Magazine article New Internationalist

Everything Has Changed

Magazine article New Internationalist

Everything Has Changed

Article excerpt

A brief history of nuclear weapons

'The explosive force of nuclear fission has changed everything except our modes of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe. We shall require an entirely new pattern of thinking if humankind is to survive.' Albert Einstein, 1946

The 6,100 metre mushroom cloud which towered over Nagasaki.

The Manhattan Project

Scientific breakthroughs in the 1930s made atomic bomb production possible. Fearing the prospect of Hitler developing nuclear weapons, top physicists from around the world joined the secret 'Manhattan Project' to develop them first. Unprecedented funding came from the US. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, the Manhattan Project had not yet developed a working weapon. Many scientists lobbied for their research to be turned to peaceful purposes. But US President Harry Truman saw the advantage of possessing the bomb ahead of the Soviet Union, and ordered the first test in July, resulting in the mightiest explosion humanity had ever witnessed.

Hiroshima

Truman immediately decided to use this awesome weapon to attack Japan, with which the Allies were still at war. Officially, this was to force the stubborn Japanese leadership to capitulate. In fact, Japan was already seeking a negotiated surrender. It seems likely that the US nuked Japan to show the world that it had a unique and devastating weapon and was prepared to use it.

On 6 August 1945, a bomb known as 'Little Boy' was dropped on Hiroshima. Resident Dr Shuntaro Hida was visiting a patient outside the city at the time: 'My whole heart trembled at what I saw. There was a great fire ring floating over the city. Within a moment, a massive deep white cloud grew out of the centre and a long black cloud spread over the entire width of the city, the beginning of an enormous storm created by the blast. I decided I had to return as soon as possible. I looked at the road before me. Denuded, burnt and bloody, numberless survivors were in my path; some crawling on their knees or on all fours, some stood with difficulty or leant on another's shoulder. No-one showed any sign that helped me to recognize him or her as a human being. The cruellest sight was the number of raw bodies that lay one upon the other. Although the road was already packed with victims, the terribly wounded, bloody and burnt kept crawling in. They had become a pile of flesh.'

After shock

'About a week after the bombing unusual symptoms began to appear in the survivors,' remembers Dr Shuntaro Hida. 'When patients raised their hands to their heads while struggling with pain, their hair would fall out. Experiencing severe symptoms of fever, throat pain, bleeding and depilation, the survivors fell into a dangerous condition within an hour of the onset. Very few escaped death. Our patients were dying from a bomb which could kill them long after the blast.' The total number of deaths in the first hours was 75,000, but many more died within a week from acute radiation poisoning. By December 1945, 140,000 were dead, and by the end of 1950, 200,000.

Three days later, the US dropped a second bomb - nicknamed 'Fat Man' - on Nagasaki. Around 40,000 died immediately, rising to 140,000 by the end of 1950. Truman promised to eliminate Japanese cities one by one in a 'rain of ruin'. Japan surrendered on 15 August, on the same conditions it had asked for before the bombings.

The H-bomb

Moscow had obtained information from spies involved with the Manhattan Project. After the War, it took the Soviets only four years to produce their first fission bomb. Truman retaliated with a crash programme to develop a weapon thousands of times more powerful again: the 'hydrogen' or thermonuclear bomb. Although many scientists objected, their concerns were ignored. The US tested its first fusion bomb (code-named 'Mike') in 1952. More than 450 times the power of the Nagasaki bomb, it obliterated Elugelab atoll in the Marshall Islands. …

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