The Prometheus Bomb

The Prometheus Bomb

The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

Neil J. Sullivan

Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebrska, 2016, 296 pages

Book Review published on: June 9, 2017

It is essential for military leaders to understand that while our mindset trends toward control, with most we lead operating in that framework, not everyone shares this mindset. Even with the weight of national resources and priorities behind a project, maintaining a common understanding of how to reach a goal with people of diverse backgrounds and mindsets is challenging. That is what makes The Prometheus Bomb by Neil J. Sullivan a valuable read for those who serve.

Creation of the atomic bomb was one of the greatest scientific and military endeavors in history. Sullivan discusses the birth of this endeavor, starting with a letter sent by Albert Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt. This letter, originating in the mind of Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard but given gravitas by Einstein, spurred Roosevelt into action, but it also brought together diverse communities—scientists and the military.

The down-to-earth style that Sullivan brings creates a way for even casual readers to understand just how different these communities are. The scientists of The Manhattan Project were used to a free exchange of ideas and conducting experiments as needed to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Such men could take years to develop their concepts, documenting each incremental step. The military leaders, however, are shown as most of us know that community to be—men who demand security protocols and limits to information access, as well as the bold steps that lead toward the accomplishment of a goal in support of the larger effort (in this case, winning the war).

Sullivan acknowledges the efforts that went into creating the atomic bomb, but he seems to take for granted that most readers already understand how difficult of an achievement that was. Where Sullivan focuses most of his narrative is on the ways in which both communities were at odds while striving for a common goal, and he does not let either side off the hook.

Regarding the scientific community, Sullivan is most critical of the naïveté of its members and the casual way they approached both military and political problems. It is that naïveté, in fact, that leads to the Soviets gaining enough information about the Manhattan Project to create their own bomb years before anyone thought it was possible. The team allowed men such as Klaus Fuchs access to the program on the basis that he was a fellow scientist, so it never occurred to them that he would pass information along to the Soviets. Indeed, some such as Theodore Hall saw it as their duty to even out both sides (the Americans and the Soviets) in order to create balance. In the view of people such as Hall, neither side had a claim on moral superiority, so it was only natural that both sides should have an equal share of the result. Sullivan points to the political firestorms this created and the instability that followed when a tyrant like Stalin suddenly had the same power as elected leaders of a free republic.

The military comes out no better in Sullivan’s portrayal. While leaders such as Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves rode the scientists hard in pursuit of a weapon that could end the war, they also unintentionally put obstacles in the way of a process that might have led to the quicker creation of such a device. Groves’ security protocols limited scientific interaction, even with allies like the British, making the task much more difficult. Further, Groves’ own lack of understanding of the scientists’ mindset led to the breakdown of security and the very thing Groves and others feared, that a foreign competitor would glean enough knowledge to create a bomb.

Sullivan reserves his biggest criticism regarding naïveté for man most responsible for the creation of the bomb—Leo Szilard. Szilard first brought the possibility of a bomb to the discourse over the fear that Germany would get there first, thus wreaking devastation the world. However, once it became clear that Germany was on the verge of defeat and nowhere near building its own bomb, Szilard tried to persuade scientists and political leaders to abandon the project. As Sullivan rightly points out, Szilard had no comprehension of the politics involved (given both the nearly $2 billion spent on the bomb’s development and the desire of the public to end the war quickly). The money and international political situation created momentum of its own that even top leadership was powerless to stop. It is ironic how steadfastly Szilard opposed even testing the device given the role he played in its creation.

In conclusion, The Prometheus Bomb is valuable reading to any leader who has need to interact with those outside of his or her community on a project, no matter the size. It helps break the mindset that everyone understands the world the way we do, and it allows readers to broaden their horizons so that future misunderstandings might be lessened.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Russell D. Meyer, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas