Conspiracy, Cover-Up, and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb


By Peter Watson

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The justification for the atomic bomb was simple: it would defeat Hitler and end the Second World War faster, saving lives. The reality was different.

Fallout dismantles the conventional story of why the atom bomb was built. Peter Watson has found new documents showing that long before the Allied bomb was operational, it was clear that Germany had no atomic weapons of its own and was not likely to. The British knew this, but didn’t share their knowledge with the Americans, who in turn deceived the British about the extent to which the Soviets had penetrated their plans to build and deploy the bomb.

The dark secret was that the bomb was dropped not to decisively end the war in the Pacific but to warn off Stalin’s Russia, still in principle a military ally of the US and Britain. It did not bring a hot war to an abrupt end; instead it set up the terms for a Cold one to begin.

Moreover, none of the scientists recruited to build the bomb had any idea that the purpose of the bomb had been secretly changed and that Russian deterrence was its new objective.

Fallout vividly reveals the story of the unnecessary building of the atomic bomb, the most destructive weapon in the world, and the long-term consequences that are still playing out to this day.


‘I realized then [1941] that a bomb was not only possible–it was inevitable.’

–Sir James Chadwick, the most senior British scientist in the Manhattan Project, speaking to an interviewer shortly before his death in 1974

‘The Allies won [the Second World War] because our German scientists were better than their German scientists.’

–Sir Ian Jacob, military secretary to Winston Churchill

‘Atomic weapons can hardly be used without spelling the end of the world.’

–Joseph Stalin

‘When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.’

–J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of Los Alamos

‘Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples. After all, the thing’s superb physics.’

–Enrico Fermi, creator of the first sustainable nuclear chain reaction

‘The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment… [the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it.’

–Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet

‘Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron marked the unintentional first step towards man’s loss of innocence in the field of nuclear energy.’

–Andrew Brown, James Chadwick’s biographer

‘When the righteous sin, they add the force of their virtue to all the evil that they do.’

–Lewis Mumford, paraphrasing Ezekiel 18:24


1. Radioactive particles that are carried into the atmosphere after a nuclear explosion and gradually fall back as dust or in precipitation.

2. The adverse results of a situation or action.


Cover-Up: ‘When the Righteous Sin’

Albert Einstein’s famous realisation that E=mc2, that matter and energy are essentially different aspects of the same phenomenon, may be the most rapidly consequential idea in human history. He first published his theory of nuclear energy in May 1905, refining it–with the help of others–until 1917 in the middle of the First World War. Twenty-eight years later–a single generation in human terms–on 6 August 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were each destroyed by an atomic bomb, bringing an end to the Second World War.

History shows that while ideas can be consequential–the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific and Romantic revolutions were real enough–it is not always so easy to identify the exact role they played. What were the intellectual origins of the French Revolution? Why did a Marxist revolution occur in Russia when Marx himself expected it to happen in England? Why did modernism emerge in France first–if, indeed, it did?

But with atomic energy–nuclear energy–the chronology is known with an exactitude that is rare in the history of ideas. Beginning in 1898 with the identification of the electron, soon followed by the discovery of the structure of the atom in 1907, and then the realisation of the existence–and importance–of the neutron in 1932, giving rise to the possibility of a chain reaction, the pieces of this jigsaw were put together in a remarkably swift period, the ‘heroic age of physics’ as Ernest Rutherford, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, called it.

As someone who has published several books on the history of ideas, this crowded chronology has always fascinated me. Reading into the subject, however, it soon became clear that the story also involves a highly dramatic–even uniquely dramatic–human dimension. The heroic age of physics during the interwar years comprised an elite community of no more than a few dozen physicists, chemists and mathematicians from a limited number of nationalities–British, German, French, American, Danish, Italian, Russian and Japanese–who all knew each other. They studied at the same small number of European institutions in Berlin, Cambridge, Copenhagen and Göttingen, worked together, attended the same conferences, holidayed together, attended each other’s weddings, published their work in the same small number of professional journals, co-operating and competing in an impressive array of scientific advances, that were recognised by the award of numerous Nobel Prizes. A case can be made for saying that the 1920s and 1930s were the most exciting and consequential decades not just in physics but in all of science.1

But the 1920s and 1930s were notable for something else, no less consequential and no less dramatic: the rise of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy.

