Thursday, October 2, 2008


As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, having set aside The Federalist Papers for the time being, as I have other people where I work curious to read the Rhodes book and I’m too selfish to give it up before I’ve read it.

Rhodes paints an absolutely fascinating picture of the men and processes – both political and scientific – involved in creating the atomic bomb. Here, I’d like to present a few snippets from the book. Understand that since they’re snippets, they’re lacking some context; if you’re curious to know more about them, please read the book.

Upon realization that the fission bomb would not break any of the laws of physics, Enrico Fermi experienced the following:

(Rhodes, p. 275): Fermi was standing at his panoramic office window high in the physics tower looking down the gray winter length of Manhattan Island, its streets alive as always with vendors and taxis and crowds. He cupped his hands as if he were holding a ball. “A little bomb like that,” he said simply, for once not lightly mocking, “and it would all disappear.

Writing of “modern warfare” to describe the impact of the firebombing of Hamburg, Germany, Rhodes writes:

(Rhodes, 475-6): Extend war by attrition to include civilians behind the lines and war becomes total. With improving technology so could death-making be. The bombing of Hamburg marked a significant step in the evolution of death technology itself, massed bombers deliberately churning conflagration. It was still too much a matter of luck, an elusive combination of weather and organization and hardware. It was still also expensive in crews and materiel. It was not yet perfect, as no technology can ever be, and therefore seemed to want perfecting.

(Continued): The British and the Americans would be enraged to learn of Japanese brutality and Nazi torture, of the Bataan Death March and the fathomless horror of the death camps. By a reflex so mindlessly unimaginative it may be merely mammalian, the bombing of distant cities, out of sight and sound and smell, was generally approved, although neither the United States nor Great Britain admitted publicly that it deliberately bombed civilians. In Churchill’s phrase, the enemy was to be “de-housed.” The Jap and the Nazi in any case had started the war. “We must face the fact that modern warfare as conducted in the Nazi manner is a dirty business,” Franklin Roosevelt told his countrymen. “We don’t like it – we didn’t want to get in it – but we are in it and we’re going to fight it with everything we’ve got.”

Writing of a proposal to use radioactive elements to poison German food supplies, Rhodes quotes Robert Oppenheimer as writing:

(Rhodes, 511): I should recommend a delay if that is possible. (In this connection I think that we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men, since there is no doubt that the actual number affected will, because of non-uniform distribution, be much smaller than this.)

Rhodes goes on to write:

(Rhodes, 511): There is no better evidence anywhere in the record of the increasing bloody-mindedness of the Second World War than Robert Oppenheimer, a man who professed at various times in his life to be dedicated to Ahimsa (“the Sanskrit word that means doing no harm or hurt,” he explains) could write with enthusiasm of preparations for the mass poisoning of as many as five hundred thousand human beings.

There are certainly uglier things in this book, and in the world we live in. I suppose what I get out of this is that we all need to temper our enthusiasms to ensure the Ahimsa we believe we possess is truly there.

I write this not as a blast against science, nor a blast against Oppenheimer, nor a blast against anything except the fact that we need to be watchful that our love of humanity does not wax cold, nor that we surrender one good (ending a war) in favor of another (sparing the innocent).

No comments: