The lessons of July 16, 1945: Gopalkrishna Gandhi

The nuclear age — our age — may be said to have begun 66 years ago on this day, July 16, in 1945.

Not one but three things happened on that day, giving the world its nuclear teeth. The first was a meeting, the second was a testing, and the third was a sailing. All on the same day.

The meeting took place at Potsdam, in occupied Germany. It was attended by statesmen from three future nuclear powers — U.S. President Harry Truman, Soviet supremo Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Clement Attlee, Labour Party leader and Churchill’s successor-to-be, also participated.

The discussions were on a grim subject — the terms of punishment to be meted to Germany, which had surrendered unconditionally, and to Japan, which was refusing to do so. Seeing Japan’s truculence, Truman is said to have then mentioned to Stalin that the U.S. possessed an unspecified “powerful new weapon.” By the time the conference ended, Japan had been given an ultimatum to surrender, or meet “prompt and utter destruction.” The Allies’ tenor and Japan’s response were to spell disaster for humankind.

The world’s first testing of a nuclear device took place, in complete secrecy, the very same day at Los Alamos in New Mexico, United States. It was witnessed by J.R. Oppenheimer, the director of the project; the physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, and a few carefully selected scientists and military personnel. At the moment of detonation, the ground swelled, shook, pummelled, rose and fell, sending up a plume of light so bright that every blade of grass in the vicinity stood out in the sharpest and most eerie relief. The Atom Bomb had arrived.

Oppenheimer is stated to have said, quite simply: “It worked.” Later, he was to turn famously to the Bhagvad Gita and quote from it: “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” Bainbridge’s reaction, less known generally, was no less significant. Turning to Oppenheimer at the site he said: “Now we are sons of bitches, all.”

Unaware of what Truman had told Stalin, of what Oppenheimer was saying to himself, of what Bainbridge told Oppenheimer, the crew of U.S. cruiser Indianapolis sailed from San Francisco on a mission that was directly related to both those proceedings. Carrying in large wooden crates parts of a device the captain and crew knew was important but not how important — or how ugly — the cruiser was bound for Tinian Island on the South Pacific. From there, bomber planes were to take off with the device, none other than the “powerful new weapon,” for its twin destinations in Japan, ending the War and starting an age, the nuclear age.

The vessel reached Tinian Island, off-loaded its cargo and sailed off casually on July 29. Its operation had been kept so secret that it was on no radar of the Allied forces. This was, for the crew of Indianapolis , a disastrous folly. A Japanese I-58 submarine sniffed the unprotected cruiser and, creeping up to firing range, rammed two torpedoes into it. Within 15 minutes, the 9,800-tonne vessel with formidable speed and firepower was under water, 880 of its 1,196 crewmen sinking with it.

Worse was to follow. As the survivors grouped together, holding hands, hoping to be spotted by some U.S. Navy or Air Force craft, tiger sharks smelt blood. Before anyone could react, 200 to 300 of those “eating machines” were upon them. While the sorties of bombers over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still a week away, about 400 of the men who had unwittingly carried the bombs from the U.S. to Tinian, were devoured by sorties of jaws.

On Day 3, an anti-submarine patrol spotted the surviving, struggling men surrounded by sharks. A daring rescue operation began, but only 317 of them survived.

Estimates say that within the first two to four months of the bombings, acute effects killed 90,000 to 166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki. About half of them died on the first day under the direct impact, from flash or flame burns and falling debris. Indianapolis was doomed by strategic miscalculation, and its men by the most unexpected retaliation from nature’s autonomous dynamics.

What do the July 16, 1945 Potsdam, Los Alamos and Indianapolis experiences show?

Potsdam shows that the tallest of statesmen can take decisions history would loathe. Los Alamos shows that the greatest of scientists can take steps humanity deplores. Indianapolis shows that the smartest of strategists can take paths destiny defeats.

Those three experiences tell and ask countries such as India, occupied as they understandably are with issues concerning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, the following:

1. Nuclear statesmanship is not about using or not using nuclear weapons, but about using or not using statesmanship. It is about becoming or not becoming ‘I am become Death.’

2. Nuclear intelligence is not about gathering sensitive information about nuclear activity elsewhere but about being aware that even in the 21st century, unforeseen realignments can occur, with deployments of larger-than-ever arsenals becoming as real a possibility as in the Cold War period. But more credibly, of “rogue” individuals or small groups accessing modern nuclear technology to blackmail the world.

3. The major nuclear challenge today being that of nuclear mega-terror, our civilian nuclear power stations (not to speak of other nuclear installations) need to be proof against the radioactive “core” and its stock of spent fuel-rods being vulnerable to (a) plain purloining of sensitive materials, and (b) a rogue aircraft crashing into them. Are our nuclear power stations designed to hold out against such an attack?

4. Radioactive waste from nuclear power stations remaining hazardous for an eternity, we need to seal off our N-waste in depositories in a way that will be safe against leakage via groundwater, or through fissures caused by earthquakes, or in any other way. Our disposal systems have to pass the world’s toughest tests.

5. Our nuclear reactors, installations and stores having to be so safe as to stand up to earthquakes and tsunami of the Fukushima kind and other Bhopal or Chernobyl-type plant collapses, and nuclear sabotage including actual, physical purloining of materials and parts, they should, if need be, re-designed and re-located.

6. The independent nuclear regulatory authority proposed to be set up must therefore play the Devil’s Advocate, not State Counsel.

7. But above and beyond all this, the words of Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, need to be heard: “The prime advantage of nuclear power, whether fusion or fission, is that it simultaneously solves two problems: limited oil reserves and global warming. But a preferable option, on both environmental and security grounds, would be renewable sources.”

The lessons of July 16, 1947 should come to us, in Tagore’s words “as a shower of mercy,” and not as jaws we cannot escape from.

( The author is a former Governor of West Bengal .)


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