Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Nuclear-Industrial Complex

Yves here. Although this post is a pretty comprehensive takedown of the movie Oppenheimer via pointing out numerous critical omissions, like how horrifically destructive nuclear blasts are, your humble blogger has a couple of possible quibbles, but since this period of history is somewhat contested, I may not be relying on the best sources for what follows, and welcome correction or calibration.

William Hartung points out that Oppenheimer and his allies were disappointed that they failed to persuade Truman to shut down Los Alamos and cede control of nuclear weapons to an international body so as to prevent a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Historians are likely to be representing Oppenheimer accurately, but that suggests he was naive or kept out of the loop on key aspects of decision-making.

There is a school of thought, and I don’t know how well accepted it is now, that the reason we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August despite Japan suing for peace through non-US diplomatic channels since IIRC April 1945 is we wanted to put the Soviets on the back foot by showing how far we had gotten with our nuclear program.

Another element Hartung skips over (admittedly one can only cover so much in one article) is that the nuclear bombings were the culmination of the normalization of mass killings of civilians in World War II. An excellent but grim book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover focuses on why so many atrocities happened then and has a chapter on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Glover did a considerable amount of archival research to find out who made the decision to drop A-bombs on Japanese cities. All the key players, from Truman on down, acted as if the decision has already been made somewhere else, that they had to defer to the question having been settled away from them. A curious and convenient way to escape personal responsibility for a horrific action.

By William D. Hartung. Originally published at TomDispatch

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months, you’re undoubtedly aware that award-winning director Christopher Nolan has released a new film about Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for leading the group of scientists who created that deadly weapon as part of America’s World War II-era Manhattan Project. The film has earned widespread attention, with large numbers of people participating in what’s already become known as “Barbieheimer” by seeing Greta Gerwig’s hit film Barbie and Nolan’s three-hour-long Oppenheimer on the same day.

Nolan’s film is a distinctive pop cultural phenomenon because it deals with the American use of nuclear weapons, a genuine rarity since ABC’s 1983 airing of The Day After about the consequences of nuclear war. (An earlier exception was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, his satirical portrayal of the insanity of the Cold War nuclear arms race.)

The film is based on American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Nolan made it in part to break through the shield of antiseptic rhetoric, bloodless philosophizing, and public complacency that has allowed such world-ending weaponry to persist so long after Trinity, the first nuclear bomb test, was conducted in the New Mexico desert 78 years ago this month.

Nolan’s impetus was rooted in his early exposure to the nuclear disarmament movement in Europe. As he said recently:

“It’s something that’s been on my radar for a number of years. I was a teenager in the ‘80s, the early ‘80s in England. It was the peak of CND, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Greenham Common [protest]; the threat of nuclear war was when I was 12, 13, 14 — it was the biggest fear we all had. I think I first encountered Oppenheimer in… Sting’s song about the Russians that came out then and talks about Oppenheimer’s ‘deadly toys.’”

A feature film on the genesis of nuclear weapons may not strike you as an obvious candidate for box-office blockbuster status. As Nolan’s teenage son said when his father told him he was thinking about making such a film, “Well, nobody really worries about nuclear weapons anymore. Are people going to be interested in that?” Nolan responded that, given what’s at stake, he worries about complacency and even denial when it comes to the global risks posed by the nuclear arsenals on this planet. “You’re normalizing killing tens of thousands of people. You’re creating moral equivalences, false equivalences with other types of conflict… [and so] accepting, normalizing… the danger.”

These days, unfortunately, you’re talking about anything but just tens of thousands of people dying in a nuclear face-off. A 2022 report by Ira Helfand and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimated that a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan that used roughly 3% of the world’s 12,000-plus nuclear warheads would kill “hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions” of us. A full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia, the study suggests, could kill up to five (yes, five!) billion people within two years, essentially ending life as we know it on this planet in a “nuclear winter.”

Obviously, all too many of us don’t grasp the stakes involved in a nuclear conflict, thanks in part to “psychic numbing,” a concept regularly invoked by Robert Jay Lifton, author of Hiroshima in America: A History of Denial (co-authored with Greg Mitchell), among many other books. Lifton describes psychic numbing as “a diminished capacity or inclination to feel” prompted by “the completely unprecedented dimension of this revolution in technological destructiveness.”

Given the Nolan film’s focus on Oppenheimer’s story, some crucial issues related to the world’s nuclear dilemma are either dealt with only briefly or omitted altogether.

The staggering devastation caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is suggested only indirectly without any striking visual evidence of the devastating human consequences of the use of those two weapons. Also largely ignored are the critical voices who then argued that there was no need to drop a bomb, no less two of them, on a Japan most of whose cities had already been devastated by U.S. fire-bombing to end the war. General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote that when he was told by Secretary of War Henry Stimson of the plan to drop atomic bombs on populated areas in Japan, “I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

The film also fails to address the health impacts of the research, testing, and production of such weaponry, which to this day is still causing disease and death, even without another nuclear weapon ever being used in war. Victims of nuclear weapons development include people who were impacted by the fallout from U.S. nuclear testing in the Western United States and the Marshall Islands in the Western Pacific, uranium miners on Navajo lands, and many others. Speaking of the first nuclear test in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which represents that state’s residents who suffered widespread cancers and high rates of infant mortality caused by radiation from that explosion, said “It’s an inconvenient truth… People just don’t want to reflect on the fact that American citizens were bombed at Trinity.”

Another crucially important issue has received almost no attention. Neither the film nor the discussion sparked by it has explored one of the most important reasons for the continued existence of nuclear weapons — the profits it yields the participants in America’s massive nuclear-industrial complex.

Once Oppenheimer and other concerned scientists and policymakers failed to convince the Truman administration to simply close Los Alamos and place nuclear weapons and the materials needed to develop them under international control — the only way, as they saw it, to head off a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union — the drive to expand the nuclear weapons complex was on. Research and production of nuclear warheads and nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines quickly became a big business, whose beneficiaries have worked doggedly to limit any efforts at the reduction or elimination of nuclear arms.

The Manhattan Project and the Birth of the Nuclear-Industrial Complex

The Manhattan Project Oppenheimer directed was one of the largest public works efforts ever undertaken in American history. Though the Oppenheimer film focuses on Los Alamos, it quickly came to include far-flung facilities across the United States. At its peak, the project would employ 130,000 workers — as many as in the entire U.S. auto industry at the time.

According to nuclear expert Stephen Schwartz, author of Atomic Audit, the seminal work on the financing of U.S. nuclear weapons programs, through the end of 1945 the Manhattan Project cost nearly $38 billion in today’s dollars, while helping spawn an enterprise that has since cost taxpayers an almost unimaginable $12 trillion for nuclear weapons and related programs. And the costs never end. The Nobel prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) reports that the U.S. spent $43.7 billion on nuclear weapons last year alone, and a new Congressional Budget Office report suggests that another $756 billion will go into those deadly armaments in the next decade.

