There is an interesting story about two physicists who participated in the “Manhattan Project” – the project that produced the atom bombs that blew up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Richard Feynman and John Wheeler were radical thinkers as far as science went, and were good friends who collaborated on research at Princeton. But their reaction to the bomb was quite different.
The following comes from the book “The Quantum Labyrinth” by Paul Halpern:
Feynman felt a lot of guilt:
One afternoon, Feynman was meeting his mom for lunch in New York City, when a wave of depression came over him unexpectedly. Observing the street life around him—all the businessmen, tourists, and others roaming the skyscraper canyons of the city—he mentally calculated how many blocks an atomic bomb would decimate. He thought about the feasibility of making destructive nuclear weapons and trembled at the possibility that Manhattan could end up like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly he realized the extent of the horror that he and his colleagues at Los Alamos had unleashed. There was no hope for the world, he concluded. Everything was futile.
As a human, not an elementary particle, like a positron, or an advanced wave, Feynman knew that he couldn’t go back in time and change history. Rather, he would learn an important lesson from his mistake. He had erred in assuming that the initial mission of the Manhattan Project—to prevent the Nazis from developing the bomb and gaining a monopoly on its use—justified its completion. On realizing that the Nazis had made no progress, he and others should have opted out. The world would have been better off without the sword of Damocles of nuclear war hanging over it.
Wheeler, on the other hand, was guilty he hadn’t made the bomb sooner!
Though much less vocal and militant about his decision than Teller, Wheeler would surprisingly follow a similarly pro-nuclear path. He would continue his weapons research up until 1953, becoming an important contributor to and advocate of H-bomb development.
Why would Wheeler, a quiet, peaceful disciple of internationalists Bohr and Einstein, pursue such a hawkish course? A tragedy— the battlefield death of his younger brother Joe, only thirty at the time—may have steered him toward supporting more nuclear weapons research and development.
Joe was a talented young historian who had received his PhD from Brown University. With a promising career ahead of him, he enlisted as a private first class in the US Army. Fighting Germans in Italy, he found himself in the thick of battle. Sometime in 1944, he sent John a postcard with a simple but powerful message: “Hurry up!”
In hindsight, Wheeler surmised that his brother, who knew about his fission research, suspected that he was developing a superweapon with the potential to end the war. While the Allies had Hitler in their crosshairs, a powerful show of force would help speed his defeat along.
Tragically, shortly after Joe sent the card, he went missing in action; his decomposed body wasn’t found until 1946. When John and his family learned the bitter truth, the loss was devastating.
From that point on, thinking over and over again about his brother’s message, Wheeler became obsessed with an alternative history in which he had never put aside his fission research. In the parallel, early 1940s of his imagination, rather than switching gears and focusing exclusively on his electrodynamics work with Feynman (along with his teaching and other duties), he would push strongly for the development of nuclear weapons. Lending his considerable research and organizational skills to an expedited Manhattan Project, he’d make sure that the Roosevelt administration devoted enough manpower and resources to the mission. By the time the United States entered the war, the bomb would already be well under development. If it were ready by mid-1944, Wheeler envisioned, perhaps Nazi Germany would surrender one year earlier, sparing millions of lives—including numerous soldiers and civilians caught up in the final stages of the conflict and a large portion of those murdered in the Holocaust.
“I am convinced that the United States, with the help of its British and Canadian allies, could have had an atomic bomb sooner…if scientific and political leaders had committed themselves to the task earlier,” Wheeler later wrote in his memoirs. “One cannot escape the conclusion that an atomic bomb program started a year earlier and concluded a year sooner would have spared 15 million lives, my brother Joe’s among them.”
Decades after his brother’s death, Wheeler would mention, in public talks about the era, his guilt over not pushing earlier and harder to develop the atomic bomb. Tears would well up in his eyes, as he described what could have been if the Allies had defeated the Nazis sooner and his brother were still alive. Once again, those heartbreaking two words: “What if?”
One response to the power of nuclear weapons was to make the technology public. This was advocated by Neils Bohr, who along with Einstein and some other physicists, became supporters of arms control groups.
According to Angelo Codevilla, a similar attitude exists today to missile defense, perhaps since some people think an effective defense would make nuclear war more likely. (At least, that’s how I understand this quote from a recent article of his titled “What Will It Take to Get Serious About Missile Defense?”)
U.S. policy continues to be one of not having missile defense—the public’s support for it notwithstanding—the government’s response to its programs’ failure is to pour more money into them. Since the 1960s, the government and elite opinion have obfuscated that policy by pretending that technology is lacking….Washington’s response to North Korea’s missiles has been typical: throw words and money at the problem. Everybody, it seems, has nice words for missile defense. But because few know or bother to learn the details, interest group logic ensures that the same people who have kept America vulnerable are continuing to do so.
I’ll throw in my two cents here: the atom bomb was first dropped on cities, with the knowledge that many civilians would die. It is no wonder that it has created such a strong negative response. However, not defending with ABMs against countries that could wipe out OUR civilians is not moral. Feynman imagined what could happen to Manhattan, and it still can happen.
A reader of this blog argued that Hiroshima set a precedent that we are still paying for, but personally, I believe recent bombings with no regard for civilians (such as happened in Syria) would have happened anyway. The world is full of merciless people, especially when their back is against the wall, as was the case of the rulers of Syria. (Estimates of deaths in the Syrian Civil War, per opposition activist groups, vary between 331,765 and 475,000). There are about 5 million Syrian refugees who have fled Syria, and I doubt that they will become a fashionable cause on campus like the Palestinians have been though if you compare numbers, they are more than 5 times the population of the original Palestinian refugees.
As far as the American atom bomb, I read one soldier’s opinion. He later recounted how relieved he was that the war was over, and that his life would not end on some god-forsaken Pacific island fighting a determined enemy who would fight to the very end.
The Quantum Labyrinth – Paul Halpern (2017)