Friday, October 30, 2009

DBTL 46B: Three Days in October - Ultimatum

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. In the absence of our timeline's Manhattan Project, nuclear weapons have been developed independently in Italy, France, Great Britain, and the Polish Commonwealth. To avoid a European nuclear arms race, the four nations join together in September 1946 to create the Atomic Control Commission, tasked with maintaining a global monopoly on nuclear weapons. Now that monopoly is being threatened . . .

Washington DC, USA
14 October 1949

In the last thirteen years, President Edward Raczyński of the Polish Commonwealth had gained a reputation as the most persuasive statesman in the world. In 1936, as the Polish ambassador to the Court of St. James, he had persuaded a reluctant Stanley Baldwin to declare war on Germany. In 1944, as the Polish Foreign Minister, he had persuaded a reluctant Konoe Fumimaro to declare war on the USSR. Two years ago, as the Polish Prime Minister, he had persuaded a most reluctant Antanas Merkys to rejoin the Polish Commonwealth. Now the recently-elected Polish President was in Washington, and Alben Barkley had a pretty good idea who would be next on Raczyński's list.

Of course, it was just coincidence that Raczyński happened to be in Washington at this particular time. Wasn't it? After all, practically every head of state or head of government in the world was here to pay their last respects to the recently departed former president Franklin Roosevelt. The fact that it was also ten days before the scheduled detonation of America's first atom bomb in the New Mexico desert couldn't possibly be involved.

There was no question that FDR's stroke had been the result of natural causes. Barkley was absolutely sure of that, having seen the autopsy report himself. So there wasn't a chance in hell that Raczyński had come here to Washington just to talk to Barkley about the secret atom bomb project at Los Alamos.

Barkley had told himself that a hundred times, and he still didn't believe it. Raczyński was here about the Bomb.

Still, even though Raczyński had requested a private meeting with Barkley, there was no need for Barkley to agree. It might be discourteous as all hell, but he could still give Raczyński the bum's rush if he wanted to. It wasn't like Raczyński would have raised a big stink about it if he did.

But that wasn't really the way Barkley did business. Much as he had admired FDR's political skills, he had no desire to emulate his predecessor's devious habits. If Raczyński wanted to talk, then Barkley was prepared to listen.

The oval office would have been a more impressive setting, but it was just a bit too public for a nice private meeting between two statesmen, so Barkley met Raczyński alone in his secretary's office. The Polish President was wearing a dark blue suit with a red-and-white striped tie. The two men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, sat down in a couple of nondescript wooden chairs, and got down to business.

Raczyński reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out some folded up sheets of paper. When Barkley unfolded them, he was not entirely surprised to find himself looking at a copy of a report from General Groves that had crossed his desk four days earlier. The original, he knew, was sitting inside a manila envelope in a wall safe in his private quarters not a hundred feet from where he was sitting.

"In ten days," Raczyński said in his musical, moderately accented voice, "your country intends to set off an atomic bomb, in direct contravention of the League monopoly on atomic power."

"Mr. President," said Barkley, "as you know perfectly well, the United States is not a member of the League of Nations, is not party to any agreements reached by the League, and consequently is not bound by any agreements reached by the League."

Raczyński was slowly shaking his head. "Mr. President, although the League has been vested with sole control over the production and use of atomic power, through the agency of the Atomic Control Commission, the government of the Polish Commonwealth does not regard this control as limited only to the production and use of atomic power by League members, nor do the governments of the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Italy, or the Republic of France. We regard this control as being exercised over the production and use of all atomic power, everywhere in the world, by both League members and non-members."

Raczyński gave a slight smile then. "After all, it would hardly be much of a monopoly if we let anyone ignore it who wanted to."

Barkley kept his own face expressionless. "Mr. President, it would be an unendurable abrogation of our national sovereignty if we were to allow the other nations of the world, individually or in combination, to dictate to us on matters of our own national defense."

Now Raczyński's face became equally expressionless. "Mr. President, the forces which have been let loose upon our world are too powerful to be allowed to remain the sole property of any one nation. We are prepared to use any means at our disposal to prevent that from happening. If you do not declare your nation's willingness to abide by the terms of the Geneva Accord within forty-eight hours, it will be the duty of the Atomic Control Commission to prevent your nation from making any unauthorized use of atomic power."

"Is that your final word, Mr. President?" said Barkley.

"It is," said Raczyński.

"Then this conversation is at an end."

Raczyński sat and stared at Barkley for a long moment before standing up. He turned and walked with steady calm from the office, closing the door carefully behind him.

Alben Barkley, sitting alone, feeling every second of his seventy-one years, let his head fall forward into his hands. The next two days, he knew, would be the longest of his life.

(to be continued)

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