June 6, 1945: Washington
By 1945 Washington was bursting at the seams. So many people had flocked to the nation's capital during the war years that the city could hardly hold them. On a spring day thousands of young office girls filled the streets at noon, their bright dresses splashing color among the drab military uniforms.
Germany's surrender in May had brought an emotional turnaround from the devastating shock of Roosevelt's sudden death in April.
The first wild reaction was over. Excitement had peaked and now everyone was geared up for the final surge against Japan. The entire nation was moving with a purpose. Washington was the fulcrum, the center of that effort.
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson grimaced in the sudden explosions of light. He held up the plaque and again shook hands with Stefan Thyssen. Both men smiled and more flashbulbs popped.
Reporters crowded in past the photographers. Stimson glanced at Thyssen, a tall, Nordic bear of a man with a ruddy face, a deep voice and an unashamedly protruding stomach.
"On this first anniversary of D-day, our European invasion," Stimson began, "it is most appropriate that we honor a man who has pursued peace with the same courage and diligence as those fine warriors who landed at Normandy.
"Stefan Thyssen and his small contingent of Swedish diplomats personally negotiated with Himmler in the last days of the war, endeavoring to save countless political prisoners and concentration camp inmates from Germany's final solution."
Thyssen looked down, embarrassed by the praise. Stimson continued to outline his accomplishments while Thyssen tried to form the words he had come to say to the Secretary of War in private.
At last the agony was over. Stimson handed him the plaque. Thyssen clutched it and smiled once more for the photographers. Then he was ushered out of the lobby and into Stimson's office. Coffee was served and the two men relaxed alone.
The war against Germany had ended on May 8th and Stimson was curious to hear about the aftermath in Europe. Since Thyssen had just returned from touring some of the hardest-hit areas, he was able to describe the devastation vividly.
"I am glad to find you interested in this, Mr. Secretary," he said, "because it leads me to my own reasons for coming here today."
Stimson looked up, puzzled.
Thyssen hesitated before going on. "I was in England," he continued, "just before D-day and by chance ran into an old acquaintance, a very prominent physicist."
Stimson's lips pursed but he said nothing. He hooked a finger into his coffee cup and slowly brought it to his lips.
"He was quite candid but swore me to secrecy. He had a great deal to say about an atomic bomb under development in the United States."
"Mr. Thyssen," said Stimson, "I don't think you should go on with this."
"Please hear me out, Mr. Secretary. I have come a long way at your invitation, but I must tell you, it is my own conscience that has brought me here."
Stimson's brow furrowed.
"I will not accept any denials of the bomb's existence. I wish only to voice the very human concern that such a weapon not be used in haste. If there is any way to avoid it entirely, I believe the United States must try."
Stimson sat back slowly and frowned at the window.
Thyssen picked up the plaque and smiled. "This is hardly in order, you know. My efforts were rigorous, but we were completely deceived."
"What do you mean?"
"While I was negotiating with Himmler, trying to save lives, he was very busy accelerating the slaughter. He bought time from me to finish the job in the concentration camps." He put down the plaque and his smile turned rueful. "The Nazis will be branded murderers for generations to come. The United States cannot afford that label. And if you use that bomb against the Japanese--"
"It's not the same," Stimson said sharply.
"It is mass murder. Only the method is different."
"Mr. Thyssen, I can't discuss this any further."
Thyssen waved a hand. "I quite understand. Have you considered a demonstration?" Thyssen's eyes bored into him.
Stimson did not flinch. He was seventy-seven years old, a thirty-five-year veteran of Washington politics who had been Secretary of War since 1940. He was also Senior Advisor to the President on S-l, the Manhattan Project. He studied Thyssen with forced disinterest while deciding how to deal with him. With security so stringent, how had a foreign national become so conversant with his problems?
"Mr. Secretary," said Thyssen, "let us take a hypothetical approach, shall we? Let us suppose that you have considered demonstrating your bomb to the Japanese in order to convince them to surrender. And you have decided not to. Why? Because you are not certain it is going to work. Can I conclude that it has not been tested yet?"
Stimson flinched. Thyssen was very close.
"Bad enough if you drop it on Japan and nothing happens, but if you invite a group of Japanese observers over for a show and it fails, you are going to look extremely foolish."
"Very astute," said Stimson, recalling the same reasoning from the Interim Committee meetings only last week.
"Thank you. So you cannot show them anything, but you still want to warn them somehow, let them know that if they do not capitulate, the consequences will be dire."
"Wouldn't that be an empty threat, Mr. Thyssen? Certainly it would have to be something dramatic or they wouldn't believe us. Hypothetically speaking, of course."
Thyssen allowed himself a little smile. "I agree. Drama is very important in dealing with the Japanese. The buildup is everything. Now, your President is shortly going to be meeting with Churchill and Stalin in Potsdam. It would seem to me that he would want to develop a unified front against Japan. Of course, it is common knowledge that the Russians and the Japanese have a nonaggression pact. Not so common is the knowledge that the Russians are prepared to break it. August eighth, I believe."
Stimson met Thyssen's gaze. "Some of your information is very accurate, Mr. Thyssen."
