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Richard Rhodes on: The Significance of Developing the Atomic Bomb
Richard Rhodes Q: What is significant about the development of strategic bombing towards the end of the war, and more specifically the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why do those events change the rest of the history of the twentieth century?

RR: Well, at a high philosophic level, 1945 marked a turning point in human history. For the first time, the human race had developed the means to destroy itself. On a slightly lower level, one could say the nation state could no longer freely choose to go to war to aggrandize its power or to settle disputes. Science had handed the nation state a poisoned apple, if you will, the poisoned apple being the ability to have an essentially infinite amount of explosive power. Even a small country could have such terrible power. When you have an infinite amount of explosives, you can't have a contest that's decidable. The other side as much destructive force to destroy you as you have to destroy it. So the end result is a stalemate. And in a way, the last 50 years have simply been a playing out of that end game, of that particular chess game.

Q: When the news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes back to the United States, it signifies the end of the war. There's celebration and a sense of accomplishment too, among the scientists at Los Alamos. But then very quickly a more somber note takes hold.

RR: It had been a long and terrible war. And the idea that two bombs destroying two cities could bring deliverance from that horror was an immense relief to everyone. We had tens of thousands of soldiers massing on Okinawa to invade Japan. We had taken terrible casualties at Okinawa, and we were clear that we would take even more terrible casualties as the Japanese ferociously defended their homelands. So these bombs seemed like a terrible shock, a slap in the face to wake up the enemy to the fact of their defeat, because they had lost the war but they wouldn't stop fighting. And it was a terrible frustration, and it caused great anger. I think people shouldn't forget where those bombs were in that history, because it's easy now to say we shouldn't have bombed those cities. But it was deliverance for tens and thousands of young American men who were prepared to die to finish this war.

Nevertheless, when the news came back to Los Alamos and Chicago and the other places where the Manhattan Project scientists were working. There was inevitably a sense of horror. They hadn't been on the front lines. They weren't hardened to the fact of killing. And the realization that there, as one of them said, our beautiful physics, which had seemed like such an almost religious science commitment before the war, should have been put into the deepest and darkest part of human existence, really horrified them. Oppenheimer in particular was, as he said later when he was asked if he had recriminations, personal feelings about the atomic bombing, he said, "Terribly." And he did.

So they were faced with the hope on the one hand, as they had dreamed all along, and as they had rationalized this work of making weapons of mass destruction, they had the hope that this would mean the end of war forever, or at least of world scale war. And in that, they were right. It did. But at the same time, it was a terrible thing to have signed one's name to.

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