1945—A Watershed Year

1945—A Watershed Year
▪ 1996

      The year 1995 has been called "the 50th anniversary of almost everything," and the hyperbole is arguably slight. The only world many of us have known came into existence in the period from 1945 to 1947. Although that world may have come to its end with the breakup of the Soviet Union—and even though Eric Hobsbawm recently has published a history of the "short" 20th century that he claims ran from 1914 to 1991—the contours of some new world are by no means evident.

      The following are extracts from articles published in the 1946 edition of the Britannica Book of the Year and were chosen to illuminate the way people thought then about the great events that were defining their lives and that now can be seen as seminal to the age that was beginning. In chronological order, they are: the Yalta Conference, the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the surrender of Germany, the Holocaust, the formation of the United Nations, the development and use of the atomic bomb, and the surrender of Japan.

      [From "United States"] At a meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta on the Black sea in February plans were discussed for the most effective co-operation of the Allies in bringing about the unconditional surrender of Germany and the treatment of that country in respect to occupation and reparations when the victory should be won. On his return from Yalta President Roosevelt addressed the nation (March 1), reporting the close accord of the Allies and declaring, "this time we are not making the mistake of waiting until the end of the war to set up the machinery of peace." Four days later the governments of the United States, Great Britain and Russia, with the concurrence of China, issued invitations to 39 nations (later increased to 51) to attend a United Nations conference at San Francisco to draft a Security charter on the basis of the Dumbarton Oaks proposals of Oct. 1944.

      [From "Roosevelt, Franklin Delano"] Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882-1945) devoted the last few months of his life to preparing for a victory over the axis and a difficult postwar era which he did not live to experience. When he died suddenly on April 12, 1945, at his Warm Springs cottage in Georgia, the armed forces he had mobilized as commander in chief were beating at the gates of Berlin and bombarding the shores of Japan's home islands. His death caused universal shock. Despite obvious evidence of his physical strain through 1944, the state of his health had been a carefully guarded secret. In late Feb. 1945, Vice-Adm. Ross T. McIntyre, White House physician, gave public assurances that his condition was "excellent." But when he continued to lose weight early in March, Dr. McIntyre prescribed a rest in the south. On March 30 he left for the infantile paralysis centre which he founded.

      At one o'clock of the fatal day he was sitting before the fireplace of the "Little White House" while a New York artist sketched him. Suddenly he exclaimed to Commander Howard G. Bruen, a naval physician: "I have a terrific headache!" The stricken president was carried into his bedroom, where he died at 3:55 PM, Georgia time, of a massive cerebral haemorrhage without regaining consciousness. The White House announced his death at 5:48 PM, eastern war time, and at 7:09 PM Vice-President Harry S. Truman was sworn in as president in the cabinet room.

      Quiet, sorrowing crowds lined the railroad tracks as the funeral train brought the body to Washington, where simple ceremonies were held in the east room at 4 PM, April 14. For three days the nation and the world paid him a tribute which no other U.S. president, in life or in death, had received. He was given a military burial on Sunday morning, April 15, in a hedge-enclosed rose garden on the ancestral estate at Hyde Park, N.Y.

      Almost as if he had a premonition that the end was near, even the energetic Roosevelt had rarely laboured so ceaselessly as he did during those last few months. It seemed as if he were consciously striving to write a last will and testament for what he knew might be a free but chaotic universe.

      [From "World War II"] The Surrender of Germany.—The death of Hitler, the fall of Berlin and the junction of the United States and soviet armies at Torgau were all factors that quickened the beginning of the end of the long German reign of terror on the continent. The armies of the western Allies and the soviet union were overrunning the entire reich. German resistance was rapidly fading and failure of their military strategy to halt the invading armies led the nazi high command to lay greater stress on political tactics. Their hope was to divide the western Allies and the soviet union. Doenitz, who succeeded Hitler as fuehrer, said in a broadcast May 1 that as long as the western Allies obstructed achievement of his aim to save Germany from "bolshevik" destruction, his forces would carry on the "defensive" struggle against Britain and the United States as well as against the soviet union. This appeal was ignored by Churchill and Truman. They insisted on the full and unconditional surrender of the German armies to the soviet as well as the British and United States forces. Consequently the war dragged on.

      But the defeat of Hitler's Germany was not far distant. . . .

      Significantly, in the final months of the battle of Germany, most of the major fighting was carried on against the soviet forces. After the crossing of the Rhine, German resistance to the armies of the western Allies was relatively light.

