The atomic bomb not only hastened the surrender of Japan to end World War II. In the decades that followed it also altered the course of American foreign policy and national security, and brought profound changes to American culture and everyday life.
The feeling of power that grew from owning the most dangerous weapon in world history was matched by a nagging fear that some crisis or some madman might set it off. While suburban families considered whether to build underground bomb shelters in their backyards, schoolchildren learned how to “duck and cover” in the event of nuclear attack. In retrospect, naiveté about The Bomb and its effects was legion. This ultimate weapon had been developed at government laboratories in Los Alamos, New Mexico, by a team of outstanding physicists under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Upon seeing the results of the first detonation of an atomic device, the test director Kenneth Bainbridge is said to have remarked to Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
Yet the physicists could scarcely contain their fascination with what they had wrought, as Jeremy Bernstein finds in this report from ground zero.
For nearly three decades Jeremy Bernstein wrote profiles of scientists for The New Yorker. Many were prizewinners, and his book Einstein was nominated for the National Book Award. Mr. Bernstein, a theoretical physicist, has also written Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma; Hitler’s Uranium Club; Three Degrees Above Zero; Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos; and The Merely Personal. For Now and Then he has written Mostly He Won, Oppenheimer’s Lives, and How Iran Got the Bomb. He lives in New York City and Aspen, Colorado.