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“The A-Bomb Won’t Do What You Think!”: An Argument Against Reliance on Nuclear Weapons

For four years after the U.S. dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, America held a monopoly on the production of atomic weapons. During this period, debate centering on the use of nuclear bombs in future wars proliferated among government officials, scientists, religious leaders, and in the popular press. In the following article from Collier’s, former Navy lieutenant commander William H. Hessler, using data from the Strategic Bombing Survey, argued that saturation bombing of urban areas during World War II, while devastating for civilians, did not achieve war aims. A future atomic war, therefore, might well destroy cities but fail to stop enemy aggression. Furthermore, with a much higher urban concentration than the Soviet Union, the U.S. had more to lose from atomic warfare. The article, while providing detailed explanations of the bomb’s destructive capability, demonstrated the lack of information available regarding the long-term medical and ecological effects of radioactivity. Hessler’s prose also evoked both the fascination that gadgetry of atomic warfare held for Americans of the time and the fear many felt about the risks involved in putting this technology to use. On September 24, 1949, one week after publication of this article, news that the Russians had conducted atom bomb tests shocked the nation. The following April, a National Security Council report to President Harry S. Truman advised development of a hydrogen bomb—some 1,000 times more destructive than an atom bomb—and a massive buildup of non-nuclear defenses. The subsequent outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 justified to many a substantial increase in defense spending.

The A-Bomb Won’t Do What You Think!

Now is the time for Americans to face the fact that the bomb can do us more harm than good unless it is used for peace. The bomb does NOT even guarantee a quick military victory.

By William H. Hessler

The atom bomb is a weapon generally overrated by American political leaders, probably underrated by many tradition-minded military men, shockingly misinterpreted by the scientists who invented it, and grossly misunderstood by the bulk of the people who stand to gain or lose most by its use or misuse. . . .

All that is said today of the atom bomb has been said, in years past, of other weapons at their debut. The confusion stems from the overlapping of two entirely separate points of view.

A scientist can calculate the destructive power of the A-bomb. He can tell you, in degrees centigrade and in units of blast pressure and radioactivity, just what it will do. He does this just as the mathematician of 1914 calculated the lethal power of the machine gun. He may be just as wrong.

The military man is not too much interested in knowing how much energy is released by the detonation of the A-bomb. He is interested in the demonstrated results of the new weapon. He knows that very little of the energy expended in warfare has any actual effect on the enemy. Most bullets fired in war don’t hit anybody. Most shells and bombs miss their targets.

In other words, the calculated destructive power of an atom bomb is not a reliable basis for appraising its military usefulness. And that is why the scientists have led us far astray.

The fashion of our time is to prepare for another and greater war of gadgets. The plain American’s view is unmistakable. What he wants—if there’s to be a new war for him—is to sit in front of a large instrument panel, full of knobs, dials and handwheels. It should be taken right out of the Westinghouse factory and mounted on Long Island. There he would like to take readings, make calculations, pull levers, and then without getting out of his seat drop atomic war heads by guided missile on targets staked out somewhere east of Tashkent.

This popular enthusiasm for gadget war is by no means an evil thing. Something of the sort is needed, undoubtedly, to prod the lagging imaginations of legislators and military men alike. But there is a risk, a real one, that the nation’s popular interest in technology and its spawn of fascinating new weapons may divert responsible policy makers and cause them to misread and exaggerate the implications of the new technology so as to lose sight of the plain facts of geography.

Nobody will question the importance of our industrial and military technology. Like our capacity for mass production, it is a stupendous military asset. It is our arsenal, our breeding ground for new weapons and tactics. Properly maintained, and fed by good research in basic science, our technology will insure our qualitative and quantitative superiority in weapons and equipment.

Obsession with Gadgets Is Risky

But if we wander too far from sound reasoning in our obsession with gadgets atomic and electronic, we may find ourselves superbly equipped to defend some other country, yet unable to defend our own! For our military problem is always framed by certain geopolitical realities—our oceanic position, our declining natural resources, our reliance on a single interoceanic canal, the vulnerability of our coastwise shipping, and the dispersion of our allies over widely separated continents.

Leaving morals to one side, as is sometimes convenient, we must suppose that the atom bomb is the supreme triumph of technology and of science to date. We must therefore examine this weapon, not for its philosophical meaning to mankind, but as one more new instrumentality of warfare.

