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The Tough Question Will Always Remain : Two People Forever Tied to the Manhattan Project Sift Through the Never-Ending Debate: Did We Have to Use the Bomb?

June 25, 1995|Mary Palevsky Granados | Granados is writing a book, "Children of the Bomb," about the creators of atomic arms

Fifty years after the birth of the atomic bomb, the country prepares to commemorate the act that brought World War II to an end. For me, the public debate over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki mirrors a private one: For most of my life, the bomb has been a personal matter.

During World War II, my father, Harry Palevsky, was an electrical engineer on the Manhattan Project, the massive effort of American academia, government and industry that produced the world's first nuclear weapon. He met my mother, Elaine Sammel, who had an undergraduate degree in physics, while they worked on the project at the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory. They later transferred to the top-secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, where my father worked on the trigger mechanism that detonated the bomb. My mother worked on the development of optical instrumentation. On a hot day in the summer of 1945, they drove down the mountain to Santa Fe and got married.

In 1990, I was caring for my father after my mother's sudden death. He had been chronically ill for many years, and in the months before he died I began interviewing him about his life and work for a book of memoirs. One morning when he was talking about the Manhattan Project, I asked what it had been like at Los Alamos after the successful bombing of Hiroshima. My father replied that there had been a lot of mixed feelings among the scientists. Then he hung his head and fell silent.

After a long pause, he looked up at me. With a sob caught in his throat, he asked, "Did you know that Nagasaki was the center of Christianity in Japan?" I said I didn't.

I cannot tell exactly when my father first questioned the decision to use the atomic bomb, but I had long known of his contradictory feelings about his work on the Manhattan Project. One one hand, it had been a prelude to his career in the field he loved, nuclear physics. But although he felt privileged to have worked alongside some of the century's greatest scientists to end the war, he was deeply troubled by the terror they created to achieve peace. At that moment, when my father openly shared his grief with me, I felt his effort to reconcile the moral complexities of the bomb was being passed on to me. When he died, it became his legacy.

After the Japanese surrender, my father vowed never to work on weapons again. He would only do science for peaceful purposes. He did his graduate work at the University of Illinois and for more than 30 years was an experimental nuclear physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, where he conducted research in superconductivity and was a founder of hypernuclear physics. My mother did not pursue science but was active in my father's career. Together, they raised five children.

Along with many of his Manhattan Project colleagues, my father channeled his sense of responsibility into action as a member of the Federation of American Scientists. He also was a delegate to the Geneva Atoms for Peace conferences in the 1950s and a participant in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, established by Bertrand Russell and former Manhattan Project scientist Joseph Rotblat in 1957.

When I was about 10 years old, I began to understand that my parents had worked on a dangerous weapon that had killed Japanese people who were just like us. My father explained to me that he and my mother had not wanted the bomb to be dropped on the Japanese people. They had supported the idea of a demonstration in an uninhabited area. He told me that if the Japanese had witnessed the nuclear devastation, they might have surrendered. The weapon could have served a noble purpose by ending the war but avoiding the terrible destruction of life, he said.

I recall standing in the living room of our house on Long Island carefully examining the series of photographs that chronicled the first 60 seconds of the nuclear age. My mother's group at Los Alamos had prepared the photographic equipment for the first atomic bomb test, code-named Trinity, at Alamogordo, N.M., on July 16, 1945. How could the shiny, silvery bubble in the initial frame grow larger until it finally became the huge billow of smoke, ash and dust filling the sky in the final one? In my child's mind, the mushroom cloud was "the bomb."I did not understand that the first beautiful, iridescent dome, rising from the flat New Mexican horizon, was the deadly expanding fireball.

Now, as the country remembers the end of World War II, I wanted to understand more clearly the larger context of an event that has always been intimately bound up with my relationship with my parents. The Manhattan Project was, in a sense, the defining moment of their lives. It launched my father's career and shaped his social conscience. But it also brought an undercurrent of sorrow that was so much a part of him. I wanted to interpret for myself the events that carried so much meaning for my father.

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