The Greatest Power on Earth

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The prevention of nuclear warfare is on its way to becoming the most popular cause in the world. In nations large and small, East and West, people clearly comprehend the fearful destructive force of today’s atomic weapons. After four decades of living with the implicit threat of a nuclear bombardment, people in an ever growing grass-roots movement are demanding that politicians find a way to defuse the possibility of nuclear conflict.

Nuclear technology now ensures that any total war between the two super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, will risk the very substance of life on earth. In World War II, the largest bombs were believed to deliver a detonation of ten tons of TNT. The violence of the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima was twenty kilotons or twenty thousand tons of TNT. Today, the intercontinental missiles in the arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union carry warheads of at least three megatons, or the equivalent of three million tons of TNT. This means that the combined nuclear inventories of the two superpowers alone has an explosive power capable of destroying every city on earth seventy times over. Even the deployment of a single megaton bomb would vaporize every single inhabitant in a four- or five-mile radius. Furthermore, the heat caused by such a weapon, with temperatures hotter than the core of the sun, could produce a firestorm that would consume all the available oxygen of an ever greater area. People living in the high risk areas seven to nine miles away would suffer second or third degree burns. In addition, radiation charges from the holocaust would be felt by those living one hundred miles from the bomb-blast site.

The first nuclear explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July, 1945, caused Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, director of an experimental nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos, to look at the barren desert landscape and quote from the Bhagavad Gt, “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” Earlier he had attempted to make known to a select committee of governmental officials that the third-generation bombs might be expected to yield the equivalent of ten to one hundred million tons of TNT. This possibility prompted even the most stouthearted of his listeners to pause and wonder what they were doing. James Byrnes, then the Director of War Mobilization and a member of the committee, stated: “As I heard these scientists predict the destructive power of the weapon, I was thoroughly frightened.” Apparently, Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, was equally fearful. He favored a possible nonmilitary demonstration of the bomb in such a manner that the Japanese would be so impressed that they would see the uselessness of continuing the war. Obviously, fear of the bomb’s potential was felt by the scientists themselves. By the spring of 1945, Leo Szilard, an American nuclear physicist and biophysicist born in Hungary, was ready to ask some serious and ethical questions concerning the bomb: “Would it be necessary to prove the weapon’s worth by incinerating the population of a major city or would a demonstration be enough to bring about surrender?” These questions were intimately linked with the debate by politicians in Washington: “Should the Russians be told of the Manhattan Project before or after the weapon has been demonstrated to exist?”

The name “Manhattan Project” was the secret code designation employed to cover activity associated with the United States’s effort to design and build a powerful weapon to defeat her World War II enemies. The discovery of fission in 1939 indicated that certain radioactive materials could be used to create a bomb of unprecedented power. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed leadership responsibility for the Manhattan Project in the hands of General Leslie R. Graves. He was given unlimited authority to tap military, industrial, and scientific resources to make the bomb a reality. General Graves later maintained that within two weeks of taking charge, he had no illusion “but that Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis.” Citing the disastrous consequences of the Russo-German Pact of August, 1939, and the long record of Communist tyranny, Ronald W. Clark, the author of this enthralling history, comments that General Graves’s attitude was not unnatural, even if it did not encourage tripartite collaboration.

At Potsdam, in July, 1945, President Harry Truman casually mentioned to Stalin that the United States had a new weapon of “special destructive force.” Truman later wrote that the Russian Premier showed no unusual interest in this information. Stalin merely commented that he was glad to hear the news and hoped the United States would “make good use of it against the Japanese.” Even though the words “atomic” or “nuclear” were not used by Truman, Stalin seemingly was well aware of what the Americans had achieved. The achievement, when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, resulted in the death of approximately seventy thousand inhabitants. Three days later, another bomb dropped on Nagasaki killed at least thirty-five thousand more Japanese.

Since it was known that the Russians had been experimenting in nuclear physics since 1934 in four laboratories under Igor Kurchatov, the leading figure...

(The entire section is 2174 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Best Sellers. XLI, August, 1981, p. 195.

Book World. XI, May 10, 1981, p. 3.

Choice. XIX, October, 1981, p. 255.

Library Journal. CVI, April 1, 1981, p. 800.

Listener. CIV, December 11, 1980, p. 795.

The New Republic. CLXXXIV, June 6, 1981, p. 35.

Saturday Review. VIII, May, 1981, p. 64.

Science. CCXIV, October 16, 1981, p. 324.

Smithsonian. XII, June, 1981, p. 136.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LVII, Autumn, 1981, p. 134.