From the discovery of the neutron in the year before Hitler came to power in Berlin, some scientists were aware of the theoretical possibility that the massive energy wrapped up in the nucleus of the atom could be unlocked, but hoped against hope that it would never prove practical. And then, over Christmas/New Year 1938/9, on the very eve of war, four scientists from Germany confirmed that they had split–fissioned–the nucleus of uranium, the heaviest element in the periodic table and the most unstable. The possibility of nuclear weapons came a frightening step nearer.

One German scientist, Werner Heisenberg, arguably the most brilliant of all, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1932, aged thirty-one, was much later to say that had a handful of physicists got together in 1939 and refused to do any more work on nuclear weapons, there was nothing the politicians could have done, and the whole nuclear arms race would have been stillborn.2

Instead, that year a very small number of highly trained individuals suddenly found themselves in possession of knowledge and skills that could, at least in theory, decide the outcome of war, should it come to pass, which seemed increasingly likely. What could be more dramatic than that–an idea so powerful that it could determine the outcome of a world war? Einstein himself was distraught.

Six years later Einstein’s remarkable insight was fully realised. On Monday 16 July 1945 at 5.29 a.m., the first test of an atomic bomb was successfully carried out at the so-called Trinity site in the Alamogordo desert in New Mexico. Though he was told the noise had been heard in three states, Leslie Groves, the general in charge of the project, insisted the test be kept secret. ‘Can you give us an easy job, general,’ an aide remarked, ‘like hiding the Mississippi River?’ The very next day, President Harry Truman sat down for his first and only face-to-face meeting with the Soviet premier Joseph Stalin in a suburb of Berlin near Potsdam.3

Three weeks later, on 6 August, also a Monday, Einstein’s idea was again deployed when Hiroshima was bombed. Two days after that, on 8 August, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. The very next morning, the Red Army’s tanks rolled across the Manchurian border.

These events were hardly coincidences. In recent years, the view has become established–among historians at least if not yet the general public–that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not needed to end the Second World War but had another purpose.

In some ways it is surprising that this view is not more widespread. One early distinguished sceptic about the bomb’s use was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, who directed Allied operations in Europe against Hitler, and was later president of the United States. At the height of the Cold War, and soon after his famous farewell address as president, in which he drew attention to the risks posed by the ‘military-industrial complex’, he recalled the moment when the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, told him that the atomic bomb was to be used against Japanese cities:

During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’.4

Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey’s Third Fleet was meeting almost no resistance as it bombarded Japanese coastal installations, and Admiral Wagner, in charge of air search-and-patrol, found that in all the millions of square miles on the East Asian seas and coasts ‘there was literally not a single target worth the powder to blow it up’. Halsey later, echoing Eisenhower, said: ‘The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment… It was a mistake to ever drop it… [the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it… It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before.’5

Perhaps even more telling, less than a year after the bombings an extensive official study by the US Strategic Bombing Survey published its conclusion that ‘Japan would likely have surrendered in 1945 without atomic bombing, without a Soviet declaration of war, and without an American invasion.’6

Leo Szilard, a Hungarian Jewish émigré who had escaped the Third Reich by the skin of his teeth and had later been the first to conceive the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, had met with James F. Byrnes, President Truman’s personal representative on atomic matters and subsequently secretary of state, at his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina in May 1945. In a memoir, Szilard wrote:

Mr. Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war. He knew at the time, as the rest of the government knew, that Japan was essentially defeated and that we could win the war in another six months. At that time Mr. Byrnes was much concerned about the spread of Russian influence in Europe… [Mr. Byrnes’s view was] that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe.7

This much was obvious to the Russians at the time. To Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet foreign minister during the whole of the Second World War, the two bombs ‘were not aimed at Japan but rather at the Soviet Union. They [the Americans] said, bear in mind you don’t have an atomic bomb and we do, and this is what the consequences will be like if you make the wrong move!’8

