A Bit More on Nuclear Espionage

The scenario we usually believe has Roosevelt, who was ailing and near death, participating in the Yalta conference with Stalin and Churchill – dividing up the spoils after Japan was going to be conquered.

Roosevelt knew the US was near testing its first nuclear bomb. Yalta was in February, 1945. Roosevelt died of a stroke in April. The Trinity test was in July of the same year. The US obliterated Hiroshima in August. That’s a pretty tight time-line, isn’t it?

Who’s the worst person in this picture?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the bomb was used on Japan in order to send a message to Stalin – that the US was seriously not interested in a war with Russia over Manchuria, Korea, or Japan, and that Stalin needed to rein in his territorial aspirations. We imagine Roosevelt knowing that he had this ace up his sleeve, which gave him confidence to negotiate from a position of strength with Stalin.

But in 2007 we learned of more successful Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project. [stderr] The project was, in fact, deeply compromised by at least 5 spies inside Los Alamos, and more outside. [wik] So, I only recently put that all together and realized that the scenario in which Roosevelt was sitting at Yalta with an ace up his sleeve is completely false – instead, Stalin was sitting there knowing that the US was about to explode a nuclear bomb and he would have been carefully assessing everything Roosevelt said to see if the US was planning a bit of nuclear blackmail.

It’s one of those “I know what you know but you don’t know I know” scenarios.

So, I re-read Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun looking for clues. Rhodes has spent a lifetime researching the topic, so I didn’t think I had to. He describes it thus:

One tried, effective way to save time and expense was industrial espionage. A coded radio message went out from Moscow Center on June 14, 1942 to NKVD agents in Berlin, London, and New York:

“Top secret: reportedly the White House has decided to allocate a large sum to a secret atomic bomb development project. Relevant research and development is already in progress in Great Britain and Germany. In view of the above, please take whatever measures you think fit to obtain information on theoretical and practical aspects of the atomic bomb project, on the design of the bomb, nuclear fuel components, and the trigger mechanism, various methods of uranium isotope separation, trans-uranium elements, neutron physics, nuclear physics, the likely changes in future policies of the USA, Britain, and Germany in connection with the development of the atomic bomb, which government departments have been made responsible for coordinating development efforts, where this work is being done, and under whose leadership.”

By the summer of 1943 there was an open flood of espionage from England and the United States. Soviet agents wanted only conservative, reliable, tested technology from America – their bosses were managers not engineers or scientists and had no way to evaluate untried ideas. The agents knew the penalties for taking risks when mistakes counted as heinous crimes.

1942. Yalta was 1945.

So much for the big secret. As Richard Feynman later said: “The only secret about the thing was that it worked at all.” Elsewhere he said that there was not much physics, but a great deal of engineering. The details of that engineering are very complicated indeed but to a theoretician like Feynman it would have simply been “we know we can build it and it’ll work, the rest is just a lot of hard fiddly stuff.”

I don’t buy the theory that Truman’s decision to use the bomb was to send a message to Stalin, but, if it was, it was a message Stalin had already read at least three years earlier. If the “message to Stalin” theory is correct, then the lives of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were burned to a crisp because Stalin kept secret the fact that he knew about the Americans’ big ‘surprise.’ That would also tell us that the US’ espionage efforts at the time were pretty bad, because they didn’t learn that Stalin already knew.

This is how our wise leaders play with other peoples’ lives.


  1. Dunc says

    The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did add one vital piece of information that the Soviets lacked: that America not only had the bomb, but that they were willing to use it on civilian targets just to make a point.

    Also, you shouldn’t underestimate the effects of a practical demonstration. It’s one thing to look a bunch of numbers on a sheet of paper, it’s quite another to look at a smoking crater where a city used to be.

    It’s also entirely possible that the US knew that Stalin knew, but didn’t want to reveal that they knew that. This is the problem with spook stuff, you get into these potentially bottomless recursive loops of dissimulation…

  2. voyager says

    I agree with @Dunc. Having a nuclear weapon and using it are very different. Using it on a civilian population, twice!, sends a message that the USA is morally bankrupt, which Russia likely suspected, but couldn’t be sure of.

  3. says

    I guess I thought the message being sent to Stalin is “we have a bomb!” But it makes sense if the message was “oh, Joe, you think you’re a horrible genocidal bastard? Hold my beer.”

