How The Allies Sabotaged The Nazi Atomic Bomb
Much has been written about the Manhattan Project, the American-led project to develop the atomic bomb. Less well known is Nazi Germany’s “Uranium Club”—a similar project started a full two years before the Manhattan Project. The Nazis had some of the greatest chemists and physicists in the world on their side, including Werner Heisenberg, and the Allies were terrified that the Nazis would beat them to the bomb—meaning the Allies were willing to try anything from espionage to assassination to bombing raids to stop them.
Science writer Sam Kean tells that high-stakes story in his new book The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb. He joins Ira here to talk about it, and you can read an excerpt from the book.
Sam Kean is a science writer. He’s the author of The Bastard Brigade and Caesar’s Last Breath. He’s based in Washington, D.C.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I have to admit it. I am an American history buff, especially about World War II. And I thought I had read so much about it until I came across a new book about the competition between American and Nazi scientists to build the first atomic bomb. Boy, I was hooked.
The book is called The Bastard Brigade, and in it author Sam Kean expertly retraces the race to control the future of the world. It’s not only a story of good versus evil, but it’s a well-documented story, hundreds of end notes and references, of a little known effort by American and British spies and military to arrest and assassinate some of the top nuclear scientists in Germany before they could actually build any bomb. And they had free reign to bomb and blow up anything that got in their way.
Sam Kean is a writer author of many books, and this book is The Bastard Brigade the True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb. You can read an excerpt at ScienceFriday.com/atomicbomb. Welcome back to Science Friday, Sam.
SAM KEAN: Hi. Thanks for having me back.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you back. So why did you write this book? As I say, I’ve read a lot of accounts. But what made you decide to go into this specific detail of the war?
SAM KEAN: I think it was just a story I’d never really heard before. I was kind of a Manhattan Project buff. I really enjoyed the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. But this side of it, the idea that Nazi Germany would’ve been working on their own atomic bomb, was something I’d never really heard of before.
And it made a lot of sense in some way, considering that Germany really had all of the pieces there to build an atomic bomb. They had the best scientists in the world. They founded their version of the Manhattan Project, the dreaded Uranium Club, two full years before we started our Manhattan Project. And they had the best industry in the world, too. So there were a lot of American scientists who were convinced that Germany had the inside track on the atomic bomb during the war, and it absolutely terrified them because they were going to give Adolf Hitler, they feared, atomic weapons.
IRA FLATOW: And you know, the Manhattan Project has gotten so much publicity, so to speak, over the decades that it’s sort of overshadowed the efforts of the Uranium Club, hasn’t it?
SAM KEAN: Yeah. There were a lot of scientists who were just terrified that, again, Germany was way ahead of us. And the head of the Manhattan Project, Leslie Groves, realized that military intelligence just wasn’t capable of understanding what was going on in the realm of atomic science. They just didn’t have enough expertise there, and that’s why he put together this team to try to go in and sabotage and spy on, and in some cases even tried to assassinate members of the Nazi atomic bomb project.
IRA FLATOW: Can you give us a rundown of who those people were?
SAM KEAN: Yeah. There were kind of three branches that I talk about in the book. There were the people trying to spy on them. It included Boris Pash. He was born in the US, but he grew up in Russia, fought in World War I and the Russian Revolution, both before he turned 18, so. so a young, very experienced soldier. And he was kind of in charge of going around the continent, trying to hunt down the Nazi scientists, and also to gather intelligence on them.
Another branch of it was sort of the military branch, where they were trying to take out certain specific German targets that they feared were being used for atomic weapons. In that case, I talk about the sabotage of a heavy water plant in Norway. And also I talked about Joe Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, the president’s, older brother, who actually died on a peripheral branch of this mission to try to stop Nazi atomic weapons.
And the last branch I talked about is a very fun character named Moe Berg, kind of a genius. He went to Princeton, the Sorbonne, Columbia, spoke a dozen languages, some people said. And in the meantime, kind of in the rest of the year, he was a major league baseball catcher. So brilliant guy, played major league baseball for a bunch of years. but during the war he joined the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, and they trained him to be an atomic spy and later an assassin and actually sent him into Switzerland to try to assassinate Werner Heisenberg, the famous German scientist.
IRA FLATOW: And he was such a larger than life character in real life that there was even a movie just came out recently about him, The Catcher Was a Spy.
