Sunday, April 17, 2005

'>THE BOMB: A Life
by Gerard J. DeGroot
Harvard University Press 432 pages, $27.95

by William S. Kowinski

Gerard DeGroot includes a number of eyewitness descriptions of nuclear explosions, which bring the march of names, facts, lies, rationales and theories in this relentless history back to human reality, if only for a moment at a time. The largest hydrogen bomb explosion to that date---twice as large as expected---took place on Bikini Island in 1954. From a U.S. Navy destroyer thirty miles away, Marshall Rosenbluth watched the fireball: "rising and rising, spreading...It looked to me like what you might imagine a diseased brain, or a brain of some mad man would look like...And it just kept getting bigger and bigger..."

DeGroot, Professor of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, writes with grace and economy of a 60-year history still unfolding. Besides his admirable summations and deft narratives based on many long-available sources, he was able to add descriptions of the Russian bomb program and other details that have emerged in recent years (some crucial information about nuclear missiles already in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was only revealed in the late 1990s.) Although always ready to call a lie a lie (and there were many), and to name insane policies for what they were, he also provides the reader with enough well-organized facts in convincingly developed contexts to allow everyone to form their own impressions.

The pre-history of the bomb is fascinating. In the mid-1930s, few physicists had even thought about an atomic bomb, or if they had, believed one was possible; or if they believed it was theoretically possible, that it could be made a practical reality. But between 1938 and the autumn of 1941, the bomb went from a weird notion to a massive research and development program in the U.S., and lesser but still significant programs in Germany and the USSR. Eventually there was even a small program in Japan.

That Germany didn't develop the bomb is the most resonant story. Most advanced physics was being done in Europe, and most of that in Germany, until 1933, when Hitler directed that non-Aryans be fired from civil service jobs, which included universities and scientific institutes. Eleven physicists who had won or would win Nobel Prizes were dismissed. Around 100 German physicists, most of them Jews, wound up in the U.S. by 1941. They not only provided the scientific talent but a lot of the motivation for the U.S. bomb program.

But even after Hitler had gotten rid of Jewish practitioners of the "Jew science" of physics, it was a German physicist who had the key insight that for the first time revealed that the atomic bomb was possible. But no one listened. In 1934, Ida Noddack suggested that some puzzling results of an experiment conducted by Enrico Fermi in Italy might be explained by nuclear fission. But Noddack was not well-known, and she was a woman. (In '>The Big Bang, Simon Singh reveals many contributions of women in physics and astronomy through the years, though they didn't get much credit.)

It wasn't until 1938 that Fermi himself figured it out, but even then it took another physicist, Leo Szilard, to understand the implications. He knew immediately that the atomic bomb was possible, because he had already read about it, and how it was developed and used in warfare. It was all in a novel by H.G. Wells, written in 1914, including its name: the atomic bomb. Szilard also realized, from his reading of Wells, that if knowledge of fission and the bomb got into the wrong hands, it could mean the end of civilization.

Szilard won the Nobel Prize in 1938, and after picking up the award in Sweden, he and his wife emigrated to America. In addition to his own researches, Szilard was instrumental in first, getting U.S. and British physicists to stop publishing anything about fission, and then getting Albert Einstein to write his famous letter to FDR, and to enlist other influential people in convincing the U.S. government to develop the bomb before Hitler did.

But as DeGroot shows, the letter was so circumspect, and Szilard, Einstein and other physicists so unable to express in plain language the possible implications, that the American government dragged its feet. Hitler had been given such a clear paragraph, and he started the German program. What convinced FDR was not Einstein's letter but a story, a metaphor. Alexander Sachs was an international financier and friend of Einstein, who got the letter to FDR, but in a later meeting with FDR he simply told a story about a young American inventor who went to Napoleon during wartime and offered his invention, which the emperor turned down. The inventor was James Watt, the invention the steam engine. This got Roosevelt's attention.

The story of the bomb is replete with the tricks of fate and power of metaphor, including some forty years later, when Ronald Reagan finally committed to nuclear arms reductions with the Soviets after seeing the TV movie, '>"The Day After," that depicted the impact of a nuclear strike on families in Kansas.

There is no more powerful and defining story of the past 60 years as well as the world we live in as the story of the Bomb. Though the lethal effects of radioactivity were denied for decades, and the extent of cancers and genetic malformations suffered across America as a result of nuclear tests are still obscured, the bomb settled deeply into our national unconscious, and helped define our feelings about our leaders, about science and scientists, and about the future, or lack thereof.

The Bomb has remained in the national unconscious not only because so much about it is impossible for the rational mind to absorb or the psyche to comprehend, but because of the lies and misinformation. In 1971 Richard Nixon prevented crucial information from reaching the Supreme Court so they would not interfere with the largest bomb ever exploded within the U.S. at Amchitka island in Alaska. Radioactive elements from that explosion were still leaking into the Bering Sea by 1996.

In just a few weeks, diplomats from around the world will gather in New York to discuss the nuclear non-proliferation agreements that U.S. policy now endanger. Some observers expect proliferation to grow substantially as a result of this treaty's failure. Perhaps because visible testing ended decades ago, and the Hiroshima photos are in black and white, Americans don't seem to fear nuclear weapons anymore as beyond the pale. Yet one expert estimates the chances of a nuclear weapon exploding in an American city in the present decade at 50%. This book is essential in more than the classroom.

There are also new books on two of the best-known scientists associated with the Bomb. '>EDWARD TELLER: The Real Dr. Strangelove'> by Peter Goodchild (Harvard University Press) is a careful, detailed biography of the most frightening figure of the atomic age, because he was the most successful in convincing important people and a large segment of the public for a very long time that he was brilliant and trustworthy and courageous, when he was paranoid, dishonest and incapable in the extreme. As the chief model for Dr. Strangelove, Teller was a figure of parody, but in an age that produced Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and such lesser- known demonical liars as General Leslie Groves (who ran the U.S. Bomb program for years), he emerges as the era's best argument for the existence of Satan.

I haven't had the opportunity to see '>AMERICAN PROMETHEUS: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (Knopf), but my virtual colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Elizabeth Svoboda, found that this this 721 page biography of the director of the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos laboratories has much to say about the shifting "uneasy partnership between science and politics in America."

While DeGroot's new book takes a comprehensive view of the Bomb's history, there are many worthy books that examine specific facets. One that I particularly admire is '>NO PLACE TO HIDE '>by David Bradley (University Press of New England, 1984) which combines his eyewitness account of the "Crossroads" atomic bomb tests in 1946---of particular interest to me since I was born on the day of the first explosion---with more recent data on the health effects of these and other tests, contrasting with all the lies told to the American people by Leslie Groves and others. The combination is instructive on many levels.

DeGroot writes about the most significant of the many books, movies and television programs that make up an important part of the Atomic Age history, and there are many other books that deal with just these aspects. I still admire'> NUCLEAR FEAR by Spencer Weart (Harvard, 1988)for its thoroughness and insights, though I don't always agree with his conclusions.

Finally, we must not forget that The Bomb was used as a bomb, and may be again. Therefore, Sven Lindquist's '>A HISTORY OF BOMBING (The New Press) remains essential reading.

No comments: