Review: The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians

The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians by Cynthia C. Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel like I’ve lived my life under an atomic cloud. My birthday is on Hiroshima Day. So every birthday also falls on an anniversary of this event. I grew up with bomb shelter exercises at my school and watched President Kennedy talk to the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was a stretch in October 1962 where we didn’t know whether we would wake to see another day. Over the years, I wonder if we’ve become inured to the potential horror of the use of nuclear weapons. Perhaps for this reason, it is good to read this book and to understand the terror unleashed on the earth because of the Manhatten Project and the desperate race to build the bomb before Hitler could.

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This book is a collection of primary documents and eyewitness accounts from the earliest warnings of the danger of Germany building the bomb to more recent statements about the continuing threats of nuclear proliferation. What is striking in this collection is that Kelly has “stitched” these together in a way that provides a more or less seamless narrative of the Manhatten Project and its aftermath and yet speaks with a vividness because of the eyewitness character of this narrative.

We read the early warnings about the possibility of this weapon of mass destruction including Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt. The beginnings of Allied efforts to build the bomb following the MAUD report including narratives of the first nuclear chain reaction by Enrico Fermi and a young Richard Feynman talking about the great scientists he worked alongside at Los Alamos. We read a number of the profiles of the two leaders of this effort, overall director General Leslie Groves, and Scientific Director J. Robert Oppenheimer, an unlikely but effective pairing. We see the development of secret research facilities in Oakridge, Hanford and Los Alamos and the excitement of everyone from scientists to the high school educated women and blacks who played crucial support roles in being involved in this urgent race to build the bomb while still facing barriers of gender and race.

Alongside this incredible research effort, we have accounts of a darker side as well. One is the infiltration of the project by spies who gathered sufficient information to jump start the Soviet project, giving them the bomb by 1949. We have the Trinity Test in July 1945 and the vary responses from awe to elation to urgent appeals of some scientists to not use this weapon against the Japanese. Then we have eyewitness accounts from the air and ground of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the peculiar disease of radiation sickness suffered by survivors exposed to deadly fallout–not a mark on their bodies and yet they became ill and died.

The concluding sections of the book include reflections on the bomb including arguments about why we used it. Was it really to avoid invasion and save lives as President Truman and others argued, or was it to check Soviet ambitions at the outset of the new ‘cold’ war? Finally, we have documents that reflect our struggle to live with and limit these weapons stretching from the 1950s until 2007, when several former Secretaries of State as well as Mikhail Gorbachev published articles in the Wall Street Journal.

Most intriguing to me was the fascination of Oppenheimer and others with atomic bomb research as a research problem and the interesting mental rationale this involved in separating the thrill of the research from the moral implications of the use of these weapons. Not all could sustain this. Joseph Rotblat left the project when he realized the Germans would not build the bomb and became a disarmament advocate. Leo Szilard organized scientists to appeal to the President not to use this weapon.

Nuclear arms are in fact proliferating with more countries joining “the nuclear club”. There may be more possibility now that these weapons could actually be used now than in the ‘Cold War’ when Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) created a climate in which there use was unthinkable. It is scary to consider that some are thinking the unthinkable, which makes a collection like this more timely than ever. It is some comfort on my birthday to think that no nuclear weapons have been used in war since those days in August of 1945 and my prayer that it might always be so.

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