Richard Rhodes’s Making of the Atomic Bomb is not for everyone.
For starters, it’s long – really, really long. It’s also fantastically dense, serving as not only a history of the atomic bomb but also as a history of nuclear science, anti-Semitism in eastern Europe, and of World War II. And it can be a slog – at times, a hard read and a boring one to boot.
But it is the book to read if you want to learn about, well, the making of the atomic bomb and the Manhattan Project.
For that reason, writing a review of it is pretty much unnecessary: either you’re the type of person to read this book, or you’re not. If you are, I highly recommend it; if not, I don’t think you’ll like it.
Instead, after the jump I’ll list a few of the sections I highlighted while reading on the Kindle, mostly because I thought they were interesting or provided a unique perspective or thought.
“It is a profound and necessary truth,” Robert Oppenheimer would say, “that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.” (I like this quote because it highlights a central truth of science and innovation: all ideas have a specific time and place where they’re conceivable and provable – the “adjacent possible.” Too early, and the tools to discover them aren’t available; too late, and the ideas will – almost always – already have been discovered – MM)
The machine gun mechanized war. Artillery and gas mechanized war. They were the hardware of the war, the tools. But they were only proximately the mechanism of the slaughter. The ultimate mechanism was a method of organization—anachronistically speaking, a software package.376 “The basic lever,” the writer Gil Elliot comments, “was the conscription law, which made vast numbers of men available for military service.377 The civil machinery which ensured the carrying out of this law, and the military organization which turned numbers of men into battalions and divisions, were each founded on a bureaucracy. The production of resources, in particular guns and ammunition, was a matter for civil organization. The movement of men and resources to the front, and the trench system of defence, were military concerns.” Each interlocking system was logical in itself and each system could be rationalized by those who worked it and moved through it. Thus, Elliot demonstrates, “It is reasonable to obey the law, it is good to organize well, it is ingenious to devise guns of high technical capacity, it is sensible to shelter human beings against massive firepower by putting them in protective trenches.”
[James Conant] emerged from the Great War with the rank of major for his work in poison-gas research at Edgewood. In his autobiography, written late in life, he justified his participation: I did not see in 1917, and do not see in 1968, why tearing a man’s guts out by a high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs or skin. All war is immoral. Logically, the 100 percent pacifist has the only impregnable position. Once that is abandoned, as it is when a nation becomes a belligerent, one can talk sensibly only in terms of the violation of agreements about the way war is conducted, or the consequences of a certain tactic or weapon.1407
“Most of the raids we did looked like gigantic firework displays over the target area,” a flight sergeant remarks, “but this was ‘the daddy of them all.’ ”1826 A flight lieutenant distinguishes the difference: The burning of Hamburg that night was remarkable in that I saw not many fires but one. Set in the darkness was a turbulent dome of bright red fire, lighted and ignited like the glowing heart of a vast brazier. I saw no flames, no outlines of buildings, only brighter fires which flared like yellow torches against a background of bright red ash. Above the city was a misty red haze. I looked down, fascinated but aghast, satisfied yet horrified. I had never seen a fire like that before and was never to see its like again.1827 The summer heat and low humidity, the mix of high-explosive and incendiary bombs that made kindling and then ignited it and the absence of firefighting equipment in the bombed districts conspired to assemble a new horror. An hour after the bombing began the horror had a name, recorded first in the main log of the Hamburg Fire Department: Feuersturm: firestorm. A Hamburg factory worker remembers its beginning, some twenty minutes into the one-hour bombing raid: Then a storm started, a shrill howling in the street. It grew into a hurricane so that we had to abandon all hope of fighting the [factory] fire. It was as though we were doing no more than throwing a drop of water on to a hot stone. The whole yard, the canal, in fact as far as we could see, was just a whole, great, massive sea of fire.1828 Small fires had coalesced into larger fires and, greedy for oxygen, had sucked air from around the coalescing inferno and fanned further fires there. That created the wind, a thermal column above the city like an invisible chimney above a hearth; the wind heated the fury at the center of the firestorm to more than 1,400 degrees, heat sufficient to melt the windows of a streetcar, wind sufficient to uproot trees.
[Justifying total war – MM] “We must face the fact that modern warfare as conducted in the Nazi manner is a dirty business,” Franklin Roosevelt told his countrymen. “We don’t like it—we didn’t want to get in it—but we are in it and we’re going to fight it with everything we’ve got.”