  4. says

    I like to say that the only true and complete analysis of any historical event is “well, it occurred as an emergent result of everything that happened before” which is both useless and a bit facetious. In many cases, you can in fact point out a small handful of prior conditions which reasonably could be described as “causing” the thing, and then the problem becomes one of how you tell the story.

    The atomic bombings of Japan, like so much of American history, do not seem to admit any such analysis. Partly, I suppose, because everyone involved tried pretty hard to muddy the waters, but if that’s not the fog of war, I don’t know what is.

  5. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    OK, I completely admit I know nothing about this. However, to my innocent eyes, the supposed direct quote of a secret message just doesn’t read correctly. It does not have the voice of a government communication, any government. And it freely uses terms that had to be strange and new in 1942, e.g.

    …nuclear fuel components, and the trigger mechanism, various methods of uranium isotope separation, trans-uranium elements, neutron physics, nuclear physics…

    It uses these terms as if they were familiar both to the writer and to any reader. That just doesn’t ring true, for language used in 1942. “Nuclear fuel” — that’s not even part of bomb technology; it has to do with nuclear reactors. I happen to know, because I coincidentally share its birthday, the very first sustained nuclear reaction was started on 12/2/1942, i.e. after this communication was supposedly sent. A very few physicists would be speculating or researching the idea of a sustained reaction, but would even they have used the term “nuclear fuel” this casually? Let alone expecting some intelligence officer in the field to understand it without further explanation. “Trigger mechanism”, similar problem.

    OK, I repeat my confession, I have no credentials here. I’m just sayin’, if I were writing a novel set in 1942, I would not have put language like that in my spy protagonist’s mouth. It just doesn’t sound right for the period or the milieu.

  6. springa73 says

    A little bit of a tangent, but I think that in order to prevent the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one would have to go back earlier in the war and have the US and U.K. decide that massive bombing of cities in general was unacceptable. Some of the biggest attacks on German and Japanese cities with conventional bombing arguably did almost as much damage as if those cities had been hit with an atomic bomb (though of course without the radiation). Once people came to see massive bombing of cities as acceptable, it wasn’t a very big step to see atomic bombing as acceptable also.

  7. says

    @Just an Organic Regular Expression:

    I also, too, have no credentials here. Not in how spies talk, nor in nuclear physics, nor in bomb building. But I wonder if the necessary translation from Russian to English might explain a significant part of the problems you identify. Especially if rather than having access to a contemporary translation the message was translated later, after certain terms were more likely to be in use and the Russian was translated according to its intended meaning, what the Russians wanted to express, rather than according to a literal meaning that might be a cumbersome and ineloquent effort to communicate novel ideas?

    I’ve done almost literally no translation work. Like, I’ve literally only had one paid contract for translation ever in my whole life (and that for French-to-English work, not Russian). But I have just enough experience reading secondary languages and translating them for myself to understand how a good translation something seemingly completely different in order to more accurately communicate the fullness of the meaning. For instance, in fiction an in-joke about one of your French-speaking characters reading Asterix might be swapped for an in joke about one of your English-speaking characters reading Archie comics or Hot Stuff/Wendy the Witch/ Caspar The Friendly Ghost comics or a Flash Gordon serial (anything that communicated a long-running graphic-novel universe that could be enjoyed by both the grandparents of the reader and the reader). This would be wildly different in the exact language and execution, yet might actually be a more faithful translation.

    Given this possibility of contextual translation, I wonder if a Russian speaker familiar with 1940s idioms would find the translation equally troubling.

  8. wereatheist says

    One thing which @Dunc did not explicitly mention (but probabely encompassed in their second paragraph) is that higher brass within the American military & government really, really wanted to know what this kind of bomb did to human beings and infrastructure. So they used Japanese as lab rats. Racism certainly was involved, too.
    And, to expand on comment #6, I don’t think (call me a cynic) that dropping nuclear weapons was a significantly more heinous war crime than persistent firebombing of densely populated cities.

  9. wereatheist says

    And I second @Just an Organic Regular Expression: the text of the secret message looks very anachronistic to me.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    The US and British had the best signals intelligence of the war; the Soviets had the best human intelligence.