The atom bomb, either the uranium-235 bomb used at Hiroshima or the plutonium bomb used at Nagasaki, destroys in an area of two to five square miles of urban territory, depending on altitude at the instant of detonation, the efficiency of the particular bomb, and the character of the terrain. The extent of property damage and human casualties depends also on the type of construction prevailing in the area.

A more powerful bomb is now in production. It will release more energy and therefore work destruction over a larger area. But the area does not increase in proportion to the augmented power of the bomb. In military terms, which are not the same as scientific terms, the more powerful the bomb, the less efficient it is. For most military purposes ten bombs, each with one tenth of the power of the Nagasaki bomb, would be more effective than was the one Nagasaki bomb. This would be true even if the ten smaller bombs were dropped in a random pattern, and whether the target were a single large installation or a considerable area of general strategic importance.

Destructive Power Appraised

The damage worked by the atom bomb results from the release of energy in the form of light, heat, radiation and blast pressure. Precise data such as were obtained at Bikini and Eniwetok have not been revealed, of course. But it is clear that the bomb will destroy or seriously damage reinforced concrete structures up to 700 or possibly 1,000 feet from ground zero—the point on the earth directly beneath a burst somewhat above. The bomb will ignite inflammable materials, if they are directly exposed, up to ranges of a mile or somewhat more. The heat of the bomb will inflict severe burns on the human skin, if directly exposed, up to a mile away. Even light clothing, however, will protect at this extreme range.

The radiation of the bomb is probably lethal to human beings directly exposed, up to a distance of something less than a mile. But at that range or anything near it, any shielding material of metal or masonry will give good protection. Even at “ground zero,” three feet of concrete will stop radiation of lethal intensities. Six feet of earth will give complete protection. At a range of a half mile from the burst, a foot of concrete will insure survival against blast, heat and radiation. . . .

Persistent radioactivity is unlikely to be a factor, save in underwater bursts in fairly deep water. In most cases, persons who do not receive a lethal dose of radiation at the instant of the burst are not endangered by remaining in the area of devastation or by entering it. In certain conditions, alpha particles may be emitted by unfissioned fragments of the bomb. This may go on for years. But this hazard is a small one, after proper decontamination measures. And in atomic air bursts, which are the most effective in military terms, the risk of alpha radiation after the detonation is negligible. . . .

The Hiroshima bomb killed 78,500 people, or 15,000 to the square mile. One airplane, a B-29, carried the single bomb which accomplished this macabre feat. In the great explosive and fire raids on Tokyo of March 9, 1945, about 80,000 people were killed. That took about three hundred B-29s instead of one. Tokyo is much more densely populated than Hiroshima, perhaps four times more so. An atom bomb, it is therefore commonly assumed, would have killed four times as many people in Tokyo as it did in Hiroshima. And from this it is an easy step in arithmetic to conclude that one B-29 with one atom bomb is the equivalent, in killing power, to 1,200 B-29s with full loads of explosive and incendiary bombs.

This is easy arithmetic, but it is not correct. The extremely high casualties at Hiroshima stem from the fact that no warning was given to the population there. Only a few hundreds were in the shelters that could have accommodated 100,000. Had the Japanese been led to fear a single B-29 when sighted, their losses at Hiroshima might have been much less than half what they were. It must be supposed that, in future military use, the atom bomb will not always be a total surprise.

Hiroshima was typical of industrial cities all over the world in at least one respect. It was a sprawling complex of factories, transport facilities, public utilities and actual military installations, not to mention residential areas and business districts. And even at Hiroshima, according to the Strategic Bombing Survey, although the small factories in the heart of the city were fully destroyed, the big plants on the periphery were virtually undamaged and 94 per cent of their workers uninjured. These undamaged factories accounted for 74 per cent of the city’s production.

As for transport, the railroad lines passing through the city were repaired and ready for use 48 hours after the attack. It would have taken several atom bombs to destroy Hiroshima, a city of 343,000 people. It would take quite a number of such bombs, dropped with precision based on good intelligence data, to halt all production in a larger and more populous city such as Leningrad or Moscow or Kharkov. . . .

