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.
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.