Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

April 6, 2011

The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Richard Rhodes (Simon & Schuster, 1986)
886 p.

Twenty-five years after its first publication, I believe that Richard Rhodes’ history of the atomic bomb is still regarded as definitive. It is a superb history, beginning in the early 20th century with the discoveries of atomic structure and extending to the 1950s and the first detonation of a hydrogen bomb. The focus of the story, as one would expect, is trained on the six years of World War II, and the Manhattan project.  The scope takes in both the science and the politics.

Roughly the first third of the book is simply a history of the early discoveries about the atom, the nucleus, radioactivity, mass-energy equivalence, quantum theory, and the like.  Much of this was already known to me, though not in such historical detail (the technical detail is kept to a minimum, though not so much as to impair a clear understanding of the science), and Rhodes does a nice job of putting flesh on the physicists who made these epochal discoveries.  It was amusing to learn that a considerable part of the work, such as the experimental work of Ernest Rutherford, was done on a shoe-string budget under rather quaint conditions.  I was also astonished to learn that it was not until 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of the war, that the possibility of nuclear fission was finally confirmed in the lab.  In just six years this ‘proof-of-concept’ would be turned, by a Herculean effort, into the weapon that would (together, of course, with the efforts of many thousands of people) bring the conflict to an abrupt end.

I have often wondered about the motives of those physicists who worked on the development of the bomb; as one would expect, they varied from one person to the next. In the early days they did not have a clear understanding of how powerful the bomb would be, nor even whether the effort to build it would succeed, nor did they know just what its effects would be, especially in the long term. These things all came into clearer focus as the work proceeded. In time some, like Leo Szilard (a man who played a central role in the story of the bomb), turned against the project in protest.  Some, like Edward Teller (who would eventually lead the American hydrogen bomb program), felt an immense burden but carried on.  Teller wrote, ‘I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls…’  Others worked on the project with the expectation that the bomb would be so terrible that no-one would dare to use it, and for some the motive was fear: fear that the Germans would produce a bomb first.

As it happened, there was never much danger of the German atomic program succeeding. The program did exist, led by so distinguished a man as Werner Heisenberg, but it never really got off the ground. This was partly because the German authorities never put their full weight behind it, apparently believing that the war would be over before the bomb could be ready, and it was also partly due to effective sabotage by the Allies who, more than once, attacked the Norwegian heavy water supply that the Germans relied upon.

One thing becomes perfectly clear reading Rhodes’ account of the Manhattan project: no half-hearted effort would have succeeded.  The sheer scale of the American effort beggars description, with tens of thousands of people involved in the construction and operation of massive plants for the production and isolation of the plutonium and uranium isotopes that were needed.  At one point the physicists were dithering over a decision about how to proceed, and they were instructed as follows: “The War Department considers the project important… If there is a choice between two methods, one of which is good and the other looks promising, build both.” Only in the United States does that happen.  (I speak from experience.)

Almost as soon as the underlying physics of the bomb was discovered, physicists realized that it could be used to produce a weapon of formidable destructive power.  Almost as quickly, certain physicists, most notably Neils Bohr, understood that the existence of an atomic bomb would have profound and far-reaching political implications. Nations armed with nuclear weapons would no longer be able to settle their differences through war, unless they were willing to commit themselves to mutual destruction. Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, actually called the bomb ‘a weapon of no military significance’ because he believed that no war could actually be fought using it. Bohr argued that the bomb would lead to an ‘open world’, in which international mediating bodies would play an important role, and in which  restraint and negotiation would bear the weight formerly allocated to armed conflict. This was his hope — that the very terror of the bomb would bring peace, not destruction — and he urged Roosevelt to tell the Russians about the existence of the bomb project, for instance, and even to share the secrets of its development, as a sign of good will, which he hoped would avert an arms race. Roosevelt was not willing to go that far, but he did understand that the bomb would change his business; when he learned of its possibility he immediately reserved all policy decisions concerning the project to himself. Churchill, on the other hand, seems to have quite obtuse on this point; when Bohr approached him to discuss the matter, he rather brusquely chided him, saying that a bomb was a bomb and what was the big deal? He would find out soon enough.

Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people have argued about the moral justification for the decision to use the bombs. During the 65th anniversary of the bombings a few months ago this debate was renewed. Those who defend the decision usually argue that by bringing the war to an early end, it saved lives, both Japanese and American. It is almost certainly true that the invasion of the Japanese homeland which was being planned by the Americans would have cost the lives of many men, women, and children.  The American experience at Okinawa in 1945 cast a chilling light on what an invasion might portend: Japanese soldiers fought to the death rather than surrender, and tens of thousands of civilians committed suicide rather than be captured. If such a scenario were to be repeated on a larger scale, the results would be almost unimaginably horrific. Some also argue that the atomic bombs, though certainly more dramatic than conventional bombs, did not actually cause disproportionately more destruction, and so if one was licit then so ought the other to be.  By ‘conventional bombing’ in this context is meant fire-bombing, which was being systematically applied to major Japanese cities. Whether this was a licit tactic, however, is also very debatable.

In opposition to the use of the bombs it is usually argued that the weapons were so indiscriminate in their force that dropping them on a populated area amounted to the deliberate targeting of civilians. In response it has been argued that the Japanese population was being organized into militias and trained by the government to fight American troops during the anticipated invasion, and so they were not really civilians, but legitimate targets.  I must say that reading the eyewitness accounts of what happened on the ground in Hiroshima, with women and children burning in the streets, makes this argument sound sick.

In my opinion the best case to be made for the bombings would appeal to the principle of double effect: if the intention in using the bombs was to achieve a legitimate military objective, and if the deaths of civilians was not intended as an end or a means, then the action could be justified, even if the civilian deaths were foreseen. I am afraid, however, that neither condition seems to have been adequately satisfied.  It is true that Hiroshima had a significant military role, as the resistance strategy against the American invasion was being planned there. However it is also true that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were on the short list of nuclear targets in part because they had not yet been bombed, and therefore offered pristine targets where the damage done by the nuclear bomb would be easy to assess.  The fact that they had so far been left untouched is evidence that their destruction was not a principal military objective in the overall conflict. (Nagasaki was, at one point, slated for fire-bombing, but it was ‘spared’ when it was added to the nuclear target list.)

As to the question of whether the deaths of civilians were intended or not, the evidence is disheartening. The Target Committee, which drew up the list of possible targets for the nuclear bombs, applied several criteria.  The target had to be within bomber range, and it had to have reasonably consistent good weather in order to be visible from the air. It had to be previously undamaged, as I noted above. At their first meeting, in the spring of 1945, the Committee also decided that the targets should be “urban or industrial Japanese areas”, chosen so that they would “most adversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war”. The possibility of a demonstration of the bomb for the Japanese authorities at a remote site was considered, but rejected on several grounds: there was some concern that the bomb would not work and would thereby cause embarrassment to the Americans, and there was little confidence that a mere demonstration would be shocking enough to elicit surrender. At their second meeting, the Committee decided to bomb the center of whatever city was chosen, rather than the industrial areas, which were usually located on the urban outskirts.  To me this means that they were relying on civilian deaths to twist the Japanese government’s arm, which means that the civilian deaths were a means to their end, which means that double effect could not be applied. At a still later meeting they resolved to target ‘a war plant surrounded by workers’ houses’. This would perhaps have been more justifiable had they followed through. As it happened, however, the bombs were simply dropped into the heart of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In Hiroshima they aimed at a bridge in the center of town; the bomb actually detonated about 200 m away, over a hospital.

It is not clear that Truman, who consented to the bombings, knew exactly what would happen.  Writing in his journal in July 1945, just a few weeks before the bombings took place, Truman said,  ‘I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children… The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives.’

The process by which Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen to be the targets was not straightforward.  Hiroshima was at the top of the list from the beginning; it had a military presence, and it did not have an Allied POW camp.  Nagasaki, on the other hand, was not added to the list until July 1945. Even on August 9, the day it was destroyed by Little Boy, it was not the planned target: the bomb plane was diverted from Kokura because of cloud cover and dropped its cargo on Nagasaki as Plan B.

