The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle (1957)

‘Nice place you’ve got here. Have some tea?’
‘Thanks, it’s very kind of you.’
‘Not at all.’ (p.95)

If Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet is a kind of Swiftian satire which glossed over the practical aspects of space travel in order to concentrate on making its moralising points, The Black Cloud is the exact opposite, a showcase of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and factual accuracy.

It is set slightly into what was then the future, the narrative opening in January 1964. The blurb on the back has already told you that it’s about a black cloud which enters the solar system heading towards the Earth, so there’s no surprise about the central fact of the story, but any suspense about whether this is going to be an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world shocker is killed stone dead by the first few words of the prologue. This is set fifty years in the future (2020) and immediately establishes the jocular tone and worldview.

It is a humorous letter from a chap at a jolly nice Cambridge college, Dr John McPhail, and he describes the advent of the black cloud as ‘an interesting episode’, so jolly interesting that it was the subject of the thesis which won him his fellowship at Queen’s College, Cambridge. Good show.

So – we realise immediately – the world is not going to end, and also we are going to be dealing with jolly decent chaps from Cambridge and the Royal Astronomical Society. Thus deprived of key elemens of suspense, the interest in this early part of the text derives from:

  • a highly accurate description of the state of astronomical knowledge circa 1957, along with the technology they used then (the different types of telescope, techniques for comparing prints of photos taken of deep space, a long description of punching the tape required in a very early computer)
  • some very detailed calculations about the probable velocity, density and direction of the cloud which the characters do on blackboards as they discuss it, and which are reproduced in the book (you don’t often see extensive mathematical formulae in a novel)
  • some of the terminology and phraseology: I was particularly struck by the way that the word lab, being a contraction of laboratory, is printed as ‘lab.’ throughout

Introduction to the star character, Professor Christopher Kingsley

So a group of astronomers in America notice that something is progressively blotting out stars in a particular part of the sky, while at the same time an amateur astronomer tips off the British Royal Astronomical Society that the orbits of the larger planets in the solar system seem to have shifted. Sceptical experts redo the observations and conclude that something massive is causing them to wobble.

At the meeting where these figures are first discussed we are introduced to the irascible figure of the Cambridge-based theoretical astronomer, Professor Christopher Kingsley, age 37, tall with thick dark hair and ‘astonishing blue eyes’, a man apart, who follows arguments to their logical conclusion no matter how unpopular, who gets cross with anyone slower on the uptake, and manages to be both highly intelligent and a figure of fun to his colleagues – and is without doubt the central character in the book.

All these chaps analyse the findings, draw formulae on blackboards, puff on their pipes and conclude that a cloud of unknown gas is going to engulf the Sun and Earth in about 17 months time. They estimate it will take about a month to transit past, during which time, if it blots out the heat from the sun, most animals on earth will die, along with most humans. Seeds in the soil should survive so the planet’s flora will kick off after the cloud has left.

As in Arthur C. Clarke, the pleasure comes from the scientific accuracy of the speculation at each stage of the narrative i.e. we eavesdrop while the American and British scientists discuss and interpret each new set of data and information as it comes in and then discuss the possible consequences. So one of the pleasures of the book is enjoying the temporary illusion that you are as clever as these top astronomers.

In these early pages Hoyle paints a stark contrast between the cultures of Britain and America. In Britain the astronomer royal visits Cambridge, where it is cold and damp and foggy and depressing – although the college fellows treat themselves to four-course dinners, and then sit by roaring fires drinking vintage wine.

By contrast, when Kingsley flies over to California to meet the astronomers there, he is hosted by astronomer Geoff Marlowe, who takes him for a drive out into the Mojave desert, then to a restaurant where they speculate about the forthcoming world-changing event – then onto a party at a rich property developer’s house, whence Kingsley goes on to a smaller, more intimate party where he tries to dance with a sexy broad, disapproves of American bourbon, doesn’t like the raucous music on the gramophone and generally comes over as an uptight limey. A dark-haired lady offers him a lift back to his hotel, but they go via her apartment where, since she’s forgotten her keys, he helps her break in, and he ends up spending the night

the contrast between big, rich, scenic, partyful and sexually promiscuous America, and cold, foggy, damp, austerity England where there don’t even appear to be any women, let alone loose women, couldn’t be more striking.

The scientists make a base in the Cotswolds

The book is full of what, to the modern reader, seem like all sorts of oddities and eccentricities. The American and British astronomers, over the course of a series of meetings, become convinced that an enormous cloud of gas is heading directly for the sun, though whether it is cold or hot, full of electrical or radioactive activity, or inert, they cannot say. If it’s hot it might boil the earth’s atmosphere way, killing all life. Even if it’s inert it will probably block the light from the sun, as described above, killing nearly all terrestrial life.

There are at least two oddities: one is the way they sit around in their Cambridge rooms, puffing their pipes and offering each other tea and biscuits while they speculate about the likely impact. The other is that both teams decide to conceal the fact from their respective governments. They think politicians will only interfere and cause panic.

