We have learned to live with the Bomb without domesticating it. We belong to a species with a hunger for symbols, and no symbol is more powerful than the mushroom cloud. It is buried in the subconscious even when nuclear anxiety has ostensibly subsided. No symbol compels more rapt attention, fear, and dread.1 By comparison, the chemistry set imagery of the novel coronavirus does not mesmerize, even though it has produced a pandemic. The compelling image of a massive hurricane might come closest to the mushroom cloud but is far from comparable. Hurricanes are local phenomena. We can see them coming a week in advance and follow their tracks. There is time to gather family and precious belongings, to take adequate precautions, and to move out of their path. The wreckage they leave behind reminds us of what might be in store in the event of something worse.
The worst case is a nuclear war. Chroniclers of nuclear anxiety refer to the mushroom cloud as a permanent neural trace that is carried down, one generation to the next, evoking mental clusters of massive death. The Bomb is the universal Frankenstein monster, transmogrified by the silver screen into Godzilla, Them (giant ants), The 50-Foot Woman, and other mutated threats to our global village. Missile defenses are like pitiable pitchforks against this man-made Golem.
Prior to the appearance of mushroom clouds, warheads released from long-range missiles would arc overhead, creating vapor trails in the sky. As is often the case, the terminology for this warhead-release mechanism atop a missile desensitizes us from its genocidal potential; it is called a “bus,” releasing warheads en route to their targets akin to the way a yellow school bus carries and drops off children. Arcing downward toward their intended targets, pictures of these vapor trails also mesmerize but are not well known. Staring at them during flight tests is to imagine the beginning of the end of human mental evasion to deny nuclear peril.
Ever since the sudden and shocking appearance of the atomic bomb, we have lived in a permanent Age of Anxiety. W.H. Auden’s epic poem with this title, published in 1947, is about four disconnected souls, living in numbness, their lives dissociated from affirmative meaning. Auden offered an extremely small sample size. Feelings of nuclear fear, dread, and numbness have affected humanity writ large. They are now manifested in bloodless computer games about Armageddon and public fascination with superheroes that prevent the end of days on variably sized screens.
Atomic physicists in the crucible of World War II used their intellectual gifts to disturb the universe, forever disturbing we, the people, by their creation. The chronicler of nuclear anxiety Spencer Weart writes, “During the first few years, people did not fear anything specific or immediate. The public simply felt that the ground had fallen away from under them.”2 The noted essayist E.B. White, writing in the August 18, 1945 issue of the New Yorker, sensed this with typical acuity: “For the first time in our lives we can feel the disturbing vibrations of complete human readjustment.”
White asked, “What does one do when appalling dangers became a normal part of daily life?” The very same question has emerged with the novel coronavirus that spread globally in 2019. Another masterful account of the public’s handling of nuclear anxiety asked the right framing question: “How does a people react when the entire basis of its existence is fundamentally altered?”3 One of the scenes from Star Wars reminds us of this feeling—when Obi-Wan, played by Alec Guinness, feels the shudder of a powerful menacing force “in the field.” But the Star Wars trilogy offered the expected feel-good ending. After the Bomb’s appearance, there was little prospect of a happy ending.4
Henry L. Stimson, the secretary of war who oversaw the making of the atomic bomb and who authorized its use to end a global conflagration as soon as possible, warned that to view nuclear weapons in military terms would be a grave mistake. Instead, the Bomb represented no less than “a new relationship of man to the universe.”5 Stimson, like many others, worked afterward to control the evil he helped create. His quest remains with us and with future generations.
During intense crises, when vulnerabilities are exposed like open wounds, a deep sense of anxiety and dread rises from our collective consciousness. We respond in very different ways. Some demand caution, others demand proactive steps. Overwrought decisions to prevent worst cases from coming true have generated an intense nuclear competition. Key junctures during this Age of Anxiety included 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb and allied with a victorious Communist China; in 1962 when the Cuban missile crisis brought us the closest we have yet come to nuclear disaster; in 1983 when Reagan administration hardliners pushed buttons to evoke the Kremlin’s deepest anxieties without realizing it; and in 2001 after 9/11—the domestic equivalent of Pearl Harbor—when the George W. Bush administration launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the publicly stated purposes of fighting evil, preventing the worst actors from acquiring the worst weapons, and spreading democracy.
