Nuclear war – “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

by Liz Ross • Published 13 June 2024

The obliteration of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II signalled the final barbarity of this imperialist war; and hurtled the world into the nuclear era, where the brilliance of scientific endeavour was converted into an apocalypse, showing how the ruling class could indeed “become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.[1]

Imperialist war is the most barbaric of wars, justified by the drive to maintain capitalism and its destructive profit-seeking rationale, regardless of the human cost. From the trench warfare and mustard gas of World War I to the Nazi holocaust and nuclear bombs of World War II, millions of workers’ lives have been lost or irreparably damaged. Earlier, the Roman historian Tacitus described such wars for empire, writing: “They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretences and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace”.[2]

But what became possible in a capitalist world was the creation of the working class, the only majority class which could halt this deadly construction of empire. The first imperialist world war was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and now life would be better for all. But workers, having suffered the barbarity of the trenches, had little trust in their leaders to deliver. They rose up, determined to overthrow their bloodthirsty rulers in revolutions from Russia to Germany and in mass strikes and major upheavals throughout the world.

However, the defeat of these inspirational struggles meant the re-assertion of the capitalist dynamic. After a temporary economic boost at the end of conflict, the world was plunged into the 1930s Great Depression. Though it devastated the working class, this economic catastrophe didn’t revive the dropping rate of profit, so the ruling class once more turned to war. To gain mass support for yet another war, the naked grab for profits and imperialist gain was hardly a winning strategy. Each war, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, finds a more ideological, nationalist rationale for the slaughter. “Each and every belligerent party…with heavy heart, draw[s] the sword from its sheath for the single and sole purpose of defending its Fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameful attacks of the enemy. This legend is inextricably a part of the game of war as powder and lead”.[3]

And so it was in WWII. Described as a war for democracy, a war against fascism, it was nothing more than a war for empire, the inevitable outcome of capitalist competition. In a recent Red Flag article, Tess Lee Ack writes:

World War Two is best understood, as historian Richard Overy put it, as one between “incumbent” and “insurgent” imperialist powers – primarily Britain, France and the US (the Allies) on one hand, and Germany, Japan and Italy (the Axis) on the other. The Allied powers held fifteen times more colonial acreage than the Axis states. As the head of Britain’s navy candidly observed in 1934, “We have got most of the world already, or the best parts of it. We…want to keep what we have got and prevent others from taking it away from us”. The Axis powers sought to redivide the world and grab a bigger share for themselves.[4]

By 1945, with Germany surrendering in May, Japanese cities firebombed and then Hiroshima and Nagasaki flattened, the war was ended, the Allies victorious over their Axis enemies.

Despite the fanfare of the declaration of peace, arms production continued apace, but with the new deadlier nuclear arsenal. It was the basis for a new arms race, where the USA and its Western allies jostled for domination against its former WWII allies, the USSR and its satellite Eastern Bloc countries. For the British, having their own nuclear weapons was a way of boosting Britain’s credibility as a postwar participant in world affairs, a way of reclaiming its status as empire. “The Bomb was also recognised as being chillingly economic”, explains Tim Sherratt. “In the financially difficult post-war years, where a full-scale military force was difficult to maintain, the cost-effective A-bomb was an attractive proposition to British military planners.”[5]

The Cold War, which quickly followed, witnessed proxy South-East Asian hot wars against “communism” and saw the world teetering on the brink of total annihilation as Russia and the US faced off in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. After this, Armageddon, the prospect of “mutually assured destruction” aptly known as “MAD”, was held off with international agreements. Nonetheless, despite various nuclear non-proliferation treaties and self-imposed limitations, the number of countries with nuclear weapons increased from the initial US monopoly to include Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia and China, all of which have exploded devices in tests.[6] The US remains the only country to have used atomic bombs in war. Though not considered a nuclear weapon, depleted uranium warheads have been used the US and UK in a number of recent wars, including currently providing them to Ukraine, while Russia’s deployment is suspected but unconfirmed.[7]

Nuclear weapons sharing expands this deadly accumulation. America, for example, has arms stores, B52 planes and the like in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, and formerly in Canada and Greece.[8] For Russia, with its borders on Europe, the strategic placement of weapons plays the same role. Countries such as Libya, Iran and Iraq have developed or are accused of developing weapons-grade uranium and delivery devices, but so far appear not to have produced or exploded actual weapons.

These nine nuclear warhead-armed countries have, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an estimated total of 12,512 weapons as of January 2023, with 90 percent owned by either Russia or the US. This is down slightly on the 13,080 in 2021, cold comfort given that only a fraction of this number would be needed to annihilate the world. And that could happen in an instant with around nine and a half thousand weapons in military stockpiles and two thousand on high operational alert in the US and Russia. A total of $82.9 billion was spent by the nine countries on those deadly arsenals in 2022 alone, with the US spending $43.7 billion.[9] Between 1940 and 1996 American spending on nuclear weapons totalled $5.5 trillion, 30 percent of the total $18.7 trillion military spend.[10]

The more recent development of nuclear arsenals to include less powerful or “low-yield” nukes, so-called tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons, has lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use – and alarmingly raised the potential for global nuclear war. And willingness to actually go to war has shifted. The Biden administration, for example, is preparing to rebuild the entire US nuclear arsenal and since October 2022 has threatened first use of nuclear weapons in a variety of scenarios, instead of the “nuclear deterrence or retaliation-only” policy.[11] China has significantly increased its nuclear arsenal, but still maintains its “no first use” policy, even urging other nuclear states to restate their commitment to this policy. However, with some recent defence personnel changes, The Economist speculates that China is moving towards a “launch on warning” of incoming nuclear missiles.[12] Russia’s policy allows for the use of so-called tactical smaller nukes to defend the country. The Age commented: “Russian policy states that ‘in an escalating military conflict, demonstrating readiness and determination to use force using non-strategic nuclear weapons is an effective deterrent’, which has been interpreted by some analysts as describing a single nuclear detonation or launch”. Since the war in Ukraine Russia has increased its nuclear submarine drills and deployment of mobile missile launchers.[13]

The US and UK have used depleted uranium warheads, including most recently in Ukraine, while Russia’s deployment is suspected but unconfirmed. Inexplicably these are not recognised as nuclear weapons, so are not covered by non-proliferation treaties.

