The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb
Author: Sam Kean
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Release Date: July 2019
Nota Bene: This review is based on an ARC, not the July 2019 final release. Some details herein referenced, therefore, may have changed before publication.
If Hollywood ever turns The Bastard Brigade into a movie, all of the remarkable personages through which this story is told will likely appear together in one, extraordinary, culminating scene. In reality, however, barring a few interactions, most of the Bastard Brigade never worked together. Yet, combined, their incredibly (sometimes idiotically) brave exploits helped avert the greatest horror of the 20th century: Nazi acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
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The official name for this band of "scientific commandos," as author Sam Kean describes them, was the Alsos Unit. Because they were unattached to any specific military division, they were nicknamed the Bastard Unit. The group was tasked with eliminating Hitler's ability to build an atomic bomb. If that meant forcibly removing nuclear physicists from Germany, or sabotaging the heavy water supply on which nuclear fission relied, or stealing Nazi uranium stashes, so be it. The future of the world was at stake and no risk was too great.
In The Bastard Brigade, Kean has combined his self-professed two great loves: physics and writing. In his introductory notes, Kean calls physics "the most romantic of the sciences." It is an affection few of the book's readers likely share. Fortunately, though, Kean's personality portraits are far more captivating than his discussions of nuclear science. Likewise, the moral and ethical quandaries inherent in the creation of something as lethal as a nuclear weapon are far more thought-provoking than an explanation of how those weapons are made. And just when you begin to wonder if you're smart enough to enjoy The Bastard Brigade, Kean's trajectory zigzags and we come face to face with the bastards in question.
Moe Berg, for a major league baseball player, was one hell of a spy. Boris Pash, commander of the Alsos Unit, was born in San Francisco, moved to Moscow as a child, and returned with a fervent hatred of Communism. Marie Curie's daughter, Irene (also a physicist), married a man who, while never quite timing his scientific discoveries correctly, became a revered member of the French resistance. Joe Kennedy Jr.'s jealousy of his younger brother led him to volunteer for a disastrous mission that ended in his death. These and the other renegades Kean so colorfully documents effectively serve as his armature for the larger story.
Again and again The Bastard Brigade returns to this question: did the Allies have legitimate reason to fear the German nuclear weapons program? Depending on whom is asked, the Nazis either gave up in recognition of the futility of the scheme, or the project failed due to insufficient supplies of uranium. Neither of those possible outcomes mattered to the Alsos Unit. From dark plans to assassinate scientists, to outlandish gadgets worthy of a James Bond film, they were prepared to take all necessary steps to ensure a madman's finger never pressed the proverbial nuclear button. All the while, these men and women struggled with their own shortcomings and personal demons. In the end, of course, the mushroom clouds that signaled the end of WWII were the products of American, not Nazi, engineering.
The Bastard Brigade is a revelatory read that lures you deeper and deeper inside this complex story. The cast of characters is enormously entertaining; by turns, funny and fearless. One gets the feeling that the original "bastards" would salute Kean's stirring account of their adventures. ~SH/TRP.