The Atomic Bomb – WWII Axis and Soviet

Nazi Germany

In 1938 Otto Hahn, a German chemist, was the first to succeeded in breaking up (fissioning) a uranium atom into lighter, atomically speaking, elements by bombarding it with neutrons. At the time, the idea seemed preposterous, even to him, and he doubted his own test results, but after overcoming his reservations he published it in a scientific journal. It was soon realized that this process could yield enormous amounts of energy. Leo Szilard, a physicist of Hungarian descent, already considered this possibility while staying in London in 1933. Hahn’s discovery, however, clinched the argument for Szilard, now working in the United States, and he was horrified by the possibility that Nazi Germany could develop such a bomb. He then convinced Albert Einstein to approach President Roosevelt to initiate an American atomic research program.

The American scientists were sure from the start that they were in a race against Germany, and this feeling was intensified when in December 1942 they succeeded in producing the first sustainable nuclear chain reaction. The development of a bomb now became almost a certainty, but nobody knew where the Germans stood. Furthermore, even if the Germans were lagging behind, knowledge of American successes might urge them to intensify their efforts.

The detailed story of the development of the atomic bomb has already been told innumerable times, as has the story of Soviet spies and their successful attempts to uncover the Manhattan Project’s secrets. But the interesting question is how the Soviets became interested in what were the Americans doing and what the Germans and the Japanese knew of the American effort.

The short answer is that the Germans knew little, probably nothing, about the American work. After Hahn’s discovery, the Germans tried repeatedly to achieve a chain reaction in an experimental reactor but failed.

Immediately after the German surrender, all the German nuclear scientists, some of them Nobel laureates, were taken into British custody. They were moved to an English rural estate (Farm Hall) and interrogated. In the central room, where the captives were gathering for dinner, the British installed hidden microphones, and the full transcripts of the German conversations were later published (Bernstein and Cassidy 1995; Groves 1962, 333–35). Major Ritter, the senior British officer in Farm Hall, told Otto Hahn about the bombing of Hiroshima, and the stunned Hahn relayed the news to his colleagues.

That night the conversation among the German scientists focused on the question of whether the Americans had succeeded in producing a sufficient quantity of fissile uranium—or did they use plutonium? President Truman did not specifically mention uranium, and Werner Heisenberg, head of the German nuclear project, contended that it was impossible for it to actually be a nuclear bomb. In fact, he initially claimed that someone had duped the American government and that it was only an enormous conventional bomb. Later in the conversation, Hahn said to Heisenberg, “In any case you are a second rate scientist and you better acknowledge this fact,” and Heisenberg agreed.

Later, and in spite of the doubts, the conversation centered on the possibility that the Americans had indeed achieved that breakthrough and how they might have done it. British physicists who listened to these conversations came to the conclusion that the Germans lacked a lot of basic knowledge on the subject.

The Germans were totally surprised by the American announcement, and Heisenberg, the senior German scientist, did not believe that the Americans were capable of achieving the feat. This was pure conceit on his part—since the Germans did not consider the Americans their intellectual equals, whatever the Americans did, if at all, was not worth looking at. German scientific intelligence and analysis failed in this respect, in addition to its failure to collect information in many other fields (Kahn 1978). It is possible that this intellectual snobbery was partly to blame for German disregard of prewar information about British and American capabilities in the field, and they certainly did not seriously consider Soviet capabilities. The Germans made another basic mistake: they had not paid attention (if they noticed the fact at all) to the disappearance of American publications on nuclear topics. The Soviets and the Japanese did, but the Germans refused to see the writing on the wall.

The Soviet Effort

The first hint of something unusual in the field of nuclear physics was received in the Soviet Union in the beginning of 1942. Before the war, nuclear research in the Soviet Union consisted of theoretical work and modest laboratory experiments. In July 1940, two Soviet researchers, Georgii Flerov and Konstantin Petrzhak (both colleagues of the physicist Igor Kurchatov), published a paper in the American Physical Review about spontaneous (and rare) natural fission in uranium. An intentional fission by means of neutrons was already achieved by Otto Hahn in 1938, and the subject of uranium fission became a hot topic in the scientific community. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and all nonessential research work (including nuclear research) was stopped. The research teams were assigned work in support of the fighting, and the younger researchers, including Flerov, were mobilized.

In February 1942, Lieutenant Flerov’s unit (an air force reconnaissance squadron) was stationed near the town of Voronezh, and on one free day Flerov went to the local university’s library (which was not evacuated eastward) and perused back issues of Physical Review, looking for comments on his July 1940 paper. (A prestigious publication often takes many months, even more than a year, to publish such comments.) He later related how surprised he was that even after a year and a half, there were none, which he thought was rather strange, but he also discovered that no American journal carried publications about nuclear physics (Holloway 1994, 78). He of course did not know, and could not guess, that the editors of the important scientific journals in the United States had decided (voluntarily) to halt such publication so that useful information would not leak to the Germans, who were considered to be leading the field (Richards 1994, 92). This decision was prompted, at least to a degree, by an incident in which James Chadwick (a 1935 Nobel laureate for the discovery of the neutron) was involved.

