Season 5 Episode 4 – Atom Bomb: “The Destroyer of Worlds”

World War II On Topic Podcast

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About the Episode

In this special season of World War II On Topic, The National WWII Museum will explore J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the history and ramifications of the atomic bomb.

In this episode, Jason Dawsey, PhD, and John Curatola, PhD, historians with the Museum’s Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, discuss the legacy of the Manhattan Project.

Catch up on all episodes of World War II On Topic and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • The Manhattan Project
  • The Cold War
  • Soviet Union
  • President Harry S. Truman

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Featured Historians & Guests

John Curatola, PhD

John Curatola is the Military Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.

Jason Dawsey, PhD

Jason Dawsey, PhD, is a Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, where he researches the service records of WWII veterans and writes their biographies for family members.

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World War II On Topic is made possible by The Herzstein Foundation.


Jason Dawsey
Welcome everyone to The National WWII Museum podcast, World War II On Topic. This season is dedicated to Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

I'm Jason Dawsey, Research Historian at the Museum's Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, and just delighted to be joined again by my friend and colleague in the institute, Dr. John Curatola, Military Historian. John, great to see you again.

John Curatola
Great to be here again, Jason.

Jason Dawsey
This is Episode 4, the final episode of the season of World War II On Topic, and we're dealing with an incredibly complex issue, the legacies of the Manhattan Project in the atomic bomb. In Episode 2, John and I had covered a lot of ground related to the Christopher Nolan film, Oppenheimer. We're going to follow up on some loose ends from that film and push this whole discussion forward well into the 1950s.

So, John, with this, we talked in episode two about a series of issues related to the Nolan film, Oppenheimer. And in the meantime, this film has really become a phenomenon. I mean, billions of people are going to see it, and there's this huge discussion that has built up around the movie. So, maybe a few things to add on to that to complement what we already did. And the first one really gets to the issue about something we can't really resolve here, which is that there's going to be debate about the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima, Nagasaki. That debate will be an endless part of America and public life because the stakes were so high.

World War II in the Pacific ended less than a week after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. No further action against Imperial Japan was necessary after August 15, an invasion with all the fears about enormous American casualties that did not have to happen. And yet, the new weapons killed really, we could argue about numbers, is at 100,000 to 200,000, mostly Japanese civilians, including the elderly women and children, and killed them. And really in human ways, there's a new form of mass death. You could talk about dying from radiation. Poisoning is something really novel that comes out of this. So, that debate is never going to conclude. It's going to always, I think, be with us. But in addition to that, the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombs did not just end the war. They began fundamentally new eras in human history. They were part of the development of the Cold War and became the most dangerous aspect of this conflict, and we can really say, depending on how you want to date it, roughly, the Cold War ended around 1990.

The other thing that these weapons began was the Atomic Age, which endures, is very much still with us. So, in following up on what we did with Episode 2, John, why don't we talk about instead of something you're very interested in: How did the American public view the use of Little Boy and Fat Man? What can we say about that?

John Curatola
Yeah, it's interesting. When you look at the perspective of the average American... And in August of 1945, there's a Gallup poll, and it says basically, 85% of the American population approved of the use of the weapons, 10% did not. And then basically, 5% abstained from the survey itself. So, there's overwhelming support for the use of these weapons in August of 1945. What's interesting to note though, in the months subsequent to the dropping, that 85% number drops down to 65%. There's a realization here or an accounting for what occurred with the dropping of those two weapons.

Now, keep in mind, the context is very different. And as you pointed out in your initial comments, the war is over now. And so now, there's time for introspection and review of the war itself and puts it in the past as opposed to the present. And so, there is a little bit of recognition that maybe this wasn't a good thing. Still, 65% is still obviously the vast majority of people, but there is some now thought given to this idea. And it's reflected in many of the thinkers, many of the scientists, and many of the scholars subsequent to the war that have these long-range concerns over our ability to enact fission.

