points provide strikingly similar details about the events surrounding the development of the bomb.  While all three authors focus on the development and use of the bomb, each approaches the subject from a slightly different perspective.  Alperovitz focuses on diplomacy with Stalin, Walker focuses on the situation in Japan and Feis pays more attention to those involved with the development of the bomb, both politicians and scientists.  We will begin our considerations of these different approaches with Alperovitz’s focus on the effects the bomb had on diplomacy and move on from there.
Alperovitz book consists of a long 60 page introduction, eight chapters and four appendices describing the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union prior to and after the advent of the bomb.  He begins with Truman’s concerns about the Russians when he took over from FDR.

As he prepared for his first meeting with a USSR representative Truman declared that “if the Russians did not care to cooperate, ‘they could go to hell.'” A few hours later, the President expressed the same view to Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov in rather undiplomatic terms. Truman desired to continue FDR’s policy of cooperation with the Russians, but his attitude when he spoke the above words were not the result of a moment’s flash of temper. Problems were developing over the USSR’s dealings with Poland.  Alperovitz’s primary argument that the bomb had a very significant influence on American views of diplomacy with the USSR long before the bomb.
The bomb was inextricably bound with Truman’s strategy at Potsdam in July 1945 and “was regarded as a ‘master card’ of diplomacy.” (Alperovitz, p. 1)  Alperovitz states that “…a major reason the bomb was used was ‘to make Russia more manageable….” (Alperovitz, p. 1).  Touched upon the impact of nuclear weapons on the beginning of the Cold War. “In August 1945, Eisenhower felt that ‘before the atom bomb was used, I would have said yes, I was sure we could keep peace with Russia.
Now, I don’t know…People are frightened and disturbed all over. Everyone feels insecure again.” (Alperovitz, p. 2)  Truman and some members of his cabinet believed that Russia was attempting to dominate Eastern Europe so concerns over Poland had been chosen as a symbolic issue to force a showdown with Stalin because of Truman’s concern that Stalin was had plans for all of Eastern and Central Europe.  (Alperovitz, p. 70)   Secretary Forrestal stated, “This difficulty over Poland could not be treated as an isolated incident.” (Alperovitz, p. 70) “Forrestal argued: ‘We had better have a showdown with them now rather than later.'” (Alperovitz, p. 70)
On the surface, this showdown strategy seemed to have been a complete reversal of FDR’s policy only a few weeks earlier. There were three major obstacles to Truman’s firm, showdown approach. First, FDR appeared to have had a strong belief that cooperation with Russia was possible. Second was the concern that American-Soviet cooperation might be destroyed and that a separate peace accord between Germany and the USSR might be signed, a concern that was eliminated when the German government collapsed. The third concern was that a showdown with Russia might result in the loss of Soviet help in the war against Japan.
While Truman’s approach was one of an immediate showdown with Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took a different approach. “He believed it might be possible to obtain additional concessions from the Russians if he could maintain the extended troop positions…” rather than withdrawing Anglo-American troops as General Eisenhower had proposed. (Alperovitz, p. 90)
Churchill was prepared to use any argument at his disposal to persuade Truman to his point. Churchill cabled Truman, “‘The Russian occupational zone has the smallest proportion of people and grows by far the largest proportion of food…Before we move from the tactical positions we have at present achieved,’ the Russians should be forced to agree that ‘the feeding of the German population must be treated as a whole and that the available supplies must be divided pro rata between the occupational zones.'” (Alperovitz, p. 91) When Truman took up the issue with his Joint Chiefs of Staff for advice, they were unwilling to use troop positions for political purposes.
Even though Truman recognized that the Russians were in a strong position, he followed the showdown on Poland with a firm approach to the problem of cooperation in Central Europe. (Alperovitz, p. 93) Truman’s joint action with Churchill stressed his willingness to present a united Anglo-American stand against Russia. Like General Eisenhower, various military authorities believed that this approach to the troop issue would yield negative results. By mid-May 1945, Truman’s plan for cooperative control of Central Europe was faced with a direct challenge.
