The justification for the atomic bomb was simple: it would defeat Hitler and end the Second World War faster, saving lives. The reality was different.
Fallout dismantles the conventional story of why the atom bomb was built. Peter Watson has found new documents showing that long before the Allied bomb was operational, it was clear that Germany had no atomic weapons of its own and was not likely to. The British knew this, but didn't share their knowledge with the Americans, who in turn deceived the British about the extent to which the Soviets had penetrated their plans to build and deploy the bomb.
The dark secret was that the bomb was dropped not to decisively end the war in the Pacific but to warn off Stalin's Russia, still in principle a military ally of the US and Britain. It did not bring a hot war to an abrupt end; instead it set up the terms for a Cold one to begin.
Moreover, none of the scientists recruited to build the bomb had any idea that the purpose of the bomb had been secretly changed and that Russian deterrence was its new objective.
Fallout vividly reveals the story of the unnecessary building of the atomic bomb, the most destructive weapon in the world, and the long-term consequences that are still playing out to this day.
Unprecedented scientific breakthroughs, World War geopolitics, and the birth of the Cold War serve as the backdrop to this thorough history of the atomic bomb from journalist and historian Watson (The Modern Mind). Watson posits that "by not acting as allies, the Allies kick-started the nuclear arms race we inherit today" and outlines how various actors kept various pieces of important information from others: the U.S. hid from its scientists the Germans' lack of nuclear arsenal and from the British that Soviet spies were aware of the American research. Alongside well-known scientists such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisnberg, and Karl Fuchs, Watson brings into the spotlight critical yet lesser-known actors, such as Austrian scientific publisher and spy Paul Rosbaud, who worked undercover for England. The book's strongest section juxtaposes Bohr's efforts to share information through official channels with the more illicit efforts of physicist-spy Fuchs to inform the Russians of nuclear developments; the idea that nuclear transparency was essential to maintaining peace was pervasive in some diplomatic and scientific circles. The question of whether the atomic bomb was even needed to win the war recurs throughout. Watson's speculations about the potential knock-on effects of a non-nuclear end to WWII feel a little overstated. However, he writes about quantum physics and scientific developments in an accessible way that even the uninitiated will appreciate. Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the nature of the secrets kept by the U.S. during the development of the atomic bomb.