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A Child of the Manhattan Project Discusses Complex Legacy of the Bomb

“Science has so much power, but it is not politically neutral,” says author D. Leah Steinberg.

R.J. Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the Los Alamos, New Mexico, atomic bomb experiment, points to a photograph of the huge column of smoke and flame caused by the actual use of the bomb upon Hiroshima, Japan. This group, pictured at the American Chemical Society Exhibit on atomic energy at Grand Central Palace, includes, left to right: Professor H.D. Smythe, atomic author; General K.D. Nichols, in charge of the Manhattan Project and G.T. Seaborg, in charge of new elements at the Manhattan Project.

Every year on August 6 and 9, we commemorate the tragic anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For D. Leah Steinberg, those days are also a reminder that she has a perspective few can claim. Her father and her uncle were both scientists employed by the Manhattan Project and their work changed forever the course of world history. In an effort to grapple with what this meant for her personally, her family and others like her, Steinberg wrote Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project (2016, paperback). In this interview, she discusses the complex legacy she and the other adult children of Manhattan Project scientists carry, the danger of the mounting tension between the US and other nuclear-armed states, and the conflict she felt when she began participating in anti-nuclear protests.

Lorna Garano: Tell us about your father and uncle.

D. Leah Steinberg: My father, Ellis P. Steinberg, and uncle, Bernard Abraham, were both Ph.D. candidates in chemistry at the University of Chicago when they were recruited to the secret Manhattan Project at the Metallurgical Laboratory on campus. My father later went into the field of nuclear physics where he and my uncle worked at Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago. Like many of the scientists on the project, they were both brilliant. I spent part of my childhood in Denmark when my father was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to work and study with Niels Bohr. Today, he would be called a “Renaissance Man.” He was a musician who played the clarinet and violin, an artist, well-read and a great athlete in many sports. He was also typical of many of his colleagues in that he had extraordinarily high standards for himself and his children. He was a liberal thinker, but because of the nature of his work, he remained circumspect about his politics throughout his life. My uncle, Bernard, was more conservative, both religiously (Judaism) and politically. However, he was passionate about public schools and ran for school board when he was in his 70s.

In your book Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb, you share your story of being a child of a Manhattan Project scientist and you interview others who had the same experience. Did you notice certain themes recurring with them in terms of their worldview, political outlook and psychological make-up?

Many of the children had very eclectic views of the world. The one constant was that they were all highly educated and very accomplished in professional and artistic pursuits. Some had parents who discussed their time on the Manhattan Project with them and others didn’t. It seems like the scientists who talked more with their kids about their work either had a consistently positive view of it or had radically changed their minds about nuclear weapons and wanted to be sure they would never be used again. One woman told me that her father, William Higinbotham, who was at the Alamogordo test, decided on the bus back to Los Alamos that he would spend the rest of his years working to stop nuclear proliferation. With other Manhattan Project scientists, he co-founded the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS). Other Manhattan Project scientists also founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Doomsday Clock. The Manhattan Project was cloaked in secrecy and demanded perfection from all who worked on it. These values didn’t stay at work. In various ways, being a part of a government secret project carried with it internal burdens that are not easily seen. Some adult children I contacted were unwilling to talk and didn’t want to confront the issues that opening this Pandora’s box might release. The shadow cast by this project is long, both politically and personally.

You came of age in the 1960s and were actively involved in much of the political resistance at the time. How was this related to your experience of growing up so intimately connected with the bomb?

I was active in high school in the anti-Vietnam War movement. I also worked on the 1968 Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign. The times were volatile and I became engaged politically when I was 15. When anti-nuclear protests began in the ’70s, I felt torn. I understood the horror that nuclear weapons produced, but I also felt conflicted — like on some level I was being disloyal or turning my back on my father if I took an outspoken stand against them. When the topic would come up, I would become quiet and not take part in the conversations. It was a struggle between feeling intellectually aligned with the anti-nuclear movement, but feeling [immobilized] when I contemplated taking part. Eventually, I overcame this conflict and attended anti-nuclear events. It was after one of these in Manhattan where my cousin unknowingly gave me the idea for this book. When we returned to his apartment after the march, he took out his drawing pad and drew a fetus inside an atom bomb and wrote: “Children of the Manhattan Project.” He tore it off his pad, handed it to me and said, “We could have had our own group at the march.”

As you watch the news reports of how tensions between the US and other nuclear-armed powers are heightening, what comes to mind?

The first thing that comes to mind is that people whose voices are included in the public discussion have no real concept of what they are talking about. They talk about nuclear war as if it were conventional warfare, which is bad enough. It brings up in me a great sadness and forces me to confront the fact that one of the greatest scientific achievements in history was used for the purposes of death and destruction. What if discovering the secrets to the universe had been used to advance the evolution of humanity and the planet? What a different world we would be living in.

You say that many of the scientists you knew who were involved in the Manhattan Project, including your father, were liberal-leaning. How did they reconcile their political views with the work that they were doing?

