From Milk Runs to MAD to Madness

There are no secrets about the world of nature.

There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.

—J. Robert Oppenheimer

No big deal, it was just “a milk run.”

So remarked Paul Tibbets Jr., pilot of the Enola Gay, a United States B-29 Superfortress, describing his trip to Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. His cargo that early morning was an atomic bomb called “Little Boy,” which bombardier Major Thomas Ferebee released when the plane was directly over the city. Forty-three seconds later and with pilot and crew watching, “Little Boy” exploded above ground. Their job finished, the Enola Gay returned to base on Tinian Island.

Yes, just a milk run. Others saw it differently. War correspondent John Hersey published a long article in the New Yorker on August 23, 1946, detailing the experience of those far enough from the center of the explosion to have recollections. No milk runs here:

As Mrs. Nakamura stood watching her neighbor, everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She did not notice what happened to the man next door; the reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, from the center of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house.

In case you’re a visitor from another galaxy and find this disturbing, most earth dwellers believe the “Little Boy” mission was an act of mercy. According to the accepted math, the instantaneous mass murder saved lives. So strong was this belief that the plutonium “Fat Man” bomb followed up on August 9 in Nagasaki, marking the last time a nuclear weapon was used in war. Meanwhile, on August 8, the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan, storming Japanese-held Manchuria with 1.6 million troops.

The Japanese fight-to-the-death attitude weakened. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on August 15, followed by the formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2.

As the first to inaugurate nuclear war, the Enola Gay crew had done their job—as ordered. Most of them agreed they were saving lives, but incinerating a city full of people as a life-saving exercise desperately needed context. Galactic visitors would be confused, but here on earth it was plainly necessary to put a quick end to a bloody engagement humans call war. Radar operator Joe Stiborik recalled the stunned silence on the flight back to Tinian, pierced by one outburst: “My God, what have we done!

If you have a superweapon, it does you no good if you lack the nerve to use it. And the US was driven to develop one out of fear Germany might already be working on one of its own.

How it should be used varied among those at the top of the food chain. As Ralph Raico has written, “The bombings were condemned as barbaric and unnecessary by high American military officers, including Eisenhower and MacArthur.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower, in fact, believed “Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary. . . . Japan was, at that very moment [prior to Hiroshima], seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face.’” But Truman ruled. It was his call. A half million or more American lives would be spared if a planned US invasion could be avoided. Yet, as Raico points out, that estimate was “nearly twice the total of US dead in all theaters in the Second World War.” Who was checking the math?

Attempts to Avoid a Nuclear Strike

At the Potsdam Conference in Germany (July 17 to August 2, 1945), Truman issued a Declaration, supported by Great Britain and China, demanding the Japanese surrender unconditionally or else he would order the “prompt and utter devastation” of their homeland. But he didn’t mention the horrific twenty-one kiloton Trinity Test on July 16 or the Soviet Union’s plans to invade Manchuria. Nor did he tell the Japanese their emperor would be safe from prosecution as a war criminal. Full disclosure might well have prompted Japan to surrender without an American invasion and without dropping the bombs.

The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project varied sharply in their views about attacking Japan. The Franck Committee, headed by Nobel Prize–winning physicist James Franck, opposed a surprise attack on Japan and recommended instead a demonstration in an uninhabited area. They also raised the issue of trust. How does the benevolent ethics of the West align with nuclear mass murder? Was it possible the US would get the “reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities,” as Secretary of War Henry Stimson asked Truman.

Director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team agreed that regarding the bomb, “We see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

But Oppenheimer’s feelings of elation following Trinity and the bombing of Hiroshima three weeks later changed after the bombing of Nagasaki, which he found unnecessary from a military perspective. On the contrary, he was a “nervous wreck” after the second attack on August 9, 1945, and distressed by the growing reports of casualties.

On the morning of October 25, 1945, the “father of the atomic bomb” met with President Harry Truman in the Oval Office. “Mr. President, I have blood on my hands,” Oppenheimer blurted, to which Truman in one version of the story (and in the 2023 movie) mockingly offered him a handkerchief.

Oppenheimer, who admitted to being a fellow traveler with the Communist Party and was often accused of being a member, saw a future dominated by superweapons a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb. Above all, he wanted to control nuclear weapons’ development and avoid an arms race with the Soviets.

But the race was already well underway. “After scientists in Germany experimentally split the uranium atom in 1938, [Hungarian-German physicist Leo] Szilard became deeply concerned about idea of Hitler obtaining an atomic bomb first and began raising alarm bells among his personal connections.”

Szilard and Albert Einstein both became so disturbed that they composed a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, urging him to start a program in the US among physicists working on chain reactions. Szilard, according to his biographer, had “worked frantically to start the very arms race he had feared.”

But with states, an arms race is one of their most conspicuous features.

Truman had never heard of the Manhattan Project until he was sworn into office and thought the Soviets would never catch up. Stalin, though, with his Manhattan Project spies, was far ahead of him.

At Potsdam, after hearing of the success of Trinity, Truman sauntered over to Stalin after a meeting and said, the “United States had a new weapon of unusual destructive force.” Stalin kept a poker face and replied, in effect, good for you. According to Truman’s Russian interpreter Charles E. Bohlen, “Years later, [Soviet] Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, in his memoirs, disclosed that that night Stalin ordered a telegram sent to those working on the atomic bomb in Russia to hurry with the job.”

The Reign of Absolute Madness

How much destructive force the superpowers need to maintain deterrence has varied over the decades, though according to a 2012 study by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Just 100 nuclear detonations of the size that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki would usher in a planetary nuclear winter, which would drop temperatures lower than they were in the Little Ice Age (1300–1850).” The Little Ice Age was characterized by widespread famine.

According to the Nuclear Notebook of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Department of Defense in 2023 had 3,708 nuclear warheads, whereas Russia, as of early 2022, had 4,477 nuclear warheads.

Today’s doomsday weapons far out-annihilate “Little Boy” that killed an estimated seventy thousand people, most of them civilians. The world has lived with increasingly powerful nuclear weapons for so long they no longer arouse the attention they deserve. A handful of state overlords of questionable conscience will decide whether you will be alive in the next second or drift away like chimney soot.

During an informal gathering in 1950, Enrico Fermi, a leading physicist and member of the Manhattan Project in Chicago, posed a question that puzzled his fellow scientists: Where is everybody?

He was referring to the “contradiction between the seemingly high likelihood for the emergence of extraterrestrial intelligence and the lack of evidence for its existence.” Specifically, “Given that our solar system is quite young compared to the rest of the universe—roughly 4.5 billion years old, compared to 13.8 billion—and that interstellar travel might be fairly easy to achieve given enough time, Earth should have been visited by aliens already.”

Since then, almost everyone has kicked in a reply. One I find chilling is this: Given enough time, intelligent life self-destructs.

It’s a hypothesis that by its nature precludes validation.

Originally Posted at https://mises.org/

By Mises