In looking for superlatives to describe the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "the largest (such) conference (hosted by the United States) since the one that came together (in San Francisco) around the founding of the United Nations in 1945."
There is some irony in linking the two events.
The San Francisco Conference attracted more than 7,000 participants from around the world, including 282 delegates and 1,444 accredited officials from 50 nations.
As the delegates met in May and June of 1945, the war in the Pacific was far from over and -- even though Germany had surrendered on May 7 -- it seemed that the European continent could be poised on the brink of another disastrous war. The fact that a third world war did not follow hard on the heels of World War II had little to do with the formation of a new world organization dedicated to the peaceful resolution of conflicts between nations… and it had everything to do with the explosion of the first atomic bombs. Western Civilization -- it may be argued -- was saved by the bomb.
In the closing months of the war in Europe, the United States did not have sufficient forces on the ground in Europe to beat the Soviets to Prague and Berlin, and the U.S. command, in any case, was still hoping to enlist Soviet assistance against Japan. Thus, even as Germany fell, Eastern Europe and most of the Balkans came under Soviet domination Still more, as the United States turned its attention to the Pacific theatre, the rest of Europe had little to protect it against the menacing presence of the Red Army, with more than two million soldiers.
In words that would reappear in a more poetic and memorable way in a speech to be given eight months later, Winston Churchill, a few days after V-E Day, sent this note to his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was attending the U.N. conference in San Francisco:
Today there are announcements in the newspapers of large withdrawals of American forces to begin month by month. What are we to do? Great pressure will soon be put on us at home to demobilize partially. In a very short time our armies will have melted, but the Russians may remain with hundreds of divisions in possession of Europe from Luebeck to Trieste, and to the Greek Frontier on the Adriatic. All these things are far more vital than the amendments to a World Constitution which may well never come into being till it is superseded after a period of appeasement by a third World War.
Averell Harriman, U.S. ambassador to Moscow at this time, voiced the same view. He told U.S. Navy Secretary James Forrestal that "half and maybe all of Europe might be Communist by the end of next winter."
More than bringing about Japan's surrender, the atomic bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 fundamentally altered the balance of power within Europe. With the United States in sole possession of a weapon that could obliterate whole cities or armies, it placed our closest allies under the cheap but effective protection of American nuclear power.
It is also a critical piece of this story that the United States had a new president in Harry S. Truman who was not afraid to use the bomb or to get tough with the Russians. In becoming president following Franklin Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945, Truman knew nothing about the bomb and little about foreign policy, but he was capable of independent and decisive action. As the British historian Paul Johnson described him: "The new President, Harry Truman, was not a member of the wealthy, guilt-ridden East Coast establishment and had none of Roosevelt's fashionable progressive fantasies. He was ignorant, but he learned fast; his instincts were democratic and straightforward." Early in his relationship with V. M. Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister, he ripped into the veteran diplomat (one of the few original Bolsheviks still in power) with a ferocity that reportedly caused the Russian to turn "ashy." In Truman's recollection of the scene, Molotov complained, "I've never been talked to like that in my life," and he, Truman, snapped back: "Carry out your agreements and you won't get talked to like that."
At Truman's urging and under his sponsorship, Churchill, then seven months out of office, traveled to Fulton, Missouri, to give his "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College on March 5, 1946. In doing so, he greatly improved upon the earlier note which he had penned to his foreign secretary at the San Francisco conference:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Beyond that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I might call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to the Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.
The atomic bomb was therefore a deus ex machina that helped to protect U.S. interests and U.S. allies in the four-year period following World War II when the U.S. had a monopoly on nuclear weaponry. However, that same period also underscored the importance of strong leadership and the willingness to confront an evil and determined adversary. During the Berlin airlift, Truman demonstrated his willingness to go to the brink of war (possibly using nuclear weapons against Russian oil fields) to defend against Soviet aggression.
No weapon is strong enough in the hands of a weak leader. Let us hope this is not a lesson that is lost in the rethinking of nuclear policies that is going on today inside the Obama administration.
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