My father used to say that his and his colleagues’ jobs were to do the research and that they hoped that people in power would use it for good purposes. Back then, the hope of atomic energy and its uses in medicine were promising. In 1953, President Eisenhower gave a speech called “Atoms for Peace,” in which he promoted the idea of an international focus on peaceful uses of atomic energy. My father attended the Atoms for Peace conference in 1958. I don’t know how he actually felt knowing that some of his work was used for weapons research. After he passed away and I started researching him online, I found a petition that he and 68 other scientists from the University of Chicago had signed and sent to [President Harry S.] Truman in 1945. It’s now known as the Szilard Petition after its drafter, physicist Leo Szilard, who also worked on the Manhattan Project. It urged the president to not use the bomb now that Germany had been defeated. It read in part, “The war has to be brought speedily to a successful conclusion and attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare. We feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified, at least not until the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.” [The “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert] Oppenheimer had stopped the petition from being circulated at Los Alamos because he feared the backlash that would come his way for it.

Tell us about your relationship with your father. Were you close? Did you discuss his work?

We had a contentious relationship, especially during my teenage years, mainly because I felt I could never live up to the high standards he set for his children. That made me feel like a failure in almost everything I tried to do. In his eyes, perfection was a reasonable goal. My father tried to talk to me about the scientific aspect of his work, but I couldn’t grasp what he was saying most of the time. I didn’t inherit his gift for science, and I often felt bewildered when he talked about it. On the other hand, my brother and sister followed along much more easily. My brother majored in science, and even started a graduate program in theoretical physics. He eventually changed course and became a medical doctor. I remember writing a poem once for a class I took in college that highlighted the tension I felt between the potential of science for good and how politicians co-opted it for their own ends. When I showed it to my father, he did not say a word.

One thing several of the people you interviewed for your book discussed was the surveillance their families were under because of their fathers’ work. Tell us more about this. Was your family shadowed in any way?

My family was not under any kind of surveillance that I know of, although I think my father often censored himself regarding politics because he knew that even if he wasn’t being officially tracked, he was being watched. One striking incidence that one of my interviewees told me about was when she was at college, someone came to her dorm and asked questions about her. The dorm mother was alarmed and wondered why they were looking for her. She shrugged it off with, “Oh, it’s probably just the FBI about my father’s work.” Another person told of how his father could not travel freely until the late ’60s because the government would not give him permission to leave the country. Looking back, I always wanted my father to put a bumper sticker on the car against the Vietnam War or in support of McCarthy for president, but he always refused. Now I see why. Having been a part of [the] Manhattan Project, you didn’t advertise your politics.

Many of the people you spoke with seem to have a mix of pride and guilt when it comes to their fathers. Pride because of their great intellectual abilities, and guilt because of the horrors that their work unleashed. Can you talk about this?

It wasn’t until I talked to others who had the same experiences that I was able to resolve my feelings. After finally finishing Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb, I was able to come to some kind of balance and acceptance with these conflicting ideas and feelings. I feel both pride and guilt surrounding my father’s work. There were other people, including my cousin and brother, who did not grapple with this. Their take was that our fathers had a job to do, they did it, it stopped the war and they had reason to be proud. After talking to others and struggling with the writing of this book, I realized how complex our experiences and feelings were and remain to this day. Many of the people who worked on the bomb were Jews. They saw they could fight Hitler with their intelligence and scientific ideas. Many also, including my father, signed the Szilard Petition … to Truman, arguing for him to not use the bomb against Japan now that the US had defeated Germany. But by then, it was out of their hands. The government and military had bought the scientists’ time, intelligence and labor, and now the bomb was theirs to do with what they pleased.

The development of the atomic bomb was bound to happen. When you consider the money allocated to it and the commitment to defeating our enemies, it’s no surprise that the bomb went from idea to actuality with such speed. Also, the science had evolved to the point that it was a short jump to harvesting the power of the atom, which, unfortunately, in this context, meant creating weapons of mass destruction. Having said that, the guilt spurred on many scientists to work politically toward ensuring that Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happened again.

In Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb, you discuss how the government talked about the dangers of nuclear radiation and how we could protect ourselves in the event of a nuclear attack. What did they say about this?

I included excerpts from the government booklet, Survival Under Atomic Attack, which was published by the Civil Defense Office in 1950 to show how absurd it was. The government was trying to convince Americans that radiation wasn’t so bad. The booklet included suggestions like, “Go outside after a short time and help put out fires,” and “Don’t start rumors. In the confusion that follows a bombing, a single rumor might touch off a panic that could cost your life.” It also informs us that, “Atomic weapons will not destroy the Earth. Atomic bombs hold more death and destruction than man ever before has wrapped up in a single package, but their over-all power still has very definite limits. Not even hydrogen bombs will blow the earth apart or kill us all by radioactivity.”

My uncle said if an attack happens, you won’t know about it anyway, so don’t worry about it. My father thought bomb shelters were [pointless]. There was one in the town I grew up in, and because of my father and uncle, I never had a lot of confidence that if we were attacked, it would do much good. One woman I interviewed recalled telling her father that all she wanted for Christmas was a bomb shelter. He said “no,” so she scouted out the public ones in her town.

What are your thoughts about nuclear weapons today? Do you want to see a nuclear-free world?

Yes, I would love to see a nuclear-free world. Science has so much power, but it is not politically neutral. I want to live in a world where science and the great minds of people like my father and uncle are used for the betterment of humanity and all living things. I like to imagine a world without nuclear weapons and at peace. Sadly, I don’t think I will see that in my lifetime.