On the eve of WWII, a German chemist, Otto Hahn, discovered fission. The scientific and political ramifications of this discovery were not lost on the world’s top physicists, but it took time—and a letter from Albert Einstein—for U. S. political leaders and military to understand its significance. Once they did, the Manhattan Project was established, bringing scientists—including many recent arrivals from Europe—to Los Alamos, NM, to design a weapon capable of unleashing a force greater than the world had ever witnessed. Despite being shrouded in secrecy, news of the Manhattan Project spread. In Bomb, Steve Sheinkin’s exciting new title, the author chronicles The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Roaring Brook, Sept. 2012).
There are so many incredible stories and characters in this book. Was there one in particular that drew you in, convinced you to write it?
Ted Hall hooked me. I just couldn’t believe that this brilliant, pimply, cocky kid could go straight from Harvard to the Manhattan Project to giving away the world’s biggest secret—all before his 19th birthday! I originally thought Hall would be my main character; he’s certainly fascinating and controversial. But he’s problematic from a structural standpoint in that he doesn’t get to Los Alamos until 1944, which is late in the game in terms of the bomb race.
Bomb reads like a thriller. Can you talk about how you framed your narrative?
I love spy thrillers, and was definitely going for that feel. Kept a lot of John Le Carré novels on the night table during the writing process, just as inspiration. Thrillers are driven by scenes, with one bit of action racing downhill into the next. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which parts of the story would work as scenes, and finding out as much as I could about each one. The challenge was to organize them, until they fit together. I didn’t start writing until all this other stuff was done.
Like your book The Notorious Benedict Arnold (Roaring Brook, 2010), this title is filled with some extraordinary personalities–the absentminded, brilliant physicist Robert Oppenheimer; the shy, unassuming Herbert Gold who began begin working for the Russians to repay a personal favor to a friend; and the blustery, larger-than-life army colonel Leslie Groves. The rich details about the people on all sides of this story humanize it. Did you have a favorite?
There’s no more fascinating or complex character in American history than Robert Oppenheimer. I think that if Shakespeare could write just one historical play about an American, he’d pick Oppenheimer. I had to leave out a few great Oppie childhood scenes, just because it was taking me too long to get the book going.
One of my favorite stories was about Knut Haukelid, a resistance fighter, who managed, with a crew, to do enough damage to a remote Norwegian cliffside factory to slow down the production of heavy water needed for the German atomic program. How significant was that operation?
The Norway scenes were among my favorite, too. Like Indiana Jones on skis. Their operations were definitely important, and certainly hampered German research at a key time. Whether or not Germany could have produced an atomic bomb in time to use it is a matter on ongoing disagreement. Though the German program had a head start, Hitler wasn’t initially interested in weapons that would take years to produce, because he didn’t think he’d need them. By the time he got interested, the Germans were well behind, thanks in part to Haukelid and his crew.
Along with some tales of amazing courage, you relate some unbelievable scenes—and mishaps—that would be comical, if not for how they could have turned out: Enrico Fermi conducting a potentially highly dangerous test on a University of Chicago squash court; a young man babysitting the atom bomb during a desert thunderstorm on the eve of the first test.
As with all the best true stories, there are elements no novelist could invent. As I researched and read primary sources, one of the things that really came across was that here were bunch of folks thrust into uncharted territory, and feeling their way around obstacles. Take George Kistiakowsky performing a last-second fix on the first plutonium bomb with a dental drill, or Robert and Charlotte Serber’s bumbling attempt to spread misinformation about the project at a Santa Fe bar. There were so many geniuses at work on the bomb, but they were still making it up as they went along.
It’s widely known that many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project had deep regrets after understanding the extent of the destruction and the loss of life the atom bomb wrought on Japan. Were they naïve, and did they really believe that the program and atomic proliferation would end with the war?
Based on what the scientists themselves said, I think most of them were so focused on one goal—beating Hitler to the bomb—that they didn’t think very much about the moral implications of their work, until it became clear that they had won the race. Many of the Los Alamos scientists described the atmosphere as exciting and energizing—many of the best minds in the world working together to solve this incredibly complex series of puzzles, and saving the world while they were at it.
It was easy not to dwell on what may happen 10 or 20 years down the road. There were discussions about how their “gadget” would be used in the future, but Groves and Oppenheimer didn’t allow this to slow down the work. And yes, I guess there was a certain amount of naiveté on the part of Oppenheimer and the others. I don’t think they realized how completely control of the bomb would be out of their hands, once the government and military got their hands on the weapons.
If you could meet one person in your book and ask him or her a question, who and what would it be?
The one that leaps out is President Truman, and I’d ask him if he was really as confident as he proclaimed that using the bombs on Japan was the right thing. It’s such a complicated, many-sided problem, and I get the feeling Truman’s private thoughts on the matter were more nuanced than his public statements. It’s a question worth pondering and debating, because we’ve still got thousands of these weapons, and a president may well face a scenario in which he/she is forced to decide whether or not to use atomic bombs.
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