The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945-1950by Gregg Herken
This book makes clear how, and why, after World War II American diplomats tried to make the atom bomb a 'winning weapon, ' an absolute advantage in negotiations with the Soviet Union.
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The Winning Weapon
The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1950
By Gregg Herken
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1981 Gregg Herken
All rights reserved.
Hiroshima and Potsdam: The Prelude
"It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler's crowd or Stalin's did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful."
President Harry Truman, journal, July 1945
"Truman said he had given orders to stop the atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn't like the idea of killing, as he said, 'all those kids.' "
Commerce Secretary Henry A. Wallace, diary entry, August 1945
"It's a Hell of a Story"
Eben Ayers, President Truman's assistant press secretary, started off his press briefing that Monday morning, August 6, with what he thought was "a darned good story." "It's a statement by the President," Ayers announced, "which starts off this way:
Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British "Grand Slam" which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare. ...
For a moment "the reporters seemed unable to grasp what it was about," Ayers noted in his diary. "They did not break for the door on a run or run to their phones. ... Some of them had difficulty in getting their news desks to grasp the import of it." As comprehension dawned, Ayers chided the reporters to wait for the full story "so you won't ball it all up." "It's a big story," he promised. "It's a hell of a story!" one journalist corrected.
Like the reporters at the White House that day and most other Americans, Ayers first learned of the existence of the atomic bomb from Truman's announcement. Though surprised by the news itself, he later wrote in his diary that he was not surprised the United States would use the new weapon against the enemy. Citing Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Ayers noted that "at no time from 1941 to 1945 did he [Stimson] ever hear it suggested by the President or any other responsible member of the government that atomic energy should not be used in the war." Stimson had "emphasized that it was the common objective throughout the war 'to be the first to develop an atomic weapon and to use it.'"
Having given approval to the start of the Manhattan Project — first as the "Uranium Committee" in 1940 and then as the "Manhattan Engineer District" when the army assumed command of the project early in 1942 — President Roosevelt maintained a detailed interest in the bomb, and in its postwar implications, up to his death in the spring of 1945. Indeed, the bomb's nascent role as a force in American diplomacy had been recognized as early as 1943, when FDR committed the United States to a policy of cooperating with Great Britain in the development of atomic energy under the Quebec Agreement. The move in that agreement toward "restricted interchange" with the British on the bomb actually put a greater emphasis upon guaranteeing postwar Anglo-American control of the bomb than on steady wartime progress toward creation of the weapon itself. The Hyde Park aide-mémoire signed by FDR and Churchill late in 1944, the "Agreement and Declaration of Trust," further cemented the tacit Anglo-American alliance on both the use and the postwar control of the bomb, and marked the weapon's emergence, one historian of the agreement notes, as "a powerful diplomatic bargaining counter."
Yet, even as there was virtual unanimity concerning the bomb's use when Stimson saw the President for the last time, on March 15, the question of its postwar control remained undecided. At that meeting, Stimson had stressed the importance of choosing between a continued Anglo-American monopoly of the bomb or a policy of wider cooperation, eventually involving Russia, before the weapon was actually used. Though FDR had certainly tended toward the former arrangement in his secret negotiations of 1943 and 1944 with Churchill, the resulting agreements fell short of a firm and declared policy of excluding Russia in either statement or intent. This ambiguity concerning Russia and the bomb was likely a conscious part of Roosevelt's strategy, designed (as were his domestic policies) to give him the greatest flexibility and maximum bargaining strength when the decision finally had to be made. If so, the flaw in this strategy of delay became dramatically evident with Roosevelt's sudden and unexpected passing.
Because he was never informed of Roosevelt's intentions in the matter of atomic policy, Truman inherited neither the flexibility nor the diplomatic subtlety of his predecessor's planning. He did, however, fall heir to the assumption that the bomb would be used. New to the job and unconfident of his ability, Truman was disinclined to challenge that assumption.
"Like People from Across the Tracks"
The neophyte President's first real information on the bomb came from Stimson, in a briefing on the afternoon of April 25,1945. Accompanying Stimson on this mission was Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, who had been chosen in 1942 to head the Manhattan Project. So carefully was the secret of that project guarded by spring 1945 that Groves entered Truman's office through a side door, unobserved even by the President's appointment secretary, Matthew Connelly. It was Groves rather than Stimson who was the real repository of knowledge concerning the bomb. Two days previous to his meeting with the President, at Stimson's urging, Groves had prepared a twenty-four-page memorandum summarizing the progress of the Manhattan Project scientists. The general summarized that memo for the President in their meeting, stressing its two most important points. First, a deliverable atomic bomb seemed assured, and would be ready for its first test sometime that summer. Second, the United States and Britain together had virtually cornered the world's known market of fissionable materials, uranium and thorium, thereby ensuring a plentiful — even preclusive — supply of atomic bombs for the war's duration and for an indefinite period beyond. Truman was also told by Groves of Russian spying upon the Manhattan Project.