SAM KEAN: Yeah. He’s just such an incredible character. He’s so much fun, just all of the stories about him. I think maybe one of my favorites was there was a double header they had one day in Detroit, and he was bored. So he sat down and he started reading this book on non-Euclidean space time in the bullpen of this major league game during the doubleheader.
And his teammates came up and said, what the heck are you doing? Why are you reading this book? And he explained to them that he was visiting Princeton in a few weeks. And he was going to drop in on Albert Einstein, and he wanted to have a good conversation with him about non-Euclidean space time. So the guy was just such an amazing character, and it was really fun to kind of dive into the archives, get all this information about him, and kind of bring him to life as this atomic spy and then later an assassin.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the German scientists, the Nazis who were in the Uranium Club. Who were they?
SAM KEAN: They were basically the top– mostly physicists, a few chemists, in Germany who got together in September, 1939, so very early on in the war. And they decided they were going to make an effort to first build a reactor and then try to build an atomic bomb after that. And the head of it, kind of the most feared person in the Uranium Club, was Werner Heisenberg. Had already won a Nobel Prize. He’s famous today for the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
And there were a lot of people very angry with Heisenberg, a lot of people in the United States and other countries that Nazi Germany ended up conquering, fellow scientists, who felt very betrayed, very angry that he would turn around and then work for the Nazis on something like atomic weapons. But Heisenberg was a very fierce German patriot. And I explained in the book he was kind of oblivious when it came to politics. I don’t think he realized on some level how badly he was hurting a lot of his friends, but he ended up estranged from many of them.
IRA FLATOW: Was he vilified after the war because he refused to stop working on the atom bomb?
SAM KEAN: He was vilified to some degree, especially in the years after the war. There was another character in the book, a man named Samuel Goudsmidt, who was a physicist, who was over there looking both for atomic weapons, but also trying to hunt down his parents who’d been swept up in a concentration camp. And he was one of those people who was a very good friend of Heisenberg, and he ended up vilifying him a little bit after the war. They later reconciled somewhat. But Heisenberg did end up the very bad reputation by the war’s end.
IRA FLATOW: Because I remember you mentioned in the book how he had asked for Heisenberg’s help in tracking down his parents, and Heisenberg just shoved it aside as if it didn’t mean anything.
SAM KEAN: He kind of blew it off, yeah. There was someone wrote him and said, hey, you know, your good friend, Goudsmidt, his parents have been in the concentration camp. Heisenberg had even stayed at their house before, eaten dinner with them over a holiday once. And Heisenberg just kind of didn’t do anything with it. He got the letter, put it off for a few weeks, put it off for a few more weeks, then finally ended up writing this very mealy mouthed letter that said, I hear they’re experiencing some difficulties in their present situation. I mean, they were in a concentration camp.
And it’s hard to say. Historians have debated whether he lacked the moral courage, whether he just didn’t realize how bad things were. It’s really an open question of why he acted like that.
IRA FLATOW: How did the US first get wind that the Nazis were working on an atom bomb?
SAM KEAN: There were always rumors going around. So there were countries like Switzerland or Sweden where German scientists were allowed to travel and Allied scientists were also allowed to travel. So the German scientists would be working on something, they would go to a neutral country, they would talk about it. Then those scientists would talk to Allied scientists, and basically it was a big game of telephone.
So I talked in the book how at one point Werner Heisenberg ended up making a uranium reactor, and he had a little accident with it. Uranium can obviously be used in atomic weapons, but it’s also a very reactive chemical as well, a reactive substance. Ended up being a big reactor fire. The reactor basically exploded. And through this game of scientific telephone, by the time the information got back to the United States, all they heard was uranium and explosion, and they jumped to conclusions that Heisenberg had a working atomic reactor, that a bunch of scientists had been killed.
So these scientists were always hearing rumors. And then they went to the head of the Manhattan Project, convinced him that things were getting pretty dire in Germany, and that’s when they decided they really needed to put together these teams to go and try to sabotage and spy on them.
IRA FLATOW: I noticed that in warnings to the US government about possible German research on atomic weapons and the bomb, you left out a letter written to FDR by Einstein in 1939 warning him. Did I miss that? Or did you just not think it was that important to put into the book?