Though not usually included in arms assessments there are also the 440 nuclear power plants scattered around 31 countries, plants that generate one key ingredient for many nuclear weapons – plutonium.[14] Given the reliance on plutonium by the modern nuclear weapons industry and space propulsion, it is disingenuous to say the least to claim that nuclear power plants are just a source of peaceful power, especially considering the increasing weaponisation of space. In reality, the keen support for nuclear power is based on the understanding that these power plants can also be converted for nuclear weapons manufacture, as well as producing plutonium. Just as concerning is the vulnerability of nuclear power plants themselves in war, as the Russian control of the Ukrainian power plant in Zaporizhzhia has demonstrated. Or their vulnerability in a world of increasing climate instability to weather events such as happened at Fukushima in 2011.

In 2024 we live, as Alex Callinicos points out, in a “new age of catastrophe” as we face not only nuclear annihilation, but also economic crises, pandemics and climate collapse, with 2023 the hottest year in recorded history. Some suggest that the Anthropocene, the time of major human impact on the world’s climate, actually began with the first atom bomb test, Trinity, at Los Alamos on 16 July 1945.[15] And rather than an easing of imperialist rivalries, these factors, as well as the much feted “competition busting” globalisation, turbocharge capitalism’s underlying characteristics of economic crisis and imperialist geopolitical competition.

According to the Financial Times a second global arms race, the remilitarisation of industry, is already under way. In 2022 well over $2 trillion globally was spent on defence spending, trending higher in 2023.[16]

It is a highly volatile and unpredictable time. Just witness the recent sudden rise of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact, or the Ukraine-Russia war and Israel’s genocidal war on Palestinians in Gaza, leading to rising instability. Russia remains a rival, but is no longer America’s foremost imperialist challenger, with the US recently making a highly public “pivot to Asia” to take on China. Portrayed as “Western freedoms” versus “Chinese authoritarianism”, in fact it is about the world’s leading imperialist power, the US, trying to contain the world’s second-biggest economy, China, and keep it out of the Indo-Pacific, now the main hub of global capitalism, representing about 40 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

As Callinicos argues, the rivalry between the US and China is no simple confrontation between declining and rising powers:

Both rivals have pursued mutually dependent debt-driven accumulation strategies whose limits are now very visible. These economic difficulties could of course encourage the political leaderships on both side of the Pacific to beat the nationalist drum in order to focus discontent outwards. This is, in essence what Trump did, with great political success. Thus, as in the 1930s, economic crisis can fuel geopolitical antagonism.[17]

Imperialism and capitalist competition didn’t end with WWII; the world just launched the latest iteration, armed this time with the ultimate in destructive weaponry, nuclear bombs. Australian nuclear scientist Mark Oliphant wrote: “It is the impersonal killing, by remote control, which makes modern war the most degrading activity of man”.[18]

From Trinity to Nagasaki and the ongoing nightmare

Foreseen first by HG Wells, his 1914 novel The world set free describes planes dropping an “atomic” bomb of infinite power, continuing to explode once it hit the ground. A military future for atomic energy was science fiction at the time, but with breakthroughs in understanding atomic structure occurring through the 1930s such a use was soon discussed as much as peaceful power generation. Now out of the realms of science fiction, nuclear weapons represent more like science apocalypse scenarios. Most recently romanticised by the Hollywood blockbuster Oppenheimer, the path to the first nuclear bomb is more a horror-filled, sordid, grubby grab for world domination and profit than the film – a shameless apologia for US imperialism – portrays. It is a highly secretive story, laden with lies, cover-ups, thousands of dead, injured and irradiated people, polluted water, air and land – a war crime from the start.

At the beginning of WWII several countries appeared on the verge, albeit still somewhat theoretical, of unleashing the compressed power of the atom as a destructive force. Three imperialist powers – the UK, US and Germany – had the scientific research facilities, scientists and knowledge available to consider further development. By the end of the 1930s the science and technological know-how was there. The Nazis didn’t follow through, focusing more on conventional warfare, but the UK and US went ahead with feasibility studies.

In 1939 physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard warned the US of the possibility of a German bomb, encouraging Roosevelt to urgently expand US research and development. Somewhat cautiously, the President set up an advisory Uranium Committee in October 1939, which by June 1942 became the secretive Manhattan Project. Similarly in the UK, in March 1941, their scientific working group, the MAUD Committee, released two reports detailing the uses of uranium for weaponry and as a source of power. Britain’s resultant covert nuclear bomb project, codenamed Tube Alloys, was set up in August 1941, with the clear objective of making bombs in Britain.[19] With its far greater resources and distance from the major war zones, however, it was America which was to become the world’s first nuclear weapons manufacturer and warrior.[20]

It was not so much science as the politics of empire that were very much at the forefront for some of the scientists involved, equally so with the politicians and defence forces. Australian nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant, leading research at Birmingham University and on the MAUD Committee during the 1930s, urged his colleagues in the US to promote bomb production. In a note to Robert Oppenheimer he wrote:

Whichever nation is first to succeed in this quest will undoubtedly be master of the world. If peace were to come tomorrow it would still be necessary to obtain the answer first, at all costs, for in the hands of a resentful or unscrupulous nation such power would be dangerous.[21]

While Oppenheimer continued to support the use of the bomb, he did campaign against proliferation in later years. Afterwards Mark Oliphant called himself a “belligerent pacifist” and took part in anti-nuclear campaigns as well as marching against the Vietnam War. But the damage was done; they were among the leading scientists at Los Alamos who enabled the bombing of Japanese cities. Environmental scientist Brendan Montague notes that, by the end of WWII, “The American state, as imperialist and murderous as any, ensured that the weapon was tightly gripped in its fist”.[22]

That was achieved through the Manhattan Project. With unlimited money and resources 6,000 scientists, including world leaders in atomic research and military experts, were marshalled under the leadership of nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer and US Lieutenant General Leslie Groves. It was a highly secretive project, not just in the way it was initially conducted, but also in the deliberate withholding of information from those affected by the whole process of research, production, testing and use of these devices. The “forever” waste from these projects was similarly minimised, ignored or hidden. This has remained the case, thwarting any attempt to make accountable, regulate or ban any aspect of the nuclear industry, peaceful or military.

