A French translation of this article was published by Investig’Action on September 2, 2021.

Traduction francaise ici.

“Our history is unpredictable.” – Russian adage

The hot, sweltering days of early August are upon us in Japan, and for anyone with a concern for history, thoughts turn to the annual remembrance of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6th and 9th, 1945. The August heat in Japan always makes me contemplate the unimaginable heat the victims suffered on those two infamous days.

At this time of year, it is easy to find many of the many excellent articles that explain why the atom bombs were unnecessary and didn’t “end the war” as so many US pundits like to say. Gar Alperovitz’s work is perhaps the best on this topic.[1]Rather than going over this familiar ground, in this essay I will engage in an exercise which imagines how nuclear weapons might have been used if World War II had played out a little differently. To do this I will first refer to works of two historians, Les Mythes de l’Histoire Moderne by Jacques Pauwels[2] and The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century by Christopher Simpson.[3] The former book is not available in English translation, but the author has covered the same themes in English in Big Business and Hitler[4], as well as in his articles in The Greanville Post and elsewhere.[5]

Both writers overturn the conventional historiography of the 20th century’s “thirty-year war” (1914-1945, 31 years actually) by stressing what comedian George Carlin expressed so succinctly when said, “Germany lost the Second World War; fascism won it.” Pauwels illustrates this by covering the myths widely believed about the last 240 years of history. He starts with the myths of the French Revolution, then works his way through others up to the present: the rise of Napoleon, the restoration of the French monarchy, the threat posed by Marxism in 1848 (publication of The Communist Manifesto), the second French Revolution of 1848, followed by the second Napoleonic Empire (1851-1870), the Paris Commune in 1870, the rise of nationalist bourgeois democracy and competing empires culminating in the Great War of 1914-1918, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the new world order made by the Versailles Treaty, the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, Japanese imperialism, World War II, and finally the Cold War. Throughout this long arc of history there was one common theme. Whenever capitalism was in crisis and the bourgeois class was threatened by the rise of international proletarian solidarity, war was always the preferred choice. It was chosen with much reluctance and solemn consternation about the sacrifices that would be asked of the citizenry, but it was always preferred over the prospect of socialist revolution. Pauwels sums up in his penultimate chapter:     

The Cold War was born in the hell of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For US imperialism, the Second World War was officially a war against Nazi Germany and fascism in general, and in reality a war against an imperialist rival whose anti-Sovietism was, however, shared; and it was a war on the side of the Soviet Union, a nation officially allied with imperialists but anti-imperialist. The Cold War revealed what it really was, in the sense that the real adversary of US imperialism and imperialism in general became manifest: the anti-fascist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist Soviet Union. In this conflict, the United States ensured that it had at its side the “just ally”, a “newly democratic” German state that had been brought to the fore in the Western Teutonic lands and led by a team of deeply conservative personalities, including many former Nazis whose American leaders shared the same pro-capitalist and anti-Soviet ideology.[6]

Christopher Simpson covers much of the same ground but goes into detail about how the bureaucracy of the US State department, always fronting for American banking and corporate interests, resisted shutting down economic cooperation with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, even long after its atrocities had become apparent. Despite the socially progressive Roosevelt being in the White House, the top people in the State Department made sure that US oil flowed into Germany and US businesses (Texaco, IBM, Ford and GM, and others) continued to profit from the buildup of the German war machine. Germany simply could not have waged war successfully if such companies had been forced to end their dealings with Germany.

Nothing could be done about Germany’s atrocious crimes against humanity, these bureaucrats claimed, because they were not covered by the laws of war and were “legal” simply by having been made legal by the Nazi regime. American factories in Germany were spared from air raids during the war, and as end of the war drew near, the State Department looked for ways to rehabilitate the individuals and the corporations that had financed the rise of Hitler and collaborated in Nazi atrocities. Very few of them were indicted in the Nuremburg trials. As Simpson tells it:

The U.S. State Department and its allies orchestrated an effort to preserve and rebuild Germany’s economy as quickly as possible as an economic, political, and eventually military bulwark against new revolutions in Europe, even though much of the corporate and administrative leadership of German finance and industry that they wished to preserve had been instrumental in Hitler’s crimes. Many critics, not least of whom was the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, accused this State Department faction of anti-Semitism, blocking rescue of refugee Jews, appeasement of Hitler, protection of Nazi criminals in the wake of the war… this strategy for Germany entailed substantial economic costs for the United States, in addition to the tragic human cost of the Holocaust. One of these was the rapid build-up of an enormously expensive and dangerous military competition with the USSR that for almost half a century repeatedly threatened to lead to nuclear war. The similarities between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust suggest that the “Nazi problem” in postwar Germany is only partially traceable to the pressures of the cold war. Throughout the twentieth century, regardless of the prevailing atmosphere in East-West relations, most powerful states have attended to genocide only insofar as it has affected their own stability and short-term interests. Almost without exception, they have dealt with the aftermath of genocide primarily as a means to increase their power and preserve their license to impose their version of order, regardless of the price to be paid in terms of elementary justice.[7]

