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James Hershberg’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Dr. James Hershberg is a leading scholar on Cold War history. In this interview, Hershberg explains in great detail the complex history of the Manhattan Project. He explores the scientific and political climate leading up to the Project, the symbolism and implications of the atomic bomb, and the feelings of various Manhattan Project scientists. He also explains the debate over developing the hydrogen bomb, different historical perspectives for explaining the Manhattan Project, James B. Conant’s recollections of witnessing the Trinity Test, and U.S./Soviet Union relations throughout the Cold War. Hershberg ends the interview by discussing how various nations have become nuclear powers, and how the Cold War and nuclear history are relevant today.

Date of Interview:
November 15, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: Hi. I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is November 15, 2017, and I have with me Professor James Hershberg. My first question for him is to tell us your full name and to spell it.

James Hershberg: Okay. James, G for Gordon, Hershberg, H-E-R-S-H-B-E-R-G. So no C, no I, and no U.

Kelly: Perfect. You are an expert on this whole subject of the Manhattan Project and its aftermath. Could you just give us kind of an overview? What was the Manhattan Project? How did it start?

Hershberg: The Manhattan Project was the effort by the United States in cooperation with the British to build the atomic bomb during World War II. The Manhattan Engineering District, as it was codenamed, didn’t actually begin until the late summer of 1942. But of course, that was the culmination of several years of investigation by the U.S. government of the feasibility of using uranium for military purposes, after the discovery by [Otto] Hahn and [Fritz] Strassmann, with help from Lise Meitner, at the end of 1938 that the atom could be split. Scientists and physicists around the world immediately recognized that this theoretically meant it might be possible to build the atomic bomb. 

Very famously, in the summer of 1939 as Europe appeared headed for war, the most famous scientist in the world, Albert Einstein, signed a letter to President [Franklin] Roosevelt, that he had been urged to send by three Hungarian émigré physicists, who were very concerned that the Germans might already be working on an atomic bomb.

Einstein urged President Roosevelt to be alert to the danger that the Germans might already be working on an atomic weapon that—as the letter put it—could be brought into a port by a boat, destroying not only the port but the surrounding city. And that the Germans might in particular might be able to gain access to the most important source of uranium in the world, because that was in the Belgian Congo. If Germany invaded Belgium on the way to invading France, which had been done in World War I—which was not yet called “World War I” but soon would be—they could gain then access to this uranium. 

This letter was only delivered to Franklin Roosevelt in October after war had broken out in Europe. The famous version of it was from the intermediary Alexander Sachs, a Wall Street financial person, that Roosevelt handed the letter to his aides: “This needs action.”

The mythology was: that led to the atomic effort. The fact was that FDR appointed a committee headed by the head of the Bureau of Statistics, Lyman Briggs, that for two years had very little staff, very little budget, did virtually nothing. The main research that indicated that an atomic bomb might be possible, which meant that maybe Germany could build it, was actually being done in England. Which, like the prospect of a hanging, concentrating the mind, was under bombardment and potential invasion from the Germans. So they were much more focused. 

They investigated their physicists, who included some émigrés from Hitler, and came to the conclusion that, “Yes, it would be possible to build an atomic bomb, and Germany might already be on the way to building it.” That was communicated to American scientists in 1941, and only in 1941 did the US begin to get serious. That was because of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was created by FDR in 1941. It was headed by Vannevar Bush. His deputy was James Conant. They decided, “We need to investigate this more seriously.” They got rid of the Briggs Committee. Appointed what they called the S-1—that was the codename for uranium at the time—the S-1 Executive Committee, headed by Conant. By the fall of 1941, they were recommending a serious investigation of the feasibility of building the bomb.

However, the question was: how do you separate uranium-235 from uranium-238? Because you needed the highly radioactive isotope in order to create a nuclear explosion. In the winter of 1941, 1942, there was this intensive investigation. In fact, the key meeting took place across street from the White House the day before Pearl Harbor. But Pearl Harbor made it much more urgent.

Because there were multiple methods to either separate uranium or produce plutonium, which had never existed before, Conant and Bush recommended that all these methods be pursued simultaneously. Of course, this vastly expanded the potential size of the project and the potential cost of the project. Then only in June 1942 did FDR approve an all-out effort to build the bomb.

Ironically, they didn’t know it, it was in that same June of 1942 that Hitler decided not to try to build the atomic bomb. The US was actually chasing a ghost. Only later in the summer of 1942 did they bring the Army in, and a fellow by the name of Leslie Groves, to begin the development and production phase of the project because the research had already indicated the feasibility. Only then was the codename “Manhattan” attached to the efforts.

What was the Manhattan Project? That was the effort supervised by the Army with help from the White House OSRD, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, to build the bomb in which secret cities from scratch, places like Oak Ridge, were built and plants in places like Hanford in Washington. Both to separate the U-235 from U-238, the very minutely fractional pieces of uranium that could be used in the core of an atomic bomb, and to produce plutonium. Feasibility was only demonstrated by Enrico Fermi at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942.

While these plants were developing the fissile material that would be at the core of the bomb, that was also when Groves turned to J. Robert Oppenheimer to head what became the Los Alamos secret weapons laboratory to actually design and assemble the bomb itself. Of course, Oppenheimer did an amazing job. Even though he didn’t have a Nobel Prize like several other physicists, he was able to coordinate that effort. 

That is what led to both the production of the gun-type uranium bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and also the far more complicated plutonium implosion bomb that was tested in the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and was also dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. By then, it was no longer a secret.

Kelly: Great. Now, tell us a little bit about the context of physics at the time before the war, in the 1930s. People describe high energy physics, or this atomic physics as really an international–

Hershberg: Oh, absolutely. It was an outgrowth of the 1920s. The famous investigations in Europe, especially in Germany in places like Göttingen, were physicists from Germany, from other parts of Europe, from England and from the United States gathered to explore the interior of the atom. It was really a new phase of physics, even superseding what Einstein had achieved in terms of relativity, general and special, and the investigation into the nature of light.

Really the chief figure, most famous figure in this was Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist. The complementarity theory, and the uncertainty principle theory of [Werner] Heisenberg, and the question whether light was a wave or a particle. In some cases, it could be either, and it depended on how you examined it. 

In the 1930s, it was a continuation of those investigations, but against a far more ominous backdrop. Of course, that was the rise of fascism, Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, of militarism, in the Far East with a military government in Japan invading China, northeastern China, Manchuria. All, of course, against the backdrop of the Great Depression. You had this continuation of nuclear physics, getting deeply into the interior of the atom, while the political world was becoming far tenser. As the ‘30s progressed, coming closer and closer to a war that was increasingly evidently on the horizon.

Really by the mid-1930s you had had Italy taking over Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. You had Germany violating the terms of the Versailles Treaty, re-militarizing the Rhineland, Hitler calculating correctly that that the French and English didn’t have the nerve to stand up to him. Then you have  the great war scare of 1938 after Hitler had already swallowed up Austria. Earlier in 1938 you have the crisis over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. And of course, the famous decision by [Arthur Neville] Chamberlain and the English and the French to appease Hitler by letting him take over northern Czechoslovakia, even though this would clearly lead to the indefensibility of Czechoslovakia, and the rapid takeover by Hitler. 

Europe was clearly headed towards war. But meanwhile, great physics was happening. This culminated in December 1938 at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, with Hahn and Strassman discovering the fission of the atom, of the uranium atom. They weren’t quite sure about the resultd. Actually, four years earlier I believe Enrico Fermi had also split the atom, but that it was an experimental error, so he didn’t get all the credit for it. But the two German physicists got help from a Jewish physicist [Lise Meitner], who had actually left to go to Norway to get away from Hitler and she correctly interpreted the result. 

By the beginning of 1939, you had this incredible ominous coincidence: the discovery that the atom could be split by a neutron hitting another atom and fission happening, and more neutrons being released and creating a chain reaction. I’m not a physicist, but every non-physicist knows one physics formula: E=mc^2. Even with m being very small in terms of mass, c squared is the speed of light squared, which is 186,200 miles or so per second or 300,000 km per second. You square that, you got a big number. Even with a small m, you can get a really big E for energy. 

By 1939, you both had the discovery of the feasibility of splitting the atom and a potential explosive fast self-sustaining chain reaction, and you had the world approaching a convulsive war that was even going to dwarf the Great War of 1914-1918. This was a very portentous development.

If you had had that timetable separated, if you had not had the world on the verge of war, and you had still had that discovery, it’s very unlikely that the resources would have been devoted nearly as quickly to test what seemed very speculative, and which political leaders, not being scientists, didn’t really understand. But the pressures of this impending war and then the war itself is what led, at least the United States in cooperation with the British, to devote unprecedented resources to a scientific project. 

Kelly: Einstein’s letter hints that Germany was on to this. What other countries were looking into the bomb?

Hershberg: Well, any good physicist worth his salt understood the implications, and even they were published. You could read it in the New York Times. But there were physicists from the Curie lab in France who were looking into this. There were Russian physicists, very good Russian physicists. It wasn’t just espionage by a precursor of the KGB that would enable the Soviets to get the bomb much faster than the Americans expected. There were Japanese physicists. Everyone understood.

But it was also understood that the task of separating uranium, the uranium-235 isotope, would be incredibly difficult. One book I read thirty years ago likened it to the idea of generating eyedroppers full of a very difficult to devise medicine that had never been created before, and then being told, “You need to pave all the city streets with this medicine.” In other words, that it seemed unbelievable [inaudible].

One thing that was often not well understood about the Manhattan Project is, it was not a project of scientific breakthroughs. It was mostly an engineering project. The basic science was well understood. The only question was, could you get the political and financial support to actually solve engineering problems along the way, and was the theory—which was well known to everyone—correct? The Trinity test proved that it was. But then it was mostly a matter of political will and industrial plant capability and resources, and a decent scientific cadre. It was recognized by late 1944—there’s a memo from Vannevar Bush and James Conant to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, that estimates that it would take an advanced industrialized country roughly three to four years to catch up to where we are now.

Of course, that was a euphemism for Russia, for the Soviet Union. That’s exactly how long it took them, about four years to catch up. They already had a program during the War, but they were a little bit distracted by things like getting invaded by Germany. It was sort of a low-key project. Literally within a couple of weeks of Hiroshima, Stalin assembled his top advisers and said, “A single demand of you, comrades. The equilibrium has been destroyed. The American atomic bomb is like a sword of Damocles hanging over us. Provide us the atomic bomb at the earliest possible date.”

It went from a sort of low-key effort to a crash program. He put in charge Lavrentiy Beria, his secret police chief who knew how to bang heads together and when he felt like it, put a bullet in the back of them, and people listen to him. He was able to get a crash program together.

I love what David Holloway of Stanford writes, that the first successful case of nuclear deterrence was of nuclear physicists in Russia, who were not communist party hacks, who were able to use the urgency of the Soviet nuclear program to avoid getting purged. They said, “Hey, more important than the fact that are Jewish or not communist is that we are good physicists.”

The legend has it that at the first Soviet test on August 20, 1949—this is probably or possibly apocryphal—that Beria had a “Team B” of Communist Party hack physicists ready to replace the Soviet physicists that produced the bomb, some of whom were Jewish, some of whom were not Communist Party loyalists, and that they would be taken out and shot if it was a dud. But it was a success. That group included Andrei Sakharov, who would lead the Soviet effort to produce the hydrogen bomb, which they would get by the mid-1950s also. 

It was international in the sense that it was commonly understood by good physicists around the world. But it was only in the American case and the British case that you had countries whose governments decided it was worth the tremendous expenditure of resources during wartime, largely due to an illusion, which was that the Germans might get it first. But they did not figure that out until late 1944, and by the time they figured it out, they didn’t care anymore. They wanted to get it anyway.

Kelly: What was the Anglo influence in this Anglo-American effort so called?

Hershberg: That’s a great story. As mentioned, in 1940 and 1941, the British were taking the atomic danger more urgently than the American government. In fact, there was suspicion by Roosevelt’s science advisors that some of the physicists were more interested in nuclear power for airplanes, submarines, as a scientific project, and didn’t understand the urgency of using it for military purposes. In Britain, where they were getting bombed by the Germans from the spring of 1940 onwards, they had no trouble feeling a sense of urgency.

You had most famously, the Frisch-Peierls Report, and then the Maud Committee Report. This whole story about what Maud Committee was, this was a Committee of scientists under Winston Churchill. They had taken over from Chamberlain in May 1940, after the failure of the appeasement policy became obvious. 

They came up with estimates for the critical mass that were actually very optimistic, in the sense that it was a much smaller amount that some others had figured. Einstein’s letter talked about a bomb that would have to be delivered by ship, because it would be so large. But that also made them worry that the Germans might really be on the verge of getting this. This was communicated to some American scientists, who got very impatient. It clearly had a major impact on speeding up the American consideration of the seriousness of really figuring out—much more speedily than the Briggs Committee had been doing—what was going on. Very famously James Conant was convinced in part by his friend and fellow chemist at Harvard, George Kistiakowsky that this was not just a pipe dream of the physicists, because a little bit of the interdisciplinary physicist-chemist rivalry was getting involved. But that it was completely solid, as Kistiakowsky said, that he was completely sold on the idea.

There’s a famous story of an autumn 1941 meeting at the University of Chicago, to celebrate some occasion at the University of Chicago. Conant encountered Arthur Compton and Ernest Lawrence, who were two physicists, who had been urging them speed up, and who believed that Conant was still a skeptic. Conant actually changed his mind, but he didn’t tell them. But at a private dinner in front of the fireplace—Arthur Compton tells the story in his memoirs. Conant said, “Okay, if you’re serious about this, are you ready to drop everything else in your lives and careers and devote yourself full-time to nothing else but building this, if you think this can really be built and if the Germans are ahead?”

The way the story goes, their jaws dropped. There is a pregnant pause. Then they said, “Yes. We are willing.”

And Conant said, “Okay, then let’s get serious.”

He got another report from the National Academy of Sciences making sure that they were focused not on science or engineering advances, but on military purposes. The National Academy of Sciences produced more on this report. The S-1 Executive Committee that Conant headed that included people like Lawrence and Compton and Oppenheimer and Fermi got much more serious about recommending intense exploration of the feasibility.

Already, you begin to see a sort of dual motive for the Americans, which is, “In the short medium term, we have to build this bomb because Germany might build it. That could be the only way they might win this war, and we have got to beat them to it.” But already, it began to be perceived that there is a longer-term interest. That this could be—if it could be built—the revolutionary decisive weapon that determines international relations. 

There’s a memo from 1942 that I found when I was doing my thesis, it’s called “The Perfect Weapon for Policing the Postwar World.” This connects with the British. Because Churchill and Roosevelt agreed in 1941, 1942—and by way, there was a spy that was conveying this to the Soviets—that they would pursue the effort to build an atomic bomb jointly. The Americans would code it the Manhattan Project. It was then called S-1. The British would call it TA, “Tube Alloys.” That was their code name for it. And that it would be a joint effort.

But by late thinking 1942 after The Manhattan Project had been created and vast outlays of money were being spent, Conant and Bush and Groves said, “Hey, we don’t want the British to hang onto our coattails and get joint possession of all the information on building this thing.”

Remember, there was a residual feeling among some Americans—including Groves, among others—that the British had basically exploited the Americans in World War I. That they had gotten the Americans to come save their hides, and then kept onto their imperial holdings and the Americans got left with not much. There was a sense that, “If we’re going to get back into Europe and a world war and save the British again, this time, we’re going to be the top dog in the alliance. We’re going to run the world when this war is over.” The atomic bomb came to be seen by 1943 as symbolizing who’s going to run the world when this war is over. 

Conant, Bush, and Groves all recommended to Stimson, who recommended to Roosevelt, who approved what was called “Limited Interchange.” That idea was, “Well, let’s apply our wartime security policy of ‘need to know.’ We’re going to just tell scientists and companies involved in the project what they need to know for their part of the project. They don’t need to know anything else for security reasons.”

Part of the fear was not only that the British would hang onto the American coattails—even though the Americans would spend a preponderance of money on building this weapon—and so the British would have equal rights to possessing the atomic bomb. But there was an economic factor. There was a belief that atomic energy would completely revolutionize not just warfare, but economics, power generation, agriculture, and medicine. That it would become from nothing, the biggest industry in the world.

The Americans noticed very well that in England, some of the top industries had been nationalized. In fact, Churchill’s representative at the time was associated with ICI, Imperial Chemical Industries. The fear was that even though the American government was only telling Dow or General Electric or Motorola their part of the puzzle, that the British could get the jump on this new industry and this would be unfair. So  for both economic and military strategic reasons, they said, “Hey, we can’t let British know everything,” and they insisted on what was called Limited Interchange. In other words, you can only know about the parts of the project that you’re contributing to. That was only two out of the four efforts that were being made to separate uranium and develop plutonium.

The British were furious. They said, “No, this is a joint project.” What this led to was for eight months, from January to August 1940, at the height of the “special relationship” between Washington and London, between Churchill and Roosevelt, US-British atomic cooperation was suspended. You even had British scientists based in Canada developing [inaudible] for a while before it became clear what was going on. it’s a very long and fascinating story. 

It was almost like that the phenomenon of Russia, “If only the Tsar knew.” The British believed, “Oh, this was the result of people under Roosevelt plotting against us. If only Roosevelt knew, he would make everything right.” They didn’t realize Roosevelt had approved this. They tried to send messages through Harry Hopkins. They tried to go around the backs of the OSRD, of Bush and Conant, to get more traction.

But finally, it culminated with the Quebec Agreement in August 1943, between Churchill and Roosevelt, in which they agreed to renew cooperation. But it was also stipulated not only that these countries would never use the bomb against each other, they would only use it with joint agreement. 

This was an executive to executive agreement, that when Congress found out about it after the war, they completely dismantled it. But it was written into it that, “In case of any disputes over the commercial aspects or other aspects, it will be decided by joint committee by the President of the United States to the Prime Minister of Great Britain.” It was a symbolic recognition that the Americans were the top dog in the atomic alliance and the British were the junior partners.

It was on that basis that the interchange dispute ended. But it reflected that two years before the bomb was ever even used, its long-term implications were already affecting very seriously the diplomatic and political relations between the US and the British. By the way, this story is beautifully told in Martin J. Sherwin’s A World Destroyed [Hiroshima and its Legacies]. But if it could cause that much tensions between these two closely cooperating allies, this was just a prelude to the far greater tensions that would arise on atomic issues—even before the bomb was ever used—between the Americans and the British on the one hand, and the third member of the Big Three, Stalin and the Soviets, on the other hand in 1944, ‘45.

Anyway, just to finish the British story. Of course, the Americans would become the first atomic power on July 16, 1945. The Soviets would become the second atomic power on August 29, 1949, although Truman didn’t announce it until September 23rd. 

But the British had made the decision in 1947, even with rationing blackouts, the British going so broke that they’re having to give up major pieces of their empire, British India, Palestine, they make the decision that they need an independent deterrent, and they start their own nuclear bomb project. On October 3, 1952, off the northwestern coast of Australia, the British become the third nuclear power. Even though they are under what comes to be called the “American nuclear umbrella,” they don’t want to entrust their security to the Americans. In terms of prestige, they want to assert that they are also still a great, although obviously declining, power. The coin of the realm, in terms of prestige after World War II, is the atomic bomb.

To finish the story, the French felt the same way. Especially, after the Americans pressured and the Soviets pressured both the British and French in the Suez Crisis in 1956. They felt they needed their atomic creds, and to justify being considered one of the permanent five on the UN [United Nations] Security Council, to justify their claim to glory as Charles de Gaulle would put it. They developed first atomic bomb, which was tested in Algeria, French Algeria––although very contested––in February of 1960. Actually, the largest first test of an atomic power.

Then four years later, you had the first non-white atomic bomb, and the Chinese in October 1964 would become the fifth power. Then a decade later, India would have a peaceful nuclear explosion, which didn’t seem to peaceful to the Pakistanis in May 1974 when “the Buddha smiled,” to use the Indian’s code name.

So you had that progression where atomic weapons were not only considered for their military utility, but for their political value for the prestige of the countries involved.

Kelly: To back up a bit on the expectations of some of the scientists who were working on the Manhattan Project, they were figuring that they would deliver one, two or maybe a few bombs to end the war. At this point perhaps Germany had already surrendered. But to complete the work, finish the war, and they were astounded by the military’s plans. Can you talk about how the military felt about when they have a new weapon, they have got to take full advantage and mass produce it so they’re ready to—

Hershberg: The scientists themselves, we’re talking about the rank-and-file Manhattan Project scientists at Los Alamos. Even the senior scientists would later say, “We were never told about giving access to the military planning.” In other words, that was left to the higher level. In fact, the scientific subcommittee of the Interim Committee in June 1945 specifically said “Hey, we’re just scientists. We’re not in a position to make the decisions that you are.”

Of course, the Interim Committee, chaired by Secretary of War Stimson, did recommend to [President Harry] Truman that the bomb be used on a war plant closely surrounded by workers’ houses, as President Conant of Harvard, a member of the Interim Committee, recommended. 

Truman, when he approved the use of the bomb, he didn’t specifically say, “Bomb Hiroshima. Bomb Nagasaki.” He said, “Okay, you can use the bombs when they are ready.” He authorized this after the Potsdam conference in the second half of July 1945. The recommendation to use bombs when they’re ready implied that there would be two ready and that they would both be used to give the maximum shock to the Japanese, in the hope that they would surrender quickly, in the belief that the longer they waited, the more cities would disappear. Because they didn’t know what in fact was the case in terms of the production of the bomb, which was very slow and difficult. A third bomb would not have been ready for weeks or even months. The number of weapons available in the immediate postwar years was very small.

Also, the Americans wanted the Japanese to surrender before the Soviets got there, and it turned out that Emperor Hirohito wanted the same thing. He didn’t want the Soviets to inspire a communist revolt in Japan that would lead to the end of the dynasty. So there was an effort to get the Japanese to hurry up and surrender.

Now there was a little bit of tentative discussion of, “Could the bombs be used against military targets for tactical purposes to support an invasion of Japan,” but the invasion of the home islands wasn’t scheduled to begin until November 1, almost three months later. That wasn’t really a realistic prospect. 

