History of the Second World War, Volume 7

government to surrender remains a matter for debate — and it can be powerfully argued that it was neither. The fact is that within 30 hours of the Russian entry into the Far Eastern war, and after the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tokyo radio announced that the Japanese government, whatever may have been the morale of the Japanese people, was ready for peace; and on August 15 the Allies received the uncon­ ditional surrender of Japan; the decision had been taken at a meeting of the Japanese Cabinet on the previous day—a meeting at which 'all the Ministers and the military and naval chiefs were profoundly impressed by the gracious concern of His Majesty for his subjects and the country, and silently bowed in obedience, and wept’. 'Incredible and somehow disturbing’ To see this national humiliation in per­ spective it is necessary to change the focus; to draw back from the actual explosion and its impact on the Japanese government and its people; to look beyond the awful fascina­ tion of the weapon and its immediate effects; but before doing so there is one description that might serve as an image on the retina of the mind, a back-projection to a broader analysis of the impact of the Bomb. In the city of Nagasaki there were a number of British prisoners of war —the only British citizens to live through a nuclear attack. One of them, a sailor, told a BBC corres­ pondent what it was like: 'I cannot make you understand how bright that flash was ... it went through you first like the shock you get from an electric battery . . . it was terri­ bly hot as well — just like solid heat coming at you. It was like the sunlight coming from half a dozen suns instead of one . . .’ So man, after thousands of years in search of the light, had found it —a light so bright that the shadows remained etched on the pavements of Hiroshima long after the bodies that cast them had been blasted out of existence.... When we, the civilised peoples of the West, the heirs of Athens and Rome, were the first to use this power in war, and when we used it against an eastern race, we were sowing a bitter wind; and we may yet reap the whirlwind. But at the time there were no mass feelings of guilt or apprehension. It is true that in the New York Herald T ri­ bune on August 7, 1945, someone with an acute sense of history wrote that the new force was 'weird, incredible and somehow disturbing; one forgets the effect on Japan or on the course of the war as one senses the foundations of one’s own universe trembling . . .’ Generally, however, the popular mood was linked almost entirely to the effect that the Bomb might have on the length of the war. It was a mood almost of hysteria; a febrile euphoria that was reflected in the behaviour of President Truman on board the cruiser Augusta. He bustled among the ship’s company telling them the news in an emotional state which, as Gar Alpero- vitz has said, derived not from remorse, but from satisfaction. His first remark to those who were with him when the news of the first atomic attack came through was simple and uncomplicated. 'This,’ said the American President, 'is the greatest thing in history!’ The greatest thing in history became known to the general public in the news­ papers of August 7. Suddenly the Japanese war, which even the most optimistic had until now expected to drag on for at least another year, seemed miraculously to be almost over. So the general public and their most powerful leaders united in an access of chauvinism and of pride in the breathtaking scale of the achievement. Yet there were a few people — a tiny minor­ ity—who realised the implications of what had happened; who knew that all concepts of power had been irrevocably changed. These were the men (and women) who had created the atomic monster and knew its power; but to the politician the scientist is at best an unreliable and unpredictable animal. Even when not actually losing his spectacles or appearing at committee meetings without his trousers, he can be guilty of the most reprehensible naivete. His curiosity 'about facts, about systems, about life’ leads him into excesses of inter­ nationalism, and he is even capable of deep feelings of guilt and remorse when scientific discovery leads to destruction and misery instead of to the broad sunlit uplands. As Dr Robert Oppenheimer said many years later of the work which he and his fellow physicists had done on the bomb: 'In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extin­ guish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.’ The politicians take charge Clearly this sort of conscience is a commodity of limited value to nations contemplating mutual destruction in total war; and at this stage the politicians began to take over from the scientists. The British government began research projects — principally at the uni­ versities. There was a full exchange of ideas and information between British and Ameri­ can atomic experts; and by the autumn of 1941 a committee under Sir George Thomson reported that there was a reasonable chance that an atomic bomb could be produced by the end of the war. On October 11, 1941, President Roosevelt, in a letter to Mr Churchill, suggested that the work should be fully co-ordinated between Britain and the United States. A number of British scientists left for America, and by the summer of 1942 it was possible to take the decision to set up large-scale production plants there. These, it was later revealed, were at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Richland, Washington; and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and on July 16, at 5.30 am, the first test of an atomic bomb was carried out in the New Mexico desert. It was, to use the word in a somewhat bizarre sense, a success. The steel tower on which the Bomb had been placed was vaporised; a flash brighter than daylight lit up the area for miles around; the blast knocked down men standing 10,000 yards away; and for the first time American and British scientists, in an observation post 10 miles away, saw the mushroom-shaped cloud that was to hang over two Japanese cities three weeks later. Already there were those who had seen what it all signified. Perhaps the most col­ ourful of these was Niels Bohr, the brilliant Danish physicist. When the Germans in­ vaded Denmark in April 1940, Bohr had been allowed to continue his work in the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. In the autumn of 1943, however, Bohr learned that he, his family, and staff were to be arrested by the Germans and he activated a previously arranged plan which took him across the Kattegat into Sweden by fishing boat and thence, in the bomb bay of a Mos­ quito aircraft, to Scotland. The last part of the trip, although near to tragedy, was in some ways typical of the tenuous relation­ ship that existed between Bohr and the everyday world. When this quiet, unassum­ ing scientist was fitted into the bomb bay of the aircraft everyone, including Bohr himself, failed to notice that the abnormal size of his head prevented his flying helmet from fitting properly; as a result he heard no instructions from the pilot, neglected to fit his oxygen mask, and spent most of the flight unconscious. On his arrival in London Bohr was at once told of the progress that had been made by this time in constructing the atomic bomb. Lord Cherwell, formerly Professor Linde- mann, simply wanted to know whether the theory was correct; whether, when the Bomb was ready, it would really explode. For Bohr the problem was not so straightforward. This impractical genius, who could not even fit an oxygen mask, had grasped the signifi­ cance of the Bomb in a way that seemed to have escaped the politicians, and the sol­ diers. For him the argument was not whether the Bomb would explode; the answer to that for him was easy —if enough time, money, and intellect were applied to the project, of course it would explode. What, Bohr wanted to know, happened next? So Bohr, the physicist who set off for his London appointments with the place and time of his engagements typed on six slips of paper —one in each pocket —set about persuading Winston Churchill to share the secrets of the atomic bomb with the Russians. The impact of the unworldly professor on the great man of state was predictably counter-productive. Churchill’s view was that Bohr had not been transported in a state of unconsciousness from Stockholm to Scot­ land to interfere in political matters that did not concern him. Eventually Bohr did what was expected of him. He went to the United States and placed his incomparable experience at the disposal of the engineers of the Bomb; but not without taking care to set out, in a letter to President Roosevelt, some of the real facts of post-nuclear life. 'The fact of immediate preponderance,’ he wrote, 'is, 2692
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