      With German resistance now virtually nonexistent, Doenitz had no choice but to accept the Allied ultimatum that he surrender to all three forces—United States, British and Russian—simultaneously. He dispatched two emissaries, Gen. Adm. Hans Georg von Friedeburg and Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, to Gen. Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims, France, where Jodl signed (May 7) the final surrender document. The following day (May 8), Friedeburg, Field Marshal Gen. Wilhelm Keitel, chief of staff of the German high command and Gen. Hans Jürgen Stumpff signed similar documents in Berlin in the presence of Marshal Zhukov. While the cease-fire order was given May 8, the actual signing of the Berlin document did not take place until shortly after midnight May 9.

      Some fighting continued in Czechoslovakia after the prescribed surrender date but by May 12, all fighting in Europe had ended and peace was restored to the continent.

      [From "Jewish Religious Life"] The end of World War II revealed how disastrous to Judaism had been the atrocities of Hitlerism. In continental Europe, few Jewish children survived, and the exhausted adult survivors in the underground movements or in displaced persons camps were seen to be for the most part without communities, synagogues, religious or Jewish educational institutions or ritual articles. Outside of soviet Russia, only 1,500,000 Jews remained in Europe; 5,000,000 were destroyed. A typical figure is that from Leipzig, Germany, where of 16,000 Jews, 16 survived, and they only because they were married to Christians and were bringing up their children as Christians. Of the 3,500,000 Jews of prewar Poland, there remained but 80,000, scattered, starved and still being pogromized. In western Europe there was some hope of rebuilding Jewish communities; but in central and eastern Europe the shadow of extinction loomed over what were before the war the greatest centres of Jewish learning and of intensely lived Judaism.

      There were some encouraging incidents during 1945. Thus, when the first service was held in the reopened Amsterdam synagogue, four-fifths of the congregation was made up of Christians who came to show their sympathy with the Jewish survivors. In Bergen, Oslo and Trondheim, Norway, the surviving Jews were given money seized from German accounts to help them repair their synagogues. But attempts to reorganize Jewish life were generally hampered by the utter poverty that gripped so much of Europe, indoctrinated nazi anti-Semitism, and the unwillingness to give back to Jews seized Jewish property. Thus, at Maastricht, Netherlands, the community planned for U.S. Jewish soldiers a celebration of the Biblical festival of Purim; but it was disapproved of lest it stir up additional anti-Semitism. When at Dachau, Germany, a U.S. Jewish chaplain attempted to hold an open-air religious service, the Jewish displaced persons declared that it would lead to disorders. In the Belsen camp, Polish internees smashed the synagogue set up by the Jewish displaced persons and desecrated the Torahs and prayer books.

      This atmosphere in postwar Europe tended to drive the surviving Jews to one of two extremes—either a flight from Judaism, dramatized by the conversion to Catholicism of the chief rabbi of Rome, or an intensification of Jewishness which makes the overwhelming majority of the Jewish displaced persons want to settle down only in Palestine. The failure of the British Labour government to live up to British pledged policy of facilitating the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish national home stirred a reaction of a far more militantly determined Zionism in Palestine, in the Jewish people generally, and in the congress of the United States which by an overwhelming vote called for the fulfillment of the international pledge to make a reality of Zionism.

      [From "United Nations Conference"] The Procedure of the Conference.—The conference opened on April 25 with an address of welcome from President Truman, who spoke from Washington.

      During the first eight plenary sessions the heads of 37 delegations addressed the conference, stating the general views of their respective states concerning the nature and functions which should be possessed by the future United Nations organization. Many of these delegates took the opportunity to point out what they believed to be basic shortcomings of the League of Nations which must be corrected if the new organization were to achieve its stated goal of maintaining international peace and security. . . .

      As the committees plunged into their work, it soon became apparent that the major line of cleavage on issues was between the sponsoring powers and their smaller satellites, on the one hand, and those small and middle-sized states which, having no political ties such as to limit their freedom of action, were vocal in criticizing the draft charter because of its substantial departures from the principle of state equality. Australia and New Zealand assumed strong positions of leadership in the latter group, but the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and many others joined vigorously in the fray. The sponsoring powers followed the general policy of trying to reach agreement on controversial issues outside the committee rooms, so as to present a united front in defense of the Dumbarton draft, or at least in defense of a compromise offer to which they could agree.

