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The Man Behind The Bomb

The Man Behind The BombIn a biography of one of the physicists who helped create the nuclear age, Tufts history professor Martin Sherwin explores the rationale behind the atomic bomb.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.17.05] When two atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago, their powerful explosions brought about the end of World War II while ushering in the atomic age. For American nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, his pivotal role in building those bombs was a source of great conflict. In a new biography of his life, Tufts historian Martin Sherwin explores the man and the consequences of his work.

"Robert Oppenheimer was the engine that drove the atomic bomb to completion by August of 1945. And that ended up being both a sense of pride and a great burden, a great burden on his humanistic spirit," Sherwin – co-author of "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" – told National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation in May.

Oppenheimer, Sherwin says, hoped the bomb could be an instrument of peace.

"The scientists, led by Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr, believed that because the bomb was so terrible, perhaps the nations of the world would be willing to sacrifice a certain amount of sovereignty, to bring themselves together… to protect the world from a nuclear arms race," he said on Talk of the Nation. "That was the great dream and the great possibility after the war and, of course, that never was realized."

Years of research have led Sherwin to the conclusion that dropping the bombs in Japan was unnecessary.

"The Japanese were holding out, [they] were arguing that the Russians could mediate better surrender terms for the United States," Sherwin told Charlie Rose shortly after Japan commemorated the 60 th anniversary of the Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "But as soon as the Soviets came into the war, that argument fell to the ground, and the war would have been over."

Japan, he told NPR, was working toward achieving peace before the bombs dropped.

AmericanPrometheus"There are a whole series of Japanese communications between Tokyo and Moscow, one of which, especially, has the emperor saying – the emperor himself, a quotation from the emperor – saying that the only barrier to peace is the unconditional surrender doctrine," Sherwin told Charlie Rose. "And that just demonstrates that the emperor was on the side of the party of peace, but they were only going to do it if the emperor's life and the emperorship were guaranteed."

Oppenheimer's nuclear vision, says Sherwin, was for "a world which is organized around the idea that it is the responsibility of every powerful industrial nation to prevent nuclear weapons from becoming part of arsenals," the Tufts scholar told Charlie Rose.

He says that one of the key reasons behind the U.S. using the bomb was President Harry Truman's swift ascendancy to the presidency after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945.

"He was playing catch-up," Sherwin told Charlie Rose. "He was not absorbing information, processing it, and making decisions. He was hearing things, and he was then sending it off to the people who he felt were on top of it. And that process, without a leader who could control the issue, simply moved on momentum – that is, the process of using the atomic bomb."

What Roosevelt would have done is up for debate, but Sherwin believes that consideration of the Soviet Union would have played a major factor.

"FDR had the confidence that if he believed that using the bomb would improve relations with the Soviets after the war, he would use it," he said on NPR. "If he thought that using the bomb was going to make relations with the Soviets much more difficult after the war – which was his main objective, having good relations with the Soviets after the war – he might very well not have used it."

The fast-paced nuclear arms race that followed in the years after World War II could have been avoided, Sherwin says, by not using the bomb.

"The Soviets, once we used it, believed that they were the next target," Sherwin told Charlie Rose.

The propagation of nuclear arms is a consequence of the atomic bomb that Sherwin says plagued Oppenheimer, whose vision for a peaceful nuclear age faded away in the tension of the Cold War.

"I think that's one of the lessons that he learned from his life, that one should follow one's convictions, even more strongly than he did," he told Talk of the Nation.











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