Private contractors now run the nuclear warhead complex and build nuclear delivery vehicles. They range from Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin to lesser-known firms like BWX Technologies and Jacobs Engineering, all of which split billions of dollars in contracts from the Pentagon (for the production of nuclear delivery vehicles) and the Department of Energy (for nuclear warheads). To keep the gravy train running — ideally, in perpetuity — those contractors also spend millions lobbying decision-makers. Even universities have gotten into the act. Both the University of California and Texas A&M are part of the consortium that runs the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory.

The American warhead complex is a vast enterprise with major facilities in California, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. And nuclear-armed submarines, bombers, and missiles are produced or based in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, North Dakota, Montana, Virginia, Washington state, and Wyoming. Add in nuclear subcontractors and most states host at least some nuclear-weapons-related activities.

And such beneficiaries of the nuclear weapons industry are far from silent when it comes to debating the future of nuclear spending and policy-making.

Profiteers of Armageddon: The Nuclear Weapons Lobby

The institutions and companies that build nuclear bombs, missiles, aircraft, and submarines, along with their allies in Congress, have played a disproportionate role in shaping U.S. nuclear policy and spending. They have typically opposed the U.S. ratification of a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty; put strict limits on the ability of Congress to reduce either funding for or the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); and pushed for weaponry like a proposed nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile that even the Pentagon hasn’t requested, while funding think tanks that promote an ever more robust nuclear weapons force.

A case in point is the Senate ICBM Coalition (dubbed part of the “Dr. Strangelove Caucus” by Arms Control Association Director Daryl Kimball and other critics of nuclear arms). The ICBM Coalition consists of senators from states with major ICBM bases or ICBM research, maintenance, and production sites: Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The sole Democrat in the group, Jon Tester (D-MT), is the chair of the powerful appropriations subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he can keep an eye on ICBM spending and advocate for it as needed.

The Senate ICBM Coalition is responsible for numerous measures aimed at protecting both the funding and deployment of such deadly missiles. According to former Secretary of Defense William Perry, they are among “the most dangerous weapons we have” because a president, if warned of a possible nuclear attack on this country, would have just minutes to decide to launch them, risking a nuclear conflict based on a false alarm. That Coalition’s efforts are supplemented by persistent lobbying from a series of local coalitions of business and political leaders in those ICBM states. Most of them work closely with Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the new ICBM, dubbed the Sentinel and expected to cost at least $264 billion to develop, build, and maintain over its life span that is expected to exceed 60 years.

Of course, Northrop Grumman and its 12 major ICBM subcontractors have been busy pushing the Sentinel as well. They spend tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying annually, while employing former members of the government’s nuclear establishment to make their case to Congress and the executive branch. And those are hardly the only organizations or networks devoted to sustaining the nuclear arms race. You would have to include the Air Force Association and the obscurely named Submarine Industrial Base Council, among others.

The biggest point of leverage the nuclear weapons industry and the arms sector more broadly have over Congress is jobs. How strange then that the arms industry has generated diminishing job returns since the end of the Cold War. According to the National Defense Industrial Association, direct employment in the weapons industry has dropped from 3.2 million in the mid-1980s to about 1.1 million today.

Even a relatively small slice of the Pentagon and Department of Energy nuclear budgets could create many more jobs if invested in green energy, sustainable infrastructure, education, or public health – anywhere from 9% to 250% more jobs, depending on the amount spent. Given that the climate crisis is already well underway, such a shift would not only make this country more prosperous but the world safer by slowing the pace of climate-driven catastrophes and offering at least some protection against its worst manifestations.

A New Nuclear Reckoning?

Count on one thing: by itself, a movie focused on the origin of nuclear weapons, no matter how powerful, won’t force a new reckoning with the costs and consequences of America’s continued addiction to them. But a wide variety of peace, arms-control, health, and public-policy-focused groups are already building on the attention garnered by the film to engage in a public education campaign aimed at reviving a movement to control and eventually eliminate the nuclear danger.

Past experience — from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that helped persuade Christopher Nolan to make Oppenheimer to the “Ban the Bomb” and Nuclear Freeze campaigns that stopped above-ground nuclear testing and helped turn President Ronald Reagan around on the nuclear issue — suggests that, given concerted public pressure, progress can be made on reining in the nuclear threat. The public education effort surrounding the Oppenheimer film is being taken up by groups like The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Council for a Livable World that were founded, at least in part, by Manhattan Project scientists who devoted their lives to trying to roll back the nuclear arms race; professional groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility; anti-war groups like Peace Action and Win Without War; the Nobel Peace prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons; nuclear policy groups like Global Zero and the Arms Control Association; advocates for Marshall Islanders, “downwinders,” and other victims of the nuclear complex; and faith-based groups like the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The Native Americanled organization Tewa Women United has even created a website, “Oppenheimer — and the Other Side of the Story,” that focuses on “the Indigenous and land-based peoples who were displaced from our homelands, the poisoning and contamination of sacred lands and waters that continues to this day, and the ongoing devastating impact of nuclear colonization on our lives and livelihoods.”

On the global level, the 2021 entry into force of a nuclear ban treaty — officially known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — is a sign of hope, even if the nuclear weapons states have yet to join. The very existence of such a treaty does at least help delegitimize nuclear weaponry. It has even prompted dozens of major financial institutions to stop investing in the nuclear weapons industry, under pressure from campaigns like Don’t Bank on the Bomb.

In truth, the situation couldn’t be simpler: we need to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us. Hopefully, Oppenheimer will help prepare the ground for progress in that all too essential undertaking, beginning with a frank discussion of what’s now at stake.

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  1. MicaT

    Interesting or not that the author decided to not include the small fact that Obama/Dems signed into law a 1.5 trillion dollar 10 yr nuclear weapons modernization upgrade. That I’ve read will probably cost double that given cost over runs etc.

  2. Henry Moon Pie

    The author is right that large portions of our society are complicit in supporting the nuclear weapons industry. After my first year in law school, I clerked for a K. C. law firm that represented Bendix Corporation, who owned an AEC plant in K. C. that was the final assembly point for atomic weapons. I spent several weeks in an NLRB hearing room as the Platers and the Building Trades sought to sever separate bargaining units from the single bargaining unit represented by the Machinists. The company opposed the change on the grounds that it would make life more complicated for them to deal with three rather than one unit. The Machinists obviously joined the company since their bargaining power would be significantly reduced.

    None of these unions objected to what the plant was being used for. The hawkish AFL-CIO did not object to nuclear weapons until 1983 during the Reagan administration. The unions regarded their one and only job as increasing wages and benefits for its members, and broader societal concerns were not part of the agenda.

  3. vao

    An earlier exception was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove

    Specifically regarding the usage of atomic bombs by the USA, the movie Fail safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964) is notable.

    Actually, the 1960s saw several movies about the usage and consequence of the atomic bomb; this was not a “genuine rarity”. Apart from Dr. Strangelove, there were The Bedford incident (James Harris, 1965), The war game (Peter Watkins, 1966), plus several episodes of the “Twilight Zone”, notably The shelter (1961), The old man and the cave (1963), Time enough at last (1959). In a subdued, distant mode, there had of course been On the beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959).

