Joe Donahue: Steve Shenkin's book "Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal- The World's Most Dangerous Weapon" was a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor book and really required reading for anyone who is interested in what happened in 1945, with the dropping of the atomic bomb.
On the 75th anniversary, it is a great pleasure to welcome Steve Sheinkin to The Roundtable this morning. Thank you very much for being with us. I appreciate it.
Steve Sheinkin: Thank you, Joe. It's my pleasure to be here.
What brought you to the subject? This book came out 2013, if I'm correct?
What brought you to the subject initially?
In a word, spies. My love of spy thrillers and wanting to write one essentially. And I didn't begin with the concept of the race to build the atomic bomb per se, but when I when I looked into spies and I started researching. The one that really jumped out at me was a guy named Theodore Hall, Ted Hall. And he's not a household name, unless you're really into this story, but he was recruited out of Harvard when he was 18, by the way, which is incredible, to work on the Manhattan Project and became a spy. So you have this guy who's 18 years old, building an atomic bomb and making copies of it, so he can try and figure out some way to give it to the Russians. Though, he doesn't know how that works, really, because how do you do that? And so that's just, you know, that's got everything right there, it's a great story. And what I do, as a living is trying to make history exciting for middle school or high school, that, that audience. So let's face it, that's tough, you know? That, it could be a reluctant audience, and I need great stories like that.
At the beginning of the book, as you start to tell the story, the first part is the three-way race. The story actually goes back into the late 30's. So talk a little bit about the setup for that race.
Yeah, it began in Germany of all places, again, you just can't make this stuff up, from a storytelling standpoint, everything just raises the stakes, which is what they always tell writers to do. And in this case, you really, you don't have to make anything up. German scientists discovered, did the first experiments with fission and this discovery that they could split uranium atoms in the lab, and in doing so, the nucleus as it split would release energy, just a small amount. But immediately their brain went to this concept of, "What if we could create a chain reaction?" What if we could split you know, a lump of uranium the size of a basketball, and get, get many of those nuclei to split in a millionth of a second, which in their mind was quite theoretically possible, then you'd have a bomb, you would blow up a city with that. And this idea spread amongst a very, very small world of theoretical, top theoretical physicists who, of course, don't care at all about what religion you are, what country you're from, it's just ideas to them. And they also don't care at all about making weapons. So that idea spread amongst them, from Germany through Western Europe to America, right as Hitler began World War Two. So it's almost inevitable that there would be a race between countries to, to build the bomb. So obviously would you have Germany with a head start, you have the Americans trying to catch up, and then the Soviets who are our allies, but not really, and they figured out pretty, pretty quickly through their spies that we were trying to make a bomb and they decided to steal it from us.
How did it end up, our part of it of creating this, this weapon to go to Los Alamos, New Mexico? I mean, I assume for its remote location, but how that was chosen?
Yeah, that you're right. You want actually two things, if you're if you're ever in this position and you need to build the secret lab, you want to remote location but you also don't want it to be the middle of nowhere. Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves, the, the Army General in charge of the Manhattan Project, drove around. I mean, it's a great scene, it would jump right into a movie, looking for a spot, you know, as if they're picking a house together, but they're picking a spot to build a bomb. And so you want, yes, you want remote, but they actually looked at some places that weren't too remote because you want to start today, which means you need buildings, you need plumbing, you need electricity. So they actually found, they're driving around in New Mexico and they found the Los Alamos Ranch School, it was a boys boarding school, on top of a mesa and really in the middle of nowhere. And it's perfect. You drive up this mountain, you come to a school, so they have buildings, they have electricity, have water. And all you need to do is kick out the kids and start your secret lab. And that's, that's just what they did.
You have a chapter in the book called "Disappearing Scientists". So then, then came this, this quest to get the most incredible minds to this place, to start this work and obviously it was all top secret.