Stimson's own concern at this meeting differed from Groves'. The secretary of war was already thinking beyond the military application of the bomb. In December of the previous year, he had met with President Roosevelt to argue that the United States should not offer to share the production secrets of the atomic bomb with Russia "until we were sure to get a real quid pro quo for our frankness." On that occasion Stimson did not specify what he expected from Russia in exchange for such cooperation. In a later meeting with Roosevelt shortly after the President's return from the Yalta Conference, however, Stimson spelled out the kind of trade he wanted. He suggested that the United States might want to demand the liberalization of Soviet internal rule in exchange for information on the bomb. But Roosevelt must first choose between the "secret, close-in attempted control of the object by those who control it now," or "international control based upon freedom both of science and of access."
With Roosevelt's death, the problem of what to do with the atomic bomb after the war had to be raised again, and Stimson could not be sure this time how his advice might be received. Moreover, his own thinking on the subject had changed in the interim. For one thing, the problem of the bomb's possible effect upon international affairs was made more important in his briefing to Truman by the fact that the first meeting of the United Nations was scheduled to begin in San Francisco in a few days. For another, the President just two days earlier had had a stormy session about Poland with Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov. The Russian probably — and properly — interpreted that incident as a signal that American policy on eastern Europe was now taking a firmer stand.
The bitter exchange between Truman and Molotov had been just one indication of the marked deterioration in the spirit, at least, of Soviet-American relations since the high point of wartime cooperation under Roosevelt. Even on the day of the German surrender — at a time when American newspapers showed U.S. and Soviet troops embracing along the Elbe River — one participant in a White House meeting lamented that the "relationship with Russia was never worse." Later that same month the President commented to FDR's daughter that the advisers he had inherited from her father were urging him "to be hard with the Russians" — a trend that alarmed the administration's liberal secretary of commerce, Henry A. Wallace.
Truman professed no doubts as to the root cause of the problem. After a Cabinet meeting of mid-May he told Wallace that the Russians "were like people from across the tracks whose manners were very bad." His own messages to Stalin "had been couched in the most friendly language," the President complained, but the Russians had been thus far unresponsive. Truman also revealed another motive for these continued overtures to the Soviets. The President's "one objective," Wallace noted, "was to be sure to get the Russians into the Japanese war so as to save the lives of 100,000 American boys." As long as the possibility of Soviet aid in the planned invasion of Japan existed, Wallace concluded, the Big Three alliance would not be allowed to break up.
Perhaps fearful of exacerbating the growing tension in Soviet-American relations by introducing a confrontation over the atomic bomb, Stimson sidestepped the issue of a quid pro quo in his presentation on the 25th. Instead, he simply tried to apprise Truman of the perils and the opportunities presented by atomic energy. The memo Stimson had prepared for the occasion warned the President that a small and unscrupulous nation with the atomic bomb might be able to conquer or at least blackmail larger, democratic countries. No present system of control seemed adequate to harness the bomb's capacity for evil. "On the other hand," Stimson brightened, "if the problem of the proper use of the weapon can be solved, we would have the opportunity to bring the world into a pattern in which the peace of the world and our civilization can be saved."
Significantly, unlike his advice in previous meetings with Roosevelt, Stimson's presentation for Truman contained no direct suggestions other than to urge that the President appoint a temporary panel of experts to advise him on atomic policy. The meeting was only fifteen minutes in length, remarkably brief considering the complexity and importance of the subject. "I don't like to read long papers," Truman explained to Groves. Because of this brevity, however, at least one vital issue originally on the agenda — the probable duration of the United States atomic monopoly — was never discussed.
Truman's own recollection of this briefing records that he listened to Stimson's presentation "with absorbed interest," but neither in his memoirs nor by his actions at the time is there an indication that the President was moved to make any decisions there concerning the future of the bomb other than to appoint the recommended Interim Committee of advisers. In deference to Stimson's senior status, Truman appointed him head of the committee.