These and other conclusions and observations have led a raft of mainly American scholars to examine the whole process of the decision to use the bomb in more detail as more documents have been declassified and become available. The general consensus is now clear. The decision to use the bomb against Japan, in August 1945, was indeed unnecessary–the Japanese were ready to surrender once an agreed face-saving form of words was found that would let them keep the emperor as a constitutional monarch. (This was not popular in America–a third of the respondents in an opinion poll wanted him executed immediately.) It is also agreed that the primary reason for dropping the bomb was to end the war before Russia could come into the Far East as a belligerent and thereby make several territorial demands, and as a show of superior force designed to impress the nuclear advantage the Western Allies had over the Soviet Union, so that her behaviour would be more amenable to Western interests in the immediate post-war period.9

This later research also shows that the decision to use the bomb was made by a small number of individuals, some of whom tried to cover over their real reasons for acting as they did (‘clear evidence of outright lying’), advocating instead a pretence that the bombs were dropped to save American and Japanese lives.10

These unedifying manoeuvrings that led to the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan are not, however, the main focus of this book. Instead it covers an earlier period of the war when the original reason for building a bomb–because it was thought Hitler’s scientists were working towards one–was discovered to have no basis in reality. But this knowledge was not properly assimilated, still less shared by the intelligence services, and was then covered up by some of the same people who misled the world about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Using a close reading of recently released archives in different countries–Britain, the United States, Germany, Denmark, Russia–this book presents a new chronology, or a new narrative, of the construction of the bomb and shows how, if important intelligence on atomic matters had been quickly shared, as it surely should have been, the atomic bomb need never have been built in the first place, nor the world thrust into the threatening and precarious balancing act that we still inhabit. Not everyone felt as James Chadwick did, that once a bomb became possible, it also became inevitable. Errors were made–and lies were told–to bring us a weapon that was not needed.

At the heart of this story are two individuals–Niels Bohr and Klaus Fuchs–who, each in his own very different way, foresaw how the bomb threatened to change the post-war world and sought to do something about it. One failed, the other succeeded.

This book faces squarely the fact that, for some people in this narrative, once it became clear that a bomb could be built, they ensured that it would be built. Bohr and Fuchs both feared this inevitability, but they also knew that, in wartime, more than at other times, chronology is crucial. In wars, events–life-threatening events–follow on one another very quickly and important decisions with momentous consequences have to be taken rapidly. In such circumstances, as this book shows, even the seemingly inevitable is not necessarily inevitable.

The history of atomic bomb wartime intelligence–which is what this book essentially is–presents us with the unmistakable conclusion that a series of momentous mistakes were made, and lies told, by the French, by the Germans, by the British and by the Americans, with the result that the world stumbled, even blundered, unnecessarily into the nuclear age. A world war was raging, the right hand very often didn’t know what the left was doing, individuals were overworked in life-and-death situations, very few had access to all the information they ideally needed. Nonetheless, from the latest evidence we now have, we can conclude that, with different personnel in certain key positions, and if they had shared what intelligence they had, they may well have concluded that there was no need to build an atomic bomb and we would all have avoided the knife-edge that we now call peace.

The place of nuclear weapons in our lives continues to be as nerve-racking as ever. More than seventy years after Hiroshima we seem no nearer to controlling the use or even the spread of these fearsome weapons. Worldwide there are now 9,500 nuclear warheads. According to scientists this is sufficient to destroy the planet 100 times over.11 Our predicament is as absurd as it is dangerous and, with recent developments in Iran and North Korea in mind, it risks becoming even more so.

In setting out this new chronology of the way the atomic bomb came into being, which in certain important respects is at variance with the orthodoxy, I am wary of deriving too-easy lessons from it. The world has moved on.

There is one observation worth making, however, because it underlines the seriousness of the new situation we now face.

The main characters in this story–Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Vannevar Bush and General Leslie Groves, who between them helped to create and then manage the atom bomb project on the American side, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Anderson and James Chadwick, the discoverer of the neutron, on the British side–were all sophisticated men of the world, mature individuals, highly intelligent, vastly experienced, and extremely well informed, with many practical achievements to their name that improved millions of lives. Compared with our leaders today, they were giants.