The Manhattan Project incorporated four separate sites and ultimately employed half a million people, at a cost of $21.5bn in today’s dollars. The most famous was Los Alamos in New Mexico, the Oppenheimer-led scientific centre which designed and built the bomb. The second was Oak Ridge in Tennessee which refined uranium to weapons-grade level; the third was Red Gates Wood, Cook County where a nuclear reactor was built. The fourth, and one of the most polluted sites, was Hanford in Washington state, producing plutonium.

Los Alamos was also the site for the experimental explosions needed before a fit-for-purpose bomb could be successful. The project developed three bombs at over $5bn each, as well as trialling various separate pieces of equipment and materials. The first, on 7 May 1945, tested a device with 100 tons of TNT spiked with plutonium. It was a callously inept test using tethered rats, a total disaster delivering no information at all and leaving plutonium scattered to the winds. The first fully radioactive bomb, a plutonium weapon codenamed Gadget, was tried in the Trinity test on 16 July 1945 in New Mexico. The next two were dropped on cities of hundreds of thousands – the uranium-based “Little Boy” over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and the plutonium-loaded “Fat Boy” on Nagasaki, 9 August 1945.

Trinity’s impact on surrounding areas and peoples was never properly measured in New Mexico, but later studies indicate fallout across much of America, even reaching Canada and Mexico by 20 July, causing generations of cancers, deformities and environmental damage. The two bombs dropped on the Japanese cities killed hundreds of thousands and have left an everlasting radioactive legacy.[23]

While some of the generals demurred, it was the scientist Oppenheimer who insisted the bombs be tested on highly populated cities, not to end the war but to measure the bomb’s effectiveness. After all the Los Alamos tests had only impacted a relatively small, scattered population and he knew no proper pre- or post-explosion studies were undertaken. It fell to Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander-in-chief of the US Pacific fleet and certainly no pacifist, to raise even a glimmer of dissent: “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan”. Showing more concern for civilian lives than Oppenheimer, Nimitz added: “I felt that it was an unnecessary loss of civilian life… We had them beaten. They hadn’t enough food, they couldn’t do anything”.[24]

In the aftermath of the bombing, however, ending WWII became the Allies’ public justification for such pointless carnage. The use of nuclear weapons to defeat Japan wasn’t the point for Truman and his government, nor for many in the military. It was about securing the spoils of war and a pre-eminent postwar imperialist role for the US, sending a political message to its former ally Russia to back off from asserting any expanded claims in a postwar settlement. As one commentator wrote, the dropping of the bomb was “the first major operation of the diplomatic war with Russia”.[25]

The recurrent lie that bombing Japan had ended the war exists alongside the equally criminal abdication of post-bomb responsibilities and the recurring nightmare of nuclear waste. Ever since Trinity the massive impact of these weapons of mass destruction on both people and the environment has been minimised, covered up, lacked treatment, clean-up or remediation, called enemy propaganda or outright lied about by authorities.[26]

Both North Korea and Russia have detonated missiles as late as 2023, but from Los Alamos, through Hiroshima and Nagasaki and until 1996, atmospheric and underground explosions by the British, French and Americans as well as Russia, China and North Korea, have exposed civilians and military personnel to highly dangerous levels of radiation and destruction of their lands, air and water.[27] One such example is the Bikini and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands, where 67 detonations occurred almost constantly from 1946 to 1996, leading to massive contamination which has forced many from their lands. So-called peaceful nuclear energy production is just as capable of long-lasting damage, as the 2011 Fukushima disaster has shown.

Overwhelmingly too, nuclear weapons testing has been a story of racism by largely white colonisers further dispossessing indigenous populations they’d already robbed. Test sites around the world have been declared empty deserts or uninhabited islands, despite well known facts of occupation.[28] In the case of Japan, there was no denying the large population, nor was there colonial dispossession; so anti-Japanese sentiment was whipped up in the US during the war. Magazines such as Time wrote: “The ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing indicates it”. Meanwhile the government sent 120,000 Japanese-Americans to concentration camps within the US. It was anti-Japanese racism that fuelled responses to surveys showing that between 1944 and 1945 a growing number of Americans (up to 85 percent in one questionnaire) wanted to see Japanese cities destroyed and their populations wiped out.[29] The US, backed by majority American opinion as late as the 2000s, has never apologised, nor paid compensation for WWII bombing of the Japanese – whether from nuclear weapons or fire-bombs. A small measure of justice however was achieved when, after years of campaigning, President Reagan signed the 1988 Civil Liberties Act which offered every interned Japanese-American a formal apology and $20,000 in compensation.[30]

In Los Alamos after Trinity the local peoples also got short shrift. Trinity was supposedly dropped on empty land, a desert of sand and cacti. But authorities knew there were people in the New Mexico area, largely poor agricultural workers, many Hispanic or Indigenous members of the Apache and Navajo nations. Some, closest to the test site, they had already evicted. Other nearby populations, an estimated total of 13,000 within a 50-mile radius, were left on the land, lacking any warning of the coming test and its dangerous plutonium-laden fallout. Afterwards there was little to no post-test monitoring or care and without pre-testing, claims of harm could be easily dismissed. As one doctor in charge of safety commented about those exposed to radiation: “they couldn’t prove it, we couldn’t prove it, so we just assumed we got away with it”. The chief Manhattan Project medical adviser Stafford Warren said: “The army and the government lawyers wanted to put it all out of sight and mind as quickly as possible”.[31]

