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August 05, 2014

The Bomb and the Boom: Part One

We are now in the midst of an important anniversary, the first-ever use of atomic energy as a weapon of war in August 1945. So much has happened in the intervening 69 years that relatively little attention has been focused on the critical events that transpired between August 6th and 9th 1945 to bring about the sudden end of the Second World War– but at the cost of releasing the nuclear genie from its bottle. That nuclear energy would have been discovered sooner or later is almost certain but the important point is that the decisions to develop and use it were motivated by World War Two and were among the more critical ever made by our species.

Thus it may be worthwhile to review them in some detail. It's clear that the humans who made them were acting under duress, a situation that hasn't changed significantly despite the rapid technological progress and population growth of the past seven decades.

Aside from the 2nd World War itself, perhaps no demographic phenomenon did so much to shape our modern world as the Baby Boom that began abruptly in 1946. If one takes live births as a critical measure of national fertility and realizes that children have not only to be conceived, but also desired by their parents, one can readily understand that for families suddenly thrown on hard times by the Great Depression, the prospect of another mouth to feed would have been most unwelcome. Although abortion was then illegal, it was also reasonably safe and much less expensive, over time, than another child in a stagnant economy where living space was already being squeezed to the max and families were making do on fewer calories and a minimum number of low-paying jobs.

We will probably never have reliable statistics on how many abortions were performed in the US during the Thirties but the number of live births in America hit its lowest point in January 1932, the month I was born. They remained depressed until 1946, when there was a sudden sharp jump; 30% over 1945. Births then hit a sustained rise that lasted through 1964, thus producing the "Boom" that is still having consequences that require analysis and understanding.

Clearly, the monetary woes of the Great Depression were banished by World War Two, there was employment for millions in the war effort and the government was printing money as never before, but the war hadn't relieved the ambient anxiety. Quite the opposite: we were suddenly locked into a global, existential struggle for survival with multiple enemies in a war of unprecedented scope and magnitude. The opponents were similar to World War One, except that a Communist Soviet Union had replaced Tsarist Russia and become a difficult ally, while Italy had joined the the Axis under Mussolini. France had fallen, requiring a massive invasion of Western Europe and an extended campaign in North Africa. The US had become the most important of the "Allies" and the only one capable of bearing the burden of a two ocean war. The Nazis had remained formidable opponents until Hitler's suicide on April 30, 1945 led to a sudden German collapse.

The remaining Axis combatant was Japan, the nation that had shocked and enraged America with its brilliantly conceived and executed "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Not only were they still fighting, the invasion of their home islands was a foregone conclusion and expected to be even more daunting than the invasion of Europe and North Africa. The geography alone was formidable: Japan is a 1000 mile archipelago featuring four mountainous volcanic islands, then populated by upwards of 73 million people, all purportedly committed to a quasi– religious Bushido Code that preferred death by suicide to the dishonor of surrender.

Fortunately, the Western allies– and the Japanese people– were spared the uncertainty and trauma of invasion by Harry Truman's decision to use two secretly developed "Atomic" bombs on Japanese cities: a uranium device on Hiroshima on August 6th and a plutonium version on Nagasaki three days later. Truman's decision– and its aftermath– have since been the subject of intense debate- much of it woefully uniformed– for the past sixty–odd years. I say "uninformed" because any realistic analysis based of what Truman knew, along with what he learned after the responsibility for leading the Allies had been thrust upon him by Roosevelt's sudden death in April 1945 would lead any reasonable person to do almost exactly what Truman did.

First of all, it was by then an American War on the "Allied Side"; we were heavily engaged in both the Atlantic and Pacific and had dominated since North Africa. We'd also been primary everywhere but Russia, (yet still supplied Stalin with critical assistance). Truman was a relatively unknown political figure, thrust by fate into the very center of responsibility at a critical time in US history. The man who had been leading the nation for thirteen years through the Depression and the war had just died suddenly, leaving him in charge. He'd also just been informed that FDR, that same leader, had– in 1942– taken a huge gamble by diverting over two billion dollars to develop a secret weapon no one could be sure would even work.

The success of Roosevelt's gamble was then confirmed on July 15th when when the Trinity test in the New Mexico Desert proved the Plutonium bomb would explode and assuaged the fears of some insiders (Enrico Fermi among them) that it would produce an uncontrolled chain reaction.

Thus how could Truman opt for a costly and bloody invasion of Japan when he'd just learned that we now possessed a new bomb that could end the war in a day or two?

As it would turn out, that's what actually happened– although not through a set of circumstances anyone on the US/Allied side could have predicted: Emperor Hirohito, who at that time, had greater personal power over Japan than anyone in history was the only leader who could have forced their surrender– became persuaded by the Nagasaki bomb to overrule his military advisers for the first time since Japan had embarked on a war of conquest against China following the Marco Polo Bridge incident.

In other words, Hirohito, Japan's supreme ruler, who was (properly) considered by many to have been a war criminal, was Truman's opposite number: the only man in the world with the power to end Japan's participation in the war, and– as a bonus– secure its cooperation during the critical post war occupation. That his views had been radically changed by the Nagasaki bomb is demonstrated by the fact that he overruled his military advisers for the first time since Japan had embarked on its course of conquest and also recorded his famous surrender broadcast.

Finally, to those who claim that Truman had a realistic alternative to use of the bomb, I would offer the carefully reasoned assessment of Karl Compton, a thoughtful contemporary observer who took the trouble to question influential Japanese leaders soon after the event.

Given all that has happened since August 1945, especially the Cold War between the US and Russia and the arms race it engendered, the fact that the Nagasaki bomb was the 2nd and last time a nuclear weapon was used in time of war is almost miraculous.

Unfortunately, posturing in the Ukraine and elsewhere tells us that "Nuclear Chicken" is still very much on the menu for would-be world "leaders."

Will we ever learn that the the most reasonable goal in human life is not "winning," but survival in the hope of improving the lot of our species?

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at August 5, 2014 01:40 AM