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Extract: 'We must anticipate war' - 1945 Irish diplomats on the threat of World War III

Letters between senior Irish diplomats in the 1940s depict an unstable international stage, where terrified leaders were just beginning to realise the horrifying potential of atomic weapons.

An Allied war correspondent stands amid the ruins of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945
An Allied war correspondent stands amid the ruins of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945
Image: Press Association Images

Now in its 15th year, the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series continues to open up the secret archives of the Department of Foreign Affairs. These extracts from between 1945 to 1948 show that, during the immediate post-war years, Ireland redefined its global position as a result of wartime neutrality and the developing Cold War.

A strong theme in the volume is the threat posed to humanity by the growing divide between East and West and the possibility of global destruction through atomic weapons. The documents below between senior Irish diplomats show how pessimistic the Department of External Affairs was in 1945 and 1946 when it came to the expectation of a Third World War, which they believed was not only possible – but probable.

In the excerpts below the Irish ambassadors in Washington, Berne and Rome give their take on the world climate and the likelihood of war to Ireland’s top diplomat, the Secretary General of the Department of External Affairs.  This post was held by Joseph P Walshe to mid-1946 and thereafter by Frederick H Boland.

Letter from Robert Brennan to Joseph P Walshe (Dublin)

WASHINGTON DC, 19 October 1945

Influential personages amongst the military authorities here are beginning to voice their regret that the defeat of Germany was so thorough on the grounds that there is now no barrier to Russian expansion.

They think that at some stage in the conflict they should have pulled out so as to leave Germany and Russia more evenly matched. Some say that they should have switched to Germany’s side at some time though that would have been impossible because of public feeling.

They say that Mr. Roosevelt realised too late that it would be a disaster to bring about a situation which would leave Russia master of the field and that it was this realisation which killed him.

Letter from Robert Brennan to Joseph P Walshe (Dublin)

WASHINGTON DC, 22 October 1945

The following account of Hiroshima was given to me (and a few others) by an American officer who visited the place some time after the explosion. The centre of the city for three miles was flattened out and nothing was left but a sea of cinders and ashes. The shells of a few concrete buildings still stood. The bomb released a heat of two million degrees Fahrenheit.

Mushroom cloud

The air rushing in to fill the vacuum thus created caused a wind which levelled houses and trees in its path. It was this air converging on the centre of the explosion and rushing upward which caused the huge giant mushroom-like vapour formation which in an incredibly short time reached a height of 40,000 feet. Trees far from the centre of the explosion were seared yellow.

There were upwards to 50,000 people killed outright of whom 25,000 were children on their way to school. The succeeding death rate was about 500 a day. The weight of the explosive in the bomb is 40 ounces though the whole contrivance weighs 50 to 100 lbs and is shaped like a gate post. The final explosion is caused by bringing together two substances by means of a chain of explosions.

Warning

Before the bomb struck there had been an alert sounded in the city but the all clear signal was given in the mistaken impression that the airplane had gone away.

Extract from a letter from Francis T Cremins to Joseph P Walshe (Dublin)

BERNE, 1 November 1945

The rapid development of offensive weapons, and especially of the atomic bomb, has no doubt lessened the likelihood of immediate war, and has even brought about the possibility that war on a great scale might be completely abandoned as a means of settling disputes.

If the statements of scientists are to be credited, the destructive power of the atomic bomb is so appalling that it would be suicide for any State now to risk aggression unless it was well provided with this means of attack.

Even then, mutual destruction might result.

Changes in war

A devastating attack might in fact be made without warning long before any real danger of war would be apparent. The whole approach to war will be different, as will the strategy and tactics of war.

Every State will have to take account of the new situation in connection with the training and equipment of its forces, and the situation of the civil populations in times of tension as of war will also have to receive new consideration… Even neutral countries in the future will probably be in far greater danger than they were during the late war. Atomic or other modern bombs dropped ‘in error’ on cities or towns, would do far greater damage than before.

Outlaw nuclear

I greatly doubt whether the use of atomic bombs can be outlawed or whether there is any analogy with the question of the use of gas. Both sides, in the late war, were well prepared for gas warfare, and Hitler would certainly have used gas, protocol or no protocol, if a sudden attack could be decisive. In the case of atomic bombs, a sudden attack might be decisive.

That is the great difference and the great difficulty which will have to be faced in a world where signed pacts are not sacred and where weapons can be constructed in secrecy.

Extract from a letter from Michael MacWhite to Frederick H Boland (Dublin)

ROME, 30 August 1946

A year ago I was of the opinion that war between Russia and the Western Democracies was out of the question for a generation at least, but the Soviet demands at Paris show that instead of helping post-war reconstruction they are doing their utmost to introduce an era of chaos and disorder. America is now wide awake to their game and that of their Polish and Yugoslav puppets.

Suspicion

A former member of the Roosevelt Cabinet (Frank Walker) told me some months ago that it would take Russia about seven or eight years in the conditions then prevailing to make the atomic bomb… Russia is experimenting with the German V bombs and the Americans know pretty well how far they have succeeded. They are not going to wait eight years before they strike.

Unless there is a complete Russian change of front within the next year or two, I am of the opinion that we must anticipate another war in 1949 or 1950 at latest. It may come sooner.

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy VIII (1945-48) is edited by Michael Kennedy, Catriona Crowe, Ronan Fanning, Dermot Keogh and Eunan O’Halpin. For more information visit the Royal Irish Academy website or follow Documents on Irish Foreign Policy on Twitter @DIFP_RIA.

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About the author:

Michael Kennedy

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