Category: YA nonfiction; History; Politics & Washington
Synopsis: Sheinkin relates the building, testing, and use of the atomic bomb in World War II.
Date finished: 7 August 2014
Oh. My. Goodness.
Through much of this book, I thought I would be rating it a three or four. It was very well-written, but it wasn’t entirely compelling. It felt too much like a high school U.S. history textbook—lots of facts, not a lot of application to life. But I kept reading, because, frankly, I really don’t remember learning about the atomic bomb, and definitely don’t remember learning about the spying that was involved.
About the time the worksite in Los Alamos was formed and staffed, the book took an upturn and became very intriguing. Though, of course, I knew how it all ended, the events leading up to the building, testing, and use of the atomic bomb were riveting. As soon as fission is confirmed, the great powers of the 1940s world are in a panic for the weapon to end all weapons. There is spying. There are double agents. And, of course, there is the frenzied race to build the bomb before the Nazis.
And then President Truman’s decision to use the bomb on Japan to end the war.
It’s this last part, the dropping of the bombs and the aftermath around the world, that makes this an outstanding book. Sheinkin captures the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and provides eyewitness accounts by survivors. But beyond this, he conveys the mixture of emotions felt by those responsible for creating this terrible weapon: grief, guilt, horror, pride, relief, exhaustion, fear. Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, especially, was stricken by what he’d help accomplish. Had humanity just created its doom? It was an eye-opening and sobering coda to an ugly war. I found this part of the book so powerful, I think I will always carry the feeling with me. Never will I look at this part of human history in quite the same way.
And just as the creation of the bomb wasn’t the end of the story, the use of the bomb wasn’t the end either. The period following World War II became a race among nations to build and stockpile bigger and “better” nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer argued that the period after WWII was a time to step back from the arms race, not ramp it up. He knew the greed for more weapons would take on a life of its own. It wouldn’t take long before it would no longer be about ending a war, ensuring national security, or even intimidating rogue nations, it would become about terrorism, annihilation, and genocide. We need look no further than the current turmoil in the Middle East to see his prophesy come true. (The government, by the way, didn’t like Oppenheimer’s opposition, so they removed him from the equation by revoking his security clearance.)
A note about this being a YA read: I wouldn’t have been able to tell, had I not known, that this was not a book for adults. Never does Sheinkin water down the scientific aspects of the physics involved, and never does he shield his young audience from the truth of what’s happening. This surprised and pleased me.
I will say that this is not the kind of book you want to pick up and put down with several days between readings. There are a lot of names and events and dates and countries, and it’s hard to keep track of the details. I know this from experience.
Would you recommend this to a friend?Yes, readers of all ages should read this book.
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