    Allen Dulles, then the OSS spymaster in Switzerland, had a little project going to convince the German generals in Italy to switch sides, on the pretext that then Germans, Brits, and Yanks would attack the USSR and get rid of those damn commies. The Germans didn’t fall for it – but a Russian asset in their HQ promptly passed all of Dulles’s messages straight on to Moscow, exacerbating Stalin’s paranoia about his so-called Allies.

  11. jrkrideau says

    @ 7 Crip Dyke

    I wonder if the necessary translation from Russian to English might explain a significant part of the problems you identify

    My first thought on reading Just an Organic’s point was, “We need to see the original Russian language message”.

  12. komarov says

    Part of the issue with the translated message might simply arise from wanting to cast a wide net. I’m assuming spies aren’t (necessarily) all experts in the stuff they’re looking for – not every spy is a physics phd in the middle of a physics/engineering weapons programme. So you’d want to give them as many relevant key words as possible. Otherwise they might miss something important because they didn’t know it was part of the thing they’ve been searching for. This would be particularly true for more-or-less new physics or its applications, which tend to invent new languange (also creating translation issues) in the process.

    And I’ll loudly second wereatheist at #8:

    An actual test of a nuclear weapon would have absolutely been a demonstration for the US military as much as it was for any potential enemy. They’d want to see it, for real. No desert test site, no mockups, the real thing. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have sent observer planes along the way they did, but would have been content to look at the results after the fact. The destruction of two cities has always been “just another weapons test” to the people who made it happen.

    And now that makes me wonder if there might have been further “tests” in some of the US’ myriad wars since, if it hadn’t been for the threat of Soviet retaliation. “You can’t do that because it’s a crime against humanity”, never seems to work as a deterrent. “You can’t do that because we’ll do it to you, too”, is sadly (luckily?) more effective.

  13. lorn says

    Which is worse, based upon what. All of them were flawed and fighting their inner demons and, one has to presume, doing their best to both survive and do well by their individual nations.

    Stalin’s inhumanity is not surprising given the nature of the economics and political regimes that preceded his. Czarist Russia was no walk in the park. The loses in the Russian-Japanese war were not insignificant. The Russian Revolution had shattered the nation. The international intervention into it colored their attitude toward foreign nations and the need for strong political control. Of course, I think even Stalin would admit, in a sober, honest, and reflexive moment (a moment that seldom if ever materialized) that he went to far. The purges and ham handedness were a defense, at first even necessary, but then they became a reflex and once it was regularized, a necessity. What was an option became the only way of dealing.

    All of them have similar stories. All of them bumbling, or as the Brits say, ‘muddling’ through.

    I’m always skeptical about people second guessing decisions who weren’t there, have only the most cursory idea of the factors involved, and who are operating with 20/20 hindsight and are facing absolutely no consequences afterward or pressure beforehand as they decide.

    A few point that I’ve seldom seen made:
    The US was mentally, physically, emotionally nearing exhaustion. All the good draft age men had been used up. We were into unknown territory economically.

    The Japanese had clearly stated that they intended to fight to the last child with a bamboo spear. Their military had shocked us with their willingness to fight to the last man and undertake suicidal attacks. Before the Kamikaze attacks the US navy was a relatively safe place to be. After, even the Marines were thinking they didn’t have it so bad. Suicide attacks are notoriously hard to stop.

    Yes, the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I’ve been to both cities, were devastating and troubling. But here again, taking only the initial casualties, the Tokyo raids were worse. And how do either of these balance against what Japan had done in China. Dead is dead. Death by starvation, thirst, torture, rape, and biological warfare are not to be preferred simply because nuclear energy was not used.

    Then there is the condescending and egotistical nature of the discussion. Was it ethical for the US to use nuclear weapons? Why are we so concerned with our ethical standing? Why must it be polarized into either we have to be overjoyed and proud of it all, or spend all eternity washing our collective hands trying to remove the blood and shame. Why does it have to be about us?

    The Japanese were willing to see themselves destroyed as a people. Dropping two bombs, with a resultant casualty figure less than the predicted on both sides, abruptly ended the war and prevented that. Count your blessings.

