June 30, 2009

Diane McKenzie on The Atomic Bomb

The stories of the building of the atomic bomb in the United States, the decision to use the bomb and its aftermath are stories that we must remember and must learn from. For many years every August our family read aloud the entire book, Hiroshima by John Hersey. It only takes a couple of hours to read and is always moving and profoundly affecting. Originally I read the entire book aloud, but by the time my girls were 10, they wanted to take turns with reading as well. It is a way to remember the devastation that human beings can cause and also how human beings can recover from what seems to be total destruction. The essay was first published in the August 31,1946, issue of the New Yorker just after the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb. The entire issue was devoted to the essay with no other columns and no cartoons. Hersey also read the essay aloud on ABC radio in four half hour sessions (this was before NPR). The Book-of-the-Month Club sent a free copy to all its members. My parents were Book Club members and that was the copy that I first read about 1954 or 1955 when I was 11 or 12 years old.

The building of the bomb and the Manhattan Project is part of the story of Hiroshima. The recent biography of J Robert Oppenheimer is excellent but it is also massive and probably few adults or children will read it. (American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird.) However there is another recent book written by Jennet Conant, 109 East Palace : Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. The story is told from the point of view of Dorothy McKibbon who was an employee at Los Alamos and a confidant of many of the people working there. The author is the granddaughter of James Conant, former president of Harvard and a key figure in the creation of the Manhattan Project. The introduction is critical to the book, describing the Conant family views on the dropping of the bomb.

In addition, there is a wonderful young adult book on the Manhattan project and the building the bomb, The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages. It provides a look at the Los Alamos facility through the eyes of two young girls whose father and mother are working on the bomb.

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