Saturday, July 16, 2011

Little Boy and The Gadget

Sixty-six years ago the world changed. On July 16, 1945 a plutonium bomb nicknamed "The Gadget" exploded atop a 100 foot tower at a site called Trinity in the New Mexico desert. The explosion was so bright that a legally blind woman 50 miles away saw the flash. It turned the sand to glass and scientists worried it could set the Earth's atmosphere on fire. It also signaled the end of World War II, and three weeks later a uranium bomb named "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima.

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima (P.S.)Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker takes us through those three weeks between the Trinity Test and Hiroshima and the debates at the time over the use of such destructive weapons. Some scientists who had assisted in the Manhattan Project doubted they would even work, and others came to oppose their use when they saw the results. Mr. Walker discusses the development of Little Boy, and tells of the discussions over how the bomb could be most effectively used, such as the choice of targets and calculating the optimal height for the explosion (it exploded 1,900 feet above ground, not on impact). Some scientists even suggested attaching sirens to cause people to look, thereby blinding more people and maximizing the effect - an idea that was fortunately rejected. He also explains why the Japanese didn't surrender immediately after Hiroshima; they weren't even sure what happened at first except that communication seemed to have stopped, and then unbelievable reports began to come out. It took another bomb - "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9 - for them to fully understand the gravity and futility of their situation. Using personal interviews and extensive research, it is both an exciting ride and a heart-rending account of the victors and those who experienced its horrors firsthand on the ground. It made me feel like I was watching a car crash: you know what's coming but you can't take your eyes away.

My only complaint with the book is that often there seems to be a casual characterization of many of the people involved as unthinking, unfeeling, power-hungry, or as mere "tools" of their leaders. At the same time, those who opposed the use of the bomb were portrayed as insightful and open-minded. Yet, although the book sometimes seems more sympathetic to the Japanese, it also attempts to examine both sides of the debate fairly. Mr. Walker explains what other options were discussed, such as sharing the test results or a demonstration on an uninhabited island instead of a city, and why such ideas would have been impractical. He looks at estimates of how much longer the war would last if an invasion were necessary and projected casualties – both American and Japanese. He also explains that Japan wasn't the only nation the US wanted to send a message to with its new weapon; a new threat was quickly developing with the aggressive and opportunistic entrance of the Soviet Union into the Pacific conflict. In fact, one whole chapter was devoted to explaining why there really was no other choice, recognizing that there were many factors to consider and it wasn't a simple decision. Japan had vowed to fight to the death, and all indications (even after Hiroshima) were that the people were willing to do so. The book isn't perfect but was one of the better discussions I've seen. It explains the politics and challenges of the time but doesn't forget that those were men, women, and children under that mushroom cloud, and was certainly a great insight into the events that ended the war.

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