Study Guide

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

By Steve Sheinkin


But Feklisov and Semyonov held a view that was common among Russians at the time. Yes, the United States was helping the Soviet Union—but not out of the kindness of its heart. The United States and Soviet Union had never been friendly, and nothing had really changed. America's help to the Soviets was the product of cold logic. The Soviet Union was battling Germany. America badly wanted to see Germany beaten. So Americans were glad to have the Soviets do the bloody work of fighting Hitler.

"When you know you are being taken advantage of," Feklisov said, "you have every right to be clever." (Rapid Rupture.(5).6-7)

Even though this point of view isn't exactly one we'd aspire to, it's hard not to understand where Feklisov and Semyonov are coming from. They're arguing that spying for information was tit-for-tat, and they were just trying to get theirs. It's not really honorable, but it's nothing we wouldn't do for ourselves…right?

They starved through winter and into spring, dodging German patrols, waiting for their next job.
"When this war is over," said Kjelstrup after yet another unsatisfying meal, "I shall spend all my money on food. I shan't spend any on girls."

Haukelid licked his long-since empty spoon.

"Same here," he said. (Ferry Job.(19).4-7)

We weren't sure if this was more about having principles or priorities. Either way, it's a pretty funny interaction.

The government was spending hundreds of millions of dollars—yet the project was so secret, President Roosevelt chose not to tell Congress where all the money was going.

A senator from Missouri named Harry Truman began to get curious. "I had known," Truman later said, "something that was unusually important was brewing in our war plants." But what? Worried that the government was wasting taxpayer money, Truman decided to send investigators to Oak Ridge and Hanford. […] [After being asked to call off the investigations], Truman couldn't help himself, though. He continued poking around for information about where all the money was going. (Secret Cities.(21).45-55)

Either Truman was really gung-ho about protecting the rights of the citizens that he served or he was looking for political ammunition. He was told to back down by the Secretary of War, and yet he still persisted. During a time when winning the war was the absolute highest priority, do you think it's right that Truman insisted on pursing his principles rather than listening to the higher-ups?

"Do you understand what you are doing?" Kurnakov demanded. "What makes you think you should reveal the USA's secrets for the USSR's sake?"

"The Soviet Union is the only country that can be trusted with such a terrible thing," said Hall. "But since we can't take it away from other countries, the USSR ought to be aware of its existence and stay abreast of the progress of experiments and construction."(Two Inside.(24).21-22)

As Hall explains why he's willing to become a Soviet spy, he's also revealing that while principles are a fine thing to have, they can also be quite dangerous. Because he believed that—on principle—an atomic weapon was too terrible for just one country to have, he betrayed his own country and single-handedly helped develop strained relations between the U.S. and the USSR.

"Tell me," Goudsmit cut in. "How much did your laboratory contribute to war problems?"
Bothe's expression changed from friendly to nervous.

"We are still at war," Bothe said. "It must be clear to you that I cannot tell anything which I promised to keep secret."

"I understand your reluctance to talk," said Goudsmit. "But I should appreciate it if you will show me whatever secret papers you may have."

"I have no such papers. I have burned all secret documents. I was ordered to do so."

Goudsmit didn't buy it. "The fear of a German atom bomb development superior to ours still dominated our thinking," he said later, "and as we had obtained no real information of their uranium project in all our investigations so far, we were still mighty uneasy." (Implosion.(27).9-13)

Well, if you conduct all of your investigations this clumsily, maybe that's why you haven't uncovered any evidence? That kind of interrogation gives "ineptitude" a whole new name.

On directions from Yatzkov, Gold tried to hand Fuchs an envelope with $1,500 in tens and twenties. Fuchs brushed the money aside.

"It was quite obvious that by even mentioning this, I had offended the man," Gold reported. "He flatly refused to accept it." (Implosion.(27).41-42)

Betraying your country and your trusted colleagues/friends? Acceptable. Doing so for money? Not acceptable. We think we get it? Nope, we definitely do not.

After taking the oath of office, Truman met with the cabinet members. He assured them he would continue Roosevelt's policies. "I made it clear, however, that I would be president in my own right," he said later, "and that I would assume full responsibilities for such decisions as had to be made." (Falling Stars.(28).16)

This was important for Truman to establish with his cabinet. He had his own set of beliefs that he needed to prioritize in order to have an effective presidency, but he had to balance that out by respecting the fact that these trusted officials had been selected during Roosevelt's term. It was a very difficult balancing act for Truman to undertake, especially at a time when huge decisions needed to be made.

"He wanted me to take a little side trip," Gold remembered. "He said there was a man in Albuquerque who also worked at Los Alamos and who was ready to furnish me with information."

Gold didn't like it. "I complained that it was jeopardizing the whole matter of the information I was getting from Fuchs," he said. "It represented an additional delay, an additional period or interval in which something could happen, and I just for once got up on my hind legs and almost flatly refused to go to New Mexico." (Land of Enchantment.(29).5-6)

It's interesting to see where these people with questionable principles draw the line. Here, Gold is essentially just standing up for his own well being, but he's also refusing to do the "side trip" because it goes against what he was taught as tradecraft.

"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).12)

It all comes down to their principles. Most, if not all, of the scientists wouldn't like the idea of killing thousands of people in a single moment. They were creating a bomb that would do precisely that, though, in order to defeat a far greater evil: Hitler and the Nazi regime. With Hitler out of the way, would it still be right to build such a terrible weapon?

For Truman, that settled it. If the atomic bomb could shock Japan into giving up, it had to be used.

"It was a question of saving hundreds of thousands of American lives," he later explained. "I couldn't worry about what history would say about my personal morality. I made the only decision I ever knew how to make. I did what I thought was right." (Little Boy.(32).25-26)

Truman chose to use a horrible weapon against a lot of innocent people in order to try to save the lives of his own countrymen. How do his principles come into play? What about his pledge to be his own president while still respecting Roosevelt's vision?

"I believe the most important question is the moral one," [Bethe] said. "Can we, who have always insisted on morality and human decency between nations as well as inside our own country, introduce this weapon of total annihilation into the world?" (Epilogue.43)

This was a prevalent problem for the scientists working on the bomb. The majority of them felt as though they were working for the good of their country, but once it was unleashed, they realized they'd created something truly terrible.

Oppenheimer had two options: demand a hearing, or simply walk away. He knew by now that nothing he did or said could stop the arms race. But there was a principle involved—he couldn't let the charges against him go unchallenged. "This course of action," he told Strauss, "would mean that I accept and concur in the view that I am not fit to serve this government that I have now served for some twelve years. This I cannot do." (Epilogue.56)

Oppie is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He doesn't want the publicity and attention of a trial, but he also couldn't let Strauss defame him without taking a stand. Unfortunately, Strauss's underhanded methods won the day, leaving Oppenheimer dejected and disparaged.

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