    The aforementioned cinematographic production appears to have been forgotten to such an extent that an article about historical omissions in the movie Oppenheimer seems to lack the awareness that atomic war was an important, explicit, core scenaristic element in the 1960s, long before the 1983 film The day after. Explaining this oblivion would be a relevant topic for a cultural/sociological investigation.

    1. Arizona Slim

      I remember seeing Fail Safe while I was in junior high school. It was in the school’s auditorium and I distinctly recall that classes were not in session while the movie was being shown.

      Was this a mandatory assembly? I don’t recall, but the auditorium was full.

    2. Carolinian

      That is an excellent movie and there’s some back story behind its neglect

      Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove were both produced in the period after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when people became much more sensitive to the threat of nuclear war. Fail Safe so closely resembled Peter George’s novel Red Alert, on which Dr. Strangelove was based, that Dr. Strangelove screenwriter/director Stanley Kubrick and George filed a copyright infringement lawsuit.[5] The case was settled out of court.[6] The result of the settlement was that Columbia Pictures, which had financed and was distributing Dr. Strangelove, also bought Fail Safe, which had been an independently financed production.[7] Kubrick insisted that the studio release his movie first.[8]


      Indeed both are excellent movies but coming at the topic from very different directions. I believe I first saw Fail Safe on TV not too long after it came out so it was certainly available to be seen. Lumet was himself a former TV director and great with actors.

      Some of us grew up under the shadow of the atomic bomb and I believe it had everything to do with a peace movement that has now faded. I’ve almost finished American Prometheus and many of the bomb scientists including Oppenheimer warned that this would happen and so it did. The title of the doc The Day After Trinity comes from Oppenheimer’s later statement that the day to establish a nonproliferation regime would have been “the day after Trinity” and ten years later it was too late. And it’s still too late seemingly as the MIC lunatics want to make still more “modernized” bombs.

      Oppenheimer argued after the war that the bomb had no military significance for use in combat and so was purely about intimidating adversaries and history has proven this true as well. And yet thousands are being slaughtered in Ukraine and all the other wars since while the missiles stay in their silos. Maybe we could finally get rid of the things if we could get rid of the neocons and their obsession with Russia, China, controlling the Middle East etc. We are the bomb. That tiny ball of Plutonium “the size of an orange” is just a thing.

      1. digi_owl

        Sadly unlikely. The only way to get rid of the bomb would be to send every last gram of fissionable material into the sun.

        And even then it would likely just lead to seeing ever larger conventional wars akin to the world wars.

        The only way to end all this would be something like a solar powered replicator, and that is a tall order.

    3. Stephen V

      On the Beach was based on a book which was heavy reading for this young teen in the 60’s.

      1. Arizona Slim

        While I was a twenty-something and bicycle touring around the Great Lakes regions of the US and Canada, I met a boy in a small Ontario town who insisted that I see that movie. It really moved him in a way that I don’t recall being moved when I was the same age.

      2. Travis Bickle

        And then there was Alas Babylon, by Pat Frank, published in 1959. It developed a WWIII scenario from perspective of family in Central Florida who go on to adapt (and adapt they do!). First third of the book got into why it all happened. Overall it (unintentionally?) made the prospect seem quite survivable, even preferable in how the community all came together and whatnot. Not a lot about radiation; people just got to enjoy more fishing and sailing and family time together. One little girl got (temporarily) blinded by a nearby bomb that vaporized McDill. But no biggie). Money Quote I remember, when Air Force helicopters arrived to check in on our plucky band of survivalists, who asked “who won.” “We did, we clobbered them.” Read it in a base library, FWIW. A rather breezy read as I recall.

    4. scott s.

      I found Crimson Tide (1995) to be pretty good. Experts would argue some of the administrative details but the general problem of NC2 was IMO well-presented. This against the backdrop of controversies over the use/mandate of PAL for USN vs USAF.

    5. Rip Van Winkle

      Great comment.

      A few decades later, the movie Threads, including the ending.

      The Day After, made around the same time, was kids stuff, comparatively.

      1. Hickory

        Agreed 100%. I saw threads first and felt practically insulted when I watched the day after. Not a serious movie.

    6. Basil Pesto

      While we’re mentioning related texts, Michael Frayn’s absorbing play Copenhagen, though it has different characters and preoccupations (d.p. are Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Heisenberg), is also about the creation of the bomb and was something of a theatrical sensation in the late 90s when it was first performed.

    7. dingusansich

      Thank you for the reminder about short-form encounters with the apocalyptic via TV series episodes. Such ephemera can swirl down the memory hole. I can recommend another made-for-TV movie from the mid-’80s, the glum Countdown to Looking Glass. Accidents will happen. You’d almost think that escalating confrontations between nuclear-armed militaries might lead to unintended consequences.

      And let’s not forget Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” or even “Apeman” by the Kinks. Whole museums on the Bomb must be out there, akin to Japan’s Showa Museum in Takayama, only not so cute.

  4. Cristobal

    It is ¨nice¨ that so many well meaning groups – can we call them hand wringers? – are opposing the nuclear weapons industry. The problem is that moral arguments do not interest the people that make the decisions. As Mr. Hartung says, the money is very good for them. The deck is stacked against those of us who would like to see it stopped. The forces that propel this madness are implacable and will roll over any attempts to cut off their cash flows. Logically, we are faced with the need to make this personal. The decision makers in that industry need to be made to see that it is not in their interest to continue. Politics won´t do it. The legal system is incapable of doing much of anything any more against this class of people. What is left? How can the anti-nuclear people get the attention of the industry? Will people have to go full-on Ministry of the Future: anti-nuclear terrorism? assassinations of a few CEOs to focus their minds? We have been living with this situation for eighty or so years. Even the victories in the form of various arms control treaties have been luke warm – evaded, ignored, or simply denied . We need to find another way to deal with it. Maybe the aliens in their UFOs will sort it out for us.

  5. Aurelien

    The awkward thing about history is that you find that what people thought at the time isn’t what we think now, or what we wish they had thought then. The urge to anachronism, especially if you can feel superior in the process, is irresistible for some people. From the 1950s onwards there was a flood of studies, and later studies of studies, of the decision to use the atom bomb in 1945, and we know as much about it as any decision ever made, anywhere. The problem is that it wasn’t nearly as important a decision for those involved as we would like it to have been. At the time, and for perhaps a decade after until the development of the Hydrogen Bomb, atomic weapons were just big bombs: the effect of the Hiroshima bomb was roughly what would have been achieved by a typical incendiary raid, albeit with many more aircraft. What we do, is we project back on to history our own concerns and fears, and we look for evidence that people at the time saw things as we see them now, which is rarely the case. Truman’s decision seems to pretty much have taken itself: there was a war on, here was a weapon that had been developed for use against Germany, but not ready in time, there was an enemy, let’s use the weapon. The US attitude to peace feelers from Japan was much like the Russian attitude to peace feelers from Ukraine today, and for much the same reasons. There’s no indication that anybody thought much about Russia in this context, though the hysterical anti-communism of the early 1950s may have persuaded some people to retrospectively “remember” that perhaps it had, even if there’s no evidence to support the idea.

