Liberation Day minus 7777

Aaron Tovish
8 min readApr 19, 2024

2nd entry: a one-and-a-half-hour chat with an ambassador and his aide

The diplomat I mentioned in entry LD-7779 invited his aide to sit down with us. I will confess that I did the greater bulk of the talking. I used the occasion to verbalize what I have been writing lately about the way forward. (I did not bring up Liberation Day.) At the end of the session, I offered to show him my writing once the first draft is completed. He keenly accepted the offer.

I described the double-trap the world fell into during and after WWII, and how, after flailing around for three-quarters of a century, it is time to adopt another approach.

Trap #1: Timing!

In 1933, the Hungary physicist, Leo Szilard, “gorked” the implications of a nuclear chain reaction as he stepped off a curb in London. He envisioned not only the stupendous energy that could be liberated, but also the terrible misuse to which such energy could be directed. Even though at that time the means of such a chain reaction had never been observed, in 1936, Szilard applied for a patent based on the principle (and a possible way to rien in the chain reaction).

A mere three years later, that means was discovered. Two Swedish scientists, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, recognized that the nuclei of a certain heavy element, when prompted by one neutron to fission (split in two), emitted, in the process, two or more neutrons.

The timing simply could not have been worse! Hilter had just taken power in Germany and then annexed the Sudetenland in which there were rich deposits of that “certain heavy element”: Uranium.

Upon hearing this news, Szilard drafted a letter to FDR for his former patent collaborator (refrigerator, in this case, not the nuclear reactor!), Albert Einstein, to sign. This led, through a number of bureaucratic twists and turns, to the establishment of the “Manhattan Project” under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers and based originally at Columbia University.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But it needn’t have unfolded in this manner if Uranium fission had been discovered earlier by two decades, or later by just two years.

In the former case, scientists could have freely discussed the implications of the discovery and collaborated in alerting the public. In the aftermath of WWI, they would have found a most receptive audience. Chemical “weapons” had killed hundreds of thousands in the trenches (and beyond) and ravaged the lungs of millions (including my great-uncle, “Dick” Dickenson). The world was revolted by “weapons of mass destruction” and politicians were compelled to do something about it.

What they did was very, very practical: prohibit their use. They envisioned tackling their production and their stockpiling in due course, but in 1925 they plucked the low hanging fruit. They even avoided the question of universality, by limiting non-use to among the agreeing parties. This increased the incentive to become a party, and as more joined, reduced the incentive to produce more chemical weapons. Possession was given a pass, since the threat of use remained as long as the agreement hadn’t achieved universality.

Biological “weapons” had also been used in WWI, and they were naturally incorporated in the Geneva Protocol along with chemical “weapons”. Can there be the slightest doubt, that if the mass destruction capacity of an uncontrolled release of nuclear energy had been common knowledge in 1925, its use would have also been banned?

When WWII began in Europe in 1939, FDR’s first message to the leaders in Europe was: “Respect the Geneva Protocols!” And in fact, they were, to the greatest extent, respected; the minor — in comparison to WWI — exceptions had to do with non-state actors who, in actual fact, were not parties to the agreement and thus not covered by it. (Not that this in any way excuses those murderous actions.)

If nuclear “weapons” had been incorporated in the Geneva Protocol, it is more than likely that the Manhattan Project would never have even begun. Hiroshima and then Nagasaki would not have been ignited by nuclear flashes. Firebombing might have led anyway to their destruction by firestorm, as was the fate of some two dozen Japanese cities that were not “set aside” as testing grounds for the new nuclear “weapon”.

(A quick note from actual history. Firebombing was banned not long after WWII, but nuclear “weapons” were not deemed “incendiary weapons” because their “primary effect” was not to cause fire. This was marginally believable when discussing blast yields in the tens of kilotons range, but it is absolutely false for weapons in the hundreds of kiloton range; then the circle of blast damage is dwarfed by the circle of firestorm damage.)

OK, now for the two-years-later scenario. By mid-1945, the Manhattan Project is still struggling with the several challenges of sustaining a Uranium (or Plutonium) chain reaction. Russia, as agreed in Yalta, drops its neutrality vis a vis the Pacific War and invades Manchuria on schedule. Japan surrenders maybe a week later in August, or perhaps in September.

Within a year, the secret projects in Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos are exposed. What a waste of precious war resources! Scientists were tinkering about in labs, while soldiers died in the jungle and on the beaches! We knew neither Germany nor Japan would get this monstrous weapon, so why did we pursue it! Immediately cut off funding for this outrage and work internationally to prohibit it!

Alas, due to the vagaries of history, the Manhattan Project had just enough time to “deliver.” And then we fell into…

Trap #2: Disarmament!

Disarmament?!? Yes. When, in London, the United Nations General Assembly met for the first time in January 1946, the very first resolution it adopted had to do with “weapons adaptable to mass destruction”. It called for their elimination, most pointedly “eliminating nuclear weapons from national arsenals”. There was no consideration whatsoever of prohibiting their use.

WHY? “Let me list the ways.” (Credit: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43)

(1) The Bomb ended the war! The Emperor even said so.

(2) The good guys used it, mercifully, to that end.

(3) There are so few of them, why not nip this in the bud?

(4) No one else is going to get them for at least a decade.

(4) It’s about time to get rid of chemical and biological “weapons”, too.

In the afterglow of V-Day, all this seemed perfectly plausible. To some, at least. Unfortunately, not to US State Secretary Byrne and General Groves. Or, for that matter, Stalin. In point of fact:

(1) Indeed, the Emperor said so, but he was lying. He had a very good reason (regarding his personal survival) to attribute his surrender decision to the Bomb. On August 9th, 1945, he had personally attended the emergency War Council meeting for the first time not because of Hiroshima, but because, on the previous day, Russia had abruptly ended its neutral stance in the Pacific War and began to rapidly drive the Imperial Army out of Manchuria. When the Emperor listed the multiple ways his commanders had failed to deliver on their promises to him, Hiroshima did not feature high on the list, and when news of Nagasaki arrived during the deliberations it was just barely taken note of. The Emperor left little doubt that his only remaining option was surrender. A group of younger officers got wind of this and did everything they could to thwart the broadcast of the surrender message. However, the Emperor had crafted that message specifically so that the Imperial Army would not lose face, and the older, higher ranking commanders would not turn against him. He blamed it on the Bomb, and he survived, but the rest of the world was saddled with the myth that nuclear weapons end wars. The most that can be said in this regard is that the Bomb provided a facesaving excuse to stop fighting. And so, the millions of soldliers and sailor who had beaten back the Imperial Army where eclipsed by the Bomb. (All this only came out when the minutes of the 9 August War Council were revealed decades later.)

(2) America, which had ranked below several other powers prior to WWII, now ranked Number One. It had come to the rescue of Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Bringing up “use” would have implied criticism of what the US had done. The US was assiduously covering up the horrors that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaka, and no one was asking the hard questions.

(3) Full-tilt production of U235 and Plutonium was underway in Oak Ridge and Hanford. The pace of Bomb assembly was picking up. It is estimated that by 1946 the US arsenal already consisted of two dozen U and Pu bombs. Only mass production could bring the per-unit price down to a figure which wouldn’t make Congress gag.

(4) The Russians were not standing idly by either. In just four years, they were able to conduct a nuclear test explosion. And the nuclear arms race was off and running.

(5) The “afterglow” did not dispel the difficulties of verifiably eliminating chemical or biological “weapons”, and preventing re-acquisition. It took a quarter century to prohibit possession of the latter and nearly half a century for the former. Needless to say, in this context, nuclear prohibition is no easier.

The economic/security situation in Europe in the 1950s deepened the problem. Russia was stripping Eastern Europe of its industrial capacity (as “reparations”), and kept its huge army there to make sure no one objected to the “new order”. Meanwhile, Western Europe was determined to revive its industrial capacity and was in no mood to feed a huge standing army. The United States, with its policy of massive retaliation, promoted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; as its sole nuclear member, this policy became the default nuclear policy of the allaince. The Bomb would make up for NATO’s conventional warfighting deficit. Western Europe could go ahead with its economic recovery.

There was a certain logic to this Faustian bargain. The US, with its large, diversified nuclear arsenal, could exert “escalation dominance” over Russia, with its still nascent arsenal. The threat to initiate nuclear warfare had a degree of credibility, and thus a deterrent effect. Of course, Russia could not tolerate this situation and actually took the lead in the late 1950s in intercontinental missile capability. By the end of the 1960s, the US/NATO no longer exerted escalation dominance, yet the first use options persisted as if nothing had changed. Mort Halprin saw this coming early in the decade and was among the first to advocate a shift to no first use — to no avail.

More than any other factor, it has been chasing the long-dead phantom of escalation dominance — or thwarting it — which has fueled the nuclear arms race.

To its great credit, when China joined the nuclear club, it decided not to run in that race and adopted a no first use policy. To the extent that it is now expanding its arsenal, it is to disabuse the US of the dangerous notion that it can exert escalation dominance vis a vis China. The same goes for India vis a vis China and vice versa.

Which brings me to why first use policies are bad for security and no first use policies are good. And why the time is right (if not loooooong overdue) to put no first use policies front and center in addressing the nuclear threat.

But that will have to wait till the next communique. (It’s not like I can devote every waking hour to this!)

Stay tuned. This is just going to get more and more interesting, I can assure you.