The Origins of the Atomic Arms Race

June 10, 2008
By Jackie Katz, New York, NY

In August of 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan—a “second holocaust” delivered in three days. The bombings were the result of a culmination of causes, a critical one being the Pacific War between Japan and the United States. It seemed to the United States that no matter how devastating Japanese losses were, by 1945, the Japanese government was unwilling to surrender, leaving the United States with a sense that only such extreme measures would prompt Japan to yield. In addition, however, the United States dropped the bomb to demonstrate its military capabilities to the Soviet Union, in hopes that the weapon would force the Soviets to surrender territorial and ideological missions in Europe and throughout the world. Atomic research, code-named the Manhattan Project, first started out of fear that Germany or any other state would create an atom bomb. From the start, nuclear research laid a foundation for a race for atomic arms, one that would alter the course of history. While some argue that the creation of more deadly weapons, such as the hydrogen bomb in 1952, marked the start of a dramatic shift in strategic warfare, this essay will assert that the first discovery of nuclear fission altered strategic diplomacy, for the bomb was developed in a competition—a race to be created first. In order to suppress German, then Soviet, missions, the atomic bomb was developed and dropped, introducing the Nuclear Revolution, or nuclear weaponry, while simultaneously inducing a dangerous atomic arms race and strategic rivalries.

The United States started to develop atomic energy after receiving knowledge of German advancement in the field. In December of 1938, less than a year after World War II began, nuclear fission was discovered in Germany. A small number of émigré scientists in the United States and England rallied for government support of nuclear research, but the governments resisted, doubting the scientists’ ability to create a nuclear weapon in time for purposes in this war. However, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt received a letter from prominent German scientist Albert Einstein in August of 1939, the United States quickly joined the race for atomic arms. In the letter, Einstein warned Roosevelt “a nuclear reaction in a large mass of uranium…could be achieved in the near future,” meaning powerful uranium bombs might soon be constructed in Germany. If Germany successfully created the atom bomb, this could mean a potentially deadly future favoring the authoritarian state, and the Axis powers, or German’s allies of Japan and Italy. Einstein advised Roosevelt to establish contact between physicists and administration, which is exactly what Roosevelt did next.

That same year, Roosevelt created the Uranium Committee to inform him of the scientific progress of nuclear research, with physicist Lyman Briggs as the chairman. Shortly following the establishment of the committee, émigré physicist Leo Szilard convinced Roosevelt for a more major atomic research program by threatening to publicize atomic research to the American public in the Physical Review, a science magazine. As a result, more government funding went toward the research. The race for deadly weaponry was in full motion this early in the game.

After the U.S. already started scientific research, Japan attacked U.S. naval base Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to declare war on Japan. Japan’s goal was to conquer and project influence in Southeast Asia, which was rich in raw materials. They sought to create the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, giving Asians the idea that Japan would lead them to wealth, when Japan’s true goals were territory and profit. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, with the intention of getting rid of the American naval capacity closest to Southeast Asia—“[i]n one sudden crushing blow the American fleet at Pearl Harbor would be crippled, and before it could be rebuilt Japan would have seized Southeast Asia with all its resources.” Immense damage was done to U.S. naval equipment, and 2,403 Americans died. The United States announced they would enter war in the Pacific arena just one day later, intending to defeat the state’s hopes for conquest.

After Pearl Harbor, the United States was no longer the one being devastated. The U.S. recaptured islands seized by Japan, such as the Midway Islands, Marianas and the Philippines. It seemed that the degree of Japan’s losses would force the government to surrender, but Japan kept fighting back. The Allies “had destroyed an entire army and permanently crippled Japan’s remaining air force and fleet.” The battles for islands Iwo Jima and Okinawa were particularly detrimental for Japan. In Iwo Jima, it is “estimated there were not more than three hundred Japanese left alive in the caves; there were close to three thousand [before war].” The fight for Okinawa was a bloody two-month battle, but the Japanese kept persisting even with the death of 110,000 civilians. The Allies knew that a new kind of destructive force might be the only way to force Japanese acquiescence.