In the European theater, Anglo-American forces dropped 2,690,000 tons of bombs, of which 1,350,000 tons—50.3 per cent—were dropped on Germany. At the peak in 1944, 1,300,000 uniformed personnel were engaged in this strategic air offensive. Roughly half of the civilian war effort of great Britain was devoted to the support of this single phase of the war. And what did 1,350,000 tons of bombs do to Germany? They killed approximately 500,000 people. The damage to property was stupendous. But German production of war equipment increased steadily through all this aerial fury, until late in 1944, when American forces already were in Paris and the Russians had recovered Poland.

The uses of the atom bomb and the limits of its usefulness emerge from the data on its performance. It is a very effective means of killing people by surprise in urban concentrations—if there is any point in doing that.

But we have seen that there are clear disadvantages in destroying urban areas other than actual installations of direct military value to the enemy. The object of war is to persuade the enemy to abandon military resistance, not to kill his people and destroy the structures in which those people live and work. . . .

The atom bomb will not serve us as well as it will the Russians, once they have it and the means of delivering it to North America. Only about 14,000,000 people of the Soviet Union live in cities of a half million or more population. Our cities of that size or larger total nearly twice as many inhabitants all together. In percentage terms, 18 per cent of our mainland population live in cities of 500,000 or more, while in the Soviet Union only 7 per cent of its populace live in equivalent urban areas. As a matter of fact, half the people of the United States now live in 140 densely populated metropolitan areas surrounding cities of 50,000 or more population. We are an urban people; and we are just that much more vulnerable to the very technique of mass-destruction attacks which we have had the dubious honor of lifting to its greatest development! . . .

One careful scientist, Dr. Philip Morrison, estimates that at least 1,000 atom bombs would be needed to do the same damage to Russia as was inflicted by the Germans in the Stalingrad campaign alone. Dr. Stefan T. Possony, drawing upon a wealth of experience in bombing-target selection and bombing evaluation, concludes that it would take something like 6,500 atom bombs to bring about the total destruction of the cities of a major enemy. So an atomic blitz, a quick war for total victory, is not something to count on.

It must be added that freedom of information makes a difference—and in our case a handicap. The United States is thoroughly mapped, and its strategic centers are known to all. The precise locations of almost all important targets are available to anyone who is interested. That goes for industrial and transport bottlenecks, for outright military installations, for atomic energy installations, for steam and hydroelectric power facilities. But this is not all true of the Soviet Union, whose industries have been on the march eastward and whose newer developments, such as those for atomic energy experiments have been cloaked in a secrecy far surpassing anything that is possible in a democracy.

We face another handicap in the fact that the atom bomb is peculiarly a weapon adapted to surprise, as we proved to a stunned world in 1945. The maximum utility of atomic weapons will lie in their use without warning, as the opening phase of a war. Such an enterprise would be a difficult one for a peacefully inclined democracy to undertake. It is among the innate handicaps of democracy that the people must be persuaded to make war. For a dictatorship, that is a hurdle much more easily surmounted. So the atom bomb, in the long run, is a weapon much more likely to be used by surprise against us than the other way around.

To be realistic, we must appraise the atom bomb as a weapon which can be used in two directions. And on this reckoning our advantage shrivels away rapidly.

Yet it is only the United States, and no other power in today’s world, which is advancing the principle of mass destruction from the air as the key to future victory. The United States alone is building a strategic air force planned to lay waste cities as such.

In other words, it is the American concept of strategic air power which is guiding future war into the pattern of blind devastation. And in the long run, that is the sort of war from which the United States, with its urban concentration and high technology, will suffer most disastrously.

Atom bombs and long-range aircraft will never win a war for us. The rightful place of the atom bomb in American military policy, therefore, is very restricted.

We must keep it, and develop it, and have it ready—simply in order to retaliate if it is used against us. In our lawless world, that is our best hope of dissuading an enemy from launching an atomic attack on us.

But in the conditions of war that seem probable in the decade to come, the atom bomb should not be thought the instrument of victory. It is only an instrument of destruction. And while some destruction is incident to any military victory, they are not synonymous.

Source: William H. Hessler, “The A-Bomb Won’t Do What You Think!” Collier’s, September 17, 1949, 16.

See Also:"I'm Not Afraid of the A-Bomb": An Army Captain Tries to Dispel Fears about Radioactivity
"The Gravest Question of Our Time": A Senator Lays Out Military Alternatives in the Post-Korean War Atomic Age
"The Utopian Promise of the Peacetime Atom": Predictions and Hopes for Atomic Energy