In the event news does leak out to the civil service and the Home Secretary comes to meet Kingsley, who, deploying his ‘easy-going, insulting manner’ (p.128) is immensely rude and confrontational, telling him quite openly that he despises politicians and civil servants. We are then party to the Home Secretary reporting back to the Prime Minister and so on. It seems inconceivable that one man’s personal arrogance (Kingsley’s) can influence so much.

In the event a secretary to the PM, Francis Parkinson, comes up with the suggestion that the scientists be given their own research base to study the cloud, and Whitehall settles on the manor of Nortonstowe in the Cotswolds, a nice country mansion which the Ministry of Agriculture had just finished converting into a research centre for agriculture. It is co-opted for the astronomers. Kingsley is their undoubted leader and makes all kinds of demands as rudely as he can of the politicians.

The place us surrounded by military police, and servants rustled up from the nearby new housing estate, while Kingsley rounds up the best minds available and hounds the ministry into installing state of the art telescopes, photography equipment and so on (no computers). Kingsley makes the inexplicable demand that anybody who comes to Nortonstowe will not be allowed to leave. Thus the Whitehall aide, Parkinson, is inveigled into being stuck there, but Kingsley then pulls a deceitful trick by inviting a string quartet he knows from Cambridge to come and perform and, only on the morning after the performance, happening to tell them that, now they’re here, they won’t be able to leave.

Kingsley behaves like a cross between a dictator and a spoilt child and everyone has to put up with it because Hoyle makes him the great genius who knows or calculates or spots or thinks things through far faster than anyone else. The core of the novel is the dynamic between Kingsley and the small court of scientists he has assembled, including:

  • Geoff Marlowe the American
  • British astronomers Dave Weichart and John Marlborough
  • technicians Roger Emerson and Bill Barnett and Yvette Hedelfort
  • the woman leader of the string quartet Ann Halsey (who seems to spend her time making endless pots of coffee for the Big Brains around her and is on the receiving end of some breath-takingly sexist put-downs from Kingsley)
  • Knut Jensen from Norway via the States
  • Harry Leicester from the University of Sydney
  • John McNeil, a young physician, who ends up writing the prologue and epilogue to the narrative
  • and a Russian physicist who happened to be visiting Britain, Alexis Alexandrov, and soon becomes a comic figure because of his habit of speaking in extremely brief, pithy sentences, for example: ‘Gulf Stream goes, gets bloody cold’

Global devastation

Finally the cloud arrives and it is almost as an afterthought to the absorbing conversations between chaps puffing on their pipes and scribbling on blackboards, that Hoyle casually mentions the devastating impact it has on the rest of the human race. They thought the cloud would block the sun and cause a big freeze. They hadn’t anticipated that it would reflect the heat of the sun with increased force. Thus the world experiences unprecedented heatwaves.

Conditions were utterly desperate throughout the tropics as may be judged from the fact that 7,943 species of plants and animals became totally extinct. The survival of Man himself was only possible because of the caves and cellars he was able to dig. Nothing could be done to mitigate the stifling air temperature. The number who perished during this phase is unknown. It can only be said that during all phases together more than seven hundred million persons are known to have lost their lives. (p.120)

The really odd thing about the book, its most striking characteristic, is how the chaps at Nortonstowe carry on discussing theoretical physics and puffing on their pipes through it all. The vast rise in humidity led to atmospheric instability which led to an epidemic of wildly destructive hurricanes around the world. In fact the manor house at Nortonstowe is itself destroyed in one of these hurricanes and one of the astronomers, Jensen, killed.

All this was caused by heat reflected from the cloud. When the cloud itself begins to arrive and blot out the sun’s light and heat temperatures plummet. As Hoyle briskly summarises it:

Except in the heavily industrialised countries, vast legions of people lost their lives during this period. For weeks they had been exposed to well-nigh unbearable heat. Then many had died by flood and storm. With the coming of intense cold, pneumonia became fiercely lethal. Between the beginning of August and the first week of October roughly a quarter of the world’s population died. (p.127)

The scientists notice something strange and ominous. The cloud is slowing down. There is a great deal of scientific speculation about how it could do this which settles on the idea that it is sending out great pellets of ice which are acting like rockets to slow its velocity. Most vivid proof is when one of these enormous ice pellets hits the surface of the moon causing a massive spurt of moon dust which can be observed through earth telescopes. The cloud is slowing down and looks like stopping.

The Prime Minister pays a visit to what’s left of Nortonstowe (where things appear to be carrying on in the same civilised way, with tea and biscuits, despite the house itself having been wrecked) and tells Kingsley he’s pretty cross with the scientists. They said it would only occlude the sun for a month. It’s been there longer. Kingsley gets cross and says that’s because they have no idea what’s going on. Scientists aren’t gods, their knowledge is limited to what is known by observation, the cloud is a completely new phenomenon.

