Daniel Bruno Sanz: Sixty-five years after Hiroshima, the nightmare of nuclear war haunts us still

[Daniel Bruno Sanz is a journalist and author of Why the Democrats Will Win in 2008: The Road to an Obama White House.]

A spectre is haunting the United States: the spectre of nuclear attack without nuclear war. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, capable state and shadowy non-state actors contemplate flattening an American city with a device smuggled into the United States at one hundred possible ports of entry. It would have no return address. The scenarios of holocaust are many and multiply with the advance of technology and the information age. What will this lead to?

1938-39 were exciting years in both physics and science fiction. Uranium fission was discovered, fantastic novels and broadcasts by H.G.Wells and Orson Welles were popular and academic journals, newspapers and magazines openly discussed atomic energy. However, most American physicists were skeptical that atomic energy could actually be harnessed and there was no atomic research outside of obscure university laboratories. But Budapest-born physicist Leó Szilárd, a protégé of Einstein and recent arrival to the United States, knew Germany was dedicated to developing the bomb and was alarmed that the sale of uranium ore from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia had been halted. He was deeply troubled by the prospect of a Nazi atomic bomb and the lack of American effort to match German research.

Unable to find US government support and unable to convince Enrico Fermi of the need for atomic experiments, Szilard turned to his mentor Albert Einstein and convinced him to write a letter directly to President Roosevelt. The letter did not reach the President quickly nor did it have much effect until 1 September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland and World War II in Europe began. Roosevelt appointed a Uranium Committee with a budget of $6,000 to buy graphite and uranium for experiments Szilard proposed. The tiny budget reflected deep official skepticism about the project and was a handicap to research progress. The US atomic project did not begin in earnest until 6 December 1941, just one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into WWII. The project was given the top-secret codename "Manhattan" in August 1942.

On 26 July 1945, ten weeks after Victory in Europe Day on 9 May and eight days after the world's first successful nuclear test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Potsdam Declaration was broadcast to Japan. It threatened "prompt and utter destruction" unless the Japanese Empire submitted to unconditional surrender. Emperor Hirohito agreed to the terms but the military faction of the Japanese cabinet would not. There would be no surrender. On 28 July in the Asahi Shinbun newspaper, the Allied powers got their response. Prime Minister Suzuki Kantaro, a long time opponent of the war with the United States, had no choice but to declare mokusatsu: contemptuous silence.

President Truman immediately authorized the atomic bombing of Hiroshima for the morning of August 6, 1945 and his orders were carried out. Physics caught up with science fiction. Three days later, Fat Man fell on Nagasaki while the Red Army invaded Japanese Manchuria. Six days later, with the atomic bombing of Tokyo imminent, Emperor Hirohito delivered the Gyokuon-hoso announcing the capitulation of Japan. It was the first time that a Japanese emperor, regarded as a divinity by the Japanese, had ever communicated directly to the people of Japan and the first time the Japanese people had ever heard the Emperor's voice.

There was a time when the nuclear genie could be confined to a small room after it escaped from the bottle. It brought a rapid conclusion to the war in the Pacific and stability to Europe through mutual terror in the decades that followed. The brief United States monopoly on atomic weapons in the wake of unconditional surrender by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan made American power unchallengeable. American intelligence services believed that the Soviets were at least fifteen years away from building their own bomb. Then on 29 August 1949, the Chairman of the Special Atomic Committee in Moscow, spymaster Lavrentii Beria, telephoned Marshall Stalin to announce the success of the maiden Soviet nuclear bomb test at Semipalatinsk, in the remote Central Asian steppe of Kazakhstan SSR Thanks to spies such as Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, the Soviet bomb project was years ahead of schedule and remained classified even after its first success. Not a single word of the test was mentioned anywhere in the Soviet press and the Soviet people knew nothing about it. Radiological analysis of residues from the atmosphere collected by the US Atomic Energy Detection System alerted the U.S. government to the bad news.

The nuclear arms race was on. What did it mean for the future? Would nuclear weapons make war obsolete or was the world doomed to destruction?..

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