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Mary Bell

H-Bomb over the Planet

It’s the End of a Road – Capitalism’s or Man’s?

(13 March 1950)

From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 11, 13 March 1950, pp. 6 & 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Prof. Leo Szilard: Assuming that we have a radioactive element that will last for five years, we just let it go into the air. During the following years it will gradually settle out and cover the whole earth with dust. I have asked myself: “How many neutrons or how much heavy hydrogen do we have to detonate to kill everybody on earth by this particular method?” Well, I come out with about fifty tons of neutrons being needed to kill everybody, which means about 500 tons of heavy hydrogen ...

Dr. Harrison Brown: Do you think that any nation would really be willing to kill all the people on earth rather than suffer defeat themselves? Would we be willing to do it, for example?

Prof. Szilard: I do not know whether we would be willing to do it, and 1 don’t know whether Russia would be willing to do it, but I think that we might threaten to do it, and who will take the risk not to lake that threat seriously?

Dr. Harrison Brown: We are faced with the possible ironic conclusion, that in this respect [that we cannot now develop a. short-lived radioactive substance that would permit one nation to exterminate another and spare itself] it becomes easier to kill all the people in the world than just a part of them.

Prof. Szilard: This is definitely so ... We cannot trust Russia. But to what extent can we trust ourselves?


Thus were Professor Albert Einstein’s words about the possibility of eliminating all life on earth by means of the H-bomb reinforced in this grisly dialogue excerpted from the University of Chicago Round Table Conference broadcast over NBC on February 27.

Total extinction, mass extermination, racial suicide – a word has not yet been coined for this new phenomenon – faces us. Barring interplanetary warfare, this must be the ultimate’ weapon. The projected psittacosis and bubonic-plague bombs pale in comparison; the antiquated Hiroshima fission bomb is only a trigger for the new fusion exterminator.

Here is the vicious circle: The U.S. will develop the new super-weapon because Russia will discover it. Russia must work on it because the U.S. will have it. Sooner or later one or the other may use it.

Russia, being a totalitarian anti-socialist state, would have not the slightest hesitation if her sources of plunder were threatened. The United States? Professor Szilard asked in the discussion, “Can we trust ourselves?” In the raising of the question lies the answer. The U.S. has refused to promise not to use it first.

This is the impasse we have been brought to by the profit system of the West and the slave system of the East.

This is the impasse we have been brought to by the failure to reconstruct the world on a socialist basis.

Unexpected Paradox

Socialism would have eliminated exploitation, both the capitalist and Stalinist varieties. It would have lid the world of inequality, competition, social robbery and the nationalism and imperialism that gives rise to global combat.

In the absence of a socialist world of international human brotherhood, science and technology have reached an unexpected apex; they are now capable of destroying all mankind. The paradox arises, given this fact, that people generally would prefer an old-fashioned, long war, preferably a Thirty Years’ or a Hundred Years’ War, to the possibly brief one that impends. There is no doubt, either, that the mass of people, those who are not making the decisions to produce super-weapons, hate war and want no part of it.

But the wishes of the masses are of no avail when the new super-bomb has become a most important weapon of international negotiation and politics. After it was known that Russia had an A-bomb, and after the defeat of the Nationalist armies in China, the balance of power shifted more in favor of the Russians. Truman’s decision to go ahead on the H-bomb tipped the scales in the other direction.

Truman has restated the American policy of you-can’t-do-business-with-Russia. The Russians say the two systems are incompatible. Truman says the U.S. continues to stand by-the substance of its Baruch Plan for outlawing atomic weapons by the United Nations. Stalin says Russia stands by the Grtwnyko proposal, which the Americans refuse to accept. Truman contends the United States must be prepared, for Russia understands only force. Stalin says the U.S. is preparing for war. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson said recently that the United States is strong enough to “lick hell out of Joe Stalin.” One can only imagine how Stalin has used this remark to frighten the Russian people.

Yet even the statesmen fear war. They fumble, postpone, delay. When it was announced that the U.S. would make an H-bomb, there was a flurry in Congress about a “new approach” to the Russians. Winston Churchill, who knows that Britain would be pulverized in a new conflict, appealed for another meeting of the heads of the big powers.

