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Book review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

There is so much that is wonderful — and scary — in Richard Rhodes’ 1986 history of the creation of nuclear weapons, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.”

For me, the single most important sentence is on page 645: “No one should presume to judge these men as they struggled with a future that even a mind as fundamental as Niels Bohr’s could only barely imagine.”

That sentence is important because, in the hands of a lesser writer and lesser historian, this book would have turned into a blame-fest.

Not that Rhodes doesn’t allot responsibility. Indeed, immediately after that sentence, Rhodes notes that Robert Oppenheimer, in a committee meeting of U.S. policy-makers on the question of international control of nuclear weapons, failed to adequately explain Bohr’s position.

Rhodes makes clear that, of all the people involved in one way or the other with the birth of the atomic bomb, Bohr was best able to see over the horizon and realize that, if the U.S. dropped the bomb during World War II and tried to keep a monopoly of the weapon, the result would be an arms race.

That arms race, he foresaw, between the United States and the U.S.S.R. would lead to the manufacture and targeting of hundreds of nuclear weapons, all exceedingly more powerful than the bombs eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It would place a pall over the entire human race — a threat of extinction by ourselves.

And so it did.

And so it has remained, even as the U.S.S.R. has broken apart, and, now, here in our nation, we are still in grave danger of total destruction — without knowing exactly who in Russia or wherever else in that former Communist union now controls the thermonuclear missiles.

So, yeah, Rhodes shows that Oppenheimer and the other American leaders failed. That they didn’t have the imagination to see the need for and push to fruition an international mechanism to control — i.e., not permit to be made — nuclear weapons.

It might have been impossible, given human nature and the drive to power and the fear of risk.

An effort could have been made. Should have been made. As a species, we are the worse for not having tried. Indeed, we could through the ignorance, ambition or error of just one person destroy our race.

Yet, there is that sentence.

Rhodes lays it all out so that, even if at times lost amid the scientific details of the atom-bomb effort, the reader can’t help but understand, especially by page 645, what the implications are of Truman’s decision to go ahead and use the weapon.

Yet, he also brings all of the hundreds of characters involved in the story alive. They are not machines, but thinking, feeling, searching people. No one — except for Hitler and the Nazis, and perhaps Winston Churchill (because of his carpet bombing strategy) — is portrayed as evil.

Rhodes shows them grappling with a scientific insight that leads, seemingly inexorably, to the dropping of the bomb on the two Japanese cities.

He shows that Bohr’ insight was right. But he also knows, and brings the reader to know, that these were people who were making this effort and coming to this decision.

He doesn’t pull punches. Neither does he demonize.

That’s what makes this such a great book. Rhodes has taken all of the strands of the story and woven them together by always focusing on the human beings.

It is, in its way, several books at once. A book detailing each of the scientific breakthroughs, inspirations, experiments and speculations that led to the splitting of the atom and then, at the University of Chicago, the achievement of a chain reaction. (I must admit that I read every word of these scientific sections, but only understood a bit. It’s due to Rhodes’ skill as a writer that I got even that much.)

It’s also a book about the massive secret U.S. effort to build the bomb. And a book about the nature of the scientific community and how its openness initially pushed the effort along and then how such openness had to be eliminated out of fear that the Germans or Japanese or Russians would produce a bomb before the U.S.

And a book about the escalation of war on civilian populations which set the stage for the use of the two atom bombs in Japan.

And a heart-rending book on the massacre and painful sufferings that the bombs inflicted in, essentially, erasing two cities of the face of the earth.

For about 35 pages, Rhodes recounts descriptions of the bombing from the vantage of the residents of those cities and of the horrendous pain and suffering that survivors underwent in the hours, weeks and months afterward.

But he is particularly eloquent about those who died:

The world of the dead is a different place from the world of the living and it is hardly possible to visit there. That day in Hiroshima the two worlds nearly converged. ‘The inundation with death of the area closes to the hypocenter,’ writes the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who interviewed survivors at length, ‘ was such that if a man survived within a thousand meters (0.6 miles) and was out of doors…more than nine tenths of the people around him were fatalities.’ Only the living, however inundated, can describe the dead; but where death claimed nine out of ten or, closer to the hypocenter, ten out of ten, a living voice describing necessarily distorts. Survivors are like us; but the dead are radically changed, without voice or civil rights or recourse. Along with their lives they have been deprived of participation in the human world. ‘There was a fearful silence which made one feel that all people and all trees and vegetation were dead,’ remembers Yoko Ota, a Hiroshima writer who survived. The silence was the only sound the dead could make….They were nearer to the center of the event; they died because they were members of a different polity and their killing did not therefore count officially as murder; their experience most accurately models the worst case of our common future. They numbered in the majority in Hiroshima that day.”

Those dead will be the human race someday. At least, that’s the thought that’s hard to escape after reading this book.

We have gone half a century without killing ourselves. Can we go another 50 without an accident starting things? Another 100 or 500 or 1,000?

Rhodes notes that the basis for Bohr’s effort on behalf of international control of nuclear weapons was an insight the scientist described this way: “We are in a completely new situation that cannot be resolved by war.”

We have been in that situation for half a century — and we haven’t had another world war.

In the 30 years previous to the dropping of the bombs, the human race had had two world wars.

Maybe we can continue our balancing act.

We can only hope.


Patrick T. Reardon

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