The cloud now does something else unexpected – it changes shape. It slowly changes from being a big amorphous cloud into the shape of a disk. This has the effect of allowing the earth to leave its shadow and emerge back into sunlight. Slowly humanity climbs out of its frozen caves to try and rebuild amid the ruins.

From a pure science point of view what sustains the book is that each stage of the cloud’s progress – from initial sighting through to enveloping the earth – the chorus of scientists Kingsley has assembled at Nortonstowe give voice to every possible interpretation of scientific possibilities. From one perspective the book is like a sequence of seminars on the successive stages of approach and envelopment by a gas cloud, which, altogether, cover a huge range of geographical and terrestrial phenomenon – the scientists discuss the possibility of global warming, global cooling, a new ice age, the atmosphere being heated until it boils, the entire atmosphere being torn away from the earth leaving it barren as the moon, the atmosphere freezing, and so on.

With the cloud now having completely halted and assumed a disc-like shape, and the earth having orbited out of its shadow, the astronomers have to tell the Prime Minister that it might become a new element of life on earth, that twice a year, in February and August, the earth will travel into the cloud and, for a few weeks, lose sun, warmth, life everything. It will be a completely new global condition.

Radio communication

There then follows a lengthy chapter which appears to be going off on a tangent. In preparation for the cloud arriving Kingsley had had the bright idea of installing not just telescopes and so on at Nortonstowe, but an array of the very latest radio equipment. This is because, in the coming disasters, he foresees that a centre of global information will be required. This chapter set out in minute detail the experiments with different wavelengths required to escape the interference caused by the cloud’s upsetting of the atmosphere. But during their experiments a pattern emerges: put simply, every time they change the wavelength, there is ionisation activity at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere which acts to neutralise it.

Kingsley astonishes the chaps by drawing a mad but logical conclusion: the cloud is blocking their radio transmissions; and if it is doing this no matter what wavelength they use, it must contain intelligent life.

Life in the cloud

Then there’s an interesting chapter devoted to the chaps arguing about how the cloud could possibly contain intelligent life and what form it could possibly take. Although Sir Fred Hoyle was the man who coined the expression Big Bang, he did it critically because he himself didn’t believe in the Big Bang theory i.e. that the universe had a definite beginning. Hoyle believed in the Steady State theory i.e. the universe has no beginning and will have no end. This chapter dramatises his theories of how intelligent life might have begun in vast gaseous clouds as electrical activity among groups of crystal molecules which formed on the surface of ice particles.

As routinely, throughout the book, the fact that half the earth’s population has just died, that agriculture and the environment have been devastated, economies ruined, ecosystems destroyed, are all completely ignored while a bunch of chaps sit around having a jolly interesting chat about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

Talking to the cloud

They make the decision to send regular pulses into the cloud as signs of intelligent communication. To cut a long story short, the cloud replies and within just a few days they are talking to the cloud. One of the technical johnnies rigs up a system whereby the electronic pulses the cloud sends back can be translated into words via one of those new-fangled televisions and, bingo! They can hear the cloud talk! And he speaks in exactly the tone of a jolly interesting Cambridge academic! This is the first message they hear from the cloud:

Your first transmission came as a surprise, for it is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabiting planets, which are in the nature of extreme outposts of life. (p.170)

One of the workers from the housing estate who had tended the gardens and tried to supply the scientists with fruit and veg through all the disasters, was a simple-minded gardener named Joe Stoddard. The technical johnny who rigs up the signals from the Cloud to come through a loudspeaker has, for a joke, used the voice pattern of Joe Stoddard. In other words, mankind’s first communications with the first intelligent extra-terrestrial life it’s encountered are translated into the phraseology of a Cambridge Common Room as expressed through the speech of a Gloucestershire peasant.As a result the scientists unanimously nickname the Cloud, ‘Joe’. Joe says this, Joe says that.

Joe proceeds to tell them all about himself. The universe is eternal and Joe thinks he has existed for some five hundred million years (p.178). He creates units of replicating life and seeds other clouds as he passes. Thus life is spread throughout the universe. He explains that intelligent life on planets is very rare for a multitude of reasons, for example the difficulty o gaining energy from surroundings by processing vegetable matter, and the thickness of skulls required to protect the brain militates against the brain growing in size. Plus the requirement of converting the intangible process of ‘thought’ – in reality a blizzard of electrical signals throughout the brain – into ‘speech’ i.e. the mechanical operation of jaw, lungs, vocal chords etc – a very primitive way to communicate.

This is fascinating and thought-provoking.

The hydrogen bombs

Back in the plot, word gets out to the politicians who are still running the governments of Britain, America and so on, that communication has been established with the Cloud. The governments insist on listening in on a ‘conversation’. This particular conversation is about human reproduction – sex – and its irrationality; it has to be irrational (love, lust) in order to overcome its very obvious pains and risks. The cloud opines that this may be why intelligent life on planets is so rare: the effort required for planet-borne life forms to communicate and to reproduce both tend to emphasise the irrational. Joe thinks the chances are humanity will over-populate the Earth and kill itself off.