Some years ago I read that the Americans dropped leaflets on Japanese cities warning that a weapon of terrible power was going to be used, and advising the residents to leave. This seemed to me an important detail tending to the moral advantage of the Americans. The history as Rhodes tells it casts some doubt on the issue. The Target Committee, it seems, resolved not to provide any warning, on the twin grounds that the Japanese would be likely to move Allied POWs into the threatened areas and that the bomb might not actually work. In the end, leaflets were dropped, but not until after the Hiroshima bombing had already taken place (August 6). They were drafted on August 7, and printing began on August 8. By August 9 about 5 million leaflets had been dropped, but it is not clear how many of those were on Nagasaki; Rhodes only says that they had not yet received their quota. It seems to have been a case of crossed wires: the second bombing was originally planned for August 11 but was suddenly moved up to August 9 because of impending bad weather, and even then Nagasaki was not the principal target on bombing day, so the leafleting campaign over the city did not receive the priority that it deserved. Warnings were also being broadcast by radio, but the ‘leafleting defence’ is not as compelling as I had once thought.

With these considerations in mind, I find it difficult to see how the use of the nuclear bombs was justified in this case. What then should the Americans have done? Should the authorities have sent tens of thousands of American men to their deaths, and as many or more Japanese, in what would have surely been a bloody and long invasion effort, simply in order to try not to kill civilians? These were terrible choices, the burden of which must have been crushing. I will simply say that I can understand, and even sympathize with, the decision that they made, though I cannot see how I can finally endorse it. I am profoundly glad that the decision was not mine to make.

9 Responses to “Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    The principle of double effect requires that the act itself be morally good or neutral. Targeting civilians is always morally evil, and it is impossible to drop an atomic bomb on a city without civilians being targeted. I don’t think there’s any way around it.

    Gaudium et Spes, 80, makes it fairly clear that nuclear weapons targeting areas populated by civilians can never be morally licit: `Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.’

    The consequences of the choice might have been terrible, but the moral principles are clear. It should have been a simple (though not necessarily psychologically easy) choice, and the wrong one was made.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Adam.

    I agree that deliberating targeting civilians is not licit; the question, however, is whether destroying a legitimate target with the knowledge that doing so will also kill civilians is licit. My understanding is that double effect could apply in such cases assuming that the other relevant criteria are met, most notably that those civilian deaths are intended neither as an end nor as a means, and assuming that no other, safer, option is available, and that the destruction of the intended target is sufficiently critical, etc.

    The immense and indiscriminate destructive power of nuclear weapons has to be a relevant factor to consider, but I am not entirely sure exactly how it is relevant. I would not defend the idea that nuclear weapons can never be used licitly, though it is quite clear that there are many cases in which they are not licit, but there is a gray area in the middle. As I said above, after seeing the evidence I cannot see that the bombings in Japan were licit.

    When thinking about the moral status of nuclear weapons, an aspect that I believe is too rarely considered is their deterrent effect. The second half of the twentieth century was a much more peaceful period than the first half, and I think one can argue that this was, in part, due to the existence of nuclear weapons. As Bohr argued early on, the threat of nuclear war forces politicians into negotiations and places greater weight on diplomacy.

  3. KathyB Says:

    I think you have answered Adam’s concerns about double effect in much the same way that I would have. Deliberately targeting civilians can never be licit, however unintended civilian deaths are not the same as intended ones. Also, according to double effect, something can be considered unintended even if it was foreseen (for example, stopping an attacker in self defense by shooting him does not count as murder, even though you know that you will probably kill him by shooting him). I do think that the destruction caused by nuclear weapons is so massive that it deserves extra special consideration, although I’m not sure how that would be done.

    As an aside, my grandmother worked in a chemical plant in the 40’s, and was thus one of the many thousands of americans involved. The project was so secret, and spread out into so many small, seemingly unrelated parts, that it was not until after the fact that she realized what exactly was being produced.

