A Colder War | The Nation


A Colder War

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

When Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb appeared in 1986, it was widely and rightly recognized as a masterpiece of historical writing. Its genre is that of the chronicle written soon enough after the events in question to convey their atmosphere and the feelings they stirred yet distant enough to permit dispassionate analysis. (Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War was perhaps the first great work of this kind; Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism is a more recent example.) The Making of the Atomic Bomb also sits on the very narrow shelf of books that, by some alchemy not easily understood, grasp the dread but notoriously human truth of the nuclear danger. A few other books on that shelf--to offer a nonexclusive and no doubt opinionated listing--are John Hersey's Hiroshima, Michihiko Hachiya's Hiroshima Diary, Robert Jay Lifton's Death in Life (among other works of his, including his recent Superpower Syndrome), Gar Alperovitz's The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth and Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird's recent biography of Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus.

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

Also by the Author

After 9/11, the US invented a new kind of borderless, pre-emptive warfare, plunging the world into an endless cycle of violence.

The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

Rhodes made several stylistic and structural decisions that proved indispensable to the stature of his book. In the first place, he turned his historical microscope up to a power at which the actions and personalities of his cast of characters were made visible to the reader. A forbidding subject--the Manhattan Project and the scientific discoveries that made it possible--became a tapestry of individual lives. The British scientist Ernest Rutherford, pioneer of the landscape within the atom; the ineffable Hungarian scientist and persistent nuclear disarmer Leo Szilard, who persuaded Einstein to write Roosevelt in 1939 recommending that he start a nuclear-weapon program (an act Szilard later regretted); Oppenheimer, who seemed to combine the personalities of a dozen people in one skin; the great physicist Niels Bohr, as wise in the ways of the new politics required by the bomb as he was in the elementary new physical principles that had made it possible--all these people and dozens of others spring to life in Rhodes's pages. And thanks to the same immersion in detail, as well as Rhodes's talent for explicating science to the layperson, the stories of scientific discoveries--from Bohr's unfolding of the structure of the atom to George Kistiakowsky's solution to the problem of imploding the plutonium core of history's first atomic bomb--become absorbing, suspenseful dramas. It turns out to be quite remarkable how much science one can understand without being a scientist.

In the second place, Rhodes casts his historical net wide, sweeping in events that at first thought might seem distant from the goings-on at Los Alamos, where the bomb was being put together in the early 1940s. These events include Hitler's murderous rage at Jews (not long after World War I, he expressed his view that if only 12,000-15,000 Jews were "held under poison gas," Germany's problems would end); the Munich negotiations of 1938; the attack on Pearl Harbor; the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the Soviet counterattack in December of that year; the deliberate annihilation by firebombing of German cities ("INTENTION: to destroy Hamburg," read Most Secret Operation Order no. 173, and the intention was fulfilled); and the grisly battle for Okinawa, in which thousands of Okinawans were persuaded by the authorities to commit suicide by plunging off cliffs.

These collateral events are illuminating as the broad context in which the first decisions regarding the bomb were taken. But they also serve an equally important narrative purpose. From its very beginnings, the bomb, like some malign, invisible deity, has repelled the direct gaze of human beings. In this special circumstance, Rhodes's collateral stories provide an oblique path to the central matter, walking the readers up to the edge of the abyss, even if they cannot look directly in. For the horrors of twentieth-century war and totalitarian rule were the moral and political steppingstones to atomic destruction as much as twentieth-century developments in physics were the scientific steppingstones to the invention of the device. The earlier, somewhat more comprehensible horrors acclimate the reader, so that by the time Rhodes describes the results on the ground at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (humankind's only experience of atomic destruction) readers are better prepared to absorb these unspeakable scenes--scenes that, for all their horror, are only the tiniest corner of the ones that would unfold in a full-scale nuclear holocaust.

With the publication in 1995 of Rhodes's Dark Sun, which recounts the birth of the hydrogen bomb, and now, of Arsenals of Folly, it's clear that Rhodes has been shouldering into view a project even more ambitious than The Making of the Atomic Bomb: a history that's nothing less than a portrait of the nuclear age. (A fourth and perhaps final volume is promised.) No other writer has undertaken such a project, and it is doubtful that any other writer could accomplish it if he were to try. Every age finds the writers it needs, and the nuclear age has found Richard Rhodes.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb had the literary advantage of covering events that formed an obvious, self-contained story, with a clear beginning (the scientific discoveries that made the bomb possible), middle (the actual "making" by the team at Los Alamos) and end (the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). However, if, like Rhodes, we look at this tightly connected series of events from a wider angle of vision, we see that they span two distinct ages: the age of world war, lasting from 1914 to 1945, and the nuclear age, from 1945 to the indefinite future. The line dividing the two is sharp because the revolutionary changes the bomb was to bring in its wake would rule out any further world war. (You could try it, but no one could win, for all would die.) The overlap of the two ages was short indeed, amounting to less than a month: the first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert; the second was used on Hiroshima on August 6, the third on Nagasaki on August 9; and Japan signaled its readiness to surrender on August 14.

It was not inevitable that the making of the bomb would arrive in time to conclude the war. Nothing stops us from imagining that the scientists, who raced to complete the bomb in time to use it against Japan, might have required another year or two, in which case the bomb would have arrived in a world at peace. There probably would have been no occasion to use one to destroy a city. More important for the future, no impression could have been created that the bomb had ended a great war. The very unity of the story--spanning the transition from invention to use--created an appearance that the new weapon might not be so different from old ones: Like the U-boat, or the tank, or the B-29, the bomb seemed to be one more weapon for war. This picture of the bomb as a war-winning weapon was destined to become the most persistent illusion of the nuclear age and the greatest of all the obstacles to ending nuclear danger.

Rhodes, for one, has no traffic with this illusion. On the contrary, he seizes upon a completely opposite understanding of the nature of the bomb suggested by Niels Bohr, whom he quotes as saying, "We are in an entirely new situation that cannot be solved by war." Instead of being a weapon of war, the bomb was the nemesis of warring great powers. As Rhodes explains, Bohr saw

all the way to the present, when a menacing standoff has been achieved and maintained for decades without formal agreement.... He wondered if the war-weary statesmen of the day, taught the consequences of his revelation, could be induced to forestall those consequences, to adjourn the game when the stalemate revealed itself rather than illogically to play out the menacing later moves.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.