Jason Dawsey
That's a terrific place to begin. These perceptions that Americans have that initially are enormously positive, and that's not really a surprise. World War II did end … with some 60 million people killed in it. This fear, especially after Okinawa, about what a ground invasion, what an invasion, an amphibious operation, invasion/occupation in Japan, just what would be involved with that—and that does not have to occur. And yet, already there's these signs of concern about the fact that the atomic bomb was much more than about just defeating Japan is out there. It's in the world. And just to mention a few examples and then to complement, augment what John just said, Norman Cousins, who's the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, been a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a New Dealer, he publishes this article, John, on August 18, with a title: “Modern Man is Obsolete.” He follows that up with a book with the same title. A short book came out with Viking, just that fall.

Cousins is only 30 years old. He's a very young man in the article and book. He doesn't really get into the issue about, Was using atomic bombs the right thing to do? Was it necessary? Was it unavoidable? He doesn't really focus on that. He's really thinking about, What does this mean? The introduction of these weapons, these super weapons for the future, not only of Americans but of human beings, and he actually has some very startling things to say. He talks about the fact that what they could mean is the complete obliteration of the human species. That's one of the phrases that he uses. And he will call for something like world government, John, to confront the fact that now look, fission is the reality. It's no longer theory. Things have now progressed where we can see what these weapons can do. They can destroy entire cities with one weapon, and so, he'll talk about some kind of international control. And that countries, including the US, will have to cede some degree of national sovereignty in order to ensure that the bomb doesn't destroy us, is what it'll say.

And then, just a couple of other examples, I think for our audience for them to be aware of, that's 1945, Cousins. 1946, I know John, you're interested in this as well. John Hersey has this work— appears first with The New Yorker and then it comes out in book form—where he has interviewed six people, six survivors of the attack on Hiroshima, and he writes up their stories. The book appears as Hiroshima and sells something like 300,000 copies right away, signaling that the American public is really not only curious but concerned and wants information. And, in fact, that there are stories of people from Japan. We have a case of a woman, Toshiko Sasaki, who was a clerk. She had been wounded during the attack. There's also Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who was a pastor at a Methodist church. Their stories are told in this particular book, and so it … generates a lot of discussion in the country.

I think we could, third and final example of this, we could say, and please add whatever you want here, John, is 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist is founded, connected to the University of Chicago. Hyman Goldsmith and Eugene Rabinowitz are the two key figures in setting up this periodical, (which is) still very much out there with us today. And what they do in addition to the coverage about, if you will, the nuclear question, which we'll see steady coverage of right up until our own time, is something called the Doomsday Clock. And then, most Americans have heard of the Doomsday Clock really letting us know what the Bulletin thinks in terms of how close are we to the edge, to the cliff's edge, how close are we to this scenario of human extinction that Cousins was so concerned with already in 1945. And I thought, just let our viewers know that as of this year, 2023, the Bulletin has moved the clock to 90 seconds to midnight, which is the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been by their estimation.

So, there is all this apprehension within the country as well. Anything you wanted to add to that, John? Just about Americans’ perceptions of the weapons?

John Curatola
Yeah. What you see subsequent to the war is that America is kind of reflecting on this act. And one of the military thinkers at the time, a gentleman by the name of Bernard Brodie, is going to publish a book in 1946 called The Absolute Weapon. And in this book, he's bringing many of the same issues that you address, but he says something very important here, and it carries some of the tone and temperament of this time. And he writes: "So far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now, its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can almost have no other useful purpose." And so, given this statement, most of your military planners subsequent to 1945 looked upon future wars, something that's going to be air-centric, and it's going to be based upon the use of fission weapons.

The Army Air Corps or Army Air Forces, which becomes US Air Force in 1947 is already looking at the idea of flying over the polar ice caps with intercontinental bombers, the B-36, which is this huge legacy of the Second World War. It's not used during World War II, but it's kind of a legacy airframe that will fly from bases in Alaska and the northern states over the polar ice caps and strike Russian cities in the next war. And this serves as the blueprint for American military strategy subsequent to the war. As a matter of fact, there's a number of studies done within Congress over there: "Where should we be putting our defense dollars?"

