Now that the wall’s been torn down, the number of ICBMs downsized, and the Soviet Union reduced to bits of istans, we’re safe from nuclear annihilation. I think it’s time for us to step back and take a clinical, if not loving, look at The Bomb. Like how we do with stories of the Vikings and the Huns, let’s get past the horror so we can admire the genius.
With that in mind, I recently enjoyed two books on the subject: Manhattan Project, by Stephane Groueff; and Now it Can be Told, by none other than General Leslie M. Groves, the dude who oversaw the development of The Bomb. Both books were first published in the 60s and it shows. The content and style portray unapologetic worship of the achievement. That was appropriate at the time, I suppose. We were still reeling from the 50s, that most pro-American of decades.
I was fascinated with these accounts detailing the struggle to invent the first nuclear weapons. Only in America could that have been done. This monumental project required a country with a huge amount of money and numbers of people, as well as a unique governmental structure.
And just what is that unique American system? It’s something I’d never realized before: America, the shining light of democracy, can revert to a monarchy when called upon to do so. General Groves’ was nothing short of a king. Certainly he had to grease wheels, work with personalities, and trade favors, but isn’t that what the great kings—the ones we remember—do? Groves ruled like an autocrat. He got what he needed when he asked for it, an he rarely had to invoke the name of his boss. He was feared, tolerated, hated, and respected. He was like Hoover at the FBI only without the garter belt.
It could only have happened in America. The closest anybody else was getting at that time was Germany. But Groves relates a conversation Hitler’s scientists had while under guard as the war was winding down and they’d been rounded up. They were eavesdropped on—didn’t know anybody was listening—and so were candid about what they had been doing and their speculation about what we were doing. Apparently what they’d been doing was chasing their tails, trying to get a sustained reaction long after Fermi had accomplished that in Chicago. Heisenberg said a bomb was impossible. They were shocked when they heard about Hiroshima. Despite the conversation that Heisenberg had had with Niels Bohr, the Germans were not headed toward nuclear weaponry. Nuclear fission would never work as a weapon, Heisenberg had asserted. They were considering it for a source of power only.
Reading the account of how The Bomb came into being, I understand Heisenberg’s reaction. Whole industries had to be invented to enrich Uranium, i.e. increase the 235 to 238 ratio. Plants had to be built and towns like Oak Ridge, Hanover, Los Alamos, begun and populated. Hundreds of thousands of engineers, scientists, plant workers, floor sweepers, designers, had to be recruited and put to work. Nobody knew what they were working on. Security was a nightmare. Plants were built before the processes that would be used in them were invented. All because Groves had a tight, tight deadline. Nobody was even sure it was going to work and still they all went balls-to-the wall to make it happen. People lost sleep, hair, and spouses in the process.
I am amazed by the chutzpah. It’s true Bohr should never have recommended it, Einstein shouldn’t have promoted it, Roosevelt shouldn’t have ordered it, and Truman shouldn’t have pressed the button. But I can’t help but admire the effort, the shear audacity of the idea.
We are of course paying for it as we try like hell to reduce the stockpile. There are some things that we should just not engineer.
On the other hand, how bad can it be? So what if a what a bunch of backward people ruled by an inbred family over on the far side of California (which is going to drop off into the ocean any day anyway, so who cares) is doing?
Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Read the books, admire the accomplishment, write your congresspeople to rid the Earth of every last one of these toys.
This essay was first posted on the Book View Cafe blog a couple of weeks ago.