The scientists really didn’t know much about the military planning. What’s quite striking—and this has come through in some very vivid sources like the 1970 John Else documentary, The Day After Trinity—is while there was a sense of awe, but also relief and even celebration after the Trinity test. There were parties, there was drinking. The reaction to the actual use of the bomb on Japan and the realization, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. But the emotional realization that their handiwork had killed roughly a hundred thousand people per shot, really caused a lot of agonized reactions. There are talks of one scientist getting sick, literally nauseated. They didn’t celebrate. They didn’t have parties. It made them confront the results of what they had achieved. 

Or course, that brought it back to one question that still hovers over the whole project: most of them had joined the project feeling they were doing their patriotic duty, and also it could be because of concern that Germany might get the bomb. But I believe one physicist, Joseph Rotblat, left the project in early 1945 when it was clear that Germany wasn’t a problem anymore. No one worried about a Japanese atomic bomb. The momentum of the effort, if anything, intensified.

Other rationales—like being able to finish it and use it before the Potsdam Conference, Harry Truman would know what he had in case of a showdown political, or even military, with the Soviets—became preeminent. They superseded the earlier rationale. That led to people like Oppenheimer and Conant and [Leo] Szilard even wondering, “Well, we have to finish it and use it because only if we use it in the most terrible way possible, would the world be forewarned of the danger of a nuclear World War III, and then make the compromises and sovereignty and nationalism necessary for international control.”

It’s an open question, but did they really believe that, or were they just rationalizing something that they knew was going to happen? There was no way Truman was going to stop the bureaucratic momentum. It would have been like standing in front of the train to use the bomb once it was ready. 

Truman and Stimson would later agree that if they had the bomb and didn’t use it, how could they face the mothers of soldiers who were killed after that date? There was a political imperative to us in terms domestic politics, in addition to the calculation of intimidating the Soviets, which of course the basis of the revisionist view of why the bomb was used. Also of course, the military purpose of defeating Japan without the necessity of an invasion, which is the traditional view.

Or course, the post-revisionist view is that it was both. They wanted the short-term military benefits of forcing Japan’s defeat not only before an American invasion, but before the Soviets could get a piece of the action, because they had already seen how difficult dealing with the Soviets in Europe could be. But they wanted to get Japan’s surrender in time to dominate the occupation of Japan. But also without the necessity of a hostile invasion.

But they also were not oblivious, it’s clear, to the potential benefits that they thought might arise from—in the words of James Byrnes, who would become Truman’s secretary of state—“making the Russians more manageable.” They hoped it would have that effect on them. That would come to be called “atomic diplomacy.” That would be the title of Gar Alperovitz’s 1965 revisionist interpretation.

It didn’t work very well. Stalin used something called “reverse atomic diplomacy,” which basically pooh-poohing the importance of the atomic bomb in most cases. But secretly, he was trying to build it as fast as possible and catch up. Because it was recognized how important it was. And Mao Zedong would do the same thing. He would dismiss the bomb as a “paper tiger,” but then he would try to get it as fast as possible, so he didn’t have to keep facing off against the United States and save the Taiwan Straits, when the Americans had the bomb and he didn’t.

The background is, I was in college at Harvard from 1978 to 1982. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, and the nuclear issue rose back to 1940s. In the 1960s and 1970s the nuclear arms race had almost gone underground, in some ways literally. In 1963 there had been the Limited Test Ban Treaty, or the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which had barred nuclear testing in the atmosphere and the ocean or aboveground. Literally, the US and Soviets had started testing quite a bit underground, and you had a hot war in Vietnam that dominated politics through the second half of the ‘60s and the first half of the ‘70s. But when Ronald Reagan was elected, that drove nuclear issues back to the fore. 

I was fishing for a topic for my senior thesis in history in the fall of 1981 when I noticed––thanks to Marty Sherwin’s book, A World Destroyed––that a key figure in Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to build the atomic bomb and Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb had been James Bryant Conant, who was the President of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953. Before that, he had been one of the country’s leading organic chemists. He had probably been a contender for the Nobel Prize. From Sherwin’s book, I learned that he had been the deputy to Vannevar Bush at the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and the key figure at the head of the S-1 Committee investigating the feasibility of using uranium for military purposes. Then he had been Leslie Groves’ scientific advisor during The Manhattan Project, and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s boss. In fact, they became close friends.

That intrigued me enough to do an undergraduate senior thesis on him. But one thing bugged me a lot, which was: Conant had written a 701 page memoir, My Several Lives, that had come out around 1970. And yet, he had managed to have only a very cursory discussion of his atomic role, partially because it is still classified in many respects, partially because his memory might have lapsed,  partially because he was just very cautious.

What drove crazy in particular was, the climax of my thesis was the Trinity test at Alamogordo in the predawn darkness of July 1945. And yet, Conant had never written about it. He doesn’t even mention it in his memoirs. For a while it looked like all I would have to go on were a few other witnesses, who would say he seemed shaken, said he had shaken hands with Groves and Bush. But third hand, secondhand very–I didn’t know, what did he feel like? What were his emotions?

Now in the winter of 1981, 1982, I took multiple trips from Boston to Washington. Taking the train from South Station Boston to Union Station in Washington, and then going straight to the National Archives, which hadn’t yet open its facility in College Park, Maryland, which would only do a dozen years later. Frantically going through the records of the Manhattan Project and the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Just looking for anything on Conant, or by Conant and I found hundreds, thousands of documents to copy and put in, because there had been extensive declassification.

But what really got me excited was, I found a withdrawal slip. The way it works in the National Archives is, when materials are reviewed for declassification, mostly by former officials, if they find a document that still needs to be classified, they fill out a form giving the name of the document, the date of the document, the author of the document, and checking various boxes about why the document needs to be kept classified.

Going through all these records, I came across one sheet of paper that said, “J. B. Conant, Notes on the Trinity Test, 17 July 1945.” Obviously, he had written it the next day, the day after the test on the 16th.

Normally, using the Freedom of Information Act takes months or years or decades. Harvard had an ironclad thesis deadline. If you hand it in a day late, don’t bother. I mean, it had to be in on March 25, 1982, or else. I’ve discovered this documenting like in January or February of 1982. I threw myself on the mercy—I believe his name was Ed Meese, the head of the military records and pleaded with him. I said, “I didn’t care about the technical information. I just want to know what he was thinking and feeling. Can you please take a look at this one document? Can you jump the queue?” Because I’m sure there were hundreds of requests in front of me.

This was before the internet, so I didn’t get an email attachment. But one day in my dorm, I got an envelope from The National Archives, and it had that record and a few other records I had just listed in desperation in the Freedom of Information Act request. It had Conant’s handwritten eight pages of notes of his experience of the Trinity Test, including his drawings of the first ever mushroom cloud.

It turned out, his experience was pretty amazing, because he was lying on a tarp on the desert floor alongside Vannevar Bush and Leslie Groves at 10,000 yards from ground zero. The explosion was at 5:29 in the morning. It had been delayed for hours, because it had been a very rainy and windy night. There had even been thunderstorms. 

There’s a lot of nervous walking around, and there’s a lot of dark humor going around. Supposedly, Enrico Fermi had been taking bets as to whether the first explosion would destroy the world, or just the state of New Mexico, or things like that.

This sort of eluded back to the fact that in 1942, there had been a fear raised that, “What if the first atomic bomb explosion ignites a chain reaction in the atmosphere that destroys all life on earth?” There had been a frantic investigation at Berkeley in the summer of 1942, and they came to the conclusion that, “That’s not going to happen. Only if all the nitrogen atoms were lined up in a certain way was there any danger.” The version that I saw—and I don’t know for sure if this is true—was that the chances they came up with was that the odds were just 3 in 10 million. They decided, “Those were acceptable odds. We can take that risk.” 

