Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, September 1945


William Wallis

The Atomic Bomb


From Fourth International, Vol.6 No.9, September 1945, pp.277-278.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


On Aug. 6 President Truman first announced to the world that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. This bomb was said to have possessed more power than 20,000 tons of TNT, a destructive force equal to the load of 2,000 B-29s. President Truman further described this new scientific achievement as involving the “harnessing of the basic power of the universe ... the force from which the sun draws its powers” and went on to warn the Japanese that “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

According to the World-Telegram of Aug. 7,

“Informed sources at Pearl Harbor said the bomb was understood to have the power to blind persons within a five-mile radius and to kill within four miles. The searing blast was said to fuse the earth into silicate-like formations.”

In reporting on the first test firing of the atomic bomb in the remote desert lands of New Mexico, the New York Times of Aug. 7 said,

“A blinding flash many times as brilliant as the midday sun and a massive multi-colored cloud boiling up 40,000 feet into the air accompanied the first test firing of an atomic bomb on July 16 ... at 5:30 a.m. At the moment of the explosion a mountain range three miles distant stood out sharply in brilliant light.”

After the blinding flash came a tremendous roar and a heavy pressure wave which was so great that two men outside the control tower more than five miles away were knocked down. A steel tower on which the bomb was hung was vaporized and in its place gaped a huge crater.

The bourgeois press reported on Aug. 8 that a second atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, a city of 252,000 persons. In the words of the New York World-Telegram correspondent, the city was “virtually blown off the map.”

Tokyo reported the same day that most of Hiroshima, a city of 343,000, had been destroyed by the single bomb and that blasted and blistered corpses “too numerous to count” littered the ruins; also that “the impact of the bomb was so terrific that practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death by the tremendous heat and pressure, engendered by the blast.” The New York World-Telegram of Aug. 8 further reported that the dead and wounded might exceed 100,000. On August 22 it reported a Tokyo broadcast as saying

“the number of dead are mounting as many of those who received burns cannot survive their wounds because of the effects the atomic bomb produce on the human body. Even those who received minor burns looked quite healthy at first only to weaken after a few days for some unknown reason and frequently died.”

The War Department had earlier denied the published report of Dr. Harold Jacobson, one of those who had participated in the atomic research work at Columbia University, to the effect that the bombed area in Japan might cause death for persons entering the area for a period of 70 years.

Despite these denials subsequent eye-witness accounts by US correspondents who visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem to confirm, at least tentatively, these indications of the horrible after-effects of the atomic bombings. “Thousands are in hospitals around Kure with only minor burns the size of a quarter on the hand or face,” said NBC’s correspondent Guthrie Janssen.

“But these victims suffer from extreme nausea with temperatures as high as 104. They cough up blood. Their white corpuscles count decreased rapidly. All of these will probably die.” (PM, Sept. 4).

N.Y. Times correspondent, William H. Lawrence, wired Sept. 3 that the atomic bomb was still killing 100 people daily in devastated Hiroshima.

“Japanese doctors told us,” he said, “they were helpless to deal with burns caused by the bomb’s great flash or with the other physical ailments caused by the bomb. Some said they thought that all who had been in Hiroshima that they would die as a result of the bomb’s lingering effects.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica discloses that prolonged exposure of the human body to radiation from radioactive substances leads to atrophy of the parts affected and to cancer. However, under carefully controlled conditions, the rays have been successfully used in the treatment of cancer and in the destruction of bacteria which cause typhus, cholera, anthrax and similar diseases. This is a typical illustration of how resources that promise so much in the way of benefit to humanity are actually used by the capitalist ghouls for its destruction.

What is this new death-dealing machine? In order to grasp its physical meaning certain terms must be defined and described. Briefly these are:

U-236 has a very short average life, measurable in tiny fractions of seconds. In other words, it disintegrates explosively to simpler elements of lower atomic weights and numbers. In this disintegration more neutrons are liberated, which further accelerates the disintegration of the mass. This process is known as a “chain reaction” by the physical chemists.