SAM KEAN: Well, the book was– I mean, there was so much going on with this. I just sort of left some things out. But yeah, there’s that very famous letter that Einstein wrote kind of kicking the Manhattan Project off. Maybe one reason I didn’t include it was that Einstein wrote that letter, but it took a long, long time to actually get things going on the Manhattan Project.
IRA FLATOW: I think he wrote three times. I think he had to write three times to get through to–
SAM KEAN: Yeah, and that’s really kind of one of the themes in the book is how much work and effort it took to get people, military leaders and political leaders, to really understand how dire this threat was and to get them going on it. So the Manhattan Project was founded, technically, in December, 1941, but it really took a long time for things to get going with it.
IRA FLATOW: And how much carte blanche did they have to do anything they would like to, either the military or the spy divisions?
SAM KEAN: They had a pretty free rein. I call the book The Bastard Brigade in part because this group that was running around– it was called the Alsos Mission. But this group running around basically was not part of the regular chain of command, so they didn’t have parent groups. So they called them The Bastard Brigade. It also can fit their personalities, coincidentally. They were kind of hard charging.
But they basically didn’t have many constraints on them. So they were off and running behind enemy lines. They were actually the first group of Allied soldiers to enter Paris. They were an open-top Jeep. They had a little puppy with them, of all things, that they’d found on the way. But they just kind of went in there and blew in there because they wanted to get at the people like Frederic Joliot-Curie, who was in Paris, and to get at other documents and things before the Nazis that were fleeing could either destroy them or take them with them. So they were basically doing whatever they wanted, in a lot of cases, behind enemy lines.
IRA FLATOW: We’re talking with Sam Kean, whose latest book is The Bastard Brigade about the Nazis’ plan to develop the bomb and the Allies’ race to stop them. You mentioned before the break that they went to Paris trying to find the Curies, Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband. And why were they so important?
SAM KEAN: They were important because they were working on the scientific side ahead of things. So the start of the book, maybe the first five or 10 chapters, kind of sets things up scientifically and talks about what was going on. So there were a lot of scientists working on atomic physics, atomic research. And slowly but surely, as the chapters progress, it sort of dawns on these scientists how dangerous their research is.
But at the same time, they’re so fascinated by it, it’s almost like they can’t help themselves. They can’t help but discover these things, even as they’re slowly realizing how dangerous it was. And Irene Joliot-Curie, Marie Curie’s daughter, was right in the middle of all these things. So I included her, kind of made her one of the main characters, because of the great science she did. She was also kind of an interesting, cool personality, and because she was there in Paris during the war helping out her husband, kind of in the resistance and things like that. So really intriguing character who was doing some very important science that sort of sets up the whole story.
And I think it’s fun for the reader to kind of be in the position of these scientists as they’re making these discoveries. And they’re slowly realizing that not only is atomic energy a very powerful thing, but also you could harness it and make the most destructive weapons in history.
IRA FLATOW: That’s one of the great little Easter eggs in your book that I really appreciated. You painted this great big picture of all the actors alive at the same time, and you also give us a terrific layman’s explanation of nuclear fission, how the bomb would work. And I like you a little hand-drawn sketches–
SAM KEAN: Oh, thank you.
IRA FLATOW: –that were terrific. As you say, it’s important to build up this story to show why the sequence of events was important as to building the bomb and preventing it from being built by the German’s first.
SAM KEAN: Yeah. And I think that’s really important to keep in mind, is just how much this was really driving them that sort of fascination, but also that fear at the same time. I think there’s a lot of stories in the book where, if you sort of told them in the abstract, these wacky plots, these madcap adventures they had, you would say, well, that was crazy. Why did they ever think that would work? And in some cases, are a lot of cases, actually, it was just that fear of atomic weapons that was driving them. And they were so desperate that they were willing to entertain basically any crazy idea just to keep the bomb out of Hitler’s hands.
IRA FLATOW: You also talk about the importance of heavy water to the Germans in making their nuclear reactor and their bomb research. I have seen movies, I’ve seen all kinds of stuff written about the attack on the heavy water plant. And you really bring it vividly out into the open. Tell us why heavy water was so important.
SAM KEAN: So heavy water is a substance that’s important in atomic research, atomic experiments, especially when you’re trying to build reactors and really do a lot of the preliminary fundamental science that you need to understand in order to build bombs later. So basically, heavy water is what they call a moderator. When you have a chain reaction, you have neutrons flying around. They get absorbed by uranium atoms. They split, they release a bunch of energy, they throw out more neutrons. Those neutrons go to other atoms, they split them. It’s a chain reaction, a very quickly building series of events that releases a lot of energy.
