IN MORTAL HANDS
A CAUTIONARY HISTORY OF THE NUCLEAR AGE
By STEPHANIE COOKE BLOOMSBURY Copyright © 2009 Stephanie Cooke
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59691-617-3
Chapter One A Voice in the Wilderness
"Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T.... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East."
And that was it. President Harry S. Truman had introduced two words-atomic bomb-to the human race. A day earlier, those words had been a secret, although not as well kept as was supposed by those who knew about it. Originally conceived as a deterrent against a German bomb, the weapons instead were dropped on Japan.
Truman heard-more accurately, read-the news while eating lunch on board the heavy cruiser Au'ta, returning from the postwar settlement conference at the Berlin suburb of Potsdam. The watch officer in the Advance Map Room, Captain Frank Graham, entered the mess and handed him a telegram. It was from War Secretary Henry L. Stimson, who had flown back from the conference to the United States:
Big bomb dropped on Hiroshima August 5 at 7:15 p.m. Washington time. First reports indicate complete success which was even more conspicuous than earlier test.
Truman looked up at the crew members sitting at his table and, without revealing the telegram's contents, said, "This is the greatest thing in history. It's time for us to get home." Later, he gathered all the sailors on the ship and told them of a "powerful new bomb."
Thousands of miles away, as the news reached Los Alamos, there were conflicting emotions. Should the men be proud of their work or ashamed of what it had brought? One scientist remembered hearing yells of "Whoopee" among his younger colleagues, but he thought those were "inappropriate." Later, after the Japanese surrender was announced on August 11, emotions ran almost out of control among the scientists and mathematicians who had built the bomb. They rushed to hidden supplies of whiskey, gin, and vodka, and in pouring the drink that was forbidden them during war they poured out all the anxiety, guilt, and pride they had stored up during years of living in isolation and secrecy. Someone wired up a few dozen munitions dumps and pushed the detonator to make fireworks. The litany of explosions accompanied the tumult of feeling: for many, waves of relief and accomplishment; for others, a profound sense of anguish.
One man, Joseph Rotblat, living in London by then, felt only profound shock and dismay. Rotblat had quietly left the mesa in New Mexico in late 1944, after he discovered the German bomb program had stalled and was unlikely to succeed. His reasons for leaving were known only to his superiors. A story was invented to keep the others from finding out. The truth was that Rotblat and some of his colleagues had a keen sense of what lay ahead when the military conflict finally ended-an arms race between the two superpowers. Unlike the other scientists, Rotblat acted on his convictions. In his native Poland, wife already had been claimed by one holocaust; he did not wish to contribute to the possibility of another. Rotblat's moral choice-to have nothing to do hence forth with designing or building nuclear weapons-also was a repudiation of the hypersecure world the scientists had helped to create when they signed on to the project. Inside Los Alamos and the other nuclear laboratories affect they had become protected-and marooned-from the rest or society.
The effort and the war had changed them, and their role in society as well. They were no longer pure researchers. In fact, at least since they had begun voluntarily withholding the fruits of their efforts from German physicists in 1939; the scientists had become politicized. Their circle was still so intimate then that the German scientist Werner Heisenberg later contended the atomic bomb was not inevitable. "In the summer of 1939 twelve people might still have been able, by coming to mutual agreement, to prevent the construction of atom bombs," Heisenberg said. Whether he is right or not can never be known. But the German-born writer Robert Jungk strongly criticized the scientists for not trying. "Their powers of political and moral imagination failed them at that moment as disastrously as did their loyalty to the international tradition of science. They never succeeded in achieving thought and action appropriate to the future consequences of their invention."
During the war many of the scientists grumbled about the elaborate security arrangements; afterward some sounded the alarm publicly when they felt their colleagues were pursuing programs that were morally wrong, such as the development of thermonuclear weapons. Or they criticized the government for failing to adequately address the issue of nuclear fallout from atmospheric weapons testing. But for project managers pushing for big-ticket programs, secrecy and ambiguity had certain advantages. For one thing, it kept political leaders conveniently ignorant of the complexities and therefore more pliable when it came to approving budget requests.
Sixty years later, as I sought answers to the many nagging questions I had about nuclear energy, I met Rotblat at his home in north London. The bombs in 1945 destroyed two cities. But in the intervening years, the existing U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals were so large "that if the weapons had actually been detonated the result could have been the complete extinction of the human species, as well as of many animal species," he observed. Rotblat had devoted his life to seeing that this did not happen. Much of his work was through Pugwash, the scientific organization he founded with philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1957 dedicated to alleviating cold war tensions.
