The Manhattan Project legacy: A response to Richard Rhodes

By James E. Doyle | December 2, 2015

Richard Rhodes is absolutely correct to highlight the importance of remembering our atomic history and applaud the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a network of US sites at which the first nuclear weapons were developed. The park preserves physical spaces, artifacts, documents, and images that invite us to consider the implications of nuclear weapons for human civilization and planet Earth. I was fortunate to spend nearly 17 years of my career at perhaps the central site in this network, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

So, let us get on with the debate. Rhodes is right that we need the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The places it preserves certainly changed the human world forever. He is wrong, however, to assert at this point in time that they changed the world for the better. Based as it is on a biased and unsupported interpretation of our atomic history, his assertion is unsurprising.

Let’s begin with Rhodes’s treatment of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, known colloquially as the “father of the atomic bomb.” Rhodes claims that two predictions he credits to Oppenheimer may have come true or will come true in the “fullness of time.” The first, which Rhodes claims did come true, is that the atomic bomb would end World War II.

This point remains hotly debated, with much historical evidence favoring a conclusion that the atomic bombing of Japan was not the main catalyst of its surrender. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s study of the end of the Pacific War, Racing the Enemy, the first to analyze not only US and Japanese sources, but also the former Soviet archives, argues that the Soviet entry into the Pacific war on August 9, 1945, had a much greater impact on Japan’s decision to surrender than did the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ward Wilson’s book Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons expands upon Hasegawa’s work.

The second prediction, that the nuclear bomb may end “all war,” clearly has not come to pass. Three wars since 1980, Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq, and Congo-Rwanda, which together claimed more that 4 million lives, and the ongoing Syrian civil war illustrate this beyond a doubt. Rhodes does qualify that he is referring to the potential end of “world-scale” war between major powers. But the absence of such warfare between “major” powers over the 70 years since the development of nuclear weapons by no means guarantees that major war will not reoccur or that the pause in “world-scale” war was caused by the advent of nuclear arms. Correlation on its own does not establish a causal link.

Rhodes’s rhetorical question “Does anyone doubt that the United States and the Soviet Union would have gone to war, given their mutual belligerency and their mutually exclusive ideologies, if fear of nuclear retaliation had not kept the war cold?” is not an evidence-based argument for a causal link. There are many potential causes explaining the so-called “long peace” between the United States and the Soviet Union. First, there is now evidence from Soviet military archives demonstrating that there never was any intention to invade Western Europe or attack America directly. The absence of war could have been caused by mutual aversion to the devastating consequences of major conventional war by leaders and citizens, many of which had experienced it twice in their lifetimes. Nor can one dismiss completely the notions that major war has become less likely as a result of shifts in the political orientation of national governments, growing economic and cultural interdependence, or advances in information, life-sciences, and environmental technology? Certainly it is plausible that regional security alliances, ongoing East-West security dialogues, and the evolution of European integration played a role in avoiding a third world war.

Nuclear weapons might have played some role in keeping the peace, but it is likely that the absence of major war during this period had multiple causes. The role of nuclear weapons may have been minor. The assertion that nuclear deterrence was the major cause of war-avoidance is a belief, unsupported by anything approaching a strong, clear body of historically documented evidence. In fact, the long peace since the Second World War is likely an outcome of a substantial historical process, and contrary to what Rhodes implies, one for which there are earlier precedents. Scholars Randolph Siverson and Michael Don Ward challenge even the view that the postwar peace is historically remarkable. Longer pauses in major war have occurred many times in history.

I have seen many times the “graph” that Rhodes invites us to imagine, with its vertical scale of deaths from war and horizontal scale of time in years. Advocates of nuclear weapons often use this image to argue, like Rhodes, that these weapons save lives through war-avoidance. But the image of this graph is notable for what it always leaves out. That is the column of deaths that could appear at any moment just to the right of the last year’s total. This column would require a logarithmic scale to represent because it could include hundreds of millions of deaths over a period of hours or days, not years, caused by the exchange of only a fraction of nuclear weapons in today’s arsenals. Subsequent yearly death tolls could rise even further because global food production could collapse, putting billions at risk of starvation.

A world that generates a “smoldering” level of approximately 1 million annual war deaths and accepts the risk that 300 million could be exterminated in a day, and 2 billion perish within a year or two of unleashing a nuclear war, is not a “better” world. It is an unhealthy world, engaged in unnecessarily self-destructive behavior.

It is Rhodes’s subjective worldview that allows him to believe that nuclear weapons are a beneficial invention. For example, he claims that “When no legal or social channels exist for settling disputes, human beings turn to violence, and it is a basic principle of serious violent encounter that you escalate as much as necessary to win a victory.” Scholarship in multiple fields refutes this worldview. Cooperation and conflict are equally “natural” human behaviors and before the advent of nuclear weapons, parties to a dispute, whether individuals or nations, often chose not to escalate to the point of victory because of the risk that they would not be victorious.

Rhodes’s notion that nations had not conceived of deliberate limits to the scope or scale of warfare prior to nuclear weapons is mystifying. The pre-nuclear history of strategy and conflict is replete with examples of such decisions. As Robert D. Kaplan wrote recently in the Atlantic, “the Chinese sage of early antiquity Sun Tzu famously said, ‘The side that knows when to fight and when not will take the victory. There are roadways not to be traveled, armies not to be attacked, walled cities not to be assaulted.’ … In the first century A.D., Tiberius preserved Rome by not interfering in bloody internecine conflicts beyond its northern frontier.”

Alliances, security guarantees, treaties, and international laws pre-date nuclear weapons and have been successful in limiting or avoiding conflict, sometimes for centuries. Nuclear weapons have created no unique “shelter” for these mechanisms to flourish. They have only highlighted the fact that it is essential for human civilization to continue striving to improve them.

Nuclear weapons can provide a positive legacy for humankind only if we learn from them, and on that question the jury is still out. Nothing has fundamentally changed since 1961, when President Kennedy observed, “Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”

An international security system based the willingness of a few nations to commit mutual suicide to deter aggression is unsustainable and contrary to basic human values. It is unjustifiable, as it holds hostage all other nations and peoples who do not embrace the Bomb. It is not necessary to continue living with the risks of hair-trigger nuclear arsenals in order to understand that modern nations can create multiple means to destroy one another. Using this knowledge, we may either create institutional mechanisms that manage conflict without requiring the deployment of fallible, at-the-ready nuclear arsenals containing enough destructive power to extinguish humankind, or we may blunder into a war from which recovery is impossible.

Finally, I am dismayed that Rhodes finds no dishonor in the atomic bombings of Japan. This reflects my subjective worldview. Perhaps conceptions of what is dishonorable in warfare have changed, but if we find no dishonor in dropping atomic (or incendiary) bombs on Japanese schoolchildren, it is certainly hypocritical to find dishonor in suicide vests, barrel bombs, or beheadings. Such acts are morally reprehensible, dishonorable, and criminal because they target noncombatants directly or, like nuclear weapons, cannot discriminate between combatants and noncombatants.

Evidence suggests that Oppenheimer himself came to find dishonor in the atomic bombings and felt their use was a tragic mistake, inflicted against an enemy that was essentially defeated. Appalled by the prospects of atomic warfare, Oppenheimer threw himself into the effort to create an international authority to control nuclear weapons and opposed the construction of hydrogen bombs. Upon accepting the Army-Navy Excellence Award on November 16, 1945, Oppenheimer proclaimed: “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.” Even after 70 years without a third use of nuclear weapons, I doubt Oppenheimer would conclude that they have created a better world. 

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