The important part is to make sure that those neutrons hit another atom and that they get absorbed by that atom, and that they cause it to split. And for various technical reasons, if those neutrons are moving too fast, if they have too high a speed, they’re not going to be able to split those atoms.
Sort of a colloquial analogy would be if you’re lining up a golf putt, if you’re, say, 10 feet away. If you hit that putt at a moderate speed, a slow speed, you have a good chance of getting it in. If you wind up and really smack it, you’re going to hit it too fast, it’s going to sail past the hole.
Neutrons are kind of the same way. There’s kind of a sweet spot of a good speed where they’re most effective at perpetuating a chain reaction. And heavy water is a certain form of water that slows neutrons down quite well and gets them to the right speed. So it’s a vital ingredient for making and being able to do research in atomic reactors and kind of getting that fundamental science nailed down.
IRA FLATOW: And there are really two great spy stories and military operations stories in the book about two different attempts to steal the heavy water or to disable the plant where it was made. You talk about the French deciding to steal it before the Nazis could get their hands on it. And there’s a whole bunch of story about the airport high jinks and it falling into the harbor. It was just fascinating.
SAM KEAN: Yeah. So basically what happened was there was only one plant in the world that was producing heavy water. They were in Norway. Heavy water is very expensive, very energy intense to separate from regular water. So they had a gigantic waterfall there, basically free electricity, and they could use that to produce heavy water. But they were used to selling heavy water in basically craft batches. They would sell maybe a half an ounce here, a third of an ounce here.
Well, right after the war started. The Uranium Club sent some people up to this plant in Norway, and they said, hello. We would like to buy 400 pounds of heavy water and put up a standing order for 200 more pounds every single month. And these people at the plant were blown away. They’d never even considered making that much heavy water at once. And because heavy water basically was only useful in atomic weapons research, they knew something was going on here.
So basically, they got in touch with the French. They got in touch with Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie, and they helped them smuggle it out of Norway through this airport caper. So basically what they did is they had two planes on the tarmac and they had some undercover agents. This is a different era, so they were allowed to buy tickets under false names without really having identification and stuff.
And they also created a distraction by bringing someone onto the tarmac with a taxi. And he had a bunch of real luggage, but they put gravel in it to make it feel heavy like heavy water. And they were pulling all these switcheroos. Eventually they put all the gravel on one plane and the Nazis thought that, aha, there goes the heavy water, while meanwhile that heavy water was taking off in a different plane.
So they pulled a switcheroo on them, got the heavy water out of Norway. And then eventually they had to smuggle it back out of France where it ended up, through another caper that ended up involving this guy. They called him Mad Jack. He was an Earl. He was a peer of the realm, but he was also a scientific spy. And I think most scientific spies, or most spies in general, kind of had the idea that it’s probably best to lay low and kind of be quiet, keep a low profile.
Mad Jack had the complete opposite theory, which was that he was going to be so flamboyant and so ridiculous that no one would ever expect he was a spy. So he was throwing these huge champagne-soaked parties. He had these twin guns that he kept– he called them Oscar and Genevieve– he kept on holsters under his armpits. He had all these tattoos he was always talking about. And he was the one that put in charge of smuggling the heavy water out of France to England, eventually, where it ended up.
So when some assistants of the Joliot-Curies came down with the heavy water, they went over to Bordeaux to try to get on a boat and to sneak it up to England. And the boat was getting ready to leave, so Mad Jack came up with a very typical Mad Jack plan, which was he took the crew out and he got them stinking drunk, more drunk than they’d ever been in their lives. And they were so hung over the next day that they actually were incapable of pushing off and getting the ship going, which bought him a little bit of time to the scientists could load the heavy water on there, and to do it secretly so that no one would see them doing this. This is kind of what passed for a plan in the world of Mad Jack.
And then they got out, they pushed off, they started sailing. And there were German bombs– there were German planes flying overhead dropping bombs on them, very scary time with the Nazis attacking them. But most people on the ship– there were about 100. Most people remember it as one of the most fun adventures of their life because the force of Mad Jack’s personality was so great that he made it seem like just this kind of school child adventure.
