‘The Bomb: A Life’

“The Bomb: A Life” by Gerard DeGroot: This year marks the 60th anniversary of those two terrifying days in August 1945 when we learned to love and hate the atomic bomb. To mark the birthday of the bomb, there’s no better present than this wry biography of the weapon that made us all think about the end of the world.

DeGroot, who teaches history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, tells you everything you ever wanted to know about nuclear weapons, including things you were too terrified to ask. He runs through the parallel stories of how nations increasingly brought death from the air to civilians with strategic bombing and of how scientists burrowing into the atom stumbled on the possibility of a bomb beyond anything previously imagined. Then DeGroot really has some fun.

Want to know how close we came to the end of everything during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? “Armageddon stood in wait of a single presidential order or a single impatient act by a sailor or airman.” As the Strategic Air Command baited the Soviets with uncoded readiness messages, a test missile launch and U-2 flight over Siberia, and as U.S. forces reacted to such false alarms as a real bear climbing a base’s fence in Wisconsin and a stray computer tape in Tampa mistaken for the radar signal of a Cuban missile launch, “the latter was more likely.”

Ever wonder whether the “weapon unused is a useless weapon” mentality of the Air Force officers in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove reflected reality? Consider Gen. Curtis LeMay, who regretted the peaceful outcome of the Cuban crisis. “He understood, more than anyone, that Cuba offered the last opportunity to use his beloved bombers for the purpose they were intended.” And DeGroot suspects LeMay was closer to sane than his successor as SAC commander, Gen. Tommy Power.

There’s room for argument in DeGroot’s analysis of whether America should have hit Hiroshima with Little Boy and Nagasaki with Fat Man. He’s far too dependent on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which was conducted in the belief that a war could be won from the air. But he shows that even if President Truman thought the bombs were necessary to save American lives in Japan, he also had Stalin and the Soviets in mind.

Unless you find mushroom clouds attractive, the beauty of DeGroot’s work is his knack for the telling details. In his effort to portray the nuclear arms race as a crazed competition that didn’t have to be in 1945 but couldn’t be avoided 10 years later, he doesn’t let the documentary evidence stifle the story.

If you learned to laugh at the bomb from Dr. Strangelove, you’ll find yourself giggling at Armageddon with DeGroot, who understands that mankind’s destruction of everything is far too serious a topic to take too seriously. He enjoys the absurdity of it all.

British sub commanders, for example, were likely to have four options in case the United Kingdom was destroyed: Put themselves under American command; head for Australia; retaliate; or use their own judgment. “Logic suggests that option four is the only credible one, since there’s no point in following the orders of a government which has been vaporized,” DeGroot writes. “But one should never underestimate the British respect for authority.”

Rating: Buy it. Reviewed by Michael Jacobs (originally appeared in USA TODAY)

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