The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
In retrospect, it is apparent that the development of the atomic bomb was one of the great turning points in world history. In The Making of the Atomic Bomb, the winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award for General Nonfiction, Richard Rhodes provides a detailed account of how this came about, blending the history of science with some fascinating glimpses of how politicians in wartime viewed this new weapon. Throughout the book, Rhodes’s approach is biographical: At each major step along the way, he inserts brief vignettes about the more significant participants so that the reader is not confronted with a series of unfamiliar names. The story he tells has considerable intrinsic dramatic interest, and Rhodes skillfully builds on this in a way which should retain the interest of most readers. In addition to its narrative power, the book also suggests answers to a number of key questions: What changes in scientific theory were necessary before it was possible even to attempt to create an atomic bomb? Why did the United States rather than some other nation become the first nuclear power? What is the relationship between scientists and public policymakers in developing new weapons, and what responsibility do scientists have for the instruments of destruction they create?
Although Rhodes traces the conceptions of the atom as far back as ancient Greece and briefly sketches the history of atomic research in the early...
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World War II
World War II was waged between the Allied forces and the Axis forces in the years 1939 to 1945. The first use of the atomic bomb was instrumental in determining the outcome of the war.
World War II began on August 31, 1939, when Germany, under Adolph Hitler, invaded Poland. As a result, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. Soviet troops invaded Poland’s eastern border on September 17, and Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to divide a defeated Poland between them. By October 10, Soviet forces easily established themselves in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Meanwhile, skirmishes between British naval forces and German U-boats (submarines) took place in September and October of that year.
In February 1940, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, achieving victory by March 6. In April, Germany successfully invaded and occupied both Denmark and Norway. In May, Germany successfully invaded and occupied Belgium. From there, German troops invaded northern France, beating back French and British troops. On June 10, Italy, under Mussolini, aligned itself with Germany by declaring war on France and Great Britain. The French government surrendered to both Germany and Italy, agreeing to a partitioning of France into an occupied zone and an unoccupied zone. In July, the occupied French government, known as the Vichy, consented to the creation of a new French nation under German rule. Accordingly, France...
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Research and Sources
As a work of nonfiction, Rhodes’ success in writing The Making of the Atomic Bomb is largely due to the thoroughness and skill with which he conducted his research. Rhodes spent five years researching and writing this history, which combines information from a variety of sources. One of his sources was classified government documents, such as the FBI files that include the record of a secret investigation of Szilard, one of the scientists on the Manhattan Project. Another source was firstperson accounts by Japanese survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima, describing in graphic detail the devastation caused by the bomb. Another source was reproductions of important correspondence between scientists and politicians, such as the letter written by Einstein to the United States government, warning of the possibility of Germany building an atomic bomb. Yet another source of material Rhodes incorporates into his narrative are anecdotal accounts of private conversations between scientists involved in the Manhattan Project.
Drawing from a wide variety of source materials, Rhodes’ narrative also combines elements of a variety of genres, or categories, of nonfiction. His book is part biography, in the sense that he provides extensive biographical background on many of the scientists whose work lead up to the making of the first atomic bomb. It is partly a political history, as Rhodes describes...
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Compare and Contrast
• 1949: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is founded to create an alliance between the United States and nations of Western Europe in opposition to the military might of the Soviet Union in much of Eastern Europe.
1955: The Warsaw Pact forms a military alliance between the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations.
1963: The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, bans the testing of nuclear weapons in the earth’s atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater; it limits the testing of atomic weapons to underground sites.
1967: The Outer Space Treaty is signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and other nations; it declares that space exploration be conducted for peaceful purposes only and that no nation may claim sovereignty over the moon or any other region of outer space.
1968: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and many other nations, claims that no nation shall aid another nation that does not possess a nuclear arsenal in the development or build up of nuclear weapons.
1987: The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is signed between the United States and the Soviet Union, resulting in the dismantling of some 2,600 missiles and granting each side the right to verify and inspect compliance with...
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Topics for Further Study
• Learn more about the development of methods for harnessing nuclear power as an energy source for peaceful purposes. What scientific research resulted in the construction of nuclear power plants? When was the first nuclear power plant constructed? What types of opposition arose to the development of nuclear power plants? What is the status of nuclear energy as a peacetime power source in the United States today? What about in other nations?
• The research of many scientists throughout the first half of the twentieth century led up to the realization that an atomic bomb was possible. Pick one of these scientists from the Key Figures list in this entry, and learn more about his or her research up to 1942 when the Manhattan Project was organized. How did this scientist’s research contribute to the creation of the first atomic bomb?
• Learn more about the impact of the atomic bomb on Japan. How did the Japanese government and people respond to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the post-war years?
• What is the status of nuclear weapons in the world today? To what extent does nuclear warfare continue to be a threat to the populations of the world?
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What Do I Read Next?
• Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer (1989), by Richard Rhodes, is based on the year Rhodes spent chronicling the daily activities and financial struggles of a Missouri farm family.
• A Hole in the World: An American Boyhood (1990), by Richard Rhodes, is Rhodes’ autobiographical account of the years of abuse he and his brother suffered at the hands of their stepmother.
• Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995), by Richard Rhodes, is Rhodes’ celebrated sequel to The Making of the Atomic Bomb, in which he chronicles the research leading to the development of the first hydrogen bomb.
• Picturing the Bomb: Photographs from the Secret World of the Manhattan Project (1995), by Rachel Fermi and Esther Samra, is a photographic account of the research and testing done by the Manhattan Project during the development of the first atomic bomb.
• Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb (1995), by Ronald Takaki, is an analysis of the social, political, and historical context of the American decision to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
• Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later (1995), by Robert James Maddox, provides a discussion of the impact of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, in 1945, on politics and international relations in the late twentieth century. This book also offers a...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bennett, David, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945–1995, First Series, Gale Research, 1997, pp. 241–252.
Hershberg, James G., and James B. Conant, Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age, Stanford University Press, 1993.
Review in The Economist, Vol. 337, No. 7935, October 7, 1995, p. 99.
Review in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 40, October 2, 1995, p. 40.
Rhodes, Richard, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Schuster, 1986
Stengel, Richard, Review in Time, Vol. 146, No. 8, August 21, 1995, p. 66.
Zuckerman, Solly, Review in The New Republic, Vol. 199, No. 8, August 22, 1988, p. 38.
Allen, Thomas B., and Norman Polmar, Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Allen and Polmar discuss United States military strategy in respect to President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Alperovitz, Gar, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, Knopf, 1995. Alperovitz presents a critical historical perspective on the United States military strategy and international relations with the Allied nations during World War II in respect to the dropping of the atomic...
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
Booklist. LXXXIII, January 15, 1987, p. 730.
Chicago Tribune. February 1, 1987, XIV, p. 1.
Kirkus Reviews. LIV, December 15, 1986, p. 1845.
Library Journal. CXII, March 1, 1987, p. 84.
National Review. XXXIX, February 27, 1987, p. 48.
The New York Times Book Review. XCII, February 8, 1987, p. 1.
Newsweek. CIX, March 2, 1987, p. 72.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, January 16, 1987, p. 66.
Time. CXXIX, March 23, 1987, p. 84.
The Washington Post Book World. XVII, February 15, 1987, p. 1.
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