More than seven decades after its conception under the looming storm front of the Second World War, the Manhattan Project is fading into myth. The massive production reactors and plutonium extraction canyons at Hanford, Washington; the half-mile-long uranium enrichment factory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; the several hundred thousand workers who built and operated the vast machinery while managing to keep its purpose secret, disappear from view, leaving behind a bare nucleus of legend: a secret laboratory on a New Mexican mesa, Los Alamos, where the actual bombs were designed and built; a charismatic lab director, the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who rose to international prominence postwar until his enemies brought him low; a lone B-29 bomber incongruently named for the pilot’s mother, Enola Gay; a devastated city, Hiroshima, and poor ruined Nagasaki all but forgotten.
Almost mythical too are the weapons themselves, except when an enemy seeks to acquire them. New nuclear powers are a threat, we are warned; old nuclear powers keep the peace. A young scholar, Anne Harrington de Santana, has discerned that nuclear weapons have acquired the status of fetish objects; like the coin of the realm in relation to commodities, our glittering warheads have become markers of national power: “Just as access to wealth in the form of money determines an individual’s opportunities and place in a social hierarchy, access to power in the form of nuclear weapons determines a state’s opportunities and place in the international order.” That’s why most industrial nations have considered acquiring nuclear weapons at one time or another since 1945 even as none has dared to use them. If the bombs were ever actually used, the walls would come tumbling down.
The danger of use was one reason I decided in 1978 to write the history of the development of the first atomic bombs. (Another reason was the declassification of the bulk of Manhattan Project records, which made it possible to support the story with documents.) Nuclear war seemed more imminent then than it does now. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I researched and wrote this book, the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union appeared to be accelerating. I, and many others, worried that accident, inadvertence, or misunderstanding would lead to catastrophe.
The Soviets were at war in Afghanistan and appeared to President Jimmy Carter to be thrusting down toward the Arabian Sea and the oilrich Middle East—something Carter swore the United States would not allow even if it meant nuclear war. The Soviets were determined to enlarge their nuclear arsenal to match ours—a decision they made in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when President John F. Kennedy was able to back them down by threatening nuclear war—and the closer they came to parity the more belligerently the American right howled for blood. Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1980, proceeded to more than double the U.S. defense budget while coining such provocative characterizations of the other nuclear superpower as “the evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” The Soviets shot down a Korean airliner that had wandered into their airspace, killing all aboard. A 1983 NATO field exercise, Able Archer, which included a trial run-up to nuclear war in which heads of government participated, very nearly scared the Soviet leadership under an ailing Yuri Andropov into launching a nuclear first strike.
Disturbing as these events were, I found it hard to believe that a species as clever and adaptable as ours would voluntarily destroy itself, even though it had voluntarily manufactured the means to do so. I wondered if, back at the beginning, before the first bombs burned out those two Japanese cities and fundamentally changed the nature of war, there had been alternative pathways to the present, pathways different from those which we and the Soviets had followed. Why seventy thousand nuclear weapons between us when only a few were more than enough to destroy each other? Why a primarily military confrontation across the Cold War when nuclear weapons made direct military conflict between the superpowers suicidal? Why, on the other hand, despite all the rhetoric and posturing, had not one nuclear weapon been exploded in anger since Nagasaki? It seemed to me that if I went back to the beginning, even to before the beginning, when releasing the enormous energies held latent in the nuclei of atoms was simply an interesting and challenging physics problem, that I might rediscover abandoned pathways which could, if reilluminated, lead toward an outcome different from the looming threat of nuclear apocalypse.
Those alternative pathways did exist. I did find them, as others had before me, hidden in plain sight. By placing them at the center of this book I tried to reilluminate them. The Making of the Atomic Bomb has become the standard prehistory and history of the Manhattan Project. It has been translated into a dozen languages and published around the world. I’ve heard from enough people in government, in the United States and abroad, to know that it has been widely read in pentagons and white houses. In that way it has contributed to a general understanding of the paradox of nuclear weapons. I don’t mean the paradox of deterrence, which partakes of the fetish object delusion that Harrington de Santana delineates. I mean the paradox which the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr first articulated: that, though nuclear weapons are the property of individual nation-states, which claim the right to hold and to use them in defense of national sovereignty, in their indiscriminate destructiveness they are a common danger to all, like an epidemic disease, and like an epidemic disease they transcend national borders, disputes, and ideologies.