Quite frequently you hear marines say: “I wish we were fighting against Germans. They are human beings, like us. Fighting against them must be like an athletic performance—matching your skill against someone you know is good. Germans are misled, but at least they react like men. But the Japs are like animals. Against them you have to learn a whole new set of physical reactions. You have to get used to their animal stubbornness and tenacity. They take to the jungle as if they had been bred there, and like some beasts you never see them until they are dead.”1970 As an explanation for unfamiliar behavior, bestiality had the advantage that it made killing a formidable enemy easier emotionally. But it also, by dehumanizing him, made him seem yet more alien and dangerous. So did the other common attribution that evolved during the war to explain Japanese behavior: that the Japanese were fanatics, believers, as Grew had preached, “in the incorruptible certainty of their national cause.”1971 The historian William Manchester, a marine at Guadalcanal, argues more objectively from a longer perspective postwar: At the time it was impolitic to pay the slightest tribute to the enemy, and Nip determination, their refusal to say die, was commonly attributed to “fanaticism.” In retrospect it is indistinguishable from heroism. To call it anything less cheapens the victory, for American valor was necessary to defeat it.1972 Whether bestiality, fanaticism, or heroism, the refusal of Japanese soldiers to surrender required new tactics and strong stomachs to defeat.
The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was a young prisoner of war in Dresden at the time of the attack. He described his experience to an interviewer long after the war: The first fancy city I’d ever seen. A city full of statues and zoos, like Paris. We were living in a slaughterhouse, in a nice new cement-block hog barn. They put bunks and straw mattresses in the barn, and we went to work every morning as contract labor in a malt syrup factory. The syrup was for pregnant women. The damned sirens would go off and we’d hear some other city getting it—whump a whump a whumpa whump. We never expected to get it. There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories. Then a siren went off—it was February 13, 1945—and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone. . . . The attack didn’t sound like a hell of a lot either. Whump. They went over with high explosives first to loosen things up, and then scattered incendiaries. . . . They burnt the whole damn town down. . . .2207 Every day [afterward] we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A fire storm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded onto wagons and taken to parks, large, open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground.
Something worse than a firestorm was kindled in Tokyo that night. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey calls it a conflagration, begun when the high wind heeled over the pillar of hot and burning gases that the fires had volatilized and convection had carried up into the air: The chief characteristic of the conflagration . . . was the presence of a fire front, an extended wall of fire moving to leeward, preceded by a mass of preheated, turbid, burning vapors. The pillar was in a much more turbulent state than that of [a] fire storm, and being usually closer to the ground, it produced more flame and heat, and less smoke. The progress and destructive features of the conflagration were consequently much greater than those of [a] fire storm, for the fire continued to spread until it could reach no more material. . . . The 28-mile-per-hour wind, measured a mile from the fire, increased to an estimated 55 miles at the perimeter, and probably more within.2229 An extended fire swept over 15 square miles in 6 hours. Pilots reported that the air was so violent that B-29s at 6,000 feet were turned completely over, and that the heat was so intense, even at that altitude, that the entire crew had to don oxygen masks. The area of the fire was nearly 100 percent burned; no structure or its contents escaped damage. The fire had spread largely in the direction of the natural wind. A bombardier who flew through the black turbulence above the conflagration remembers it as “the most terrifying thing I’ve ever known.”2230, 2231 In the shallower canals of Shitamachi, where people submerged themselves to escape the fire, the water boiled
[after the bombing of Hiroshima – MM] “As I came to the river and went down the bank to the water, I found that the stream was filled with dead bodies. I started to cross by crawling over the corpses, on my hands and knees. As I got about a third of the way across, a dead body began to sink under my weight and I went into the water, wetting my burned skin. It pained severely. I could go no further, as there was a break in the bridge of corpses, so I turned back to the shore.”
The operator of a crematorium in the Hiroshima suburbs, a connoisseur of mortality, told Lifton “the bodies were black in color . . . most of them had a peculiar smell, and everyone thought this was from the bomb. . . . The smell when they burned was caused by the fact that these bodies were decayed, many of them even before being cremated—some of them having their internal organs decay even while the person was living.”2694 Yōko ta raged: We were being killed against our will by something completely unknown to us. . . . It is the misery of being thrown into a world of new terror and fear, a world more unknown than that of people sick with cancer