    I think we did as well as we could given the information and situation we had. A blockade was doable. It would have preserved our ethical standing, at the cost of the Japanese populous. There is a great story about how the starving Japanese would have surrendered. How peace offerings were on the table. Never mind that the Japanese diplomatic service was doing what they do, offer up options. Or that none of these peace offerings were backed by the existing powers within Japan. Witness the fate of bypassed military units who chose to slowly starve over surrender. I suspect the majority of the population would have gone the same way. Or we could have invaded. Okinawa on a grand stage with children and bamboo spears. Are bloodbaths more, or less, ethical?

    I’ll leave you a portion of the Emperor’s speech explaining the situation to his loyal subjects. Notice how he states that Japan had only the best of intentions. How he soft pedals the defeat. (IMHO the single best understatement ever: “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”) How nuclear weapons and ‘preserving civilization’ are cited as the reason for the surrender. The message being that dying to the last man would be acceptable but the ancestors (cited later in the speech) and civilization demands we do the unthinkable and unendurable and surrender. :

    Excerpted from: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/hirohito.htm
    To our good and loyal subjects: After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.

    We have ordered our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.

    To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which we lay close to the heart.

    Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to insure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.

    But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone–the gallant fighting of our military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of out servants of the State and the devoted service of our 100,000,000 people–the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

    Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
    Read the whole thing. Notice what is said and left out.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    lorn @ # 13: The Japanese had clearly stated that they intended to fight to the last child with a bamboo spear.

    So they stated to their own public; behind the scenes, they had already begun feelers toward surrender negotiations.

    I’ve used these quotations before, but the links I provided then no longer work and I don’t have time to re-research them:

    Dwight D. Eisenhower:

    … Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary … I thought 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”.

    Truman’s Chief of Staff Adm. William D. Leahy:

    [T]he use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. . . . [I]n being the first to use it, we . . . adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    This summary of David Dean Barrett’s 140 Days to Hiroshima: The Story of Japan’s Last Chance to Avert Armageddon (by the author) presents a more complex picture, of a war cabinet divided into factions in which Emperor Hirohoto made the final call – pushed by both the A-bombs and by a massive aerial leafletting by US planes that revealed the clandestine negotiations and thereby threatened public rebellion.

  16. wereatheist says

    So some of the higher brass didn’t like it. Very good.
    And, according to the Hirohito speech, the nuclear bombing made it possible for Hirohito and his faction to surrender and save face, thusly saving the lives of tens, or hundreds, of thousands of American military folks, and millions of Japanese.

  17. publicola says

    Lorn’s analysis is spot-on. As far as Japan’s negotiators, remember that they were negotiating with us while Pearl Harbor was being attacked. There was no way they could be trusted. Everything we saw on the battlefield told us that Japan would fight to extinction; there was no reason to doubt it. If we had to invade, we were looking at possibly a million casualties. Try explaining to a war-weary America that we sacrificed a million men when we had a weapon that could end the war but didn’t use it.Yes, a live demonstration was important to the military– they needed to know what this weapon could do on the battlefield, just like any other new weapons system. It was also important to show Stalin that we had it and we’d use it. Also, when Truman told Stalin at Potsdam about our “new weapon”, Stalin reacted calmly, as though he had been given tomorrow’s weather report. This should have served as a tell that something was up. Both Truman and FDR liked Stalin; maybe that’s why they missed the signal. And even after Nagasaki, Japan still hesitated to surrender. The tipping point was the declaration of war by Russia. The U.S. had been trying to get Stalin to declare war for sometime, and if he had, perhaps the A-bombs would have proved unnecessary. Maybe this was payback by Stalin for how long it took the U.S. to open the second front in Europe, or maybe he decided he’d rather have American Marines and sailors die than Russians, jumping in at the last moment to get in on the spoils. As far as Ike is concerned, he had been busy fighting the Nazis for 3 years. He simply may not have been as aware of the situation in the Pacific and how brutal and crazed the Japanese military was. We didn’t ask for the war, but we had to fight it and finish it, and we did what was necessary toward that end, and to preserve our democracy. Given the circumstances, I see no shame in that.

  18. publicola says

    One other thing: if we had never dropped the bombs on Japan, we might have been more easily persuaded to use them during the cold war, having never seen the utter destruction they caused. Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have saved us a more horrible and deadly conflict later (Korea ,maybe?).

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