The authorities have only been partially successful in Trinity’s cover-up, thanks to the determination of the original Pueblo peoples to expose the facts, but the full story remains hidden, permanently filed away under national security measures or destroyed. After the white-washing film Oppenheimer screened in 2023, cancer survivor Tina Cordova, whose family lived in Tularosa just 50 miles from Trinity in 1945, spoke up:

The Manhattan Project was an invasion of our land and lives. And the film feels like that too. Without all the Hispanic and Native people…Los Alamos doesn’t exist…and the Manhattan Project doesn’t happen…but we don’t think they’ll ever tell that story.[32]

To add insult to the injury of barely mentioning the local people, Oppenheimer was actually filmed in part at Los Alamos.[33]

The pressure to stay quiet about radiation exposure in New Mexico continues to this day. The state has what could be called a cradle-to-grave industry of uranium mining, weapons manufacture and waste storage; no-one is encouraged to stand up for their rights, let alone shut the whole industry down. In 2003 the American news analysis site Democracy Now estimated that if New Mexico seceded it would be the third-biggest nuclear power in the world.[34]

In 1990, nearly five decades after the tests, the US federal government finally introduced a Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), an act more noted for its miserliness and restrictions than its benefits. One-time payments of $50,000 or $100,000 were available for those exposed to atmospheric nuclear tests or workers in uranium mining or the nuclear weapons industry. But only a small proportion of those affected by the tests are actually covered, and despite attempts to extend the Act it is due to expire permanently in July 2024. The RECA has paid out about $2.5bn, about 0.0005 percent of the estimated $6 trillion the US has spent on nuclear weapons. As the funding for weapons continues to increase, the compensation amount will effectively amount to zero.[35]

Another scandalous legacy of the Manhattan Project was the plutonium-producing town of Hanford.[36] From 1943 around 5,500 workers operated the nine nuclear reactors and two weapons facilities and the underground waste storage tanks. The town produced most of the US war-time plutonium, starting with the first plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, finally supplying over 21,392 nuclear warheads. When Nagasaki was hit the local paper proudly exclaimed: “PEACE! OUR BOMB CLINCHED IT!” The War Department applauded the Hanford employees; Time magazine and Portland’s Oregonian, too, voiced appreciation for their efforts. The “peaceful” atom bomb was being celebrated across the country.

Shuttered in 1987, Hanford is now “a sprawling wasteland of radioactive and chemical sewage…[recognised by the federal government] as the most contaminated place on earth”, holding two-thirds of America’s high-level radioactive waste. The figures are mesmerisingly frightening. There are 56 million gallons of nuclear waste in this abandoned site, about a third of the 177 storage tanks are leaking into the ground water and into the Columbia River; the soil is contaminated by billions of gallons of waste, from radioactive elements to hazardous chemicals such as mercury, PCBs and sulphuric acid. From 1947 to 1951 two hundred different radioactive nuclides, including the dangerous iodine-131, went airborne during production at the plant, spreading over at least 75,000 square miles of land.

Horrifyingly, you can actually visit Hanford’s B Reactor where the guide will tell you: “It was the perfect marriage of science and engineering. The brave men that built this left us a history we should not ever forget”.[37]

But the government is trying its best to forget Hanford. There are currently attempts in Congress to downgrade its classification from a high- to low-grade waste site. As of 2020, the latest of a number of companies employed to clean up the town is Bechtel, quoting a finish date of 2080 and a cost of $550bn, greatly exceeding all previous plans. While they haven’t actually started the clean-up, a monstrously difficult project, they have already been paid millions. “Hanford has become the epitome of the US government’s permanent war economy – in this case, not by making weapons but by cleaning up the aftermath of their production. The problem, of course, is that they aren’t cleaning it up at all”.[38] But even if they had we probably wouldn’t know, as the remediation of nuclear waste is classified, meaning accidents, radiation exposure, worker injuries rarely, if ever, get public scrutiny.

In this context it’s worth a quick look at Bechtel. It is one of the largest US companies with a long history of underperforming, not finishing or botching projects during US military operations, covert and otherwise, in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Palestine, Lebanon and Libya. It is a company, says Sally Denton, that has, “pioneered the revolving door system that now pervades both US politics and the American economic system – a door that came to shape foreign policy not always in the interest of the nation and its citizens, but for the interests of multinational corporations”.[39]

The Hanford area was previously home to the Wanapum and Nez Perce nations and the Yakama and Umatilla tribal confederations, situated along the Columbia River. In 1943 they were unceremoniously forced off the land and relocated 40 miles northwest with no compensation. Told at the time that: “[T]his would just be for the war, that in order to protect the United States of America, they were going to do something here,” they have never been allowed to return except for occasional visits. The people were expendable, say the indigenous groups, and “the environment was sacrificed in the name of global power”.[40] Across the Manhattan Project as a whole, as well as the postwar Nevada tests, while some from the original tribes were offered low-paying jobs, the displacement from their lands and disruption of their culture have been overwhelmingly negative. In Hanford in particular the environmental damage has been savage; the tribes’ removal from the lands is now effectively permanent because of the failures of remediation and has led to a justifiable bitterness. Now the groups have mobilised to sue the Department of Environment over the continued contamination and injustice. The Department’s response has been to stall and claim it’s too soon to assess the environmental impact.[41] There are other organisations along the length of the Columbia River who have joined this ongoing fight for justice.[42]

Peace in our time – or never-ending war?

Peace in our time, declared the victors of war! Barely refraining from announcing that the spoils would go to them, after WWII the Western nations turned to rebuilding a shattered Europe and Japan – and reaping the profits that flowed primarily to the US.