Disarmament Is No Answer

Unfortunately, there is nothing new in the “new approaches” proposed by the capitalist statesmen, and nothing effective, nothing that would end the hysterical arms race toward war. Senator Brien McMahon, head of the Senate Atomic Energy Committee, proposed a Marshallization of Russia with a bribe of $50 billion to end die atomic arms race. Senator Millard Tydings proposed the old disarmament plan. The latter made plain that the U.S. would not surrender its atomic weapons before general disarmament took place, since they give the U.S. its “infinite superiority.”

Even if there was the slightest possibility of achieving world disarmament, Tydings is on safe ground, as he knows that the technological superiority of the U.S. would give it a head start in a future armaments race, for it could outproduce Russia.

However, because the proposals of the senators seemed at least to indicate a desire for delay, they had some popular appeal to the people, who would like to see an end to the atomic armaments race and the “war neurosis” that afflicts society.

The Truman-Acheson response to these proposals was negative. But their differences are only on the surface. McMahon and Tydings are just as much for the production of the super-weapons, just as ready to fight Russia, as Truman and Acheson. All believe you can’t do business with Russia. Neither of the proposals can get a real agreement with the Russians, nor halt the drift to war.

So far as Stalinist Russia is concerned, it relies on its own military strength and the support of its foreign legions against the West.

Any agreement which might come out of the talks, and an agreement is least likely, has already been labeled “another Munich.” The more likely result of a new offer to the Russians would be a new deadlock. At this point the “new approaches” could only say:

“Well, we’ve done everything we could. We’ve exhausted every offer. There’s only one way left – we must meet force with force.”

The New Vocabulary

Neither side is prepared for immediate war. Yet such a situation could strengthen the voices of those who call for a preventive war, the school of “Let’s drop the bomb now and get it over with.” If one supports the theory that modern war originates in the provocation of an “aggressor” or that “democracy is defending itself against totalitarianism,” one falls victim to such logic. The advocates of the preventive war may even claim moral superiority, since with the initial advantage of the United States and its atomic stockpile, Russia might be eliminated quickly and only a fraction of the world’s population eliminated.

The decision to make the A-bomb was that of a few men, but the decision to go ahead with development of the H-bomb was the responsibility of a single man, Truman. The people were not consulted, just as they were not consulted on the question of war. Arguments are being heard that the new types of weapons facilitate taking the power to decide the question of war away from even the bureaucratic body of Congress and placing it in one man’s hands. Thus, the new weapons are at once a product of and a stimulus toward the totalitarian trends of the government. Secrecy, classification, screening, loyalty oath, security, purges, wiretapping, spy trials, attorney general’s list – these are the new catchwords of our vocabulary.

Observe for a moment what is occurring in the scientific endeavor surrounding nuclear physics. A National Science Foundation being set up by the government would require the FBI to probe every foundation employee and every student receiving a scholarship. Such restraints have drawn the protest of rhe Federation of American Scientists. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is studded with protests against the shackling of research by associating scientific ability with a given set of political opinions.

Preview of M-Day

A sample statement from the Bulletin asserts,

“A twenty-year-old college student who is learning standard, unclassified [non-secret] physics as a recipient of an AEC fellowship will be seen reading Das Kapital at the peril of his livelihood and his entire future. This is exactly the persecution for ‘dangerous thoughts’ which we found so amusing and foreign to us in pre-war Japan.”

Yet the physicists who have developed atomic energy tell us over and over that the “secrets” of the new weapons are not secrets. The Russians apparently have them now. There are other reasons, connected with the decline of our society and the preparations for war, that motivate the tightening of regulations. Feverish preparations are going on behind the scenes of the diplomatic maneuvers in the cold war for an economic crackdown without precedent as soon as the “shooting war” begins.

The National Security Resources Board envisages the following:

    An immediate wage-price-rent control freeze with no appeals.
    Rationing of major products and food and allocation of materials.
    Overnight conversion from civilian to military production with no questions asked; ending of all such luxuries as passenger cars.
    Draft of workers into industry as well as the armed forces. Movement of workers from city to city as deemed necessary.
    New war taxes, heavy sales taxes on civilian goods from the very first day.