Nevertheless, they got the atom bomb wrong. Between them, and for what they convinced themselves were the highest motives, they maladministered us into a world that could have been avoided. And this brings us back to Heisenberg’s argument: had the scientists known what the intelligence agencies and their political masters knew in the run-up to Hiroshima, would they have agreed to take part in the building of the bomb? Readers will draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented here. The atom bomb disaster is an instructive story but it underlines above all the fact that, now as then, the chain reactions between people are even more important than the immense forces of nuclear physics.


Incognito: Klaus Fuchs and Niels Bohr



Friday 3 December 1943. Shortly after 7 a.m., just as it was getting light, the 25,000-ton RMS Andes nosed into the James River as it flowed into Chesapeake Bay and the western reaches of the Atlantic. Squally weather, with showers coming and going. Bound for Newport News, Virginia, the Andes was a fairly new ship, originally intended as the jewel in the crown of the Royal Mail Line, which, before the war, had thirty-one vessels distributing British letters and parcels around the world. She had come into service in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, and as a result had all her luxurious trappings, including an art deco bar, ripped out before they could be used, converting her into a troop ship. Instead of ferrying 600 well-heeled paying passengers, her bread and butter now was transporting 4,000 troops at a time from the United States to Britain.

On the return journey she was normally almost empty. This time, however, she had a very small but extremely precious–not to say highly secret–cargo: a score and more scientists, physicists, chemists and mathematicians who were being hurried to America to take part in the biggest secret of the war–the development and construction of the atomic bomb. They included the chemist Christopher Frank Kearton, a Cheshire man, the son of a bricklayer, and the mathematician Tony Skyrme, a Londoner, Eton-educated, together with three enemy aliens, Germans no less, who had arrived in Britain as refugees from Hitler’s murderous adventures: Rudolf Peierls, Otto Frisch and Klaus Fuchs.

The crossing had taken twice as long as transatlantic crossings normally did. The Andes was not accompanied on her voyage by any naval escort; she relied on her speed to get her out of trouble. Even so, she had been forced to take a zigzag course, a more than apt metaphor for the narrative we are to follow.

The scientists had been allowed to use the first-class cabins, though even these had been converted to house eight bunks each. The ship’s grand piano had been locked away for the duration, a great disappointment in particular to Otto Frisch, newly naturalised as a Briton only a day before he had set sail from Liverpool, and an accomplished, near concert-level musician. He had had to make do with an old, rickety upright instrument, in what had been the ballroom, chained to a pillar to stop it rolling around in rough weather.1

3 December 1943 was an important date in the Second World War, quite apart from the arrival of the Andes in America. That day the first news had been released about the Teheran Conference of the ‘Big Three’–Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin–which had in fact taken place some days earlier but kept secret for obvious reasons. It was the first time the three leaders had met face to face and important decisions had been taken about the future conduct of the war. Hardly less important, the United States announced that same day that in the previous month, November, the country had turned out no fewer than 8,789 aircraft, one entire plane slightly more often than every five minutes. The war was in full swing.2

The transfer of so many British scientists to America was an important development. Although, as we shall see, the British had been the first to realise the possibility of an atomic bomb, by the end of 1943 the United States was in the driving seat. Quite apart from its undoubted greater resources (as the production of those aircraft showed), any project carried out in Britain always risked being bombed.

The Andes docked at Newport News later that morning. The city, originally known for its export of coal and what was once the largest shipbuilding yard and dry dock in the world, was now a major naval base, well protected from attack by the coastal configuration. From Newport, the scientists were taken by train to Washington, changing at Richmond. During the stopover at Richmond, Frisch wandered off into the streets nearby. He was a tall, handsome Austrian. In the Richmond streets, ‘I was greeted by a completely incredible spectacle: fruit stalls with pyramids of oranges… After England’s blackout, and not having seen an orange for a couple of years, that sight was enough to send me into hysterical laughter.’3

Rudolf Peierls found the train ramshackle and crowded. A small round-faced man, with a puckish face, heavy-duty spectacles and buck teeth, he had a Russian wife, Genia, whom he had met at a physics conference in Odessa in the early 1930s. She went in search of better accommodation and came back to say that she had found an almost empty car, ‘in which there were only two very nice Negroes’.4 To her disappointment and horror, she was told they were in the South of the United States, where transport was still segregated.

