The Bomb

Gerard J. DeGroot’s The Bomb: A Life is a political history of nuclear weaponry which is likely to delight readers who disapprove of the bomb and its masters, the United States government in particular. For the same reason DeGroot’s tone, bitingly witty upon occasion, may disaffect defenders of these weapons. In both cases the effect would be unfortunately diverting. Even though the Cold War and its rationale for nuclear deterrence are history, the bomb remains an appalling threat deserving of sober consideration. DeGroot recognizes this and discusses the dangers, past and present, generally with insight and balance. The passages in which he lets his indignation burst forth as sarcasm and name-calling distract from his argument.

DeGroot persuasively answers some very intriguing questions. Did the atomic bomb need to be developed? Did nuclear policy in the United States and the Soviet Union avert a major war? Did the members of the “nuclear club” really need so many nuclear weapons during the Cold War? What were the costs?

The costs are worth bearing in mind as the reader progresses through the book. There are many, but aside from political consequences the principal costs are psychological, medical, environmental, and economic. DeGroot’s well-documented discussions of these alone make the book worth reading. Take the economic toll, for example. Near the end of the last chapter he cites a Brookings Institution estimate of the monetary cost to the United States since the bomb’s birth: $5.8 trillion. The figure is breathtaking, overwhelming, but by that point in the narrative readers will probably have become so thoroughly shocked by the other costs as to be desensitized to the moneyand how it might have been used for other purposes.

Among the psychological costs is damage to the reputation of scientists. Before World War II, physicists and chemists, DeGroot points out, were as little likely to change the world as medieval historians. That altered during the 1930’s, and scientists lost their political innocence. Leading physicists, such as Enrico Fermi and Otto Hahn, came to realize that the atom could be split and in the process a great amount of energy released. German scientists working under the Nazi government took the lead in exploring the possibility.

That they might succeed so worried physicists Leo Szilard and Edward Teller that they visited Albert Einstein in 1939 and urged him to write a letter of warning to President Franklin Roosevelt. Einstein did so, and his prestige as the world’s greatest physicist nudged the U.S. government into action; it launched its own atomic bomb program, the Manhattan Project. From the start some scientists had misgivings about placing a super-powerful weapon in the hands of the military, but they put qualms aside as World War II initially went badly for the Allies, and rumors suggested the German bomb program was well advanced.

By the time intelligence reports proved that the German program had fizzled in 1943, the Manhattan project was not only under way; it was also the biggest scientific research effort ever created, and its momentum carried it beyond the initial motivation to beat the Germans to the bomb. Moreover, DeGroot establishes that from the very beginning the bomb was meant to be used. It was never intended as a symbol or deterrent. Politicians thought of it as just another weapon, despite the dire warnings of scientists, many of whom believed it would end the war early.

When decision time came after the successful test in New Mexico in 1945, President Harry Truman did not hesitate. He ordered atomic bombs dropped on Japan in hopes of scaring the imperial military into surrender and thereby avoiding an invasion, which was expected to kill tens of thousands on both sides. Military leaders supported Truman’s reasoning, although some were more interested in revenge for Pearl Harbor and the Bataan death march. Afterward Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, and many of his fellow scientists felt both pride at their achievement and horror at its destructive power. Concurrently, the world recognized that scientific genius was a profoundly mixed blessing; the desire to participate in cutting-edge research could lure scientists into moral dilemmas.

According to DeGroot, however, ending World War II quickly was not Truman’s only...

(The entire section is 1795 words.)