The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (6. The Cold War)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

6. The Cold War

Ted Grimsrud—January 3, 2011


A crucial step in the American acceleration of the arms race came when the United States decided to proceed full speed ahead in building and deploying hydrogen bombs, a tremendous enhancement of our nuclear weapons arsenal. Early on in the development of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear physicists realized that they would capable of creating much more devastating types of bombs. However, priorities on speed required a focus on the less powerful bombs. After the Japanese surrendered, American leaders faced the question of whether they would proceed with further development of this new kind of bomb.

Most of the top physicists opposed such development. However, by now the momentum toward American world domination and the militarization of foreign policy moved swiftly, greatly enhanced by the demonization of the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine provided a rationale for intensifying the Cold War.

After the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear bombs in 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the federal agency charged with overseeing the American nuclear weapons program, strongly recommended that the U.S. step back from the brink of an accelerated arms race and decide not to develop the hydrogen bomb. The AEC’s General Advisory Committee, made up of several of the top physicists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project, issued a report with unanimous assent saying no to the hydrogen bomb: “There is no limit to the explosive power of the bomb except that imposed by the requirements of delivery. The weapon would have an explosive effect some hundreds of times that of present [atomic] bombs. It is clear that the use of this weapon would bring about the destruction of innumerable lives; it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations.”[1]

The AEC itself voted to affirm the recommendation of its advisory committee and passed the recommendation along to President Truman. Tragically, Truman chose to refuse to accept this decision by the AEC. He formed a new committee made up of AEC chair, David Lilienthal, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Johnson, echoing the commitments of the Pentagon now for full speed ahead on weapon development, strongly supported proceeding with the hydrogen bomb, while Lilienthal represented the AEC position. Continue reading “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (6. The Cold War)”