Study Guide

Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the Worlds Most Dangerous Weapon Competition

By Steve Sheinkin


There had been a lot of talk so far, and some research. Now it was time for action. "We both felt painfully the dangers of doing nothing," Churchill recalled. "What if the enemy should get an atomic bomb before we did!" (On The Cliff.(8)10)

Aside from how awful it would have been had Hitler gotten his hands on an atomic bomb, doesn't this kind of sound like a spoiled, whiny kid? He might get one, so I want one, too—and I want mine to be even better. Hrmph.

In spite of the glider disaster, the British and Americans were still determined to destroy the Vemork heavy water plant in Norway. Like the graphite Enrico Fermi used in his Chicago pile, heavy water can be used to slow down neutrons and create a chain reaction in uranium. In fact, heavy water is more efficient than graphite—Fermi would have used heavy water if he could have gotten his hands on enough. But Adolf Hitler held tight to the world's only supply. Breaking that grip was the key to stopping the German bomb. (Operation Gunnerside.(14).2)

This is the Tonya Harding theory of competition: If you can take out your opponent's plan at the knees, then winning the race will be a lot easier.

In Moscow, KGB officers were intensely frustrated by how little they'd uncovered about the Manhattan Project. "In the presence of this research work," Moscow cabled its spies in America, "vast both in scale and scope, being conducted right here next to you, the slow pace of agent cultivation in the USA is particularly intolerable." (Laboratory Number 2.(18).23)

This is the problem with trying to have someone else run the race for you and then stealing their medal. Trying to find someone morally corrupt and pliable enough to do your dirty work isn't always easy.

The German-born physicist Hans Bethe even had an idea of what to do about it. "Kidnapping Heisenberg," said Bethe, "would greatly limit the German project."

Groves considered the idea. Kidnapping was not part of his job description, but he was ready to do whatever it took to win this race. (Dirty Work.(20).13-14)

As much as we joke about the "race" metaphor, try not to lose sight of the fact that it was serious business. Thousands of lives were at stake, and Groves really was willing to do anything in order to come out on top, including kidnapping (or killing) one of Germany's top physicists.

What if Americans succeeded in building atomic bombs and they were the only ones to have them? Would the United States be more likely to use atomic bombs, knowing no one else could strike back? Wouldn't the world be safer if a second major power also knew how to build atomic bombs? That way, neither country would use the bomb- knowing they'd have the bomb used on them. (Born Rebel.(23).33)

These are all good questions. Sometimes a little healthy competition is good to keep power in check. Unfortunately, though, we're talking about nuclear weapons, so maybe this is an exception to the rule and the less bombs, the better.

Germany did not have the atomic bomb. Now Groves was determined to keep the Soviet Union from getting it. "Our principle concern," he explained, "was to keep information and atomic scientists from falling into the hands of the Russians." (Falling Stars.(28).36)

Just because the Germans didn't have one didn't mean the danger was over. Groves wanted America to be the only nuclear power because distrust of the Soviets was steadily growing.

"[Heisenberg] was worth more to us than ten divisions of Germans," said Groves. "Had he fallen into Russian hands, he would have proven invaluable to them." (Falling Stars.(28).40)

The thing about any competition is that if you're working in teams, you always want to make sure you have the best players. Heisenberg was Germany's top physicist, and he knew more about nuclear weaponry than anyone outside of Los Alamos. So if the Russians had gotten to him first, and he agreed to cooperate, they would have gained themselves a very valuable asset.

Then they began trying to convince themselves they could have built the bomb—if they had really wanted to.

"If we had all wanted Germany to win the war, we would have succeeded," claimed Carl von Weizsacker.

"I don't believe that," said Hahn, "but I am thankful we didn't succeed."

"The Americans could do it better than we could, that's clear," added Horst Korsching. (Reaction Begins.(34).36-39)

It's hard to lose a competition. These German scientists seem to handle it pretty well, but then again, it wasn't their country that got bombed.

"It is our hope that in years to come we may look at this school, and all that it signifies, with pride," Oppenheimer told the crowd. "Today that pride must be tempered with a profound concern," he continued. "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).20-21)

This is the worst part of an arms race: Just because someone won doesn't mean everyone else is going to stop. Unfortunately, in arms races (instead of, say, foot races), instead of medals or trophies, the prize is the ability to inflict massive death and destruction on one's enemies. The more nations that have those tools, the more people will die. Oppenheimer, in those heady days immediately post-Hiroshima, was one of the only people to see atomic bombs as a source of international terror.

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