Some of the Bomb’s deadly effects came as a surprise even to most of its creators, who were focused on its blast and shockwave, but not the firestorms atomic bombs generated nor their widespread radiation.6 The Bomb’s unnerving weapon effects were magnified by the recognition that attacks could come out of the blue. A new fear—the “fear of irrational death,” as the writer and editor Norman Cousins described it—took hold. It was hopelessly irrational for death to be so sudden, on such a large scale, and so purposeless.7
The Bomb was quickly recognized as an ideal instrument of surprise attack. Its means of conveyance—bombers to begin with, but the prospect of ocean-spanning missiles that took less than thirty minutes to reach their targets could soon be envisioned—compounded anxieties. Relief from anxiety after Hiroshima could only be temporary, measured by the period of time it would take before the Soviet Union joined the United States in possessing this city-killing weapon. Most expert opinion held that it might take four or five years for Josef Stalin’s physicists, working under great duress, to match the feats of America’s atomic scientists. Two prominent outliers—Vannevar Bush, a senior overseer of wartime research, and General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project—offered more comforting estimates of around twenty years for the Soviets to match U.S. feats.8 When Stalin proved Groves and Bush wrong in 1949, another strong wave of fear washed over American society.
The Kremlin could now pay America back using the Manhattan Project’s own currency—or strike America first. More waves of anxiety were breaking unseen on the horizon. U.S. atomic scientists demonstrated the feasibility of making “hydrogen” or thermonuclear bombs a thousand times or greater in destructive force than the atomic bomb. Popular accounts called this weapon the “Hell Bomb.” Then came the merger of the Sino-Soviet bloc, quickly followed by the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula. More waves of anxiety followed: Soviet mastery of how to make hydrogen bombs; atmospheric testing and fallout; a presumed bomber gap; the launch of Sputnik atop a missile that could carry nuclear weapons; a presumed missile gap; heightened fear of surprise attack; multiple warhead-bearing missiles and a new window of vulnerability they foreshadowed. These waves kept crashing ashore, disturbing national equilibrium and prompting remedies that only reinforced a national sense of peril.
The Bomb was extraordinarily divisive as well as destructive, evoking responses to peril that were poles apart. One expert on ethics and public policy wrote, “The fear of the bomb is not the beginning of wisdom,” adding, “Fearful men have a kind of foresight, but in their partial view of the future all signs point to a foregone conclusion. How else could the frightening consequences of nuclear fission justify both McCarthyism and pacifism?”9 Both advocates and opponents of nuclear weapons resorted to fear to make their arguments. One side needed to rouse Americans to be properly armed at the ramparts; the other side, calling for a world without the Bomb, also spread fear, as Weart noted, not only because this emotion represented their own feelings but also because “fear could move a listener.”10
The result was a national echo chamber of dueling anxieties. Some feared the Bomb, others feared being disadvantaged by the Bomb. For three decades, American nuclear superiority provided an insurance policy against anxiety, but the premiums of maintaining superiority kept growing, as did the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The Kremlin resolved to compete no less hard than the United States. Superpower nuclear stockpiles rose to unanticipated heights. No one at the outset of this competition came close to accurately predicting that stockpiles would grow to five-digit-sized arsenals. The wells of nuclear anxiety were plumbed and found to be bottomless.
