The Third Bomb

I know I’ve been on the atomic bomb thing a little lately. Hear me out. Again.

I’m kind of surprised by what I don’t know about some aspects of the A-bomb attacks and their context. It’s part of popular lore that we had two atomic bombs in August 1945 — one named Little Boy, one named Fat Man — and that we dropped the former on Hiroshima and the latter on Nagasaki. For extra credit, you might know that the bombs were markedly different from each other. But how much more?

A few years ago, someone asked me whether there was a third bomb. Must have been. How soon did we have it? No idea.

Inspired partly by the recent atomic bomb blog and partly by a friend’s recommendation, I went out and picked up a used copy of Richard Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” I turned to the end of the book, because the part of the story I was immediately interested in is back there.

So what about that third bomb? Rhodes writes:

“[Gen. Leslie] Groves had reported to [Gen. George Marshall] that morning [the day after the Nagasaki attack that he had gained four days in manufacture and expected to ship a second Fat Man plutonium core and initiator from New Mexico to Tinian [the island base from which the attacks were launched] on August 12 or 13. ‘Provided there are no unforeseen difficulties in manufacture, in transportation to the theatre or after arrival in the theatre,’ he concluded cautiously, ‘the bomb should be ready for delivery on the first suitable weather following 17 or 18 August.’ Marshall told Groves the President wanted no further atomic bombing except by his express order and Groves decided to hold up the shipment, a decision in which Marshall concurred.”

So a third bomb was nearly ready. There was some discussion, among Air Force brass, anyway, about dropping the next bomb on Tokyo. Then Japan surrendered on August 15.

The pace of building more bombs after that was slow, largely because the raw materials were in such short supply. According to Rhodes: The United States had seven operational bombs a year after the war ended; a year after that, 13. Then the pace began to pick up: By late 1949, its stockpile reached 200. By that time, the United States was no longer the only nuclear power — the Soviet Union detonated its first A-bomb on September 23, 1949.

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