    1. Carolinian

      Scientist Szilard came to see Jimmy Byrnes in my town and pleaded for the bomb not to be used. Byrnes told him that the Potsdam conference had not gone well and peaceful cooperation with Stalin was unclear and the indeed almost inevitable military use against Japan might persuade the Russians to come around on Eastern Europe independence including Szilard’s native Hungary.

      So yes the bomb was going to be dropped (and Oppenheimer was for this) but the decision to continue the massive industrial effort to make more bombs was not inevitable. The bomb itself may have been a major instigator of the Cold War by causing the Soviets to regard our possessing it as an existential threat.

      Some are arguing that the new neocon notion that modern nukes may be usable is behind the current confrontation with Russia. In the same vein some say Putin waited until he had new hypersonic nukes before confronting NATO. The beat goes on.

    2. elissa3

      Not convinced by this take, especially the notion that the bomb was not considered a big deal by the principal players, but also the idea that the US elites were mostly unconcerned by a victorious USSR in 1945.

      A good source, notwithstanding a calculated dose of dramatization, is Charles Mee’s

      Meeting at Potsdam

      , which came out in 1975. Far from being routine and/or thoughtless, Truman’s decision to use not one but two bombs, had deliberate intent. It is not a pretty picture and so has been mostly relegated to the sidelines of history.

    3. Acacia

      the effect of the Hiroshima bomb was roughly what would have been achieved by a typical incendiary raid, albeit with many more aircraft

      Indeed, and it is often noted that more people were killed by the Tokyo Air Raid of 10 March 1945 — over 100,000 died in one night, one million homeless —, than in the attacks on Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki.

      The firebombing of Tokyo (a.k.a. Operation Meetinghouse) involved 279 B-29s loaded with incendiary bombs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of course, only one plane dropping one bomb each. Although claims have been made that the Tokyo Air Raid was “militarily successful”, the targets were primarily residential areas in Eastern Tokyo. The aim was evidently to kill civilians. There is an interesting recent film about survivors of this attack, called Paper City (2021).

      If we consider the USAF firebombing campaign as a whole, between late 1944 and August 1945, the 67 largest cities of Japan were largely destroyed using incendiary bombs, with several hundred thousand deaths. (There were some earlier raids as part of Operation Matterhorn, but the attacks intensified as LeMay was put in command and then as he changed tactics early in 1945.) Notably, most of the destruction of Japanese cities occurred before the nuclear attacks.

      There is a breathtaking and deeply disturbing sequence in Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003), in which Robert S. McNamara gives his commentary on the firebombing campaign, with an accelerated montage of the cities destroyed. McNamara summarizes:

      LeMay said that “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And [says McNamara] I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. […] LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side has lost.

      But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

      The USAF conducted an assessment of 180 Japanese cities, including small and medium-sized cities, ranking them as targets for destructive effect, based upon population and industry. Kyoto was ranked #4, Hiroshima was ranked #7, and Nagasaki was ranked #12. There has been debate as to why Kyoto wasn’t bombed more heavily. I have read that Stimson requested that it be removed from the list (see also the Nuclear Secrets Blog:Henry Stimson didn’t go to Kyoto on his honeymoon“).

      Given their high ranking in the USAF’s own assessment of Japanese cities, why were Hiroshima and Nagasaki spared in the entire firebombing campaign? Why were dozens of far smaller cities targeted instead? We have heard that in the Nagasaki attack, the primary target was in fact Kokura, but due to weather conditions a ground sighting could not be established after several approaches, and Nagasaki was then chosen as the secondary target. The larger question remains, though, which is why Nagasaki hadn’t been subjected to any of the prior incendiary attacks.

      Was there a higher-level decision to ‘preserve’ two large cities for an assessment of a nuclear attack on civilians?

      1. Give Them Housing

        Hiroshima was spared as long as it was at least partially because Hiroshima Castle was housing the Western Honshu military command headquarters. The castle had tunnels underneath that the staff could escape to in a conventional raid. In the event the nuke got them all during morning exercises.

        1. Acacia

          Not debating (for the castle is less than 500m from the Genbaku-domu), but I’d be curious to learn your source.

          1. Give Them Housing

            I can’t immediately provide one to be honest. I’d have to hunt through my books and PDFs of articles. But it’s something I’ve encountered at some point over the years.

      2. Give Them Housing

        That Kytoto was viewed as uniquely important to the Japanese (quite accurately by the way, which I think also undermines notions of total gaijin cluenessness towards Japanese considerations) and removed from target lists out of consideration for its cultural and spiritual significance surely hurts claims of a uniformly vindictive and racist Western attitude.

    4. Basil Pesto

      The problem is that it wasn’t nearly as important a decision for those involved as we would like it to have been.

      There are readily available primary sources on this and not much among them to indicate that the decision was made as casually as you – completely unsourced – suggest, or rather assert. In fact (to take one example) Truman in a letter to Stimson, December 1946, balked at the specific suggestion that he had taken the decision “recklessly and without elaborate consideration” (and there is evidence that Stimson himself had misgivings and reservations about not just Hiroshima and the deliberate targeting of civilians that it entailed, but the firebombing of Tokyo as well, about which he said “I did not want to have the United States get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities”). One doesn’t necessarily have to take such a statement at face value (and I don’t accept the USA/Truman’s trite talking points that the bombings shortened the war, saved more lives than they cost etc.) but what, exactly, is the basis for the conclusion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just a couple of Size XL bombs to be used against the enemy?

      At the time, and for perhaps a decade after until the development of the Hydrogen Bomb, atomic weapons were just big bombs: the effect of the Hiroshima bomb was roughly what would have been achieved by a typical incendiary raid, albeit with many more aircraft.

      Well, except for the radiation sickness and creation of Hibakusha, a descriptor of a class of victim whose experience and suffering clearly went beyond that of regular ordnance. In fact your earlier claim in that quote – the suggestion that A Bombs were just considered Big Bombs until H Bombs came along, is, absent persuasive evidence which you fail to provide, frankly spurious. It is true that the USA initially tried to obscure the full extent of the destructive effects of the bomb in 1945 – and censored a number of stories from non-junket reporters trying to get a maximally truthful version of the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out – but by the time John Hersey’s report on Hiroshima came out in late 1946 it was abundantly clear to not just the military (who were quick to study the radioactive effects of the bomb shortly after it was dropped – they were anticipating occupation of the area by American forces after all) but the lay-public as well that what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not simply the ordinary product of an ordinary albeit really big bomb, but something quite new, after which the US went into PR damage control (this is recounted in Lesley Blume’s fascinating and thoroughly sourced book “Fallout” about Hersey’s reporting of the story).

      It was thus not for nothing that it was Hiroshima and Nagasaki which precipitated remarks expressing grave concern from the likes of Oppenheimer himself, Einstein etc. about the nature of the weapon and its implications, well before the development of the H bomb.

      1. Give Them Housing

        I think you’re missing what (I think) was Aurelien’s point. The nukes were primarily viewed by the military as just big bombs. Citing studies from after Hiroshima and Nagasaki doesn’t undermine that claim. And in fact the loose safety standards with much of the post-war testing indicates the radiation issue apparently still somehow hadn’t made it up into the thinking of the higher ranks for years after the fact.

