Book Review: Spies and the atomic bomb

Kean doesn’t try to psychoanalyze his characters, but watches them closely, focusing on their bravado, daring and eccentricities.

July 10, 2019 17:44
Book Review: Spies and the atomic bomb

A GROUP of 104 aerospace engineers pose for a group photo at Fort Bliss, Texas.. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)


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Sam Kean is not an ordinary science writer, he is an extraordinary one – someone who loves the mystery of the human brain and its intricacies. He is also someone who loves people and takes the time to study them firsthand, not locked away, isolated in a lab. Early on, Kean combined his love of physics with his love of literature to fashion a career that brought him access to both. The results include such works as The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements. Kean sees science as an interactive process, creative work performed by fallible human beings who are often driven by complex and inexplicable subconscious drives that result in incredible discoveries which change our world. 

Kean has come to believe that subconscious forces dominate us in a way we are mostly unaware of, and that these forces often cause people to do things others might find odd or dangerous or foolhardy. This new, captivating book is filled with such people: oddballs, misfits, mild subversives and others. Some are possessed by genius and others by something else that is indescribable. Collectively, these scientists helped the Allies win World War II by interfering with Hitler’s attempt to produce a nuclear bomb before the Allies could.
Kean doesn’t try to psychoanalyze his characters, but watches them closely, focusing on their bravado, daring and eccentricities. In The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb, he takes us on a scattershot ride from figures as diverse as Joe Kennedy Jr. – who died trying to impress his difficult father with his bravado – to nuclear physicists Werner Heisenberg and Iréne Joliet-Curie. This book touches upon the Manhattan Project, but really spends most of its time on the race to create a viable nuclear bomb, and how close the Germans came to doing so before the Allies.
Kean starts with the American Col. Boris Pash, who led a team of scientific commandos called the Alsos Unit. They were sent to Europe to capture members of the Nazi atomic-bomb project. Pash’s men were hunting for nuclear scientists who could be kidnapped to help the Allied cause. Pash had Russian roots and had fought in the White Army against the Communists during the Russian Revolution. 
“He loved trading in secrets and delighted in outwitting people with codes and other stratagems,” Kean writes of the irreverent Pash. “In addition to managing agents, he reportedly experimented with disguises during this period, dressing up in wigs and employing ‘voice-altering devices’ to conceal his identity.... Intelligence work enthralled him, and he wanted more.” Pash would eventually trace the uranium the Nazis had stored near Antwerp and manage to have it shipped out of reach of the Reich. This astonishing accomplishment involved complex maneuvers and hiring the right men capable of figuring out how to accomplish their task without getting caught. He eventually captured nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg who had been working for the Nazis.

ONE OF Pash’s men was Samuel Goudsmit, a Dutch-born Jewish-American physicist who spoke numerous languages and had many German physicists as friends. His beloved parents were in Holland. Goudsmit tried to secure visas for their release, but he was too late and they later died at Auschwitz. He had once been friends with Heisenberg and even had him to his home as a dinner guest, but found himself mortified by Heisenberg’s allegiance to the Nazi regime. Goudsmit liked to think of himself as an amateur detective and had a cynical sense of humor that Kean found interesting. 
Goutsmit comes across in Kean’s depiction as a man we can never really get to know, as do many of the other characters in the book. Kean seems to believe that human beings present a front to the world that masks their deeper, and sometimes darker impulses. He doesn’t try to decipher this phenomenon, but allows these contradictions in self-presentation to guide him to a deeper understanding of each individual’s unique personality. Kean shies away from traditional psychoanalytic dissections of the people he chronicles. He seems to think that much of commonly accepted psychological theories about human beings are just psychobabble. The brain’s complexity resists easy classifications.
In his introduction, Kean attempts to explain his approach: “Unlike other histories of the Nazi atomic bomb, this story focuses on the Allies – putting us directly into the minds of the men and women confronted with, perhaps, the ultimate mission. Much of what follows comes from previously unpublished or overlooked sources, which provide new insight into some of the war’s most fascinating yet unheralded characters. Naturally, all the missions were top-secret. Those who volunteered for them often had dark motivations for doing so. In some cases they spent as much energy fighting each other as they did the enemy. But if they couldn’t shake their personal demons, they never flinched when facing down the Nazi threat.”  
Kean shies away from any heroic portraits. His characterizations are far more complex and revealing. He prompts us to question the enormity of forces that affect human behavior, rather than relying on stale and sanitized stereotypes of heroism.
Kean spends a great deal of time explaining the race to make a bomb. He shows us the various tests the scientists carried out in the effort to achieve nuclear fission, and the steps they took after enriching uranium. He explains what it took to build a nuclear reactor. The Germans were beginning to work on all of this two years before the Manhattan Project started. The Germans realized they would need heavy water to accomplish their task. This proved daunting. But when they acquired some, the renegade team of Allies commanded by Col. Pash began thinking about how they could steal it. They accomplished the mission only after several failed attempts. 
Kean delves deep into the history of the entire atomic project, beginning with exquisitely clear explanations of Irene Curie and Frederic Joliet’s work studying radioactive atoms in 1935, for which they won a Nobel Prize. Things were moving fast. No one had heard of uranium fission before January 1939, and within a year, 100 papers were written about it. The Allies never stopped worrying that the Germans would get the bomb before them. They were particularly worried about French scientists who helped the Germans or allowed their laboratories to be used by others for research purposes. Everything hung in the balance, and Kean captures the instability that seemed to grow exponentially. Almost as a backdrop, Kean chronicles the battles being won and lost and the endless deaths that were accumulating on both sides. Slowly, he shows us how things began to swing in our favor. But it was so close, closer than most of us realize. 
Kean is on the verge of the transcendent throughout as he chronicles the lives of a bunch of renegade scientists and spies willing to do almost anything to stop the Nazi threat. His characters share a certain determination, obsessiveness and recklessness that somehow binds them. In doing so, he touches upon a certain majesty of being that runs through large chunks of humanity, though Kean would probably not make that sort of connection himself. However, that quality it is evident on every page of this magical work.

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