Friday, 17 July 2015

The Big Nuclear What if?


As we are now in the period between the 70 th anniversary of the first test of an nuclear explosive device, in the “Trinity “ test at Socorro, New Mexico on 16 July  1945, and the first belligerent use in war of a nuclear device as a nuclear weapon three weeks later, on 6 August 1945, when it was used to immolate some 150,000 civilians  in Hiroshima, I think it useful to look at what might have happened had Henry A. Wallace, who had been FD Roosevelt’s wartime vice-president succeeded in joining Roosevelt on the Presidential ticket at the 1944 Democratic convention as his running mate.

The proximate reason for raising this was a compelling lecture given on 16 July at the University  of London’s Senate House by Professor Peter Kuznick* of the American University at a seminar run by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies ( on nuclear politics and the historical record under the title: ‘Sowing the whirlwind’

Kuznick included in his lecturer an explanation of how Henry Wallace lost the vice presidential nomination to Harry S. Truman, a machine politician from Kansas at the last minute. In a vivid account of the 1944 Democratic Convention, on 21 July Kuznick suggests Wallace got within “five seconds” of securing the chance for re-nomination.

In Choosing Truman, Robert H. Ferrell, wrote that Truman’s nomination as FDR’s running mate was "one of the great political stories of our century.  The fundamental issue was that FDR’s heath was seriously declining, and everyone who saw Roosevelt- including the leaders  the Democratic Party- realized it. If he died during his next term, the Vice President would become President, making the vice presidential nomination very important. Truman's predecessor as Vice President, the incumbent Henry Wallace, was unpopular with some of the leaders of the Democratic Party, who disliked his liberal politics and considered him unreliable and eccentric in general. Wallace was, however, the popular candidate, and favored by the Convention delegates. As the Convention began, Wallace had more than half the votes necessary to secure his re-nomination. By contrast, the Gallup poll said that only 2% of those surveyed wanted then-Senator Truman to become the Vice President.

Wallace actually won the first round of the ballot by 429.5 to 319.5; To overcome this massive initial deficit, the  machine leadership of the Democratic Party worked to influence the Convention delegates, such that Truman incredibly eventually received the nomination  eventually by 91% to 9%.

Between 1944 and 1947, Wallace, who became Commerce Secretary for a short period tried to avert the cold war and nuclear arms race.

In a robust riposte to their account of Wallace’s overthrow, Kuznack and  radical filmmaker Oliver Stone, in a rejoinder in the New York Review of Books in March 2013, they assert their critic, Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton,  ignorantly trumpets the party bosses’ claim that Wallace was ‘a major political liability for FDR,”’ignoring the Gallup Poll released on the convention’s opening day showing that 65 percent of Democratic voters wanted Wallace back on the ticket as vice-president and 2 percent supported Truman. Reading Wilentz one would never know that the bosses spent months trying to convince an ailing FDR to dump Wallace, an effort that corrupt party treasurer Edwin Pauley proudly labeled “Pauley’s coup” and one vigorously opposed by Eleanor and all the Roosevelt children.”

The key point wasn’t routine manoevering inside political parties, but what a difference to world history this Democratic Party choice made, as Kuznick and Stone argue “ As president, Wallace would almost certainly have prevented the atomic bombing of Japan and done everything he could to maintain the postwar alliance with the Soviet Union.”

They add that six of America’s five-star admirals and generals who earned their fifth star during the war said the atomic bombings were militarily unnecessary, morally reprehensible, or both.

Had Wallace been President not Truman, the Cold War may never have begun; and we could have avoided the nuclear arms race as well.

Peter Kuznick is a Professor of history and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. Author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America (1987), co-editor of Rethinking Cold War Culture (2001), co-author (with Kimura Akira) ofRethinking the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Japanese and US Perspectives] (2011), and co-author (with Yuki Tanaka) of Nuclear power and Hiroshima – Truths about the “Peaceful Use of Nuclear”] (2011). Since 1995, he has led a study tour to Hiroshima and Nagasaki every summer in collaboration with Ritsumeikan University.

Oliver Stone, filmmaker and screenwriter, has won numerous Academy Awards for his work on such iconic films as Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers, Salvador, and W. He and Peter Kuznick co-authored The Untold History of the United States, the 10-part documentary series broadcast on Showtime Network, and the book with the same title published by Simon & Schuster, 2012.

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