Every Club in the Bag
- The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War by Peter Hennessy
Allen Lane, 234 pp, £16.99, March 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9626 9
- Know Your Enemy: How the Joint Intelligence Committee Saw the World by Percy Cradock
Murray, 351 pp, £25.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 7195 6048 9
Every book about the Cold War and the nuclear threat that dominated it should probably begin with a chapter about what would have been the biggest invasion in human history, dwarfing even the Normandy landings. In this case, D-Day was to be 1 November 1945. An American army of five million men was to be assembled for the invasion of Japan, with smaller but still significant contingents from Britain, Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth. Despite an unprecedented advance bombardment from sea and air, which would have annihilated the Imperial Navy and Air Force, and despite the help the Red Army could provide by driving simultaneously south to Port Arthur, the casualties on the beaches of Kyushu and Honshu alone were expected to be staggering: advance estimates numbered tens of thousands dead on the first day.
Pushing on from those bridgeheads in the bitterly cold weather, the Allied Armies would come face to face with huge numbers of soldiers emerging from the tunnels in which they’d been hiding. (By this stage of the war Japanese schoolchildren, too, had been trained for suicide missions, and would be carrying satchels full of explosives.) Military planners, when asked for estimates of Allied casualties, threw up their hands and said a million, maybe more, with Japanese casualties many times that. Roosevelt and Truman, Churchill and Attlee, recognised that they faced a return to the casualty levels of the Somme and Passchendaele. Even if they won the war they would never be forgiven; and it was in this desperate state of mind that Truman took the decision – with Attlee’s assent – to drop the first atom bombs.
Had nuclear deterrence had to depend merely on scientific warnings or even the evidence of nuclear tests, it might not have worked. But nobody could doubt the evidence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or have any difficulty imagining what even more powerful weapons – by the time of the US ‘Mike’ test at Eniwetok in 1952, they were seven hundred times more powerful – would do to their own cities.
This gave nuclear strategising and Intelligence – carried out in Britain by the Joint Intelligence Committee – a primary importance. The JIC was made up of all the Intelligence agencies and the Chiefs of Staff. It was to the wartime JIC run by Bill Bentinck that the Ultra decrypts poured in from Bletchley, to be mulled over by a team including the legendary Admiral Hall, whose Room 40 in the Admiralty had laid the foundations of modern cryptography during World War One; Stewart Menzies, head of SIS (the model for James Bond’s M); Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Strong from Military Intelligence, who had, in 1940, warned the disbelieving French that Hitler would attack through the Ardennes, and who was later appropriated by Eisenhower to become his chief of Intelligence; and the formidable Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear-Admiral Godfrey, and his assistant Ian Fleming. Their meetings must have been fun. Godfrey, brilliant but acerbic, called the RAF the Royal Advertisement Service, and dismissed the Army as the ‘evacuees’, the people the Navy had had to fish out of the sea at Dunkirk, Crete and elsewhere. Bentinck, accompanied everywhere by his small dog, Angus – known throughout Whitehall as ‘the Intelligence dog’ – had predicted Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The JIC was sceptical: the Nazi-Soviet Pact suited Germany perfectly, and surely no one in his right mind would start a war on two fronts? Bentinck, mindful of Hitler’s deep-seated anti-Bolshevism, cited the French proverb: ‘One always returns to one’s first loves – and one’s first hatreds.’
The nuclear age transformed the worlds of strategy and Intelligence. Peter Hennessy describes step by step how Britain got the bomb and what it was then used for. From 1945 on, the Chiefs of Staff took it for granted that Britain had to have ‘every club in the bag’, and the RAF began adapting the V-bomber force to deliver the bomb. Dalton and Cripps attempted a rearguard action against it in 1946, but Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, would have none of it. Smarting from the way he’d just been talked down to in Washington, Bevin insisted that being taken seriously by the US now depended on having the bomb: ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’ When Stalin mounted the Berlin Blockade in 1948, Washington dithered but Bevin was adamant: the US must send B-29s to Europe immediately. This dramatically raised the potential cost of Soviet misbehaviour: the B-29 had the range to fly to Moscow and back and was the only plane with the proven ability to deliver an atomic bomb. This may well have been decisive in persuading Stalin to back down. It was the world’s first example of nuclear diplomacy – and it worked.
Vol. 24 No. 16 · 22 August 2002
From Bruce Kent
R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 August) claims that it was the prospect of having to invade Japan and suffer a million or more casualties that made Truman decide to drop the first atomic bombs. That may have been what Truman was told. It was not true. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 reported that ‘prior to December 1945 Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if the Russians had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.’ Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s Chief of Staff, believed that ‘this barbarous weapon … was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.’ It is much more likely that the bombs were dropped to find out how well they worked and as an object lesson to the Soviets about where power lay in the Pacific.