He was running around cracking dirty jokes in his terrible French accent. He had all these tattoos on his body, which were this really bizarre affectation then. He was telling stories about them. He was passing around mugs of champagne, which he considered the best cure against seasickness. So they ended up having the time of their lives while they were sneaking this heavy water away. So he was really an amazing hero who unfortunately died quite young.
His other habit when he wasn’t sneaking heavy water around was he’d like to defuse bombs, and he often did this with a cigarette that he had in his hand. So you can imagine someone with a cigarette defusing a bomb. One day he made a bad choice, ended up blowing himself up while he was doing this. But really a colorful minor character in the book, but just someone who’s really fun to bring alive and to show how he had this direct connection to fighting against the Nazi atomic bomb.
IRA FLATOW: If you were to cast him in a movie, who would you have play him?
SAM KEAN: I could see Jude Law, I think, doing it. He’s British. I could see him going out a little mustache and kind of twirling it like Mad Jack had. And he just has that kind of that naughty little twinkle in his eye, I think, that Mad Jack did as well. So that’s who I would see.
IRA FLATOW: And once the Nazis got wind of the attempts to steal the heavy water, they then redoubled their efforts at the Norwegian plant and put a large contingency of military people to protect it. But that didn’t stop a couple of attempts to blow up the plant in Norway
SAM KEAN: Yeah. So the Allies realized that they had to stop the production of heavy water. It was a crucial ingredient in the Nazi atomic bomb project. There were two missions. One they called Operation Freshman, where they sent or they attempted to send a bunch of commandos in, a bunch of British commandos. It was a complete disaster. All of them ended up dying. Many of them ended up in the hands of Nazis, They got tortured, they got killed. All this came out during war atrocity trials after the war.
So amazingly, after this debacle with the first attempt, they made another attempt called Operation Gunnerside. They sent in a much smaller team and they were a little more low profile, and they did end up going in there and succeeding in blowing up this plant. It was one of the most amazing heroic missions of the war how they snuck in there. Basically, this plant was in the middle of one of the harshest, bleakest places on Earth. And they were out there exposed for– some of them were out there for months at a time exposed, waiting, setting up this mission. But they ended up getting in there, sneaking in there, and without a shot fired, blew up this entire room that was making heavy water.
IRA FLATOW: Of all the characters in the book, Moe Berg aside and all the other really colorful characters, I think the character that I learned most about, because I’m a child of the ’60s. I grew up with the Kennedy family, and we had heard that Joe Kennedy, the oldest brother of JFK, had died in World War II, but it was always under sort of mysterious circumstances that we heard about it. He was a war hero, but we had no idea what happened. We know that JFK was a PT-109 captain and was very famous, but you really tell us the story, a really very, very interesting story of Joe Kennedy and what happened to him.
SAM KEAN: Yeah. And the PT-109 incident you’re talking about was really the key to the story in some ways, in that Jack became a big war hero because of that, very famous. There were magazine profiles about him. And Joe Junior was extremely jealous of Jack for that. He’d always bested Jack in sports, in school, all of those sorts of things, and he couldn’t stand it that his little brother was getting more attention.
So he ended up volunteering for a series of almost ridiculously dangerous missions to try to outdo Jack. And one of them, the one I kind of focus on the book, involved these mysterious concrete bunkers in northern France. So we were monitoring these things. They were gigantic, the size of several football fields, extremely well reinforced. And there were rumors going around that Hitler was going to use them as launch pads, basically, to start lobbing atomic weapons at London to try to destroy London. And they tried to bomb the heck out of these bunkers. Nothing seemed to work. They couldn’t crack them.
So what they decided to do was they decided to take a gigantic plane, they decided to strip out everything inside it that they possibly could, and to fill it back up with napalm or another explosive. Then they were going to fly this across the channel from England into France, and they were basically going to ram this right down the front door of these bunkers. This was going to be the biggest bomb in history and this was going to be the key to wiping out what they thought were atomic bunkers there. And they did have enough technology, enough crude technology, where they could fly the plane like a drone across the channel without a pilot.
What they didn’t have was any way to get the plane of the ground in a remote way. They needed a pilot to do that, and Joe volunteered to be one of those pilots to get this plane filled with napalm off the ground, to set up their remote control in the air, get it pointed toward France, and then ideally eject out of it. And he volunteered to be one of those people. And ultimately, the plane ended up exploding while he was still inside it, and that’s why he ended up dying.
IRA FLATOW: That is quite a story. That’s quite a story.