After the ‘conversation’ is terminated, the conversation among the scientists continues with a few choice criticisms of politicians everywhere. Then one of the technicians points out that the politicians are still on the line. They have heard the scientists, particularly Kingsley, being as rude and dismissive of political interference as imaginable.

They then get a call from the American secretary of Defence to whom Kingsley is immensely rude and confrontational. When the Secretary threatens Kingsley, Kingsley foolishly replies that he can, with a few suggestions to Joe the Cloud, annihilate America if he wants to.

This seems tactless and rash even for Kingsley and the consequences are bad. As so often happens in 1950s Cold War sci-fi, the American and Russian governments decide the Cloud is a threat to their existence and launch missiles carrying hydrogen bombs at it.

The Nortonstowe scientists learn of this and warn the Cloud who is extremely cross, peeved wouldn’t be too strong a word. Kingsley explains that Earth is ruled by a variety of autonomous governments and that this decision has nothing to do with him or the other scientists. The Cloud announces he will simply return the missiles to their places of origin – with the result that El Paso and Chicago are wiped off the map, along with Kiev. About half a million people are vaporised.

In this, as in the reports of worldwide devastation, the really interesting thing is how offhand and disinterested Hoyle is about these, the melodramatic elements, of his story. Hundreds of millions die, hurricanes destroy the environment, H-bombs destroy American cities… but this is always forgotten whenever the chaps at Nortonstowe make a new discovery about the Cloud.

(And I never understood how Hoyle reconciles the fact that the entire manor house at Nortonstowe is destroyed in a hurricane with the fact that all the scientists carry on meeting in oak-panelled rooms, pouring each other cups of tea, puffing their pipes and discussing the various fascinating problems thrown up by the cloud. Where does all this happen? In a cave?)

The cloud departs

Then Joe the Cloud tells them that another cloud in the vicinity (i.e. hundreds of millions of miles away) has suddenly gone quiet. Joe tells us that this sometimes happens, none of the clouds know why. The clouds themselves are not omniscient. There are many aspects of the universe which are mysteries to them.

In the last few days before the cloud departs, our chaps ask it to tell them more about its vast knowledge. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

‘Now, chaps, this is probably one of our last chances to ask questions. Suppose we make a list of them. Any suggestions?’ (p.204)

Weichart volunteers to sit in front of a series of TV monitors hooked up by Leicester, the TV man, to the Cloud’s wavelength. The transmission begins and vast amounts of information leap across the screens. Slowly Weichart goes into a trance or hypnotised state. His temperature rises, he becomes delirious, he has to be dragged away from the screens to a bed, where he dies.

Then Kingsley announces he will do the same only they’ll ask the Cloud to transmit at a greatly reduced pace. Caring Ann tries to get the other scientists to persuade Kingsley not to do it. Obstinately he insists. He too sits in front of the monitors, his brain is bombarded, he goes into a fugue state, has to be dragged away and sedated. When the sedation wears off he looks deranged and then starts screaming. More sedatives. He dies of brain inflammation. The cloud simply knows too much for a human brain to process, although a couple of the scientists speculate that there might be a subtler reason: it could be that the Cloud not only overloaded his primitive brain with information but that what he learned was so at odds with human understanding, so completely contrary to all the scientific theories which Kingsley had devoted his life to, that he went mad.

Epilogue

A short epilogue explains the end of the affair. It is written by John McNeil fifty years later. He had been co-opted to Nortonstowe as a young physician and was an eye witness to all the key events and discussions. It was he who treated and failed to save Kingsley.

He now explains that the fact that the Cloud was intelligent and the entire course of all its discussions with humans, as well as the fact that it decided to move on out of the solar system, were kept hidden from the public, from the world. A handful of politicians and the tiny cohort in the Cotswolds knew but both decided to keep it secret, for their various reasons.

This text is therefore in the nature of being a bombshell for the human race.

Only now, fifty years later, is he revealing all in this long narrative, addressed to a young colleague of his Blythe. Why Blythe? Well, he’s a fellow academic, but another reason is that he is the grandson of Ann Halsey, the classical musician trapped at Nortonstowe and who – from a few dropped hints – we suspect had an affair with Kingsley while they were confined to the Cotswold mansion. So Blythe is Kinbgsley’s grandson as well (I think).

Now McNeil is leaving Blythe the full narrative of events and leaving it up to him whether to make the whole thing public. He also bequeaths him a copy of the punched card ‘code’ which Kingsley et al used to communicated with the Cloud. What he does with it now is up to him.

