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The partnership behind the atomic bomb

Alan Wallace
| Saturday, July 18, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
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Two men whose joint leadership efforts culminated 70 years ago — with ramifications still apparent today in headlines about negotiating with Iran over its nuclear-weapons ambitions — are the focus of James Kunetka's “The General and the Genius: Groves and Oppenheimer — The Unlikely Partnership That Built The Atom Bomb” (Regnery History).

The author, a best-selling novelist and former University of Texas associate vice president, has written two previous books about the Manhattan Project and the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory at its heart. As a consultant with top-secret clearance, he addressed the historical value of classified Los Alamos archives. Rather than a biography of Gen. Leslie R. Groves or theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, or the story of the Manhattan Project, his new book is “the story of … their wartime partnership, and the atomic bombs they helped to create,” he writes.

Groves came from a middle-class family and had a mission-oriented military focus. Oppenheimer — a liberal with communist associations who largely fit the stereotype of the scientific intellectual — came from a wealthy, Jewish-immigrant family and had a knowledge-oriented academic focus.

Both nevertheless were patriotic, intelligent, ambitious, arrogant and willing to break rules occasionally. Each trusted, appreciated and used the other as they directed an enterprise that ultimately employed almost 150,000 people and in just three years achieved an unprecedented scientific and military feat.

Kunetka traces their partnership from its beginnings — Oppenheimer's knack for making complex concepts clear impressed Groves right off the bat — through the test explosion code-named “Trinity” and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that forced Japan's formal surrender and World War II's end.

Without Groves and Oppenheimer, Kunetka says, the U.S. atom-bomb effort still would have succeeded eventually — but perhaps not until mid-1946. And by then, he suggests, America likely would have invaded Japan “with terrible casualties on both sides.”

What made the Groves-Oppenheimer collaboration successful was “an acceptance of who they were and the times in which they lived,” Kunetka writes. “They rose to the occasion as professionals, as human beings, and as Americans.”

DIGNOSING MEDICARE'S ILLS

“Medicare's Victims: How the U.S. Government's Largest Health Care Program Harms Patients and Impairs Physicians” by David Hogberg (National Center for Public Policy Research) — The author works for the publisher as a senior fellow for health care policy. He uses true stories to illustrate Medicare's shortcomings for many groups, including disabled Americans enduring the two-year waiting period to qualify for benefits, injured and ill people who get too little or too much treatment, senior citizens who fall into Medicare Part D's prescription-medication “donut hole,” and doctors who suffer financially because of Medicare's reimbursement system. The book points out that seriously ill patients victimized by Medicare lack the numbers, vigor and organization to lobby Congress for change effectively. And it not only suggests “changing Medicare into a system of Basic and Major Medical Accounts,” it lays out the pros and cons of such reform, noting that “any type of reform entails trade-offs.”

NAZI HORROR DETAILED

“KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” by Nikolaus Wachsmann (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — This massive book takes its title from a common abbreviation for Konzentrationslager — “concentration camp” in German. Its author, a professor of modern European history at the University of London's Birkbeck College, focuses on the 27 main camps run by Hitler's SS. He portrays their entire history, putting them in political, legal, social, economic and military context as he covers how they evolved, how they functioned and what those who ran them and their millions of victims experienced. Making this detailed account all the more chilling is the fact that, as a New York Times review noted, “three of the most murderous places – Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka – do not fall within the scope of the book because, as death camps exclusively rather than also work camps, they were not part of the SS network.”

IN THE PIPELINE

Forthcoming titles from both ends of the political spectrum:

Conservative

• “Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism” edited by Lawrence W. Reed, introduction by Ron Robinson (Regnery, July 28)

• “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961” by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale University Press, July 28)

• “David's Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art” by Victoria C. Gardner Coates (Encounter Books, July 28)

• “The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776” by various authors (Library of America, July 28)

• “Plunder and Deceit: Big Government's Exploitation of Young People and the Future” by Mark R. Levin (Threshold Editions, Aug. 4)

Liberal

• “We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions” by Neil Davidson (Haymarket Books, available Tuesday)

• “The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now” by Michael Lebowitz (Monthly Review Press, Wednesday)

• “Women's Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women” by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (Palgrave Macmillan, Thursday)

• “Gendering Radicalism: Women and Communism in Twentieth-Century California” by Beth Slutsky (University of Nebraska Press, Aug. 1)

• “Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada” edited by Meenal Shrivastava and Lorna Stefanick (University of Washington Press, Aug. 3)

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@tribweb.com).

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