SAM KEAN: And it’s really heartbreaking just hear and see what drove the jealousy between the brothers and to see how this life ended so young, and kind of kicked off the famous Kennedy curse that we were dealing with for so long in the ’60s, ’70s, and in some ways even after that.
IRA FLATOW: There’s so many different elements about the war here that you have tied together. You talk about the bunkers being built to launch an atomic bomb. Coming among the backdrop, you talk about the launching of V1 and V2 missiles on England, knowing they had the capability of building these rockets, that made it believable that they could do something like that.
SAM KEAN: It did, yeah. Seeing these rockets rain down and knowing how good Germany was with missile technology, and then knowing that Werner Heisenberg, this brilliant scientist, was also working on atomic research, it all really seemed to fit together. And the rockets were one of the big fears that they were kind of tying in to this whole fear of the Uranium Club and the Nazi atomic bomb.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking with Sam Kean. Latest book is The Bastard Brigade. It really is a riveting wartime drama about the Nazis’ plan to develop the atom bomb and the Allies’ race to stop them by any means possible. And have you had any calls from Hollywood yet about– I mean, I’ve got to say there hasn’t been a movie that really captures all that you have captured about this effort.
SAM KEAN: That was the fun part about writing the book was kind of tying all these things together. There were always hints out there, documents or things. You’d come across mentions of it. But I don’t think anyone had really gone in and tried to tie it all together, and especially looked at it from the Allied side and just how terrified and how scared they were, and all the things that were willing to throw at it. So if there are any producers listening out there, I would love to talk about it.
IRA FLATOW: One of the interesting little Easter eggs, some of the wonderful little secrets that you’ve uncovered for us was that very late– is it before the end of the war, a few months, when Heisenberg– he escapes. Spoiler alert. But they eventually capture him, and he scribbles on a piece of paper a design for a bomb that probably could have happened.
SAM KEAN: Well, this was actually during the meeting he had with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen.
IRA FLATOW: 1941?
SAM KEAN: Yeah. It was that meeting where he– and that meeting has been shrouded by a lot of mystery because Bohr and Heisenberg remembered it in much different ways. Bohr, though, ended up keeping that piece of paper. And when Bohr eventually– he had his own adventures trying to escape Denmark. When he eventually escaped, he came to the US, went to Los Alamos, was talking with people in the Manhattan Project. He brought that little piece of paper along that Heisenberg had scribbled down sums, or it looked like a reactor, a bomb. No one was quite sure.
And he gave that to the people at Los Alamos. And they were, of course, a little startled by this, to hear that Heisenberg had been talking that early about doing atomic research, things like that. So having that little piece of paper was a bit startling for them to see.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Also what’s interesting in this search for the Uranium Club members was that competition and distrust between the military agents and the spy agencies.
SAM KEAN: Yeah. It was kind of strange in that they were all, obviously, working for the same thing, but they really didn’t trust each other. There was a lot of suspicion on both sides and just the idea that you really couldn’t trust one side or the other. And there was especially a lot of mistrust between the Americans and the British.
Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, was an idiosyncratic person, to say the least, and for some reason really did not like or did not trust the British. And so a lot of what drove him was disbelieving the British are trying to get around to them. He was just ordering airstrikes kind of randomly on things that the British didn’t want him to hit. So there was a lot of mistrust there and also, eventually, a lot of mistrust of the French, especially.
There’s one line in the book, I think, where they were talking about actually bombing French troops in order to keep them away from some area where there were atomic secrets. And his general side, he’s like, we can’t bomb the French. As much as I would like to, we cannot bomb the French. So there was a lot of that kind of weird mistrust going on for people you would think would be allied and focusing mostly on stopping Germany.
IRA FLATOW: Also very interesting little segment, you talk about how Irene Joliot-Curie carried with her a little vial of radium. That was sort of the family jewels.
SAM KEAN: It was, yeah. So Marie Curie, her mother, had this vial of radium that she used in a lot of her atomic research. And eventually, she bequeathed it to her daughter, to Irene Joliot-Curie. And it’s kind of funny that Frederic, actually– Marie did not like Frederic very much. She was a little suspicious of him. And she actually put in their prenuptial agreement that Frederic was not allowed to inherit the gram of radium from her. That was one thing Marie wanted to make clear, that Frederic was not to get his hands on this gram of radium.
