Forty years into the nuclear age, the search into the origins of the atomic bomb continues. Natural fascination has something to do with it, for there may be a shred of insight not yet gleaned from the oft-told tale of the mobilization of scientists in the 1940s that produced the first bomb. The names are familiar. The outline of the tale remains the same. And the outcome is known. But our appetite for more on this subject appears never to be satisfied. Peter Wyden has taken his turn at telling the story of the development of the bomb and has produced an absorbing account that synthesizes the political, technical and human side of this well-known story.
Meticulous research included visits to Hiroshima and to other sites along with interviews of those still living who contributed to the Manhattan project. The world of heroes and villains that underlies most of the early postwar accounts of the Los Alamos scene give way here to a more believable picture of power grabs, sense of duty and plain lack of understanding of what was going on among the physicists and policy makers who collectively brought about the first nuclear war.
It is the shift of control as the A-bomb project matured that makes the most interesting reading. First the physicists led by J. Robert Oppenheimer and his band of devoted followers, the giants of 20th-century physics, were given open-ended budgets and manpower to produce a workable bomb, culminating in the first successful Trinity shot in July 1945. The military administrators even winked at what would ordinarily constitute security clearance difficulties for key scientific players, most notably Oppenheimer. When the details of targeting against Japan came up, a group of these very same scientists was naturally called on to work out the tactics. Wyden does a sound job of explaining all of this; why the height of the burst was planned the way it was, and how Hiroshima itself was chosen for unfortunate historical significance.
But decisions seemed to slip away from the physicists as policy makers in Washington saw the A-bomb as a war winner. When it came to policy matters, such as whether there should be a demonstration attack or advance ultimatums given to Tokyo, the politicians weren't as deferential to the physicists. What's more, the politicians had a much better sense of how to get things done, or not done, inside the government. Some of the scientists tried to obtain greater policy say and to put before the government potential long-term consequences of the bomb. Niels Bohr, the discoverer of atomic structure and consultant to the Manhattan project, finagled a meeting with President Roosevelt. Leo Szilard drafted a letter in March 1945 for Albert Einstein to send to the White House: Szilard "now is greatly concerned about the lack of adequate contact between scientists who are doing this secret nuclear work and those members of your cabinet who are responsible for formulating policy."
Wyden lucidly describes how some of the scientists became aroused -- especially after the defeat of Germany, whose possible development of a Nazi bomb got many of them involved in the project in the first place -- but to little avail. The politicians had their own world and, in addition, incipient protests were dampened by many of the key scientists themselves, most especially Oppenheimer, who, in Szilard's view, "would not resist using the bomb after working so hard to give it life; Oppie had acquired a stake in displaying his weapon's terrible potency on a Japanese city." Robert Wilson, recruited by Oppenheimer, described why Oppenheimer was so deferential to the military administrators, most notably the dictatorial Leslie R. Groves, saying that the government "has so much on him" that Oppenheimer was afraid of getting into security trouble.
Years later Wilson remembered the entire Manhattan experience, with its technical obstacles and the attempts of scientists to enter policy matters, and even the question of why he did not simply walk away from the project after the defeat of Germany by saying, "It simply was not in the air, our life was directed to do one thing, it was as though we'd been programmed to do that. We were the heroes of our epic and there was no turning back." How inevitable it all seems in retrospect. Peter Wyden's account is sure to open old wounds, but his contribution to our understanding of the beginnings of how we got to where we are in today's nuclear world is commendable and well worth reading.