Comments

The science is fascinating, and takes on a whole new twist once we realise the cloud is intelligent. But from start to finish what should be appalling, epic events – unprecedented heat wave, blotting out of the sun and unprecedented freeze, death of quarter of the world’s population etc – take a firm back seat to detailed accounts of the conversations between the various chaps, led by the grotesque Kingsley – and these conversations are of such a 1950s, man-from-the-ministry, ornate style that it is really most frightfully difficult to work up the sense of awe or horror a science fiction novel should strive for. Instead one finds oneself more distracted by the Oxbridge and Whitehall Mandarin style of the dialogue than by the epoch-making events the book describes.

This is from the long conversation between secretary to the Prime Minister Parkinson and Sir Charles Kingsley at the latter’s rooms in his Cambridge college. We know they’re getting on because Kingsley offers Parkinson a second cup of tea, puts more logs on the fire, and then makes his demands of the British government thus:

‘I want everything quite clear-cut. First, that I be empowered to recruit the staff to this Nortonstowe place, that I be empowered to offer what salaries I think reasonable, and to use any argument that may seem appropriate other than divulging the real state of things. Second, that there shall be, repeat no, civil servants at Nortonstowe, and that there shall be no political liaison except through yourself.’
‘To what do I owe this exceptional distinction?’
‘To the fact that, although we think differently and serve different masters, we do have sufficient common ground to be able to talk together. This is a rarity not likely to be repeated.’
‘I am indeed flattered.’
‘You mistake me then. I am being as serious as I know how to be. I tell you most solemnly that if I and my gang find any gentlemen of the proscribed variety at Nortonstowe we shall quite literally throw them out of the place. if this is prevented by police action or if the proscribed variety are so dense on the ground that we cannot throw them out, then I warn you with equal solemnity that you will not get one single groat of co-operation from us. If you think I am overstressing this point, then I would say that I am only doing so because I know how extremely foolish politicians can be.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Not at all.’ (pp.83-84)

It’s a little like the end of the world as Ealing Comedy.

‘Would you like to talk to the first intelligent life from outer space that humanity has ever encountered, Charles?’
‘Oh, that’s frightfully kind of you, Algernon, but I was going to make a fresh pot of tea. Why don’t you take first dibs?’
‘Well, that’s jolly decent of you, old chap. Two lumps for me.’


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1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

Atomic by Jim Baggott (2009)

This is a brilliantly panoramic, thrilling and terrifying book.

The subtitle of this book is ‘The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49‘ and it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. At nearly 500 pages Atomic is a very thorough account of its subject – the race to develop a workable atomic bomb between the main warring nations of World War Two, America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia –  with the additional assets of a 22-page timeline, a 20-page list of key characters, 18 pages of notes and sources and a 6-page bibliography.

A cast of thousands

The need for a list of key characters is an indication of one of the main learnings from the book: it took a lot of people to convert theoretical physics into battlefield nuclear weapons. Every aspect of it came from theories and speculations published in numerous journals, and then from experiments devised by scores of teams of scientists working around the industrialised world, publishing results, meeting at conferences or informally, comparing and discussing and debating and trying again.

Having just read The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira, a ‘biography’ of the theory of relativity, I had gotten used to the enormous number of teams and groups and institutes and university faculties involved in science – or this area of science – each containing numerous individual scientists, who collaborated and competed to devise, work through and test new theories relating to Einstein’s famous theory.

Baggott’s tale gives the same sense of a cast of hundreds of scientists – it feels like we are introduced to two or three new characters on every page, which can make it quite difficult to keep up. But whereas progress on the theory of relativity took place at a leisurely pace over the past 100 years, the opposite is true of the development of The Bomb.

This was kick-started when a research paper showing that nuclear fission of uranium might be possible was published in 1939, just as the world was on the brink of war (hence the start date for this book). From that point the story progresses at an increasing pace, dominated by a Great Fear – fear that the Nazis would develop The Bomb first and use it without any scruples to devastate Europe.

The first three parts of the book follow the way the two warring parties – the Allies and the Nazis – assembled their teams from civilian physicists, mathematicians and chemists at various institutions, bringing them together into teams which were assembled and worked with increasing franticness, as the Second World War became deeper and darker.

If the you thought the blizzard of names of theoretical and experimental physicists, mathematicians, chemists and so on in the first part was a bit confusing, this is as nothing compared to the tsunami of names of Army administrators, security chiefs, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians who are roped in to create and administer the facilities which were established to research and build, first a nuclear reactor, then a nuclear bomb.

Baggott unfolds the story with a kind of unflinching factual pace which is extremely gripping. Each chapter is divided into sections, often only a page long, which explain contemporaneous events at research bases in Chicago, out in the desert at Los Alamos, in Britain, in German research centres, and among Stalin’s harassed scientific community. Each one of these narratives is fascinating, but intercutting them like this creates an almost filming effect of cutting from one exciting scene to another. Baggott’s prose is spare and effective, almost like good thriller writing.