On April 24 1945, one day after President Truman had a showdown with Molotov, Secretary of War Stimson wrote President Truman stating, “(The atomic bomb) has such a bearing on our present foreign relations and such an important effect upon all my thinking in this field that I think you should know about it without further delay.” (Alperovitz, pp. 103-04) Up to this point, President was apparently unaware of the bomb.
Stimson had casually mentioned to Truman about an “immense project…(that) was under way–a project looking to the development of a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power,” Stimson had felt no compelling reason or need to fully discuss the matter with President Truman up to that time until after the showdown with Molotov. (Alperovitz, p. 104) Secretary Stimson discussed the atomic bomb with the President for three quarters of an hour and it was “assumed–not decided–that the bomb would be used.” Truman was made aware that Japan had been the target of the weapon development program and that a special Air Force group was about to leave for its overseas base.
Although Stimson expressed confidence that the bomb would shorten the war, the use of the bomb against Japan was not main subject of discussion. The diplomatic implications of the atomic bomb dominated private discussion between Stimson and Truman during the last week of April and the first week of May, 1945. President Truman eventually came to agree that the atomic bomb would have decisive implications for diplomacy with Russia. By shortly after April 25, 1945, British representatives knew that a committee would be set up “to consider the whole ranged of political issues which will arise in connection with the atomic bomb.” (Alperovitz, p. 110)
News of the atomic bomb first came to the average American and to most senior government officials from the newspapers. The weapon’s power was disclosed in a way that produced great emotion and optimism about its usefulness as an instrument of high policy. (Alperovitz, p. 237) On August 16, 1945, after the bomb was used and the war ended, Truman told the press, that “Japan would not be divided into occupation zones, and declared …that as far as Japan was concerned, ‘in the event of any difference of opinion (among the Allied powers) the policies of the United States will govern.” (Alperovitz, p. 240)
The atomic bomb had strengthened the American hand in diplomacy. In the “whirlwind days” “immediately after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American diplomacy changed…swiftly.” Secretary Byrnes underscored the breadth and scope of the departures from typical diplomacy by saying, “Those…days…were full of action.” The sheer volume of work caused the Secretary of State to ask that the London foreign ministers’ meeting set for September 1 be postponed until September 10.” (Alperovitz, p. 243).
Truman declared: “The atomic bomb is too dangerous to be loose in a lawless world…We must constitute ourselves trustees of this new force…The best interests of the United States require the utmost cooperation by all concerned in keeping secret now and for all time in the future all scientific and technical information….” (Alperovitz, p. 243) One week later, Truman directed that no information on the nuclear development project be released without the specific approval of the President. (Alperovitz, p. 243)
Alperovitz clearly points out that the atomic bomb and the temporary American monopoly in possessing the bomb was viewed as a “great advantage to American diplomacy. In (Secretary Byrnes’) view, the ‘primary task was to establish a “lasting structure of peace”…A stable Europe, essential to world peace and American security alike, was the number-one goal.
Byrnes believed that the nuclear monopoly could be maintained for at least seven years…within that period, with the support of the revolutionary weapon, his diplomacy could easily achieve its idealistic objectives. Thus, the weapon seemed a crucial factor in forcing agreement to an American plan for permanent peace–a plan which, ipso facto, would prevent another world war.” (Alperovitz, p. 245) Alperovitz goes on to add that Byrnes vision “obviated the danger of an arms race.” (Alperovitz, p. 245) History has shown that Byrnes was clearly wrong. Not only did the atomic bomb fail to eliminate the arms race, but it seems to have added to the race tremendously, but with all that was at stake, the bomb made going to war a much more risky proposition than it had been in the past.