Very much so, it was quite literally 'disappearing scientists' to, to their colleagues. Many very young scientists, Richard Fyneman was one of them, he was at Princeton- Many very young scientists were recruited, often directly by Oppenheimer, who went around from campus to campus, recruiting people. Sometimes telling them what they would be doing, a lot of times not. A lot of them didn't, didn't learn that they would be building this bomb, or how the theory would work, of the bomb, until they got there. Because it was so secret but just about everyone he talked to, Oppenheimer talked to, he was able to get which, which was a tough sell because you're basically saying quit your research, quit doing what your, your work toward your PhD and come live in the middle of nowhere, for an indefinite amount of time, you probably won't be able to leave. But it's important to the country. And that was the pitch and it worked.
It's hard to think of somebody, you know, this, it's a short list I think, of just like the most fascinating Americans. But my goodness, Oppenheimer has quite a story.
Oh yeah, I couldn't agree more. I mean, I, I sometimes think, what if Shakespeare was gonna write a play about one American? I think, I think he would pick Oppenheimer. It's hard to prove you know, but yeah, talk about everything, every aspect of, of a personality: a big, rich, weird person, personality, but, but quite brilliant guy. The, the fact that even his friends, when the, when the project began, and he got put in charge of the secret lab, even his friends weren't sure it was a good idea. One of them, their quote was, "I don't think he could run a hamburger stand."
He was just so absent minded that he would go on dates and forget he was on a date, just kind of wander off into the woods. And he really rose to the occasion. But you're right, there's so many aspects to his personality and to this very big thing, this tragic thing of using physics, which he revered, he once said, "I need physics more than friends," to, to build a weapon of mass destruction and then see it being used completely beyond his power to control.
One of the other incredible aspects of the story, of course, is that President Roosevelt dies just a few months before the bomb is to be used and knows nothing about the project. He's Vice President of the United States but knows nothing about the project. And it's Oppenheimer, really, who is the one, who is the guy in charge, right? I mean, he's the one who is responsible for bringing the President of the United States and to tell him what they've been working on all this time.
Yeah and probably Leslie Groves, the general was, was- Also higher up, you know, you have the Secretary of War, and yeah, up the chain of command. But yet you have Truman, what an- Another just a super interesting figure, that you could be vice president and completely out of the loop about this. In fact, it's, it's just one, another one of those things you couldn't make up, as a Senator from Missouri, he was famous for, you know, "I want to find out what the government's wasting all this money on," and he actually tried to find out about the Manhattan Project and they just shut him down. You know, told him to, "Don't worry about it. This is this is need to know, and you don't need to know." So yeah, what an irony that he would then be the one to make this final decision, that's his decision that we've been debating about ever since.
And as you, as you alluded to a few moments ago, while all of this is going on, there is also the race not only to build the bomb, but to steal it.
Yeah, that's what got me into it in the first place, the, the spy stuff. So there were a couple of spies at, at Los Alamos. I mean, this was the most heavily guarded, carefully guarded secret in the world. And yet, the Soviets in what was undoubtedly the best, most successful piece of espionage in world history, were able to get to two of the physicists at Los Alamos independently. Which was really, really helpful because when they started to use the information they got, the worst thing that they were afraid of was getting disinformation. Maybe the Americans are leaking bomb plans that won't work, it's gonna send us down a dead end for two years. But here they had two sets of plans from not just Ted Hall, but Klaus Fuchs, as well, that were the same. So they knew it was right.
There are ultimately two bombs and the- As the project goes, goes on, they're, they're testing these but really when you think of when they dropped it, from the time they tested it to the time they dropped it, it's really not a lot of time.
Yes, it was a very short, just weeks. And in fact, the military didn't even want to test. And it was Oppenheimer and Groves got in a big argument about this, because Groves said, "No, just give us the bombs and we're going to use them." And Oppenheimer said, "This, this plutonium design, this implosion design is so complicated that we have to test it." And it was just a question of not having very much fuel, so the military didn't want to, "waste it on a test." But the scientists got their way and they did test it. But then yes, you're right, it was used really right away.
And also, really thinking of how long this project had been going on, a last minute decision as to where they were going to use it.
Yeah, it was based a lot on things like the weather, and also frankly, on what was left of Japan and very cynically, the, the Air Force had left some cities to, to use this weapon on. They knew that, that, that it, if it worked, it would destroy an entire city. And they didn't want to bomb a city that had already been destroyed, which was much of Japan at that point.
So what was, what was the, the final decision as to, that, that this is the place that we need to drop it?
