DAY ONE: Before Hiroshima and After by Peter Wyden
Kirkus Star

DAY ONE: Before Hiroshima and After

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As in his earlier recreations, Bay of Pigs and The Passionate War (on the Spanish Civil War), Wyden relies on novelistic touches drawn from interviews to spice up a story already well known. Here, too, we're treated to repetitions of insignificant pieces of color--such as J. Robert Oppenheimer's way with a martini--or of trivial details: does anyone care that the pistol tucked into General Leslie Groves' trousers was a ""tiny Colt automatic. . . a .32 caliber on a .25 caliber frame""? But Wyden's technique, while no more insightful than in his previous narratives, is easier to take here--partly because the main figures, the physicists, are real characters. Take Leo Szilard, the Hungarian scientist who adopted the atomic bomb as a personal crusade in fear of a German military juggernaut. Living out of two suitcases that contained everything he owned, Szilard provided the impetus to fission research and teamed with Enrico Fermi in executing the successful chain reaction test at the University of Chicago. (That test was kept secret from the university's president, Robert Hutchins, by physical science dean Arthur Holly Compton for fear that Hutchins would have to veto it as too dangerous.) Szilard, a delicatessenfare addict, did not join Oppenheimer's Los Alamos project; but he did manage to keep up a running feud with Groves--in part, over the extravagant remuneration Szilard expected from his reactor patent. Wandering about, lost in thought, Szilard drove the security men tailing him crazy. (Groves was trying to get something on Szilard, and he never did.) When Szilard began another crusade, this time to forestall the actual use of the bomb on Japan, he became Groves' principal pain (and a pain to Oppenheimer, who had come out forcefully in favor of the bomb's immediate use). About as close as Wyden gets to anything of substance is the thread of lack-of-attention to radiation and its effects. (The scientists assumed that radiation effects would not carry as far as the effects of the blast.) The news of radiation death from Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a shock to the scientists and covered up by Groves; but this, too, is familiar. The establishment of Los Alamos and the bureaucratic labyrinths are handled well, however. Drawbacks and all, this account will serve excellently for first-timers.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster