A review of Gerard J. DeGroot, The Bomb: A Life, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
In, The Bomb: A Life by Gerard J. DeGroot, the scope of the book encompasses the story of nuclear power being weaponized into the atomic bombs. The structure of the book follows a chronological order where it starts with the discovery of nuclear power and the creation of the atomic bombs with the use of the atomic bombs in the beginning chapters of the book. After that you get the implications of the atomic bombs and an analysis of the takeoff of the Cold War in the in the middle chapters of the book with finally the end of the Cold War but also the consequences of the Cold War and the bombs themselves with the author driving home his points in the last chapters of the book. The author uses a heavy amount of secondary sources with some forms of primary sources which are mainly from survivors of the atomic bombs or eye witness accounts. I think that DeGroot uses them pretty well and that they are combined effectively throughout the book. The point that DeGroot is trying to make is relatively well seen in a quote from the book which is,” The Bomb is a weapon which reflects the flawed nature of human beings- their distrust of each other, their craving for power and their obsession with things big… It has, because of its bigness, perhaps forced men to act more rationally in the application of force (pg. 351).”
One of the chapters that really stands out is Chapter 6 which is Genshi Bakudan. This chapter is the one where DeGroot goes into the days before Hiroshima and the events of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. DeGroot includes a plentiful amount of eye witness accounts or actual victims of the atomic bombs which are pretty eye opening and very interesting. The things that he does in this chapter very well are how he emphasizes the bewilderment and confusion as to how something so destructive and instantaneous could occur, the effects and devastation that the atomic bombs brought, and also showing reactions from different groups like the United States and Japan to the use of the atomic bombs.
The main argument that DeGroot has is that the atomic bombs were terrible and are still not ideal weapons, has made political leaders act more rationally in the application of force. This is a good thing because political leaders have to think about their actions very carefully before they act which in turn has put a stop to major war among most countries due to not wanting to engage in nuclear warfare. When I look at his argument, it makes sense to me and I believe what he says but I don’t think it is super clear and convincing because the last sentence of the book he says,” Because science has not provided an answer to those mysteries, a final verdict on the Bomb remains impossible (pg. 351).” It doesn’t seem super convincing to make an argument and then say the final verdict is still up in the air. DeGroot uses primary and secondary sources adequately to support his argument although there is a lot more use of secondary sources and not very many primary sources. There isn’t a lot of focus on the end of the Cold War and the events that occur during that time. From what I know of that period, there were some very important events that occurred which could change how DeGroot formulates his opinions and arguments.
I like the book overall and think it is a good book for anyone interested in the atomic bombs. Issues that do come up with the book are discussed in another review of the book by Lawrence S. Wittner where he points out mistakes that DeGroot makes and also critiques the lack of research done by DeGroot. Travis D. Smith gives DeGroot praise on his book and makes similar points that Wittner also makes concerning the positive things that DeGroot does like his chilling accounts of survivors of the atomic bombings. Anybody that has an interest in the atomic bombs should definitely read this book because I think it is a book that is important because it isn’t overly scholarly to where a majority of people can read it and I would recommend it highly.
Dalton J. Long, University of Oklahoma, March 8, 2019.
GERARD J. DEGROOT. The Bomb: A Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2005. Pp. xiii, 397. $27.95.
Gerard J. DeGroot’s The Bomb is a curious book. As it is based almost entirely on published sources and on items skimmed off the Internet, it is not a thoroughly researched monograph. Nor, despite its ostensibly broad subject—humanity’s interaction with nuclear weapons—is it a synthesis. Claiming that “the really big decisions about the Bomb were all made by around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis” (p. ix), the author gives little attention to the events of the more than four decades that followed. Furthermore, DeGroot does not show much interest in nuclear arms control and disarmament. “Some diplomatic historians will howl in protest,” he writes, “but I don’t consider the arms reduction talks all that important” (p. ix).
The book’s greatest strength lies in its colorful anecdotes, which make good reading. Stringing them together, DeGroot provides interesting and powerful material on the effects of the atomic bombing of Japan, on civil defense, on pro-nuclear propaganda, on the horrible effects of radioactive contamination, on popular culture, and on the fantasies of government ofﬁcials. He also writes with wit, though sometimes facetiously.