J. Samuel Walker’s book “Prompt and Utter Destruction” focused on another aspect of the new weapon. Walker notes in his preface that, “The question of why President Truman used atomic bombs against Japan has intrigued me since I was an undergraduate history major. Indeed, it was the first issue in which the competing arguments of different scholars caught my interest….” (Walker, p. ix)
This statement in his preface sets up the direction for his book. Walker states, “In fact…Truman never faced a categorical choice between the bomb and an invasion that would cost hundreds of thousands of American lives…the prevailing perception (about the president’s alternatives) vastly oversimplifies the situation in the summer of 1945….” (Walker, p. 5)
Walker points out 1) that there were other available options for a “reasonably short time” end to the war without resorting to the bomb, 2) Truman and his key advisers believed that Japan was so weak that the war could end even before an invasion began and 3) American military planners believed that even in a worst case scenario, American casualties would be far fewer than the hundreds of thousands Truman and his advisers claimed after the war. So, “Was the use of the bomb necessary at all” and if so, 2) “What exactly did it accomplish?”
Walker begins by taking a look at the President. Truman won greater affection and esteem from the American people after his presidency and after he died than he had while president. He was honest, often indiscreet and blunt and needlessly offensive and “his decisiveness could lead to superficial or impulsive judgments.” (p. 7)
The world was embroiled in a global war that made his arrival into the Oval Office a period of extraordinarily difficult problems and, even though he had been vice president, he came to the White House without adequate preparation. Indeed, he began his turn at the helm basically “in the dark about many of his predecessor’s policies and commitments….” (Walker, p. 9) The one fundamental military strategy from Roosevelt that seemed clear to Truman was his predecessor’s desire “to achieve complete victory at the lowest cost in American lives.” (Walker, p. 9)
After October 1941, President Roosevelt authorized a major effort to explore the feasibility of an atomic bomb. The Manhattan project began with the purpose of addressing the “bewildering variety” of scientific and engineering uncertainties connected with nuclear energy and the bomb. Once scientists had proven that a nuclear chain reaction was possible, the Manhattan Project focused on designing a bomb and producing the fuel to make it work.
All of this was kept secret from Vice President Truman, so when he suddenly became President, he knew virtually nothing about the Manhattan Project or the bomb even though he had learned of “a massive and highly secret effort to build a new weapon” while he was chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program in the Senate. However, while serving as a senator he did not receive any details.
Secretary Stimson confirmed and elaborated information about the bomb to the President in a meeting on April 25, 1945, but Secretary Stimson warned, “the existence of such a weapon would create profound problems because the United States would not be able to maintain a monopoly on the technology. Further, the issue of sharing information about the atomic bomb would become ‘a primary question of our foreign relations.” (Walker, p. 13)
When Truman took office, he was outraged by the Soviet conduct in Poland, but he did not want to ruin the relatively good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, less than a month after Truman became president, but the war in Japan raged on. Americans were still upset about the attack on Pearl Harbor and had also become outraged when the U.S. government learned about how the Japanese mistreated American prisoners and released that information to the public and the Japanese were equally as disdainful of Americans thanks to the “warped stereotypes” Japanese leaders painted of Americans during the war. So, the Americans fought a “war without mercy in Japan. (Walker, p. 23)
Even though the Japanese people were losing confidence in their leaders and public morale was deteriorating, the fact that Japan was on the verge of defeat did not mean that the country was on the verge of surrender. By the end of June 1945, both American and Japanese leaders, including Japan’s emperor, as well as the Japanese people realized that the war would end in Japan’s defeat.  On June 17, 1945, President Truman wrote in his diary that deciding between invading Japan and relying solely on bombing and blockade to end the war was his “hardest decision to date.” ( Walker, p. 35)
Advisers in the Truman administration realized that “‘there was a large submerged class in Japan’ that did not favor the war but would ‘fight tenaciously’ for their homeland.” In a meeting on June 18, 1945, Secretary Stimson hinted that he “thought the war might end by some other means, though at this time he did not specify what the alternatives were.” (Walker, p. 37)
Meanwhile, although there were some proponents who were in favor of moderating the stance for Japan’s unconditional surrender, the prevailing attitude in the United States as a whole was for the unconditional surrender of Japan. By July 13, 1945, it was clear that America’s demand for an unconditional surrender was the main obstacle to a settlement. So, despite the mutual desires of the American people and the Japanese people for peace and the leaders of both countries faced the same obstacle–unconditional surrender.