Pauwels’ chapters on WWII emphasize how badly Western historiography has diminished the decisive role of the Soviet Union in defeating Germany. People growing up in the West, fed a steady diet of Hollywood war films, believe that it was the Normandy landing late in the war that defeated Germany. Pauwels states that the decisive beginning of the end for Germany came as early as December 1941 when the German army was stopped at the gates of Moscow. Germany depended on lightning attack (blitzkrieg) as it had in Western Europe. It had to win quickly because it didn’t have enough fuel and other resources to last through a prolonged war. Stalin knew this and used a strategy of defense in depth that drew German forces deeper into enemy territory. What at first looked to Germans like an easy victory in the summer of 1941—as they quickly moved across poorly defended territory—turned into a disaster as they met stronger defenses deeper in the Soviet heartland. The Soviets, of course, paid the heaviest price for their victory at Stalingrad in February 1943, after which they began to advance toward Berlin. In The Untold History of the United States, Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone note:

Until the Normandy landing in 1944, the Soviet forces were regularly engaging more than two hundred enemy divisions while the Americans and British together rarely confronted more than ten. Churchill admitted that it was “the Russian Army that tore the guts out of the German military machine.” Germany lost over six million men on the eastern front and approximately one million on the western front and in the Mediterranean.[8]

Red army soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, April 30, 1945, photo taken by Vladimir Grebnev

Pauwels writes that if the German army had prevailed in Russia, it would have become an undefeatable hegemonic power stretching from Amsterdam to Vladivostok. One the one hand, it may be just a fantastical idea to consider this German conquest of Eurasia because it is unrealistic to think that Germany could have dominated the Russian people over the long term. Germany failed in Russia because it was destined to fail. At best, it would have succeeded in Russia the way that Americans succeeded in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021. Germany would have been dealing with a prolonged and costly insurgency. Russia was not comparable to the American West of 1870. It wasn’t a territory that could be easily settled and colonized. It was not inhabited by a diverse population of only a few million people in several indigenous nations. It was a nation of almost 200 million citizens (triple the population of Germany at the time), most of whom had formed identities as citizens of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. It was madness to think it could be easily cleared to give “living space” to the German race.

On the other hand, if someone other than Stalin had been in power, if the Soviet Union had been weakened from within by those who wanted to sue for peace and open the country to capitalist exploitation, the Soviet republics could have all become vassal or client states under German control, like South Korea and Japan today living with US military bases on their soil and within the United States’ “rules-based international order.”

If the German army had not been turned back from Moscow in December 1941 (at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor when the US had just declared war on Japan[9]), the German blitzkrieg might have got a good foothold in Russia the way it had in France and other countries in Europe, then it would have had access to oil, food and other resources with which to dig in and become impossible for the US and Britain to defeat. These rival imperial powers might have sought peace terms at such a time, considering that they had in common with Germany the goal of destroying any successful model of socialist revolution. With that goal achieved, perhaps the rival imperial powers would have come to certain understandings and carved up the world among themselves. It is conceivable that Germany would have let the US, Britain and Japan resolve their conflict before deciding what to do vis-a-vis the winner of that war in the Pacific. It would not be correct to assume that Germany’s enemies would have had any motive at such a point to stop the Holocaust because it was never a significant factor during the war as it actually happened, as Simpson explained in the work cited above. Jewish refugees were not welcomed in the Allied countries, and the train lines to the concentration camps were never targeted for destruction, nor were the factories in Germany owned by American firms.

There are some considerations about nuclear weapons one can contemplate in the hypothetical question of the Germans gaining control of Eurasia. Would the US have dropped a nuke on Berlin to defeat a German empire that had control of all of Eurasia? If Germany had occupied Russia by early 1942, at the time the US was beginning the Manhattan Project, would Germany have embarked on a competing atom bomb project? It would have had vast supplies of uranium at its disposal and a lebensraum (living space) in the Ural Mountains where it could carry out the project in peace and secrecy, just as the US did in Washington State, Tennessee, Niagara Falls and other sites. Germany could have developed a few atom bombs by 1945 in the same way that the United States had developed them by then, not to mention the enormous arsenals of thousands of warheads that existed by 1960.

US officials at the time, and historians since then, have always said that the Manhattan Project was a race to build an atom bomb before the Germans. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard wrote their famous letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning of this danger. For the Japanese it was impossible to make a bomb without access to uranium at a time when they were losing the war and living under heavy bombardment. The Einstein letter made no mention of Japan.