        There was criticism of the very concept of strategic firebombings. That reinforces, doesn’t undermine, the notion that the nukes were viewed as an extension (or escalation) of a concept already in use. There was debate about whether we should have even be burning down entire cities at all.

        1. Acacia

          If nuclear weapons were, as you propose, primarily viewed by the US military as “just big bombs”, how should we account for Secy. Stimson’s opening to the May 31, 1945, meeting of the Interim Committee?

          The Secretary [Stimson] expressed the view, a view shared by General Marshall, that this project should not be considered simply in terms of military weapons, but as a new relationship of man to the universe. This discovery might be compared to the discoveries of the Copernican theory and of the laws of gravity, but far more important than these in its effect on the lives of men. While the advances in the field to date had been fostered by the needs of war, it was important to realize that the implications of the project went far beyond the needs of the present war. It must be controlled if possible to make it an assurance of future peace rather than a menace to civilization. (Emphasis mine)

          Perhaps I’m missing something here but to me, at least, Stimson exhorting his colleagues to reflect on this development not “simply in terms of military weapons, but as a new relationship of man to the universe”, or a discovery on the order of the Copernican revolution, and especially his concerns over “an assurance of future peace rather than a menace to civilization” — we might call it portentous but none of this quite sounds like “just big bombs”.

  6. John Steinbach

    The first book that argued that the bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki was Fear, War & the Bomb by P.M.S. Blackett. Since then many others have argued similarly (Japan’s Longest Day by Pacific War Research Society, Target Japan by Arjun Makhijani & John Kelly, A World Destroyed by Martin Sherwin, Hiroshima In America by Greg Mitchell & Robert Jay Lifton…) In my opinion after reading about this subject for many years & reading direct quotes by Truman, Byrnes, Stimson, Groves, etc, it is clear that Hiroshima was directed against the Soviet Union & had little or nothing to do with ending the war.

  7. Tim

    The single biggest source of my distrust in my country is that we continue to allow and openly advertise a strike first policy.

    Not only does it weaken any remaining perception of our country as being benevolent, it also makes it possible for false indicators of a nuclear launch to be considered plausible, thereby increasing the potential of a nuclear counter-attack on our country happening mistakenly.

  8. ex-PFC Chuck

    A worthwhile follow up to Nolan’s movie, or alternative if you want to avoid theater viewing or the flash bangs that seem to have to accompany all mainstream movies these days, check out The Day After Trinity available online via the Criterion channel. It also focuses mainly on Oppenheimer but is more nuanced and informative. It was available free on criteria during the latter part of July but I believe is now once again behind their pay wall.

    1. Rolf

      Thanks for this heads up, Chuck. The Day After Trinity can also be viewed or downloaded (MP4 or ogv format) for free at archive.org. Although in digital format, the three reels (30 minutes each) of media don’t seem to have been restored in any way — but the content is certainly watchable. I haven’t seen Nolan’s film, but I found Jon Else’s documentary fairly powerful and informative, particularly in capturing the insights and sensibilities of the period.

  9. Cristobal

    A 2018 film, Red Joan, is based on the history of a British woman, Melita Norwood, who worked with a group of British scientists that were developing a nuclear bomb. She passed critical informationn to the Soviet Uniion. In the film Joan said that she did not do what she did for money, but to prevent the US and UK from using atomic weapons against the Soviet Union. Revelations from Daniel Ellsberg and others have shown that her suspicions were correct in that the US and UK would likely have used the weapon in a first strike if they had not been afraid of a nuclear response.

    1. Carolinian

      I just checked that one out of the library although I believe i saw it when it first came out. There was an earlier film telling the story of Los Alamos with Paul Newman improbably playing Groves (although they sort of look alike) and the little known Dwight Schultz as Oppenheimer. It didn’t make much of a splash despite involvement of Roland Joffe but the music (I barely remember the film) must have been nonpareil as by Ennio Morricone. 1989.


      1. communistmole

        It is interesting that it is apparently completely unknown in the English-speaking world that there is a very well-known play about Oppenheimer in the German-speaking world. “In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer” (In the case of J. Robert Oppenheimer) by Heinar Kipphardt from 1964. It is based on the documents of the investigation commission and belongs to the classics of documentary theater (like The Deputy of Hochhuth). Kipphardt was even in contact with Oppenheimer, but Oppenheimer was threatening to take legal action against the play, probably because he disliked the leftist tendency. On youtube there is the television adaptation of the play, which I must have seen in the 80s, when the protests against the deployment of the Pershing II in Germany were at their peak.

        1. Carolinian

          The book American Prometheus–basis for the new film–mentions the play which was produced in several countries including an English version. The book says Oppenheimer disliked the play and even threatened to sue because it included a made up final speech by him where he expresses regret. They were putting words in his mouth. In the end he did not sue.

          There’s a Youtube of a CBS interview that took place at his St. Johns house apparently. Think this is the right link. Its subject is the 20th anniversary of Hiroshima.


          1. communistmole

            Thanks for pointing out Prometheus to me. In a German edition of Kipphardt’s work, his correspondence with Oppenheimer is printed, in which he tries to explain to him that his play was not meant to be a simple depiction of historical facts. Kipphardt then wrote an article to this effect, which was added to the program of the play. Oppenheimer is said to have later regretted his threat to sue.

  10. Daníel Örn Davíðsson

    This is by memory but I seem to remember Gar Alperovitch making much of the declaration at Potsdam. That Truman took with him a certain number of stipulations as part of the terms of surrender that Japan would have to adhere to and that the last one was supposed to be a promise that the emperor would not be harmed. When the declaration was published at Potsdam however the promise for the safety of the emperor was not included. Apparently the reason for not including this provision in the final declaration has not been explained by the documentary record. Alperovitch claims that the the OSS and other allied analogues knew that this was a sticking point for the Japanese and would preclude them from surrendering. Alperovitch seems to make the claim that this might have been on purpose in the grand scheme of the expected post war conflict with the Soviets.

    1. britzklieg

      And the irony is that, after the bomb was dropped, Japan was allowed to keep the emperor after all. So the emperor issue wasn’t so much a sticking point for Japan, rather an excuse by the allies to go ahead and destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki to keep the Russian bear on a leash, never mind that the pre-bomb firebombing of Tokyo was far more destructive and had already and conclusively put Japan on its knees.

      1. Give Them Housing

        Arguments like this run up against the simple fact that despite having exclusive access to nukes for years after the war, the West never actually went to war with the USSR when it had that key crushing advantage. So apparently we ‘sent them a warning’, then never followed through with it despite all the “an Iron Curtain is descending upon Europe” stuff.

        1. Acacia

          IIUC, though, the West only had four years of nuclear supremacy — the Soviets tested their first bomb in 1949 — and during that period the US both deliberated launching a nuclear first strike on the USSR, and issued the first of several direct threats to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union.