The nuclear spies

And indeed the book strays into actual thriller territory because interwoven with the gripping accounts of the British, Russian, German and American scientists, and their respective military and political masters, is the story of the nuclear spies. I read Paul Simpson’s A Brief History of The Spy a few months ago and it gives good accounts of the activities of Soviet spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greengrass, Theodore Hall, as well as the Rosenbergs. But the story of their spying and the huge amounts of top secret information they handed over to the Russians is so much more intense and exciting when it is situated in the broader story of the nail-biting scientific, chemical, logistical and political races to build The Bomb.

German failure

As everyone knows, the Nazis were not able to construct a functioning bomb before they were militarily defeated in May 1945. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and the main impression from the book was the sense of vicarious horror from the thought of what they’d done if they had made a breakthrough in the final desperate months of spring 1945. London wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.

Baggott’s account of the German bomb is fascinating in numerous ways. Basically, once the leadership were told it wouldn’t be ready in the next few years, they didn’t make it a priority. Baggott follows the end of the war with a chapter on hos most of the German nuclear scientists were flown to England and interned in a farm outside Cambridge which was bugged. Their conversations were recorded in which they were at first smugly confident that they were being detained because they were so far in advance of the Allies. Thus they were all shocked when they heard the Allies had dropped an atom bomb on Japan in August 1945. At which point they began to develop a new line, one much promoted by German historians since, which is that they could have developed a bomb if they’d wanted to, but had morals and principles and so did all they could to undermine, stall and sabotage the Nazi attempt to build an A bomb.

They were in fact ‘good Germans’ who always hated the Nazis. Baggott treats this claim with the contempt it deserves.

Summary of the science

The neutron was discovered in 1932, giving a clearer picture of what atoms are made of i.e. a nucleus with at least one proton (with a positive electric charge) balancing at least one electron (with a negative charge) in orbit around it. Heavier elements have more than one neutron and electron (always the same number) as well as an increasing number of neutrons which give weight but have no electric charge. Hence the periodic table lists the elements in order of heaviness, starting with hydrogen with one proton and going all the way to organesson, with its 118 protons. Ernest Lawrence in California invented the cyclotron, a device for smashing sub-atomic particles into nuclei to see what happened. In 1934 Enrico Fermi’s team in Italy set out to bombard the nuclei of every known element with neutrons, starting with hydrogen (1) and going through the entire periodic table.

The assumption was that, by bombarding elements with neutrons they would dislodge one or two protons in each nucleus and ‘shift’ the element down the periodic table by one or two places. When the team came to bombard one of the heaviest elements, uranium, they were amazed to discover that the process seemed to produce barium, about half the weight of uranium. The bombardment process seemed to blast uranium nuclei in half. Physics theory, influenced by Einstein, suggested that a) this breakdown would result in the release of energy b) some of the neutrons within the uranium nucleus would not be required by the barium atoms and would themselves shoot out to hit other uranium nuclei, and so on.

  • The process would create a chain reaction.
  • Although the collapse of each individual atom would release a minuscule amount of energy, the number of atoms in such a dense element suggested a theoretically amazing release of energy. If every nucleus of uranium in a 1 kilogram lump was split in half, it would release the same energy as 22,000 tons of TNT explosive.

Otto Frisch, an Austrian Jewish physicist who had fled to Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen after the Nazis came to power, heard about all this from his long-time collaborator, and aunt, Lise Meitner, who was with the German team replicating Fermi’s results. He told Bohr about the discovery. Frisch named it nuclear fission.

In early 1939 papers were published in a German science journal and Nature, while Bohr himself travelled to a conference in America. In the spring of that year fission research groups sprang up around the scientific world. In America Bohr realised anomalies in the experimental results were caused by the fact that uranium comes in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The numbers derive from the total number of neutrons and protons in an atom: U-238 has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; U-235 has three fewer neutrons. Slowly evidence emerged that it is the U-235 which breaks down. But it is much rarer than the stable U-238 and difficult to extract and purify. In March 1939 a French team summarised the evidence for nuclear chain reactions in a paper in Nature, specifying the number of particles released by disintegrated nuclei.

All the physicists involved realised that the massive release of energy implied by the experiments could theoretically be used to create an explosive device vastly more powerful than anything then existing. And so did the press. Newspaper articles began appearing about a ‘superbomb’. In April the head of physics at the German Reich Research Council assembled a group devoted to fission research, named the Uranverein, calling for the ban of all uranium exports, and for it to be stockpiled. British MP Winston Churchill asked a friend, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a fission bomb. Soviet scientists replicated the results of their western colleagues but didn’t bring the issue to the attention of the authorities – yet. Three Hungarian physicists who were exiles from the Nazis in America grasped the military importance of the discoveries. They approached Einstein and persuaded him to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt, which was written in August 1939 though not delivered to the president until October. Meanwhile the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September and war in Europe began. At this point the Nazis approached the leading theoretical physicist in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, and he agreed to head the Uranverein, leading German research into an atomic bomb until the end of the war.

