“A Tragic Illusion” - Did the Atom Bomb Make the United Nations Obsolete Three Weeks After its Birth?

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tags: Cold War, nuclear weapons, United Nations, diplomacy, atomic bomb

Tad Daley, author of the book Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World from Rutgers University Press, is Director of Policy Analysis at Citizens for Global Solutions.

On this day 75 years ago the atomic age was born, with the first nuclear detonation near Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16th, 1945. Only 20 days earlier, on June 26th, the United Nations had been established with the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco. Did the bomb make the United Nations obsolete three weeks after its birth?

The single most important individual in these events, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, certainly seemed to think so. Consider the unique position of the man and the moment. Although Alamogordo was still three weeks away, Truman’s advisors had assured him by then that “success” was virtually certain. And he knew that he was the one human being on whom the yoke of decision would soon fall – regarding not only whether and how to use the ghastly new device against Imperial Japan, but what to do thereafter about the apocalyptic predicament about to descend upon all humanity.

So what did he say at the signing of the document in San Francisco?

This is only a first step to a lasting peace … With our eye always on the final objective let us march forward … This Charter, like our own Constitution, will be expanded and improved as time goes on. No one claims that it is now a final or perfect instrument. Changing world conditions will require readjustments … to find a way to end wars.

It was quite curious, to say the least, to emphasize so bluntly the shortcomings of a document less than one hour old.

Two days later, after traveling from San Francisco by train to receive an honorary degree from Kansas City University in his own hometown, President Truman’s thoughts turned to both his own burdens and that final objective. “I have a tremendous task, one that I dare not look at too closely.”  Not a single person in that audience, almost certainly, knew what he was referencing. But we can make a pretty good guess that it had something to do with the “changing world conditions” he knew were soon to come:

We live, in this country at least, in an age of law. Now we must do that internationally. It will be just as easy for nations to get along in a republic of the world as it is for us to get along in the republic of the United States. Now, if Kansas and Colorado have a quarrel over a watershed they don't call out the National Guard in each state and go to war over it. They bring suit in the Supreme Court and abide by its decision. There isn't a reason in the world why we can't do that internationally.

This contrast – between the law that prevails within a society of citizens and its absence among the society of nations -- was hardly original to Harry S. Truman. It had been expressed over the course of many centuries by Great Minds like Dante, Rousseau, Kant, Baha’u’llah, Charlotte Bronte, Victor Hugo, and H.G. Wells. Indeed, when Truman evoked our own Supreme Court as analogy he echoed his own predecessor, President Ulysses S. Grant, who said in 1869: "I believe that at some future day the nations of Earth will agree on some sort of congress ... whose decisions will be as binding as the decisions of the Supreme Court are on us.”

Read entire article at Global Policy