A comprehensive analysis of how mobilization and management of scientists—and their research and resultant technologies—produced an array of weapons for the Allies that ranged from horrific to unbelievable.
Few people realize how many details of the weaponry of WWII remained classified for as long as half a century. Shachtman acknowledges that edge over previous historians—even Churchill—and builds a fascinating case boosting science, including “soft” disciplines such as cryptography, psychology, and Operations Research, as a pivotal factor in the outcome. The race for the atomic bomb is, of course, prime and well documented, but the author points to radar as the key area where Allied scientists, military intelligence, and manufacturing resources overcame a German lead at war’s outset. The breakthrough that produced a proximity fuse for artillery shells also looms large; other than minimizing Hitler’s prime “vengeance” weapon, the jet-propelled V1 “buzz bomb,” in skies over Britain, proximity fuses were used only at sea (antiaircraft) until the final year of the war for fear that an unexploded shell might be recovered and reproduced by the Germans. And when they were finally used, with appalling effect, some scientists openly expressed regret at ever having worked on the project. In that regard, Shachtman relates that it wasn’t a nuclear mushroom cloud that appeared in the nightmares of US military sci-tech czar Vannevar Bush after the war; it was the jellied gasoline incendiaries he’d approved for use on Japanese cities. (How close all sides came to deploying poison gases is also a chilling theme.) Axis miscues played a major role, but in the author’s view, Hitler’s purging of Jews from key posts was less critical than his failure to trust and employ even “Aryan” scientists—still a formidable array—in the war effort at a point where it could have made a difference.
Remarkable view of a war that not only advanced but politicized science, perhaps forever.