The Kennedy years, 1961-63, were a wonderful time to be a young man in America studying politics –which I did as a graduate student at Cornell University. We felt that JFK was ‘one of us’, and all my professors seemed to know someone who knew someone in the White House. For my MA thesis, I was drawn irresistibly to a study of the Presidency. Week after week, I sat mesmerised before Kennedy’s live televised press conferences, and at one stage wrote a paper comparing and contrasting this spirited ritual with the nearest (then untelevised) British equivalent, Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons.
My professor, Clinton Rossiter, had known JFK a little as a boy in Boston and was the author of a widely used textbook on the powers of the presidency. Eventually, I settled on the nature of ‘Presidential Decision Making’ for my thesis. The particular case study on which I decided to concentrate was, I presumed, one of the most momentous presidential decisions in history: President Harry S Truman’s in August 1945 to drop two atomic bombs on Japan.
I worked on the topic throughout much of 1962-63, examining the history of the Manhattan Project and the extraordinary confluence of scientific, military and political considerations that led to Hiroshima. Then, in summer 1963, in the best student tradition, I embarked upon a trip across the USA to the West Coast and back. Knowing I would pass through Missouri, I wrote to ex-President Truman telling him of my work --and asking if I might meet him. A letter came back from a secretary suggesting I try phoning when in the vicinity. I called his office from St. Louis on 14 July 1963 and was told to present myself at the Truman Library in the President’s home town of Independence, just outside Kansas City, at 9am two days later (the eighteenth anniversary of the first atomic bomb test in Alamogordo, New Mexico).
I was shown into an open-plan office. The secretary working at a desk in the corner told me that Mr. Truman came in every day; he was currently working on a new book: History for Teenagers. A few minutes later, Truman appeared. He was wearing a lightweight, loose-fitting, light blue and white striped cotton suit that gave his 79-year-old tummy plenty of room to expand. He looked at me with an open-mouthed, jaw-protruding grin as though slightly amused by my temerity. We shook hands and he beckoned to me to sit down.
I told him, with what I took to be appropriate respect, about my thesis on presidential decision-making and about my concentration on his decision to drop the atomic bomb. He broke through my deferential manner with a guffaw.
‘That was no decision!’
Truman, who had become President barely four months before Hiroshima upon the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been convinced by FDR’s advisers, notably the venerable Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, that dropping the atomic bomb on people was the one initiative that might bring the war in the Pacific to a rapid end without the need for a protracted and bloody invasion of the Japanese islands, which might have cost a million lives. In other words, Truman had had little option other than to order the bomb project to proceed. Indeed, if he had been the kind of person to have said ‘No’ to such a proposal, he would hardly have been elected Senator from Missouri in the first place or been chosen to run with FDR as Vice-President.
‘That wasn’t a decision!’ Truman repeated, with added emphasis. ‘Do you know about those bombs the Germans were developing in World War I? The big ones that were designed to fall on Paris?’
‘That’s all the atomic bomb was. A big bomb to end the war. And it did end it too! I had given the Japanese a warning of what we were going to do, and received a sassy reply. Well, they knew what was coming, and it came.’
As I understood it, the USA at the time had manufactured only two atomic bombs: the Uranium-235 ‘Little Boy’ bomb, dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and the plutonium ‘Fat Man’ dropped on Nagasaki three days later.
‘We had lots of ’em,’ Truman told me with a wicked grin.
‘Did you? I know you said they’d rain upon the Japanese if they didn’t surrender, but I thought that was just to frighten them.’
‘Well, once the first one was made, others could be easily constructed.’
I asked him about the great secrecy that surrounded the Manhattan Project. During the War, before his nomination as FDR’s Vice Presidential running mate in 1944, Missouri Senator Truman had been Chairman of the Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. Later, in his Memoirs, he had mentioned that he nearly found out about the Manhattan Project, but was persuaded by Stimson not to send investigators into certain war plants. Was this true?
‘Yes, Stimson asked me if I would be good enough to call off the investigations. But I knew about the project.’
‘Through the Committee?’
‘Sure. That’s what it was for – to investigate large wartime expenditure. This thing cost two billion dollars, you know.’
Did Truman really know about the Manhattan Project before becoming President? Or was I hearing a combination of bravado, hindsight, and the right of the elderly to embroider the facts? If Truman’s Senate Committee had found out about the Manhattan Project, who else was in the know? What about all those Congressmen who had had to vote for the appropriations? Did they know what all that money was for? It seems not. Truman told me that Stimson and others (he mentioned General George C. Marshall) had persuaded the Congressional leaders of the importance of this funding.
‘You mean they voted for all that money and didn’t know where it was going?’ I asked.
‘Yup. But you must remember – this was wartime.’ He reminded me of the importance of secrecy during times of war, and how this was a concept perfectly familiar in the UK. A cue, I felt, to ask about British participation in the Manhattan Project. How much did Churchill know?
‘As much as he wanted to know.’
I tried to press the former President. ‘You mean he preferred to leave all the responsibility with you, the Americans?’
‘No. But he wanted to be able to report fully to Parliament.’
Churchill, at least according to Truman, didn’t want to know what he didn’t want to know.
Truman made a few complimentary remarks about Churchill and various other European contributions to the atomic bomb project – especially those of émigré physicists. Then it was time for another Truman squib.
‘Of course, the dropping of the bomb wasn’t the biggest decision I had to make as President.’
‘But surely it had the biggest effect.’
‘No. It wasn’t the biggest or the most important. The biggest decision was to go into Korea.’
I reflected that I had obviously chosen the wrong topic for my thesis and should have picked on the 1950 intervention in Korea. How, I wondered aloud, does a President reach a decision of such importance?
‘You simply look at the facts,’ Truman told me. ‘Nobody had access to all the facts except the President.’
‘True. But on many issues, you must have had doubts. You’d come to a decision, change your mind, wonder whether all the information before you was accurately reported and so on?’
‘Yes, of course. But I’d check up on the facts, and then come to a decision – and then go on to the next one. I’ve never lost any sleep over any decision I’ve had to make.’
And that clearly included the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By now emboldened, I told Truman I had always had visions of the President of the United States pacing the corridors of the White House, like Lincoln during the Civil War, weighed down by the pressure of the job.
‘I was never under any pressure in the White House.’
My scepticism must have shown, for Truman leaned forward and added, confidentially: ‘Your Winston Churchill was the same, you know.’
Clearly, this was a man keen to appear decisive, even unreflective, the man who famously told people that ‘if you can’t stand the heat you should keep out of the kitchen.’ It was almost as though he thought that weighing pros and cons was a sign of indecisiveness, of weakness – something of which President Kennedy was at the time being frequently criticised. A great many decisions, Truman told me, have to be made by the President and by him alone. I mentioned the famous motto on his desk: ‘THE BUCK STOPS HERE’. Did he acquire that attitude in the White House?
‘Nope. Why, I ran this county (Jackson County, Missouri) the same way years ago. He looked out of the window and mused about his early days in politics, as part of the legendary Prendergast machine. He emphasised once more how he (‘and your Winston Churchill’) always got on with whatever was the next job in hand.
Eventually it was time to go. ‘Well,’ he laughed, as I made to stand up, ‘it’s nice that you youngsters are able to think about these things long after the event and decide what should or shouldn’t have been done at the time!’
After this parting shot – warm, but provocative to the end – President Truman pulled his portly frame out of his seat, shook my hand and waved me goodbye.
By this stage in his life, Truman was a benign, grandfatherly figure. He was getting a good press in his old age, and was frequently held up as a shining contrast to his ‘bumbling’ successor in the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and to his successor, the ‘inexperienced’ John F. Kennedy. Our meeting took place at the height of the Cold War, two years after the erection of the Berlin Wall and just a few months after the Cuban missile crisis. Widely credited with the vision and decisiveness that led to the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and the ‘Truman Plan’ that helped keep Greece and Turkey from Communism, Truman in old age was something of a national icon, a role he enjoyed. And he clearly enjoyed telling incredulous ‘youngsters’ about the old days when giants stalked the land and he, Harry Truman, had stood up to them and made the world safer (as he saw it) for the rest of us.
There was no hint of doubt or regret in anything he said to me about any of his actions as President, and he undoubtedly went to his grave a few years later confident that his ‘decision’ to drop the atomic bomb was the right and inevitable one. All debate about the dangers of nuclear radiation, for example, or whether the bomb was really used to impress or scare the Soviets, was dismissed out of hand as the dreamings of people who had nothing better to do than speculate about matters which they weren’t competent to judge. As far as Truman was concerned, the bomb was intended to end the war with minimum loss of life (i.e. no American loss of life) – and it did so.
I returned to my hotel in nearby Kansas City, invigorated by the spirit of that feisty old man in the striped cotton suit, and straightaway wrote down as accurately as I could remember precisely what had been said. I didn’t tell Clinton Rossiter that my MA thesis on presidential decision-making was based on a ‘decision’ that wasn’t. He might have made me write an entirely new one on the decision to enter Korea. But I did send a telegram to London to congratulate my cricket-loving father on his fiftieth birthday the following day:
“WELL BATTED FOR HALF CENTURY. STOP. HARRY SENDS REGARDS.”
My parents later told me they were thrilled with the telegram, but found ‘Harry’ a mystery. In some ways, so did I.
DANIEL SNOWMAN, social and cultural historian, lecturer and BBC broadcaster, has written (among other books) America Since 1920; Kissing Cousins: An Interpretation of British and American Culture, 1945-1975; The Hitler Emigrés; and The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera. With a focus on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, he has explored the broader implications of Presidential decision-making in: Daniel Snowman, "President Truman's Decision to Drop the First Atomic Bomb, Political Studies vol. xiv, no.3 (October 1966). See also: www.danielsnowman.org.uk.
Entries in Manhattan Project (2)
It is astonishing to realize how much scientific talent Hitler and his Nazi colleagues managed to drive out of Europe in the 1930s: Einstein, Bohr, Meitner, Frisch, Born, Fermi, Peierls, Szilard, Teller. . . . The list is long and impressive to say the least. Some left because they were Jewish, others because they were appalled by Nazi politics. Most brought their talents to the West, to the United Kingdom and the USA.
I have already written here [see The Fickle Grey Beast, August 2011] of the problems involving neutrons in the fission process, and the irony of those problems being solved in America by the genius and experience of Enrico Fermi, a Hitler émigré from fascist Italy. There was another great irony. It unfolded during, and after, the subsequent development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos.
Edward Teller is a name known to many, even to those who know little about physics. A participant in the Manhattan Project, Teller would, after the war, become deeply involved in American political life, serving as founder and director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and later advising President Reagan on major issues like the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). His youth in Hungary in the 1920s, where as a Jew he suffered academic discrimination under the Horthy regime, nurtured his contempt for totalitarian regimes, of any stripe. His later involvement in America’s nuclear programs had a complicated history.
Teller was one of the original cadre of scientists recruited to Los Alamos in 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project (a name chosen to hide any relation to the war effort). A superb physicist, Teller was a crucial member of the Theoretical Division, whose task involved the enormously difficult calculations involved in designing and building the weapon. Nuclear fission, the heart of the Manhattan Project, involves the splitting of heavy atoms. The resulting pieces of the two new nuclei have a mass less than that of the original uranium nucleus. The “lost” mass is converted to energy, as Einstein had discovered long before. In addition to the two lighter nuclei and resultant energy, there were also, on average, between two and three free neutrons created as well. In the right circumstances, these additional neutrons triggered additional fissions, causing a chain reaction. The accumulated energy thereby released from just a few kilograms of uranium was vast.
It had been realized, however, as early as the 1920s, that it was another, even more energetic process that made the sun shine: not fission, but fusion. In the sun, two hydrogen nuclei can fuse to create a helium nucleus. This helium has a mass less than the masses of the parent hydrogen nuclei. Again, the so-called lost mass shows up as energy. But here, the energy is truly enormous, much greater than that resulting from the fission of a uranium nucleus. Teller felt from the start that if a bomb could be based on fusion rather than fission, there would be no limit to its destructive power.
He tried convincing Robert Oppenheimer, the Los Alamos director, that the hydrogen weapon was the goal to pursue, not the uranium (and eventually plutonium) ones. As difficult as the uranium bomb was, the Super one (as Teller called it) posed even greater problems. Fission involves a neutron entering a uranium nucleus (easily enough done because neutrons possess no electrical charge), the nucleus thereby becoming unstable, causing a split, or fission. Fusing hydrogen nuclei, on the other hand, involves combining two positively charged objects, which normally repel one another. The only way to make them fuse is to get them moving so fast that electrical repulsion cannot act quickly enough to stop them joining. In physical terms, high speed means high temperature. The answer, therefore, is to get the hydrogen HOT. Of course, this is what happens in the Sun, where the core temperature is some 15 million degrees Farenheit.
Faced with huge enough problems building a fission bomb, Oppenheimer wanted no part of the delays that would be involved with fusion. This infuriated Teller, who threw a temper tantrum. He would later deny it, but Los Alamos colleagues later recalled Teller sulking and refusing to work on the “normal” bomb. He wanted only to research and build the Super. He was also angry, it seemed, that Hans Bethe, and not he, had been appointed to head the Theoretical Division. Teller’s refusal to contribute fully to the Manhattan Project was a serious blow. A replacement for him had to be found.
The United Kingdom was where the original work on a uranium fission bomb had been done, well before the Americans became interested or involved. As there were British scientists already at Los Alamos, it was to Britain that Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves, the Project’s director, turned for help. They talked to the man who had discovered the neutron, James Chadwick, and Chadwick recommended that Rudolph Peierls and a team of younger physicists travel to Los Alamos and take up positions in the Manhattan Project’s Theoretical Division, replacing the sulking Edward Teller. In the party was Otto Frisch, Lise Meitner’s nephew, who had earlier taken the news to her in Stockholm that fission had for the first time taken place in Otto Hahn’s laboratory. Included in Peierls’s party of scientists from Britain, most of them German refugees, was a young physicist named Klaus Fuchs.
Fuchs, born in Hesse, had joined the German Communist Party in 1932 while still a university student. When the Nazis came to power the following January, he emigrated to Britain, where he did graduate work at the Universities of Bristol and Edinburgh. At Edinburgh, he was a student of Max Born, another refugee from Germany and one of the fathers of quantum mechanics.
When war broke out, Fuchs, along with many other Germans in Britain, was interned, first on the Isle of Man, then in Quebec. At Born’s instigation, however, he was released and returned to Edinburg, and there recruited by Peierls, yet another German refugee, for work on the Tube Alloys Project, the secret British atomic weapons program. Fuchs was granted British citizenship in 1942. Unbeknownst, he had also, since the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union the year before, been in clandestine contact with the Soviet Embassy in London.
In 1943, once Teller effectively absented himself from the Manhattan Project, Fuchs came with Peierls and others to America, and eventually to the Project’s Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. There he worked on the problems of implosion of a plutonium core, the basis for the Fat Man bomb used at Nagasaki. It was the very problem Teller had refused to consider. His refusal, of course, was a major reason Fuchs was at Los Alamos.
As part of the Manhattan Project team, Fuchs was at the Trinity test in New Mexico in July 1945 and, repeatedly until 1949, provided information to the Soviets about American bomb production. Even more significantly, perhaps, he kept them apprised on the production of fissile uranium and plutonium in the United States. Thus, at the time of the postwar Berlin blockade (1948-49), the Soviets knew that the U.S. lacked enough nuclear weapons to destroy the Soviet Union, giving them a freer hand. It is often alleged that Fuchs also gave the Soviets information that spurred their development of a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb, Teller’s Super bomb. While Fuchs did pass along valuable information, he could not have given them the “secret” to the hydrogen bomb as he was convicted as a spy and in prison from 1950. The Teller-Ulam method of detonating an H-bomb was not developed until 1951. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Fuchs' help was crucial to the Soviet construction of nuclear weapons.
When at Yalta in February 1945, Roosevelt confided to Stalin the existence of the bomb, “Uncle Joe” was not very surprised. Nor should he have been. The Soviets had, thanks to Klaus Fuchs, learned a great deal about the Manhattan Project. And herein lies the irony. Throughout his professional lifetime, including his founding of the nuclear laboratory in Livermore, California, and his influence as advisor to American Presidents, Edward Teller was a virulent anticommunist, and remained so till he died in 2003, aged 95. Fuchs, the communist spy, once released from prison in 1959, moved immediately to East Germany where he resumed a celebrated career in nuclear research behind the Iron Curtain. He collaborated there with Chinese physicists, probably speeding their own development of nuclear weapons. Fuchs died peacefully in Dresden in 1988 at the age of 76.
What is unmistakable is that it was Teller’s refusal to work on the uranium bomb that led to the installation of the spy at Los Alamos who informed the Russians of the work ongoing there. A more ironic twist of fate would be hard to imagine.
DAVID WOLFE is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of New Mexico. He has worked in high-energy physics at the Brookhaven Laboratory, CERN, and other accelerators around the world; and lectured extensively on the history and philosophy of physics.