By September of 1942, the Manhattan Project operated on a larger-scale than had been previously implemented, enabling science to achieve the creation of the bomb. The Office of Scientific Research and Development led the project, under director Vannevar Bush, American engineer. There were large-scale plants in Tennessee, Washington and New Mexico, “an amazing phenomena in themselves…large, self-sustaining cities, employing thousands upon thousands of workers.” From 1942 until the dropping of the bomb, a sum of two billion dollars funded the project. This large-scale research enabled the bomb to be created so quickly, beating out Germany and unknowingly the Soviet Union in the race.

With hopes for an Anglo-American post-war monopoly, England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt agreed that the two countries would together hold the fate of atomic weaponry. Their attitude demonstrates how the competition for weaponry led to secrecy, even between alliances. Roosevelt and Churchill decided they would not disclose any information about the atomic research to their ally, the Soviet Union, for the U.S. and Britain shared the same ideological views, and did not know how a different type of state would respond. On August 19, 1943 at the Quebec Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill decided on their secrecy: “There could still be four policeman [the Allies of the U.S., Britain, the Soviet Union and France] but only two of them would have the bomb.” After Roosevelt and Churchill asserted their monopolistic, anti-Soviet position, at another meeting at Hyde Park on September 18th of 1944, they further expressed these views. They signed the aide-memoire, containing rejection of wartime efforts for international control and cooperation regarding the bomb. The aide-memoire is the first time the powerful nations mention the possibility of a bomb’s surprise use on Japan, with “the concept of guaranteeing world peace by the amassing of overwhelming military power” in order to force surrender.

Many policymakers and scientists of the Manhattan Project disagreed with the secrecy under which the bomb was being constructed, fearing an atomic arms race. Prominent émigré physicist Niels Bohr along with others on the Scientific Panel, as early as 1944, attempted to convince Roosevelt and Churchill to publicize the Manhattan Project to head off a competition for weaponry with the Soviet Union, whom they suspected was starting to develop nuclear energy due to émigré Soviet scientist leaks. Scientists “advised Roosevelt to adopt policies aimed at achieving a postwar international control system”. But at the Hyde Park meeting, Churchill convinced Roosevelt secrecy was the best option, urging “the President to maintain the Anglo-American atomic monopoly”.

Not only did scientists fear the implications of the bomb, but so did head policymakers. On September 30th 1944, shortly after Hyde Park, Vannevar Bush and James Conant, chemist and President of Harvard University, wrote to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, proclaiming the impossibility of maintaining secrecy on atomic energy. They argued that if secrecy prevails, the United States and Great Britain would be unaware of scientific advancements in other countries, essentially an atomic arms race, a “dangerous world” according to Bush and Conant. Bush and Conant said, “[I]t would be foolhardy to attempt to maintain our security by preserving secrecy.”

Scientists knew that an atomic monopoly was only temporary, but they also argued against a bomb’s use on a moral level, knowing the effects of a bomb better than anyone in government. Scientists questioned the ethical nature of their actions. In May of 1945, the Interim Committee, a group formed to discuss the fate of the bomb, announced that the bomb should be used as a surprise attack against Japan and that two bombs would be available. This decision sparked widespread oppostion among scientists. The ‘Social and Political Impilcations’ group, also known as the Franck Committee, came to the conclusion in the Franck Report that a surprise usage of the bomb would globally fuel the race for armaments. Led by émigré physicist James Franck and made up of prominent scientists, the committee argued for a demonstration of the bomb instead of a full-fledged military use, to save lives but still show the enormous strength of the United States’ weaponry. However, only five days later on June 16 1945, the Scientific Panel, namely Arthur Compton, Robert Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi, concluded in a poll at the Chicago lab that 46% of scientists were in favor of the bomb’s military use.

The other more critical effort to stop a dropping of the bomb was a petition by Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. Around the time of the Franck Report, Szilard’s petition also argued for a simple testing of the bomb instead of direct military use to avoid “an atomic arms race between America and Russia [Soviet Union] which might end with the destruction of both countries.” However, the petition most likely never even reached President Harry S. Truman, who took over after President Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945. Despite all of these efforts to warn of the dangers of the atomic arms race, Truman and his policymakers chose to ignore these warnings and go ahead with their decision to drop the bomb, without even notifying all of the Allies, inducing a race for nuclear arms.