Well, it turns out that when Conant was lying on the tarp looking at the horizon opposite ground zero, he experienced something that he never wrote about in his memoirs, or anywhere else that was very, very unusual. Let me read from his handwritten notes, which are reproduced in my book on Conant.

It says: “It was agreed that because of the expected or hoped bright flash and the ultraviolet light, no ozone to absorb, it would be advisable to lie flat and look away at the start, then look through the heavy dark glasses.” Anyone who is seeing recreations of the first atomic test, you can see them looking through dark glasses, sort of like you look at an eclipse with now. But they were just rectangular.

I’ll read from his notes:

“At 5:20, the sirens blew the ten-minute signal. Then another at 5:25 and I think another two minutes before. We lay belly down facing 180 degrees away from the spot on a tarpaulin. I kept my eyes open looking at the horizon opposite the spot.” The spot meaning, ground zero. “It was beginning to be light, but the general sky was still dark, particularly in the general direction I was looking.

“Through the loudspeaker nearby, I heard Allison”—that’s Samuel K. Allison—“counting the seconds. Minus 45, -40, -30, -20, -10. The firing was done by some kind of a timing device started at -45 seconds. These were long seconds. 

“Then came a burst of white light that seemed to fill the sky and seemed to last for seconds. I had expected a relatively quick and bright flash. The enormity of the light and its length quite stunned me. My instantaneous reaction was that something had gone wrong and that the thermonuclear transformation of the atmosphere, once discussed this possibility and jokingly referred to a few minutes earlier, had actually occurred.”

So think, in the very first instant of the nuclear age, Conant believes the world is actually ending in front of him. As I always tell my students: how many people in human history who were awake, sober, had an intellectual justification for their belief and were partly responsible for the event have literally believed they were witnessing the end of the world? 

Conant continued with the drawings of the first ever atomic mushroom cloud. But I want to read the ending of his minutes, because he was very well aware of the increasing tensions in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, the third member of the Grand Alliance, and the fact that Truman had already journeyed to Potsdam on the outskirts of occupied Berlin, and was about to meet with Stalin for a very tense summit meeting.

Conant was also well aware that since 1944, he and some other scientists, including Niels Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer, were already worried about the dangers of a postwar nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, that given recent history—everyone had just lived through two World Wars—they feared that this was very likely to end in an apocalyptic World War III, unless there could be some agreement to prevent a postwar nuclear arms race. 

Conant ended his notes as follows: “My first impression remains the most vivid: a cosmic phenomenon like an eclipse. The whole sky suddenly full of white light like the end of the world. Perhaps my impression was only premature on a timescale of years.”  

It ends on the perfect ominous note, to then segue to analyzing the efforts that Conant and others, including Oppenheimer, made to prevent a postwar nuclear arms race, and how in 1946 you had U.S. and Soviet negotiations at the United Nations to try to reach an agreement to prevent a postwar nuclear arms race. That ended in failure by the end of the year. Both sides were zooming as fast as possible to construct atomic weapons, and the world was headed in that direction.

When Conant returned to Harvard after Alamogordo, he was relieved to stop spending 75 percent of his time, by his estimate, in Washington. Actually, he had spent so much time away from Harvard that there was even a move to get him to resign. That he resisted, and he was very frustrated during the war, because he couldn’t tell why. No one at Harvard was authorized to know about the atomic bomb.

But his fear was that, if he didn’t have the prestige of being Harvard’s president, that would impair his ability to recruit scientists to be part of the project. Because it was very competitive to get scientists to work in Los Alamos or in other parts of the project, and Conant was trying to lure them away from other scientific military exploits that they were working on, against other supervisors who wanted to keep them. He wanted the prestige of Harvard. Finally, he could go back to Harvard and everyone knew what he had been doing.

But he did one thing that was not publicized, which I only found out about forty years or so later. He called in the librarian of Harvard, a guy by the name of Keyes Metcalf. The librarian of Harvard isn’t the person who just brings the books back and forth to the checkout shelf or who stamps the books. We’re talking about the head of the whole library system at Harvard.

He was called in by Conant in the autumn of 1945, and began talking to him and explained that, “When Rome fell 1500 years ago, most of the important books and manuscripts and scientific and literary works were destroyed. Only a very small minority survived. We don’t want to repeat that history, and there’s a very good chance that civilization is going to be destroyed in the next ten to fifteen years, twenty years. I would like you to go come up with a plan. What would it take to organize, compile, select, assemble and reproduce and hide appropriately the entire written record of Western civilization, so the fate of Rome can be avoided?”

Metcalf was a little taken aback, but as a good university employee he went off and reported back a couple of weeks later. He calculated that it would require roughly 500,000 volumes, averaging about 500 pages each, so about 250 million pages. He thought that the appropriate thing to do would be to make ten copies, so then we’re talking about two and a half billion pages. Presumably, they would be buried in ten different locations, presumably with microfilm readers, so a future post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic civilizations would be able to recover it.

However, he advised against the project for two reasons. One was, even if all the major cities were destroyed—keep in mind, this is before the hydrogen bomb, so the fears of the destruction were not yet as gigantic as they would be five to ten years later. He said that, “Even of all major cities were destroyed, there are a number of good rural universities and colleges.” I think he mentioned Oberlin, Dartmouth, Iowa State College, maybe one more. “And they might be able to carry forth the torch of knowledge.”

His other reason he advised against this is that a project this large might well leak out, and it might not be good for Harvard’s fundraising for it to emerge that it was planning for the end of civilization. Whether for these reasons or other considerations, apparently Conant never followed up on this story. 

However, it’s very interesting: when Metcalf resigned as Harvard librarian, he embarked on a project—whether with Conant’s encouragement I’m not sure—to develop massive holdings of important primary works in southern hemispheric universities, in places like South Africa and Australia. Essentially, as far away from northern hemispheric nuclear fallout as possible. It’s an interesting aftermath to Conant’s Alamogordo experience.

“Conant said that the funds, even if very large, can be found for this. Metcalf when reporting back that it would require microfilming 500,000 volumes averaging 500 pages each for a total of 250 million pages, 10 copies meant 2.5 billion pages.

“’This would include,’ Metcalf said, ‘The great literature of all countries that should not be lost, such as everything written by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dante and Goethe.” Although in a snub to literary critics, he noted that, ‘There would be no need to preserve more than a few of the thousands of volumes written about these writers and their works.’

“He also recommended, including on the microfilm, ‘Other great authors, music, books about the fine arts. The important records of world history, philosophy, economics, sociology, et cetera. And perhaps especially important are scientific developments in the broadest sense of that term. It would be difficult to select the material, but I think it can be done reasonably well.’”He didn’t mention if among the things to be microfilmed would be the blueprints for how to separate uranium and build atomic bombs, so they could start the process over again.

“But he went on to urge Conant not to go ahead because, “It could not be done without the world of learning about it and everyone would be so upset at the idea that it be unwise to undertake the task. And also, because copies of practically all of this material’ would survive in the libraries of Dartmouth, Stanford, Iowa State College, Oberlin, and other institutions at a distance from large cities.”

Conant shared the acute sense of moral responsibility, if not necessarily guilt, of many of the atomic scientists, that they had brought into the world of force that could clearly destroy civilization. They believe the only alternatives facing humanity were—in the words of the famous collection that of scientific essays published in 1946—the only choices were “one world or none.” That either there was some agreement about atomic energy and atomic weapons that would prevent a nuclear arms race, or it would destroy the world. 