          The first threat was made only 10 months after the end of WWII, in the Iran crisis of March 1946. Truman issued an ultimatum to Soviet Ambassador Gromyko: Soviet troops out of northern Iran in 48 hours or “We’re going to drop it on you”. The Soviets withdrew in 24 hours.

          Next, during the blockade of Berlin, in June 1948, senior US military officials deliberated launching Operation Broiler (drafted in 1947), in which 34 atomic bombs would be dropped on 24 Soviet cities. In the summer and fall of 1948, Secretary of Navy Forestall asked Secy. of State George Marshall for authority to use nuclear weapons, he also queried the British about it, and in October the Joint Chiefs of Staff demanded that the NSC make a decision about a nuclear first strike on the USSR. The latter did not agree, and through this, NSC 30 was drafted, granting the President sole authority to launch a nuclear attack.

          Also, a consideration of the various war plans against the USSR and China (during this period and later, e.g., Operation BROILER, Operation SHAKEDOWN, Operation VULTURE, and SIOP-62) is sobering. The latter, SIOP-62, being a first strike plan to drop over 3200 nuclear weapons on 1060 targets in the Soviet Union, China, et alia.

          Reviewing this history, I don’t really get the impression that the sentiment was ever “we sent them a warning” and that was enough.

  11. Give Them Housing

    Japan wasn’t making earnest attempts at a reasonable surrender. It was hoping it could get a conditional surrender where it would be able to preserve at least some of its empire (the hyper focus on them supposedly merely wanting assurances they could keep their Emperor is really downplaying what they hoped to negotiate). It was still occupying large portions of East Asia by late 1945. That was simply unacceptable to the Allies, and very understandably so. Russia wouldn’t tolerate a conditional surrender either, and all of Japan’s hopes at such a negotiation were done via a Moscow that it turned out was just leading Japan on while assembling an invasion.

    “There is a school of thought, and I don’t know how well accepted it is now, that the reason we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August despite Japan suing for peace through non-US diplomatic channels since IIRC April 1945 is we wanted to put the Soviets on the back foot by showing how far we had gotten with our nuclear program.”

    There’s just no compelling historical evidence for this claim. The paragraph following it contains the actual explanation, and in fact is hard to square with any claims that it was a demonstration for the Soviets. It’s hard to square on the one hand the idea that mass casualties had been normalized, while also implying that the nukes were viewed as a uniquely horrible thing and everyone wanted to avoid personal responsibility while also sending a warning on the other.

    The nukes were developed and deployed as an extension of the conventional strategic bombing program. Strategic bombing was the ultimate military fetish of the era. The Manhattan Project wasn’t the most expensive weapons project of the war: the B-29 bomber was, costing at least a third more. The Norden bombsight cost another 2/3 of the total budget for the nuclear bomb, only it never worked well, necessitating the use of mass bombing raids. Nukes were developed and deployed as a way to effect the same level of destruction with far fewer planes and bombs.

    You could interpret the eschewing of responsibility as all the players knowing the horror they were unleashing and trying to avoid accountability, but another interpretation is that no one viewed the nuclear bomb as anything other than an especially powerful explosive, so it wasn’t something where anyone agonized over the first deployments. There’s a lot of evidence that the military was very slow to appreciate the uniquely dangerous aspects of nuclear weapons even after Hiroshima, as evidenced by the cavalier attitude towards testing right through the 1950s. When the military talked about how a single atomic bomb was as powerful as X amount of TNT, that’s genuinely how they were viewing and using them: as an easier way to get X amount of high explosive on target.

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which was a backup target; Kokura was the original objective) were targeted because they were significant military targets that would have been bombed sooner or later anyway as part of the preliminary phase for the invasion of Japan (and contrary to revisionism that invasion was very much in the planning. In fact Japan was counting on it and hoping to bleed it dry on the beaches in order to force the US to agree to a conditional surrender).

    Personally, I do view the nukes as war crimes, but as sub-components of the overarching war crime that was strategic bombing in general. Ultimately there was a rationale that went into the development of the strategic bombing concept that stretched back to the interwar years. It turned out to be massively, horrifically wrong, but there was a coherent thought process to it.

    1. britzklieg

      I think your opinion is long winded and not convincing but you are surely entitled to it. It’s also nothing new and has been asserted as the fundamental “truth” over the decades by those who would justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact it is THE argument used and we’ve heard it since forever… Japan was still dangerous, we had to stop it with a demonstration of mass destruction in order to save the lives of allied forces who would have been killed in an extended battle there, Korea etc. blah, blah, blah. It’s usually coupled to the suggestion that Japan ahd already proved its fanaticism and the Japanese people would have fought to the last man. Some might call it racist. I think it’s hogwash and don’t think you’ve proved it in any way. You’ve asserted it with rhetorical language passed off as historical fact, that’s all. And I reject completely that “sub-components” to war crimes even exist. War crimes are war crimes.

      1. Give Them Housing

        It is historical fact. Truman and the Hiroshima Cult is a good one book exploration of many of these issues. The Japanese were preparing for a massive defensive operstion; it was called Operstion Ketsugo.

        1. Give Them Housing

          I’ll add that my argument isn’t actually that the nukes were used with any particular intent of forcing a surrender through show of force. We’d already amply demonstrated the ability to burn down Tokyo itself, or any other city, with near impunity. There doubtless was some hope the nukes would scare Japan into submission, but fundamentally they were used because they were available and the cities targeted were earmarked to be hit eventually as part of preparations for Operation Downfall. If the bombs hadn’t been ready conventional raids would have gotten to those cities sooner or later.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Evidence, please.

      The actual record, as I understand it, is Japan sued for peace, I think through Swiss diplomats, and we never engaged. The US at the time (read the classic The Rose and Chrysanthemum for confirmation) was aware we did not understand Japanese culture at all and had few who were fluent working for the government either.

      Recall I worked for the Japanese in a very senior position. Japanese is a vague language. Being precise in the way Westerners are is seen as self important, long-winded, and just rude. The instruction to children is “You hear one thing and understand ten.” The listener is supposed to read the inferences.

      So since we did not engage, we have ZERO idea of what the Japanese really had in mind or would have accepted. This was entirely Allied assumptions.

      Moreover in a negotiation, you never make your best offer out of the box. So you could expect that any initial Japanese feelers would dangle out less than what they would accept if pushed.

      There was also a lot of Japanese hatred in the US, weirdly worse than for the Nazis. And that was not just then. If my parents and their friends were reasonably representative (and one was a Battle of the Bulge survivor and a member of a Battle of the Bulge group of WWII servicemen that met monthly), if you brought up Japan ex safe topics like Japanese food or bonsai trees, they would make their hatred of the Japanese clear over 50 years after the war. Nada like that re Germans. The Rape of Nanking, the Japanese force labor camps made quite the bad impression.

      So if anti-Japanese sentiment was that acute in the US, a negotiated peace of any sort may have been unacceptable for domestic political reasons.

      1. Stephen

        My mother from Britain was the same with respect to Japan as the folks you describe. She lost two brothers in the 14th Army in Burma and had a residual dislike of the Japanese. Her views were common in her generation. Part of it was possibly linked to the treatment of prisoners and the fact that the Burma (plus US Pacific) campaign was a fight to the death in battle that was absent from the U.S. / UK / Canadian experience in Europe. Clearly, racial / cultural differences must have played a role too.