But the strengths of this book do not compensate for its weaknesses. There are numerous errors. DeGroot misidentiﬁes Robert Jungk as a physicist. In one place, he says that Joseph Stalin died in 1952; in another, in 1953. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, DeGroot insists incorrectly, “simply prohibited proliferation to previously non-nuclear countries” (p. 296). In addition, he declares inaccurately that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was “ratiﬁed” (p. 327) in 1996.
DeGroot’s thesis seems quite tendentious. The Bomb, he contends, though “horrible” (p.x), has “been big enough to force statesmen to act sensibly” (p. 350) and thus remains a necessity. Yet this assertion does not ﬂow from evidence he presents but, rather, from his Augustinian belief in human sinfulness. “Opponents of the bomb often base their argument on an idealized version of what human beings might become,” he says, while “proponents . . . accept man’s ﬂaws and believe that the Bomb is the ﬁrst effective impediment to our inclination to destroy each other. It is difﬁcult to reject that argument, based as it is on an undeniable notion of human nature” (p. 350).
As human wickedness is “undeniable”—or, as DeGroot argues elsewhere in the book, because “men craved destruction” (p. 12)—other things fall into place. “I’m struck by how solid was the faith in the Bomb . . . among ordinary people” (p. ix), he notes at one point. After 1962, he insists, most of the world “stopped worrying and . . . learned to love the Bomb” (p. ix). Yet polls show that, beginning soon after 1945, the majority of people in countries around the world supported nuclear arms control and disarmament measures and rejected nuclear war. They still do.
DeGroot also lambastes peace and disarmament groups, none of whose records he has examined. These “feeble and self-indulgent” (p. ix) organizations, he writes, showed a “stubborn denial of futility”(p.x).Deriding the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, he claims (without citing any source) that most of its local groups “consisted of no more than a few dedicated diehards in a dingy ofﬁce, equipped with a dilapidated mimeograph machine” (p. 212). The author also lampoons Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and maintains that behind its protests “lurked a gargantuan national ego” (p. 231). DeGroot particularly despises the women who protested the deployment of cruise missiles at Greenham Common, and twice refers to their placing tampons on the perimeter fence. They “seemed weird even to lifelong supporters of CND” (p. 322), he adds—and that, of course means very weird! Barraged by these and other caricatures, a reader gains no sense that the nuclear disarmament campaign has been the largest social movement in modem history, with millions of participants and the support of main stream political parties, church bodies, environmental groups, unions, and professional societies.
Naturally, disarmament groups receive no credit for efﬁcacy. When the cruise missiles were removed from Greenham Common, DeGroot observes, the women activists “congratulated themselves on their achievement, rather like the lunatic who thinks the sun rises because he wakes up in the morning” (p. 326). In fact, however, DeGroot speaks with much greater certainty about the motives of government policy makers than is warranted, for—with the exception of looking at some scattered documents at the Truman Library—he has not done any research in government records. Nor has he examined the scholarship (for example, by Matthew Evangelista, David Cortright, and this reviewer) that illustrates the substantial impact of disarmament groups on nuclear arms control and disarmament policies and on the retreat from nuclear war since 1945.
Alas, anecdotes and humor cannot substitute for thorough research and an open mind.
LAWRENCE S. WITTNER State University of New York, Albany.
Gerard J. DeGroot: The Bomb: A Life. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. xv, 397. $27.95.)
Accessible and thought-provoking, DeGroot’s history of nuclear weaponry from its theoretical origins through its Cold War escalations makes a diverse cast of characters seem familiar and a tale of earthshaking proportions unfold in a relatively sensible fashion. Written for interested nonexperts, the book does not engage scholarly debates directly. It covers the race to beat the Germans to the bomb through to the entrenchment of nuclear deterrence. Disarmament treaties and peace movements concern DeGroot only long enough to discount them. He adds color to the political and technological history of the bomb by supplementing it with considerations of its social repercussions and its representations in literature, film, music, and consumer items.
Relating the roles and views of particular individuals involved-physicists, weaponeers, military men, and politicians from rival regimes-DeGroot describes their motives, disagreements, insights, and blind spots. His portraits of life inside the Manhattan Project and the initial test at Trinity are particularly vivid, reproducing a sense of uncertainty and urgency, excitement and apprehension. He does not insist that the use of the bomb in Japan was unnecessary or wrong, and though he calls it “terror bombing” (77), he shows how it was regarded as a difference only in degree of tactics already commonplace. Nuclear weapons were seen as a difference in kind only after the effects of radiation were understood, especially its psychological impact. DeGroot then describes how bomb-making went from being an adventure to an industry, heeding “a coldly rational approach that left no room for moral nuance” (153). The book relates various tragic and comic aspects of the history of the bomb as well, from the exaggerated promise of nuclear medicine, to the observation that France obtained the bomb absent sound strategic reasons because she “was desperate to demonstrate her greatness” (233), to the realization that the West’s nuclear arsenal could not be used to deter Communist expansion waged by conventional means, to Bert the Turtle.