And so the race to build the first atomic bomb began! The major challenges were to:

  • isolate enough of the unstable isotope U-235 to sustain a chain reaction
  • to kick start the chain reaction somehow, not with the elaborate apparatus available in a lab, but with something which could be packed inside a contain (a bomb) and then triggered somehow
  • a material which could ‘damp’ the process enough so that it could be controlled in experimental conditions

From the start there was debate over the damping material, with the two strongest contenders being graphite – but it turned out to be difficult to get graphite which was pure enough – or ‘heavy water’, water produced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. Only one chemical plant in all of Europe produced heavy water, a fertiliser factory in Norway. The Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and a spin-off was the ability to commandeer regular supplies from this factory. That is why the factory, and its shipments of heavy water, were targeted for the commando raid and then air raids dramatised in the war movie, The Heroes of Telemark. (Baggott gives a thorough and gripping account of the true, more complex, more terrifying story of the raids.)

Learnings

I never realised that:

  • In the end the Americans built the bomb because they were the only ones with enough resources. Although Hitler and Stalin were briefed about the potential, their scientists told them it would be three or four years before a workable bomb could be made and they both had more pressing concerns. The British had the know-how but not the money or resources. There is a kind of historical inevitability to America being the first to build a bomb.
  • But I never realised there were quite so many communist sympathisers in American society and that so many of them slipped across the line into passing information and/or secrets to the Soviets. The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies.
  • And I never knew that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man put in charge of the facilities at Los Alamos and therefore widely known as the ‘father’ of the atom bomb, was himself was such a dubious character, from the security point of view. Well-known for his left-wing sympathies, attending meetings and donating money to crypto-communist causes, he was good friends with communist party members and was approached at least once by Soviet agents to pass on information about the bomb project. No wonder elements in the Army and the FBI wanted him banned from the very project which he was in fact running.

Hiroshima

The first three parts of the book follow in considerable detail the story from the crucial discoveries on the eve of the war, and then interweaves developments in Britain, America and the USSR up until the detonation of the two A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

  • I was shocked all over again to read the idea that, on the eve of the first so-called Trinity test, the scientists weren’t completely confident that the chain reaction might not spread to the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the air on fire.
  • I was dazzled by the casual way military planners came up with a short list of cities to hit with the bombs. The historic and (by all accounts) picturesque city of Kyoto was on the list but it was decided it would be a cultural crime to incinerate it. Also US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had gone there on his honeymoon, so it was removed from the list. Thus, in this new age, were the fates, the lives and agonising deaths, of hundreds of thousands of civilians decided.
  • I never knew they only did one test – the Trinity test – before Hiroshima. So little preparation and knowledge.

The justification for the use of the bomb has caused argument from that day to this. Some have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering, though the evidence presented in Baggott’s account militates against this interpretation. My own view is based on two axioms: 1. the limits of human reason 2. a moral theory of complementarity.

Limits of reason When I was a young man I was very influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Life is absurd and the absurdity is caused by the ludicrous mismatch between human claims and hopes of Reason and Justice and Freedom and all these other high-sounding words – and the chaotic shambles which people have made of the world, starting with the inability of most people to begin to live their own lives according to Reason and Logic.

People smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, marry the wrong person, drive cars too fast, take the wrong jobs, make the wrong decisions, jump off bridges, declare war. We in the UK have just voted for Brexit and Donald Trump is about to become US President. Rational? The bigger picture is that we are destroying the earth through our pollution and wastefulness, and global warming may end up destroying our current civilisation.

Given all these obvious facts about human beings, I don’t see how anyone can accuse us of being rational and logical.

But in part this is because we evolved to live in small packs or groups or tribes, and to deal with fairly simple situations in small groups. Ever since the Neolithic revolution and the birth of agriculture led to stratified and much larger societies and set us on the path to ‘civilisation’, we have increasingly found ourselves in complex situations where there is no one obviously ‘correct’ choice or path; where the notion of a binary choice between Good and Evil breaks down. Most of the decisions I’ve taken personally and professionally aren’t covered by so-called ‘morality’ or ‘moral philosophy’, they present themselves – and I make the decisions – based purely on practical outcomes.

Complementarity Early in his account Baggott explains Niels Bohr’s insight into quantum physics, the way of ‘seeing’ fundamental particles which changed the way educated people think about ‘reality’ and won him a Nobel Prize.

In the 1920s it became clear that electrons, one of the handful of sub-atomic particles, behave like waves and like particles at the same time. In Newton’s world a thing is a thing, self-identical and consistent. In quantum physics this fixed attitude has to be abandoned because ‘reality’ just doesn’t seem to be like that. Eventually, the researchers arrived a notion of complementarity i.e. that we just have to accept that electrons could be particles and waves at the same time depending on how you chose to measure them. (I understand other elements of quantum theory also prove that particles can be in two places at the same time). Conceivably, there are other ways of measuring them which we don’t know about yet. Possibly the incompatible behaviour can be reconciled at some ‘deeper’ level of theory and understanding but, despite nearly a century of trying, nobody has come up with a grand unifying theory which does that.

