Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize winning 800-page account of the history of the atomic bomb is a comprehensive and highly important book. He covers the science, from the earliest theorizing about the structure of the atom through to the early stages of the development of thermonuclear weapons. He also covers the political and military history associated with the Manhattan Project, and touches upon attempts to develop nuclear weapons in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Rhodes also goes beyond straight history to examine the scientific and military ethics associated with the development and use of the bomb, while also raising questions about what the existence of nuclear weapons means for global politics in the long term. The book goes beyond being a detailed historical account, by also engaging in serious ethical questioning about the implications of this dreadful technology. The book is also quite philosophical in places, such as when contemplating the nature of science.
One overwhelming message from Rhodes’ book is the horror of modern war – from ingenious combination poison gas attacks during WWI through to strategic bombing of civilians in WWII and the ongoing threat of thermonuclear annihilation. While nuclear weapons have certainly increased both the actual and potential horror of war, Rhodes uses appalling examples to show how they are not at all necessary for people to treat one another atrociously. That in turn affects the ethical status of using atomic weapons: was doing so preferable to invading Japan with conventional forces? Were any other alternatives available? Regardless of how you answer such questions for yourself, Rhodes’ account of warfare is one that cannot fail to produce revulsion in whoever reads it. His extensive use of primary documents and quotations – particularly when describing the destruction wrought by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs – is effective both at conveying the history and providing some understanding of how people were thinking at the time. Colourful anecdotes also give a human quality to the account, such as when Rhodes describes personality clashes between military officers, or the existence of a women’s dorm at Los Alamos that was “doing a flourishing business of requiting the basic needs of [the] young men, and at a price.”
In addition to providing the broad strokes of history, Rhodes provides fairly detailed accounts of the lives and personalities of the key scientists, military figures, and politicians. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about the book is how it draws together timelines that would normally be treated separately: scientific discoveries alongside social and geopolitical developments. Seeing them described in parallel gives the reader a strong sense of context, and hints at some of the linkages between scientific advancement and other aspects of history.
I have some minor quibbles with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It doesn’t always define terms at first usage, which could make some passages difficult to understand for those who don’t have a pre-existing familiarity with the subject matter. He also provides extremely little information on the spies within the American nuclear weapons program who provided so much critical information to the Soviet Union, greatly speeding the development of their nuclear and eventually thermonuclear weapons. He also only hints at how a permanent nuclear institution emerged in the United States. While many at Los Alamos scattered at the end of the war, there were those who realized as soon as the theoretical possibility of nuclear weapons arose that they would profoundly alter the security of states and the relationships between them.
Ultimately, Rhodes shares the conviction of the physicist Niels Bohr that nuclear weapons have fundamentally changed world politics. He argues that they have “destroy[ed] the nation-state paradoxically by rendering it defenseless” and calls upon states to accept the necessity of “dismantl[ing] the death machine”. Specifically, he argues that nuclear weapons make the settling of disputes between states by armed conflict impossible, creating the need for some form of world government. Rhodes stresses the risk of accidental or unauthorized war – a risk that can only grow in severity as more and more states acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Unfortunately, it is hard to share his conviction that such a transformation is really possible. For people of his generation, the fact that most of humanity could be wiped out in less than an hour in a major nuclear exchange is a novel and terrifying feature of life. For those who were both during and after the Cold War, it is a reality that most have been aware of since childhood. Still, there is every reason to continue to try to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons. Doing so includes working to prevent the proliferation of such weapons to new states, as well as working to reduce the danger of accidents and the sheer number of weapons deployed.
Rhodes continues the history of nuclear weapons with a successor volume on thermonuclear bombs: Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. In the course of reading Rhodes’ book, I was also compelled to write posts on cancer and the neutron, anti-Semitism, the nature of human rights, Pearl Harbor, and the distinction between nuclear ‘devices’ and deployable weapons. Rhodes also has a third book on nuclear weapons – The Twilight of the Bombs – which I certainly aim to get around to reading eventually.