A-Bomb Ended a War, Cast Shadow Over Half-Century : History: Nuclear threat contained Cold War, spurred U.S. to foreign ventures, affected national psychology.
“We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world,” Harry S. Truman wrote in his diary when he learned that the atom bomb had passed its first test with a horrendous bang. The device, the President speculated, might even portend “the fire and destruction” prophesied in Scripture.
The man who first brought Truman the news of plans to develop the bomb, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, held a similar view, calling the weapon “the most terrible . . . ever known in human history.” And, he warned Truman, “The world in its present state of moral advancement compared with its technical development would be at the mercy of such a weapon. In other words modern civilization might be completely destroyed.”
For half a century thereafter, the planet has lived in the shadow of that ominous forecast. Today however, the 50th anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, serves as a landmark of survival. In the post-Cold War world, the occasion is one, if not for celebration, at least for profound relief.
The history of the bomb so far, as Stimson suggested it would become, was a life-and-death race pitting morality against the disastrous potential of technology. The contest has been agonizingly close--"the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” as the Duke of Wellington said of his victory over Napoleon’s armies at Waterloo. And given the continued potential for the use of atomic weapons by terrorists or rogue states, the race is far from over. But as the first half-century lap comes to an end, morality, buttressed by reason and aided by good fortune, has a tenuous grip on first place.
The bomb, terrible as it was, helped both to bring the Cold War to an end and to prevent it from ever becoming disastrously “hot.” Now that much of the danger from the bomb has faded with the Cold War, Americans are gaining a greater appreciation of its usefulness during an era when, as Winston Churchill put it, peace was the “sturdy child of terror.”
The ability of the bomb--and the Cold War overall--to limit some conflicts can best be seen in the light of the wars that have sprung up in today’s vastly more complex international landscape. Consider, for example, the seeming powerlessness of the United States to end the devastation generated by the Serbian campaign of “ethnic cleansing” waged in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“The [end of the] Cold War has taken away the large willful, sinister enemy and left us facing ambiguous and inchoate dangers,” says Edward N. Luttwak, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “And we now have to deal with these problems without relying on the bomb.”
A Heavy Price
But whatever benefit the bomb and the Cold War order brought, humanity paid a heavy price. Any estimate must start with the nearly 200,000 Japanese, along with a scattering of Allied prisoners of war, who perished from the blast and radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the second Japanese target city. Then there are those, their number unknown but certainly totaling in the hundreds of thousands, who in subsequent years were afflicted by radiation--victims of nuclear test fallout worldwide and Americans unwittingly subjected to experiments underwritten by their own government.
The costs were financial as well. According to a new Brookings Institution study, the United States invested nearly $4 trillion in nuclear weapons--between one-quarter and one-third of all defense spending since World War II and about two-thirds of the total that the nation spent on education during the same period.
Living with the bomb, President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, was “a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the people of this Earth.”
Life under those conditions changed both American society and its government. The bomb, and the Cold War of which it was the defining artifact, encouraged presidents to claim broad authority in the name of national security to plunge the nation into sometimes costly and divisive ventures overseas, from Korea to the Dominican Republic, from Vietnam to the Middle East, often with only dubious legal or constitutional sanction, without congressional approval and with little or no public debate.
Fear that the formula for the ultimate weapon would fall into hostile hands helped spawn a secretive and far-flung security apparatus and fostered a national climate that at times approached paranoia. The excesses of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) and other anti-communist witch hunters purged the Foreign Service of some of its ablest operatives during the 1950s and cast a chill over both politics and culture.
In this setting, what Time magazine dubbed the “Silent Generation” of the ‘50s came of age. Social critic Joseph Goulden, in his book “The Best Years,” described that generation as “content to put its trust in government and authority, to avoid deviant political ideas, to enjoy material comfort.” But, he lamented, it was a generation that misplaced the driving moral force that had helped propel the nation to victory in World War II.
As the atomic era moved into the 1960s, continuing trepidation over the bomb may have helped create the very different reaction of counterculture rebelliousness. “It’s not much of a stretch to talk about the people involved having at least in the background of their minds the idea that they might be the last generation around and that they should find their pleasure in the here and now and give up on the work ethic,” said American University social historian Michael Kazin.
Living with the bomb may have had other impacts on the national psychology as well, says Francis Fukuyama, a former State Department official, now a consultant to the RAND Corp. “Up to the middle of this century people had big ambitions for the conquest of nature,” Fukuyama says. “And in a way, the building and dropping of the bomb was another effort of the state to control nature and use it for its purposes. Today we have a somewhat more humble attitude toward technology and the realization that these things can get away from you.”
Nor have the costs of the bomb stopped accumulating even now. The nation must still pay billions of dollars to clean up sites used to produce nuclear weapons. And after reviewing nuclear policy last fall, the Pentagon announced that spending on nuclear arms would continue at roughly $15 billion a year--far less than the $50 billion spent annually at the height of the Cold War, but still one of the government’s largest expenses.
Nuclear stockpiles, which now contain nearly 8,000 weapons, are being reduced, but by the year 2003, the Defense Department still intends to have 3,500 strategic nuclear warheads on hand under the terms of the yet-to-be-ratified START II treaty.
In addition, of course, the bomb still troubles the world in the potential guise of a weapon wielded by rogue states or terrorist groups who, in theory, could cram a doomsday device into a suitcase and turn any Main Street into a holocaust.
Given all this, it is no wonder that the decision to use the bomb against Japan has grown more controversial with time.
The initial, buoyant response to the dropping of the bomb was captured by a front-page cartoon in the old Washington Star a few days after Hiroshima. The cartoon depicted the potential benefits of the atom, including auto engines “no bigger than your fist” and the replacement of coal, water power and petroleum by nuclear energy.
Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly supportive of President Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons against Japan. In a Gallup Poll in 1945, 85% of those surveyed said they approved.
An Awful Weapon
Truman himself, with characteristic bravado, often said he never lost any sleep over the decision. But evidence suggests that afterward, once he realized its full awfulness, the decision kept him awake many a night. “Clearly he was very unhappy with the bomb, determined not to use the bomb again, and I don’t think he would have used it except in case of a direct attack on the U.S.,” said Ohio University historian Alonzo Hamby, author of a Truman biography, “Man of the People,” due to be published this fall.
Over time, that sense of the awfulness of nuclear war wore away at the public as well. Last November, for example, only 44% of those surveyed by Gallup in a poll commissioned by the cable network America’s Talking said they would have dropped the bomb, while 49% said they would have tried to force Japan to surrender some other way. And when another poll last year asked Americans which energy sources the federal government should spend less money on developing, nuclear power easily topped the hit list.
The 50th anniversary has now produced a spate of books on the seminal event, mostly from revisionist historians, such as Gar Alperovitz, author of “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” who contends that Japan was ready to quit before the bombing. Some also argue that Truman’s fateful command to unload “Little Boy” on Hiroshima was designed mainly to cap the war with a flourish that would give the United States a decisive advantage over the Soviet Union in postwar diplomacy.
Truman’s defenders contend that he acted in hopes of preventing massive American casualties in an invasion he believed would otherwise have been required. Alperovitz and others question whether the casualties would have been as bad as Truman later maintained. But considerable evidence exists of the Japanese army’s intransigence, notes Tom Allen, co-author with Norman Polmar of “Code Name Downfall,” which examines the detailed plans for the projected invasion of Japan. Allen cites, for example, an abortive mass kamikaze raid on the U.S. fleet launched after Emperor Hirohito’s speech ending the war.
Ever after Truman authorized the use of the bomb, his successors struggled with it. Each kept his finger off the trigger but relied heavily on the deterrent threat of the bomb in the worldwide power struggle against communism.
Eisenhower used the menace of the bomb to pressure the Chinese and North Koreans into closing out the Korean War, although he was privately “appalled” by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s suggestion of actually using atomic weapons there, according to presidential biographer Stephen Ambrose. “To Eisenhower’s way of thinking, that was the sure way to make all Asians into enemies of the U.S.,” Ambrose writes.
John F. Kennedy, of all the Cold War presidents, came closest to bringing about the long-dreaded nuclear showdown in the crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba. But thanks to the irresolution of Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev and a fair measure of what Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state and a Kennedy adviser, privately called “plain dumb luck,” the crisis ended in a peaceful triumph for Kennedy. As if to atone for his rashness, Kennedy exploited his victory to mobilize support for the nuclear test ban treaty, the most substantive effort made yet to curb the danger of nuclear holocaust.
Yet for all the hopefulness generated by the test ban treaty, the Cold War continued at full intensity, and the bomb remained the dominant factor in American military strategy.
By proclaiming its willingness to be the first to use the bomb if needed to beat back aggression by larger Soviet conventional forces--a commitment fortunately never tested--the United States held the Kremlin at bay through the Cold War years. In other military situations, though, the bomb had clear limitations--most notably in Vietnam, where “we dealt with an enemy who refused to assemble in conveniently targetable mass formations,” said Luttwak.
Despite its enormous costs and clear strategic limitations, the atomic arms race went on, year after year, President after President. Ironically, it was Ronald Reagan, the implacable foe of communism, who served as the catalyst for breaking the bizarre impasse. Reagan, who entered the presidency breathing fire about Soviet-American relations, dramatically escalated Pentagon spending while taking a tougher stand on arms negotiations.
When many of Reagan’s alarmed fellow citizens rallied behind the idea of a freeze on nuclear weapons, Reagan denounced his critics and unforgettably condemned the goals of the Soviet Union as “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”
Yet in 1983, Reagan broke new ground when he unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars” by Reagan’s opponents, which he contended would make the doctrine of mutually assured destruction obsolete.
The Soviets rejected the idea out of hand and East-West relations seemed to sink to a new low. But Reagan kept the pressure up, relying on nuclear muscle combined with new initiatives in arms control. Ultimately, the pressure to keep up with the U.S. arms buildup helped push the Soviet Union over the brink into bankruptcy, bringing the Cold War chapter of history to an end.
Nevertheless, the United States is not likely to abandon its atomic arsenal, not just because of the possibility of change at the Kremlin, but also to guard against the prospect of other nations joining the nuclear club.
At the same time, domestic pressure for an end to nuclear arms has slackened as the threat has lessened. In the America’s Talking survey, 75% of those polled said they did not expect to see a nuclear war in their lifetimes, up from 58% in a similarly worded Los Angeles Times poll a decade ago.
Even Robert Jay Lifton, one of the nation’s foremost experts on the psychological impact of the nuclear threat, suspended active research on the subject about five years ago as the Cold War waned. Most Americans have stopped worrying about the bomb, says Lifton, a professor of psychology at the City University of New York and co-author of “Hiroshima in America,” a book about how the bombing of Japan influenced American attitudes.
“Without the danger from the Cold War,” he says, “we no longer have an appropriate level of nuclear fear.”
Between them, the United States and Russia can now count more than 17,000 strategic nuclear warheads, according to the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank that focuses on defense issues.
That level of armament is more than 5,000 times the explosive force that hit Hiroshima 50 years ago. “But we don’t ascribe the same problems to it and consequently don’t have the same anxieties because of political changes,” said Helmut Sonnenfeld, formerly a senior State Department official in the Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford administrations and now a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution here.
“There’s plenty of room to worry,” he says, “but we don’t.”
Researcher Pat Welch contributed to this story.