DeGroot dispassionately recounts the efforts of Soviet spies, scientists, and potentates to build their bombs, emphasizing their fears more than their ambitions. He wistfully wonders if “a more conciliatory approach” by the Americans “would have improved relations with the Soviets” (116), though he acknowledges that Sakharov denied it. Not fooled when “the Russians played innocent martyrs, threatened by a nuclear-mad America” (123), DeGroot, nevertheless, thinks Stalin really wanted “to be left alone” and only found himself employing slave labor and causing his people to “freeze and starve” (137) while he built his bombs so that he could “restore the balance” (134).
The theme DeGroot treats most compellingly throughout the book is the folly of scientists when it comes to the human things. They are driven to figure out how things work without due consideration of the consequences, having too much faith in the beneficence of their discoveries. Scientific genius is commonly found among those who are “brilliant and young” (11) but “politically naive” and “idealistic” (117). Among those who built it, DeGroot reiterates, many scientists were astounded that the bomb was intended for actual use. Though some Western scientists became pro testers, DeGroot observes, “creating havoc had been great fun” and the stimulation of cutting-edge research “would continue to smother moral scruples” (125). Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, “scientists [at first] were young romantics, in love with their country and inebriated by the idea that they would save it” (142), and later, “to protect their sanity, [they] viewed the hydrogen bomb as a physics problem, not a military weapon” (196).
I read the book as a contribution to an understanding of the difference between episteme, techne, and phronesis. DeGroot well illustrates how easily the curiosity of scientific men is exploited by politick men. He shows how distant technological ingenuity is from knowledge of the human good and how to pursue it. We can see how the opinions of modem scientific and technological men with respect to the value of their work, and their intentions and expectations as to its purposes, are distorted by their devotion to it. Accordingly, their desires, convictions, and promises deserve no special respect and probably warrant suspicion. The most sensible view (in my estimation, but not in DeGroot’s) regarding the proper relationship between science and politics, one befit ting liberal democracy, is attributed to Edward Teller, who is portrayed predictably unsympathetically throughout the book. “It was not for him or his colleagues to decide whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed or used. Those decisions had to be made by the American people through their chosen representatives,” maintained Teller, according to DeGroot (164). “Scientists naturally have a right and a duty to have opinions,” Teller recognized, “but their science gives them no special insight into public affairs” (170). This view must be contrasted with Khrushchev’s, who insisted that physicists should have no independent political opinions, only a duty to do the work that political “specialists” like himself commanded (259).
DeGroot uncritically accepts a certain conception of “the basic principles of scientific enquiry” (39). According to it, scientific investigation and discovery has a nobility separable from any concomitant “coarse practical purpose,” and it operates according to a “liberal ethic” that abhors secrecy (33), in line with its “cosmopolitan nature” (8). But science is always political, as the story DeGroot tells demonstrates. Its wishful self-conception has discernable political presuppositions and it may be approximated only under aberrant political conditions. “In his perfect world, the scientist serves only his discipline and knows no nation” (11), DeGroot explains. But this condition would be theoretically indistinguishable from the rule of scientists. Precisely because that is the perfect world according to the scientist, we must be wary of any claim that science is apolitical or irresistible.
Only a few pages touch upon the realities and anxieties of the present era of the war on terror. If the book contains insights useful to us in the future, they pertain, instead, to other burgeoning technologies which have the potential to alter the human condition worldwide, such as developments in biotechnology. DeGroot notices this in passing, remarking that it is “probably true that no law could prevent” the advent of human cloning any more than the atomic bomb could have been stopped (6). The book, therefore, also invites reflection on the difficulty of reconciling technology with liberty. For all his attention to the actions of individuals, there is in DeGroot’s history a whiff of the scholar’s condescension, which regards men as generally foolish, especially for fancying themselves free. Today, we already know how to clone a human being. The question now is whether or not the technique will be perfected and the practice rendered routine, which is a political question rather than a scientific one. Is it inevitable? If so, then perhaps the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.
-Travis D. Smith