        With respect to Germany, many British soldiers married Germans. One of my paternal uncles was a combat soldier right through Operation Overlord and did so, for example. There may well have been far less innate hatred of Germans as opposed to Nazism as an ideology.

        My father always said that VJ Day was a huge relief. Many men in the British forces were earmarked to fight in the Pacific. According to him, no one had any desire to do so. Much as I like to ascribe ulterior motives, my suspicion is that Truman simply saw a way to end the war quickly, stop more Americans dying and grasped it with both hands. I suspect very few statesmen in his position in history would have done otherwise.

      2. Give Them Housing

        I’m sorry, but all this talk about vague language and misunderstanding seems shockingly naive. It also sort of treats the Japanese like clueless children, as if they didn’t have a whole corps of international diplomats who wouldn’t make the mistake of engaging with gaijin as if they were just Japanese. If a dominate school of thought within the Japanese government had been for unconditional surrender, they would have clearly communicated that to the US (and in point of fact, in the end that is precisely what happened). Instead they were putting out feelers and making offers to try and negotiate a surrender that would allow them to keep at least something. The US had no incentive to negotiate anything in the same way Russia currently has no incentive to ‘negotiate’ anything less than total capitulation with Kiev.

        What’s frustrating to me here is you ask for evidence as if what I’m saying is obscure, debated historical trivia. As if it isn’t well established that there was a major divide within the Japanese government between a peace party that wanted to just give up immediately, and a war party that wanted to stage a final bloody super Okinawa battle to hopefully force American to relent and agree to a negotiated surrender. Even someone like Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, who argues that not only were the bombs not needed, but that they actually didn’t force the surrender, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria did, agrees with that concept.

        Rather than doing any analysis of the military and political thought processes of either side, it boils down to just saying we were mean racists (I find the racism argument particularly hard to entertain when the strategic bombing concept was also deployed to great devastation against Germany, as well as Germany also being subjected to direct invasion and forced to accept unconditional surrender).

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          You make assertions without evidence and still have no evidence. And the bare facts confirm that all you are doing is handwaving. Why would Japan have had to sue for peace though back channels if it could have gone through the front door?

          I worked in Japan as the head of M&A for Sumitomo Bank, then the second largest bank in the world and also one of Japan’s two most prestigious financial institutions. Sumitomo was also the leader of the Sumitomo keiretsu and I also worked on an investment product that was path breaking on the US and Japanese side from a tax and regulatory perspective, so I got a great deal of insight into how Japan worked. So I do have a basis for my views based not just on the historical record (the back channel appeal) but also my extensive knowledge of Japan.

          This was the 1980s when Japan was the hot ticket and Japanese were buying up all sorts of things all over the world. This was also more than 40 years since Japan had become a military protectorate of the US.

          The Japanese WERE clueless. Japan even then was fabulously insular. My clients in Japan did not understand that contracts were the deal; Japan was not even remotely a contractual society and assumed they could do business as they did in Japan, with a vague understanding and continuing clarification/arguing as the relationship progressed.

          The Japanese were also very poor at hiring good advisers in the US. I regularly found them using borderline incompetents or sharks who had gotten to them somehow and were kept on because the Japanese were unable to assess the caliber of their advice. I met literally only one fluently bilingual/bicultural Japanese and my Japanese contacts confirmed he was pretty much unique. Despite the keen interest in Japan, the dearth of Westerners fluent in Japanese and living in Japan meant English language press reporting on Japan was laughably poor. There were tons of things that were common knowledge in Japan, in politics, economics, and finance, that would have been of keen interest to Westerners doing business with Japan that were simply not reported in the Western press. And no, these gaps were not filled by private newsletters. This despite Japan having TREMENDOUS government data about various aspects of commerce, rigorously collected and far more granular than anything in any Western country.

          Your comment on the firebombing is substantively incorrect. The firebomgings in Japan were on a vastly greater scale than anything in Europe. I challenge you to prove the firebombing of Germany approached the scale of the firebombing of Japan:

          On the night of March 9-10, 1945, LeMay’s B-29 bombers attacked Tokyo, a city of 6 million people. Nearly 600 bombers dropped 1,665 tons of fire bombs on the Japanese capital, destroying 16 square miles of the city. The resulting firestorm killed 100,000 people, more than died at Hiroshima or Nagasaki from atomic bombs a few months later. Most of the victims were women, children, and old men. The B-29 crew members put on oxygen masks to keep from vomiting at the smell of burning human flesh.

          LeMay’s planes continued firebombing Tokyo and more than 60 other Japanese cities in the following months. He thought he could end the war quickly by destroying Japan’s economy and crushing the morale of the Japanese people. LeMay argued against using atomic bombs. He believed that his firebombing tactics would force Japan to surrender before American forces were scheduled to invade the homeland.


          1. Give Them Housing

            The Japanese always had the means to clearly communicate a serious offer of surrender. They didn’t have to try and go through back channels; they did so because they were trying to see if they could contrive a conditional surrender. The Allies made it abundantly clear they wouldn’t accept conditions.

            And you say the bombing in Germany wasn’t comparable, but in fact more bombers were used and more bombs were dropped on Dresden than that Tokyo raid. Japanese cities were still predominantly wood and thus significantly more vulnerable to the mass bombing.

      3. Give Them Housing

        We were aware that various isolated Japanese diplomats were urging Tokyo to agree to unconditional surrender. We were also aware of Tokyo’s responses to those diplomats: no. We were also fully aware that Tokyo was attempting to get a negotiated peace via their ambassador in Moscow Naotake Sato. Moscow basically strung the Japanese along for a while, with vague noncommittal promises of further consideration, with Sato clearly getting the sense that they weren’t serious and nothing short of unconditional surrender would be acceptable. Minister of Foreign Affairs Togo, repeatedly, firmly said that wasn’t an option.

        Do I have to point out that Germany had already unconditionally surrendered? Japan wasn’t being held to any different standard than its major Axis ally. Japan started the war, brazenly (and please spare me any arguments that poor Japan was baited into war. They went to war in China, got slapped with embargoes as a consequence, then rolled the dice that they could get relief through a short, victorious war against the US and Europe that would end in a negotiated piece where they would be recognized as the rulers of East Asia and trade would resume. They lost that gamble, badly), just as Germany did in Europe, and lost utterly. The aggressor was forced into submission and stripped of all their gains.

  12. John

    Billions each year on “weapons” that cannot be used … unless of course you want to destroy civilization or the human race or habitability of the earth … each or all of which are quite possible. Why? Profit for corporations firmly attached to the government teat? Jobs, of course? Campaign contributions? Inertia? Refusal to admit that error? And so on and so forth?

    One comment noted “no one worries about nuclear weapons any more.” That is like a license for the spending to continue.

    At the present moment there is a proxy conflict with Russia. No one involved even peripherally has a “first use” doctrine except the United States. Now why is that? Why has that been the case as long as such doctrines have existed?

