Atom Bomb Baby

I see that Richard Rhodes’s Making of the Atom Bomb is now a quarter century old. James Davis Nicoll pens a good review of the anniversary edition. I second his memories of The Bomb in the 1980s.


Rhodes makes the sensible decision not to begin his story with Einstein’s letter, say, or Lise Meitner’s discovery of fission, which might support the model of nuclear weapons as this extraordinary thing that appeared due to a very specific and unlikely set of circumstances. Instead, he devotes almost three hundred pages of the book to the history of the intertwined fields of chemistry and physics in the early 20th century.

Nuclear weapons are not an anomaly that we could have avoided if only one or two people kept their mouth shut. They fall naturally out of modern physics. The moment it became obvious Newtonian physics was incomplete, the first step towards the destruction of Hiroshima had been taken.

The section takes its title from a Robert Oppenheimer quotation:

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

Although the author does touch on the Japanese and German nuclear weapons program, the primary focus here is on the Allied nuclear weapons program and its growth and transformation from the cause of a few highly motivated physicists to a Brobdingnagian military research program.

The Allied nuclear weapons program became dominated by the US for a number of reasons. Although in no way a happy clappy utopia of racial tolerance, the US did not self-sabotage its intellectual efforts the way the Fascists did. As well, the US dominated the global economy in a way that makes its current impressive position look like a decline. With half or more (depending on how much of Europe had been bombed flat at the time in question) of global production, the US could bring resources to bear on the difficult question of how to make a nuclear weapons no other power could match. As it was, even the impressive array of brilliant people and the massive quantities of resources the US and lesser allies threw at the problem only barely managed to produce a handful of functioning nuclear weapons by the end of the Second World War.

Duplicating the efforts of the Manhattan District was a lesser problem, of course, not least because despite the fact the people running it went to absurd lengths to compartmentalize the project to maintain control of its secrets, other powers soon got their hands on the Manhattan District’s information. The fact that atomic weapons were possible at all was itself an important revelation.

In retrospect, the German program, which the Allies sensibly made a point of handicapping when ever they could, was very unlikely to produce working atomic bombs and the Japanese were even less likely but there’s no way the allies could have known that in 1939.

Unfortunately for Japan, by the time the Manhattan District produced working nuclear weapons, the Germans who provoked their creation had collapsed, leaving only Japan as a possible target. Even worse for Japan, it seemed entirely reasonable in light of what was known in 1945 that getting them to surrender unconditionally through conventional means would be very expensive for both sides. Even worse for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the people behind the Bomb had very particular requirements for the targets that only a short list of Japanese cities had. In particular a full understanding of the effects of atomic weapons demanded that the cities be as pristine, as undamaged as possible, and by late 1945, very few Japanese cities had not been bombed and burned. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were among the few cities suitable to needs.

On August 6th, 1945, the Americans dropped a nuclear device on Hiroshima. Since Japan did not then surrender, the Americans then atom bombed Nagasaki on August 9th. Even though the atomic bombs used were laughably puny by modern standards, many tens of thousands died immediately; more tens of thousands died after protracted suffering. Rhodes does his best to convey the reality to his readers.

There were some odd moments in this – Rhodes gives a number for the Japanese population that I am told means he counted the whole of their empire, which I guess is fair enough, and I believe the explanation for the Reichstag Fire he prefers is a minority view – but on the whole this seems solid enough.

Originally published in 1986, the copy I have is the 25th edition from 2012. Context matters: when Rhodes began work on this in the 1970s, the US under Carter and the Soviet Union under whichever doddering old fool it was that week had cast aside the illusion of detente for franker rivalry. Rhodes was baffled why the two great powers had armed themselves with so many nuclear weapons, far more than seemed necessary to reduce the other to a memory. This turned into an examination of the creation of nuclear weapons in the first place.

This was not published until the 1980s, when… life involved waking up each morning knowing that the difference between living or being burned to a cinder in a nuclear holocaust was dependent on the good judgment of a senile actor and his coterie of End of Days-obsessed religious fanatics on one hand and a paranoid gerontocracy with a history of genocidal violence on the other. A certain amount of tension seemed justified to some, although a more reasonable approach was to cheerfully embrace the realities of the Cold War.

A quarter century later, Rhodes still sees nuclear weapons, even comparatively small arsenals, as a potential existential threat to humanity but universal disarmament may not seem impossible to a happy few despite the fact that the number of nuclear armed nations grew from eight in 1986 to nine in the 21st century. With the great rivalry between Russia and the US forever a thing of the past, surely nuclear fears could also some day be consigned to history? Obviously not but optimists can dream.

It may be that the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition will be somewhat less optimistic than the introduction to the 25th. Although there being a 50th anniversary edition at all would itself be an indication we’re still keeping all the plates in the air. There’s no reason to think we won’t, despite the slow, inexorable spread of nuclear weapons: in theory you can roll dice an indefinite number of times without ever getting snake eyes.

Just two more nuclear-armed non-signatories of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the majority of nuclear-armed powers will be non-signatories. Won’t that be a special day?