This article appeared in the August 18, 1945 edition of The Nation.
The creation of the atom bomb is the greatest revolution ever accomplished in science–and unquestionably the most frightening.
The bomb that hurried Russia into the Far Eastern war a week ahead of schedule and drove Japan to surrender has accomplished the specific job for which it was created. From the point of view of military strategy, $2,000,000,000 (the cost of the bomb and the cost of nine days of war) was never better spent. The suffering, the wholesale slaughter it entailed, have been outweighed by its spectacular success; Allied leaders can rightly claim that the loss of life on both sides would have been many times greater if the atomic bomb had not been used and Japan had gone on fighting. There is no answer to this argument. The danger is that it will encourage those in power to assume that, once accepted as valid, the argument can be applied equally well in the future. If that assumption should be permitted, the chance of saving civilization–and perhaps the world itself–from destruction is a remote one.
Solemn official talk is going on in Britain and here about controlling the use of the new force. But the talk is unconvincing. The atomic bomb represents a revolution in science–the greatest revolution ever accomplished. It calls for a comparable revolution in men’s thinking and in their capacity for political and social readjustment. Not a hint of that has so far emerged in high places, either here or in Britain. And so far no leader of one of the lesser states, from which the new knowledge has been withheld, has presumed to open his mouth. No one has spoken the simple truth that the exploding atom has exposed to the whole world.
President Truman announced that he would recommend to Congress "the establishment of an appropriate commission to control the production and use of atomic power within the United States." He has promised that the secret of the bomb will be kept by the three nations that hold it until "means have been found to control the bomb so as to protect ourselves and the rest of the world from the danger of total destruction." Secretary Stimson says that "substantial patent rights" have been assured to the American, Canadian, and British governments to prevent independent exploitation of the discovery. Do these plans and promises mean anything? Or are they conventional, high-sounding nonsense?
First, if anything is sure about the atomic bomb it is that no physical protection against it will ever be possible. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki was far more advanced than that dropped two days earlier on Hiroshima. Both were crude beginnings. We have already been promised that their successors will be enormously improved. Soon they will be propelled by rockets–similar to Hitler’s V-2s–and directed exactly to their destination by radar. When this is achieved, not only will armies and fleets and island bases and strategic frontiers all have been made obsolete, but widespread annihilation can be accomplished by any power, or even group of men, that can command atomic energy.
And that leads to the absurdity of an attempt to limit control of this force to the nations that now hold it. President Truman is whistling to keep our courage up. He knows that other nations are working on atomic explosives. Before its defeat Germany was on the edge of success. Sweden and Denmark are carrying out intensive experimentation. It is not likely that Russia–which knows how to keep a secret better than any other country–has lagged behind the rest. Are we to be asked to believe that the Anglo-Saxon peoples have alone been granted the god-like power to crack atoms? The secret was guarded long enough to enable us to smash Japan. It will not last much longer. The present "trustees" of this force had better stop thinking in terms of control by themselves and begin to figure out how a world is to be run in which every nation equipped for research and modern production will soon be able to make and propel atomic bombs.
So what sense is there in setting up an American commission "to control the production of atomic power"? Perhaps a little. Already certain private interests in this country have let it be known that, while they recognize this government’s right to monopolize the manufacture of atomic bombs, they are not prepared to accept government control over future use of the new energy. And Secretary Stimson’s phrase, "substantial patent rights," is at best equivocal. It suggests that certain less substantial but perhaps highly valuable patents may already be in the hands of Du Pont or General Electric.And so a commission may be of some value, at least as an interim safeguard. But it will be well for us to remind Congress that the men it appoints will be dealing with a source of power discovered through the expenditure of $2,000,000,000 of public money–taxpayers’ money. That power belongs to the people if no other ever did.
Suppose the United States, Canada, and Britain attempt, as they seem prepared to do, to corner the knowledge of atomic power even for a brief period. What will be the effect of this monopoly? First, it will convert the three Anglo-Saxon nations into a monstrous threat to the rest of the world. Are other countries likely to accept with equanimity the fact that we and the British hold the secret of total destruction? Who but ourselves is going to trust us with such fantastic power? It would be healthy if Americans, just for a moment, would put themselves in the position of, let’s say, the Russians or the Chinese, and try to see what this "democratic trusteeship" looks like from the vantage-point of Moscow or Chungking. No nation shut out from our closely guarded knowledge can possibly do other than speed up its own collective effort to gain the same ground. The policy announced by the President is power politics raised to a cosmic degree; if continued it will insure an era of desperate competition in destruction, which can have only one outcome.
Atomic energy should no more be controlled by a few sovereign nations than it should be by a few private companies. "Free enterprise" for nations has been wiped out by the discovery. When President Truman went to the microphone to explain the agreement reached in Potsdam, the first atomic bomb had already exploded. So he discussed the Potsdam arrangements side by side with his proposal for controlling atomic energy. The fantastic incompatibility of the two items apparently did not strike him. But it is as clear as water that no collective arrangements can stand in the face of the power held by America and Britain. Even the modest, halfway security measures adopted at San Francisco and written into the United Nations Charter can hardly be expected to survive such a situation. At the very minimum, the United Nations must be made trustee of the atomic bomb. Otherwise the idea of collective agreements to keep the peace may as well be abandoned.
But this minimum is far too small to provide any serious measure of safety. For the San Francisco charter is itself a collective agreement based on power. As Edward R. Murrow said the other day, the big nations have "created an organization and made laws from which they are exempt." In other words, there is no rule of law to which all nations are equally subject. The authority of the United Nations rests in the coalition of great powers which form its core. How much value can such an organization now have even if the control of the atomic bomb should be vested in it? It cannot dominate the world, for a single nation, small or large, possessed of the facilities to make the new explosive, would have as much power to threaten peace and terrorize other nations as did one or all of the Big Three–or Four–or Five. And any one of the large nations, ruled by a new Hitler, could reduce the world to slavery–or to dust. In the space of a single day the World Security Organization grew from childhood to senility. Now it must be replaced.
If we are to survive our new powers we must understand their full meaning. We shall have to move fast, both internationally and within each country. No longer can we afford a world organized to prevent aggression only if all of the great powers wish it to be prevented. No longer can we afford a social system which would permit private business, in the name of freedom, to control a source of energy capable of creating comfort and security for all the world’s people. This seems self-evident, and so it is. But it calls for changes so sweeping that only an immense effort of will and imagination can bring them about. A new conference of the nations must be assembled to set up a World Government, to which every state must surrender an important part of its sovereignty. In this World Government must be vested the final control over atomic energy. And within each nation the people must establish public ownership and social development of the revolutionary force war has thrust into their hands. This program will sound drastic only to people who have not yet grasped the meaning of the new discovery. It is not drastic. We face a choice between one world or none.