Meanwhile we have to work with reality in contradictory bits and fragments, according to different theories which fit, or seem to fit, to explain, the particular phenomena under investigation: Newtonian mechanics for most ordinary scale phenomena; Einstein’s relativity at the extremes of scale, black holes and gravity where Newton’s theory breaks down; and quantum theory to explain the perplexing nature of sub-atomic ‘reality’.

In the same way I’d like to suggest that everyday human morality is itself limited in its application. In extreme situations it frays and breaks. Common or garden morality suggests there is one ‘reality’ in which readily identifiable ideas of Good and Bad always and everywhere apply. But delve only a little deeper – consider the decisions you actually have to make, in your real life – and you quickly realise that there are many situations and decisions you have to make about situations which aren’t simple, where none of the alternatives are black and white, where you have to feel your way to a solution often based in gut instinct.

A major part of the problem may be that you are trying to reconcile not two points of view within one system, but two or more incompatible ways of looking at the world – just like the three worldviews of theoretical physics.

The Hiroshima decision

Thus – with one part of my mind I am appalled off the scale by the thought of a hideous, searing, radioactive death appearing in the middle of your city for no reason without any warning, vaporising half the population and burning the other half to shreds, men, women and little children, the old and babies, all indiscriminately evaporated or burned alive. I am at one with John Hersey’s terrifying account, I am with CND, I am against this anti-human abomination.

But with another part of the calculating predatory brain I can assess the arguments which President Truman had to weigh up. Using the A-bomb would:

  1. End a war which had dragged on too long.
  2. Save scores of thousands of American lives, an argument bolstered as evidence mounted that the Japanese were mobilising for a fanatical defence to the death of their home islands. I didn’;t know that the invasion of the southern island of Japan was scheduled for December 1945 and the invasion of the main island and advance on Tokyo was provisionally set to start in march 1946. Given that it took the Allies a year to advance from Normandy to Berlin, this suggests a scenario where the war could have dragged on well into 1947, with the awesome destruction of the entire Japanese infrastructure through firebombing and house to house fighting as well, of course, of vast casualties, Japanese and American.
  3. As the US commander of strategic air operations against Japan, General Curtis LeMay pointed out, America had been waging a devastating campaign of firebombing against Japanese cities for months. According to one calculation some two-and-a-half million Japanese had been killed in these air attacks to date. He couldn’t see why people got so upset about the atom bombs.

Again, I was amazed at the intransigence of the Japanese military. Baggott reports the cabinet meetings attended by the Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the heads of the Army and Navy, where the latter refused to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In fact, when the Emperor finally overruled his generals and issued an order to surrender, the generals promptly launched a military coup and tried to confiscate the Emperor’s recorded message ordering the surrender before it could be broadcast. An indication of the fanaticism American troops would have faced if a traditional invasion had gone ahead.

The Cold War

And the other reason for using the bombs was to prepare for after the war, specifically to tell the Soviet Union who was boss. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to join the war on Japan and this he did in August, making a request to invade the north island (the Russians being notoriously less concerned about their own troop losses than the Allies). the book is fascinating on how Stalin ordered an invasion then three days later backed off, leaving all Japan to America. But this kind of brinkmanship and uneasiness which had appeared at Yalta became more and more the dominant issue of world politics once the war was won, and once the USSR began to put in place mini-me repressive communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

Baggott follows the story through the Berlin Airlift of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950), while he describes the ‘second physics war’ i.e. the Russian push to build an atomic reactor and then a bomb to rival America’s. In this the Russians were hugely helped by the Allied spies who, ironically, now Soviet brutality was a bit more obvious to the world, began to have second thoughts. In fact Klaus Fuchs, the most important conduit of atomic secrets to the Russians, eventually confessed his role.

Baggott’s account in fact goes up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and it is so grippingly, thrillingly written I wished it had gone right up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he’ll write a sequel which covers the Cold War. Then again, most of the scientific innovation had been achieved and the basic principles established; now it was a question of engineering, of improving designs and outcomes. Of building bigger and better bombs and more and more of them.

The last section contains a running thread about the attempts by some of the scientists and politicians to prevent nuclear proliferation, and explains in detail why they came to nothing. The reason was the unavoidable new superpower rivalry between America and Russia, the geopolitical dynamic of mutually assured destruction which dominated the world for the next 45 years (until the fall of the USSR).

A new era in human history was inaugurated in which ‘traditional’ morality was drained of meaning. Or to put it another way (as I’ve suggested above) in which the traditional morality which just about makes sense in large complex societies, reached its limits, frayed and broke.

The nuclear era exposed the limitations of not only human morality but of human reason itself, showing that incompatible systems of values could apply to the same phenomena, in which nuclear truths could be good and evil, vital and obscene, at the same time. An era in which all attempts at rational thought about weapons of mass destruction seemed to lead only to inescapable paradox and absurdity.


Credit

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott was published in 2009 by Icon Books. All quotes and references are to the 2015 Icon Books paperback edition.

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