In Washington, they had to wait for several days before they could be briefed by General Leslie Groves. Groves was the military commander of the Manhattan Project, as the attempt to build an atomic weapon was known.

When the briefing with the British scientists finally took place, Groves introduced them to his concept of ‘compartmentalisation’: in order to maintain total secrecy, each specialist would be allowed to know only what was happening inside that speciality–almost no one would have an overall picture. While this made sense to the military mind–and Groves was in general regarded as an excellent commander–many of the scientists thought that compartmentalisation was impractical, that scientists needed to know the wider picture in order to do their job. It would be a bone of contention throughout the rest of the war. James Chadwick, the most senior British physicist in the Manhattan Project, thought it ‘bogus’, while Leo Szilard, a Hungarian émigré physicist, thought it delayed the development of the bomb by as much as a year.

Groves was widely admired but not liked. Edward Teller, another Hungarian émigré, thought that ‘he could have won almost any unpopularity contest’. And he was an uncompromising Anglophobe, with a ready suspicion of all foreigners. He firmly believed that Americans were more moral people than anyone else and he accepted the presence on United States soil of Frisch, Peierls, Fuchs and the others only reluctantly, compelled by orders from above. This Anglophobia would come to matter.5

At that first meeting, Groves informed the scientists that they would be going to one of two places. Some of them, and this included Frisch, would be going to Los Alamos in the New Mexico desert, where the bomb would eventually be assembled. At the time, in the spirit of compartmentalisation, Los Alamos was known only as ‘Site Y’. Rudolf Peierls had been there on an earlier visit but Klaus Fuchs and the others, who were being sent to New York, did not find out about the actual Los Alamos site for some months.

Peierls and Fuchs were sent to New York because of their expertise in isotope separation. The isotope separation theoretical work was being run in Manhattan by the Kellex Corporation, a subsidiary of a firm of civil engineers. It was set up especially for the building of the isotope separation plant, which was located somewhere in the South although, because of compartmentalisation, neither Peierls nor Fuchs was told at first where it was.6

Peierls and his wife, with Fuchs, stayed at first in the Barbizon Plaza Hotel overlooking Central Park for a couple of weeks, then found an apartment on Riverside Drive. Fuchs found a flat at 128 West 77th Street in a ‘walk-up’, four-storey ‘brownstone’, as converted houses are known in Manhattan.

Everyday life in New York was in all ways better than it had been in Britain. Peierls and Fuchs and the others were not badly paid, and they could take full advantage of the more abundant life in America. There was some rationing and a ‘brown out’ in coastal cities, which restricted street lighting. But it was nothing like in Britain, which was austere and where cities were fully blacked out at night. It was not just food and drink and clothes that were more plentiful: the Broadway theatre was flourishing (Porgy and Bess, The Student Prince, Carmen Jones), there was an active night life and classical music nightly, at which Fuchs was a regular.

There were fifteen British scientists working in New York on the Manhattan Project. Not all of them were scheduled to remain in America for any length of time but Fuchs (like Peierls and Frisch) was and so one of the directors of ‘Tube Alloys’, the code word for Britain’s secret atomic bomb project, asked MI5 for a summary of anything that was known about him, since it would be embarrassing to say the least if he was not what he seemed. MI5 knew that Fuchs had been a communist in the past but replied that he was not now politically active and there had been nothing ‘objectionable’ about his behaviour in Britain.

Unbeknown to Peierls, however, and to the other physicists labouring on the bomb in New York, Fuchs was working in a way that his colleagues would certainly have regarded as objectionable had they known about it. Since August 1941 he had been a Russian spy.7


On Sale
Sep 18, 2018
Page Count
448 pages

Peter Watson

About the Author

Peter Watson is a journalist, television presenter and historian of intellectual movements. He has written for the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the New York Times, and the Spectator. His books include The Modern Mind; Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud; and The German Genius; The Age of Atheists; and Convergence — and he has been published in twenty-six countries.

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