NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

Book Review: Fallout: Conspiracy, Cover-Up and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb

As the Jus­tice Depart­ment inves­ti­ga­tions and Con­gres­sion­al hear­ings into Water­gate closed in, Richard Nixon — as a brag — once said some­thing to the effect of, “I can go into my office and pick up the tele­phone and in twen­ty-five min­utes, mil­lions of peo­ple will be dead.”

That was when he was sober.

In the depths of his stress and depres­sion, the U.S. pres­i­dent was also mix­ing alco­hol and sleep­ing pills, and his nat­ur­al para­noia became even worse.

“He real­ly got para­noid when he got three drinks in him. There are things I’m not even going to dis­cuss that were said, but they were the result of drink­ing. He could not han­dle drink,” one of Nixon’s polit­i­cal strate­gists said.

This is a man who semi-reg­u­lar­ly “beat the hell” out of spouse Pat Nixon. Con­sid­er­ing that more than half the mass shoot­ings in the Unit­ed States involve attack­ing a for­mer or cur­rent roman­tic part­ner, it’s not implau­si­ble that a too-drunk Nixon might have gone too far hurt­ing his wife and decid­ed to kick off the destruc­tion of human­i­ty by pick­ing up a phone to kill sev­en­ty mil­lion Rus­sians half an hour lat­er. Legal­ly, there was noth­ing any­one might do to stop him, except per­haps invoke the just-passed 25th Amend­ment.

Oth­er­wise, all pres­i­dents since Har­ry S. Tru­man have had and still have the legal author­i­ty to trans­late a vicious, nar­cis­sis­tic whim into geno­cide, and along the way, Amer­i­ca’s nuclear arse­nal grew so that pow­er became omni­ci­dal, capa­ble of uni­lat­er­al­ly end­ing all human life on earth with­out requir­ing any return shot.

Since the end of the Cold War and dis­so­lu­tion of the Sovi­et Union, the rea­son­ing for that god­like author­i­ty remain­ing vest­ed in a sin­gle per­son no longer exists: there is no longer a prospect of an unan­nounced first strike that’d have no abil­i­ty to respond to with­out delib­er­a­tion.

Yet, by iner­tia, the impe­r­i­al pres­i­den­cy of the Unit­ed States still has this capac­i­ty, and it seems unlike­ly any White House will­ing­ly would devolve such a pow­er back to a leg­is­la­ture or extend the process to involve over­sight and review.

As a can­di­date, pub­licly and pre­sum­ably as a pres­i­dent, pri­vate­ly, Trump has expressed some befud­dle­ment at the idea of the Unit­ed States hav­ing nuclear weapons but not being able to use them except in a retal­ia­to­ry exchange. Our only reas­sur­ance is that he’s said a lot of things on nuclear weapons; we sleep at night assum­ing the best inter­pre­ta­tion of those incon­sis­ten­cies and not the worst.

The Roman emper­or Caligu­la thought he was a god, but Caligu­la could­n’t end the world in reac­tion to an espe­cial­ly scathing sketch on a re-run of SNL.

Time’s arrow being such as it is, cause and effect being under­stood such as they are, each dis­crete step makes sense from con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the nucle­us of the atom and dis­cov­er­ing fis­sion to release thereto­fore unimag­in­able ener­gy, all the way till now where all trace of human achieve­ment rests on one emo­tion­al­ly brit­tle sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an not exer­cis­ing his veto on the exis­tence of com­plex ter­res­tri­al life.

Young Mil­len­ni­al and Gen Z humor tends toward a par­tic­u­lar­ly absur­dist fla­vor of nihilism, which dove­tails quite well with our entire con­scious lives involv­ing inescapable, loom­ing mur­der — from mass shoot­ers to nuclear cat­a­stro­phe — for no rea­son oth­er than “that’s just the way it is”.

Peo­ple with pow­er could make direct and obvi­ous changes for the bet­ter, but the sta­tus quo is eas­i­er and most ben­e­fits those who cur­rent­ly have pow­er.

So here we are.

What his­to­ri­an Peter Wat­son accom­plish­es with Fall­out is an effec­tive argu­ment that this was entire­ly evitable. It did­n’t have to be this way.

Yes, the British Tube Alloys nuclear bomb research that would even­tu­al­ly become the Man­hat­tan Project began with the sin­cere fears of the ongo­ing Nazi super­bomb project and need to have a counter weapon ready.

But Wat­son shows that as ear­ly as 1942, British intel­li­gence knew from human intel­li­gence and code­break­ing that the Ger­mans did­n’t have the sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing and engi­neer­ing tech­niques, or the indus­tri­al capac­i­ty and ded­i­ca­tion to accom­plish this feat, not on any timetable that could impact the present war.

It took the U.S. adding 72,000 peo­ple to Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee in three years., to sep­a­rate enough U‑235 from ura­ni­um to make our own.

By 1943, the Sovi­et Union had at Stal­in­grad stopped the Nazi push from going far­ther and it became clear they would destroy the Ger­man Sixth Army, the focus for the U.S. shift­ed from hav­ing a counter-weapon as pro­tec­tion from fas­cists to cre­at­ing an over­hwlem­ing weapon that com­mu­nists would have no counter to. Even­tu­al­ly, Con­spir­a­cy, Cov­er-Up and the Deceit­ful Case for the Atom Bomb shows how the tar­get of that destruc­tion would be Japan.