But eventually, Marie died, and Irene and Frederic jointly sort of took control of it. But Irene really felt that she was the guardian of it. And there was one point in the war where she had to go to Bordeaux. She had to end up leaving the radium there. But later during the war, she basically made a run– not quite on her own. She had someone else with her. But she made a run kind of on her own to get this radium back. She had to go into Nazi territory, go undercover, . And get this radium but she refused to let the Nazis get their hands on it. So she was making kind of these heroic runs, these daring runs, on her own as well.
IRA FLATOW: I find it interesting when we talk about Heisenberg, he never was remorseful after the war, was he? Did he actually ever apologize for what he did?
SAM KEAN: No, he didn’t. He was so convinced that he had done the right thing that he never really did. And he was a bit of a stubborn person in some ways, and he had kind of that failing, I think, that’s common to a lot of brilliant people when they’re brilliant in one area of life and they think that their brilliance therefore extends to every area of life. And he really didn’t understand that he was a little obtuse when it came to politics and thought himself completely justified the entire time.
So no, he never really apologized. In fact, he would argue with people about– he did not like the Nazis at all. That was very clear. But about Germany, how the good people of Germany, their name was being smeared by this, he was just very hard to work with and ended up alienating a lot of his friends, as I said.
IRA FLATOW: I find it interesting that both Wernher Von Braun and Heisenberg were sort of accepted. As you say, they both considered themselves such geniuses that they overlooked the politics that was going on at the time.
SAM KEAN: Yeah, they almost were thinking, we can use the Nazis in order to get the money we want to do the science. That was kind of the reasoning they were using. And over the years, Von Braun, because of the work he did in the space program, and Heisenberg, just because he was sort of a legendary scientist and involved in quantum mechanics, fundamental discoveries, they’ve both sort of been softened. And the work they did during the war has been sort of overlooked, or at least sort of pooh-poohed or forgiven in some ways, when really they were both pretty involved in some kind of nasty things.
IRA FLATOW: I know every author has a deadline they have to work on. If you were given more time, would you have put more stuff in the book?
SAM KEAN: I don’t think so. It was more a matter of cutting things out and making sure that I just focused on the main characters, on Moe Berg, Kennedy, Boris Pash, Irene Joliot-Curie, just making sure that the other stuff didn’t sort of distract from the main thrust of the book and making sure those things are there. I did put a bunch of footnotes up on my website as well. So if people are interested and want the asides and digressions, there are some extra notes up there. So I did feel like I got to kind of hold on to them.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk a little bit more about Moe Berg and the plot to assassinate Heisenberg. And he was relentless, wasn’t he?
SAM KEAN: Yeah, he was. He– well, I mean, as most of the people in the book did, he was convinced that this was going to be a complete disaster, Hitler getting an atomic bomb. And he just thought, basically, the entire war might be resting on his shoulders. So he went undercover into Europe, was involved in various missions, kind of ferreting out information about Heisenberg and other atomic scientists. And eventually, they decided that they wanted to kidnap Werner Heisenberg to try to kind of get him away from Germany for various reasons, in large part due to incompetence and sort of bungling by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, who Moe Berg worked for.
The kidnapping plot fell apart and Moe Berg was the only one available, it moved quickly from a kidnapping to a potential assassination. And then they sent Moe Berg in with a pistol in one pocket and a cyanide pill in the other pocket to a lecture in Switzerland, a neutral country. And he was supposed to sit there in the audience, and if Heisenberg said anything that betrayed that they might be close to getting an atomic bomb working, Berg had orders to stand up and shoot him during this lecture.
And had Moe Berg done this, this would have been a gigantic international incident. You can’t just go into a neutral country and shoot a Nobel Prize winner dead. I mean, Switzerland would have kicked out all of our intelligence people. A lot of our intelligence operations for the entire war would have collapsed. But again, that fear of an atomic Hitler was considered so bad that it was worth that risk to send Moe Berg in there.
IRA FLATOW: And they sent a Jewish ballplayer to assassinate a German atomic scientist.
SAM KEAN: Yeah. Moe Berg was really– he was Jewish, and he was driven by this hatred of Hitler. And also he was known as a baseball player, very smart, but he wanted to do something more. He wanted to contribute to the war and really do something that he felt was commensurate with his intelligence and his skills.
IRA FLATOW: And I guess at the end of his life, he just sort of faded into the background, didn’t he?
