Historian Peter Kuznick will join Los Alamos Study Group executive director Greg Mello Saturday evening for a discussion at Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos. Courtesy photo
BY GREG MELLO
Los Alamos Study Group
Although the indefatigable Los Alamos Reporter has already posted the basics, I would like to personally invite the Los Alamos community to join us in a discussion on Saturday, July 22 at 6:30 pm in Fuller Lodge. Historian Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, kick off the evening via Zoom.
During World War II, the perception that (then-Soviet) Russia might — or would — need “subduing” after World War II was never far from the minds of many political conservatives, including General Groves. As he said:
“I think it is also important to state — I think it is well known — that there was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis.” (Testimony “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer”, Transcript of Hearing Before Personnel Security Board, Washington, DC, April 12, 1954 to May 6, 1954, p.173 [p.183 in pdf] http://bit.ly/1x9T6dQ)
Joseph Rotblat, a physicist at Los Alamos during the war and later recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, later wrote:
“In March 1944 I experienced a disagreeable shock. At that time I was living with the Chadwicks in their house on the Mesa, before moving later to the ‘Big House:’ the quarters for single scientists. General Leslie Groves, when visiting Los Alamos, frequently came to the Chadwicks for dinner and relaxed palaver. During one such conversation Groves said that, of course, the real purpose in making the bomb was to subdue the Soviets. (Whatever his exact words, his real meaning was clear.) Although I had no illusions about the Stalin regime – after all, it was his pact with Hitler that enabled the latter to invade Poland – I felt deeply the sense of betrayal of an ally. Remember, this was said at a time when thousands of Russians were dying every day on the Eastern Front, tying down the Germans and giving the Allies time to prepare for the landing on the continent of Europe. Until then I had thought that our work was to prevent a Nazi victory, and now I was told that the weapon we were preparing was intended for use against the people who were making extreme sacrifices for that very aim.
“My concern about the purpose of our work gained substance from conversations with Niels Bohr. He used to come to my room at eight in the morning to listen to the BBC news bulletin. Like myself, he could not stand the U.S. bulletins which urged us every few seconds to purchase a certain laxative! I owned a special radio on which I could receive the BBC World Service. Sometimes Bohr stayed on and talked to me about the social and political implications of the discovery of nuclear energy and of his worry about the dire consequences of a nuclear arms race between East and West which he foresaw.
“All this, and the growing evidence that the war in Europe would be over before the bomb project was completed, made my participation in it pointless. If it took the Americans such a long time, then my fear of the Germans being first was groundless.
“When it became evident, toward the end of 1944, that the Germans had abandoned their bomb project, the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be, and I asked for permission to leave and return to Britain.”
(Joseph Rotblat, “Leaving the Bomb Project,” in Assessing the Nuclear Age: Selections from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Len Ackland and Steven McGuire, eds., 1986, emphasis added)
At Los Alamos right now, large investments are being made for the purpose of producing new plutonium pits for new nuclear warheads, first and foremost to allow MIRVing of the Sentinel ICBM. (For background, see “ NNSA’s effort to restart plutonium warhead “pit” production will cost more than the Manhattan Project. Why is NNSA trying to build two pit factories at once — one that is adequate, and one that is not?,” May 27, 2023. With the included links you can go back to sources in as many steps as you like.)
What happened in 1945 and in the years immediately following is relevant today, as we will discuss. It seems to us that militant U.S. leaders have again put the U.S. in a state of “near-war” with Russia, a distant echo of what anti-New-Dealers and a cabal of capitalists and military leaders, including Groves, did back then.
It was just two weeks after the Japanese offer of surrender on August 15, 1945 that a list of Russian cities to be targeted with atomic bombs was presented to Groves. First the bomb was about Germany. Then it was all about Japan. All other narratives had to be suppressed until Japan was defeated. Then, it was suddenly all about Russia.
Unlike in the late 1940s, Russia is now a peer nuclear state. It has a robust economy and arguably a more unified polity than the U.S. From the realist perspective, what is being done by our leaders today is quite dangerous, as we discuss daily at our Ukraine web page.
For decades, the (Trinity-)Hiroshima-Nagasaki commemorations have focused largely on the past. To the extent they have focused on the present and future, that focus has not usually been concrete. It is past time, we believe, to sharpen our awareness that we are living in a crucial moment in living nuclear history, with events taking place right here and now, events that distantly echo those of 1945.Today, NNSA and Triad again explicitly cite geopolitical conflict with Russia (and to a much lesser extent China) as the major justification for NNSA’s — and LANL’s — huge new plutonium pit program.
Everything is much more costly now. We believe startup of NNSA’s full pit production program by 2036 (at the earliest, according to NNSA) will cost at least $47 billion, if it ever happens, more than the entire Manhattan Project spent, in constant dollars ($31 billion; p. 5).
Los Alamos pit production is expected to eat up most of that money (we estimate 55%-60%) — in a crash program to build what some officials recently admitted to me will be a temporary pit capability, which was what Los Alamos had in the late 1940s also. Norris Bradbury and other lab leaders couldn’t wait to get rid of it, which finally happened in 1949.
By the end of 1945, the Manhattan Project spent some $70.4 million in then-year dollars on the entire Los Alamos project (Atomic Audit, p. 60), or $1.18 billion in today’s dollars. Based on NNSA’s most recent estimates, we believe LANL’s startup cost for pit production (not including subsequent production or facility replacements, to the extent they happen) will lie in the range of $23 billion, 19 times as much as the entire cost of Site Y during the Manhattan Project, including the Trinity test.
If, that is, this folly continues.
We hope you will join us on Saturday.