A-Bomb Dream #1 – review of Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker – 2005, Nthposition

My more recent Management Secrets of the Manhattan Project post in The Dabbler was inspired by reading Leslie Groves’ “Now It Can Be Told”, but it was this book that inspired me to read “Now it Can Be Told”



by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

In the foreword to Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis dilated on how terrible nuclear weapons made him feel. They made Martin Amis feel really bad. I guess most of us can empathise, but nuclear weapons made Martin Amis feel really, really bad. He wanted to vomit. You got the feeling he wanted to perform other bodily functions. If nuclear weapons were really, really bad, the thought of nuclear weapons was, perhaps surprisingly, rather worse. Amis quoted some, to be honest rather mild, examples of nuclear jargon and, metaphorically, turned to the reader his face a rictus of disgust, and said “look at that! Unimaginable. Unimaginable!” Martin seemed to be doing his best to preserve his moral purity by telling us how unimaginable nuclear weapons are. It’s a precursor of his style in Koba The Dread, from which one might imagine Stalin’s worst crime was destabilising the Amis-Hitchens axis.

As Peter Hennessy points out in his introduction to The Secret State, his scholarly study of the elaborate network of bunkers and security installations drawn up by Whitehall in response to the nuclear threat of the Cold War, the men and women who worked on this were not parodic Dr Strangelove figures, but ordinary enough human beings. When it comes to considering the existence of nuclear weapons, wringing our hands and saying how unimaginable it all is and how much we’d like to vomit won’t do.

Another trope often used discussing things nuclear – more particularly the Manhattan project – is to ply up the mythic aspect of it all. Robert Oppenheimer is cast as Faust, or Prometheus, with General Leslie Groves as Mephistopheles. This is the mode of James Thackara’s America’s Children, and it would seem of the forthcoming John Adam’s opera Dr Atomic. While artistically satisfying, and hinting at perennial themes about the hubris (and, one fears but hopes not, nemesis) of technical knowledge, this tends to obscure that the Manhattan project – and the subsequent use of the bomb as an instrument of war – was a gigantic technical problem that became an enormous moral and political one.

Stephen Walker focuses on three weeks from the Trinity Test on July 15 1945 up to the 24 hours following the dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. The wider political and moral issues are alluded to, and reading carefully, it is clear his sympathies are with those who opposed the bomb’s use, or felt it should be used as a demonstration. However, this is a work of straight reportage. I would hazard a guess that most of nthposition’s readership would be anti-nuclear and regard the development and use of the bomb as an unalloyed disaster, yet readers of every point of view will be swept along in the breathless narrative. Such issues as the enormous toll of the invasion of Okinawa, and the projected casualties of a Japanese invasion, are discussed, although readers will have to go to other sources to fully explore these topics.

From the Trinity test site to Hiroshima in the days before the bombing to Potsdam where Truman finally had the trump card over Stalin (who, via Klaus Fuchs, knew all about the bomb already) that allowed him to feel a world statesman at last to Tinian Island where the 509th Composite Group – who dropped the two bombs that killed perhaps a quarter of a million people and whose only wartime casualty was a military policeman who injured his hand disarming an old Japanese shell – were awaiting a mission that they had only been told would “win the war.” (only in flight were the crew of Enola Gay told they were “delivering” an atomic bomb) Walker’s story spans the globe and is yet strangely intimate. This is the story, ultimately, of a few men.

Lacking an index, and occasionally written in “journalistese” (the adjective “brilliant” is thrown around rather too liberally to describe the Manhattan project scientists, for instance. It may be true, but it isn’t all that helpful), the book nevertheless cracks on at an impressive pace. The Manhattan Project story is familiar, the story of how the bomb was actually dropped is less so. It exerts an equally terrible fascination. Like the documentary maker he is, Walker has an eye for the telling details.

