BOOK REVIEW: Peter Watson’s “Fallout” shows how the nuclear world we got didn’t have to be this way—and doesn’t

As the Justice Department investigations and Congressional hearings into Watergate closed in, Richard Nixon—as a brag—once said something to the effect of, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.”

That was when he was sober. In the depths of his stress and depression, the U.S. president was also mixing alcohol and sleeping pills, and his natural paranoia became even worse.

“He really got paranoid when he got three drinks in him. There are things I’m not even going to discuss that were said, but they were the result of drinking. He could not handle drink,” one of Nixon’s political strategists said.

This is a man who semi-regularly “beat the hell” out of spouse Pat Nixon. Considering that more than half the mass shootings in the United States involve attacking a former or current romantic partner, it’s not implausible that a too-drunk Nixon might have gone too far hurting his wife and decided to kick off the destruction of humanity by picking up a phone to kill 70 million Russians half an hour later. Legally, there was nothing anyone might do to stop him, except perhaps invoke the just-passed 25th Amendment.

Otherwise, all United States presidents since Harry S. Truman have had and still have the legal authority to translate a vicious, narcissistic whim into genocide, and along the way, America’s nuclear arsenal grew so that power became omnicidal, capable of unilaterally ending all human life on earth without requiring any return shot.

Since the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union, the reasoning for that godlike authority remaining vested in a single person no longer exists: there is no longer a prospect of an unannounced first strike that’d have no ability to respond to without deliberation.

Yet, by inertia, the imperial presidency of the United States still has this capacity, and it seems unlikely any White House willingly would devolve such a power back to a legislature or extend the process to involve oversight and review.

As a candidate, publicly and presumably as a president, privately, Trump has expressed some befuddlement at the idea of the United States having nuclear weapons but not being able to use them except in a retaliatory exchange. Our only reassurance is that he’s said a lot of things on nuclear weapons; we sleep at night assuming the best interpretation of those inconsistencies and not the worst.

The Roman emperor Caligula thought he was a god, but Caligula couldn’t end the world in reaction to an especially scathing sketch on a re-run of Saturday Night Live.

* * *

Time’s arrow being such as it is, cause and effect being understood such as they are, each discrete step makes sense from conceptualizing the nucleus of the atom and discovering fission to release theretofore unimaginable energy, all the way till now where all trace of human achievement rests on one emotionally brittle septuagenarian not exercising his veto on the existence of complex terrestrial life.

Young Millennial and Gen Z humor tends toward a particularly absurdist flavor of nihilism, which dovetails quite well with our entire conscious lives involving inescapable, looming murder—from mass shooters to nuclear catastrophe—for no reason other than “that’s just the way it is”.

People with power could make direct and obvious changes for the better, but the status quo is easier and most benefits those who currently have power.

So here we are.

* * *

What historian Peter Watson accomplishes with Fallout is an effective argument that this was entirely evitable. It didn’t have to be this way. Yes, the British Tube Alloys nuclear bomb research that would eventually become the Manhattan Project began with the sincere fears of the ongoing Nazi superbomb project and need to have a counter weapon ready.

But Watson shows that as early as 1942, British intelligence knew from human intelligence and codebreaking that the Germans didn’t have the scientific understanding and engineering techniques, or the industrial capacity and dedication to accomplish this feat, not on any timetable that could impact the present war. It took the U.S. adding 72,000 people to Oak Ridge, Tenn. in three years., to separate enough U-235 from uranium to make our own.

By 1943, the Soviet Union had at Stalingrad stopped the Nazi push from going farther and it became clear they would destroy the German Sixth Army, the focus for the U.S. shifted from having a counter-weapon as protection from fascists to creating an overhwleming weapon that communists would have no counter to. Eventually, Conspiracy, Cover-Up and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb shows how the target of that destruction would be Japan.

Those in the U.S. government and military kept such information from the actual scientists working to complete the project, many of them Jewish scientists who were properly convinced of the existential threat to humanity an ascendant Nazi Germany would pose. Not all of them necessarily required that motivation. Watson gives examples of some scientists who, in a Cat’s Cradle, Ice-nine sense, were excited enough about the technical accomplishment not to think too deeply about the implications.

Representing that outlook, Enrico Fermi, an Italian emigre working on the project, supposedly (and may not have) said, “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples, the thing is superb physics!

But enough did think about it that the U.S. government had to lie to keep everyone who needed to be working on it focused on their jobs.

Had it been clear that such a horrifying weapon was not necessary in self-defense or to win already-decided war; had it been a project that could have been pushed till after the world war was over and time for a debate over its necessity might be had; or even had it been that President Franklin Roosevelt had lived longer or Truman had definitively been informed Russian intelligence already had infiltrated the Manhattan Project so there was no reason to use it as a shock weapon against them, Watson argues that we may not have made a bomb.

There was no ability to make it in secret, and it was so costly, so why pursue such a project at all?

The domination of American power on the rest of the world seems to be the most complete answer to that rhetorical question.

Watson argues that Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs changed the course of history by passing enough information about what was working and not working with the other Allies’ nuclear program sped up the Soviet program by six months to two years, and this was crucial to how Truman prosecuted the Korean War starting in 1950, particularly in the amount of restraint he showed once Communist China joined on the side of North Korea and forced United Nations forces into retreat.

The Second World War is such a massive event, affecting so many tens of millions of people, that most any narrative can be justified and contradicted by available evidence. There are so many points of view recorded that everything is there to have a good case made for it. Did Fuchs matter or didn’t he?

Although Watson restricts his narrative narrow enough to make an actual argument, his history still has a massive scope, dipping toes into the lives of various physicists, the name of whom the average person is at least vaguely aware of from their contributions to other fields and research beyond atomic weaponry (Heisenberg, Neils Bohr, Feynman). But Watson also diverts to the particular cloak-and-dagger drama of some of those less-well-known brilliant scientists fleeing Nazi oppression such as Lisa Meitner.

The book is difficult reading less because of the prose than all the people, many famous in their own right, interacting from different fields, particularly science and politics, and also because Watson takes pains to explain the developing understanding of how fission could best be turned to creating a destructive weapon versus a power source. This is somewhat important as there is some narrative devoted to the British then the Allies sabotaging a German-occupied facility in Norway to keep up the Nazi misunderstanding of what really was the most efficient process to creating materials for a bomb, but in general, it’s perpendicular to the central question the book purports to be examining and answering.

More could also have been done to establish just why the famously paranoid Joseph Stalin would not have wanted to wield nuclear weaponry to go along with his country’s otherwise unstoppable land forces. Why wouldn’t the Soviet Union want that assurance of protection against capitalist meddling in their sphere of influence or to be able to increase their sphere without resorting to war? But, there’s a lot of value in what Watson did include, humanizing Stalin as a man almost as destroyed by depressive shock in the reality of nuclear destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as he was when Operation Barbarossa took him by surprise.

Above all, Fallout is worth reading for the retro-futuristic vision it paints where nuclear fission was not the subject of an arms race for more weapons but rather a technology shared among allies at the close of a war to create a better peace.

If it didn’t have to be that way, it doesn’t have to be this way, and we can do more than look at the horror of our present reality and shrug.


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