Monday, July 29, 2013

"Shockwave - Countdown to Hiroshima" by Stephen Walker (2005)

Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, sat stopped at a London traffic signal one day in 1933. It was there, as the light changed, that he first conceived of the idea for a nuclear bomb. He was horrified by the thought of the destruction it could cause to life as we know it.
That thought, just as with an atomic explosion, had a chain reaction which, by 1939, would have Germany trying to build an atomic weapon of her own, and Mr. Szilard lobbying the United States to build one first. After all, there was no doubt that Hitler would use it should he attain it first; while we could always make one and choose not to. At least, that was the plan.

This whole extraordinary set of events were the beginnings of what eventually became the Cold War, with its policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which would last for decades. The shadow of that policy; along with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s; has been that there are now more nuclear weapons in the hands of more governments than could possibly be deemed “healthy” for the world’s future survival. But all that came later. First came “Trinity”; the test of the first atomic bomb; in the desert of New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

It seemed of little consequence at the time that the weapon designed for use against the Nazi’s in Europe, would now be used to end the war in the Pacific, which began, for the United States, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Japanese had been at war in the Pacific since 1933 and the invasion of China and the Rape of Nanking, while the Germans had been taking over countries in Europe beginning in 1938. It was only after they invaded Poland in September of 1939 that the English went to war with her. We would not join in that effort until after the Pearl Harbor attack.

This is the most informative book I have ever read on the first atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima on August 5, 1945. Where other books have focused either on the effects of the bomb on the ground; such as “Hiroshima” by John Hersey; or the myriad of books which talk of the morality of the event; and even the workings of the Manhattan Project; this book delves into the beginnings of the search for the technology to build the bomb, as well as the training of the men who would drop it. 

The book also covers the negotiations which the Japanese were seeking to hold with Russia as a way of suing for peace and an end to the war. The stalling by the Soviets, while pretending that they had no knowledge of the bomb’s existence, would be instrumental in the success of the Americans to end the war in the Pacific. It would also trigger a nuclear arms race which would color our lives forever after
The author also explores the origins of the 509th Bomber Group and their unusual makeup, which included a few felons with false names. They were given their criminal files and a match after the mission was over.

For all of the planning of the bomb’s construction and use, nobody was quite sure if it would work. On the other hand, there were some among the group of scientists, including Leo Szilard, who saw the possibility of igniting the entire atmosphere of the planet, killing us all. Up until the very last moment these men would lobby the President to discontinue the plan to use the bomb. The story of how their message was delayed, before it was relayed, will raise questions in your own mind as to the purpose of using the bomb at all. There was still the fear that the Germans would get one first.

Ironically, the Germans had all but given up on the development of a nuclear bomb by the close of the war. And the Russians had no interest in one unless we proved one could be made to work. And of course, both the United States and the Soviets would benefit greatly from the acquisition of the German rocket scientists at the close of the war with Germany in May 1945. At that point we were too close to finishing work on the Manhattan Project to stop.

The author has spared no subject in this comprehensive history of the final countdown to the actual dropping of the bomb, and an examination of the effects of that mission in the first 24 hours after it was accomplished. The book also examines the lives of the men who first conceived of, and then made happen, the single most important event which would change the nature of warfare in general, and the geo-politics that surround it.

With the countdown towards the final assembly and shipment of the bomb, part of which encompasses the story of the USS Indianapolis on its voyage to Tinian, the book also recounts the Japanese effort to start peace talks through the Soviets. At the same time as she was talking peace, Japan was also preparing to turn Japan into a veritable fortress which would cost almost a million American lives to invade. This was the same duplicitous process which she had used to buy time for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. However, by this point, there was no turning back on the plan to use the bomb.

As a result of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has not been a declared war since the end of World War Two. It’s almost as if declared wars, rather than police actions, could possibly escalate into full blown nuclear confrontation between “super-powers.” This was exactly what happened in Vietnam; the United States and the Soviet Union fought a war by proxy; using the Vietnamese as pawns in a game which can only have one ending; with both sides looking to avoid a direct confrontation with the other.

If you think you have learned all that you need to know about the history of the world’s first atomic bomb, then this book will quickly disabuse you of that notion, while providing the reader a ringside seat to one of the most important developments of the 20th century. 

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