Study Guide

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

By Steve Sheinkin


It wasn't illegal to be a Communist. But it seemed likely that American Communists might feel allegiance to the Soviet Union. Could a citizen be a Communist and a loyal American at the same time? The FBI thought not. (Rapid Rupture.(5).9)

Sure, some philosophical adherents like Oppenheimer might have seen the appeal in the idealistic nature of the communist system and were thus able to maintain their American loyalty, but as we see with Gold and Hall, others were not able to keep the two separate.

Helberg hit the ground hard, but safely. He sat in the deep snow, thinking, "And here we are, in Norway, cold and inhospitable, but marvelous all the same." (Gliders Down.(10).4)

We admire how much Helberg (and the other Norwegians on the team) are so passionate about their "cold and inhospitable" country. Obviously there must be much more to Norway than snow and mountains, but these guys are seriously in love with their home nation.

Progress was slow, since they each had to handle two seventy-pound loads. They would ski a set distance with one load, put it down, return to the starting point, pick up the second load, and make the trip again. Making things worse, it had been a relatively mild autumn on the Hardanger Plateau. The snow was wet and sticky, the ice on the lakes still thin—forcing them to take the long way around the water. The men reminded each other of an old Norwegian saying: "A man who is a man goes on until he can go no further—and then goes twice as far." (Gliders Down.(10).14)

Perhaps it's the nature of the Norwegian climate that spawns a saying like that (and people who adhere to it, too), but we think the love these men had for their country, as well as a healthy hatred of the occupying forces, was a major motivating factor that cannot be ignored.

As a college student in Germany, Fuchs had watched the rise of the Nazis with disgust. He joined the Communist Party, impressed by the party's willingness to speak out against Hitler. When Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, Nazi thugs beat Fuchs nearly to death and tossed him in a river. That only strengthened Fuchs's commitment to communism. (Quiet Fellow.(11).10)

It's interesting how even though Britain is the country that offered Fuchs refuge, he still remained committed to the Communist Party. If his allegiance to the communists was based purely on their willingness to combat Hitler and the Nazis, couldn't the same be said about Great Britain? Why keep his allegiance then?

"Almost everyone knew that if it were completed successfully and rapidly enough, it might determine the outcome of the war," he said. "Almost everyone knew that this job would be part of history. This sense of excitement, of devotion and of patriotism prevailed. Most of those with whom I talked came to Los Alamos." (Disappearing Scientists.(12).36)

Patriotism was a hard thing to avoid during this time period. There were countless flyers posted everywhere talking about sacrificing for your country, and how America was counting on you to help win the war, and so on. Many of these scientists were totally flummoxed as to how they could use their specific skill set to aid the fight. Enter Oppie and the Manhattan Project—of course they wanted to sign up.

Talk turned from science to the war, and several of the guests started grilling Heisenberg, demanding to know how he could live and work under Hitler, a monster who enslaved countries, murdered Jews.

"I'm not a Nazi," said Heisenberg defensively, "but a German."

"Now you have to admit," one guest challenged, "that the war is lost."

"Yes," Heisenberg sighed, "but it would have been so good if we had won." (Swiss Deal.(26).37-40)

This is…confusing. Heisenberg wasn't a Nazi—so why would he have wanted them to win? We think maybe because as a German, his patriotism didn't allow for any other option. Of course he wanted his country to win, even if it meant being ruled by someone like Hitler.

Political leaders were open to the idea of accepting the Potsdam demand. Military leaders urged immediate rejection. They especially feared unconditional surrender, which would allow foreign soldiers to take over their country with no conditions. This, they felt, was too disgraceful to even consider. (Little Boy.(32).27)

Sometimes patriotism and pride in one's country can be harmful. The world might be a very different place today if Japan had accepted the Potsdam proposal, but the military leaders just couldn't shelve their patriotism long enough to see the sense in surrender. In their defense, however, they had no idea what was in store for them.

"We all felt that, like the soldiers, we had done our duty," said Hans Bethe, "and that we deserved to return to the type of work that we had chosen as our life's career, the pursuit of pure science and teaching." (Father of the Bomb.(36).14)

The soldiers got to go home and resume their lives, for the most part, so this was a fair assumption for the scientists to make. Their duty to their country was done; the need for more atomic bombs was diminished when Japan surrendered. Was it unpatriotic to not want to continue?

Strauss argued that Oppenheimer's opposition to the H-bomb was an act of disloyalty to America. He suggested that maybe Oppenheimer had always been disloyal. As evidence, he dug up those flimsy charges the army and FBI had investigated ten years before: that Oppenheimer was secretly a Communist and maybe even a Soviet spy. (Epilogue.54)

Oppenheimer sacrificed years of his life in order to help produce a weapon that would almost single-handedly win the war with Japan, and yet his loyalty was still being questioned. We just wish Strauss could have seen that Oppenheimer's opposition to building an H-bomb was in fact proof of his patriotism. He knew that by building such a weapon Americans wouldn't be safer and was trying to prevent catastrophe.

During the hearing a friend mentioned that Oppenheimer, with his scientific reputation, would be welcome at any top university in Europe—why not go? Tears glazed Oppenheimer's eyes as he said, "Damn it, I happen to love this country." (Epilogue.64)

Oppenheimer loved his country, and yet that patriotism was rewarded with suspicion, defamation, and the end of his treasured government career. Sorry, Oppie.