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London N7
Vol. 24 No. 17 · 5 September 2002
From Russell Seitz
Unlike R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 August), I am not surprised that Peter Hennessy and Percy Cradock should write their respective histories of the nuclear age without mentioning the ‘nuclear winter’. The idea that the world might freeze in the darkness following a nuclear explosion was advertised as hard science, but in fact had no basis except as an outcome produced by a one-dimensional computer model. A programmer had effectively switched off the sun in his climate model as if it were a light bulb, and then allowed the program to run on for 40 consecutive dayless nights. More serious efforts at modelling the motion and transport of the weather were soon to generate more subtle scenarios than the apocalyptic original, which was judged, in Foreign Affairs in 1986, to be of ‘vanishingly low probability’. In 1991, the Kuwait oil fires were seized on by the proponents of the theory of nuclear winter as a means of testing their hypothesis. Here at last was a set of fires as massive and extensive as any that might be generated by nuclear missiles. Carl Sagan predicted that a sooty plume would ascend into the stratosphere, overshadow South Asia, and cause the monsoon to fail, dooming millions to famine. It didn’t happen.
From Toby Poynder
Bruce Kent (Letters, 22 August) quotes the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 as saying that Japan would likely have surrendered ‘prior to December 1945’ even without the use of atomic weapons or Russia entering the war. But the Survey also predicted that a continuation of the conventional bombing campaign would have escalated from the July 1945 total of 42,700 tonnes of bombs dropped to 115,000 tonnes a month. Given that over 800,000 Japanese had already been killed in the nine months of bombing up to July 1945 it is arguable that the atomic weapons killed fewer people than would have died in another four or five months’ conventional bombing. A further argument in favour of using the Bomb was the avoidance of Allied casualties that would otherwise have resulted from a continuation of the war.
Vol. 24 No. 18 · 19 September 2002
From Martin Watts
It won’t do for Bruce Kent to perpetuate myths about the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan (Letters, 22 August). First, there was absolutely no need ‘to find out how well they worked’, as it was abundantly clear how effective they would be after the Alamagordo test explosion earlier in 1945. Second, it is not the case that the ‘Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender’: why in that case did they not surrender after the dropping of the first bomb? It was only when the Government realised that it might face the total obliteration of every major city in Japan that it surrendered (even then it refused to do so unless the position of the Emperor was guaranteed in any postwar settlement). Third, many lives (and not just American ones) were saved by the atomic bombings. An earlier (conventional) raid on Tokyo had created a ‘firestorm’ that claimed 100,000 lives: 30,000 more than were lost at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
It is unlikely that the bombings were intended to overawe the Soviets and demonstrate US power in the Pacific for at least three reasons: first, Truman informed Stalin of the existence of the bomb, and Stalin urged him to use it; second, before the Nazi surrender, Berlin had been seriously considered as a possible target; third, at that point relations between the Western Allies and the Soviets had not yet broken down, and there is evidence that Truman was reasonably confident that it would be possible to ‘get along’ with the Russians in the postwar world.
From Alison Macleod
Bruce Kent is right on one point: without the atom bomb, the Japanese would still have been forced to surrender before the end of 1945. But the principal reason was the prospect of famine. Once Japan's trade routes had been cut, there was nothing like enough rice in the country to feed the people, and what little there was the military took for its own purposes. By the middle of 1945 most civilians were half-starved: the Americans and their allies had only to blockade the country to kill several million Japanese. Had they done this, Bruce Kent would now no doubt be writing to ask how the Americans could be so cruel as to impose a lingering death on millions of women and children when all the time they had at their disposal a weapon that could have brought the war to a quick end.
Vol. 24 No. 19 · 3 October 2002
From Michael Jacobsen
A secret addendum to the Yalta agreement, first published in February 1946, revealed that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed in February 1945 that ‘in two or three months after Germany has surrendered, and the war in Europe has terminated, the Soviet Union shall enter into the war against Japan on the side of the Allies.’ The war in Europe ended on 8 May, so that the three months envisaged at Yalta were due to expire on 8 August. On 29 May Harry Hopkins reported to Truman that Stalin ‘left no doubt in our minds that he intends to attack during August.’ The Soviet Union promptly declared war on Japan on 8 August, with the Red Army ‘properly deployed on the Manchurian positions’ as promised to Hopkins on 28 May. The US dropped its atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August, respectively. Japan surrendered forthwith. Peter Calvocoressi has remarked that this clinching of the imminent American victory deprived the Russians of all but a token share in the postwar settlement in the Far East. Thus Bruce Kent’s view that the decision to drop the bombs was motivated in part by a desire to demonstrate to the Soviets where power lay may be an overgenerous understatement, rather than a fanciful myth as suggested by Martin Watts (Letters, 19 September).
Vol. 24 No. 20 · 17 October 2002
From Bruce Kent
It is hard to understand why my suggestion that the dropping of two atomic bombs was not the only way of ending the Pacific war in 1945 causes such indignation (Letters, 19 September). A wide range of military figures have taken that view. Field Marshal Montgomery, in The History of Warfare, has this to say: ‘In my view it was unnecessary to drop the two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 and I cannot think that it was right to do so … The dropping of the bombs was a major political blunder and is a prime example of the declining moral standards of modern war.’ General Eisenhower was just as clear: ‘Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of face. It was not necessary to hit them with that awful thing.’
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament