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Of tested type
A theory that I think people should know about. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Tomorrow marks the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Next week will mark the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.
A few years ago, I came across a fascinating theory about how a massive miscommunication might have played an important, forgotten, and frankly, embarrassing role in how it all played out.
I've alluded to this theory a few times, but I don't think I've ever told the whole story in this newsletter. While it's probably unprovable one way or the other now, it has critical implications for almost anyone trying to convey important information.
Also, I just think people should know it.
I attribute this all to Alex Wellerstein, a history professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and who studies nuclear weapons. (He posted much of this on Twitter back in 2019.) It has to do mainly with the decision to drop the second bomb.
We need to lay out a quick chronology in order for this to make sense:
January 1945. President Roosevelt is sworn in for his fourth term, with a new vice president: Harry S. Truman, previously a senator from Missouri. The two men are not close, and in fact they will meet only a handful of times before Roosevelt dies, just four months later.
April 1945. Upon Roosevelt's death, Truman becomes president. Two weeks later, he is briefed for the first time on the existence of the atomic bomb project.
May/June 1945. Germany surrenders, but Japan fights on. Military planners tell Truman to expect as many as 1 million U.S. casualties in the planned invasion of Japan.
July 1945. The military tests the first atom bomb in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Truman goes to Potsdam, Germany to meet with Churchill and Stalin, where they'll plan how postwar Europe will look for 50 years. Truman is at a disadvantage because he's never dealt with either leader before.
It's at Potsdam, while he's concentrating on the meetings about Europe, that Truman gets his first briefing on the New Mexico test and is told of the military's plans to use the bomb against Japan, with the first attack scheduled for August 6.
According to Wellerstein, Truman asks what the "schedule" is for other attacks, and he is shown a memo that reads:
"First one of tested type should be ready at Pacific base about 6 August. Second one ready about 24 August."
The U.S. military did in fact drop the first bomb on Hiroshima on schedule. But, Wellerstein suggests that the bombing of Nagasaki days later might have come as a complete surprise to Truman.
The theory is that when the military showed Truman the memo about the "tested type" of weapon, it didn't also emphasize that there was another type of weapon—one that hadn't actually been “tested” in the same way.
Thus, Truman would have thought he had two more weeks, at least, to make a decision about another attack. Again, we'll never know for sure, one way or another, but Wellerstein points out that:
First, Truman was reportedly aghast at the scale of civilian casualties from the first bombing.
Second, the day after Nagasaki, he immediately took total control of the scheduling of any further attacks.
His order stated that additional atomic bombs were "not to be released over Japan without express authority from the President."
It's all fascinating and grim from an historical perspective.
Is it really possible that the U.S. military wound up dropping an atom bomb, in part because the commander-in-chief didn't realize they were going to do it—and thus nobody told them not to?
Most Fridays I try to organize this newsletter around a single question. I like sparking a discussion that sometimes lasts through the weekend.
And of course I invite comments today—but I have a hard time thinking of an appropriate question to ask about a theory suggesting 75,000 or more people might have been killed over a misunderstanding in a memo.
Mostly, I just think it's a theory worth knowing, ripe for a case study at Harvard Business School or the like. And, to inspire us to ask questions even when we think we already understand.
7 other things worth knowing today
At 656 feet from top to bottom, a sinkhole that opened up in Chile over the weekend could fit the Washington Monument inside—with about 100 feet to spare. (NPR)
China conducted “precision missile strikes” Thursday in waters off Taiwan’s coasts as part of military exercises that have raised tensions in the region to their highest level in decades following a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (AP)
A Texas jury Thursday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million—significantly less than the $150 million plaintiffs have sought—in compensatory damages to the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. The Austin jury must still decide how much the Infowars host should pay in punitive damages. (AP)
How much do you think the world's most exclusive executive assistants make? The going rate for such highly qualified aides is about $200,000 a year in major cities ... those with records of making the busiest lives simpler can command as much as $300,000 or $400,000. (WSJ, $)
WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced to 9 years in prison in Russia for drug possession. Worth noting: If you add Griner's sentence to the 16 years former Marine Paul Whelan is serving you get 25 years; that's exactly the sentence that Russian gun runner Viktor Bout, whom the US has apparently offered to trade for them, is serving in a U.S. prison. (Daily Mail, NY Post)
I don't cover every "turn of the screw" on political and Washington stories here, but this one is pretty significant: With a razor-thin margin in the Senate, it appears Democrats now have the 50th vote they need to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which is a scaled-down version of President Biden's signature domestic proposal. (Politico)
Riders who were stuck for an hour on the "It's A Small World" boat ride at Disney World say they experienced "torture" as a result of the song being played over and over again. (BoingBoing)