They made a list of a few, a short list of a few. And from that point on, it really depended a lot on the weather. Each, each flight had a, had a target and then a backup. Hiroshima was described as a military target, that's really not true, there's, there was a military base there, but it was, it was a city, you know? Nagasaki was actually the backup target for that day, there was a city that was meant to be number one, and it was just clouded over. The pilots had very strict orders, they had to see, it had to be a visual sighting of the target. They couldn't use instruments and they had to move on if they couldn't see the target, move on to the next one. And that's how Nagasaki ended up being the second city.
Of course, they, they were hoping for the Japanese to surrender, and give us a sense of the timeline from when we see the, for one of a better term, the dust settles and we see the utter devastation. Um, and we can get into how that affects the main players in a minute- But the, once we see that, that we understand where we are going as a country and in ending the war.
Yeah, that's what it was all about, was how to end the war quickly. And this is this is actually the issue, the question that got me interested in history. It must have been 11th grade, I was a late starter when it came to history because I just thought it was so boring through most of school. But yeah, my teacher asked me, "What do you think, should we have used the bomb?" And I never really thought that you could have an opinion about history, I thought it was just something you just memorized or not, as you know, depending on your mood. And so I think it's totally relevant to continue debating these questions. It's maybe one of the biggest, certainly the biggest moral questions in, in our history, and it all, like you say, it all happened very quickly. The Air Force gave these pilots, they didn't give individual orders, they said, "Just start bombing and, and weather permitting, keep going 'til we tell you to stop." And the big controversy, I think- Well, first of all, you could say, "Should we have used it?" And there's a lot of debate about that. But then the second one is really where you get into moral dilemmas even more so. Now, Japan had the option, they could have immediately said, "That's it, we quit." It, it was it was three days from Hiroshima to Nagasaki and they could have spoken up in that time. Many people- This argument, it's incredible, this argument, the heat of argument still going on- "Would they have? Would they have, if we had just reached out and said, 'Okay, you can keep the Emperor,' would they have, would they have surrendered?" And some people- We don't know. I mean, some people insist that that's the case, but there's no real proof of that. So it happened very quickly the second one, and that's when Truman said, "Okay, let's just let's hold off a little bit, at least we have a third." And they really only had one more at that point. And let's just see, if we hear from Tokyo. And then the surrender was done within days of that point.
The effect of people, and you write about this in the epilogue, but the effect that it has- I mean, people were certainly aware of leading up to it of what was, what could happen and the devastation. So it was known but obviously when it happens, it's much different and I mean, you write about Oppenheimer, I think its Robert Serber says, you know, "I think a lot of this just broke his spirit. And that wasn't a decision." But still, I mean, it was it was something that was so monumental that it was, thing that these people lived with for the rest of their lives.
Yeah, they really did. And Oppenheimer that's part of what makes him such a fascinatingly tragic figure is that he did live with it. And the scientists- What's really interesting to look at what happened the night that they heard the first bomb worked over Japan, there was a party, they had a party. People running around, Fyneman describes banging on bongos and drinking, but only initially, because that kind of wore off as they got more information about what had happened and how many people had probably died that the mood changed very quickly. And Oppenheimer described seeing one of the sciences kind of staggering outside to vomit and thinking, "Okay, the reaction has begun." And I think it does come back to this, this terrible thing that they had used, the thing they love the most, which is science, physics, these this wonderous language in nature, to, to create this terrible weapon. And they, and they also knew, and this is what really haunted the rest of Oppenheimer's life, that it was completely out of their control. He, even if you can justify using the bombs to end World War Two, and he did, Oppenheimer did, at least rationalize that, then what do you do from there because now the government wants to build ever bigger and better, "better," more powerful weapons. And the physicists knew that it was possible, just a matter of doing the research, and he really tried to stop that train but it was it was already too late.
The book is amazing about this deadliest weapon ever invented. It is entitled "Bomb" by Steve Sheinkin. Steve, thanks always for being on our program, but especially on this anniversary to join us. I really appreciate it.
Thank you. I appreciate that you're doing this too, Joe.
A great pleasure. Thank you very much. You're listening to The Roundtable on WAMC.