And up until 1947, 1948, the defense budget for the new National Military Establishment, which becomes Department of Defense, okay? They pretty much give a third to each one of the military services: a third to the Army Air Forces, a third to the Army, and a third to the Navy. But this starts being called into question. With this idea of an air-centric warfare, the Air Force sees itself more and more as the relevant force in the contemporary environment as opposed to the old notions of warfare. And as a result, it's going to clamor for more of the budgetary pie. And this really becomes an issue not only within the National Military Establishment, but also within the halls of Congress over where should America be putting its defense dollars. And so, you even have a debate within the military establishment itself about the use of nuclear weapons in the future.

Jason Dawsey
This debate that's kindled in 1945, '46. Oppenheimer really gives us a lot of insight, if we could come back to the film.

John Curatola

Jason Dawsey
A lot of insight about how serious the repercussions are taken, and what it's going to mean for all people, not least J. Robert Oppenheimer, just kind of building on what you said, John. Oppenheimer is one of those individuals speaking of averting war. This Brodie comment that Oppenheimer really thought the bombs, they had ended the war. And we even have interviews with him with CBS News in 1965 where he's saying, "Look, of course, I have regrets about the deaths of Japanese civilians, how could I not?" But he'll say, "I didn't see any other course of action but that one."

So, he still will stand behind his role, the Manhattan Project's role, in ending World War II as late as 20 years later. He dies in 1967, but he does believe that it will prevent future wars. It will force nations … to confront the fact that war, that armed conflict has to end now, that we have to move into a new era of arbitration and conflict resolution and, dare one say it, peace or peacefulness between nations. And that's his vision, and he sticks with that for many years. And I think that does feed into a lot of his concerns about the hydrogen bomb. We touched on some of this in Episode 2 about the hydrogen bomb, much less the idea of ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missiles), so being able to hit targets on the other side of the planet within a matter of minutes.

John Curatola
Yeah. I think reflective of that concern, what happens in the United States in the spring of 1945, they put together what's called this Interim Committee that serves an advisory panel for (President Harry S.) Truman as he gets read in on the Manhattan Project because obviously, he doesn’t know anything about it until FDR dies. And this Interim Committee, the name is intentional because it's not intended to be a standing organization. It's there to help the president and advise him with regard to nuclear technology.

After the war, we established what's called the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947. This is the formal standing organization that they were thinking of in 1945. And what is it? It's run by civilians. It is placing the fissionable materials in the hands of civilian authority, not in the hands of military authority, and this is done deliberately. Even though the Manhattan Project was under military auspices, all of those assets were transferred over the Atomic Energy Commission with the military actually on the outside looking into the Atomic Energy Commission. And it establishes a rather interesting relationship between the military and the AEC. Matter of fact, it's an adversarial one. The AEC doesn't trust the military, and the military doesn't trust the Atomic Energy Commission. And it gets into a really ugly food fight between these two entities.

The first chair of the Atomic Energy Commission is a guy by the name of David Lilienthal. And his relationship with the military is that he is surprised—I'm going to paraphrase very poorly—he's surprised that the bloodthirsty comments that the military uses so easily shocks him. And the best way to articulate this relationship is that "the AEC thought the military guys were all fools, and the military guys thought the AEC were all crooks." Quote, unquote. And so, you actually have subsequent to the war a dysfunction within the United States. Despite the fact that we have this monopoly, there is a complete dysfunction of the American atomic enterprise, say from 1946 to 1950.

And of course, one of the things that spurs this change, as you mentioned, is the hydrogen bomb. By 1949, most military planners have realized, "Hey, you know, we only have a limited amount of bombs." That number is still classified by the way, how many bombs they actually had. There's speculation as to how many, but we need to step up our atomic effort because it falls by the wayside after the war because everybody goes home. And when the Soviets explode Joe-1 ... that's a shockwave, especially to the atomic enterprise thinking, "Maybe we need to spur the building of more fissionable weapons." But also, what about fusion? This is no longer just a scientific possibility. This is something that might necessarily be in the realm of reality. And so, this idea of fission weapons really has an effect on Oppenheimer and the members of the advisory committee to the Atomic Energy Commission.

