It has been a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as I did LOVE IN THE BLITZ (Harper/HarperCollins, 496 pp., $28.99). Of the hundreds of books about World War II that I’ve read, this is one of the best. I would welcome the author, Eileen Alexander, as a fresh new voice, but for the fact that she has been dead for nearly 50 years.
This volume is a selection of letters Alexander wrote to her lover during the course of the war. They were not discovered until a few years ago and are being published only now. Her letters tell a rich, multilayered story — a wealthy and bright young woman’s day-by-day experience in London during the war, the growth of her love for a young man and her insider’s view of a fascinating slice of upper-class Jewish life in mid-20th-century England. One of her closest friends is Aubrey Evans, who would later become Abba Eban, the influential foreign minister of Israel. Simply “everybody” she knows from Cambridge University, where she took a first in English just before the war, has gone to work at Bletchley Park, famous nowadays as the headquarters for British code breaking during the war. She lunches with Anthony Eden, dines with Orde Wingate, chats with Bernard Lewis and argues about politics with Michael Foot. One of her friends is court-martialed and tossed out of the Royal Air Force after losing his copy of some top secret war plans because he was distracted by a letter he was writing to Yehudi Menuhin about the proper way to play the third movement of a certain violin concerto.
To top it off, Alexander is a lovely writer, reflecting her readings of great English literature, especially Shakespeare and Donne, but also Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, C. S. Lewis and Jane Austen. Imagine how that last novelist might have witnessed the Blitz, and you have a sense of this wonderful book. Of her lawyer father, she acidly notes that “he has an extraordinary power of making other people unhappy from the best motives in the world.” And yes, reader, she went on to marry her beloved, bear a child and translate some of the detective novels of Georges Simenon.
Alexander’s book is about intense personal love. ATOMIC DOCTORS: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) is about the opposite: the decline into depersonalization by doctors involved in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.
Usually histories of the nuclear project at Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II dwell on tensions between the military officers overseeing the project and the physicists doing the necessary research. In this striking study, James L. Nolan Jr. looks at the disquieting participation of members of a third profession, medicine.
Each group had its own imperatives to obey. Soldiers wanted to carry out their mission under a veil of secrecy. Scientists tried to engage in freewheeling discovery. Doctors aspired — sometimes — to do no harm as they faced the unprecedented and little-understood task of dealing with radiation in the form of fallout from the world’s first nuclear detonations. But the military was in charge, and it would succeed best in achieving its goals.
Nolan is a sociologist at Williams College, but more significantly for this powerful and readable book, he is the grandson of James Nolan, chief of the military hospital at Los Alamos. Before the first nuclear test, code-named “Trinity,” Dr. Nolan traveled to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to warn Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, the chief of the Manhattan Project, about the possibility of contamination by radioactive fallout. Groves tartly responded, “What are you, some kind of Hearst propagandist?”
A month later, in July 1945, when the first nuclear detonation in history was carried out, it proved more powerful than predicted, blowing a plume of radioactive ash across south-central New Mexico. A dozen female summer campers in the mountains about 50 miles northeast of ground zero frolicked in the strange warm snow falling on them in midsummer. Of the 12, only two lived past the age of 30, with the rest taken by cancer.
After the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Dr. Nolan was among the American military officials sent to Japan to study the effects on humans — and also to control the narrative about that. The group saw ample evidence that, just in the short term, Japanese who had traveled into cities after the blast were suffering from a variety of ailments, including fever, diarrhea, nausea, destruction of bone marrow and lesions in the mouth, colon and rectum. Yet, in November, when Groves was asked by a Senate committee about radioactive residue in Japan, he testified: “There is none. That is a very positive ‘none.’”
Some Manhattan Project doctors not only went along with the lie, they did far worse and experimented on human beings. The first person subjected to this was a 53-year-old Black construction worker in Tennessee named Ebb Cade, who had been hospitalized after an automobile accident with a broken leg and arm. In an act reminiscent of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment, carried out in an adjacent state, doctors injected Cade with 4.7 micrograms of plutonium without his knowledge or consent.
The message of this book, I think, is that the American nuclear enterprise was a reckless operation that often used secrecy to hide uncomfortable facts and evade accountability. The first lesson is that government officials will lie for good reasons, like maintaining wartime secrecy, but also for bad ones, and that it is difficult for outsiders to discern the difference. The second, I think, is that no organization is capable of really policing itself. Outside oversight is essential, but not always available.