It was a highly contradictory time. On the one hand it was to be a world full of promise, a world of the peaceful atom, a world of plenty for all, or so it was claimed. On the other, arms spending not only continued but escalated and even more countries acquired nuclear weapons. As Noel Sanders writes about the model towns built for the white workers in the uranium mine in Australia: “modernity as the hope for the future life and the threat to such life combined in a cultural double bind… The promise and the threat were inextricably interwoven: the promise was there only under the conditions as threat”.[43]

The hot war was succeeded by the repressive Cold War that demonised and jailed dissent, launched a war on workers and became ever more secretive. Capitalism, meanwhile, entered its longest economic boom lasting until the early 1970s, paradoxically underpinned by what has been called the “permanent arms economy”.[44]

At the same time as America was building a huge nuclear arms stockpile, bomb shelters and running nuclear attack drills for school children to huddle under their desks, governments and nuclear agencies were lauding the prospects of nuclear-enabled homes and townships. As Utah-based Chip Ward explained: “Back then, ‘the peaceful atom’ was being plugged as a miracle answer to any problem. Energy ‘too cheap to meter’? You bet. Harbors constructed by detonating atomic bombs? Sure thing”.[45] Disney released films like “Our Friend the Atom” where you could “view animated farm animals and plants sparkling like so many Tinkerbells with irradiated promise; or you might play with your H2O Missile, a water-powered ‘ICBM’”. A US-led campaign in Japan in 1955 avoided any mention of military use and instead highlighted the peaceful applications for generating electricity, treating cancer, preserving food, controlling insects and advancing scientific research.

But as the veil over nuclear warfare lifted, Tom Engelhardt remembers:

It was I who watched the irradiated ants and nuclearized monsters of our teen-screen life stomp the Earth. It was I who went to the French film Hiroshima Mon Amour, where I was shocked by my first sight of the human casualties of the A-bombing, and to On the Beach to catch a glimpse of how the world might actually end. It was I who saw the mushroom cloud rise in my dreams, felt its heat sear my arm before I awoke.[46]

And within a year of a 1955 campaign to build a nuclear power plant (see below) 60 percent of Japanese still believed nuclear energy would prove more of a curse than a boon. In Australia opposition to nuclear power rose, forcing the ALP to end the bipartisan party support for nuclear power and weapons and adopt a non-nuclear policy at its national conference in 1977.

Instead of turning away from building a nuclear arsenal the ruling class sought to mask the negatives with the promise of a peaceful atom, as Peter Kuznick describes in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. On December 8, 1953, newly elected US President Dwight D Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations. He promised that the United States would devote “its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life”.[47] He pledged to spread the benefits of peaceful atomic power at home and abroad.

But the horrors didn’t abate and in March 1954, the US tested a hydrogen bomb, Castle Bravo, on the Marshall Islands, the fallout contaminating 236 islanders and 23 Japanese fishermen. When the irradiated fish were sold in Japan, long suppressed rage over the 1945 bombings erupted. In response to these protests the National Security Council suggested that the US wage a “vigorous offensive on the non-war uses of atomic energy”, including an offer to build an experimental nuclear reactor in Japan. Thomas Murray from the US Atomic Energy Commission condescendingly advised:

Now, while the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain so vivid, construction of such a power plant in a country like Japan would be a dramatic and Christian gesture which could lift all of us far above the recollection of the carnage of those cities.

The Washington Post editorialised: “How better, indeed, to dispel the impression in Asia that the United States regards Orientals merely as nuclear cannon fodder!”

Unsurprisingly many in Japan didn’t exactly buy this “white man’s” promise. The Mainichi newspaper blasted the resulting campaign: “First, baptism with radioactive rain, then a surge of shrewd commercialism in the guise of ‘atoms for peace’ from abroad”. The newspaper called on the Japanese people to “calmly scrutinize what is behind the atomic energy race now being staged by the ‘white hands’ in Japan”.

More widespread international condemnation of Bravo shocked the White House. Eisenhower told the National Security Council in May 1954: “Everybody seems to think that we are skunks, saber-rattlers, and warmongers”. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained: “Comparisons are now being made between ours and Hitler’s military machine”.[48] Before becoming president, Eisenhower had opposed using atomic bombs against the Japanese, even advocating international control of atomic energy and turning the existing US stockpile over to the UN. Once in power, however, he turbocharged the military-industrial complex, turned control of atomic energy over to the military and went on to threaten nuclear war against Korea, the Suez Canal and twice over islands in the Taiwan Strait. Instead of weapons of last resort, under Eisenhower nuclear arms became the foundation of US military strategy and he oversaw the biggest expansion of nuclear hardware development.

As Kuznick concludes, atoms for peace were buried in radioactive ash.

And the dumping of waste and the building and testing thousands of weapons in a growing arms race continued apace. In all, 1,030 nuclear arms tests were conducted by the US military and its contractors, 215 in the air and 815 underground, from 1945 to September 1992.

The history of the US bombings of the Marshall Islands on the Bikini and Eniwetok atolls is just one of many horrendous examples of devastation.[49] With soft-sounding names such as Butternut, Holly and Magnolia that hid their deadly purpose, a total of 67 bombs were detonated in the sky, underwater and on the islands themselves. In 1958, with growing concern about the possible banning of above-ground tests, the US dropped nearly half of that arsenal, 33 bombs, between 28 April and 18 August. But this was not the end for the Islands. No sooner was the nuclear test program dropped after the 1958 non-proliferation agreement than the US used these same atolls for biological and chemical warfare experiments.

As a result of the nuclear tests, hundreds of islanders have been forced to evacuate and thousands more have suffered life-long health impacts, let alone the continuing environmental damage. In the now radioactive waste-filled bomb craters on the atolls America has also dumped 130 tons of nuclear waste from its Nevada test sites. One infamous nuclear waste burial site, the dome or “Tomb” on Runit Island on Eniwetok, is leaking into a surrounding lagoon. When the Marshallese demanded it be dealt with they were informed that the lagoon was so contaminated that added radioactive waste from the Tomb would be virtually undetectable there or in the wider ocean waters! In Rongelap the fallout from the 1954 Bikini Atoll Castle Bravo test led to residents’ evacuation, albeit 12 hours later; they were encouraged to return after three years. Hidden from the people was that the US wanted to allow researchers to study the effects of lingering radiation on the peoples of Rongelap. In 1956, Merrill Eisenbud from the US Atomic Energy Commission justified the return, claiming that “Data of this type has never been available. While it is true that these people do not live in the way that Westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless also true that they are more like us than the mice”.[50]

In their attempts to get compensation Marshall Islanders have been denied standing to sue the US courts and while an independent US-Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal did award $2 billion in damages, only $4 million of that has been paid. In 2023 US stalling on aid to the Islands was quickly reversed when neighbours Kiribati and Solomon Islands developed ties with mainland China. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was dispatched to Micronesia, promising a secure military presence and working rights for Marshallese in America, as well as renewing an economic pact that was due to expire.

Black mist, burnt country: Australia’s nuclear role

Unspeakable horrors also occurred in Australia where British nuclear tests left a legacy of destruction for local Aboriginal groups. Between 1952 and 1963 Britain held twelve weapons and components trials – Operation Hurricane and the Mosaic series at Monte Bello Islands, the Totem series at Emu Field and Buffalo and Antler trials at Maralinga. The last test was at Maralinga in 1963.[51]

In 1953 Indigenous activist Jessie Lennon, her family and many others were suddenly exposed to fallout from the Totem I nuclear blast. In her book I’m the one that know this country! she recalls the horror, the bewilderment, the sicknesses, miscarriages and cancers that followed – and the ensuing anger and activism in the fight for compensation. “The bomb caught us then at Twelve Mile… ‘Something wrong!’… bluish smoke rolled over…filled up the hills, the holes – rolled along the ground – to the tree tops… Right over the top of us”.[52]

“The wrenching irony and tragedy of Totem”, Elizabeth Tynan reveals in her exposé of the Emu Field tests, “for both the Aboriginal people and the military personnel caught up in the tests were that the harm was caused in pursuit of technology that was soon to become obsolete”.[53] Attempts to obtain compensation or ensure clean-up and remediation, either from British or Australian governments, have been delayed and inadequate. In Maralinga and Emu Field the land was grudgingly handed back in 1984 and 1996, effectively minimising government responsibility.

Once again, these tests were done in the interests of empire – for both Britain and Australia – with next to no concern for local populations, or for workers involved in production or testing. Britain was close to bankruptcy at the end of the war, but the imperialist imperative to become the third nuclear superpower was clear. Foreign secretary, Labour’s Ernest Bevin said: “We’ve got to have this thing over here whatever it costs… We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it”.[54] Refused closer ties with the US and denied access by Canada, in 1950 Britain turned to Australia for testing grounds, attracted by the “vast, empty spaces” and availability of uranium. It was a win for Australia too, as one local paper editorialised: “Almost overnight we have emerged as a prospective major supplier of the precious and coveted ore, source of the military power in the present and of industrial power in the not distant future”.[55]

Immediately postwar in Australia, Labor as much as Liberal wanted nuclear bomb capabilities, though it was to be the Menzies Liberal-Country Party coalition that oversaw Australia’s attempt at atomic engagement. Protecting the nation from the postwar “communist threat” – by enabling a superpower’s nuclear arsenal through testing and building supporting infrastructure in Australia – was to be Menzies’ justification for this escalation in military expansion.[56]

In one of his weekly “Man to Man” radio talks, Menzies played down any notion of danger from radioactive contamination, while stoking fears about Russia and China.

There is tremendous public interest in Atomic Bombs… Unfortunately there are scare stories, wild allegations and between you and me, a good deal of nonsense… But we must face the facts. And they are that the threat to the world’s peace does not come from the Americans or the British, but from aggressive Communist-Imperialism. In this dreadful state of affairs, superiority in atomic weapons is vital. To that superiority Australia must contribute as best she can.[57]

Postwar most nations saw nuclear war as the way of the future and wanted to develop their own industries. Such a move could, as Wayne Reynolds in his book Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb points out, also be an economic boost. To have a nuclear state required a major reorienting of industry, building a strong academic base in science and technology and significant investment in military hardware – the aircraft, naval and land-based rocket launchers necessary to deliver the weapons. In Australia the Snowy Mountains Scheme, a secure water and power source, the development of a strong research base at the Australian National University and other major projects were harnessed for this future state.[58]

In comparison to such major outlays to nuclearise defence, little attention was paid then or since to dealing with the “eternity” waste left by both power plants and weapons. At Emu Field, for example, the area was barely touched in the so-called clean-up, though some equipment was removed at the time, including a tank used on site to measure exposure to radiation. Still radioactive, the vehicle was sent to the Puckapunyal army base then shipped to Vietnam for the war there. Hundreds of thousands of radioactive trinitite glass fragments, buried vehicles and other decaying structures litter the area still. There are almost no living creatures to be seen in the area to this day.[59]

And today, governments whether Labor or Liberal are adopting the same Orwellian double-speak, the same repressive legislation, the same disregard for clean-up or remediation and war preparedness in the latest imperialist posturing. The current AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, an eye-watering $368 billion spend, has no feasible plans for waste storage to protect us from contamination. This is despite the agreement binding Australia to dispose of the spent fuel, a deal which can only be made possible by overriding the various federal and state laws which have a variety of prohibitions on travel, disposal or use of radioactive materials.[60]

The 2023 Defence Strategic Review has fuelled the ALP’s march to war in more conventional hardware. Military spending must be a priority, Treasurer Jim Chalmers told The Australian, because “when we look out to the region, we see intensifying great power competition, rising tensions, military build-up”.[61] In mid-January 2024 acting Defence Minister Pat Conroy described Australia’s newest $37 million long-range missile purchases from Lockheed Martin, a company that openly profiteers from wars (for example, its fighter jets currently bombing Gaza), as “contributing to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific”.[62] Corporate vultures (venture capitalists) in the three AUKUS countries are already circling, looking to profiteer out of the massively expanded military spend, both nuclear and conventional. Heather Jo Richman, chair of the newly formed AUKUS Defense Investor Network, boasted about the “really ripe opportunities” from Australia’s rare earth and mineral deposits that Network members could expedite getting “into the hands of the warfighters”.[63]

Modernisation and expansion of nuclear arsenals by the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations continues despite the newest Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.[64] The treaty prohibits all aspects of nuclear weapons, from development and deployment to stockpiling and even the threat of use. Australia, while signing the Treaty, has left the door wide open for the expansion of nuclear weapons capability with its AUKUS deal on submarines and providing harbours for US nuclear-fuelled and armed submarines, in addition to the long-standing spy bases at Pine Gap and Nurrungar (effectively American-controlled) and expanded stationing of US troops and nuclear weapons-armed B52 bombers in northern Australia.