One of the strange things about the present is, if you imagine the pie chart that faced people in 1945, 1946, 1947,and especially the atomic scientists, who were acutely aware that the bombs used on Japan were puny prototypes of what they already knew could be far larger weapons, even without the hydrogen bomb. They thought, “Well, there’s a chance of international control, or there’s a chance of a nuclear arms race that would almost certainly end in destruction of the entire world and civilization.”

The smallest slice of pie was, there would be a nuclear arms race that would not destroy the world. That would lead to say, by the mid-1980s, the US and the Soviet Union empires having upwards of 60,000 nuclear warheads and yet, not having a nuclear World War III. 

They figured it was a matter of “when,” not “if,” that we just take for granted. We’re living in a non-rubble strewn radioactive environment. This would have been disbelieved by most atomic scientists in the late 1940s. They passionately hoped for international control, and that’s why Oppenheimer developed the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan in 1946, to try to have a plan to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but by international agencies, to be set up by the United Nations—the newly created United Nations—that would all the best atomic physicists from all the major countries, so there would be no chance of cheating, because they would already be working for it.

He was very distraught when [President Harry] Truman, instead of accepting that plan, appointed Bernard Baruch to present what became known creatively as the Baruch Plan in June 1946. That was not for an idealistic organization that would control all aspects of atomic energy from mining, to research, to power development, to any weapons. Instead, Baruch, who was a Wall Street financial type, believed that was too socialist, there should be private enterprise. He thought the focus should be exactly on what Oppenheimer did not want the function to be, which was on international policing.

Oppenheimer was afraid if it was mostly an agency dedicated to inspection, it wouldn’t attract the best scientists and you wouldn’t have as good a chance to head off a postwar nuclear arms race. Baruch’s plan was countered by the Soviet plan, the Gromyko plan after Andrei Gromyko, who would later become Soviet Foreign Minister for many years. Their idea was, “Let’s get rid of all nuclear weapons in existence,” which of course only meant American nuclear weapons. “Then we’ll worry about some system of control and inspection in a hazy way in the future.”

Whereas Baruch’s plan was, “Let’s institute a system of foolproof inspections very intrusively into any country in the world, including the Soviet Union. Then in a matter of stages, when we’re convinced that system is working, at some undefined undetermined point in the future, we will begin to hand over our nuclear assets and information.” The Soviets and the American plan were 180 degrees apart. Completely antithetical. Frankly, there was no serious negotiation to bridge the gap between them. 

Secretly, Truman was advised, “We don’t want get rid of our weapons of mass destruction, atomic, biological or chemical, because the Soviets are going to have a massive advantage in central Europe in conventional non-nuclear weapons.” All the pressure on the US was to bring the boys home. The war was over. There was an economic recession. “We sort of need this comparative advantage.” So a lot of people at the top of the Truman administration didn’t want their own proposal to succeed. Meanwhile, Stalin’s scientists were working as hard as possible to develop their own bomb. 

In fact, in December of 1946—exactly four years after Enrico Fermi and his team in Chicago had the first self-sustaining chain reaction of the Manhattan Project—the Soviets secretly had their first self-sustaining chain reaction, which of course was not told to the world. But in that same month, you had the vote on the Baruch Plan. It was ten to nothing in favor, and that sounds good—except there were two abstentions: the Soviet Union and the now-Soviet satellite Poland. Of course, with the Soviets not participating, the plan was meaningless.

When Oppenheimer and the General Advisory Committee to the newly created US Atomic Energy Commission met in the first week of January 1947, Oppenheimer, in a very melancholy way said, “You know, we really didn’t want this to be the case, but we have to admit that our first job is going to be building bombs and staying ahead in this race.” He did not use the term “race” or “staying ahead,” but made clear: job one was building weapons and not under an international control scheme, which he had passionately hoped would be in place.

Now, the next major moment in the story comes about when the Soviets explode their first atomic bomb, which the Americans called “Joe-1”. But of course, that wasn’t the Soviet codename. Joe was for “Uncle Joe,” which was Truman’s nickname for Joe Stalin, who he thought he could work with at Potsdam. Soviets had their own nicknames: “First Lightning,” “RDS.” 

The American reaction was crucial, because there were some in Washington who believed that in order to restore the American advantage that they believed had existed during the atomic monopoly, when only the Americans had the atomic fission bomb, was for the Americans to rush ahead to develop a thermonuclear fusion bomb. In which atomic fission bombs would simply be used to ignite the hydrogen—deuterium, tritium, in some formulation—fuel for weapons, whose yield would not be measured in thousands of tons or kilotons, like the fifteen to twenty kiloton weapons detonated in Alamogordo and over Japan in 1945. But this would be measured in millions of tons, or megatons. 

There was an intense mostly secret debate in Washington in the fall of 1949, in which Oppenheimer, Conant, Fermi, I. I. Rabi, other leading scientists of the Manhattan project who were advising the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission unanimously––even Glenn Seaborg, who missed the initial meeting, and came back for another––opposed a crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb for a combination of scientific, technical reasons. Because they weren’t sure the current design was feasible, turned out not to be. Also because they didn’t want to divert technical resources and personnel for what they thought was more important, which was developing tactical atomic fission weapons. Also for strategic reasons, because they thought that—in Oppenheimer’s words—that they should focus on bringing the battle back to the battlefield, and having a panoply of smaller atomic weapons that can be used against military forces. 

Whereas the scientists believed that the hydrogen bomb. if it could be built, would be—in the words of some of them—necessarily a weapon of genocide. That it would be used to destroy cities. That it would be used to kill a mass number of citizens and civilians, that is. Oppenheimer would later say in another context that any military target would be too small to use. They also, in the words that I. I Rabi said and Conant used, that it would just louse up the world still more.

The alternative path that was not the road taken, which was advocated by the GAC [General Advisory Committee] and also David Lilienthal, and four out of the five commissioners. David Lilienthal was the former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority of the New Deal. He was the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. Four out of the five members of the Atomic Energy Committee and also George F. Kennan, the famous author of the Long Telegram and the X Article of the State Department diplomat, who was now head of the State Department Policy Planning session, they said that the US should investigate approaching Stalin, to try to reach at least a tacit agreement on a moratorium on testing thermonuclear weapons to avoid the world passing the threshold into the thermonuclear age.

But they were opposed strongly by the military, especially the Air Force that thought an atomic bomb would be ideal—I’m sorry, a hydrogen bomb would be ideal for the Air Force, as the most important service, in their view. They didn’t’t believe other services were even necessary. All you needed was long range bombers with gigantic bombs.

You also had the head of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy of Congress. There were no Congressional hearings about this, but Brien McMahon, the Connecticut Democrat, advised by William Borden, who would later accuse Oppenheimer of being a Soviet spy, strongly urged Truman in favor of building the hydrogen bomb if it could be built. Again, implying that if he didn’t build it and the Soviets did, and it could have been built, he would be impeached, or that public opinion would turn against him. This is in direct contrast to Conant and Oppenheimer and the GAC that felt that public opinion would be led by churches and others who would feel that this kind of weapon would be immoral. But Truman got advice from a Congressman that sort of was a substitute for public opinion saying, “No, you better go for it.”

But in some ways, the most interesting fissure/fission vision was with his scientific committee. Because even though the GAC strongly opposed a crash program to try to build a hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller and Ernest Lawrence and some other atomic physicists, mostly based in California at the University of California, strongly supported building the hydrogen bomb.

Of course, Teller had been enthusiastic about the hydrogen bomb even before the first atomic fission weapon had been exploded at Hiroshima and drove Oppenheimer crazy. He was trying to get Teller to focus on the first job. They came to Washington and lobbied in favor of building the hydrogen bomb. This would be part of the genesis in the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1953-54, because Oppenheimer was not enthusiastic about building the hydrogen bomb and allegedly did not encourage people to work for that effort.

