January 24, 2020


Credit: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images 

This article was originally published July 19, 2019.

The heroism of D-Day is immortalized in history books, but far less attention is given to the individuals who worked undercover to prevent Germany from developing an atomic bomb during WWII. In his new book, The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb, science writer Sam Kean tells the stories of the men and women who made up the Alsos Mission, or the “Bastard Brigade.” They worked tirelessly to make sure Germany’s (impressive) scientific discoveries wouldn’t change the course of the war.

Three Takeaways:

  • Politics and military strategy both guided World War II, but so did science. When, in the 1930s, scientists started making discoveries that would impact the creation of nuclear power, governments quickly became interested. Their discoveries soon became new tools in an imminent war.
  • Fear of Germany’s scientific progress drove the United States to pour resources into research. Because scientists in the US worried about the Germans building a nuclear weapon and dropping it in a major American city like Chicago, they founded the Manhattan Project and orchestrated intelligence missions to sabotage the competition.
  • Sometimes, small ventures have big impacts. The Alsos team shouldered the burden of dealing with Germany’s nuclear program, so that the rest of the military could focus on the myriad other challenges of the war. Both ultimately came together for the defeat of the Axis powers.

More Reading: 

  • Here’s an interview we did a while back with Jennet Conant, whose grandfather, James Conant, helped lead the Manhattan Project - and she talks about the moral qualms of the scientists working on that effort in the U.S.
  • Moe Berg, a Major League Baseball catcher and one of the important players in collecting German intelligence, continues to fascinate with his enigmatic personality. The New York Times published an article about Berg and his life, following the release of a biopic last year.
  • Joe Kennedy, Jr., older brother of John F. Kennedy, volunteered for and perished in a dangerous mission to curtail Hitler’s bomb-making capabilities, all because Joe was jealous of his little brother. Vanity Fair explores the relationships between Joe, Jack, and their father.

Atom bomb, Sam Kean, nuclear war, Sci and Tech

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