"Some of my thinking is, too. For instance, I do not think it would be in America's best interest to have the Soviets interfering in the Far East."
"That's politics. No comment," said Stimson.
"None needed. It is just logic. Now, in order to keep the Russians out, the war must be concluded before August eighth. Do you have any indications that the Japanese will surrender before that date?"
Stimson shook his head.
"So the United States is being pushed by circumstance into a drastic and probably regrettable course of action: using the atomic bomb. I cannot believe that you want to do this, Mr. Secretary."
Stimson cleared his throat. "Considering you've come to me, Mr. Thyssen, you must think that I'm the man most responsible for the bomb's development. Therefore, what makes you believe I would be against using it?"
"Good point. I hope I am a better judge of character now. I do not see you as another Himmler."
Stimson bristled but couldn't find his voice for a moment; then he said, "Suppose it's out of my hands?"
Thyssen studied the ceiling for a moment, deep in thought. "Are you telling me that there is already an official policy to use the bomb as soon as possible and not to give the Japanese any warning?"
"That's your conclusion."
"An obvious one, I think. Otherwise you would be going out of your way to warn them."
"Not necessarily. Japan is run by a group of military fanatics determined to fight to the last man. How are we supposed to reason with people like that? Perhaps the only demonstration that will work is tactical use."
Thyssen paced a moment, then faced Stimson again. "Would you consider an unofficial warning?" he asked.
Stimson looked up slowly.
"After the test, and if it is successful," Thyssen added. "If so, I would be willing to undertake such an effort."
Without committing himself Stimson said, "How?"
"Through Swedish trade channels I believe I can reach into the highest echelons of the Imperial government. Of course, the substance of any warning would be up to you."
"I see." Stimson's mind raced. "How soon could you do this?"
"When is the test?"
"I can't tell you that."
Thyssen shrugged. "Let me just say, then, that I will work as fast as I can and assume that there is great urgency."
Stimson frowned uncertainly. The test was scheduled for mid-July. How much time Thyssen might have beyond that depended on its success.
Thyssen leaned over the desk and looked at him with deep sincerity. "Mr. Secretary, if you use this horrendous weapon against anyone, it will destroy America's image as defender of the oppressed. It is no fitting way to end this war. But if you warn them first, you may bring about what you want most--unconditional surrender."
Stimson was quiet a long time. Finally he stood up. "Are you staying in Washington?"
"I'd like to talk again tomorrow, Mr. Thyssen."
"I am at your disposal."
Stimson saw him to the door, then called in his secretary. "What's my schedule for tonight?"
"Nothing booked, sir."
Stimson thanked her, waited till she left, then reached for the phone.
Stimson stopped talking as a servant came in to pour brandy. General of the Army George C. Marshall waited patiently for the ritual to be completed, his brow furrowed in thought as he digested what Stimson had just told him. Marshall was sixty-five, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a VMI graduate who had fought in World War One, had been Pershing's aide-de-camp in the early '20s and was presently head of the most powerful military machine the world had ever seen.
The servant quietly left the den and closed the door. Stimson swirled his brandy and looked to Marshall for comment.
"In the first place, Henry, even listening to Thyssen was a mistake."
"I had no idea what he was going to say."
"You should have cut him off and kicked him out."
"George, he made some good points. The same things we've been discussing for weeks."
"But it all comes back to the same problem. Truman doesn't want to warn the Japanese. Up until two weeks after he became President, he didn't know anything about S-l. You tossed it in his lap and he responded like a kid with a new toy. He hasn't lived with it as we have."
Stimson heaved himself out of his chair and reached for his cane. "George, even under Roosevelt there was never any question about our using the bomb. And I always supported that position. But now, with the responsibility almost on us, I have qualms."
"We both do. But we have to deal with reality. This man is suggesting treason."
Stimson sighed. "Perhaps, but he may have hit on the right way to do it."
"There's no right way to commit treason."
Stimson shook his head. "We will tell the President, but not just yet. First, we'll put the whole thing together. Then, at the appropriate time, offer it to him as a viable alternative. If we lay the proper groundwork and keep it simple, we can be ready to go at a moment's notice. Then if Truman rejects it, no harm done. But George, it's worth a try."
Marshall shook his head. "I don't believe there will be an appropriate time. We're getting close to Potsdam. The President is talking about using the bomb as a way of pushing Stalin into line. He would resent any interference, and I don't think we have anything to gain by trying to subvert him."
Stimson nodded thoughtfully. "I agree, but the President needs guidance. We can't just sit back and let an inexperienced viewpoint dominate. That would be a real disservice."
Marshall was not convinced. He rubbed his brow and stared at his brandy.
"George, Stefan Thyssen is no fool. For a man who has spent the war in Europe, he had a surprising grasp of what's going on here in Washington. It comes down to this: we better start thinking about the future as more than just winning wars and cutting up the political pie. Weigh the consequences of not warning the Japanese."
Stimson dropped into his chair. Marshall studied him carefully. "You feel that strongly about it, Henry?"
"You trust Thyssen?"
Marshall steepled his hands. "Then I better meet him."