- Historic Sites
From Austerlitz To Moscow
An American Success Story
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
It was in the midst of this state of affairs that developments in physics and chemistry led to the introduction of nuclear fission into military weaponry. The explosion of a relatively primitive uranium bomb over Hiroshima utterly destroyed the city; an equally primitive plutonium bomb devastated Nagasaki three days later. Each bomb had been carried to its target in a single relatively inexpensive airplane manned by less than a dozen people. From 1805 to 1945 it had become a gruesome characteristic of our species that when one nation wanted something very important from another, it threatened mass murder and mass destruction by means of the total mobilization of its people and resources. Now that ghastly threat could be made, not in the name of a large population, but in the name, so to speak, of Ashtabula, Ohio. The construction of those powerful new bombs had required a moderate work force in a few special factories. It would later be possible to turn out nuclear weapons with even less effort and fewer factories. What had formerly been a true measure of national resolve and industrial power had become a measure of nothing conceivably pertinent to either nation involved in a dispute. Furthermore, while the achievement of a head start over the adversary once held promise of quick victory, the prospective victim in the nuclear age could reduce its neighbor to ashes with crates and barrels of stuff quite easily concealed in a few barns in the countryside. The world of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler was irretrievably gone and unlamented.
The most obvious thing about the new weapons was their sheer destructiveness; the changes they had wrought in the political significance of military contests was generally overlooked at this point. The United States promptly withdrew from the world, as was its wont, and played with its new toys. A series of spectacular test explosions was staged in Nevada and at various atolls in the Pacific Ocean to demonstrate the effects of the new bombs on simulated houses, small buildings, and various warships of the defeated Axis Powers. Had America been demonstrating experimental tactics for massed tank assault, the world would have been able to comprehend and shudder, but the fundamental unreality of the nuclear age was typified by the European response to those awesome photographs of the underwater test at Bikini. They named a bathing suit after it.
They were wild years, the last of the 1940’s, and the ability of mankind to reason its way through changing circumstances was nowhere in evidence. The United States put its hasty heart into a crusade to turn back the clock by imprisoning the nuclear genie safely behind a wall of paper known as the Baruch Plan. We would simply outlaw the nuclear age by reciting incantations in the United Nations. After all, no one but the U.S. could build any of these devices; we had the formula written in a closely guarded notebook at Los Alamos.
As an instructor of physics in those years, I occasionally had to explain to complacent students that the production of nuclear weapons was no more complicated than a half-dozen other technological processes, and I had no doubt that the scientists of all the advanced countries would master the art in due course. But when the first Soviet test explosion came in 1949, it was clear to most “right-thinking” Americans that we had been unwillingly thrust into the nuclear age by a sinister group of domestic conspirators who must have given the secret “atom bomb” formula to the Russians. For the next five years, the United States engaged in a Keystone Cops pursuit of dangerous thinking in government service and the halls of academe.
In the real world outside, the Old Napoleonic politics were deciding the fate of Eastern Europe and Asia as a badly mauled Russia looked to its defenses-and to its empire. The political wrenching was of far greater scale than any Austrian threat against Serbia. There were many who feared the guns would pause more briefly this time, and senior officials in more than one country called for preventive war against the Sino-Soviet bloc before it was too late. Yet the behavior of those huge and victorious Red Armies was extraordinarily circumspect for all the perilous leg wrestling over Berlin, Greece, Turkey, Korea, Taiwan-you name it. The new world was far from understood as yet, but the “instant mobilization-quick march” technique of asserting national will lay unused in the bottom drawer of every nation’s cabinet.
That tiny share of our activity we surrender to reasoned analysis was gradually sketching in for us the outlines of the new circumstances. No one put it better than Winston Churchill, who, while explaining the emerging concept of nuclear deterrence to the House of Commons in November, 1953, said: “These fearful scientific discoveries [nuclear weapons] cast their shadow on every thoughtful mind, but nevertheless I believe that we are justified in feeling that there has been a diminution of tension and that the probabilities of another world war have diminished, or at least have become more remote.
“I say this in spite of the continual growth of weapons of destruction such as have never fallen before into the hands of human beings. Indeed I have sometimes the odd thought that the annihilating character of these agencies may bring an utterly unforeseeable security to mankind. …
“It may be … that when the advance of destructive weapons enables everyone to kill everybody else, nobody will want to kill anyone at all.