      The position of France was somewhat equivocal. Though not a participant in the Dumbarton Oaks conversations or the Yalta conference, France was assured a permanent seat on the Security council. In a sense, therefore, the French were torn between a desire to go along with the other great powers and the desire to force a greater recognition of their status of equality by taking an independent stand on debatable issues. The policy which they generally followed was that of supporting the great powers' positions but indicating at the same time that they had made their decisions entirely for individual reasons. The Latin-American states, for the most part, vacillated between approval of the United States positions and support of the small-power stand. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Byelorussian S.S.R. and the Ukrainian S.S.R. generally sided with the U.S.S.R. . . .

      When the final printed texts in the five official languages of the charter and the new statute of the court of international justice were officially signed on June 26, the day President Truman addressed the closing session of the conference, the delegates also placed their signatures on another document, the Interim agreement, which set forth the subsequent procedure to be followed in establishing the United Nations organization. This agreement established a new executive committee, consisting of the same states as those which had served on the executive committee of the conference and a preparatory commission, composed of one representative of each national delegation. The new executive committee was directed to assist the preparatory commission in making arrangements for the holding of the first general assembly meeting of the U.N.O., to make plans for the secretariat of the organization and to canvass the whole problem of taking over those properties and functions of the League of Nations which were desired by the new organization. These bodies were directed to make their temporary headquarters in London. As a result of their work during the months of November and December it was agreed that the first general assembly meeting should be held in London in Jan. 1946.

      [From "Atomic Bomb"] Atomic bomb is the name given to a bomb which obtains its explosive violence from the release of atomic energy, or more exactly, the conversion of matter into energy by an atomic transformation known technically as nuclear fission. No comparable weapon has existed in the history of the world. The first one dropped had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T.

      Based on the discovery of uranium fission by O. Hahn and F. Strassman in Germany in 1939, the atomic bomb was perfected in the United States during World War II as a joint venture of the United States, British and Canadian governments. The first bomb was exploded in a test on the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. Two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan from U.S. aeroplanes, the first on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 (Japanese time), the second on Nagasaki on Aug. 9 (Japanese time). Japan surrendered on Aug. 14. Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill estimated that by shortening the war, the atomic bomb had saved the lives of 1,000,000 U.S. soldiers and 250,000 British soldiers.

      The release of atomic energy is one of the greatest triumphs in the history of science, perhaps the most significant development in the progress of mankind after the discovery of the use of fire. It has equally vast potentialities for good and for evil. . . .

The Atomic Bomb Project.
      The story of the production of the atomic bomb is in many ways as unique as the bomb itself. At the centre of the enterprise was a brilliant group of United States, British and refugee scientists. While engaged in one war in Europe and another in the Pacific, the United States marshaled the manpower and resources needed to complete in four years a project that otherwise might have taken half a century. The cost of the project, $2,000,000,000, indicates its magnitude.

      It is difficult to assign credit to all those who took part in the venture. The brilliant group of research scientists formed its heart. But later, as the project developed and vast plants had to be built and tens of thousands of workers employed, the co-operation of a large number of the nation's chief industrial corporations as well as that of the war department and other branches of the government was required. The decision to embark on the project had to be made by President Roosevelt himself, and he and his advisers, both civil and military, deserve the highest praise for their courage and foresight. . . .

The Explosion of the Bombs.
      A total of three atomic bombs were set off prior to the surrender of Japan, one in a test in New Mexico, two in actual warfare.

      The Test.—The first atomic bomb in the history of mankind was exploded at 5:30 A.M. on July 16, 1945, at the Alamogordo air base in the desert 120 mi. southeast of Albuquerque, N.M. The bomb had been placed on a tall steel tower while scientists and military experts occupied observation posts placed at distances ranging from 10,000 to 17,000 yd. from the tower. They had been instructed to lie down with their feet toward the tower and to protect their eyes from the blinding flash of the explosion. The skies were dark and it was raining. An occasional lightning flash illumined the sandy desert and the distant mountains.

      The explosion caused a flash that lit up the mountain peaks 10 mi. away. Then came a tremendous, sustained roar accompanied by a tornadolike burst of wind. Where the tower had stood there was a great boiling, surging cloud of many colours rising into the stratosphere, more than 40,000 ft. in height. When the cloud had disappeared, it was noted that the steel tower was gone. The heat of the explosion, estimated at several millions of degrees, had completely vaporized it. In place of the tower there was a huge crater, the floor of which consisted of a glass formed by the fusion of the sand.

      The Bombing of Hiroshima.—The first atomic bomb to be used in warfare was dropped on Hiroshima, a Japanese army base and city of 343,000 inhabitants, at 9:15 A.M., Aug. 6 (Japanese time), 1945. The bomb was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress, the "Enola Gay." Col. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., was the pilot and Major Thomas W. Ferebee the bombardier. Capt. Parsons, who had helped design the bomb, went along as the "weaponeer." The flash of the explosion was seen by a reconnaissance plane 170 mi. away. Those in the "Enola Gay" reported that a black cloud rose over Hiroshima to a height of 40,000 ft. Aerial photographs taken after the smoke and dust had cleared away showed a scene of destruction unlike any before witnessed. The entire business section at the centre of the town had disappeared except for the skeletons of three concrete buildings. It was estimated by the Japanese government that the bomb killed 60,000 persons, wounded 100,000 and rendered an additional 200,000 homeless.

      The Bombing of Nagasaki.—The second bomb to be used against Japan was dropped on Nagasaki at 12:01 P.M., Aug. 9 (Japanese time), from a B-29 Superfortress, the "Great Artiste," piloted by Major Charles W. Sweeney. It was said that the construction of this bomb was so superior to that used at Hiroshima as to render that model obsolete. This second bomb created a considerable crater. Its toll of human life was smaller due to the smaller population of Nagasaki. The Japanese government estimated that 10,000 persons were killed, 20,000 wounded, and an additional 90,000 made homeless.

The Future of Atomic Energy.
      Following a message from President Truman on Oct. 3, 1945, a bill sponsored by the war department and known as the May-Johnson bill was introduced into congress. The purpose of this bill was to keep the atomic bomb a secret and to set up a commission charged with the administration and control of all research in the field of atomic energy and the formation of security regulations stipulating what might or might not be made public. The bill aroused the immediate antagonism of the great majority of scientists who had worked on the bomb and they made their opinions public through hastily formed organizations such as the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, the Association of Oak Ridge Scientists, and the Federation of Atomic Scientists. This sudden entrance of scientists into the arena of public affairs was unique in United States history.

      The Scientists' Viewpoint.—The scientists were convinced that any attempt to keep the bomb a secret was futile because all the fundamental scientific facts were known throughout the world in 1940. They believed that the only result of the attempt would be to embark the world upon an international atomic bomb race certain to end in World War III and the destruction of civilization. Moreover, they regarded the proposed controls over scientific research as contrary to the basic principles of U.S. democracy and inimical to scientific progress.

      The scientists advocated instead a policy of international cooperation with a return to the classic freedom of scientific research and the creation of an international inspection committee by the United Nations Organization charged with the task of seeing that no nation set up plants for the manufacture of atomic bombs or the concentration of fissionable materials in forms and amounts suitable for quick conversion into bombs.

      [From "World War II"] The first reaction in the United States to the use of the atomic weapon was elation. The popular impression was that it had brought the war that much nearer to its end. Subsequently, more sober appraisals lent strength to the view that the United States, in employing this dangerous explosive without warning, set a grave precedent fraught with risk in the event of future wars. It was pointed out that a future aggressor might justify use of atomic weapons against the United States, arguing that as the U.S. forces were the first to use it without advance notice, they were therefore deprived of the moral right to protest in the event it were turned against them under similar circumstances. . . .

      On Aug. 8, three months after the reich's surrender, the soviet union declared war on Japan. The Red armies starting the attack the following day (Aug. 9) at 12.01 A.M., launched a three-ply invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria. . . .

End of World War II.
      The atomic bombings and the soviet invasion of Manchuria convinced the Japanese that further resistance was futile and the Japanese government decided to accept the surrender offer as laid down at the Potsdam conference by Great Britain, the United States and China, July 26. Under these terms, Japan was to be stripped of its vast empire and reduced to the home islands. While Emperor Hirohito was permitted to retain his throne, he was made subject to the authority of the commander of the Allied occupation armies. Hirohito announced acceptance of the Potsdam terms, Aug. 14, and on Sept. 2, Japanese emissaries signed the formal surrender document in a ceremony aboard the U.S. battleship "Missouri" in Tokyo bay, thus concluding World War II, six years and one day after it was launched by the German invasion of Poland, Sept. 1, 1939.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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