"Fallout: Conspiracy, Cover-Up, and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb" by Peter Watson

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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