Those propelling the arms race and those trapped by it knew that it didn’t take more than a small fraction of the arsenals being readied for use to ensure destruction beyond historical experience, but the competition was impervious to such calculations. To compete was admittedly dangerous; not to compete was deemed more dangerous still. Diplomacy offered an exit strategy, but it took decades—and the impending collapse of the Soviet Union—for diplomacy to gain greater traction than the arms race. Nuclear weapons reflected impasses and widened them. Disarmament was impossible, so a brilliant group of conceptualizers at the end of the Eisenhower administration began to formulate the principles of what they called arms control. Their new and risky concepts were unable to stop arms racing. A different set of brilliant minds had already begun to conceptualize deterrence. It was far easier to make nuclear weapons and missiles than to negotiate treaties.
One great source of anxiety was that effective defenses against the Soviet Bomb and its means of delivery were inconceivable. None of the original conceptualizers of nuclear deterrence offered this hope; it was instead viewed as a fool’s errand. Only later, when defensive technologies advanced, did the pursuit of national defenses arise, fueled on moral and strategic grounds. But offensive technologies also advanced, nullifying defensive technologies. The nuclear-armed state and its citizens seemed hopelessly vulnerable. By extension, civilization itself could end with uncontrolled atomic warfare.
Protective countermeasures to atomic bombing, such as creating satellite cities instead of building out from city centers to suburbs and exurbs, as humans have been wont to do, was initially considered and quickly dropped as being impractical. Civil defenses were also contemplated early on. In due course, many basement fallout shelters were constructed and major facilities to protect leadership were built underground with reams of bank notes, safely wrapped in plastic, stored in protective custody to rebuild civilization.11
There was, however, no safety from being targeted or from being downwind. Herman Kahn, who was easily caricatured because of his attempt to rationalize nuclear war-fighting scenarios, asked a central question: “Would the living envy the dead?”12 With improved accuracies for bomb delivery and greater destructive yields, command bunkers and hardened missile silos could not survive attacks. To be at or near a designated ground zero meant death, either quickly or over time. Hospital beds would be far too limited—assuming that hospitals were not destroyed. Medical supplies would run out quickly. Air traffic would be shut down in the immediate aftermath of nuclear strikes even if some runways were usable. First responders would have to steer clear of radiation zones or be so encumbered by protective gear as to have limited effectiveness. Survivors would face radiation exposure if they escaped the immediate blast effects and firestorms. Food supplies would be radiated if not wiped out.
Escape from this new, ominous reality could be found in black humor, in popular culture, and even in a new swimsuit design, called the bikini after an atoll in the South Pacific sacrificed by nuclear testing. Escapism through denial was one route to being held captive to the Bomb’s destructive effects. Others sought extraordinary steps to prevent the production of atomic weapons. A third approach was to seek safety by outcompeting the Soviet Union.
Atomic scientists working on the Manhattan Project that created atomic weapons were at the forefront of those having second thoughts about their advances. They had “known sin,” in the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the orchestra leader of the geniuses assembled at Los Alamos.13 These scientists were divided about their handiwork; some, led by Oppenheimer, accepted the responsibility to help explain the incomprehensible and to devise mechanisms of relief from nuclear danger. Some veterans of the Manhattan Project lobbied against using the atomic bomb against Japan. Oppenheimer was a central figure in drafting the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan, a blueprint of international control to ban the Bomb and to promote the peaceful uses of the atom. Veterans of the Manhattan Project were also central in starting up a bulletin to circulate their views, which evolved into the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.14
Scientists based at the Metallurgy Laboratory in Chicago established proof of concept for a nuclear chain reaction and then handed their calculations and designs to Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge. They had more time and distance than their colleagues who remained on deadline, leading some to question their prospective achievements. The man who chaired their secret deliberations was James Franck, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who served as director of the Chemistry Division. Franck, like Hans Bethe, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Rudolf Peierls, Enrico Fermi, Stanislaw Ulam, Eugene Wigner, George Gamow, and Victor Weisskopf, found refuge in the United States and purpose in defeating Fascism by working on the Bomb. Two months before Hiroshima, Franck, with drafting help from Eugene Rabinowitch, Glenn Seaborg, and especially Szilard, wrote a memorandum urging the Truman administration to carry out a demonstration shot of the atomic bomb rather than to use it without advance warning against a Japanese city.15