And you can read their report. You can go into the archives and read their response to the leadership of the Atomic Energy Commission that basically says, "Look, we would like to pursue fusion technology as a scientific experiment. However, we don't see the need to build a fusion bomb." The problem with that is, anytime you're going to pursue that scientific course of action, of course, it can be moved into atomic or to a weapon of war. And so, this is, again, what we talked about last time. This was the line that he's straddling as a man of science. But by the same token, the science can easily be used for visionable weapons and it's guys like Lewis Strauss ... and Brien McMahon of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that really push the development of fusion weapons.

And so, what you see is this transition from questioning of atomic weapons subsequent to the war to, now that the Soviets have them, we need to put more and more bombs and more and more of our defensive posture into nuclear weapons.

Jason Dawsey
There's so much there that you brought in. And I think just to pull together some of that, I think for our audience to remember all the things we've been talking about, this fear, we can really talk about a kind of nuclear fear that does begin to grow in the US and will become an international phenomenon. This is even before the Soviets quote, “get the bomb” in 1949. I think figures like Oppenheimer and others realize the science is out there—we mentioned this in Episode 2. The Soviets are going to get the bomb. What's to prevent other countries from getting the bomb? So, what you have it, you're kind of pointing to, John, is this interesting dynamic where the Manhattan Project is really about weaponizing this scientific revolution, the scientific breakthrough, right? That had come about. It had its origins in the early 20th century and then 1938 what had happened in Germany.

And then, here they are weaponizing it to beat Nazi Germany, for that matter, Imperial Japan, with this weapon, and then, that war is over. I mean, what do you do with this, right? You have this. And now, I think what you're pointing to, John, is that we're getting a new development with the hydrogen bomb, where the fear of war or the like is driving scientific innovation in a peculiar way. But it is an unusual dynamic trying to keep up with it. And I think it brings this to a figure like Edward Teller. We see so much in the movie where he had wanted to work on fusion during the war itself, and Oppenheimer gives him some leeway, but just reminding him we're about, this is about fission, and they're not about fusion. And then Teller, if you will, has his moment; you're pointing to the AEC and Strauss and others making the case, we need to go the fusion route. The Soviets now have an atomic bomb. It's basically a copy, correct?

John Curatola
It's a complete copy. What's interesting is the story behind the Soviet bomb. There's some really great books out there on this topic.

Basically, what happens is Klaus Fuchs, who is really the main spy ... there are others, but he's really the one at the center of the Soviet effort. He gives them basically the design and the information that they need. And this is sent to a guy by the name of Igor Kurchatov, who is head of the atomic effort there in the Soviet Union. And Kurchatov is privy to this information, but he keeps you pretty much close hold, so most of the Russian scientists don't know where this information is coming from. They just think, "Oh, we thought this stuff up." And so, Latvia Beria, who is basically in charge of the nuclear program overseeing Kurchatov, he tells Kurchatov, "Make exact copy of the American bomb," while other scientists will say, "We can build..." The Russian scientists will say, "We can build one that is better and more efficient." Beria says, "No, because the American one works, and we know it works." And so, as a result, what you see in the Soviet Union in 1949 is a carbon copy of that bomb, and so, the implosion device that we talk about.

But what's interesting about this is that given the Soviet discovery years ahead of what we estimated, now that spurs this race that Oppenheimer was worried about. This weapons race that we know that comes to actually pass, but he's worried about this in 1946, and it happens. And so, in January 1950, Truman approves the idea of looking at fusion as a technology, fusion as a potential weapon, and a review of national security policy, which becomes NSC-68, which gets approved later on in 1950. But to be reflective of what you're talking about…

One of the smaller characters in the movie is a guy named William Borden, and he works in the Atomic Energy Commission. He's one of the people that really calls into question Oppenheimer's allegiance to the United States. Well, it is true as the movie portrays that he was a B-24 pilot. He did see a V-2 rocket fly at night, and it made an impression on him. Well, he writes a book shortly after the war called There Will Be No Time. And basically, what he's saying is, "In the future, the United States or the western world will not have years to build a defensive posture like we did in the Second World War." We had the arsenal of democracy building tanks in the sinews of war in 1942 and 1943 to start these big offensive juggernauts that the American and Allied effort become. What he's saying in the future, there will be no time for that because eventually, smaller atomic weapons will be on these V-2 like weapons in the future, and so, America has to be armed at the get-go.

And so, this is a new idea, and the reason why this is new is not just because of technology, but it's new because it's an anathema to the American experience. Why do I say that? Here's why. For most of our nation's history, from its inception all the way up to the Second World War, the American people don't like large armies. One, they're expensive. Okay, so there's that. It's an incredible waste of assets in terms of what it does to your economy. But second, early on, our founding fathers saw standing armies as a threat to a nascent democracy, which of course we have in the 18th century. It's a whole new idea. And so, we don't want to have a military around because it might threaten the balance of a democratic establishment. And so, what the United States does is it relies on its militias and pulling them together in times of national emergency with small armies.

However, eventually we established a small standing army, but when the Civil War comes, we expanded exponentially to fight this internal fight. But then after the Civil War, what did we do? We downsize again. We have a relatively small footprint militarily. And then, as the 20th century comes in, as America expands, I'll call it empire or influence overseas, we'll grow the military a little bit but not necessarily very large. During the First World War, we'll do the same thing again. We'll build a large military. We'll go to war against the Kaiser, and then immediately after the war, what did we do? We downsize yet again, and it remains that way up until our involvement into the Second World War. And of course, we build up to a 12, 13, 16 million man army depending on what year you're looking at if you're counting. And so, we build this very large military, and then what we do in 1946? We demobilize, and everybody goes back home, and they have 2.3 kids and they live in the suburbs, as we well know. And it becomes consumer culture and those things we're aware of.

However, here's where it's different. With men like William Borden and with NSC-68, what we're saying now is the United States must have a large standing and powerful peacetime military. That is a significant break in the American tradition.

Jason Dawsey
That's such an excellent point, and the film does give us insights into that, about how you're going to see this massive national security establishment come about, right? Attached to this really semi-permanent large military, and this focus on secrecy that's there at counterespionage and espionage. And on the American side, the fact that once it comes out about Fuchs working for the Soviets less than six months after the Soviets test their first atomic bomb, this kind of fear, if you will, paranoia that connects directly to a figure like Senator (Joseph) McCarthy from Wisconsin. This definitely has no small ties to what happens to Oppenheimer and his whole issue of his security clearance.

It's also, I think, worth noting for the audience (that) on the Soviet side, from their vantage point since the US had kept them out of the Manhattan Project, they themselves are always concerned about what the US is doing. And so, there's this kind of dynamic that comes into the early Cold War where neither side—this is certainly true even before ’47—can really trust the other in terms of what they're willing to share despite people like Oppenheimer, the Soviets themselves will have, they already have a figure like Beria and a secret police. They too will build up this gigantic national security establishment. They had really built the Red Army. The Red Army, in fact, had been decapitated during the purges in the late 1930s and then is built back up during World War II. Not surprisingly, 34 million people serve in the Soviet armed forces.

So, on their side, they begin to do this, too. And this is getting into the comments we see in the film, Oppenheimer referring to two scorpions in a bottle, right? That famous comment where there's a feeling that there's less and less room to maneuver internationally, not only for the US and the Soviets, but for other countries, really for human beings in general, they're kind of locked into this dynamic of escalation of arms race, and there's no doubt.

I think, John, getting to the last bit of what we want to do with this episode, the two developments... And I think no matter where you stand on the Manhattan Project and the use of the atomic bombs, these developments are really frightening developments. The invention of the hydrogen bomb and the timetable there between when the Soviets get a deliverable weapon and when the US gets a deliverable weapon, you mentioned, reminded us, four years between Hiroshima and the Soviets developing an atomic bomb, the much more compressed timetables we get with the hydrogen bomb, and then the intercontinental ballistic missile. So, by 1957, John, we really are in a situation that is unprecedented. And the fact that it's changed so much in just 12 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, what would you want the audience to know about how you assess this new era, even within the Cold War, within the Atomic Age? We have thermonuclear weapons now, and now, we have these ICBMs.