The warmongers are, as one writer argues, exacting a high price on most of us just to “keep the factories of the merchants of death humming and the generals and admirals happy”.[65] Armageddon is coming closer, warns the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, as it moved the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight.

Over 100 years ago, in the midst of the first imperialist world war, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the international working class faced a future of either barbarism or socialism. Today the possibility of nuclear war has brought us ever closer to barbarism.


Astore, WJ 2023, “Talking and writing honestly about war”, Bracing Views, 8 September.

Atomic Heritage Foundation 2016, “Native Americans and the Manhattan Project”, 28 June.

Bhagavad-Gita, 11:32, attributed to Krishna Dvaipayana (also called Veda-Vyasa).

Benson, Simon 2024, “Anthony Albanese on the frontline to fast-track defence fix”, The Australian, 20 January.

Bullimore, Kim 2023, “Imperialism, racism and the atomic bomb”, Red Flag, 21 August.

Callinicos, Alex 2023, The new age of catastrophe, Polity.

Columbia River Keeper, “Cleaning up Hanford”, viewed 21 February 2024.

Democracy Now 2003.

Dininny, Shannon 2004, “Umatilla tribes say they’ll sue over environment at Hanford”, Seattlepi, 6 October.

The Economist 2023, “What to make of a surprise shake-up in China’s nuclear force”, 3 August.

Engelhardt, Tom 2004, “Hiroshima Story”, TomDispatch, 5 August.

Frank, Joshua 2022, Atomic Days: The untold story of the most toxic place in America, Haymarket.

Groch, Sherryn and Chris Zappone 2022, “Who has nukes, and what do Russia’s nuclear threats mean?”, The Age, 3 April.

Haldane, Andy 2023, “The global industrial arms race is just what we need”, Financial Times, 26 June.

Hanford Challenge, viewed 21 February 2024.

Hartung, William D 2021, “The profits of war: How corporate America cashed in on the post-9/11 Pentagon spending surge”, International Socialism Project, 30 September.

Holden, Darren 2019, Mark Oliphant and the Invisible College of the Peaceful Atom, PhD thesis.

Johnson, Jake 2022, “‘A terrifying document’: Critics say Biden nuclear policy makes the world more dangerous”, Common Dreams, 27 October.

Kidron, Michael 1967, “A permanent arms economy”, International Socialism, 1:28, Spring 1967, pp.8–12.

Kuznick, Peter 2011, “Japan’s nuclear history in perspective: Eisenhower and atoms for war and peace”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 13 April.

Lee Ack, Tess 2023, “Why the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, Red Flag, 6 August.

Lennon, Jessie 2011, I’m the one that know this country!, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2nd edition.

Luxemburg, Rosa 1915, The crisis of German Social Democracy. The Junius Pamphlet.

Maclellan, Nic 2017, “Grappling with the Bomb. Britain’s Pacific H-bomb tests”, ANU Press.

Maclellan, Nic 2023, “Preserving nuclear memories”, Inside Story, 20 November.

Maley, Leo III and Uday Hohan 2001, “Hiroshima: military voices of dissent”, Origins, Ohio State University, July.

Montague, Brendan 2023, “Oppenheimer will blow you away”, Ecologist, 20 July.

Nilsson, Anton 2024, “AUKUS will be a feast for US venture capitalists – but will Australian firms get a slice of the cake?”, Crikey, 18 January.

Physics arXiv Blog 2023, “The Trinity nuclear test spread radioactive fallout across America”, Discover, 27 July.

Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility New Zealand 2012, “Depleted Uranium. Why depleted uranium should be banned from New Zealand”.

Ramirez, Rachel 2020, “Poisoning the Pacific: New book details US military contamination of islands and ocean”, Guardian, 11 October.

Reynolds, Wayne 1997, Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb, Melbourne University Publishing.

Rust, Susanne 2019, “How the U.S. betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster”, LA Times, 10 November.

Sanders, Alan 1986, “The hot rock in the Cold War: uranium in the 1950s”, in Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (eds), Better Dead than Red. Australia’s first Cold War: 1945-1959, Vol.1, pp.155–69, Allen & Unwin.

Sauer, Pjotr 2023, “Vladimir Putin escalates nuclear rhetoric with threat to resume testing”, Guardian, 6 October.

Sherratt, Timothy Paul 2003, Atomic Wonderland: science and progress in twentieth century Australia, PhD thesis.

Tanaka, Yuki and Howard Zinn 2010, “Hiroshima: Breaking the silence”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 21 June.

Tacitus, Caius Cornelius 96, “The life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola”, in The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus.

Tasevski, Olivia 2020, “‘Hey, let’s forget that’: No apology for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, The Diplomat, 25 August.

Taylor, D 2023, “Oppenheimer: an American Stalinist tragedy”, Red Flag, 19 July.

Tynan, Elizabeth 2016, Atomic Thunder: the Maralinga Story, New South Books.

Tynan, Elizabeth 2022, The secret of Emu Field. Britain’s forgotten atomic tests in Australia, New South Books.

United Nations Treaty Collection 2024, Chapter XXVI, Disarmament, 9, “Treaty on the prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”, 7 July 2017.

Ward, Chip 2008, “Big bad boom. Radioactive Déjà Vu in the American West”, TomDispatch, 19 June.

Walsh, Jim 1997, “Surprise Down Under: the secret history of Australia’s nuclear ambitions”, The Nonproliferation Review, Fall.

Wareham, Sue 2024, “We’re being sold a false choice on war”, Pearls and Irritations, 24 January.

Wheeler, Joshua 2023, “In the shadow of Oppenheimer”, Distillations Magazine, Science History Institute, 16 July.

World Nuclear Association 2023, “Plutonium”, August.

World Nuclear Association 2024, “Nuclear power in the world today”, March.

Yoshida, Helen 2021, “Redress and reparations for Japanese American incarceration”, National WWII Museum, 13 August.,the%20redress%20movement%20into%20legislation

[1] Bhagavad-Gita, 11:32, as quoted by Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the US Manhattan Project, many months after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

[2] Tacitus 96.

[3] Luxemburg 1915.

[4] Lee Ack 2023.

[5] Sherratt 2003, p.7.

[6] South Africa disassembled its nuclear force before joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine transferred the weapons to Russia. In 2023 Russia transferred nuclear warheads back into Belarus. Israel has never acknowledged its nuclear arsenal, signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, nor allowed scrutiny by international inspectors.

[7] Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility New Zealand 2012.

[8] NATO’s policy of nuclear deterrence allows member nations without nuclear weapons to participate in the planning for the use of nuclear weapons, including the use of their armed forces to deliver them. It also means maintaining technical equipment, such as nuclear-capable planes and storage of weapons on their territory. Earlier the US stationed nuclear weapons in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, removing all by the 1990s.

[9] Montague 2023.

[10] Montague 2023.

[11] Johnson 2022.

[12] The Economist, 3 August 2023.

[13] Groch and Zappone 2022.

[14] World Nuclear Association 2024. Plutonium has occurred naturally, but except for trace amounts is not found in the earth’s crust: World Nuclear Association 2023.

[15] Callinicos 2023. Anthropocene description in Physics arXiv Blog 2023.

[16] Haldane 2023.

[17] Callinicos 2023, p.99.

[18] As quoted in Holden 2019, p.225.

[19] Sherratt 2003, p.7. MAUD was not an acronym, the name is attributed to the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, referring to his housekeeper. In November 1945 Winston Churchill stated in parliament: “This I take is already agreed, we should make atomic bombs”. One of the industrial facilities constructed to service the Tube Alloys program was given the remit to produce plutonium for military purposes.

[20] Scientists involved in nuclear research in the US and UK, and sympathetic to Russia, passed on the MAUD Committee reports and US details of the bomb’s development, enabling Russia’s postwar weapons production and their own bomb in 1949.

[21] As quoted by Holden 2019, p.87.

[22] Montague 2023.

[23] Wheeler 2023.

[24] Montague 2023. The Japanese had approached the Russians in the last months of the war, seeking talks to end the conflict. Stalin ignored them, but both the Americans and British knew the Japanese were suing for peace. At least five other military leaders, including Chief of Army Douglas MacArthur, disagreed with nuclear bombing the two Japanese cities.

[25] PMS Blackett, physicist and advisor to Churchill, quoted in Tanaka and Zinn 2010.

[26] Ramirez 2020. It has been estimated that the US Army disposed of 29 million kilograms of mustard gas and nerve agent and 454 tons of radioactive waste in the Pacific – excluding that left on the remains of islands such as the Marshall Islands, where 70,000 square metres, maybe as much as 3.1m cubic feet, of radioactive debris is “stored” in the Dome on Runit Island.

[27] Sauer 2023.

[28] Bullimore 2023.

[29] Tanaka and Zinn 2010.

[30] Yoshida 2021; Tasevski 2020.

[31] Wheeler 2023. The Manhattan Project, with the approval of Oppenheimer, authorised doctors to secretly inject hospital patients with plutonium to test its effects. These tests lasted till 1947. President Clinton later apologised.

[32] Wheeler 2023.

[33] Taylor 2023.

[34] Democracy Now, 2003.

[35] Wheeler 2023.

[36] All information about Hanford is from Frank 2022 and Wheeler 2023.

[37] Frank 2022, p.10.

[38] Frank 2022, p.69.

[39] Quoted in Wheeler 2023.

[40] Atomic Heritage Foundation 2016.

[41] Dininny 2004.

[42] Columbia River Keeper; Hanford Challenge.

[43] Sanders 1986, p.163.

[44] See Kidron 1967. Recently William Hartung has argued that we are now in a “permanent war economy” where there has been little benefit for workers but a bonanza for the top one percent of capitalists. Hartung 2021.

[45] Ward 2008.

[46] Engelhardt 2004.

[47] Kuznick 2011. Quotes in this and the following five paragraphs are from Kuznick.

[48] Maley and Hohan 2001.

[49] Rust 2019; Maclellan 2017 and 2023.

[50] As quoted in Rust 2019.

[51] For a comprehensive expose of the nuclear testing fallout from these sites see Tynan 2016 and 2022.

[52] Lennon 2011, p.88–9. Emphasis in the original.

[53] Tynan 2022, p.4; p.63.

[54] Tynan 201,6 p.115.

[55] The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, 15 October 1953, quoted in Tynan 2016, p.235. Wayne Reynolds’ important analysis expands on the expected industrial bonanza the Australian ruling class planned for. Reynolds 1997.

[56] Reynolds 1997.

[57] Tynan 2022, p.200.

[58] Reynolds 1997. See also Walsh 1997.

[59] Trinitite contains trapped radioactive materials including plutonium; Tynan 2022, pp.84-5. The “minor” Kitten tests at Emu Field caused chemical and radioactive contamination.

[60] These include the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act, as well as other restrictions in every state and territory’s legislation.

[61] Benson 2024.

[62] As quoted in Wareham 2024.

[63] Nilsson 2024.

[64] United Nations Treaty Collection 2024.

[65] Astore 2023.

Review: Nuclear secrets and racist lies

Liz Ross reviews a book on Britain’s atomic tests at Emu Field (SA) in the 1950s, which documents the secrecy and recklessness surrounding the tests, their terrible impact on local Indigenous groups and the Australian government’s complicity.