Racism goes nuclear: Seventy-five years of atomic colonialism
James Baldwin’s novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone? tells the story of two young actors, a black man and white woman, in love in World War 2 America. The man does not want to “fight for the people who had…destroyed the Indians” and “were in the process of destroying everyone I loved: I was not going to defend my murderers.” During a walking holiday in early August 1945, an elderly white woman ran towards them, joyfully waving a newspaper and exclaiming “the war is over!” “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Baldwin’s hero writes, “two cities we had never heard of, had been levelled with single, unprecedented bombs.” But he just “kept thinking, ‘They didn’t drop it on the Germans. The Germans are white. They dropped it on the Japanese.’”
The allied ‘Manhattan Project’ to build the Atom Bomb was motivated not by a desire to ‘drop it on the Germans’ but concern that Hitler would prove evil enough to use such a ‘Wonder Weapon’ to bludgeon or blackmail a defenceless opponent. Yet by November 1944, a US intelligence mission, codenamed Alsos, had concluded the Nazis had never even mounted a serious atomic research programme. The story was told, in 1947, by the lead Alsos scientist, the Dutch-Jewish physicist Samuel Goudsmit, whose parents perished in the gas chambers. “Isn’t it wonderful that the Germans have no atom bomb?” Goudsmit exclaimed to his military chaperone, who answered quietly: “Of course you understand, Sam, if we have such a weapon, we are going to use it.”
Does this mean ‘they’ would indeed have ‘used it’ against Germany, a white European power, if war in Europe had continued? No such plans were drawn up, even before the Alsos mission, yet as early May 9, the day after VE Day, the US established a committee to consider which Japanese cities to target.
‘Alsos’ is Greek for ‘groves,’ an allusion to Manhattan Project commander General Leslie Groves, a man on a mission to ‘use it’ before Japan was overrun by a Soviet invasion. And the main point of the attack – apart from ‘justifying’ the vast expense of the Project – was not to defeat Japan, already on its knees and prepared to surrender, but to ‘send a message’ to Moscow. As the Polish-Jewish physicist Joseph Rotblat recalled Groves declaring, at a “relaxed dinner” in March 1944, “of course, the real purpose in making the Bomb was to subdue the Soviets.”
Soon after, Rotblat quit, the only Manhattan Project scientist to do so, and before the radioactive dust had settled on what had been Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Groves had ordered a study of which Soviet cities the Air Force should ‘A-Bomb’. The USSR was then an American ally, having sacrificing 25 million lives in the defeat of Nazism. But the ‘Reds,’ Slavs on the edges of ‘Europe proper,’ were also seen as not quite ‘White’; and were soon joined in the ‘Commie’ camp by the ruthlessly-stereotyped Chinese. By 1960 (before China became a nuclear power) the Pentagon was primed for a first strike – killing half a billion people – against the ‘Sino-Soviet bloc.’ In his memoir Doomsday Delayed, Jack Rubel, Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Eisenhower, recalls a “timid” question posed to the Commander of US nuclear forces: “What if this is just a war with the Soviets? Can you change the plan?” “Well, yeah,” the General conceded, “we can, but I hope nobody thinks of it, because it would really screw up the plan.” Rubel, a Jewish-American, was reminded “of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, when German bureaucrats swiftly agreed on a program to exterminate every last Jew they could find anywhere in Europe. I felt as if I were witnessing a comparable descent into the deep heart of darkness…”
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Nuclear weapons, however, do not need to be used in anger to destroy people, and many of those devastated by the testing and development of these Wannsee war-machines have been indigenous – victims of both white imperialism (American, British, French) and the ‘internal’ Empires of China and Russia. Indigenous activists have played a leading role in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its contribution to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the ‘Ban Treaty’ adopted by 122 states in July 2017. An ‘Indigenous Statement,’ delivered to delegates negotiating the Treaty, declared that “we were never asked for, and we never gave, permission to poison our soil, food, rivers, and oceans. We continue to resist inhumane acts of radioactive racism.”
One of those acts occurred in Canada, with the ravaging of Dene communities in the Northwest Territories to mine uranium used to pulverize Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the Dene learnt, decades later, of their unwitting ‘complicity’ in those crimes, they sent a delegation to Hiroshima to apologize, an extraordinary gesture putting to shame the colonial state that deceived them.
As James Baldwin’s hero grasped immediately, Hiroshima was a hate crime. If you care about racial justice, you should care about banning the Bomb.