The Bomb: a life, by Gerard DeGroot

The ultimate weapon of mass destruction
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The Independent Culture

"The Bomb" is the most awe-inspiring thing ever invented. With its capacity to destroy the planet, there is nothing "bigger", as Gerard DeGroot puts it in his new history of atomic weaponry. It ended the Second World War with a bang. Since then, it has reared its frightening head over three generations.

"The Bomb" is the most awe-inspiring thing ever invented. With its capacity to destroy the planet, there is nothing "bigger", as Gerard DeGroot puts it in his new history of atomic weaponry. It ended the Second World War with a bang. Since then, it has reared its frightening head over three generations.

Living under the mushroom cloud has provoked a number of memorable sentences, many of them pessimistic. "The atom bomb has changed everything," Albert Einstein said, "except the nature of man."

However, the "nature of man" has turned out better than expected. After Little Boy and Fat Man, dropped by two American B-29s on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively, no other nuclear weapon has been fired in anger.

The results of those bombs, described here in great detail, were horrible enough. In Hiroshima alone, 75,000 died immediately by blast and fire, the number climbing to as many as 200.000 five years on through the after-effects of radiation. Little Boy's explosive power was almost as strong as all bombs dropped on Britain during the Blitz put together.

With the end of the Cold War, the immediate danger of an all-out nuclear war has largely disappeared, or at least worries about it have greatly diminished. The complex arithmetic of rockets and warheads, the strange rules of deterrence, and the absurdities of an age when military power was never greater but also never less useful, seem gone, at least for now. However, the Bomb cannot be un-invented.

DeGroot goes back to the beginnings of this age, when the world's leading scientists got together in the wartime Manhattan project to produce an atomic bomb for fear of Nazi Germany being quicker.

He recaps the decisions for its use against Japan and the role of the Bomb in the confrontation between East and West, as the US and Soviet Union trumped each other with the tests of ever more gigantic super-bombs, and other states aspired to this symbol of power. He also deals with the peace movements, for instance the British CND and the Greenham Common women's camp. He has little time for either.

DeGroot's study is profound and rich in detail. His extensive narrative is captivating although, curiously, he makes little of the biographical metaphor used in the subtitle. The author's decision to concentrate on the early history, letting the story peter out after the near-fatal confrontation over Cuba in 1962, when the world only narrowly escaped Armageddon, has perhaps prevented an even better book.

At a time when the US military thinks aloud about using "mini-nukes" in future wars, when political leaders paint apocalyptic pictures of terrorist groups with "weapons of mass destruction", and an ever greater number of states "go nuclear", the more recent history of the Bomb might have been more illuminating than its already well-told early days.

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