A paper about plutonium was published in the Physical Review in June 1940 by two Berkeley scientists. The journal was distributed to subscribers all over the world, including Germany. At that time, it was already understood that radar had military significance, and it was treated accordingly. Atomic bombs, or “super bombs” as they were called then, were solely in the domain of science fiction writers, and while research in the field was scientifically serious, its military implications were not yet clear. James Chadwick (from Britain, which had already been in the war for almost a year) got so agitated by that publication that he convinced the British embassy in the United States to formally complain. A senior official was sent to California and reproved Ernest Lawrence, a central figure in nuclear research in Berkeley (who himself received the Nobel Prize in physics, for the invention of the cyclotron—a particle accelerator—in 1929), for his impetuosity in disclosing secrets in such troubled times (Rhodes 1988, 350–51). The American editors took notice and stopped such publications, but the sudden drying up of such papers was noticed. (This is a good example where too much motivation caused failure.)

Following his discovery, Flerov came to the conclusion that nuclear physics had become a big secret in the United States. He was only partially correct. It was already a secret, though as yet not a big one. Flerov wrote to the State Defense Committee’s plenipotentiary for science, voicing his suspicions. (At that time, most Soviet nuclear physicists claimed that nuclear weapons or even nuclear energy were not a practical matter [Holloway 1994, 54].) When Flerov got no answer, he took a bold step. As a citizen of the Soviet Union, he had the right to appeal directly to Stalin, and in April 1942 he did so. In a long and well-reasoned letter, he explained what he thought the Americans were doing and concluded by saying that in his opinion the Soviet Union should not neglect this subject (Holloway 1994, 78). It is doubtful if Stalin himself took care of the subject (after all, he had to run a war), but in the fall of 1942 the senior nuclear scientists in the Soviet Union were summoned and nuclear research was revived, under the leadership of Kurchatov (Holloway 1994, 86; Richards 1994, 92).

Until 1941, Soviet scientists freely published papers about nuclear topics and other sciences. In this respect, they acted like scientists in most other countries. One of the reasons that the West was not aware of these publications was language difficulties. Soviet scientists knew English and German, but few in the West knew Russian. An expert in the field noted that the average citizen of the Soviet Union knew more about nuclear research in his homeland than the scientists of the Manhattan Project (Richards 1994, 92).

After the war, the Soviets continued with the policy of open publication of research, which they did not consider as contributing to military technology, and as previously mentioned, such a paper initiated stealth technology in the United States. But nuclear research was cloaked in total and successful secrecy. The first hint of a Soviet nuclear bomb was from a random collection of air samples, and came as a total surprise to the West. The Soviets managed to keep their secret. The dimensions of the Western intelligence failure were such that it was not believed possible, and an opinion was even voiced that the CIA knew about Soviet work but suppressed the information.

The Japanese Effort

The Japanese, too, noticed the disappearance of publications about nuclear physics in the United States. The head of the Japanese army’s research institute for aviation technologies followed in the years 1938–1939 the publications in this field and deduced, correctly, where things were leading. He then tasked one of his assistants to check for potential uranium sources within the borders of the Japanese empire, including future conquests. This man approached Yoshio Nishina, who had studied under Nils Bohr and was then a senior physicist in Tokyo. In 1940, Nishina gathered more than one hundred brilliant students and led initial work in nuclear physics. As part of this work, a large cyclotron was constructed, the plans of which were previously donated to Nishina by Ernest Lawrence.

The Japanese navy also became aware of the subject. In the spring of 1942, a naval committee recommended initiating research about nuclear power for navy ships. Another committee, a secret one, was convened to check the feasibility of nuclear weapons. This one tried to answer two questions: Are nuclear weapons possible at all? And if so, does Japan have the resources for such a project, and can such resources be allocated to it in the course of the present war?

The deliberations of the committee were no doubt influenced by the first setbacks Japan suffered in the war. In early May 1942, a Japanese thrust toward New Guinea was repulsed in the Battle of the Coral Sea. One month later, the Japanese navy suffered a resounding defeat in the Battle of Midway (so bad that the Japanese government tried to hide it from its public), losing four carriers to one American. In August, U.S. marines landed on Guadalcanal, and although the fighting still raged on, it was obvious that it was only a question of time before that strategic island, with its important airfield, would be lost. It appeared that the war might last longer than expected, with a commensurate drain on resources.