SAM KEAN: He did. It was a really sad ending to him. I don’t think he ever quite got over that time where he was considering assassinating Werner Heisenberg. It was a very wrenching emotional thing for him. And then after the war, he, I think, sort of missed the glory days of the war, the glory days of playing sports. It’s sort of stereotypical that old soldiers and old athletes kind of reminisce on their glory days, and Moe Berg had both, the war and his glory days, and never quite got back on track after the war. Tried to do some work for the CIA in other places, but mostly just kind of drifted around mooching off his friends, telling old stories.
And then by the end of his life, turned a little bit paranoid, started cutting friends out, and got to be kind of an odd character. So he kind of died lonely, unfortunately.
IRA FLATOW: Sam, how much did the general public know how close the Nazis were to acquiring an A-bomb?
SAM KEAN: The general public didn’t know a lot. So radiation, radioactivity, had been discovered right around 1900. It’s what made Marie Curie famous. So they knew that radioactivity was around. And by the 1930s, they knew that it could poison people.
But they didn’t quite grasp the idea that you could take that, make a chain reaction, and build a horrific bomb out of it. That idea was something new, and that was really confined mostly to the scientific world and then a few military people, like General Groves and people above him. So that was a very tightly guarded secret, the idea that you could make an atomic weapon using, kind of harnessing the power of radioactivity. And there’s not a lot of people outside the scientific and military community that really knew that part.
IRA FLATOW: And when it was discovered, when they captured Heisenberg and they learned about the effort, they were shocked about how little they had progressed, weren’t they?
SAM KEAN: They were. So there’s a famous little scene where they are all at dinner, all the German scientists that they captured, after the war, they were at dinner in a place called the Farm Hall in England, sitting around. And the BBC came on. They were allowed to listen to the BBC. BBC came on and started talking about an atomic weapon, and they were completely flabbergasted that the Americans of all people had been able to build a successful atomic bomb.
And in fact, a lot of them didn’t believe it. They thought that they were using atomic as sort of a loose adjective to describe something, like something was so dangerous that it was atomic. They really didn’t think they’d actually built a chain reacting fission bomb. But eventually they realized that the Americans had beaten them. And they had sort of this, I guess, snobbish mentality that they were the best in the world, and that really hit them very hard at that they had been beaten this badly by another team.
There’s a famous line where Samuel Goudsmidt, one of the characters, said that until that moment they thought that they had lost the war, Germany lost the war, but at least they’d won the war of the laboratory with all the research that they’d done. And at that point, they realized that they hadn’t even won the war of the laboratory.
IRA FLATOW: And then they went about making excuses up.
SAM KEAN: Yes. Very quickly you see a few of them who are a little more politically savvy come up with ways to excuse their failures, but also to sort of cast aspersions on the American scientists and say, well, we German scientists could have made an atomic bomb if we wanted to. But maybe we didn’t want to, and now you see why, because the Americans went and destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So they really in kind of a clever way flipped it back on the Americans and tried to make the Americans look like the bad guy, and really compromised and made the whole thing much more morally complicated than it would have been.
IRA FLATOW: Why did the Manhattan Project then succeed when the Nazis were not able to, given the lead that they had?
SAM KEAN: Basically, they were willing to put in all the money and all the effort. And I really do think that without that fear of Germany, I don’t think the Manhattan Project probably would have succeeded. I don’t think the scientists would have been as driven as they were if they hadn’t been so afraid. I don’t think Leslie Groves and other people would have gambled and put so much money and effort into it had that fear of Nazi Germany getting atomic weapons not been sort of looming over them.
And given the expense and the risk involved, because at the start they really didn’t know whether atomic weapons would work, so given that risk and given the expense– it was $2 billion in 1944 and 1945 money, so even more today– I don’t know if they would have gotten it done before the war ended. And they might not have even tried after the war. So there’s a possibility we wouldn’t have atomic weapons today if that fear of Nazi Germany getting the bombs hadn’t been sort of looming over them and they’d basically done a crash effort to try to make the bomb.
IRA FLATOW: Sam, it’s a great book. Thank you for writing it for us.
SAM KEAN: Well, thanks for having me on the show. I appreciate it.
IRA FLATOW: Sam Kean, author of The Bastard Brigade– the True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb, and you can read an excerpt at ScienceFriday.com/atomicbomb.