I included so much Manhattan Project prehistory in this book—the history of nuclear physics from the discovery of radioactivity at the end of the nineteenth century up to the discovery of nuclear fission in Nazi Germany in late 1938—partly because I believed I had to understand the physics, as well as a layman can, if I hoped to understand what was revolutionary about the bombs, and assumed readers would wish to do so as well. I had one lecture course in physics in college, no more, but I learned there that nuclear physics is almost entirely an experimental science. Which means that the discoveries that led to the bombs were the consequence of the physical manipulation of objects in the laboratory: this metal box, fitted with a radiation source, a sample inserted, measured using this instrument, with this result, and so on. Once I’d mastered the jargon, it was possible to read through the classic papers in the field, visualize the experiments, and understand the discoveries, at least where their application to making bombs was concerned.
Later, I realized that reviewing the history of nuclear physics served another purpose as well: It gave the lie to the naive belief that the physicists could have come together when nuclear fission was discovered (in Nazi Germany!) and agreed to keep the discovery a secret, thereby sparing humankind the nuclear burden. No. Given the development of nuclear physics up to 1938, development that physicists throughout the world pursued in all innocence of any intention of finding the engine of a new weapon of mass destruction—only one of them, the remarkable Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, took that possibility seriously—the discovery of nuclear fission was inevitable. To stop it, you would have had to stop physics. If German scientists hadn’t made the discovery when they did, British, French, American, Russian, Italian, or Danish scientists would have done so, almost certainly within days or weeks. They were all working at the same cutting edge, trying to understand the strange results of a simple experiment bombarding uranium with neutrons.
Here was no Faustian bargain, as movie directors and other naifs still find it intellectually challenging to imagine. Here was no evil machinery that the noble scientists might have hidden from the politicians and the generals. To the contrary, here was a new insight into how the world works, an energetic reaction, older than the earth, that science had finally devised the instruments and arrangements to coax forth. “Make it seem inevitable,” Louis Pasteur used to advise his students when they prepared to write up their discoveries. But it was. To wish that it might have been ignored or suppressed is barbarous. “Knowledge,” Niels Bohr once noted, “is itself the basis for civilization.” You cannot have the one without the other; the one depends upon the other. Nor can you have only benevolent knowledge; the scientific method doesn’t filter for benevolence. Knowledge has consequences, not always intended, not always comfortable, not always welcome. The earth revolves around the sun, not the sun around the earth. “It is a profound and necessary truth,” Robert Oppenheimer would say, “that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.”
Those first atomic bombs, made by hand on a mesa in New Mexico, fell onto a stunned pre-nuclear world. Afterward, when the Soviet Union exploded a copy of the Fat Man plutonium bomb built from plans supplied by Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall and then went on to develop a comprehensive arsenal of its own, matching the American arsenal; when the hydrogen bomb increased the already devastating destructiveness of nuclear weapons by several orders of magnitude; when the British, the French, the Chinese, the Israelis, and other nations acquired nuclear weapons, the strange new nuclear world matured. Bohr proposed once that the goal of science is not universal truth. Rather, he argued, the modest but relentless goal of science is “the gradual removal of prejudices.” The discovery that the earth revolves around the sun has gradually removed the prejudice that the earth is the center of the universe. The discovery of microbes is gradually removing the prejudice that disease is a punishment from God. The discovery of evolution is gradually removing the prejudice that Homo sapiens is a separate and special creation.
The closing days of the Second World War marked a similar turning point in human history, the point of entry into a new era when humankind for the first time acquired the means of its own destruction. The discovery of how to release nuclear energy, and its application to build weapons of mass destruction, has gradually removed the prejudice on which total war is based: the insupportable conviction that there is a limited amount of energy available in the world to concentrate into explosives, that it is possible to accumulate more of such energy than one’s enemies and thereby militarily to prevail. So cheap, so portable, so holocaustal did nuclear weapons eventually become that even nation-states as belligerent as the Soviet Union and the United States preferred to sacrifice a portion of their national sovereignty—preferred to forego the power to make total war—rather than be destroyed in their fury. Lesser wars continue, and will continue until the world community is sufficiently impressed with their destructive futility to forge new instruments of protection and new forms of citizenship. But world war at least has been revealed to be historical, not universal, a manifestation of destructive technologies of limited scale. In the long history of human slaughter that is no small achievement.