Historians have cast doubt on whether Germany could have succeeded in making an atom bomb in the years 1939-45 when it was at war. It is also likely that by 1942, when Germany was on the defensive, US officials knew the bomb was out of reach for Germany. It had access to some uranium and enough scientific expertise, but still it was losing badly after being turned back at Moscow, then defeated at Stalingrad in February 1943. It could not have built the sort of massive facilities the US built in Hanford, Washington and Oakridge, Tennessee, especially the latter which required massive amounts of electricity. The US knew such facilities were necessary, and if they had appeared in Germany, the Allies would have destroyed them, as was the case with a heavy water facility in German-occupied Norway.

An article published by the American National Museum of Nuclear Science & History covers the German atomic bomb project, describing what was learned from the scientists who worked on it. At the end of the war they were interviewed and put under surveillance by the British to find out how close the German project came to making an atom bomb. The article concludes there was a lack of coordination, no large-scale logistical support, no financial support, and more importance was placed on rocket development. The project also suffered because many of the top scientists had left Germany. Hitler had no patience for a project that would take many years to produce results. The work started in 1939 but was essentially over in 1942—the time when the invasion of Russia had failed and the Manhattan Project was finally getting underway three years after the Einstein letter to Roosevelt. The article states:

By 1944, however, the evidence was clear: the Germans had not come close to developing a bomb and had only advanced to preliminary research… Heisenberg’s disbelief after hearing that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima confirmed in the minds of the Allies that the German effort was never close. As one German scientist exclaimed, it must have taken “factories large as the United States to make that much uranium-235!” … Heisenberg remarked after the war, “The point is that the whole structure of the relationship between the scientist and the state in Germany was such that although we were not 100% anxious to do it, on the other hand we were so little trusted by the state that even if we had wanted to do it, it would not have been easy to get it through.”

The article concludes:

The Germans never achieved a successful chain reaction, had no method of enriching uranium, and never seriously considered plutonium as a viable substitute. Heisenberg recalled in his memoir, “The government decided that work on the reactor project must be continued, but only on a modest scale. No orders were given to build atomic bombs.” Speer later noted, “We got the view that the development was very much at the beginning… the physicists themselves didn’t want to put much into it,” and that “the technical prerequisites for production would take years to develop, two years at the earliest, even provided that the program was given maximum support.” German resources were allocated to other priorities.[10]

The German ability to have a Manhattan Project of its own would have been much different, however, if Germany had conquered the Soviet Union, if it had been able to work in peace and secrecy in the Ural Mountains, probably in the place where Stalin built the first Soviet bomb between 1945 and 1949.

What would Hitler have done with a few atom bombs ready to detonate in 1945? Would he have dropped a couple on important but lesser urban centers, say Liverpool and Honolulu, just to “end the war” and show who wielded the biggest stick? Or would the two competing Manhattan Projects have deterred each other and led to peace treaties between imperial powers? Without the Bolshevik threat, these imperial blocs had always been able to find ways to co-exist as long as capitalist interests faced no socialist threat and had access to vital resources and markets. As it was, the US was eager to rebuild German capitalism after the war, and in a scenario in which Germany would be used to control Eastern Europe and Russia and prevent the re-emergence of revolutionary socialism, there would have been much cooperation between the competing imperialist-capitalist blocs. The Holocaust would have received the same attention and moral outrage as the American (1492~), Armenian (1915-1918) and Indonesian (1965-66) genocides actually received; that is, almost none. Hitler was confident that if Germany prevailed, he and his collaborators would go unpunished for their atrocities. In a speech made in 1939, he claimed that when it was over and done with, no one would care:

Thus for the time being I have sent to the East … my Death’s Head Units with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the vital space that we need. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?[11]

We can thank Stalin and the Soviet people for their sacrifice and their victory over fascism. They defeated the German army in Stalingrad, liberated Auschwitz and marched into Berlin for the final victory. If not for them, the world would have had to accept a Nazi empire with a nuclear arsenal ruling over Eurasia and continuing with its programs of slave labor and genocide. It is impossible to know what it might have done with nuclear weapons, either as a deterrent or as tools for aggression, but based on its record of brutality, it is not a pleasant thing to ponder.

One might say it makes no difference because Stalin built a nuclear arsenal anyway—an arsenal that, along with others, terrorized the world and resulted in massive ecological damage and injury to Soviet citizens. However, this nuclear arsenal was built in reaction to and as a deterrent against the one that already existed in the United States. Stalin knew about the American maps and plans to drop atom bombs on Soviet cities.[12] This issue requires the debunking of other myths covered by Pauwels in his writings.

The Western historiography has done much to equate Stalin with Hitler, and socialism with fascism. People falsely call the German-Soviet non-aggression pact an “alliance,” failing to note that the pact was, firstly, a way for the Soviet Union to buy time before the German attack that was sure to come, and secondly, a measure taken only after France and Britain had spent years refusing Stalin’s suggestion to form an alliance against German aggression. They didn’t want the alliance because they were hoping Hitler would destroy the Soviet Union. Harry Truman once said, before he was president, “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”[13]

The Western historiography also ignores the tremendous achievements of the Soviet Union in taking 200 million people from feudalism to the space age within forty years. Citizens gained rights to health care, education, employment, and housing. Western democracies had to scramble to compete with these gains by giving some of the same rights and freedoms to their own citizens, and the Soviets did it all while stopping along the way to defeat a German invasion—the largest invading army ever assembled.

Instead of giving credit for all of this, the history focuses on the dark chapters of the era, exaggerating the toll of the gulag and claiming famines were deliberate genocides. One might decry the methods used by Stalin to hang onto power, but holding onto to power has always been a vicious business, regardless of political systems. Leaders who were part of the inner circle during Lenin’s time, who were executed during Stalin’s time, like Bukharin and Trotsky, were willing participants in the “necessary” repression of the Bolshevik revolution and civil war of the early 1920s. What would they have done with Stalin if their faction had prevailed? Would a capitalist regime governing Russia in the 20th century have been more benign? Look to Suharto’s Indonesia for an answer to that question. Ironically, in the United States, the elected and legitimate branches of the government were unable to stop the traitorous government agents and agencies that usurped power in the 1963-1968 period, first by the assassination of a president, then by the assassination of three more figures who were otherwise unstoppable leaders of social transformation.[14] As a contemporary “policy intellectual” close to Russian President Medvedev put it, voicing a truth about not only Russian politics, there are those reformers who do what is necessary to prevail, and those who hesitate and fail: “All successful Russian modernizers were brutal despots. All modernizers who shunned repression were failures.”[15] And there’s the rub. Any leader who wants to advance the interests of the oppressed must be prepared for the reactionary war that will be waged against such an effort.

Peace statue donated by the USSR, Nagasaki Peace Park

In the end, we can be grateful for the least bad outcome—for the Soviet Union developing a nuclear arsenal after the war rather than Nazi Germany developing one in Russia during the war or any time afterward. We can never know what a Eurasian Nazi Empire would have done with a nuclear arsenal, but based on what we know of the nature of the beast, nuclear aggression would have been highly likely. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, defeated fascism, never engaged in genocide and wars of conquest, and never used a nuclear weapon in an act of war. The existence of nuclear arsenals is a threat that should be considered a crime against humanity, but all things considered, we should be grateful for those who prevented the worst from occurring.

Notes


[1]. Gal Alperovitz, “The Decision to Bomb Hiroshima,” Counterpunch, August 5, 2011. See also Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (Vintage, 1996).

[2]. Jacques R. Pauwels, Les Mythes de l’Histoire Moderne (Investigaction, 2019).

[3]. Christopher Simpson, The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Open Road Integrated Media, 1995, 2017).

[4]. Jacques R. Pauwels, Big Business and Hitler (Lorimer, 2017).

[5]. Jacques R. Pauwels, “The Western ‘democracies’ fought the Nazis, but were never against fascism,” Greanville Post, July 17, 2021.

[6]. Jacques R. Pauwels, Les Mythes de l’Histoire Moderne (Investigaction, 2019), 237-238.

[7]. Christopher Simpson, 308-309.

[8]. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Publishing, 2012),111.

[9]. Pauwels points out that the US never declared war on Germany. It was Hitler who declared war on the US in December 1941, hoping probably that he could draw Axis partner Japan into waging war on the Soviet Union, then an American ally.

[10]. “German Atomic Bomb Project,” American National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, October 18, 2016.

[11]. “Office of United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression,” vol. 3. Washington, DC: USGPO, 1946, 753. In Simpson, 88.

[12]. Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2012). This book details the ecological and human toll of building the nuclear weapons arsenals in both the US and the USSR. It also describes how Stalin got the message delivered by the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He had knowledge of US “contingency” plans to use nuclear bombs to quickly finish off the Bolshevik experiment while it was in a weakened state after WWII. His motivation to build a bomb quickly, regardless of the human cost, is easily understood. See also this interview with the author: Kate Brown, “The Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,” interview on TalkingStickTV, January 18, 2014.

[13]. Turner Catledge, “Our Policy Stated,” New York Times, June 24, 1941. In Stone and Kuznick, 96.

[14].  James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease (Editors), The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK, and Malcolm X (Feral House, 2003).

[15]. Ivan Frolov quoted in The Moscow Times, November 29, 2010. In Stephen F. Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (Columbia University Press, 2009), 320.