The administrators of the coming M-Day for the economy are now being trained at Columbia University.

Diplomatic Hiroshima

The big fallacy in the thinking of die mass of people who hate war but who are conditioned by the mass media of capitalist propaganda is that we are living in The Great Democracy, The Absolute Democracy, and that we are fighting to defend ourselves against The Totalitarians. Behind this thinking lies a more primitive motivation: the desire for self-preservation. It is easy to identify the latter desire with allegiance to the system so long as it remains democratic and so long as it remains superior to the “enemy.” The people are caught up in the imperialist dilemma: either Russia or us.

But we do not live in a democracy-in-a-vacuum. Our democratic institutions grew out of a particular historical tradition and are sustained by enormous economic wealth. Our democracy is warped and incomplete; it is a capitalist democracy and it is steadily being curtailed. It did not prevent unity with totalitarian Russia in the last war. It does not prevent the efforts of the administration to rescue Fascist Spain. It does not preclude totalitarian practices at home.

Nor is American politics with relation to Russia designed to eliminate the roots of totalitarianism there. Quite the contrary. U.S. policy can only strengthen the hand of the Stalinist regime in its hold on the masses. Truman’s brandishment of the hydrogen bomb constitutes a cold-war Pearl Harbor, a Hiroshima of diplomacy. It is power politics, war by other means.

Ilya Ehrenberg has already compared the U.S. super-bomb with Hitler’s “secret weapons” for the benefit of the Russian people. A comparison of the big to-do in the UN to outlaw genocide with American pioneering in genocidal weapons must have suggested itself by now to him. For all that decadent capitalism now offers is an H-bomb capable of wiping out all of mankind.

Totalitarianism cannot be eliminated by mass-suicidal weapons or by increasingly totalitarian methods. Russia gains the support of the peoples she rules partly by force and partly by the weakness and bankruptcy of the capitalist system itself.

The people of the world are less enthusiastic than ever before for a crusade to save the world for democracy or “our way of life” or any other slogan that conceals the vested interests of a few. The new weapons are reason enough to give everyone pause.

And why not? The scientists, in their coldly scientific way, described the only means of defense against the H-bomb as decentralization of industry and transplantation of tens of millions of persons. The defense is possible only if it is possible to scale down and control the power of the radioactive dust so that it will eliminate only the enemy and not ourselves. A man in the Ozarks has made an entirely serious proposal to get money from the RFC to develop a five-layer cave, which could house a few elite in a war.

There is much vocal sentiment in Europe for “neutralization,” to sit the next war out. British mothers carrying “Ban Bombs” banners paraded with their perambulators in Beckenham, one of the worst-bombed areas of the last war. There have been protests against’ the “wicked scientists” who would destroy us “in a flash.” We arc certain also that there is sentiment against war, if not voiced, in Eastern Europe. There is little effective sentiment voiced in this country. There have been the prayers of a few frightened religious groups, the plea of Walter Reuther for a conference of labor, management and government.

In the face of a universal and justified fear, Truman staunchly announced he was feeling secure and that the capital would not be moved. David Lilienthal, recently resigned as head of the AEC, and supporter of the president’s policy against Russia, has denounced the “Cult of Doom” and talked against what he called a “scare-the-dopes” school. Unfortunately, such is the nature of modern war that we cannot scare the Russians without scaring ourselves. The reason lies in the nature of the new weapons and the nature of modern war. War today is not a fight between professional soldiers or even “the people in arms.” It is total war, directed against all of society.

The present fate of mankind is the result of the division of the world into two imperialist power blocs. They have divided the earth between them. All countries, major, minor, nominally independent or colonial, totalitarian or democratic, are subservient to the super-powers, politically or economically, or both. Whatever the disguise, the struggle is over power, wealth, the right to exploit people. This is the sum of class society, capitalist and Stalinist.

For the ex-socialists or those who have never accepted socialist ideas on the grounds that they are utopian, it should be clear by now that socialism – which would abolish exploitation, nationalism, imperialist war, poverty – has moved from the realm of the possible or probable into the realm of necessity in order to save life itself.

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