Those in the U.S. gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary kept such infor­ma­tion from the actu­al sci­en­tists work­ing to com­plete the project, many of them Jew­ish sci­en­tists who were prop­er­ly con­vinced of the exis­ten­tial threat to human­i­ty an ascen­dant Nazi Ger­many would pose. Not all of them nec­es­sar­i­ly required that moti­va­tion.

Wat­son gives exam­ples of some sci­en­tists who, in a Cat’s Cra­dle, Ice-nine sense, were excit­ed enough about the tech­ni­cal accom­plish­ment not to think too deeply about the impli­ca­tions.

Rep­re­sent­ing that out­look, Enri­co Fer­mi, an Ital­ian emi­gre work­ing on the project, sup­pos­ed­ly (and may not have) said, “Don’t both­er me with your con­sci­en­tious scru­ples, the thing is superb physics!

But enough did think about it that the U.S. gov­ern­ment had to lie to keep every­one who need­ed to be work­ing on it focused on their jobs.

Had it been clear that such a hor­ri­fy­ing weapon was not nec­es­sary in self-defense or to win already-decid­ed war; had it been a project that could have been pushed till after the world war was over and time for a debate over its neces­si­ty might be had; or even had it been that Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt had lived longer or Tru­man had defin­i­tive­ly been informed Russ­ian intel­li­gence already had infil­trat­ed the Man­hat­tan Project so there was no rea­son to use it as a shock weapon against them, Wat­son argues that we may not have made a bomb.

There was no abil­i­ty to make it in secret, and it was so cost­ly, so why pur­sue such a project at all? The dom­i­na­tion of Amer­i­can pow­er on the rest of the world seems to be the most com­plete answer to that rhetor­i­cal ques­tion.

Wat­son argues that Sovi­et spy Klaus Fuchs changed the course of his­to­ry by pass­ing enough infor­ma­tion about what was work­ing and not work­ing with the oth­er Allies’ nuclear pro­gram sped up the Sovi­et pro­gram by six months to two years, and this was cru­cial to how Tru­man pros­e­cut­ed the Kore­an War start­ing in 1950, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the amount of restraint he showed once Com­mu­nist Chi­na joined on the side of North Korea and forced Unit­ed Nations forces into retreat.

The Sec­ond World War is such a mas­sive event, affect­ing so many tens of mil­lions of peo­ple, that most any nar­ra­tive can be jus­ti­fied and con­tra­dict­ed by avail­able evi­dence. There are so many points of view record­ed that every­thing is there to have a good case made for it. Did Fuchs mat­ter or did­n’t he?

Although Wat­son restricts his nar­ra­tive nar­row enough to make an actu­al argu­ment, his his­to­ry still has a mas­sive scope, dip­ping toes into the lives of var­i­ous physi­cists, the name of whom the aver­age per­son is at least vague­ly aware of from their con­tri­bu­tions to oth­er fields and research beyond atom­ic weapon­ry (Heisen­berg, Neils Bohr, Feyn­man).

But Wat­son also diverts to the par­tic­u­lar cloak-and-dag­ger dra­ma of some of those less-well-known bril­liant sci­en­tists flee­ing Nazi oppres­sion such as Lisa Meit­ner.

The book is dif­fi­cult read­ing less because of the prose than all the peo­ple, many famous in their own right, inter­act­ing from dif­fer­ent fields, par­tic­u­lar­ly sci­ence and pol­i­tics, and also because Wat­son takes pains to explain the devel­op­ing under­stand­ing of how fis­sion could best be turned to cre­at­ing a destruc­tive weapon ver­sus a pow­er source.

This is some­what impor­tant as there is some nar­ra­tive devot­ed to the British then the Allies sab­o­tag­ing a Ger­man-occu­pied facil­i­ty in Nor­way to keep up the Nazi mis­un­der­stand­ing of what real­ly was the most effi­cient process to cre­at­ing mate­ri­als for a bomb, but in gen­er­al, it’s per­pen­dic­u­lar to the cen­tral ques­tion the book pur­ports to be exam­in­ing and answer­ing.

More could also have been done to estab­lish just why the famous­ly para­noid Joseph Stal­in would not have want­ed to wield nuclear weapon­ry to go along with his coun­try’s oth­er­wise unstop­pable land forces.

Why would­n’t the Sovi­et Union want that assur­ance of pro­tec­tion against cap­i­tal­ist med­dling in their sphere of influ­ence or to be able to increase their sphere with­out resort­ing to war? But, there’s a lot of val­ue in what Wat­son did include, human­iz­ing Stal­in as a man almost as destroyed by depres­sive shock in the real­i­ty of nuclear destruc­tion in Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki as he was when Oper­a­tion Bar­barossa took him by sur­prise.

Above all, Fall­out is worth read­ing for the retro-futur­is­tic vision it paints where nuclear fis­sion was not the sub­ject of an arms race for more weapons but rather a tech­nol­o­gy shared among allies at the close of a war to cre­ate a bet­ter peace.

If it did­n’t have to be that way, it does­n’t have to be this way, and we can do more than look at the hor­ror of our present real­i­ty and shrug.

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