In the middle years of my life I lived on four acres of land in Connecticut, a meadow completely enclosed within a forested wildlife preserve. It teemed with creatures: deer, squirrels, raccoons, a woodchuck family, turkeys, songbirds, crows, a Cooper’s hawk, even a pair of coyotes. Except for the hawk, every one of those animals constantly and fearfully watched over its shoulder lest it be caught, torn, and eaten alive. From the animals’ point of view, my edenic four acres were a war zone. Only very rarely does an animal living under natural conditions in the wild die of old age.
Until recently, the human world was not much different. Since we are predators, at the top of the food chain, our worst natural enemies historically have been microbes. Natural violence, in the form of epidemic disease, took a large and continuous toll of human life, such that very few human beings lived out their natural lifespans. By contrast, man-made death—death, that is, by war and war’s attendant privations—persisted at a low and relatively constant level throughout human history, hardly distinguishable in the noise of the natural toll.
The invention of public health in the nineteenth century, and the application of technology to war in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, inverted that pattern in the industrialized world. Natural violence—epidemic disease—retreated before the preventive methodologies of public health to low and controlled levels. At the same time, man-made death began rapidly and pathologically to increase, reaching horrendous peaks in the twentieth century’s two world wars. Man-made death accounted for not fewer than 200 million human lives in that most violent of all centuries in human history, a number that the Scottish writer Gil Elliot vividly characterizes as a “nation of the dead.”
The epidemic of man-made death collapsed abruptly after the Second World War. Losses dropped precipitously to levels characteristic of the earlier interwar years. Since then, chartered violence has smoldered along, flaring in guerrilla conflicts and conventional wars on the nuclear periphery, accounting for an average of about 1.5 million lives a year—a terrible number, to be sure, but the average before 1945 was fully a million lives higher; and the peak, in 1943, 15 million.
Man-made death became epidemic in the twentieth century because increasingly efficient killing technologies made the extreme exercise of national sovereignty pathological. And it was evidently the discovery of how to release nuclear energy and its application to nuclear weapons that reduced the virulence of the pathogen. In a profound and even a quantifiable sense, the weapons that counseled caution these past seven decades at the level of deep nuclear fear served as containers in which to sequester the deaths they held potential, like a vaccine made from the attenuated pathogen itself. It required three tons of Allied bombs to kill a German citizen during the Second World War. By that quantitative measure, the strategic arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War held latent some three billion deaths, a number that corresponds closely to a 1984 World Health Organization estimate, arrived at by other means, of potential deaths from a full-scale nuclear war.
Packaging death in the form of nuclear weapons made it visible. The sobering arsenals became memento mori, blunt reminders of our collective mortality. In the confusion of the battlefield, in the air and on the high seas it had been possible before to deny or ignore the terrible cost in lives that the pursuit of absolute sovereignty entails. Nuclear weapons, the ultimate containers of man-made death, made the consequences of sovereign violence starkly obvious for the first time in human history. Since there was no sure defense against such weapons, they also made the consequences certain. A new caste of arms strategists hustled to discover ways to use them, but every strategy foundered on the certain calculus of escalation. “Every great and deep difficulty bears within itself its own solution,” Niels Bohr had counseled the scientists at Los Alamos whose consciences he found stirred when he arrived there in 1943. Nuclear weapons, encapsulating potential human violence at its most indiscriminate extreme, paradoxically demonstrate thereductio ad absurdum of man-made death. The years since 1945 have been a dangerous but unavoidable learning experience. On many more occasions than the Cuban Missile Crisis and the near-debacle of Able Archer 83, I’ve been told, we almost lost our way.
We will confront such risk again, and may we be so lucky the next time, and the next after that. Or perhaps the disaster will break in some other hemisphere and the millions who will die will fall under another flag. It won’t take much to involve the rest of us even at a ten-thousandmile remove. In 2008, some of the scientists who modeled the original 1983 nuclear winter scenario investigated the likely result of a theoretical regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, a war they postulated to involve only 100 Hiroshima-scale nuclear weapons, yielding a total of only 1.5 megatons—no more than the yield of some single warheads in the U.S. and Russian arsenals. They were shocked to discover that because such an exchange would inevitably be targeted on cities filled with combustible materials, the resulting firestorms would inject massive volumes of black smoke into the upper atmosphere which would spread around the world, cooling the earth long enough and sufficiently to produce worldwide agricultural collapse. Twenty million prompt deaths from blast, fire, and radiation, Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon projected, and another billion deaths in the months that followed from mass starvation—from a mere 1.5-megaton regional nuclear war.