During this disintegration a net loss of mass occurs; the mass is converted to energy. This conversion may be expressed mathematically as the Einstein mass-energy law: E=MC2, in which E is the energy evolved, M the mass consumed and C2 is the velocity of light squared. It is not hard to realize what a tremendous amount of energy is liberated by considering that the multiplication factor C2 is the product of two very large numbers (light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per second). This equation was first deduced mathematically by Einstein and later verified experimentally. Calculation further reveals that the energy equivalent to one pound of matter is one and one-half million horsepower acting for ten thousand hours. This gives a faint idea of the tremendous amount of energy – explosive force – liberated. At the same time it indicates the amount of useful work available if the energy were utilized in power plants instead of the destruction of mankind.

The composition of the atomic bomb may be, according to information received and reported by the New York American Museum of Natural History,

“a form of the element uranium which supplies the principal explosive force, and radium and beryllium which form the detonating apparatus for releasing this force. This detonator perhaps acts in the following manner: radium emits rays which strike the beryllium, which in turn emits neutrons. Paraffin or water slows the neutrons as they pass through on their way to smashing the uranium atom and thus releasing the atomic energy.”

This conjecture is based on scientific facts published prior to 1939 when the iron lid of censorship was clamped on research in the field of atomic physics. Undoubtedly the vast amount of research work done during the years has brought new and improved methods of effecting the operations involved.

On Aug. 12 the War Department released a 30,000 word report by Professor H.D. Smyth of Princeton in which he traces in general terms the development of the atomic bomb project. The report is full of vagaries, omissions and misleading information. The summaries of this report that appeared in the press, e.g., that in the Aug. 16. N.Y. Times, are far worse; in fact, errors seem to be the order of the day. But from this hedge-podge it is possible to glean some information regarding the results of the research carried on during the war years and applied in the tremendous government projects.

According to the Smyth report, the production units at the Hanford Engineer Works located on a government reservation at Pasco, Washington, are several huge uranium “piles.” Each is a very large block of graphite with holes in which are placed uranium metal cylinders. These are sealed in aluminium cans to protect the uranium from corrosion by the cooling water constantly pumped through the pile. Each pile runs itself, so to speak. Once started, the design, size and control of the unit must be such that the chain reaction will continue at an even rate – neither die down nor overshoot into an explosion.

The report indicated that the U-235 present in the uranium mass is utilized to furnish neutrons, in the manner described above, for the bombardment of the nucleus of U-238. This bombardment converts U-238 to U-239 by virtue of the fact that a neutron (mass = 1) is added to the nucleus of U-238. However, the U-239 then loses two nuclear electrons which pass into the electronic orbits, converting two neutrons into two protons. This means that a new element has been produced which has an atomic weight of 239 and an atomic number of 94. It is called plutonium. This nuclear reaction may be better understood by studying the following sequence:

Add one neutron from U-235 to obtain:

This is short-lived and loses two nuclear electrons to the orbits to obtain:

The carbon in the piles acts as a “moderator” to slow the neutrons.

Plutonium is then capable of fission in a manner similar to U-235. There are two advantages in conversion of U-238 to plutonium. One is that natural uranium contains 99.3 percent U-238 and only 0.7 percent U-235 (traces only of U-234). This renders available for fission one hundred and forty-two times as much uranium as would be available if only U-235 were used. The other advantage is that plutonium, being a different element with different chemical properties, may be readily separated by chemical means, thus avoiding the extremely difficult physical operations necessary for separating isotopes.

Trotsky’s Warning

This, then, is the generally known data in scientific circles about this most terrible instrument of destruction unloosed by man upon our planet. It was prepared in secret; unleashed in secret; its feverish development is proceeding in the same way. At the present time the advantages are on the side of the American imperialists. But this new scientific discovery can no more remain the monopoly of any single group or country than those which preceded it. What does the inescapable further development of the atomic bomb both here and in other countries signify for mankind under the continued role of capitalism?

Leon Trotsky warned the working class in his last great May 1940 manifesto on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution:

“Today it is no longer a question, as was the case in the nineteenth century, of simply assuring a more rapid and more healthy development of economic life: today it is a question of saving mankind from suicide.”

The atomic bombing of Japan has turned this prediction into a fearsome reality.

Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Last updated on 12.9.2008