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The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
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Jan 06, 2009

it was amazing

This is a must-read book for anyone interested in 20th-century military and scientific history. Rhodes, a journalist, historian and author, presents a highly readable story of the fragmented ground-breaking discoveries in the field of nuclear physics that occurred in different countries during the first four decades of the century, which later formed the theoretical basis for the building of weapons of mass destruction in conditions of wartime urgency. The personal backgrounds of the numerous players; the temporary abandonment by scientists of their academic freedoms of experimentation on self-directed research and collaboration with peers, in order to work in secrecy as government employees at Los Alamos; and the building of the gargantuan Manhattan Project, are all elements in Rhodes epic story.

It is not surprising that the Atom Bomb was built; after all, the world was at war and there was evidence that Nazi Germany could try to develop their own bomb. Many of the leading physicists from central Europe were now living in Great Britain or the United States as refugees from Hitler's repressive state; they understood the dangers of allowing Germany to take the lead in solving the complex problem of becoming the first nuclear power. This was the motivation behind the agreement of Albert Einstein to place his name on a letter, written by Leo Szilard, to be sent to President Roosevelt in August 1939, warning of the potential danger posed by Germany, where the atom had been split the previous year.

More controversial has been the actual decision to use the bomb in war. By the time the first workable device was exploded at Trinity in New Mexico in July 1945, Germany had surrendered. World War II still raged on in the Pacific, but the primary targets for bombing in Japan were predominately civilian. The American government did not see this as an obstacle at the time, since the allied powers had given up the pretense of moral superiority over their enemies in this regard by engaging in strategic bombing of German cities two years earlier. The primary consideration during the summer of 1945 was to use the bomb to force Japan to surrender, and to prevent the estimated one million American military casualties predicted to be incurred in the forthcoming invasion of Japan at the end of 1945.

Arguments have continued since 1945 on the eventual decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, and on the continued development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. The leading scientist/philosopher in this regard has arguably been Neils Bohr, who tried to convince Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that the technology for building nuclear bombs should not be kept as a state secret, but should be available to the international scientific community. He argued that governments must control nuclear proliferation by understanding that they must cooperate in not allowing weapons-stockpiling to lead to our eventual annihilation in a war of unprecedented proportions. His arguments were rejected in Washington and London, in favor of the United States and Britain attempting to guarantee their continued security by strictly guarding nuclear weapon secrets. Implicit in this approach was a desire to keep the Soviet Union out of the nuclear club; it became official policy after the U.S./U.K. wartime military alliance with Russia started showing serious strains after the war. The effectiveness of this strategy was demonstrated on August 29, 1949 when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, which was a copy of the American 1945 atomic bomb. The nuclear arms race had begun.

The end of the Cold War has greatly lessened the threat of U.S./Russian nuclear war, after four and a half decades of bomb stockpiling, mutual standoff and occasional approach to the brink of war. However, the threats posed by the making of the atomic bomb continue with the building of bombs by nations which find prestige in their possession, and in the potential acquisition and use of nuclear devices by stateless groups which have nothing to fear from nuclear retaliation.

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