Extract: Inside the Centre by Ray Monk

In this condensed extract of the Oppenheimer biography, Inside the Centre, Ray Monk describes how the Los Alamos scientists responded to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Ray Monk
Image credit: Flynn Shore/Penguin

At Los Alamos the euphoria of the Trinity test had given way to a sombre mood, as they went about the task of preparing the bomb.

The High Noon strut that Rabi had seen in Oppenheimer immediately after Trinity was no longer in evidence. His secretary, Anne Wilson, recalls that he looked depressed rather than triumphant, as if he were thinking: ‘Oh God, what have we done! All this work, and people are going to die in the thousands.’ 

One day, noticing that Oppenheimer seemed particularly distressed, Wilson asked him what was wrong. He replied: ‘I just keep thinking about all those poor little people.’

With a yield of 12,500 tons of TNT, the Hiroshima bomb was a good deal less powerful than the Fat Man tested at Trinity. To the people of Hiroshima, however, it was a destructive force the like of which none of them could previously have imagined. It was not only the heat and power of the blast that terrified and confused the population of the city (estimated to have been about 255,000), but also the instantaneous suddenness of that power. ‘I just could not understand,’ one witness later said, ‘why our surroundings had changed so greatly in one instant.’ 

At Los Alamos [on the evening of the bombing’s announcement], the effect of the announcement was an emotional release every bit as powerful as that which had followed the Trinity test. On that occasion it had been centred on the demonstration that what they had been designing and building actually worked. On this occasion it was to do with the fact that, where previously they had worked in furtive secrecy, now the spotlight had been shone upon them. What they had achieved had been recognised – by the President no less – as a crucially important task. They were celebrities.

That evening at Los Alamos there was a big assembly to celebrate their success. Oppenheimer made a dramatic entrance, walking from the back of the room to the stage and, once there, clasping his hands together like a prize-winning boxer. To ecstatic cheering, Oppenheimer told the crowd that it was too early to say what the results of the bombing had been, but that ‘the Japanese didn’t like it’. His only regret, he said, was that ‘we hadn’t developed the bomb in time to use it against the Germans’. This, according to the young physicist who later recalled the event, ‘practically raised the roof ’.

He looked depressed, as if thinking, 'Oh God, what have we done.'

[But following the Nagasaki bombing] the sense of triumph among the scientists at Los Alamos had been severely mitigated by the knowledge that their work had resulted in the deaths of tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of people. And many of them were struggling to see those deaths as justified, especially in connection with the second bombing. 

Certainly Oppenheimer was not, as he had been after Trinity, swaggering like a cowboy, nor was he, as he had been after Hiroshima, raising his hands in the air like a prize-winning boxer. On the contrary, on 9 August, the day of the Nagasaki bombing, he was described in an FBI report as being a ‘nervous wreck’, and the following day, when Lawrence came to Los Alamos for a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Panel, he found Oppenheimer unable to keep his mind for long off the distressing news of casualties from Nagasaki. 

According to Alice Kimball Smith, who was there at the time, there was at Los Alamos in the days following Nagasaki an increasing ‘revulsion’ towards the bombings, which, even for those who thought they were justified by the end of war, brought with it ‘an intensely personal experience of the reality of evil’. Some comfort was felt, says Smith, when word got round that ‘Oppie says that the atomic bomb is so terrible a weapon that war is now impossible’.

This, of course, is the justification for using the bomb against civilians that Oppenheimer acquired from Bohr, and which he in turn persuaded many others to adopt. Though it had some plausibility as a justification for dropping one bomb, it was very hard to see how it justified the bombing of Nagasaki. 

In his remorse and anxiety following the second bomb (‘He smoked constantly, constantly, constantly,’ Dorothy McKibbin remembers of those days), Oppenheimer was determined to do everything he could to fulfil Bohr’s vision of the good that might come from the terrible weapon he had built. 

In the days following Nagasaki, there was an increasing ‘revulsion’ towards the bombings

The report of the Scientific Advisory Panel that Lawrence had travelled to Los Alamos to help him write is dominated by that vision of an end of war – representing it as the only sane response, not only to the fearsome demonstration of the power of atomic bombs that the world had just witnessed, but also to the even more fearsome weapons that would inevitably be built in the future. 

On 17 August, Oppenheimer travelled to Washington to deliver the letter personally to Stimson’s aide, George Harrison (Stimson himself was away), and also to Vannevar Bush. 

What Oppenheimer told Harrison and Bush was that the scientists ‘felt reluctant to promise that much real good could come of continuing atomic-bomb work’ and would be rather inclined to regard such bombs as ‘just like poison gasses after the last war’. 

Oppenheimer evidently had hopes of winning the politicians in Washington round to his own and Bohr’s point of view, but those hopes were ill-founded.  ‘While I was in Washington,’ Oppenheimer told Lawrence, ‘two things happened, both rather gloomy.’ The first was that President Truman had issued ‘an absolute Ukase, forbidding any disclosures on the atomic bomb.’

The second was that Harrison showed Oppenheimer’s letter to Secretary Byrnes, ‘who sent back word just as I was leaving that “in the present critical international situation there was no alternative to pushing the MED [Manhattan Engineer District] program full steam ahead.” This may have been somewhat garbled in transmission, but I fear not.’

A ‘memo for the record’, written on 18 August by George Harrison, shows that Oppenheimer’s fears were well founded. ‘Secretary Byrnes,’ Harrison writes, ‘was definitely of the opinion that it would be difficult to do anything on the international level at the present time and that in his opinion we should continue the Manhattan Project with full force.’

Frustrated and demoralised, Oppenheimer returned to Los Alamos. After the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what Oppenheimer wanted, more than anything, was a chance to turn the atomic bomb into – as he put it in a letter to an old family friend called Marcy Bier – ‘a real instrument in the establishment of peace’. That, he told her, ‘is almost the only thing right now that seems to matter’.

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