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Alperovitz Gar and Bird, Kai - The Centrality of the Bomb

Alperovitz Gar and Bird, Kai - The Centrality of the Bomb

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Published by L. Lothar C. Hein

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Published by: L. Lothar C. Hein on Feb 27, 2009
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by Gar Alperovitz and Kai Bird"Russia and the United States [have] alwaysgotten along for a hundred and fifty years historywith Russia friendly and helpful. Our respectiveorbits do not dash geographically and I think on thewhole we can probably keep out of clashes in thefuture."
--Secretary of War Henry StimsonApril 1945
"Before the atom bomb was used, I would havesaid, yes, I was sure we could keep the peace withRussia. Now I don't know...People are frightenedand disturbed all ~er. Everyone feels insecureagain."
--General Dwight EisenhowerVisiting Moscow, August 1945Even though the Cold War's abrupt, peacefuldemise rendered useless most of the assump-tions and theories advanced to explain thatstrange conflict, orthodox historians have kepton writing about it as if what actually happenedhad been inevitable. Moreover, they largelyavoid the specific role the atomic bomb playedin fueling the Cold War. In fact, the bomb wasa primary catalyst of the Cold War, and, apartfrom the nuclear arms race, the most importantspecific role of nuclear weapons was to revolu-tionize American policy toward Germany. Thebomb permitted U.S. leaders to do somethingno American president could otherwise havecontemplated: rebuild and rearm the former
author of
Atomic Diplomacy:Hiroshima and Potsdam,
is president of the NationalCenter for Economic Alternatives and a fellow of thelnstitute for
Studies. KAI
ofJohn J.McCloy: The Making of the American Establish-meat, is currently
fellow at the John D. and Cather-ine T. MacArtbur foundation.
Nazi state. That in turn had extraordinary,ongoing consequences.The bomb also made the Korean and Viet-nam wars possible: Had the weapon not beenavailable to protect the U.S. global flank inEurope, such episodes would always have been
wrong war in the wrong place at thewrong time," to use General Omar Bradley'swords. Finally, those who believed early on thatAmerica and Russia could reach a great poweraccommodation were probably right--and suchan accommodation may well have been delayedfor four decades because the atomic bomb ap-peared precisely when America and the SovietUnion were beginning to feel their way to anew post-World War II relationship.Not only does that explanation of the ColdWar offer a good measure of common sense,but a vast body of new archival research lendspowerful support to the hypothesis. This is notto say that frictions, rivalries, and areas of con-flict would not have existed between the majorpowers had there been no atomic bomb. Whatneeds to be explained is the extreme militariza-tion of great power relations that came to becalled "the Cold War."Historians like to see patterns, trends, andcontinuity in long periods of development, butthey rarely pause to reflect upon the extremechanciness of the timing of historically impor-tant events. Consider the prehistory of nuclearweapons. Physicist Hans Bethe once observedthat it was only very "slowly and painfully,through a comedy of errors, [that] the fission ofuranium was discovered."It was by mere chance, for instance, that En-rico Fermi made his critical 1934 discoveriesabout the capacity of the atom's nucleus tocapture slow neutrons. Fermi's seemingly acci-dental findings built on a line of developmentthat began with Albert Einstein's famous 1905papers and continued with subsequent reportsand inventions by scientists such as Leo Szilard(in connection with the cyclotron) and JamesChadwick (in connection with the existence ofthe neutron).Most accounts do not acknowledge that hadtwentieth-century physics not been moving atthe particular rate it did, America would never.
A~oerovitz & Bird
have gotten m the 1939 Szilard-Einstein letterto President Franklin Roosevelt, the 1941MAUD Committee report, and then the Man-hattan Project--to a sufficiendy advanced point,that is, where large sums of money and engi-neering expertise could have produced an atom-ic bomb by August 1945. As Bethe's remarksuggests and others have noted, events mightjust as well have moved a decade or two sloweror perhaps fister.With that in mind, it is instructive to reflecton what might have happened (or, more pre-cisely, what probably would not have happened)if the "independent track" of scientific histori-cal development had not reached fruition in1945. What might the postwar world havelooked like in the absence of an early U.S.atomic monopoly?Germany and the BombAt Yalta, Roosevelt had been quite clearabout two fundamentals: First, given the do-mestic political concerns of a country taught tofear and hate Germany in the course of twoworld wars, he believed that the former Nazistate simply had to be eliminated as a serioussecurity threat in the postwar period. It wasboth a strategic and an absolute political re-quirement. Second, as is well-known, Rooseveltfelt that the American people would not permithim to keep American troops in Europe forlong after the war. Given strong "isolationist"sentiments that appeared in Congress and thepopular press, he was almost certainly correctin his judgment.Those constraints produced the main re-quirements of Roosevelt's postwar securitypolicy: He needed a rough agreement with theother dominant military power--the SovietUnion---to control Germany directly, and heneeded a concrete way (beyond rhetoric) toweaken Germany's underlying military poten-tial. Exaggerated discussions of "pastoraliza-tion" apart, Roosevelt's strategy centered onthe notion of "industrial disarmament" toweaken Germany's military-industrial com-plex--and simultaneously to cement American-Soviet cooperation. Reductions in Germanindustry could also provide the short-termY.

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