The Volokh Conspiracy

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From My Commonplace Book, 2

Robert Oppenheimer on the death of FDR.


[For a brief explanation of this series of posts, see here]

Robert Oppenheimer's speech at a special meeting of the Manhattan Project staff at Los Alamos, NM on April 15, 1945, commemorating FDR's death:

When, three days ago, the world had word of the death of President Roosevelt, many wept who were unaccustomed to tears. Many men and women, little enough accustomed to prayer, prayed to God. Many of us looked with deep trouble to the future. Many of us felt less certain that our works would be to a good end. All of us were reminded of how precious a thing human greatness is. We have been living through years of great evil, and of great terror. Roosevelt has been our President, our Commander-in-Chief, and, in an old and unperverted sense, our leader. All over the world men and women have looked to him for guidance, and have seen symbolized in him the hope that the evil of these times will not be repeated, that the terrible sacrifices which have been made, and those that are still to be made, will lead to a world more fit for human habitation.

In the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, it says 'Man is a creature whose substance is faith. What his faith is, he is.' The faith of Roosevelt is one that is shared by millions of men and women in every country of the world. For this reason it is possible to maintain the hope—for this reason it is right that we should dedicate ourselves to the hope—that his good works will not have ended with his death.


For reasons I can't quite articulate, I find this quotation incredibly moving. It comes from Richard Rhodes' magnificent book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which I enthusiastically recommend to anyone even remotely interested in the history of the 20th Century, the nature of matter in the universe, the way global science operates, or the intersection of science, politics, and warfare.

Rhodes tells two stories: One describes the work of a global community of physicists, an astonishing number of whom were Jewish refugees fleeing the fascism then sweeping over Europe, to understand the structure of the atom, beginning with Ernest Rutherford's discovery of the neutron in 1909 and culminating a mere 25 years later in Niels Bohr's proof that a self-sustaining nuclear reaction, emitting incomprehensibly large amounts of energy, was a theoretical possibility.

That's the physics; Part Two is about the engineering, and it is even more jaw-dropping. The effort required to convert Bohr's theoretical possibility into a usable and effective weapon was truly staggering, involving tens of thousands of individuals, many billions of dollars, the creation from scratch of not one but three separate small towns to house Manhattan Project workers (Oak Ridge TN, Hanford WA, and Los Alamos NM), construction of the world's first nuclear reactor and the world's first gaseous diffusion plant to produce the raw material for the bomb, and the design and construction of a bomb that was unlike, in every conceivable way, any weapon the world had ever seen before.

And all this was taking place while the U.S. was in the midst of a ferocious two-front global war, and when nobody was at all certain that any of it would actually work. And all in secret!

That they pulled it off in five years of work defies the imagination; if you have any doubts that governments can, sometimes, achieve tremendous things, this is the book for you. Bohr himself had written, back in '35, that the destructive potential of a fission-based weapon was just a theoretical possibility, unrealizable in the real world, because it would require substantial quantities of the isotope Uranium-235, which is only present in infinitesimally minute quantities in nature. To get enough for even a single bomb, he wrote, "you would have to turn the entire country into a factory." In 1944 he comes to the U.S. and is taken on a several-week tour of the Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos facilities, at the end of which he turns to Oppenheimer and says: "You see, I was right! You've turned the entire country into a factory."