Neil J. Sullivan


On his book The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

Cover Interview of January 24, 2017

In a nutshell

The Prometheus Bomb is an account of the building of the atomic bomb that ended combat in the Pacific theater of World War II. The book focuses on how breakthroughs in quantum physics, barely understood even by Nobel Prize winning scientists, were directed by nonscientists for the purpose of developing a weapon of war. The book is a case study of a larger question: How is it possible to control experts in a democracy when we don’t know what they’re talking about?

The American effort began in 1939 with a letter to Franklin Roosevelt signed by Albert Einstein that warned of the possibility that Nazi Germany would have the resources to build an atomic bomb. The letter further urged that the United States monitor developments, and respond as necessary. The Nazi threat was so ominous that it propelled the Roosevelt administration through doubts about the feasibility of an atomic bomb, concerns about the costs and reluctance to divert resources from other aspects of the war effort.

The Prometheus Bomb maintains its focus on the role of politicians and other government officials as the scientists continued to make progress. It covers the surprisingly complicated and difficult interaction with the British allies, the relative ease with which the Soviet Union placed spies at Los Alamos and elsewhere in the Manhattan Project, the limiting to only seven members of Congress that the price tag would exceed $2 billion.

The decision to bomb two Japanese cities in 1945 is another consideration of the book. In trying to look at the bombings from the perspective of President Harry Truman, the propriety of using the bombs is examined in the context of ending the war. A massive invasion of Japan was scheduled for the fall of 1945. Expectations were that casualties of an invasion of the home islands would be massive. A blockade, a demonstration explosion and other options were considered, and rejected.

Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki accomplished the purpose of ending the war in the Pacific, but the price was horrific. Casualties were less than that of some conventional bombings both in Japan and Europe, but the effects of secrecy, expense, suspicion, spy craft and other factors continue to this day.

In the case of the atomic bomb, experts were controlled by the presidential appointment of a number of remarkable figures drawn from the military, academics, business and other professions. They were dedicated to their common purpose, and subordinated egos and professional rivalries to the larger goal. These appointees were loyal to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and, with that deference to the American presidents, the values of America’s constitutional democracy prevailed though in a modified form.