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The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

Maxwell Air Force Base, AL --

The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark by Dr. Neil J. Sullivan. Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2016, 296 pp.

Dr. Neil Sullivan’s The Prometheus Bomb covers roughly six to seven years of history from the infamous Albert Einstein letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Harry S. Truman presidency. However, the detail he goes into is sufficient for the reader to gain an understanding of many different factors at play and the circumstances that led to very difficult decisions without becoming overwhelmed by the many different characters and personalities involved.

Dr. Sullivan uses real examples from the lives of the scientists and decision-makers to get his point across and humanize them. For example, instead of saying how secret the nuclear proof of concept at Chicago Pile-1 was, he explains how the scientists threw a party, and none of the spouses knew why they were celebrating, a relatable example for most married people of the secrecy in which these people operated. To his credit, Dr. Sullivan takes these personified gods and brings them back to Earth.

While this is a book about “The Bomb,” it separates itself from the pack as Dr. Sullivan takes the reader through the much less discussed topic of how managerial decisions were made by people, who frankly lacked a background in nuclear physics or much science at all, for that matter, to make educated, informed decisions. He provides countless examples of the constant daily dilemmas FDR faced and how he overcame them. This is different from many of the other books regarding nuclear science, be it weapons or energy, as he does not delve into nearly anything technical, which I believe, allows for a much larger audience. In my opinion, this is a must-read for anyone who will ever manage smart people, anyone who is a program manager of a technical program, or any policymaker—basically, any (acquisitions) officer in the military, congressman, or truly good leader.

Additionally, Dr. Sullivan presents a fluid book where each topic progresses and builds upon the next, but he stylistically does so in a way that each chapter could be taken and studied individually, and the reader would have enough information to understand the conveyed point. In this sense, his approach to writing chapters comes off slightly as academic, in the sense that he is assembling the legs to a stool (building the case to his argument) with each subsequent chapter and concludes by tying everything together. Furthermore, Dr. Sullivan writes at a much higher education level than the local newspaper or usual author, which was refreshing, but keeping a dictionary close was needed every once in a while.

Lastly, the topic of nuclear weapons quickly became a heated debate. Should they be used, are they relevant, were they necessary, and so forth? As complicated as this discourse can become, Dr. Sullivan presented several points of view and presented the facts. He does not call for every nuclear weapon to be destroyed; nor does he call for an arms race. He logically and rationally presents the information. The only thing Dr. Sullivan calls for is an educated population since he acknowledges that science and technology are only improving, and we need policymakers who can make sound decisions.

At the end of the day, this is not a book so much about bombs as it is about public affairs and international relations with the obvious nuclear bomb as the centerpiece of the discussion. This was a quick read that educated and told a good story.

1st Lt Glen R. Peterson, USAF
Minot AFB, North Dakota

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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