The 1996 Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons identified a fundamental principle that it called the “axiom of proliferation.” In its most succinct form, the axiom of proliferation asserts that As long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them. A member of the commission, the Australian ambassador-at-large for nuclear disarmament, Richard Butler, told me, “The basic reason for this assertion is that justice, which most human beings interpret essentially as fairness, is demonstrably a concept of the deepest importance to people all over the world. Relating this to the axiom of proliferation, it is manifestly the case that the attempts over the years of those who own nuclear weapons to assert that their security justifies having those nuclear weapons while the security of others does not, has been an abject failure.”
Elaborating before an audience in Sydney in 2002, Butler said, “I have worked on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty all my adult life. . . . The problem of nuclear-weapon haves and have-nots is the central, perennial one.” From 1997 to 1999 Butler was the last chairman of UNSCOM, the United Nations commission monitoring the disarming of Iraq. “Amongst my toughest moments in Baghdad,” he said in Sydney, “were when the Iraqis demanded that I explain why they should be hounded for their weapons of mass destruction when, just down the road, Israel was not, even though it was known to possess some 200 nuclear weapons. I confess too,” Butler continued, “that I flinch when I hear American, British, and French fulminations against weapons of mass destruction, ignoring the fact that they are the proud owners of massive quantities of those weapons, unapologetically insisting that they are essential for their national security and will remain so.”
“The principle I would derive from this,” Butler concluded, “is that manifest unfairness, double standards, no matter what power would appear at a given moment to support them, produces a situation that is deeply, inherently, unstable. This is because human beings will not swallow such unfairness. This principle is as certain as the basic laws of physics itself.”
At a later time and place Butler spoke of the particular resistance of Americans to recognizing their double standard. “My attempts to have the Americans enter into discussions about double standards,” he said, “have been an abject failure—even with highly educated and engaged people. I sometimes felt I was speaking to them in Martian, so deep is their inability to understand. What Americans totally fail to understand is that their weapons of mass destruction are just as much a problem as are those of Iraq.” Or of Iran, North Korea—or of any other confirmed or would-be nuclear power.
The Canberra Commission was speaking directly to the original nuclear powers, of course, the five nations whose status as nuclearweapons states had been effectively grandfathered into the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2009, in Prague, President Barack Obama offered a chilling corollary to the axiom of proliferation. “Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked,” he said—“that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”
And should we come to such disaster, would we still believe the weapons keep us safe? Would we see their possession then for what it is now, a crime against humanity? Would we wish we had done the hard work of abolishing them, everywhere in the world?
I have studied and written about nuclear history now for more than thirty years. What I take away from this long venture, most of all, is a sense of awe at the depth and power of the natural world, and a fascination with the complexities and the ironies of our species’ continuing encounter with technology. Despite everything, across these past seven decades—nearly the length of my life—we have managed to take into our clumsy hands a limitless new source of energy, hold it, examine it, turn it over, heft it, and put it to work without yet blowing ourselves up. When we finally make our way across to the other shore—when all the nuclear weapons have been dismantled and their cores blended down for reactor fuel—we will find ourselves facing much the same political insecurities we face now. The bombs didn’t fix them and they won’t be fixed by putting the bombs away. The world will be a more transparent place, to be sure, but information technology is moving it in that direction anyway. The difference, as Jonathan Schell has pointed out, will be that the threat of rearming will serve for deterrence rather than the threat of nuclear war.
I think of a world without nuclear weapons not as a utopian dream but simply as a world where delivery times have been deliberately lengthened to months or even years, with correspondingly longer periods interim during which to resolve disputes short of war. In such a world, if negotiations fail, if conventional skirmishes fail, if both sides revert to arming themselves with nuclear weapons again—then at worst we will only arrive once more at the dangerous precipice where we all stand now.
The discovery of how to release nuclear energy, like all fundamental scientific discoveries, changed the structure of human affairs—permanently.
How that happened is the story this book attempts to tell.
Half Moon Bay