Franck and his colleagues warned, “If no efficient international agreement is achieved, the race of nuclear armaments will be on in earnest not later than the morning after our first demonstration of the existence of nuclear weapons.” They were right, of course, but this would be true whether Truman authorized a demonstration shot or used the weapon against a city. One reason for a demonstration shot was on moral grounds; another was the need for trust between the United States and the Soviet Union: “Only lack of mutual trust, and not lack of desire for agreement, can stand in the path of an efficient agreement for the prevention of nuclear warfare.” The signers of the Franck Report argued that “the way in which nuclear weapons . . . will first be revealed to the world appears of great, perhaps fateful importance.” They wrote that using the Bomb against a Japanese city “may easily destroy all our chances of success” to control nuclear weapons. It would be very difficult, they argued, to persuade the world that the nation capable of “secretly preparing and suddenly releasing” a weapon as indiscriminate as the atom bomb could be trusted “in its proclaimed desire to having such weapons abolished by international agreement.” Trust could be engendered, they argued, with a demonstration test “made before the eyes of all United Nations, on the desert or a barren island.”16
Secretary of War Stimson sought counsel to consider the Franck Report’s recommendations and reasoning in late May and June of 1945. These advisers, who included Oppenheimer, identified problems with the idea of a demonstration shot, such as wondering whether it would diminish or whet Josef Stalin’s appetite for the Bomb. Stimson and his advisers found the Franck Report’s recommendations to be unpersuasive. The task at hand, as they saw it, was to end the war as quickly as possible. Stimson could not explain to the parents of those to whom he signed letters of condolence why he did not end the U.S. invasion of the Japanese home islands when he had the opportunity to do so.
Stimson was the ultimate insider, serving every president but one from William Howard Taft to Truman. As secretary of war for Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Truman, Stimson oversaw and approved of the bomb’s use as “the least abhorrent choice.” His justification: “The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Japanese war. It stopped the fire raids, and the strangling blockade; it ended the ghastly specter of a clash of great land armies.” In a memorandum to Truman that they discussed on April 25, 1945, more than three months before the destruction of Hiroshima, Stimson advised, “The world in its present state of moral advancement compared with its technical development would eventually be at the mercy of such a weapon. In other words, modern civilization might be completely destroyed.” He added, “No system of control heretofore considered would be adequate to control this menace.”
Stimson challenged Truman to consider that “our leadership in the war and in the development of this weapon has placed a certain moral responsibility upon us which we cannot shirk.” Then Stimson pivoted: to avoid disaster, “we would have the opportunity to bring the world into a pattern in which the peace of the world and our civilization can be saved.” Here he differed with Truman’s confidante and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, who viewed the Bomb as helpful in dealing with the Kremlin on a variety of postwar issues. Stimson once thought likewise, but his focus on how to control the Bomb led him to an opposite view: “that having the weapon rather ostentatiously on our hip” would only harm prospects for international control. Truman was on the fence; initially he was inclined to follow Stimson’s advice, but then swung to Byrnes’s position.17
Stimson didn’t shirk from his duty. He chose the targets to be struck, repeatedly deleting Kyoto from General Groves’s suggested list. He had visited Kyoto before the war and was well aware of its importance as a religious and cultural center as well as the absence of consequential military production facilities within its confines. Hiroshima had no such protections. It was home to significant army and naval facilities. Moreover, it was relatively unscathed from aerial bombardment, making it a better target to assess the new weapon’s effects.
Nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein has dug deeply into the circumstances of Stimson’s exchanges with Truman about Hiroshima and their aftermath. Truman may well have misunderstood—or wanted to misunderstand—that he was approving the destruction of an entire city. Instead, he might have believed, as he publicly stated, that he was authorizing the destruction of a military target. The pictures of Hiroshima’s destruction taken by an aircraft trailing the Enola Gay and placed in front of Truman within forty-eight hours demolished this conceit.
Try to imagine how jarring the briefings Groves prepared for Truman, Stimson, and other top officials of the A-bomb’s effects must have been. Back then, briefings of this kind consisted of images pasted on two-by-three-foot cardboard slabs that were placed on easels. McGeorge Bundy gifted the Stimson Center with the same folio of images Truman saw, replicated in the briefing Groves gave to his father, Harvey Bundy, who was Stimson’s close confidante at the War Department. To see this folio of images is to reimagine the shock and awe that Truman and his top advisers most probably felt—reactions so profound that they sought to partner with Josef Stalin, proposing a bold scheme to prevent further military uses of atomic energy, despite the odds.18
Nagasaki’s death by atomic bombing was already well in train when Truman saw the images of Hiroshima. He then decreed a stop to the further use of atomic bombs. Truman publicly professed to be unbothered by the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities, but his private thoughts and subsequent decisions suggest otherwise. At a cabinet meeting two short days after Nagasaki, Truman acknowledged that the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible to contemplate. His private references to the use of atomic bombs repeatedly dwelled on the deaths of innocents, a connection that he didn’t make with city-killing aerial bombardment by other means. Truman was especially bothered after meeting Oppenheimer, who spoke of having blood on his hands. With good reason: if Oppenheimer had blood on his hands, Truman would have been bathed in it.19
The briefing of aerial images that Groves, the son of an army chaplain, circulated might have been one contributing factor in Truman’s decision not to use this “war winning” weapon in Korea, even when the war dragged on, even after Chinese troops crossed the Yalu, sending American GIs reeling. Truman’s restraint during this crucible was the beginning of the norm of nonbattlefield use. The public reason he gave for this uncommon but crucial restraint was direct: “It should not be used on innocent men, women and children who have nothing whatsoever to do with this military aggression. That happens when it is used.”20
1. See Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 284.
2. Spencer R. Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 57. Also see Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
3. See Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 3.
4. See Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
5. Henry Lewis Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine 194 (February 1947): 100.
6. See Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge & Nuclear Weapons Devastation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).
7. Norman Cousins, “Modern Man Is Obsolete,” Saturday Review of Literature, August 18, 1945, 5.
8. U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Military Affairs, Atomic Energy Hearings on H.R. 4280, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. (October 9 and 18, 1945); Vannevar Bush, Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949); Leslie R. Groves, Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (New York: Harper, 1962); and Robert S. Norris, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2002).
9. Wayne A.R. Leys, “Human Values in the Atomic Age,” in The Impact of Atomic Energy, ed. Robert A. Dahl (Philadelphia: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1953), 127.
10. Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear, 62.
11. See Garrett M. Graff, Raven Rock: The Story of the US. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017); and Edward M. Geist, Armageddon Insurance: Civil Defenses in the United States and Soviet Union, 1945–1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
12. Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 34.
13. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Physics in the Contemporary World,” Arthur D. Little Memorial Lecture at MIT, Cambridge, MA, November 25, 1947.
14. See Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Vintage Books, 2007); and Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists Movement in America, 1945–47 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).
15. See Kati Marton, The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).
16. James Franck, Donald J. Hughes, J.J. Nickson, Eugene Rabinowitch, Glenn T. Seaborg, J.C. Stearns, and Leo Szilard, “Report of the Committee on Political and Social Problems,” Manhattan Project, Metallurgic Laboratory, University of Chicago, June 11, 1945 (the Franck Report), US National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, Harrison-Bundy File, Folder 76, 7–10.
17. Stimson, “Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” 97–107. Also see Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service in Peace and War (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948); Sean L. Malloy, Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb against Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008); and Barton J. Bernstein, “The Quest for Security: American Foreign Policy and International Control of Atomic Energy, 1942–1946,” Journal of American History 60, no. 4 (March 1974).
18. See Alex Wellerstein, “A ‘Purely Military’ Target? Truman’s Changing Language about Hiroshima,” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, January 19, 2018. The Stimson Center re-gifted the folios from the briefing Groves gave to Harvey Bundy to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in July 2016.
19. Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 332.
20. See Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 133.