Study Guide

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

By Steve Sheinkin


"The element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future," Einstein had written. "One day man will release and control its almost infinite power. We cannot prevent him from doing so and can only hope that he will not use it exclusively in blowing up his next-door neighbor." (Finding Einstein.(3).32)

Imagine having what Einstein called "infinite power" contained in a single bomb, and then try to picture a world in which someone wouldn't be tempted to use it. Einstein was right to be concerned.

"The Germans could destroy all of London if they succeed," Wilson said.

"I didn't really believe him," Poulsson later admitted. "In those days, no one thought in terms of one bomb destroying a whole city." (International Gangster School.(9).24-25)

It would be almost like handing President Truman a cellphone and expecting him to know how to use it. The atomic bomb was powerful beyond anyone's imagination—even the physicists who were building it had no idea how formidable it would be outside of theoretical postulations.

"This would be a very, very powerful weapon," he said, "which in the hands of Hitler and his crew would let them completely control the rest of the world."

He decided to go to the meeting. Soon after, Richard Feynman disappeared from the Princeton campus. (Disappearing Scientists.(12).44-45)

Can you even imagine what the world would be like now if Hitler had gotten the atomic bomb first? We're not so confident there'd even really be a world…

The KGB's chief of foreign intelligence, Pavel Fitin, said Hall's information "is of great interest to us." That was a massive understatement. Top Soviet officials like Fitin lived in terror of Joseph Stalin. Anyone who angered or disappointed the Soviet dictator could wind up in a Siberian prison camp—or with a bullet in the brain. (Two Inside.(24).38)

There are different ways to wield power. Stalin went the "I'll kill you if I don't like what you say/do/look like" route. We wouldn't recommend it.

Just two years before, Stimson had decided Truman wasn't important enough to know about the Manhattan Project. Now, if an atomic bomb could be built, it would be Truman's job to decide how to use it.

"If you ever pray, pray for me now," Truman told reporters when they surrounded him the following day. "I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me." (Falling Stars.(28).19-20)

Sometimes power can be something that opens doors, and sometimes it is an oppressive force that can be scary and overwhelming. Truman's ascension to the presidency gave him both of these experiences, wielding new power for the first time.

President Truman was leaving in a few days for Potsdam, Germany, where he was going to meet with Joseph Stalin to begin talking about post-war plans. It was becoming clear that when the war ended the United States and the Soviet Union would be the only world powers left standing—and that they'd be rivals. Potsdam would be Truman's first meeting with the famously intimidating Soviet leader. Truman wanted to know that the United States had a working atomic bomb. He wanted to stun Stalin with the news. (Trinity.(30).4)

Having an atomic bomb in one's back pocket is quite the trump card for Truman. It's like throwing a royal flush down on a pair of threes, so it's no wonder that he was really disappointed when Stalin's reaction was like, "Eh, yeah, good for you."

"Naturally, we were very jubilant over the outcome of the experiment," Rabi later said of the mood among scientists that morning. "We turned to one another and offered congratulations—for the first few minutes. Then, there was a chill, which was not the morning cold."

It was the chill of knowing they had used something they loved—the study of physics—to build the deadliest weapon in human history. Oppenheimer was feeling the chill too.

"It was extremely solemn," he recalled. "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent."

Oppenheimer thought of a line from the ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, a dramatic moment in which the god Vishnu declares: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." (Test Shot.(31).74-77)

Even though the scientists knew what they'd been creating, they probably had a bit of cognitive dissonance while they were doing it. They could focus on the science, beating Hitler, winning the war, and so on, but once they succeed, the reality of what they've made sets in and all of that dissonance fades. In this moment, they're realizing they've used their significant intellectual powers to create something awful.

"We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces… The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction." (Little Boy.(32).26)

Can you imagine being able to say something like that and mean it? It sounds like something a super villain would threaten, not something a government would issue to another country—but that's the power of being the only nation with an atomic bomb.

"We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city… Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war… If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth." (Reaction Begins.(34).13)

Surprised/scared emoji.

In October 1949, Oppenheimer and other scientific advisors sat down to discuss the hydrogen bomb. Would the bomb really work? Probably, the scientists agreed. Would building it make Americans safer? No, they argued. The United States already had bombs powerful enough to wipe out Soviet cities. Building even bigger bombs would only heat up the arms race with the Soviets. The Soviets would respond by building bigger bombs themselves, putting Americans in greater danger. Oppenheimer argued that now was the time to step back from the arms race, not to accelerate it. (Epilogue.41)

Now that would be power: knowing that you could build an even bigger bomb, but choosing not to do so for the sake of mankind. But instead, Truman demanded they build the "super bomb" (the hydrogen bomb, which used atomic fusion instead of fission), and Oppenheimer's prediction of an accelerated arms race began.