Joseph Hansen

Fear and the Bomb

(June 1949)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.6, June 1949, pp.188-189.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy

by P.M.S. Blackett
McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. New York and Toronto. 244 pp. $3.50.

This book marks an advance in the thinking of the scientists on the problem of atomic energy. Hitherto the scientists have emphasized the destructiveness of atomic weapons – deliberately trying to heighten fear of another war. Their purpose has been to make the danger to civilization so vivid as to impel the ruling circles to seek enduring peace.

But in opposing another war it is not enough to build up fear of atomic weapons. Mass fear sweeps over into politics. Consequently it can serve either reactionary or progressive political ends. Atomic destruction can be avoided only by understanding the relationship between atomic energy and the great economic and political issues of our time and acting in accordance with a correct political program.

Since the majority of people do not understand this relationship or know the correct solution to the problem of controlling atomic energy, the imperialist rulers of America have been able to utilize the writings of the scientists on the consequences of the bomb for their own reactionary aims.

Blind fear of the bomb has helped them in their drive to militarize America. They have launched witch-hunts and “loyalty” purges, struck heavy blows against civil liberties and taken the United States a long way down the road to totalitarian thought-control – all in the name of protecting America from the fearful threat of the atomic weapons which they monopolize.

The writings of the scientists on the destructiveness of these new weapons have even played into the hands of the military madmen who talk about a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, an easy lightning war which – they claim – would be over within a few days.

Blackett’s book is evidently intended to correct this one-sided emphasis on the horror of the bomb. The author’s opinion carries weight, for he is a leading British atomic scientist, winner of the 1948 Nobel prize for his work in physics.

He sets out to answer the question: Suppose the American militarists launch their projected surprise atomic attack on the Soviet Union and succeed in slaughtering the 40,000,000 civilians they confidently predict could be murdered in the first few days – what next?

Blackett concludes that “atomic bombing alone” would not prove decisive.

“On the contrary, a long-drawn-out and bitter struggle over much of Europe and Asia, involving million-strong land armies, vast military casualties and widespread civil war, would be inevitable.”

Blackett reaches this conclusion on the basis of the pattern of World War II. Even the colossal slaughter of civilians initiated by Britain and the United States in World War II did not of itself prove decisive. He considers the defeat of the German Air Force as the most decisive single military element. When the ground forces finally moved in the destruction of civilian centers proved to be a handicap to the occupation.

In the controversy that followed publication of the book, opponents of Blackett’s views have claimed that the comparison between the bombings of civilians in World War II and those planned in World War III are of qualitatively different order. Moreover, they add, as if sophistry were needed to clinch the point, all Blackett’s opinions and conclusions are suspect, since his political sympathies seem to lie with the Soviet Union.

Without taking sides in this dispute over the effectiveness of various methods of blasting, burning alive and poisoning the civilians of the world’s great cities, we can point out that Blackett’s conclusion about the unlikelihood of a lightning victory is shared by a wing of the American military caste and also by leading American atomic scientists.

The Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists headed by Albert Einstein and Harold C. Urey, in a statement issued April 12, 1948, declared:

“Let us not delude ourselves that victory would be cheap and easy ... No military leader has suggested that we could force a Russian surrender without a costly ground force invasion of Europe and Asia. Even if victory were finally achieved after colossal sacrifices in blood and treasure, we would find Western Europe in a condition of ruin far worse than that which exists in Germany today, its population decimated and overrun with disease. We would have for generations the task of rebuilding. Western Europe and of policing the Soviet Union. This would be the result of the cheapest victory we could achieve. Few responsible persons believe in even so cheap a victory.”

In his effort to relate the problem of atomic energy to the bigger problems of world politics, Blackett reviews the controversy that has raged around its use and control. He condenses the main positions and cites the pertinent documents, making the book a handy source of information on this subject. In 1945, he points out, the leading atomic scientists pleaded with Truman and his advisers not to use the bomb in a surprise attack on civilians. The plea was brushed aside. Despite an offer of the Japanese Government to open peace negotiations, two bombs were deliberately dropped without warning on crowded civilian centers.

What was the political motive for this mass murder? Blackett thinks that it was mainly to end the war and, secure the surrender of Japan before the USSR joined in. He holds that it was “not so much the last military act of the second World War, as the first act of the cold diplomatic war with Russia.”

this charge has met with indignant denials from Blackett’s opponents. Louis N. Ridenour, replying in the March Scientific American, upholds the Truman thesis about saving American and Japanese lives by using the bomb. “We have all this on the solemn public testimony of the men responsible for the decisions,” says Ridenour, apparently believing that an attorney’s appeal to the good character this clients is sufficient to crush Blackett’s political argument.

Philip Morrison, a nuclear physicist who participated in the Los Alamos project, offers confirmation of Blackett’s conclusion.

“I can testify personally,” he writes in the February Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “that a date near August tenth was a mysterious final date which we, who had the daily technical job of readying the bomb, had to meet at whatever cost in risk or money or good development policy. That is hard to explain except by Blackett’s thesis, for the tenth was about the date on which the Russians had agreed to enter the war.”

In the United Nations negotiations over control of atomic energy, Blackett shows how the Baruch plan, if accepted, would have driven a wedge into the nationalized economy of the Soviet Union. He shows how Baruch’s scheme would have given American imperialism a stranglehold in the industrially-backward areas of the world where the need for a new cheap source of energy is far more acute than .in the highly-developed, energy-rich United States.

Finally, he points out how the Baruch proposal would have given the United States the possibility of legalizing World War III on a convenient pretext.

Baruch’s plan would not have committed the Truman Administration to even disclosing any of the so-called “secrets” of tapping atomic energy, yet it was publicized as “one of the most generous gestures of history.”

Blackett does not believe that Moscow plans war on the United States. The USSR is not an aggressive power, he holds. The Soviet authorities “must certainly consider that on both military and industrial grounds they have much to gain and little to lose by delaying the clash as long as possible.”

The weakest section of the book is the final chapter, A Way Out? A brief four and a half pages, it advances the long-exploded nostrum of a “bargain between the two States” and reduction of armaments. It is here that Blackett’s views coincide most closely with those of the Kremlin.

This chapter shows no evidence of the thought and research, that went into previous sections. Blackett need not have dug long in the archives to discover that militarists do not fear the slogan of disarmament. Even Hitler found the slogan useful in his preparations for World War II.

Pacifist bleatings offer no way out. The projected Third World War with its atomic destruction can be avoided only by taking government power out of the hands of the merchants of death and replacing their anarchic capitalist system by the planned economy of socialism. This is the only road to enduring peace.

Despite its weaknesses, Fear, War, and the Bomb is well worth reading. As a contribution to the political discussion on the consequences of atomic energy, it can help lift the reaction from self-defeating fear to a political solution of the problem.


Last updated on: 22.2.2006