Did we ever learn to love the bomb? Perhaps not, this opinionated and lively history shows.
Historian DeGroot (Modern History/Univ. of St. Andrews) opens, fittingly, with a funeral, a “row of tiny coffins” commemorating the deaths of eighteen small children killed by a German Gotha bomber. The children weren’t meant to be sacrificed, of course, but the German bomb had been dropped on London in 1917 with the intent of killing someone, and whether civilian or military didn’t much matter. Fast-forward to Hiroshima, with the same effect: “The Americans didn’t intend to hit a hospital, but they did intend to kill people.” So it was with the postwar bomb: the world knew that civilian, child, innocent, and suchlike categories no longer mattered, and if the bomb was not going to adjust for us, we were going to have to adjust for the bomb. DeGroot writes with a smartly revisionist, sometimes acid sensibility: Werner Heisenberg may have protested that he worked for the Nazis only unwillingly, but if “he only pretended to collaborate, he did so with great enthusiasm.” Albert Einstein was a poster boy for the bomb, but the real engine behind it was Leo Szilard. Ironically enough, Japan had a nuclear-weapons program of its own; after Hiroshima, the General Staff told the nation’s leading atomic scientist that the military would try to hold out for six months if he could build a bomb to use against the Americans in that amount of time. Nagasaki was an accident, the victim of a too-stiff Japanese resistance over the intended target. In the postwar era, Britain pushed to develop a bomb because it was cheaper than maintaining a massive army, a cousin of thought to Robert McNamara’s theory of peace through mutually assured destruction. And so on over seven decades, in a narrative characterized by an odd amiability and even hopefulness—even though, as DeGroot notes, the shadow of the bomb falls on us still.
A splendid distillation of nuclear history, and just the thing for students of the modern age.