While Oppenheimer and Groves were striving desperately to build something tangible—the world's first atomic bomb—they were also working to fulfill a very symbolic task as well.
In the beginning, the possibility of a weapon that used fission to release incredible amounts of energy was almost like a dream for theoretical physicists: Finally, people like Oppenheimer who wanted to do something to help their country had a way of really aiding in the war effort.
Like all the scientists involved in the discovery, Oppenheimer was fired up by new ideas in physics, deeper glimpses into the weird inner world of atoms. The thought of making weapons of mass destruction had never occurred to him.
But now, suddenly, he couldn't shake it from his mind: fission might make it possible to build a whole new type of explosive. (The U Business.(2).30-31)
Thus, in the beginning, creating the atomic bomb was just that—an attempt to build it before an enemy could:
Roosevelt thought for a moment. "Alex," he began, "what you are after is to see that the Nazis don't blow us up."
Roosevelt nodded. He banged his desk, and said, "This requires action!" (Finding Einstein.(3).35)
But very quickly, the race to build the first atomic bomb became something bigger than just a scientific achievement. The bomb—for those in the know about it—became something of a symbol of victory, power, scientific prowess, and hope. Hope because everyone knew that if they could just build this incredible weapon they might be able to end a devastating war in one fell swoop, instead of dragging it out with countless lives lost.
Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and days later Germany surrendered. The war in Europe was over. Scientists at Los Alamos celebrated—and for a happy moment, they thought their job was done. Their work had been driven by the absolute necessity of winning the bomb race with Germany:
"For me, Hitler was the personification of evil, and the primary justification for the atomic bomb work," remembered the physicist Emilio Segrè.
"Now that the bomb could not be used against the Nazis, doubts arose. Those doubts, even if they do not appear in official reports, were discussed in many private discussions." (Land of Enchantment.(29).11-12)
In other words, it was worth going to any lengths to defeat the evil that Hitler represented. Any moral quandaries the scientists might have had were silenced in the conclusion that they had to try everything they could to end the Nazi reign of terror. But with the war over in Europe, the bomb became something else. It was now a new, super-powerful means of destruction, wielded by hubristic politicians. It no longer stood for hope and the victory for good—it was now a scary and threatening tool that some scientists feared to complete.
After the devastation of Hiroshima became known, many of the scientists started harboring doubts about building more bombs. Atomic bombs no longer stood for the triumph of good over evil; now they were something almost theological, like a power that no man had the right to wield. People like Oppenheimer became champions of de-proliferation:
"If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish." (Father of the Bomb.(36).20)
So in a sense, the bomb could be compared to another famous symbol: the apple from the Garden of Eden. At first it was a shiny, wondrous fruit filled with possibilities, but once people partook of it, the power of the knowledge it granted forever destroyed humanity's innocence and tainted the possibility of a peaceful haven.