Starman: 1945: Nuclear Furnace, Chapter 5: The President’s Decision

by Dan Swanson

Return to chapter list

The Secret Service officers at the White House were understandably perturbed when a super-powered mystery-man landed on the south lawn at 1:30 A.M. and walked into the diplomatic reception room.

As Starman entered, an apparently unarmed man stopped him. Starman recognized Agent John Richardson from some earlier visits to the White House on Justice Society cases. “Agent Richardson, I need to see the president!”

“I’m sorry, Starman. Please leave now and come back after nine A.M. and make an appointment. I assure you that the president will see you, and it will save us all a lot of problems!”

“I can’t wait that long. May I speak to the agent in charge?”

“Actually, sir, that would be me.”

Starman smiled. “A well-deserved promotion. Congratulations! When did it happen?”

“Thank you, sir. April 15th of this year, actually…” There was an undercurrent of pain in Richardson’s voice. Ted Knight understood, all too well.

“It hit us all pretty hard, John. He was a great president, and it was a terrible tragedy. It must have been much worse for those of you who worked closely with him every day. I’m sorry…” Starman’s voice softened, then trailed off. He couldn’t think what else might be appropriate to say.

“Thank you, sir. He was a great president, and he was also a great man. Any one of us would have gladly given his life to save President Roosevelt, but there was nothing we could do.” Richardson stood silently for several seconds. Then he looked Starman squarely in the eye and firmly repeated his earlier request. “Please, sir, don’t cause us any trouble. If you leave now, I’ll tell the president you were here, and I’m sure that he will understand how urgently you need to see him.”

“Drop the sir,” Starman suggested. “I’m not an officer. How about calling me Duke?” Ted really enjoyed John Wayne movies.

Duke? I th–” Richardson quickly brought his hand up to his mouth and coughed, trying to hide what he had started to say. “Sure, Duke! Thanks! Makes it easier to talk friendly, doesn’t it?”

Starman thought that Richardson was a little disconcerted after almost revealing that he knew Ted’s real name. Best to push him now, before he recovered. “Much easier, John. Tell you what — I’m really not here to cause problems. Suppose you find out if the president would be willing to see me right now. If he’s asleep or won’t see me, I’ll come back later.”

Richardson knew he wouldn’t get a better deal from Starman that night. He wasn’t sure exactly how he and his men would stop the astral avenger if he had insisted. They had some surprises available, which might help, but he wasn’t anxious to find out. Besides, how could he fight a former member of the Justice Society of America?

From the president’s personal secretary, Richardson discovered that President Truman had just closed a meeting with the secretary of war, and that he would indeed see Starman for a short time. They walked out of the diplomatic reception room and into a short corridor.

At the end of corridor was a massive machine built in the shape of an arch. Beyond the arch was an armored door. Anyone who wanted to pass through the door would have to first walk through the arch.

Starman examined the machine with interest. “That looks like a pulse induction metal detector,” he commented to the agent.

“You got me, Duke. It is a metal detector, but I don’t know about the pulse induction part. Could you hand me your gravity rod and your belt and walk slowly through the machine, sir?”

Starman didn’t like giving up his gravity rod, but he realized he had little choice, if he was going to see the president tonight. He quickly touched several spots on the gravity rod, tapping in a secret deactivation code, then handed belt and rod to Agent Richardson. He realized that he was probably being filmed, and he would have to change the deactivation code tomorrow. The rod wouldn’t work again until Starman tapped in a completely different activation code. For the moment, the rod was safe with Agent Richardson.

Nothing happened as Starman passed through the arch. Richardson closely inspected his belt, particularly the buckle, and then reached around the machine to hand it back to him.

“Say, John, can that thing really tell the difference between the fillings in my teeth and my belt buckle?” Starman asked. He was starting to get an idea.

Like any master of his craft, Richardson loved to show off his tools. “Duke, it can tell the difference between a quarter and a silver dollar!” he proudly stated. He flicked a switch on the device. “Just turning off the siren. Here, catch!” And he tossed a quarter to Ted. It passed through the arch, and nothing happened. Richardson pulled a silver dollar out his pocket.

“My good luck charm,” he explained to Ted. “Don’t drop it!” As he tossed the coin through the arch, a bright red light started flashing. “If I hadn’t turned that siren off, we’d be four deep in U.S. Marines by now,” the agent said with a grin. Ted understood the unspoken message perfectly. He tossed the coin back.

Even in this weird situation — a late-night unscheduled meeting with the president — Ted Knight’s attention was strongly drawn to the metal detector. It emits a sharp radio pulse and then listens for a radio pulse echo, induced from any large enough piece of metal between the arches, he thought.

I wonder if it would be possible to refine this device so that it could distinguish between different types of metal. Suppose the pulse was composed of a wide spectrum of radio frequencies, and we used a spectrum analyzer on the echo. Would different kinds of metals echo with different frequency signatures?

Ted was completely absorbed in his new interest. Maybe I could tune the device to distinguish different metals in an alloy. In his mind, the new machine was already finished, and he was making improvements to it. For the moment, he had forgotten his meeting with the president. He realized that he may have just invented a new science — radio induction pulse spectrometry. That might be a useful feature to add to his gravity rod the next time he went to the lab.

Richardson touched his shoulder to get his attention. “Excuse me, Duke…” Ted mentally switched gears again, filing his preliminary plans for a radio induction pulse spectrometer in his mental pending basket. He returned his attention to Agent Richardson. “Sorry, John, my mind sometimes wanders.”

Agent Richardson turned off the flashing red light, then pressed a button, and the armored door slid open. President Harry S. Truman greeted them. Starman had met “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” Truman when Truman was still the vice-president, and he was shocked at how tired the president looked.

The two men, each in his own way one of the most powerful men in the world, warmly shook hands. The president offered coffee, and Starman accepted. Then they got down to business.

For about an hour, Starman did most of the talking. He spoke of his misgivings about unleashing the destructive power of the atom. He spoke of his feelings of personal responsibility for the development of the bomb. He spoke of America’s responsibilities to humanity and the world. He spoke of the awful devastation caused by the Trinity detonation. He spoke of the pain of radiation sickness, and he spoke of radiation-induced birth defects, generations after a nuclear explosion. He spoke of the glowing promise of cheap unlimited power from atomic reactors, and how that promise would be tainted if the first use of atomic power was as a weapon. He spoke of the judgment of history, on Truman and America, for the first use of such a horrible weapon. He spoke of the long-term psychological effects on the Japanese people if this weapon were to be used against them. He spoke passionately, eloquently, and with a thorough understanding of his topic.

The president listened intently. He even took some notes. He asked intelligent questions, and they discussed many of Starman’s points in depth. Ted Knight was startled to realize that, not only was the president extremely interested in what he had to say, but that they were both enjoying the discussion, the exchange of ideas, and the investigation of ideals and principals. Ted had been afraid of being ignored or, worse, dismissed out of hand.

Finally, Ted ran down. He had said what he came to say. Now it was the president’s turn.

“Son, you’ve made a powerful case. I’ve discussed this issue with some of the wisest men on Earth, and you’ve brought forth a few issues that they completely missed. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I promise you, everything we’ve discussed tonight will be considered when I do decide.

“I have some comments for you, though. I understand your misgivings and your feelings of guilt over having contributed to building the bomb. And I’m telling you, get over it! We are at war, son! We’ve all had to do things we find distasteful, or worse. That’s what war does to you. This deal about dropping in on the president of the United States unannounced after midnight? Bad idea! Don’t do it again. That is not a suggestion.

“As for you being personally responsible for the bomb, bull$#!*. Yes, you made some very valuable contributions, but do you honestly think you were the single man among the Allies who could have done those things? Even you aren’t that indispensable! Technology advances, son, are independent of any one person. If you hadn’t worked on the one aspect of the bomb that you had, it would have been someone else.

“Finally, consider this, son. The United States didn’t start this war, but it is my duty, as president, to ensure, by any way available to me, that the Allies win! I know you’ve fought the Japanese, so you must know that they would rather die than be dishonored, and that they consider surrender to be dishonorable. We must either convince them to surrender, or kill so many of them that they can no longer resist.

“We don’t want to kill them all, so we must show them that the consequences of continued war will be many times worse than any dishonor they can imagine. In the meantime, I have to protect the lives of as many Americans, and our Allies, as I can.

“Projections show that an invasion of Japan will cost us over one million Allied troops. The Japanese losses will be much greater. The islands will be devastated, and their industrial capability reduced to virtually nil. It will take them decades to rebuild, even with American help. And how many Americans will be willing to help after an invasion that costs us so much? Put aside your personal involvement with the A-bomb, son, and tell me if there is a better way than using that bomb to end this war! Believe me, if you can show me a better way, that’s what we’ll do!”

Starman realized that he still had nothing more to say. “Thanks very much for your time, Mr. President.”

“Son, remember this. No matter what I decide, it is my decision, not yours, and my responsibility, not yours! Now get your butt back to Opal City, and let me get some sleep!”

Shaking Starman’s hand, he left the room. I guess this interview is over, Ted thought as he walked out to the south lawn. Glad it’s still night, so I can fly instead of taking a train! He knew Richardson was glad to see him go.

As he later considered the night’s events, Ted Knight realized that he was very glad he wasn’t the president. Faced with a choice between over two million casualties and using the atomic bomb, would he choose right? Was there a right choice, or would he be faced with choosing the best of a bunch of wrong choices? After his long discussion with the president, Ted was sure that “Give ‘Em Hell” Harry would make the best available choice, and then do his best to cope with the consequences.

Return to chapter list