President Truman faced choices as to how to overcome this dilemma. There were three choices, including invasions with the potentially high costs. A fourth alternative also existed, the atomic bomb. Truman and his advisers proceeded with their planning as if the bomb didn’t exist because the bomb had not been tested successfully, but those in the administration who knew about the bomb hoped that a successful test would lead to their goal of ending the war at a lower cost than the alternatives.
Final preparations for the atomic test, named “Trinity” proceeded amid strain, excitement, uncertainty and ominous weather forecasts, but at 8:00 AM on July 16, 1945, Secretary Stimson receive news of the successful test of the bomb. President Truman was delighted when he heard the news. Secretary Byrnes was committed to the belief that the bomb would be an instrument to advance American diplomacy, particularly in light of growing differences with the Soviet Union.
On the diplomatic front, Truman took his cue from Secretary Byrnes and agreed that the bomb would serve as a valuable tool for diplomacy. Ultimately, it appears that Truman used the bomb “because he had no compelling reason to avoid using it.” (Walker, p. 95) American leaders had assumed that the bomb would be used when available and there were no military, diplomatic, political, or moral considerations contrary to that assumption. Diplomatically, it placed America in a stronger position with the Soviets and it was politically popular as a means in ending the war quickly as opposed to the dire prospects of victory without the bomb.
Herbert Feis opens his work by considering how the war could be ended. In May 1945 the war in Europe was over and Japan fought alone. Japanese life and production was being “smashed and burned”. The question was, “How could (the war) be ended surely and quickly?” (Feis, p. 3) “The obvious and perhaps most certain was was to beat down the Japanese until they could no longer fight on–by enlarging the assaults on Japan and Japanese armed forces wherever they could be reached…” (Feis, p. 3) Another means was by inducement and a third, the most secret, was by shock. Each of these approaches could end the war or two or three of them could do so in combination.
The end of the European war made American, British and Russian troops available for use in the Pacific. As for the war in the General Marshall felt “that the hope that air power alone would be able to drive Japan out of the war was unjustified; and that the task would be the more difficult there since the Japanese were scattered through mountainous country.” (Feis, p. 9) The U.S. had planned an invasion of Kyushu, but there were concerns that America could not go further and force its way upon Tokyo. (Feis, p. 11) The Joint Chiefs adopted strategic plans for the war in the Pacific on May 25, 1945.
Those plans were approved by President Truman on June 18th, but those plans included the desire to have Russian forces enter the final assault with U.S. forces. General MacArthur emphatically stated to a visitor from the War Department that “no attempt ought to be made to invade Japan proper unless and until the Russian army had been previously committed to action in Manchuria; that he though this was essential, and should be brought about without…delay….” President Truman’s tone was stern. He felt that Japanese aggression against China, the Japanese assault upon America and the Japanese cruelties during the was warranted severity and he reaffirmed his intention to carry on the war “until the Japanese military and naval forces lay down their arms in unconditional surrender.” (Feis, p. 16)
On the morning of May 28, 1945, President Truman was urged to try to induce the Japanese to surrender by dispelling the worst fears of the consequences. Secretary Stimson and General Marshall concluded that “the question of what to say to the Japanese and when to say it, should be governed by whether and when the United States had the atomic bomb.” (Feis, p. 19) Others in the cabinet did not believe that Japan would heed any warnings of surrender until the Japanese were more thoroughly beaten down. (Feis, p. 19)
Although the prime incentive for making the bomb was the effort to defeat Germany (Feis, p. 28), the dimensions of creating the bomb became apparent and its creators were compelled to face the fact that the war against Germany might be over before the bomb was ready for use. The number of issues surrounding the creation of the bomb included what type of bomb to make.
