The successful use of the first atomic bomb greatly relieved many scientists, because it meant that their years of work on it had not gone to waste; yet it also caused them to experience pain and grief like never before. Los Alamos was the base of the first American atomic bomb program, and it was there that the first three atomic bombs, two of which were dropped on Japan, were created. When scientists there received news that an atomic bomb had successfully been dropped on Hiroshima, at first, they felt overjoyed that their creation had worked. However, that soon turned into worry and sadness after they found out how much destruction the bomb had caused. When scientists unleashed the deadliest weapon ever known to man, it gave them a heavy burden of responsibility for the rest of their lives.
American scientists’ first reaction on August 6, 1945, when they got the news that the atomic bomb had successfully been dropped on Hiroshima, was extreme happiness, pride, and relief. The scientists at Los Alamos had taken nearly 7 years to reach this milestone; the atomic bomb project had started in America in 1939, adopting the name “The Uranium Committee.” In the beginning, the committee struggled to get the operation going, but when Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer took charge, new technologies began to be uncovered. As the team approached the end of the road, they began working harder than ever, often working 24-hour days to satisfy the seemingly impossible deadlines President Truman had set. In addition, it is important to note that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was made from uranium. Many scientists were uncertain if it would work since they had only tested the plutonium bomb; there simply wasn’t enough uranium to use in tests. When it did work, many scientists were relieved; had it not, many years of work would have gone to waste. However, after getting a more detailed report of what happened at Hiroshima, many scientists were horrified.
A wave of fear, worry, sadness, and guilt rolled into Los Alamos. During night parties on August 6 to celebrate the success at Hiroshima that morning, Oppenheimer showed an official report on the effects of the bomb around. One scientist that worked at Los Alamos, Otto Frisch, recalls “the feeling of unease, indeed nausea.” And nausea it was indeed: as Oppenheimer walked away from the party, he turned back to see someone vomiting into a bush. And it wasn’t just the scientists at Los Alamos. The German scientist that discovered fission, Otto Hahn (who, at the time, was being held in custody in England) “was completely shattered by the news,” said a British officer named T.H. Rittner. He felt responsible for the destruction caused at Hiroshima. When it came time to drop a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, many of the scientists’ attitudes were very different from what they had been at the time of Hiroshima. However, nobody but the scientists seemed to be carrying this great burden.
Many presidents and political leaders at the time didn’t seem to care about how much destruction was being caused by atomic bombs. When Robert Oppenheimer brought his concerns to President Truman, saying that he felt “he had blood on his hands” and would not support the creation of another atomic bomb, Truman took this as a sign of disloyalty and kicked him out of the atomic bomb program, when really all Oppenheimer wanted to do was to prevent MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Truman also demanded that twenty more atomic bombs be created as soon as possible, regardless of the cost. Soon, atomic bombs turned into hydrogen bombs, and as America and Russia competed to build up their arms, many other countries decided to join the race. Soon, there were so many nuclear warheads on Earth that 0.5% of them could, by themselves, wipe out all living things on Earth. Many countries simply refused to consider how much devastation all these bombs could cause.
The atomic bomb not only affected many people physically, it also drastically changed many people, especially scientists, mentally. Many scientists at Los Alamos would never recover from the guilt or pain that being a part of the creation of the most lethal weapon ever known to man brought about. There’s an unforgettable quote from the renowned physicist Albert Einstein that concisely sums up this situation: “Mankind invented the atomic bomb, but no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap.”
Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2012.