The United States and Great Britain were unaware that since 1943 the Soviet Union had been part of the scramble for the atomic bomb. Hence, since that first discovery of nuclear fission in Germany, the world had been in secret competition with one another for these weapons. The Soviet Union used spies and émigré scientists in the U.S. to conclude that the U.S. and Britain were going ahead with research on the bomb. Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, chose to initiate Soviet research in 1943 mainly because his so-called ‘allies’ were researching secretly without ever notifying him. Thus, when the U.S. and Britain made a pact to exclude the Soviet Union in their scientific exchange, they unknowingly fueled the fire that was the race for atomic arms. Soviet research was on a much smaller-scale than the Manhattan Project , hence a bomb was not constructed before the atomic bombs of the United States.

After the death of Roosevelt and the surrender of Germany in April and May of 1945, President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb was a culmination of the desires to force the Japanese to surrender, and to stop Russian expansion in Eastern Europe. Truman came into office, surely lacking historical data and context his predecessor possessed. Advised by Major General Leslie Groves that the bomb was the best way to bring the war to rapid conclusion, Truman’s decision was not based on a race versus Germany’s progress, but a race to simply end the war. Truman based his decision partly on the Quebec Agreement of Roosevelt and Churchill, which rejected an effort for international control; hence it was only natural that Truman would choose not to drastically alter Roosevelt’s plans.

The main conference regarding the atomic bomb was the Potsdam Conference in Germany, from July 17th through August 2nd 1945. The conference was strategically placed a day after the first test of the atomic bomb. The test, at the Alamogordo, New Mexico Trinity Site proved the bomb to be the unprecedented and enormous force anticipated. There was a “fireball as bright as several midday suns”, a cloud 41,000 feet in the air, a crater 1,200 feet in diameter and a booming crash that broke windows 125 miles away. These powerful results affected Truman’s decision, for “the temptation to seize this advantage [the bomb] was irresistible.”

At Potsdam, the bomb was seen as a tool to force Soviet cooperation. Soviets had a mission of being a continental power in Eastern Europe. After the Interim Committee announced a reverse in their decision, recommending Soviets receive limited knowledge of the existence of a bomb, on July 24th Truman casually mentioned to Stalin that the U.S. had the possession of an unusual destructive force. Stalin, already aware, lightly responded he hoped the bomb would be useful in the war effort.

On July 26, the Allies constructed the Potsdam Declaration, giving the Japanese government the opportunity for unconditional surrender of forces, the alternative being “prompt and utter destruction”. However, the type of destruction, namely the atom bomb, was never mentioned. The declaration claimed that Japan’s authority would be eliminated. Japan rejected the ultimatum, partly because it offered “scant support for those who wanted peace without sacrificing the throne.”

On August 6th 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, picked for being an important army depot and for geographical purposes. The bomb, called ‘Little Boy’, was dropped from the Enola Gay B-29 bomber aircraft as a surprise attack. ‘Little Boy’ was a uranium bomb with a blast effect equal to 15,000 tons of TNT, and weighed 400 pounds. The effects were unlike any seen before on Earth. A fireball almost 110 yards in diameter swiftly turned into purple fog. A flash of intensely bright light swirled above. 100,000 people instantly died, and tens of thousands died soon thereafter from radiation poisoning. After experiencing a new level destruction Japan did not surrender immediately, taking in the enormity of this war crime. Unfortunately for the Japanese people, much more devastation was in store. The Soviet army of 1.6 million versus the Japanese Kwantung Army about half that size battled just two days later, on August 8th, after a Soviet declaration of war. Moreover, just a day after Soviets entered battle, a second atomic bomb made of plutonium, called ‘Fat Man’ exploded over Nagasaki, Japan, creating “a mass of flames and dark billowing clouds” and killing 80,000 people by the end of 1945.

Japanese Emperor Hirohito was left without any other choice but to surrender according to conditions stated in the Potsdam Declaration. On August 10th the decision was made to stop Japan’s devastation, and was accepted by the Allies on the 14th. A formal document called the Instrument of Surrender was signed on September 2nd. The bomb had succeeded in a sense—it halted Japan’s mission to conquer and gave the U.S., Britain, and other allies their desired control over Japan, Germany and other territories. At the same time, the bomb permanently altered warfare on a global scale.

