The Bomb – A Life


The Bomb as a mirror of Man, reflecting the Good and the Evil that is in him, the compassion, the cruelty, the rapture, the tragedy and the humour, the hate, love or faith, the dignity and humiliation: this is the theme of this extraordinary biography of the nuclear Bomb in the twentieth century, describing its conception, birth, growth and finally decline in the context of massive nuclear arms reductions at the end of the Cold War. But as the author himself underlines, the Bomb is far from dead: unlike a real living organism, it may yet develop a new life in its many manifestations dotted about the trouble spots on the globe. The simile of the Bomb as living organism with a life of its own was worryingly developed by André Glucksmann, a French philosopher and thus perhaps unsurprisingly a little on the puzzling side with his first-person narrative from the point of view of the Bomb. DeGroot’s book, by contrast, is anything but opaque or inaccessible: written in an AJP Tayloresque staccato of short sentences of well-chosen words with clever allusions, it is difficult to put down. The seriousness of the whole subject matter, the suffering of the victims of the Bomb are treated earnestly and sympathetically. But this does not stop DeGroot from planting his tongue firmly in his cheek when he describes the Bomb as a catalyst of men’s ambitions, vanities, and the banality of working with the potential of horrendous evil. The sympathy for the victims with which this book is written is happily offset by the light touch in other large parts of the book, and in combination, these two strands make the book a compelling read. I would bet that it will be an airport lounge book shop bestseller this summer, if it comes out in time for the holiday season.   


The description of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the irradiation of countless equally innocent people in various nuclear tests, are fairly conventional albeit moving in their description (not that one could think of better or fairer ways of treating that subject). By contrast, DeGroot renders the toils, disappointments and achievements, and above all the moral dilemmas of the nuclear scientists on all sides as dramatic as Friedrich Dürrenmatt in his play ‘The Physicists’ or Michael Frayn in his West End hit, ‘Copenhagen’ (with whose interpretation of the historic Heisenberg- Bohr encounter DeGroot takes issue). The laboratories and test sites in the US and Russia and beyond, and the weird life within them, are painted in fresh colours, with a good journalistic touch that brings them to often comic life after decades of being shrouded in serious secrecy. The politicians’ juggling with this new weapon in their warfare and Cold War international diplomacy are perhaps less fresh, but a good introduction for the layman or undergraduate. The exploration of the Soviet side of the story of nuclear weapons, however, is spell-binding. The treatment of the inconsequence with which the civil defence programmes were followed through (or rather, not followed through) in the West is wonderfully witty if very depressing: when it came to the smaller wheels in the government machinery, and the man in the Clapham Omnibus (and whatever his counterpart in the US rides in), people could not bear to think about and prepare systematically for the Unthinkable. The result, particularly in Britain, was resistance to emergency planning, and a growth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. (I have never yet understood why the populations of the Warsaw Treaty Organization countries did not worry more and react more strongly than they did, in view of their far more intense preparations for surviving a war fought with weapons of mass destruction. This area is still worth exploring.) DeGroot is much thinner on anything to do with nuclear strategy, which would provide a rather important key to the understanding of the nuclear age. DeGroot’s point is taken that, as often as not, nuclear weapons procurement had little if anything to do with strategy rationales. That was not true, however, for Cruise and Pershing II, as DeGroot claims.  Where he is right is that much of the strategy rationale was very complicated, and few politicians understood it, and few experts dared explain it to public audiences for fear of wrong-footing or showing up the political leaders. For fear of opposition and scandals, and of the weakness of one’s own arguments in settings where the room temperature was not carefully moderated by the group think of the ‘defence community’, Western governments long eschewed public debates. This habit has only waned somewhat since the late 1980s. But it is entirely unsurprising that in the absence of mutual comprehension, and of patronizing behaviour on the part of governments (‘if you knew what we know...’) critical members of the public began to distrust their governments’ judgement, if not their intentions. In this context the effect of the documentary ‘The War Game’, and films such as ‘The Day After’ and ‘Threads’ cannot be exaggerated. DeGroot’s treatment of the effect of the Bomb on popular culture is particularly amusing, and I am tempted to add that the most elegant patisserie of Lille, the place of birth of General de Gaulle, father of the French Bomb, in all innocence and national pride offers a sweet called ‘the Bomb’ (made mainly of whipped egg-white). The age of nuclear innocence lasted longer in France, it would seem, than elsewhere.


No part of DeGroot’s book is the product of genuine original research in the sense of ploughing through dusty archives or fine-honing our understanding of what exactly happened on Day ‘X’ according to this document or the other. Even academic debates about certain issues are at best touched upon, not summarized or recapitulated conscientiously. DeGroot builds comfortably on a host of secondary literature, particularly large proportions of which have been published since the end of the Cold War (those authors have done the tedious footwork of primary source work for him). But the synthesis is masterly, even though the jealous specialist will find reasons to nit-pick here or there. This is not the definitive work on anything, but it is popularization of academic outputs at its most readable.


Beatrice Heuser

Director of Research, Military History

Research Institute of the Bundeswehr, Potsdam 

Jonathan Cape 0-224-06232-8

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