Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes)

I came to The Making of the Atomic bomb sideways, after reading a brief review of Rhodes’s new Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race that mentioned this earlier book, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1988. I wasn’t entirely prepared for the size of it—886 pages, not including three photo-insert sections (see picture)—but given the scope of what Rhodes has done here, in retrospect it could hardly have been any shorter.

The book is much, much more than a recounting of the Manhattan Project in the United States—which, in fact, isn’t even first mentioned (at least by that name) until page 449. Its first several hundred pages are devoted to the birth of the science of the atom, and how physicists at the beginning of the twentieth century—Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, and many others—worked to uncover its structure and components. Like other great scientific histories, it reads almost like a detective story, with all the same suspense, false turns, and red herrings along the way. As the United States enters the war and the urgency behind the bomb project increases, Rhodes also provides an almost mini-history of the war itself. It’s a tremendous, completely absorbing read, with an almost novelistic approach to detail and character, and whatever quibbles I had as I read it pale in comparison with its unqualified success as a whole.

An epigraph quoting Robert Oppenheimer at the beginning of Part 1 encapsulates one of the central themes of the book:

It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.

Rhodes might equally say that the atomic bomb was not made because it was useful; it was made because it was possible to make it. Once a few basic facts had been established—that heavy atoms could be split, that doing so released energy orders of magnitude greater than any conventional chemical reaction, and that the 235 isotope of uranium could potentially provide the material for a chain reaction of fissioning atoms—making the bomb was practically inevitable:

Patriotism contributed to many decisions, but a deeper motive among the physicists, by the measure of their statements, was fear—fear of German triumph, fear of a thousand-year Reich made invulnerable with atomic bombs. And deeper even than fear was fatalism. The bomb was latent in nature as a genome is latent in flesh. Any nation might learn to command its expression. The race was therefore not merely against Germany. As Roosevelt apparently sensed, the race was against time.

Many of the scientists involved were naturally ambivalent about what they were doing, but the knowledge that someone, someday, would make such a bomb meant that they had little choice but to barrel ahead, particularly since at the time it was not at all clear how long the war might drag on, and the bomb seemed a legitimate way that they might help shorten it. And, of course, they were all drawn to the scientific problems as a challenge to be overcome; the technical hurdles to overcome were formidable and, therefore, must have been tremendously satisfying to overcome even in service of a weapon of terrible (and terribly inhumane) power.

That it would be used at least once was, in its own way, as inevitable as the building of the bomb in the first place—some even arguing that it must be used against Japan simply to justify the enormous expenditures of resources and personnel the United States had devoted to building it. (As French chemist Bernard Goldschmidt put it in his memoir, the project amounted to “the astonishing American creation in three years, at a cost of two billion dollars, of a formidable array of factories and laboratories—as large as the entire automobile industry of the United States at that time.”) Others argued that it should be used simply to demonstrate its power. Everyone could see that such a weapon was going to cause a major shift in world politics, with the more idealistic of the scientists hoping that it would ultimately lead to the end of war—and a visceral example of the terrible consequences of its use, some hoped, might shock the world onto a more peaceful course. As Rhodes describes it, it may ultimately have been dropped because of an error—a slip of the tongue by Franklin Roosevelt in a speech in which he accidentally used the phrase “unconditional surrender” in describing Allied demands for the end of the war. That subsequently became official Allied policy in part because Winston Churchill didn’t want the Allies to appear disorganized or confused in their goals. And because Japan was prepared to fight to the death before offering unconditional surrender, ultimately using the bomb seemed like the only way to stave off a wholesale invasion of the Japan at the cost of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of lives.

The descriptions of the aftermath at Hiroshima were tremendously difficult to read. Rhodes retreats to the background in favor of the voices of those who were there, quoting, page after page, short passages from memoirs and oral histories and later studies of the bomb’s brutal devastation: Hiroshima not as a land of the dead and the living, but as a land of the dead and the walking dead. It’s deeply affecting, and throws everything that has come before it—all the basic science, all the technical problems, all the fears about Germany and Japan that drove the project from start to finish—into sharp perspective: ultimately, this was the result of all that work over the decades, a hellish, blasted place of unimaginable suffering.

The paradox, of course, is that despite the horrific outcome, it’s difficult to second-guess the reasoning that drove the project and the bomb’s eventual use. If the United States hadn’t made it, the bomb may have ended up in Stalin’s hands, without an equally matched opponent as counterweight for the Cold War. The bomb was coming; the tragedy was that the only question was who would have it, and how they would or would not use it. At one point, midway through the war, General Leslie Groves, the thoroughly competent military head of the bomb project, “proposed to the Military Policy Committee that the United States attempt to acquire total control of all the world’s known supplies of uranium ore”:

That uranium is common in the crust of the earth to the extend of millions of tons Groves may not have known. In 1943, when the element in useful concentrations was thought to be rare, the general, acting on behalf of the nation to which he gave unquestioning devotion, exercised himself to hoard for his country’s exclusive use every last pound. He might as well have tried to hoard the sea.

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