Also, one of the five Atomic Energy Commissioners—a guy by the name of Lewis Strauss—strongly agreed with Teller and Lawrence. He began actively lobbying for what his advisor called a “quantum leap” in American atomic capability to jump to the level of the hydrogen bomb. 

Truman, faced with this conflicting advice from significant parts of his government, did what every president with—well, most presidents—with a difficult decision does, which is appoint a committee. This three-person committee to look into the issue consisted of Louis Johnson, the Secretary of Defense, no longer called the Secretary of War. They, due to the National Security Act of 1947, changed the name to make it sound nicer. He was clearly going to be for the hydrogen bomb. Just as clearly, the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, David Lilienthal, was going to be against building the hydrogen bomb. The key person in the middle was Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State. 

It’s interesting. Truman had appointed Acheson in 1949 to replace George Marshall, of the famous Marshall Plan. Acheson was personal friends with Conant, Oppenheimer, and George Kennan, important opponents of the bomb. Of course, he had been the head of the Acheson-Lilienthal Committee in 1946 that had recommended something very forward-looking, progressive in terms of international control.

But by 1949, he had become somewhat more hardline against the Soviets, partly from watching Soviet behavior. He had personal discussions with Kennan who write a cri de coeur, the longest memo he said he ever wrote, against going towards greater dependence on nuclear weapons saying, “This is the time to actually build up our conventional forces and not rely on a nuclear and thermonuclear deterrent.” He was passionately against it. 

He had lunch with Conant in January, and he later was remembered saying, “How do you convince a paranoid adversary to disarm by example?” Which was something that Conant had written in the GAC reports saying, “By deciding not to build the hydrogen bomb we can provide an example of the limitations on war”. This is in the GAC report after its meeting of October 28th to 30th, 1949.

Acheson was convinced that they could not be sure that the Soviets were not building this, and so the US had try to build it. It was two to one in favor. This group met with President Truman in the White House on January 31, 1950. As Lilienthal was giving his presentation, at least how the story has gone down—Lilienthal, by the way, wrote great diary entries about this whole process, although they were slightly censored in his published version.

Supposedly, Lilienthal was laying out why he thought the US should not build the bomb. Truman said, “Can you assure me the Soviets aren’t’t building it?” Word had recently come that the most important Soviet spy on the Manhattan Project, Klaus Fuchs—a German-born communist physicist who had fled Hitler and was based in England during the war and had been part of the British team to the theoretical section at Los Alamos where Hans Bethe and Edward Teller had been—ghad been detained. It was connected to the spy ring that the Rosenbergs were involved in, but he was a much more serious spy than the Rosenbergs, or Julius Rosenberg’s brother-in-law David Greenglass.

Fuchs, who knew everything, in Conant’s words, had been a Soviet spy. He knew all about the idea of the hydrogen bomb, and he had even attended a conference in Los Alamos in April 1946 in which various designs and means of detonating a thermonuclear explosion were discussed. Didn’t work out. But the point was, Truman, not being able to get an assurance that the Soviets couldn’t build it, said, “We have to try.”

On January 31, 1950, he rejects Oppenheimer and the General Advisory Committee’s advice and says, “We have to try to build it.” At first it’s, “Investigate the feasibility.” He follows up in March with a firm decision, “We have got to try to build this thing.”

There’s a last-gasp effort to prevent the first test of a thermonuclear device which happens on the night of October 31st, and November 1st, depending on your time zone, 1952. Just a few days before the elections between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. There’s a last-gasp effort by Vannevar Bush, Oppenheimer, and a couple of others to convince Truman, “Maybe you should leave this to your successor to determine.” This proposal is completely rejected. In fact, Truman’s Secretary of Defense is so aghast at what he says would be “political dynamite” that he demands that all copies of this proposal be destroyed.

The test goes forward and of course, it’s a success. It destroys. It is not a deliverable weaponized bomb. It’s in a laboratory on the South Pacific island of Elugelab. But it is more than ten megatons in yield, and famously, you can look at the before and after pictures after the explosion. Instead of a nice South Pacific island with palm trees and coconuts, there is a two to three-mile gash on the ocean floor where that island had formerly existed. That is crossing the rubicon into the thermonuclear age.

The Soviets would conduct their own test in August 1953, less than a year later. In the late winter and spring of 1954, in March and April 1954, the Americans would conduct a series of tests of weapons in the South Pacific, including one which eradiated a Japanese fishing trawler. “The Lucky Dragon,” who wasn’t so lucky. Their crew was irradiated, and at least one died. There’s a mass panic in Japan destroying millions of fish.

Again, just in the following year, 1955, the Soviets also tested their first weaponized hydrogen bomb. By the mid-1950s, you clearly have entered the thermonuclear age. Not coincidentally, when [Nikita] Khrushchev and Eisenhower meet in Geneva in the summer of 1955, they agree, “It’s maybe not such a great idea to have World War III.” 

Two things that are interesting to note in that respect, there had been a classified project—I don’t even know if it’s ever been declassified—called “Project Gabriel,” which is my son’s name. Not after this. Which was a study of how many bombs it would take to destroy civilization through contamination of the atmosphere. Eisenhower, although he supported the New Look, which was greater dependence on nuclear weapons in American military policy, he was not enthused at the idea of a nuclear World War III. Although he created a situation where in places like the Taiwan Straits and Berlin, the US faced a fairly unpalatable choice between surrender, or a rapid escalation to nuclear weapons. He’s looking to try to somehow stabilize US Soviet relations, especially after Stalin’s death in March 1953.

Khrushchev’s position is interesting. In the post-Stalin succession struggle, he had moved on one of his rivals, Premier Georgy Malenkov, in 1954. Why? Because in the aftermath of the American H-bomb tests and the radiation of the Japanese fishing boat, and the revelation of the security inquest against Oppenheimer, at a time when you had the comparison of the nuclear arms race, “just two scorpions in a bottle,” that you could kill the other, but only the cost of being bit yourself.  Malenkov had made some statement that would later seem anodyne. Completely mundane, about nuclear and thermonuclear weapons endangering the survival of civilization. Khrushchev went after him saying, “This is heresy. This is sacrilege. Why? Because Marxist and Leninism has already determined that the outcome of human history is socialism. How can you apply that this pathological device supersedes Marxism, Leninism?” 

He was forced to grovel and make a self-criticism, and he was demoted. And yet, as soon as Malenkov was out of the way, Khrushchev felt the same way and said comparable things. He agreed with Eisenhower at Geneva that maybe a World War III is not a great idea. In 1956, just as he was de-Stalinizing in the famous secret speech—although it came out soon—speech at the 20th CPSU, Communist Party of the Soviet Union Congress in February 1956. Just as he was de-Stalinizing, he was announcing that the new Soviet strategy was “peaceful coexistence.” Not accepting capitalism, but letting history work itself out, rather than having history end in a cataclysmic war. 

Clearly, Khrushchev was affected by the same logic that Malenkov had been affected by, which is that in the thermonuclear age, it didn’t make too much sense. But it would take until the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 before both sides really accepted that nuclear weapons are only really good for mutual deterrence. Because in the late 1950s, you had Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State, proclaiming that, “In order to wage the Cold War, the US had to have a strategy of brinkmanship.” Meaning, being willing to go to the brink of war, which meant nuclear war with the communists, in order to prevent the communist world from expanding and to gain every advantage vis-à-vis the communists. John Foster Dulles believed this had worked in Korea, had worked in the Taiwan Straits, and had worked in French Indochina at the end of that war in 1954. This was an open strategy. 

What’s only become clear from the communist documents from the Soviet archives is, Khrushchev believed he had made a successful nuclear threat against England, France, and Israel in the Suez Crisis in late 1956 and that, “Hey, nuclear threats can be useful. Nuclear coercion can be useful.”

Now, it turns out that both Khrushchev and Eisenhower made crucial errors. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles believed that he had helped end the Korean War in 1953 after becoming President, by conveying a nuclear threat to the communists. Especially to the communist Chinese, and then they had begun to make compromises and negotiate more seriously in negotiations at Panmunjom, which had been deadlocked for two years. 

What communist documents, opened up since the end of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War, have made clear is that, it wasn’t Eisenhower’s nuclear threat that was most critical. It was the fact that Stalin had died a month earlier in March 1953. Once Stalin died, literally at his funeral, the Soviet leaders and Zhou Enlai, the Chinese number two to Mao, who was attending agreed, “Let’s liquidate this Korean War. This isn’t benefiting anyone.” The Soviet post-Stalinists wanted to focus on consolidation of their own country. It was Stalin’s dying.

But this was so misleading. Richard Nixon believed it had worked in 1953. When he was elected during the Vietnam War in 1968 and became president in 1969, he believed that he could do something similar to what Eisenhower had done. He tried to have a nuclear pressure signal against the Soviet Union that he might use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. It was connected to the whole madman theory, and that this would cause the Soviets to blink. What he didn’t understand is A, the nuclear threat had not worked in 1953. Also, it wasn’t up to Moscow in 1969. It was up Hanoi, and Moscow was not going to force Hanoi to blink, even if Moscow was willing to. 

As far as Khrushchev goes, Khrushchev didn’t understand that what caused the British and the French and the Israelis to back out and back down was not the Soviet nuclear threat. It was Eisenhower had already pressured them, because he was so upset that they had acted under his nose, after several months of a crisis, and that their action would alienate the emerging Third World or nonaligned world against the West. Eisenhower really put the screws on the British and French and the Israelis to withdraw. It had not been the Soviet threat.

But both of them believed nuclear threats could be valuable in crises. You had Khrushchev making comments about, “We’re pumping out missiles like sausages,” and threatening Kennedy at the Vienna Summit in 1961 that, “If you don’t take action to get your troops out of West Berlin by the end of the year, I’m going to sign a peace treaty with East Germany.”

When Kennedy said, “Don’t miscalculate our resolve for the people of West Berlin and this could lead to war.”

And Khrushchev said, “Well, yeah, hey. That’s your responsibility.”

It took both sides getting scared out of their wits at the brink in October 1962 before both sides backed off, which didn’t prevent subsequent nuclear crises over the Middle East in 1973. The famous Operation RYAN, Able Archer crisis of 1983. But it took until Cuba for both sides to sort of learn the rules of the road of nuclear weapons, after about fifteen years of both sides testing it in various contexts that were not necessarily vital interests to either side.

Only afterwards did they come closer to saying, “Well, maybe this is really something that should be held in reserve as the ultimate deterrent.” Even though both sides continued to incorporate nuclear weapons in planning for World War III in Europe, if that had broken out.

Kelly: People who might tune might ask, “Well, how does this relate to today?”

Hershberg: Well, that’s very speculative. But there are several things that can be said. One is, this history is not irrelevant to what’s going on now in terms of the North Korean dynamics and also the Sino-North Korean dynamics. Efforts to get China, meaning the People’s Republic of China, to pressure North Korea have to take into account that these countries fought alongside in the Korean War and lost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people as blood brothers.

To expect China to do America’s bidding against North Korea is not completely realistic, unless it takes into account the very strong sentimental ties that exist. Even though North Korea and its leaders in the family of Kim Il Sung and his successor generations have clearly irritated the Chinese, the Chinese still feel a very strong connection to North Korea.

Another interesting historical backdrop is—and I only learned this in the fall of 2012, when I helped put together a more than 800-page compilation of translated documents from more than twenty different countries on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that appeared as Cold War International History Project Bulletin Issue 17, 18. It’s available for free online. I had a scholar at the Wilson Center, James Person, who’s a specialist on North Korea.

I said, “Hey, why don’t you look into North Korea and the Cuban missile crisis. Is there anything interesting?”

Even though the Pyongyang Archives haven’t opened, communist world archives include not only cables from communist embassies in Pyongyang during the whole communist period, but also contact between communist parties. East European, Soviet, Chinese, with the Korean communist party. What it discovered was fascinating, because it turned out that like actually North Vietnam, the North Koreans were—and like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—the North Koreans and Kim I Sung were so upset at what they regard as Khrushchev caving in to John F. Kennedy by agreeing to withdraw the missiles from Cuba under a UN inspection, which Castro refused to permit at the end of October 1962. That he could no longer trust the Soviet nuclear umbrella, and that he needed to start work to develop a North Korean independent nuclear deterrent. 

So some of the genesis of what we’re dealing with today goes all the way back to the Missile Crisis of October 1962 and the conclusions of the North Korean leadership that, “Hey, we can’t trust the Soviets.” In its own way, not so different from the British and the French saying, “Hey, we can’t trust Washington. We need our own bomb.”

There were many other developments along the way, but the North Koreans were getting primed. It’s lead to this irony that even though the great nuclear war, capital “N,” capital “W”, that was feared my entire first three decades on the planet—I was born in 1960 during the Cold War—no longer exists, the danger of nuclear wars, small “n,” small “w,” but with an “s,” between regional India and Pakistan, North Korea and Northeast Asia, other possibilities in different parts of the world where you no longer have Cold War bipolarity with countries able to rely on their superpower protectors.

Then, of course, the current president has dramatically and drastically withdrawn from much of the world, and has already indicated he doesn’t really mind if South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia develop their own bomb. John F. Kennedy thought that by 1980, there would be scores, or at least twenty nuclear powers. 

Technologically, Japan could have long ago become a nuclear power. Germany, meaning then West Germany, now unified Germany, could have become a nuclear power. Sweden could have been a nuclear power. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1967, ‘68 slowed the process dramatically.

Even some superpower cooperation in the 1970s, especially after India tested its peaceful nuclear explosion, has slowed the process. But the fear is that, if you don’t keep a very tight leash on places like North Korea, Iran, it’s not just: they might get the bomb, but that would trigger a chain reaction of surrounding countries. 

South Korea could get the bomb very quickly. It almost did in the mid-1970s, except the US leaned on them and said, “Don’t worry, we have got your security.” Japan can get them on very quickly. Are they going to let North Korea be the main nuclear power in that region? Same thing with Iran. Saudi Arabia could get the bomb very quickly. Other powers could get the bomb very quickly.

You can get a nuclearized world, and this could animate the fears of the atomic scientists that what they thought was inevitable. I mean, the fact that were still around seventy or so years after World War II, that’s not the final verdict. 

In terms of the current situation, there has been a lot of discussion of the fact that there existed under Richard Nixon a “madman theory” to try to impress the other side that he was irrational and therefore you have to make concessions, because he might go off the deep end and use nuclear weapons. However, this is the first time arguably you have a “madmen theory,” where you have potentially unstable, irresponsible, and certainly uninformed in many ways—and not to mention there are cultural, linguistic, and other gaps—leaders in both Pyongyang and Washington. It is a very scary moment.

But this is what is so striking when I was in college and read about the Manhattan Project and discovered that what they were worried about in 1943, 1944 was pretty much exactly the same issues that they were worried about in 1981, 1982. A lot of the same issues keep reverberating.

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