  13. SocalJimObjects

    In the movie, there’s a scene where Oppenheimer’s “antagonist”, Lewis Strauss makes the point that despite everything, Oppenheimer would have made the same choices again and again. I found that too easy to believe, the Oppenheimer in the movie just struck me as someone who’s more interested in his place in history that the consequences of his actions, which is probably par for the course for any inventor.

    1. digi_owl

      Or more interested in seeing if they can make it work than the larger ramifications of it doing so.

      1. SocalJimObjects

        Maybe, except there were a couple of scientists who flatly refused to work on the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer in the movie supported unionization, but he never joined the Communist Party, and then when told that his leftist efforts would raise serious eyebrows when it comes to him participating in any atomic bomb effort, guess what he did …

  14. berit

    Man is smart enough to develop atomic gadgets, ever more destructive to life on earth, but not wise enough to stop this ongoing race to armageddon? Thank you Yves and all for more “enlightenment”, to read on a bright summer day in southern Norway, most probably equipped with uncle Sam’s bombs, even though we are not allowed to know what is stored, (atom bombs) in those 5-6 US-bases and preposistioned storages deep inside mountains up north. I was young in the 1950s. My young grandchildren are now experiencing the same fear of a dark future. It’s hope of kinds, to read NC, Here’s a not insignificant contribution to reason, wisdom,hope. Nothing is more important!

  15. GramSci

    «All the key players, from Truman on down, acted as if the decision has already been made somewhere else, that they had to defer to the question having been settled away from them.»

    My belief is that this decision was effected at the 1944 Democratic Convention when the self-proclaimed “Conspiracy of the Pure in Heart” sandbagged Henry Wallace. At least one leader of that conspiracy, Democratic Speaker of the House, James Byrnes, second in line for the presidency, must have been aware that Fermi’s Chicago Pile 1 had gone critical, and that the Bomb was therefore on the near horizon. Byrnes became Truman’s Secretary of State on July 3, 1945, replacing Edward Stettinius, and has been reported by multiple sources to have counseled Truman to drop the bomb.

  16. LAS

    Soviet spymaster Pavel Sudoplatove described in his autobiography “Special Tasks” how – in essence – there was a nuclear arms race begun BEFORE the first detonation in the Los Alamos desert 1945 (of what today must be considered a very small atomic bomb). Sudoplatove reported that Stalin had realized several years earlier the US would never share its strategic technology and further that anyone with the idea they might do so was totally naive.

    Once the US made such massive investment in the technology and the scientists eagerly hired on to the Manhattan Project, there was unstoppable momentum to demonstrate that the gadget really worked both technically and strategically. The scientists were naive to think an arms race could be avoided AFTER their technology was demonstrated. I call it the old Bridge Over the River Kwai syndrom in which ambitious people get out of control in the process of showing just how smart they are, effectively enabling catastrophic results.

  17. Victor Sciamarelli

    The reason why the Japanese did not surrender earlier is similar to why the Ukraine war continues: The US frozen diplomacy.
    The US maintained a policy of unconditional surrender in WW2. The Japanese were well aware of the loss of territory and break-up of defeated nations after WW1, especially Austria. Moreover, the Japanese imperial cult revolved around Emperor Hirohito.
    The idea that Japan could be broken apart or the emperor dragged off and executed was enough to keep the Japanese military fighting to the end. In that case, the Americans are correct about the cost of invading the mainland, but it’s misleading. The Japanese were holding out, and sending peace feelers, in a desperate attempt to achieve a conditional surrender based on territorial integrity. The Japanese also thought there was a chance the Russians would be willing to help negotiate a settlement with the US.
    Yet, on 8/8/1945, Russia joined the war against Japan. On 8/9/1945, the same day as the second A-bomb, Russia attacked the Japanese army in Manchuria.
    Finally, faced with a two front war, the Japanese army decided a negotiated surrender was impossible and agreed to an unconditional surrender. The Americans, in fact, discussed privately reasonable post-war terms that had they told the Japanese earlier it might have ended the war without the A-bomb.
    As for Ukraine, the US insists any discussion of Russia’s security or Ukraine’s neutrality are off the table. Russian troops must withdraw from Ukraine, Ukraine will join NATO after the war, and Putin will be tried as a war criminal; and the war drags on.
    Also, two things to add about the A-bomb. First, it was much later that Americans found out about radiation; it was intentionally hidden at first. The idea of invisible rays causing death, abnormalities, and birth defects long after the bomb was dropped scarred people. There is also evidence that Truman and his top advisors were not fully informed about the effects of radiation or that, possibly, the military knew much more than the president.
    Second, for roughly 15 years after WW2, the only way to deliver the bomb was via airplane which were relatively slow, required a large crew, and limited range due to needing a round trip.
    The ICBM changed everything. First developed by the Soviet Union, every major city in the US could be targeted and reached in minutes.

  18. MarkT

    I rate Dr Strangelove as one of the best movies ever made. Such a pity that satire of that calibre appears to be extinct.

  19. Jeremy Grimm

    Daniel Ellsberg died such a very short time ago. I am curious that no commenter referred to his book “The Doomsday Machine”. I spotted only one mention of Ellsberg’s name in the comments. Ellsberg worked with Paul Jay to produce a series of discussions about nuclear weapons development and military strategy, and worked with Paul Jay to help him create an upcoming documentary on Nuclear Weapons:
    “Daniel Ellsberg ‘How to Stop Nuclear War’ Documentary in the Works (Exclusive)”

    I think the criticisms of Nolan’s Oppenheimer movie that it failed to discuss the “staggering devastation” caused by the bomb and failed to discuss the health impacts of the development and production of the bomb are quite unjustified. They are many issues and questions to raise and discuss related to the development and use of the atomic bomb. I have not seen Nolan’s movie. I did see the play “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and from what I recall of that play I am guessing Nolan’s film is an exploration of Oppenheimer’s character and the character of his times. That is quite enough material to cover within the confines of feature movie and offers scope for creating a compelling drama. I think it odd to criticize what I expect was created as a drama for not also being a documentary

  20. Felix_47

    The article mentioned that the cost of the Manhattan project was 38 billion in today’s dollars. That means the Ukraine war has cost us two to three times the cost of the Manhattan project…….I may have misinterpreted the article but if it is true I cannot get my head around it.

  21. Cristobal

    The ussr demonstrated their atomic bomb in 1949. The US had about four years of “nuclear advantage” for a posible first strike.

  22. HH

    The belief in the “good” American people is quite durable, but easily disproved. We had no qualms about fire-bombing over 40 Japanese cities before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked. If you look up the average per-city casualty statistics for the incendiary bombing campaign the numbers are roughly equivalent to the toll at Hiroshima. On some of the incendiary bombing raids the B29 crews had to put on their oxygen masks to avoid the smell of burning human flesh.

    America is a nation marinated in violence, as our bloody history and popular culture attest. We ignore torture and mass murder because they satisfy the public’s blood lust. In order to avoid despair, the tiny number of decent Americans like to pretend that the others are just ill-informed. Like Japan, we will turn away from militarist savagery only when compelled. That day is coming.

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