John Curatola
It's interesting that you bring up this point about the development. When the decision about thermonuclear weapons is in the offing in the fall of 1949 and of course 1950, there's a great quote, and I can't remember who said it, but he says, "The true fathers of the American"—superweapon is what they're referred to in terms of fusion hydrogen bombs; they're referred to as the super—he says, "The real fathers of the super bomb are Brien McMahon, who's chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Lewis Strauss, and the last one is the spy from Los Alamos. So, it's interesting you have these three individuals... Klaus Fuchs. Those three men are looked upon as the fellows atomic. Why? Because two were pushing it and one gives you to the point that you are trying to make this fear of the Soviets getting ahead of us and the synergy of those events happening.

And Klaus Fuchs's arrest is announced the day after Truman signs the document to start looking at fusion as a possible way ahead. And so, you can't separate these events. They are all intertwined with regard to how we view the world. And of course, just like during the interwar years where aviation technology grew by leaps and bounds, it went from wooden cloth covered airplanes in the first World War II metal monoplanes flying at 10, 20, 30,000 feet now with airspeeds going up to 200, 300, 400 miles an hour. And then, the war comes. And of course, it exacerbates this idea of technology and drills it to its conclusion where now we have jet aircraft that can fly intercontinental at 40,000 feet and have these extended ranges that can carry a 10,000 pound bomb and drop it on a Soviet city. And so, you have aviation technology and weapons technology growing by leaps and bounds.

Of course, by 1952, you're starting to design what we know today is a B-52, which is still in service today. And you take that to its next conclusion by the 1950s, the US Air Force is looking at missiles, as is the Navy in sub launch missiles. And so, you see this progression with regard to technology in the 1950s whereas we build these atomic forces on both sides, the Soviet Union and the United States, which causes Eisenhower, as you're well aware to question this idea and bring up this idea of the military industrial complex because again, this is something new in the American experience. Now, not only do we have enough weapons to defend ourselves, we have enough weapons to destroy the entire world. And so, that equation is something entirely new in the history of man.

Jason Dawsey
John, it really is. I mean, your remarks, I think for a lot of people getting into this subject matter, just gives one goosebumps because unlike the Cold War, which does end, we can say around 1990, but the Atomic Age does not. So, the nuclear and thermonuclear weapons are still with us. And we see in the mid-1950s, once you have something like a hydrogen bomb—what is it, 20 million tons of TNT, something like that—the equivalent of, and this is one of these weapons, you think what, Little Boy or Fat Man, the damage and devastation could inflict on Hiroshima, Nagasaki. A hydrogen bomb could destroy the entire New York metropolitan area, right—

John Curatola
Right. Where Little Boy maybe took care of Manhattan Island or took care ... a hydrogen bomb can take all the 32 boroughs of New York to give you this exponential size. And keep in mind, we're going to build these missiles with thermonuclear weapons that have multiple warheads in them. Your minuteman missile has three warheads. So, once it enters the atmosphere, the nose cone comes off and these three warheads go at three separate targets. It's not just delivering a bomb, it is delivering multiple bombs at multiple targets. And so again, you have this exponential increase not only in terms of firepower but in our ability to deliver these weapons at given locations.

Jason Dawsey
For our audience out there, there's so much rich, interesting, provocative work that was done in the 1950s by people trying to keep pace with these developments. And to ultimately oppose them, I'd just like to mention two of them here at the end, make people aware of one is this manifesto that is signed by Albert Einstein at very end of his life. He doesn't write it, but he agrees to it. It's largely written by the philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Both of them born in the 1870s. So, Russell's going to be around for much longer, dies in 1970, but Einstein dies in 1955. And so, this text is known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.

They speak of a future overshadowed by universal death, is this phrase that really does stick with you, this nuclear threat, which is now kind of all-encompassing. And they really appeal to people to speak to the human being in each of us and not the American or the Russian or the German or the Japanese or the Chinese, et cetera, that human beings have to unite to stop things from really completely careening out of control and bring about a nuclear war. And this text is widely disseminated and discussed in the mid-1950s with a hydrogen bomb already achieved and the ICBM right on the cusp of that.

John Curatola
And to your point, there are members within the new Department of Defense and also members within the budgetary elements of the US government that are concerned that with our development of atomic weapons in the 1950s, we are putting ourselves in somewhat of a strategic straight jacket, and that this is our only option. So, if you're building B-52s and B-36s and B-47s with atomic and fusion-based weapons, now you said, this is our only response, and this is a concern for many people in the 1950s. And of course, we know that other things happened, Korea happens, Vietnam happens, then there's a bunch of other conflicts that occur in the 1950s, not quite as big as those. And so, you have this concern about, "Well, are you going to use nuclear weapons in Korea? Is that really worthwhile? Are you going to use them in Vietnam? Is that really worthwhile?"

And so, when the Kennedy administration comes along, you have this idea of the flexible response, that not putting all of our eggs in a nuclear basket. Even though nuclear weapons were discussed at the end of the Korean War, and there were some people that discussed when the Vietnam era too, obviously on the fringes. But again, this idea that in the 1950s, are we putting ourselves in the strategic straight jacket with no other answers for possible deters to aggression? And this is something that weighs heavily, I think, on Eisenhower's mind as he leaves office and certainly on Kennedy's mind as he comes into the 1960s.

Jason Dawsey
This kind of issue, of concern, John, before I think for really thousands, hundreds of thousands. I could even speak of millions of human beings. And starting in the 1950s to begin to organize and protest about this arms race and about this complete, it seemed like this logic of overkill and of nuclear catastrophe that's there, you have this Einstein-Russell Manifesto.

There's a figure I worked on based in Austria, an intellectually Gunther Anders, he will talk about in 1956, the year after the Russell-Einstein texts a blindness to apocalypse, a blindness to this nuclear cataclysm, and eventually, Anders will coin the term global side is the ultimate end game of this, global side.

And an American philosopher, John Somerville, looking way ahead of the 1980s will talk about omnicide, so destruction of all life. And the Oppenheimer film, we mentioned this last Episode 2, this kind of scene of earth ablaze, the emulation of Earth with a nuclear war, with these ICBMs, this reigning havoc and chaos on the human race. That's what many of these individuals are pointing to. And I guess, the open question for the audiences is, how much Oppenheimer the film is pushing some discussion or really igniting some discussion about these weapons, and the fact that they're still with us ... thankfully many fewer of them. And not a situation like we faced in the Cold War but still present?

John Curatola
It's funny you're talking about the omni nature of these weapons are great. It might be an apocryphal story, but it's a great one in the book called Wizards of Armageddon, which I highly recommend people read. And in the story, there's a civilian getting a briefing from an Air Force officer about a nuclear war plant. And the civilians keep asking the same question well, "What's going to be the result? What's going to be the end state of this nuclear exchange?" And finally, the military officer says, "Don't you get it? If there's two Americans and one Russian left, we win." And the civilian says, "Well, you better hope that the two Americans are a man and a woman." They underscore what we're talking about here. And then, to the point that you are making is that we're talking about the obliteration of life on this planet as we well know it.
It's interesting when you read some of the early war plans that had been classified, and it really makes you go do the teeth sucking thing like... We were really thinking about doing these things, and we were. It was very matter of fact in their discussions on this kind of stuff, which gives you an insight to the time that I think we tend to forget as time passes.

Jason Dawsey
We do tend to forget, John, and I think Oppenheimer does a great service by reconnecting us to this history. So, let me thank you, John, for once again, sharing your expertise with us, with the audience, and thank the audience for joining us on this season of World War II On Topic.

Please consult our website for numerous articles dealing with this subject matter, and we hope that you'll join us in person or virtually in future events here at The National WWII Museum. We have a very special section on the Manhattan Project in the Museum's Arsenal of Democracy section. So, thanks very much for all your interest and all your attention.