Truman, it is true, was under no direct pressure at that time to make a decision on the bomb beyond ordering its use against Japan. But the bomb was subtly, inextricably, becoming a dominant issue in postwar planning nonetheless. On June 6, Stimson gave Truman the Interim Committee's recommendation that the atomic bomb be used against a Japanese city, without warning, as soon as preparations could be made. The committee had also advised that the Russians not be told about the weapon prior to its use. Finally, Stimson added his own thinking to the committee's recommendation in a memo he handed to the President in which he returned to the theme of a quid pro quo. Here he suggested that as a condition of sharing the secrets of the bomb, Truman demand of the Soviets either participation in an international control commission on atomic energy after the war, or the "solution of our present troubles" over the political complexion of postwar governments in eastern Europe. The President, Stimson noted, seemed especially receptive to the latter approach. Truman's response was hardly surprising. Beginning with Yalta, and particularly since the confrontation between the President and Molotov, eastern Europe had become a focus of the increasing strain in Soviet-American relations.
"We ... Might Have to Have It Out with the Russians"
By the summer of 1945, Stimson realized that the question of whether and what to tell the Russians about the atomic bomb was becoming acute. The Big Three had scheduled what was to be their final wartime meeting at Potsdam in July. The stakes at that meeting were already well defined — eastern Europe, the disposition of the liberated territories in Asia, and Russian entry into the war against Japan. But Stimson predicted that these would become "burning" issues at the conference table. "We ... might have to have it out with the Russians" after the war on the question of Soviet influence in Asia, he wrote in his diary. Surely this would fall short of an actual physical confrontation, but the bomb would play no small part in the diplomacy of the meeting. "Over any such tangled weave of problems, the ... secret would be dominant."
Yet America's bargaining position at the negotiating table, Stimson realized, was still less than assured. It seemed "a terrible thing," he mused in this same entry, "to gamble with such big stakes in diplomacy without having your master card in your hand."
Upon Stimson's urging, Truman already had postponed the meeting once with Stalin "to give us more time" to resolve the question of how to approach the Russians on the bomb. Specifically, both Truman and Stimson were hoping that the first bomb would be tested by mid-July as scheduled, before the end of the summit meeting with Stalin. Then the Americans would know, Stimson admitted, "whether this is a weapon in our hands or not."
The approaching meeting with the Russians began to assume the argot — if not the spirit — of a poker showdown. Stimson had written in May that the combination of postwar economic strength and the atomic bomb would give the United States "a royal straight flush and we mustn't be a fool about the way we play it." The President seemed to share Stimson's view, claiming that the "cards" were "in American hands" and that he meant "to play them as American cards." Truman assured his aides that Stalin would not beat him in the upcoming poker game.
To complicate matters at Potsdam, the advice Truman received in the weeks prior to his meeting with Stalin was neither uniform nor consistent concerning the atomic bomb. By late June the Interim Committee had reversed itself and now recommended that the President not wait until the bomb was used in the war before informing the Soviets of its existence. Stimson himself, in one last meeting with Truman before Potsdam, suggested a compromise approach: Truman would inform Stalin of the bomb's existence and of America's peaceful intentions concerning it after the war, but the President would turn aside any inquiries or suggestions by the Russians of an atomic partnership. By this method Stimson hoped to achieve, if not the quid pro quo, some sign of Russia's willingness to cooperate with the West. The advice of Truman's other advisers and confidants on the subject was mixed. British Prime Minister Churchill — already concerned about what England was "going to have between the white snows of Russia and the white cliffs of Dover" — favored telling Stalin outright in order to gain a diplomatic advantage at the conference, but he urged that Truman wait until the bomb was successfully tested. James F. Byrnes, a member of the Interim Committee and Truman's secretary of state, looked to the bomb as a way of ending the war before the Russians could enter it against Japan and thereby establish a Soviet base in Manchuria. Byrnes had already advised the President not to accept a conditional surrender from Japan, since the bomb and Russian entry into the war would make this compromise unnecessary.
The successful test of an atomic weapon in New Mexico on July 16, at the start of the summit conference, both encouraged the American delegation at Potsdam and underscored the need for a decision on what to do about the Russians and the bomb. "The bomb as a merely probable weapon had seemed a weak reed on which to rely, but the bomb as a colossal reality was very different," Stimson wrote of his own reaction to the test. He added that the United States now had "a badly needed 'equalizer'" of Russian power. The fact that the bomb worked, however, did not resolve the problem of approaching the Russians. Instead, the differences between the United States and her difficult ally were, Stimson thought, being brought to a focus by the-atomic bomb. The question remained to what purpose the master card would be used. Until Russia was dealt with, Stimson lamented, he and the Interim Committee were "thinking in a vacuum."
Excerpted from The Winning Weapon by Gregg Herken. Copyright © 1981 Gregg Herken. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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