  4. Adam Hincks Says:

    Because nuclear weapons target such large areas, it is impossible not to directly target civilians when bombing a city or similarly populated region. With a smaller weapon, it may be possible to specifically target a military facility in which civilians are not intended targets. However, with a weapon that destroys large regions, like a nuclear bomb, the civilian population in a city is necessarily targeted.

    These seems to me to be the situation about which the fathers of the Council wrote.

    I suppose in theory that it’s possible to come up with legitimate uses of a nuclear weapon, but the examples I can think of are contrived. It would require use in an area with only military targets, so unless there are vast areas that are only occupied by military compounds, or maybe a really huge convoy of ships, the use of smaller weapons could be used for destroying legitimate targets.

    There’s also the consideration of the radiation damage. Granted, in 1945 there was not good knowledge that the effects of radiation would be so devastating. But armed with this knowledge, this is an important factor which would probably weigh against the legitimate use of nuclear weapons in most cases.

    I know that we basically agree on the subject. What I think we need to be cautious about is making any “grey area” larger than it really is. (I think it’s very small, if it exists.) The opinion—and which I’m not attributing to you—that the use of the bomb was morally preferable, or that it’s too `complicated’ for a clear moral answer, is alarming.

    As for their use as a deterrent, Gaudium et Spes continues in 81 and 82 to recognise that nuclear armaments can provide a deterrent to war, but goes on to teach that this “is not a safe way to preserve a steady peace, nor is the so-called balance resulting from this race a sure and authentic peace”, calling the arms race an “utterly treacherous trap for humanity”.

    By the way, Pedro Arrupe, who later became the General of the Society of Jesus, was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. I’ve looked online for his full account, which is very interesting and moving, but the best I can come up with is an article which quotes part of it.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Thank you for that link, Adam, and for your reply. Rhodes’ book has a long section relating first-hand accounts from those who survived the bombings, and they are powerfully moving.

    I agree with you that the “grey area” is small, and I was thinking of situations like those you mention: military installations in sparsely populated areas, etc.

    The idea that nuclear weapons in populated areas necessarily target civilians, is something I have to think about. In my mind to “target” someone is an intentional act; thus I could not be said to be “targeting” them if I foresaw, but did not intend, their deaths as the result of some action. But perhaps you are right that when the weapon is so uncontrollable that civilians will definitely, or even “necessarily”, die as a result of its use, the decision to use it includes an implicit willing of those deaths. I am not sure.

  6. Mac Says:

    I agree completely with you, Craig, that the decision cannot be endorsed and also that I’m very glad it wasn’t mine to make. I wrote about this on my blog on the 60th anniversary.

    If you read something like Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, you can’t blame the soldiers who would have been a part of the invasion of Japan for being unwilling or unable to admit that it was wrong. My father was on the young side for a soldier, and got into combat in Europe at age 19 at the very end of the war, being wounded actually a couple of days after Germany surrendered. No doubt he would have been patched up and sent to Japan had that invasion taken place.

    I think it’s at best doubtful that there is a grey area. This is a major moral conundrum for me: if it’s wrong to use them, it’s wrong to say you might use them and make plans for using them. Some people, including the pope, have suggested (some state flatly) that modern weaponry has rendered all wars immoral. Yet the implication of that is that the most ruthless will be free to rule the earth, and there seems something just a bit off with that…

    I’d like to read this book.

  7. Mac Says:

    Oops, wrong link: Here.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that link, Mac. I think you express the difficulty of the decision very well. As you say (and as Adam said earlier in this thread), the moral principles were clear, but the consequences of doing the right thing were so crushing as to almost defy imagination. Christians, I know, are obliged in the face of such decisions to act rightly and leave the rest to Providence; I find it difficult to imagine a more severe test of faith, and I hope that mine shall never be tested in that way.

    I agree that the pacifist position, even if only de facto within the context of modern warfare, cannot be right. It cannot be morally right that those charged with the duty to defend widows and orphans simply surrender when evil threatens.

    C.S. Lewis wrote an essay, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”, published in The Weight of Glory, that was instructive for me.

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