The conclusion of the committee was that a nuclear weapons project would last at least ten years and require half of Japan’s production of copper and one tenth of Japan’s electric power capacity. All agreed that such demands would stretch the Japanese economy beyond the breaking point. Consequently, in March 1943, the committee recommended that all nuclear research work be terminated and resources, manpower in particular, be transferred to other fields, especially radar. At that time, Japan already realized that it was way behind in this critical field.

The committee discussed another topic, and this is why the story of Japan’s atomic effort is broached here in a book about technological intelligence. The question was whether either Germany, the principal ally, or the United States, the principal enemy, had the capability to develop nuclear weapons. The disappearance of American publications on the subject was a glaring beacon and worried them all. But the committee reached the conclusion that both Germany and the United States did not have the scientific and industrial resources to get quick results in a project of this magnitude (Rhodes 1988, 458).

The committee was probably right about Germany, at least from the practical aspect. In time, German scientist would have probably overcome the theoretical problems (and mistakes) that hindered their work. But as we know now, theoretical work is not enough. As regards the United States, the picture was completely different.

Looking back, it appears that the members of the committee, erudite as they were in their fields of expertise, apparently did not understand the United States and did not have enough information about its potential resources. Most of them had probably never visited the country, did not appreciate its size, and were unfamiliar with its industrial and commercial culture. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Combined Fleet and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, understood the United States better. When Japan seemed to be sliding into war, the Japanese prime minister asked Yamamoto for his opinion about the chances of victory in a war with Great Britain and the United States. His answer was, “I can raise havoc with them for one year or at most eighteen months. After that I can give no one any guarantees” (Potter 1967, 56). Later, talking to the navy admirals, he modified his assessment to “six months to a year of war” and added that if the war was prolonged to two or three years, he had no confidence in Japan’s ultimate victory (Potter 1967, 58). As things turned out, he was prophetically accurate in his timetables. But few realized that Yamamoto was fluent in English, was once a student in Harvard (1919–1921), and had served as Japan’s naval attaché in Washington (1926–1928). He also meticulously followed American exercises of attacks against the Panama Canal and carrier-launched attacks against Pearl Harbor and was very much impressed (Lowry and Wellham 2000, 17).

Even if that committee had reached the conclusion that the United States was capable of developing nuclear weapons, it would not have helped them. On the one hand, they could not mortgage so much of their resources for this project. On the other hand, after December 7, the American public would not have accepted anything less than a total surrender, and the Japanese could never agree to this. Even after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, a large group of Japanese officers wanted to keep on fighting and was only a short step from an open rebellion against the emperor (Pacific War Research Society 1983, 58, 129, 149).

The Japanese made another mistake, which originated from misunderstanding the American state of mind. The underlying reason for Japan’s aggression was the need for raw materials, and in Southeast Asia these were mostly under British and Dutch control, with some in French hands. In the mid-thirties, a Japanese naval officer published a book in which he presented a well-reasoned (from a Japanese point of view) theory on why Japan must fight Britain. The United States was barely mentioned in the book, and the author stated that diplomatic efforts should be made to prevent it from joining the fight on the side of Britain (Ishimaru 1936, 191–93). Except for the abstract question of “control” of the Pacific Ocean, there really were no friction points between the United States and Japan, except for the American public’s revulsion at Japanese atrocities in China, which hardly constituted a casus belli. What would have happened if Japan attacked only Britain and Holland? (France was governed by the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Germans, and the Japanese had in effect a free hand in French Indochina.) The Japanese assumed that the United States, an English-speaking Western society, would rush to help Britain and Holland. They also worried about the U.S. Navy, because of that question of “control,” but on the other hand failed to grasp the intensity of isolationist sentiment in the United States, which would have prevented it from initiating a war against Japan. Admittedly, this is a “what if” type of speculation, but it is also an excellent support to the argument that in order to conduct an efficient strategy against an enemy of another culture, it is imperative to understand that social and cultural intelligence is also needed, and not only operational and technological intelligence.

In contrast to the Americans, the Japanese scientific and research activities in the nuclear field were disorganized. In Japan, there was no coordination or collaboration in research between the various military services and the civilian sector, and there was no central guiding hand for the various research activities (Grunden 2005, 79). After the navy committee concluded that Japan did not have the resources to enter into development of nuclear weapons, rumors reached the army that both Germany and the United States were working on nuclear weapons. So with the ink hardly dry on the navy’s conclusions, the prime minister (and minister of the army) called for an acceleration of nuclear research efforts (Grunden 2005, 69). But the Japanese scientists ran into nearly every conceivable technical problem, and the project was finally dealt the coup de grâce when, on April 13, 1945 (a Friday), a bomb from a B-29 destroyed their laboratory complex and ended the Japanese nuclear project (Grunden 2005, 78; Rhodes 1988, 612).

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