The Bomb/"prompt and Utter Destruction"

By Lawrence, Mark Atwood | International Journal, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Bomb/"prompt and Utter Destruction"


Lawrence, Mark Atwood, International Journal


THE BOMB A Life Gerard J. DeGroot Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. xvi, 397pp, US$27.95 cloth (ISBN 0-674-01724-2)

"PROMPT AND UTTER DESTRUCTION" Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bombs Against Japan, rev. ed. J. Samuel Walker Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 160pp US$16.95 paper (ISBN 0-8078-5607-X)

The history of nuclear weapons has attracted more than its share of fine scholars and, perhaps more remarkably, fine writers who have managed to make a challenging subject accessible to broad audiences. In masterful books over the past 25 years, Richard Rhodes, Gregg Herken, and Fred Kaplan, to name just three, brought to life arcane matters of science and strategy, helping to educate a generation of students and general readers on matters of epic importance.

With their superb new books, Gerard J. DeGroot and J. Samuel Walker extend this admirable tradition. Specialists will find little fresh evidence or argumentation in DeGroot's The Bomb: A Life or the revised edition of Walker's "Prompt and Utter Destruction. " Rather, the authors' achievement lies in their ability to synthesize vast bodies of scholarship and to offer elegant, concise, and up-to-date distillations suitable for general readers and, above all, undergraduates. Both books are ideal for adoption in courses on the history of nuclear weapons, the Cold War, or US foreign relations.

DeGroot's "biography" fills a long-standing need for an accessible basic history of nuclear weapons. The book begins with the key breakthroughs in atomic physics during the early 20th century and carries the nuclear story through the end of the Cold War, which DeGroot labels a "mid-life crisis" in the bomb's unfinished life. But the bulk of the book deals with the period from the outbreak of the Second World War to the Cuban missile crisis, the adolescent years when, DeGroot insists, the "really big decisions" were made and basic patterns of thought about nuclear arms took shape (ix).

Reasonably enough, the book focuses on scientific, military, and diplomatic dimensions of the US experience with nuclear weapons. With elegance and wit, DeGroot narrates long-familiar stories of the Manhattan project, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Harry Truman's decision to develop thermonuclear weapons, the Kennedy administration's management of international crises of the early 1960s, and Washington's move toward arms control in the 1960s and 1970s. But the book does more than simply glide over well-trodden ground. DeGroot manages to blend these old themes with attention to two less-familiar matters that have drawn increasing scholarly attention in recent years. First, he devotes several sections of the book to social and cultural aspects of nuclear history-popular attitudes toward the bomb as well as literary and cinematic representations of nuclear war.

Second, DeGroot relates the history of nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union and Britain, the two other countries that acquired nuclear arsenals during the years the book explores in greatest depth. Drawing on David Holloway,s path-breaking research, DeGroot chronicles Stalin's relentless, if belated, pursuit of the bomb in the late 1940s and argues that no American bid to share atomic secrets could have shaken Moscow's determination to balance American power with a bomb of its own.

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