On an October day 81 years ago, a momentous letter was delivered to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Penned by Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and signed by Albert Einstein, it was a stark warning regarding humankind’s future. The contents of the letter spoke of the possibility of a weapon of such immense power, capable of such terrifying destruction, that it must never come into the hands of an evil power. That the Nazis knew of such a weapon and were thought to be in the process of developing it, spurred the Allies into action. That weapon was the atomic bomb and the “action” was the start of a program of intense research into nuclear fission in the United States. Informally and in secrecy, in the autumn of 1939, the Manhattan Project was born. The world has lived under an atomic shadow ever since.
Much new writing and research has been done in recent years regarding the development and use of the first atomic bomb. After German and Soviet archives were opened in the early 1990s, it was revealed that the Nazis resolutely did not have the capacity for developing nuclear weapons and many among the Allied top command knew this very early in the war. “Fallout, Conspiracy, Cover-up, and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb” by Peter Watson dismantles the widely held belief that the Manhattan Project was purely a race against the Nazis. Several scientists and army engineers working on the project, including General Leslie Groves, knew that there was another far-reaching objective: to intimidate and eventually beat out the brutal Stalinist Soviet regime in the nuclear arms race. “Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World” by Chris Wallace explores not so much the “why” behind the use of the atomic bomb as the “how.” Although covering previously well-trod territory, the book nonetheless reads like a fast-moving piece of historical fiction at times. To this day, it is stunning that the U.S. and its ragtag band of scientists could develop a doomsday machine and utilize it within such a short time frame.
Nuclear research in the early 1940s was far-reaching and a multibillion-dollar venture. The bomb used against Japan at Nagasaki, “Fat Man,” was the product of an elaborate physics experiment carried out in the Eastern Washington desert that created our first human-made element: plutonium. “Fat Man“ was of a completely different character than the “Little Boy” dropped on Hiroshima, which was a uranium-based bomb. Plutonium would, in fact, be the basis for most future bombs developed during the Cold War and it was a far more deadly and radioactive element than uranium. “The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age” by Steve Olson examines the development of this element and its further processing and use at the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Washington state. Few places on earth are as badly contaminated as the Hanford site; a large percentage of the nuclear waste that the Department of Energy currently deals with is encapsulated in this 500-square-mile area.
The Allies tried to destroy Nazi atomic research at every opportunity. “The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb” by Sam Kean is about the cast of characters that made up this oddball group. Much of the book is devoted to a stranger-than-fiction character named Moe Berg; a onetime professional baseball player and polyglot who also happened to be Jewish and passionate about fighting the Nazi regime. Because of his facility with the German language and his undeniable charm, Berg was enlisted to spy on the Nazi bomb architect Werner Heisenberg in 1943 and 1944 and tasked with his assassination. That opportunity never came, and it is now surmised that Heisenberg, who was anti-Nazi and yet devoutly pro-German, intentionally misled Hitler in his quest for the bomb. “The Bastard Brigade” also speaks to the bravery that was exhibited by Allied forces tasked with sabotage. Many lives were lost in the raids on the Vemork “heavy water” processing plant in Norway, which produced a crucial ingredient in atomic experiments.
Fortunately for humankind, the horrors of atomic warfare have only been experienced in two fell swoops, 75 years ago during a fateful week in early August of 1945. John Hersey’s extraordinary work, “Hiroshima,” is still a powerful and horrifying testament to the carnage of nuclear war. Told in a dispassionate, workmanlike style that underscores its great utility as an early primary document (it was originally published in serial form in The New Yorker), the book remains a bestseller. The world still contains over 15,000 warheads with the power to destroy entire hemispheres. “Hiroshima” should be required reading.