During the creation of the bomb, those in the Roosevelt administration who knew about it believed that knowledge needed to make the new weapon could be confined long enough as to allow the United States and Britain to secure an advantage that would keep the Soviet Union from being too pushy.  When Roosevelt died, Secretary Stimson lingered after the first Cabinet meeting to tell the new President briefly about the immense undertaking regarding the bomb of which the former vice president now president had no knowledge.
As Truman learned more about the weapon with time, Truman began to recognize the enormous significance of the new weapon. The President accepted Secretary Stimson’s belief that “…our leadership in the war and the development of this weapon has placed a certain moral responsibility upon us which we cannot shirk without very serious responsibility for any disaster to civilization which it would further.” (Feis, p. 38)
When plans to use the bomb were considered, one consideration was to demonstrate the bomb’s power before using it, but there were concerns against its use. The possibility that a country could assure its security by increasing its nuclear armaments (as was later the practice) was viewed to be invalid. It was felt that “the safety of all nations henceforth could be achieved only if they agreed to subject their activities in atomic energy to international control.
However, the chance of bringing about such an agreement would be greatly lessened by the sudden and unannounced use of the weapon against Japan. Both the diplomatic and military value of the bomb pned a wide range of concerns. Using the bomb against Japan faced a range of concerns as evidenced by the following statement: “…they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of military application best designed to induce surrender.
Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration of atomic weapons, and have feared that if they would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use….” (Feis, p. 54)
Before using the new weapon, Americans were determined to continue their assault on Japan and officials in Washington were striving to compose a statement which would tell the Japanese how we intended to treat them once they surrendered.(Feis, p. 63) Feis considers issues not discussed by the other authors. He wonders, “Whether, if the United States had pledged itself as soon as the war was over to destroy the other bombs it had and dismantle the factories in which they were made other countries would have been willing to join with it in a trustworthy system of control of atomic energy, must remain forever a provocation to the speculative historian.: (Feis, p. 190)
I could be biased by this, but I certainly enjoyed each of these books, however I must admit to a great interest in many aspects of World War II, including matters surrounding the atomic bomb.  These books covered an aspect of the war that took concerns of future wars to a new and frightening level and often placed the reader right in the thick of issues and diplomacy connected with the atomic bomb and other issues of the war.  All three books discuss the global atmosphere at the time of a world in turmoil at the end of World War II and the bomb’s contribution that bringing that turmoil to an end, but at the same time, each of the books focus on aspects of the politics surrounding the bomb.
All reveal the mutual suspicion and mistrust between Russia and her two strongest allies in the War, the U.S. and Britain.  They reveal how this mistrust played a role in the development, use and politics surrounding the bomb.  Each book portrays different details surrounding the development and use of the bomb.  Although or perhaps despite their different perspectives, all three books are interesting and had some surprizingly similar aspects.  Each author tells his story from a different perspective, each author outlines some aspects of their story with common events and from common perspectives.
Alperovitz seems to focus a lot on Truman’s concern regarding Stalin’s desires for Poland and other areas of Eastern Europe.  Walker focused a great deal on events in the Pacific and Feis tended to concentrate much more of his focus on the development of the bomb.  Combined, these three books present an interesting and a more comprehensive look at how the bomb developed, its initial influence on diplomacy and how politicians felt that the existence of the bomb would impact future events in Europe.
Each author tells an interesting and provacotive story with behind the scenes details from a different perspective and each author lays out interesting and compelling facts surrounding the concerns, suspicions and global politics between Russia and ther wartime allies, the United States and Great Britain.  I found each of them to be interesting and compelling reading.
Alperoitz, Gar (1965).  Atomic diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam; the use of the atomic bomb and the American confrontation with Soviet power .  New York, NY:  Simon and Schuster.
Feis, Herbert (1966).  The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II.  Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.
Walker,  J. Samuel  (1997).  Prompt and utter destruction : Truman and the use of atomic bombs against Japan.  Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press.

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