I wanted to know the trajectory of Rotblat's moral choices, how and why he had made them, and his thoughts on why scientists were willing to work on nuclear weapons. The questions seemed more urgent in 2004 when I first interviewed him. The cold war had been over for more than a decade, yet the United States was actually increasing spending on nuclear weapons. Why would scientists want to do this work, and why were we spending more on it?
* * *
Rotblat opened the door to his 1930s-style West Hampstead home with a big smile. He had warm blue eyes and white hair and was tall, with a sturdy frame. Mostly, though, I noticed a quality of lightness, as if he had shed a burden a long time ago, not a characteristic I found very often in nuclear people. In fact, most seemed just the opposite, as if they were heavy with a weight they could not lose.
Rotblat showed me to his large study, a long, dark room with a bay window at one end. Stacks of books, papers, letters, and documents lined the walls, filled the tables, and spilled out of the room into other areas of the house. His dining room, too, was filled with papers. This was not clutter in any conventional sense. The large sturdy piles had become the furniture of Rotblat's daily life, more than the tables and chairs, and he still knew where to find something if he needed to. Outside the lead-mullioned window, a few pale pink roses fluttered in a cool June breeze.
Rotblat was ninety-five at the time. He had just suffered a stroke that slowed his movements but not his mind.
As a young man in Poland more than a half century earlier, Rotblat was at Warsaw's Radiological Institute. He harbored dreams of building on Polish-born Marie Curie's legacy, furthering her work on radioactivity and perhaps winning his own Nobel Prize one day. (He never won the award for science, but in 1995 he received the Nobel Peace Prize.) His life changed in 1939, the year German scientists unveiled the secrets of fission, the spontaneous splitting of atoms. Rotblat got a scholarship to study in Britain that year, but the discovery in Germany filled him with unease. He was, he wrote later, "like a person trying to ignore the first symptom of a fatal disease in the hope that it will go away."
In Britain he studied at Liverpool University under James Chadwick, already famous for his 1932 discovery of the neutron-one of the three primary parts of the atom, along with protons and electrons. This elementary particle can penetrate the atomic nucleus in spite of the electric barriers surrounding it, because the neutron is electrically neutral and is therefore not repelled. The discovery helped to unravel the mystery of fission because it is neutrons that induce the splitting apart of atoms.
Rotblat's wife, Tola, had had to stay behind in Warsaw because there was not enough money for two train tickets. Chadwick soon offered Rotblat a more prestigious scholarship with more money, and in August 1939 the young scientist returned to Warsaw to collect her. But fate intervened. On arriving in Warsaw, Rotblat discovered that Tola had just suffered appendicitis. She was not fit to travel. She urged him to return to England and carry on with his work.
So the young scientist with all his dreams left for Liverpool, once again leaving his young wife behind. A few days later, the Germans invaded Poland. "What happened after that is long and complicated, and as with so many Eastern European Jews of that era the story ends in tragedy."
Rotblat's voice had softened. He paused, and then his speech slowed and he choked before his voice broke, like a branch from a tree. "She died in one of the gas ovens."
His eyes welled with tears and his head dropped forward, involuntarily it seemed, as the memory caught up with him. He remained that way for a while, head forward, eyes closed, vanishing from the shared space of our conversation, until I felt he might disappear altogether.
Rotblat came to life as suddenly as he had seemed to leave it, now back at Liverpool. There had been stories that Hitler's military strength was all bluff and that his tanks were painted cardboard. But with news of the Nazi advance into Poland, those tales had been exposed as just wishful thinking. Rotblat's country, his wife, and the entire European continent were in mortal danger.
Rotblat no longer tried to suppress the "fatal disease" he had so dreaded when he first heard about fission. Before too long he was working on a nascent weapons project, joining other scientists in Britain who shared a fear that their colleagues in Germany would build a nuclear weapon for Hitler. If they could build one first, they might check the German effort, or prevent Hitler from using a bomb if his scientists managed to build one. This was an early version of the deterrence doctrine that shaped defense policy throughout much of the cold war.
In January 1944, Rotblat joined a team of British scientists in the United States working on the Manhattan Project. He was sent to Los Alamos, where he stayed with Chadwick and his wife, Aileen, for a few months before moving into the single men's quarters. The Manhattan Project leader, General Leslie R. Groves, frequently came to the Chadwicks' for dinner on visits to Los Alamos. On one of these occasions, Rotblat was invited to attend. During the dinner, he listened as Groves said, "You realize, of course, that the main purpose of the project was to subdue the Russians."
As Rotblat quietly digested this conversational snippet, something akin to a compass needle inside him lost its bearing. "I was completely shocked." Russian soldiers were dying by the thousands in order to defeat the Germans, and Groves was speaking of them as if they were the enemy, more than the Germans. "This was still at a time when Hitler could win the war," Rotblat said. "People I told later wouldn't believe it." After that, he said, "there was never any doubt in my mind that Russia was the main enemy."
The Polish émigré thought then that he should leave the project. Instead, still worried about a German bomb, he remained. Around this time he received a letter from a friend in England telling him that a mutual acquaintance from Liverpool, a well-off half-American woman named Elspeth, had moved to Santa Fe, hoping the clean air would be conducive to slowing the progress of a congenital deafness. Rotblat started seeing Elspeth regularly, usually on Sundays after the flying lessons he was taking with a few friends from Los Alamos. Inside his new friend's spacious adobe house, conversations about art, literature, and the course of the war took place in elevated tones to accommodate Elspeth's poor hearing. But Rotblat, like all the other scientists, was being closely watched, especially when he ventured outside the gated community of Los Alamos. Inside his friend's house a male Hispanic housekeeper apparently took notes, sending in badly mangled reports of what he thought he had heard.
At Los Alamos, Rotblat's concerns about the project grew during conversations with the Danish laureate Niels Bohr, who came to his room every morning to listen to the BBC news bulletins on a specially equipped radio Rotblat had purchased in New York. Bohr too was worried about a postwar arms race. His concerns ran so deep that the Dane had sought and obtained meetings in 1944 with both the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He urged them to start a dialogue with the Soviets on atomic control before it was too late.
Rotblat remained at Los Alamos, clinging to the thread of reasoning that had brought so many scientists, Bohr included, there in the first place-the threat of a German bomb. What neither man realized then was that Groves knew as early as March 1944, the same month as the fateful dinner at the Chadwicks,' that the supposed German threat was virtually nonexistent. This information was delivered by members of the Alsos mission, the code name for a special team sent into Italy and France after the D-day landings, who suggested the Germans had given up a bomb effort. In November 1944, a second team moved into Germany, arrested scientists at the University of Strasbourg, and raided their offices, laboratories, and homes. "The information gained there indicated quite definitely that Hitler had been apprised in 1942 of the possibilities of a nuclear weapon," Groves wrote in his book, Now It Can Be Told. "Nevertheless, all evidence from Strasbourg clearly pointed to the fact that, as of the latter part of 1944, the enemy's efforts to develop a bomb were still in the experimental stages, and greatly increased our belief that there was little probability of any sudden nuclear surprise from Germany."
Chadwick relayed the news to Rotblat. The thin thread that was his rationale for staying at Los Alamos finally broke.
But leaving would not be so easy. The chief of security at Los Alamos, Major Peer de Silva, had already targeted Rotblat as a suspected Communist, and thus someone who might sell the secrets of the bomb to the Soviets. Rotblat heard this news from Chadwick. He was, of course, furious. Like many Europeans terrified of Hitler during the 1930s, Rotblat was a Communist sympathizer because the Soviets seemed to offer the only viable alternative to encroaching fascism in Western Europe. That made him a prime target for someone like de Silva, who was fast gaining a reputation as a Communist witch-hunter. De Silva was convinced that Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist at Los Alamos, also was a Communist spy.
Chadwick confronted de Silva and demanded that he immediately destroy the dossier on Rotblat. De Silva agreed, and Rotblat was allowed to leave. But he had to promise not to tell his colleagues the reasons, presumably to protect either the secret of Alsos or the fantasy of the German bomb, or both. Rotblat was to say only that he was returning to Britain because he would be in a better position to look for his wife. Rotblat found out several years later, when he had trouble obtaining a U.S. entry visa, that de Silva had not kept his end of the bargain. Moreover, the charges against him, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, were so bizarre that as Rotblat read the dossier, he could only feel incredulity and astonishment. The story according to de Silva was that Rotblat's flying lessons were far from innocent fun. Instead, he was learning to fly so he could return to Britain, join the Royal Air Force, hijack a plane, fly to Poland, parachute behind Soviet lines, and deliver the secrets of the bomb to the Communists. It had never occurred to Rotblat during his frequent visits to Elspeth that someone was always listening, but he surmised that with his poor English, the Hispanic housekeeper had taken snippets of conversation and "made up with his imagination what he did not understand."
Excerpted from IN MORTAL HANDS by STEPHANIE COOKE Copyright © 2009 by Stephanie Cooke. Excerpted by permission.
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