With the mere scientific act of discovering nuclear fission in Germany, the dangerous race for atomic arms was ignited, and has affected war policies worldwide. The United States and Britain anticipated that the existence of a bomb would force Soviets to succumb to their demands, territorial and ideological, in order to stop the Soviet presence from spreading. The nations let their newfound nuclear power influence even pre-set policies by Roosevelt. At a conference in Yalta, in the southern Ukraine, during Roosevelt’s time, an agreement was made to take money out of Germany’s economy for war reparations. However, when the bomb was developed, Truman and Churchill, along with policymakers, rejected the Yalta agreement at Potsdam, and did not give Soviets the promised 10 billion dollars to pay off war debt and help their country recover from war damage.

In their secrecy, the U.S.-Britain alliance thought of the bomb as a panacea for their aims of monopoly and control. Truman ignored the requests of scientists to invite Soviet cooperation. To the Soviet Union, Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain symbols of American barbarism. Not only the dropping of the bomb, but the secrecy in which it was produced, led to the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, culminating in the Cold War. The Cold War was called ‘cold’ because it never escalated into battle due to the Nuclear Revolution, or the new era for war involving nuclear weaponry. In 1949, after a successful test of a Soviet a-bomb, a U.S. document called the National Security Council Paper no. 68 stated that the decreasing American monopoly on weaponry was a dangerous period, with the constant fear of surprise attack by Soviets, for “wouldn’t the Soviets some day try to destroy the one power that prevented them from achieving their goals by launching a nuclear attack on the United States?” Yet both the United States and Soviet Union wanted to amass such a large concentration of power to intimidate the other country, and as a result, they eliminated warfare. On both sides, nuclear weapons would only be considered for the most extreme of situations.

Even more frightening than another atomic explosion would be the dropping of a newer, more technologically advanced hydrogen bomb, with 10,000,000 to 100,000,000 tons of TNT, compared to the 15,000 tons in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer predicted such a bomb even before the original atomic bomb was successfully tested—a hydrogen bomb was created in 1952. Secretary of War Stimson also predicted that new advancements would be in store. On August 7th 1945, after the Hiroshima bombing, Stimson told New York Times reporters, “Atomic fission holds great promise for sweeping developments…”

The dropping of the atomic bomb, and the secrecy in which it was developed rang in a new era of diplomacy, or a new era of weaponry, warfare and the corresponding policies. The bomb’s military demonstration created a motivation for states to develop and acquire the most up-to-date and fatal weapons, and those weapons would become more advanced and deadly each year. Even though another atomic bomb has not been militarily demonstrated since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has to now always consider the possibility of nuclear war. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the United States is currently the possessor of between 1,700 and 2,200 operationally deployed nuclear weapons, plus immense stockpiles of weapons in reserve. Innovations in nuclear weapons are coming about rapidly; hence, the U.S.’s great military capacity increases dramatically each year. Less than a century ago, the world only first discovered that such weapons had the potential to exist. The atomic bomb was dropped to combat German and Japanese authoritarianism and to halt Soviet expeditions in Eastern Europe. If this was the situation that brought on the use of nuclear weaponry, what type of extreme dilemma might lead to the use of atomic bombs next? In other words, how extreme must conflict be? In 1938, the discovery of nuclear fission forced nations to call upon top physicists in a race for military superiority and security. This race is still not yet over in 2008.

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This article has 7 comments.

Wowza said...
on Sep. 14 2008 at 1:28 pm
Wowza, I would swear that this is a scholar's writing. This must have taken a lot of time and effort.

HannahGirl said...
on Aug. 23 2008 at 7:26 pm
Great article!!

on Aug. 16 2008 at 5:04 pm
Nice piece. Really intelligent.

TerryCloth said...
on Aug. 16 2008 at 1:36 am
This paper belongs in some scholarly magazine out there, let alone Teen Ink. This girl's a real historian.

BabyV2 said...
on Aug. 14 2008 at 8:51 pm
I just went over the atomic bomb in my history course, and we definitely should have read this paper! I learned an incredible amount from this and understand the topic much better.

Dr. Al said...
on Aug. 14 2008 at 2:09 pm
I Have read several aticles by Jackie K. and havebeen very impressed!

Nickster08 said...
on Aug. 14 2008 at 12:50 pm
WOW!!!!!!! How amazingly intelligent is this? This is like a true scholarly paper by a famous historian.


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