Atomic Bill: A Journalist’s Dangerous Ambition in the Shadow of the Bomb
By Vincent Kiernan
Three Hills, 2022, 312 pp.
Bill Laurence, a science reporter for The New York Times, was asked to join the Manhattan Project in its final months, through the July 1945 Trinity Test and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, to help draft the project’s official press communiqués. Thereafter, he traded on his reputation as both an eyewitness to and the first chronicler of these momentous events. He has not been fortunate in his biographer. Kiernan’s research was meticulous, and he finds much to deplore in Laurence’s behavior: the journalist’s zeal for speculative scientific breakthroughs that led him to ignore skeptics; his exaggerated prose and occasional plagiarism; and most of all, his loss of objectivity from getting too close to power. Laurence did not tell the whole story about the bomb, including the effects of radiation. The indictment is compelling, although reporting during a war, as any frontline correspondent could testify, is always full of ethical traps.