For instance, those who like to see Robert Oppenheimer as a bruised spirit, manipulated by the Machiavellian General Groves, readying the bomb despite his best intentions, might be interested in a couple of cameos from Walker. Immediately after the success of the Trinity test, “his old friend Isidor Rabi watched him as he strode across the camp. Something in Oppenheimer’s bearing chilled his flesh. ‘I’ll never forget the way he walked,’ he said later. ‘It was like High Noon – I think it’s the best I could describe it – this kind of strut. He’d done it.’ Gone was the fragile self-doubt, replaced by something quite different: the intoxicating certainties of power.”

Later, after learning from Groves that – in the words of an announcer who, in fairness to him, had no idea what exactly he was announcing – that there had been a “successful combat drop” of one of Los Alamos’ “units” – Oppenheimer entered the lab’s weekly colloquium of scientists: “Edward Teller, the father of the future hydrogen bomb, recalled a colleague shouting out, ‘One down!’ Another scientist never forgot Oppenheimer’s behaviour as he mounted the stage: ‘He entered that meeting like a prizefighter.’ And like a prizefighter he clasped his hands together over his head in the classic boxer’s victory salute.”

These glimpses into Oppenheimer’s psyche are typical. There are lots of similar touches. In a way it serves as a starting point for further exploration. We read of Secretary of War Harry Stimson as he tried to push for a final diplomatic solution – but too gently, and too late. He did manage to restrain Groves’ enthusiasm for destroying Kyoto, the traditional Japanese capital. Stimson’s affection for the city stemmed from two visits he had made with his wife in the Thirties. While Groves thought that the destruction of the beautiful cultural centre would smash Japanese morale instantly, Stimson feared – or stated he feared, for who knows if this cultured man perhaps really feared being too easily able to visualise the destruction that would be wrought – that this would lead to even more suicidal defiance. Thus Kyoto was spared, to Hiroshima’s cost.

We read too of the men who made up the 509th Composite Group, of its driven, methodical commander Colonel Paul Tibbets, who didn’t mind what wildness the crack pilots in the Composite Group got up to, as long as they Seeing General Leslie Groves as Mephistopheles may overplay the mythic overtones a little, but he certainly had a preternatural genius for picking the perfect men for each job. Oppenheimer’s secretary later bluntly claimed that the married Groves “was almost certainly in love with Oppenheimer. She remembered Groves saying, ‘he has the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen, and they look right through you.'” Perhaps after all the Faust-and-Mephistopheles mythologising is done with, we could see the extraordinary relationship as something closer to Tristan and Isolde – an impossible love consummated only in oblivion.

The early chapters concentrate mainly on the Americans. As the book progresses, Walker introduces the stories of the citizens of Hiroshima. There’s Isao Wada, a volunteer in a suicide boat squadron which would on August 6 1945 act as life savers rather than destroyers. Wada, as enthusiastic and as brainwashed as any other Japanese before that date – he did volunteer for a suicide squadron after all – thought immediately on the bomb’s impact that “The boats were irrelevant now. It was obvious to Wada that the enemy who had done this were far beyond anything he and his fellow cadets could do. Their bombs were too big.” There are doctors and teenage schoolgirls (diverted to war work) and photographers and the whole panoply of human life. There is, inevitably, a sense in which their stories focuses on the details of their ordinary life, while the American stories are all military or scientific or political or a mix of all three.

This is not a “final word” on Hiroshima, on the Manhattan Project, on the history of atomic weaponry since. It is a fast-paced book, as exciting as a thriller, about three weeks that in every sense shook the world. We know what happens, but we keep reading. Like Moondust, Andrew Smith’s account of the moon landings, it restores the strangeness, the technical brilliance, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” – but in this case the result was apocalyptic destruction rather than a brief moment of inspiration. The statement that August 6 1945 changed the world forever is a cliché. This book forces the reader to realise the truth of that statement. Stephen Walker’s achievement of telling a barely believable story without hyperbole or excess mythologising deserves wide recognition and readership.


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