Magazine article Humanities

The Race for the Bomb

Magazine article Humanities

The Race for the Bomb

Article excerpt

THE RACE FOR THE ATOMIC BOMB HAD BEGUN more or less as a straggle. Committees of scientists did studies and wrote reports. But it was not until the spring of 1941, more than two years after the discovery of nuclear fission in Germany, that Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls, German émigré physicists working in Britain, figured out how a usable atomic bomb could be produced quickly in time for use during the war.

From that time forward, everyone involved with the combined American-British-Canadian atomic bomb project was totally focused on winning this deadly race. Thoughts about the postwar implications of a nuclear-armed world remained dormant until December 1943, when Niels Bohr arrived at Los Alamos.

Robert Oppenheimer was gratified to have Bohr at his side. The fifty-seven-year-old Danish physicist had been smuggled out of Copenhagen aboard a motor launch on the night of September 29,1943. Arriving safely on the Swedish coast, he was taken to Stockholm-where German agents plotted his assassination. On October 5, British airmen sent to his rescue helped Bohr into the bomb bay of an unmarked British Mosquito bomber. When the plywood aircraft approached an altitude of 20,000 feet, the pilot instructed Bohr to don the oxygen mask built into his leather helmet. But Bohr failed to hear the instructions-he later said the helmet was too small for his large head-and soon he fainted for lack of oxygen. He nevertheless survived the air journey and upon landing in Scotland, he remarked that he had had a pleasant nap.

A week after his arrival in London, Bohr was joined by his twenty-one-year-old son Aage, a promising young physicist who later would earn his own Nobel Prize. Over the next seven weeks, father and son were thoroughly briefed about "Tube Alloys"-the British code name for the bomb project. Bohr agreed to become a consultant to the British, who then agreed to send him to America. In early December, he and his son boarded a ship for New York. General Leslie Groves was not happy about the idea of Bohr's participation, but, given the Dane's prestige in the world of physics, he reluctantly granted him permission to visit the mysterious "Site Y" in the New Mexico desert.

Groves's displeasure had been sparked by intelligence reports suggesting that Bohr was a loose cannon. On October 29,1943, the New York Times reported that the Danish physicist had arrived in London bearing "plans for a new invention involving atomic explosions." Groves was incensed, but there was nothing he could do beyond trying to contain Bohr. This proved to be a hopeless task: Bohr was irrepressible. In Denmark, he had simply walked up to the palace door and knocked if he wished to see the king. And he pretty much did the same thing in Washington, D.C., where he visited Lord Halifax, the British ambassador, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, an intimate of President Roosevelt's. His message to these men was clear: The making of the atomic bomb was a foregone conclusion, but it was not too soon to consider what would happen after its development. His deepest fear was that its invention would inspire a deadly arms race between the West and the Soviet Union. To prevent this, he insisted, it was imperative that the Russians be told about the existence of the bomb project, and be assured it was no threat to them.

Such views, of course, horrified Groves, who was desperate to get Bohr out to Los Alamos, where the loquacious physicist could be isolated. To ensure that Bohr got there without breaking security, Groves personally joined him and his son on the train from Chicago. Caltech's Richard Tolman, Groves's science adviser, also came along. Groves and Tolman had agreed to take turns watching over the Danish visitor, to make sure he didn't wander out of the compartment. After an hour with Bohr, however, Tolman came out exhausted and told Groves, "General, I can't stand it anymore. I am reneging, you are in the Army, you have to do it. …

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