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Hiroshima Day: America Has Been Asleep at the Wheel for 64 Years
Posted on Aug 5, 2009
I thought about Oppenheimer and Conant—both of whom had recommended dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—and Fermi and Rabi, who had, that same month Dad was resigning, expressed internally their opposition to development of the superbomb in the most extreme terms possible: It was potentially “a weapon of genocide … carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations … whose power of destruction is essentially unlimited … a threat to the future of the human race which is intolerable … a danger to humanity as a whole … necessarily an evil thing considered in any light” (York, “The Advisor,” pp. 155-159).
Not one of these men risked his clearance by sharing his anxieties and the basis for them with the American public. Oppenheimer and Conant considered resigning their advisory positions when the president went ahead against their advice. But they were persuaded—by Dean Acheson—not to quit at that time, lest that draw public attention to their expert judgment that the president’s course fatally endangered humanity.
I asked my father what had made him feel so strongly, to act in a way that nobody else had done. He said, “You did.”
That didn’t make any sense. I said, “What do you mean? We didn’t discuss this at all. I didn’t know anything about it.”
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I said that must have been John Hersey’s book “Hiroshima.” (I read it when it came out as a book. I was in the hospital when it filled The New Yorker in August 1946.) I didn’t remember giving it to him.
“Yes. Well, I read it, and you were right. That’s when I started to feel bad about working on an atomic bomb project. And then when they said they wanted me to work on a hydrogen bomb, it was too much for me. I thought it was time for me to get out.”
I asked if he had told his bosses why he was quitting. He said he told some people, not others. The ones he told seemed to understand his feelings. In fact, in less than a year, the head of the firm called to say that they wanted him to come back as chief structural engineer for the whole firm. They were dropping the DuPont contract (they didn’t say why), so he wouldn’t have to have anything to do with the AEC or bomb-making. He stayed with them till he retired.
I said, finally, “Dad, how could I not ever have heard any of this before? How come you never said anything about it?”
My father said, “Oh, I couldn’t tell any of this to my family. You weren’t cleared.”
Well, I finally got my clearances, a decade after my father gave his up. And for some years, they were my undoing, though they turned out to be useful in the end. A decade later they allowed me to read the Pentagon Papers and to keep them in my “Top Secret” safe at the RAND Corp., from which I eventually delivered them to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later to 19 newspapers.
We have long needed and lacked the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers on the subject of nuclear policies and preparations, nuclear threats and decision-making: above all in the United States and Russia but also in the other nuclear-weapons states. I deeply regret that I did not make known to Congress, the American public and the world the extensive documentation of persistent and still-unknown nuclear dangers that was available to me 40 to 50 years ago as a consultant to and official in the executive branch working on nuclear war plans, command and control and nuclear crises. Those in nuclear-weapons states who are in a position now to do more than I did then to alert their countries and the world to fatally reckless secret policies should take warning from the earlier inaction of myself and others: and do better.
That I had high-level access and played such a role in nuclear planning is, of course, deeply ironic in view of the personal history recounted above. My feelings of revulsion and foreboding about nuclear weapons had not changed an iota since 1945, and they have never left me. Since I was 14, the overriding objective of my life has been to prevent the occurrence of nuclear war.
There was a close analogy with the Manhattan Project. Its scientists—most of whom hoped the Bomb would never be used for anything but as a threat to deter Germany—were driven by a plausible but mistaken fear that the Nazis were racing them. Actually the Nazis had rejected the pursuit of the atomic bomb on practical grounds in June 1942, just as the Manhattan Project was beginning. Similarly, I was one of many in the late ’50s who were misled and recruited into the nuclear arms race by exaggerated, and in this case deliberately manipulated, fears of Soviet intentions and crash efforts.
Precisely because I did receive clearances and was exposed to top-secret intelligence estimates, in particular from the Air Force, I, along with my colleagues at the RAND Corp., came to be preoccupied with the urgency of averting nuclear war by deterring a Soviet surprise attack that would exploit an alleged “missile gap.” That supposed dangerous U.S. inferiority was exactly as unfounded in reality as the fear of the Nazi crash bomb program had been, or, to pick a more recent example, as concern over Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMDs and nuclear pursuit in 2003.
Working conscientiously, obsessively, on a wrong problem, countering an illusory threat, I and my colleagues distracted ourselves and helped distract others from dealing with real dangers posed by the mutual and spreading possession of nuclear weapons—dangers which we were helping make worse—and from real opportunities to make the world more secure. Unintentionally, yet inexcusably, we made our country and the world less safe.
Eventually the Soviets did emulate us in creating a world-threatening nuclear capability on hair-trigger alert. That still exists; Russian nuclear posture and policies continue, along with ours, to endanger our countries, civilization and much of life itself. But the persistent reality has been that the nuclear arms race has been driven primarily by American initiatives and policies and that every major American decision in this 64-year-old nuclear era has been accompanied by unwarranted concealment, deliberate obfuscation, and official and public delusions.
I have believed for a long time that official secrecy and deceptions about our nuclear weapons posture and policies and their possible consequences have threatened the survival of the human species. To understand the urgency of radical changes in our nuclear policies that may truly move the world toward abolition of nuclear weapons, we need a new understanding of the real history of the nuclear age.
Using the new opportunities offered by the Internet—drawing attention to newly declassified documents and to some realities still concealed—I plan over the next year, before the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima, to do my part in unveiling this hidden history.
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