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The Strange Case of Robert Oppenheimer

Pandora’s Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb

by Brian VanDeMark
Little, Brown, 339 pp. (withdrawn)

1.

April next year will mark the centenary of the birth of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the generation that built the atomic bomb. He had been a Wunderkind, the son of well-to-do German Jews in New York City, a brilliant student of physics at Harvard and Göttingen. In the 1930s, teaching at both the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, he trained the United States’ first vital school of theoretical physicists. Together with his students, he provided the theoretical analysis of the nuclear data that came pouring out of the cyclotrons at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. They were the product of the driving inventiveness and entrepreneurship of Ernest O. Lawrence, a midwesterner of uncomplicated ambitiousness whose work on big accelerator physics earned him a Nobel Prize in 1939.

The two men admired and liked each other, although Lawrence strongly disapproved of Oppenheimer’s politics. Awakening politically in the mid-Thirties, Oppenheimer became an energetic fellow traveler—joining with Communists in supporting the Loyalists in Spain and promoting labor activism, including attempts by the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT) to organize the employees at the Radiation Laboratory. Lawrence, perhaps fearful of alienating his rich California patrons, prohibited anyone, including Oppenheimer, from raising political questions at the Radiation Laboratory. Even though Oppenheimer broke the rule occasionally, Lawrence nevertheless brought him into the atomic bomb work at Berkeley in 1941, declaring, “I have a great deal of confidence in Oppenheimer.”

Since the bomb project not only posed a formidable scientific challenge but also entailed a huge task of procurement and production, authority over it was given in 1942 to the Army’s new Manhattan Engineering District under the command of General Leslie R. Groves.1 Groves selected Oppenheimer to direct the laboratory where the atomic bombs would be designed, even though Oppenheimer seemed unqualified for such a job either by experience or temperament. In July 1943, despite counter-recommendations from Army security officials, Groves ordered Oppenheimer cleared “without delay,” declaring, “He is absolutely essential to the project.”

Oppenheimer succeeded brilliantly, assembling a team of world-class physicists in a new base at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and managing their egos as well as their dissatisfactions with the muddy streets as they worked on the design of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He emerged from the war as one of the most famous physicists in America, the leading sage of the nuclear era, an influential adviser to statesmen, chair of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the new director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Einstein was a professor. He enjoyed power and took care not to jeopardize his access to it, declining to contest attacks against the political reliability of other scientists and telling security officials who among physicists might have been a Communist or might now be a danger to security.2

Yet Oppenheimer was conscience-stricken, regretting the devastation the Manhattan Project had wrought. “Physicists have known sin,” he famously lamented in 1948.3 During the war, Oppenheimer had thought it important that, once an atomic bomb was produced, vigorous effort should be mounted to develop a hydrogen bomb, a thermonuclear weapon that would explode with a force hundreds of times greater than that of fission weapons. With Oppenheimer’s support, Edward Teller had begun working on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos (he refused to work on anything else, even when theoretical talents were critical for calculations on the atomic bomb). But within weeks of Japan’s defeat, Oppenheimer began trying to rein in the demon he had done so much to unleash, urging that the United States push for international control of atomic energy and refrain from developing an H-bomb, judging that its nuclear arsenal would keep it safe enough. By contrast, Teller, a refugee from Hungary and a ferocious anti-Communist, equated national security with maximum firepower. In the immediate postwar years the H-bomb became the principal vehicle of his scientific and ideological ambition, and he promoted it avidly.

Oppenheimer’s efforts at restraint earned him enemies. He could be cutting and arrogant, and this provoked personal resentments. And his past political activities and associations aroused suspicions among security officials. On a visit to Berkeley from Los Alamos in mid-June 1943, he spent the night with his former fiancée, Jean Tatlock, a one-time Communist. His wife, his brother, Frank, and Frank’s wife had once been members of the Communist Party and some of his students belonged to Communist front organizations. He had brought several of them, along with Frank, into the early atomic bomb research at Berkeley. Despite all this, Oppenheimer was cleared in 1947 by the new AEC, with strong support from high-ranking officials and scientists.

But anti-Oppenheimer sentiment intensified after the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in mid-1949 and the GAC nevertheless recommended against a crash program to develop a hydrogen bomb. Among Oppenheimer’s antagonists were the Air Force, enthusiasts of big bombs and bigger bombers, and several of its affiliated scientists; Lewis Strauss, a well-to-do investment banker long involved in defense matters who shared Teller’s views of the Soviets, science, and security, and whom Dwight Eisenhower appointed chairman of the AEC in 1953; and Teller himself, who, along with other defense hawks, insisted that the nation embark on a crash program to build an H-bomb.

Ernest Lawrence, converted by the Soviet test to supporting the H-bomb, joined with Teller in calling for the creation of a second laboratory which they would control and which would remove work on the weapon from the supervision of Los Alamos. The initiative stalled because the GAC considered a second laboratory unnecessary and a drain on scarce scientific talent. Teller and Lawrence blamed Oppenheimer for this. In mid-1952, the AEC finally caved in, authorizing the establishment of the Livermore Laboratory not far from Berkeley. The controversy helped to convince Lawrence that Oppenheimer was not to be trusted in nuclear policymaking.

In November 1953, a letter reviewing Oppenheimer’s record by a former staff member of the Joint Atomic Energy Committee in Congress concluded that “more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.” The document contained nothing new, but the standards for security clearance were now far tighter than they had been during the war or even in 1947. Eisenhower, eager to prevent an assault by Senator Joseph McCarthy, ordered the suspension of Oppenheimer’s clearance. Oppenheimer, his term on the GAC having expired, no longer had any formal connection with the AEC except a consultantship that was due to run out the following June. Declining to let the question of Oppenheimer’s clearance merely lapse, Strauss had a formal list of charges drawn up against him, including allegations that he had opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer, determined to clear his name, chose to undergo a hearing before the AEC’s Personnel Security Board.

The hearing gave his enemies an opportunity to destroy his influence in nuclear policymaking by having him declared a security risk. The most devastating witness against him was Teller, whose dissatisfaction with Oppenheimer’s attitudes and actions on the hydrogen bomb, vented to the FBI, had formed the basis of the charges leveled against him on that issue. He told the security board that Oppenheimer had repeatedly behaved in ways that he found difficult to understand, taking actions that seemed “confused and complicated.” He added, “To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more.” He thought it would be “wiser not to grant clearance.” Perhaps he revealed how he resented Oppenheimer’s influence when he added, “I would feel personally [italics mine] more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.”

In 1963, writing a dissertation on the history of physics in the United States, I visited Teller at his house in Berkeley. He welcomed me into his living room with a kind of avuncular courtesy. The subject of Robert Oppenheimer soon came up. Teller told me that Oppenheimer deserved to lose his security clearance because he had been a Communist and an advocate of Soviet appeasement. I said that no one had ever produced evidence that Oppenheimer was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Teller, wagging his finger, declared, Young man, you don’t understand. The Communists don’t make their most important people Party members. It hampers their work.

2.

Oppenheimer repeatedly denied that he had ever been a member of the Communist Party, let alone a Soviet agent, and the security agencies of the United States government never proved he was either, despite years of trying. The FBI first opened a file on Oppenheimer in March 1941 because he recently had gone to the house of his friend Haakon Chevalier to attend a political discussion group whose members, Communists or fellow travelers, the bureau already had under surveillance. An assistant professor of French literature at Berkeley, Chevalier was a Communist whom Oppenheimer had met at a rally for the Spanish loyalists and with whom he had helped organize a campus local of the American Federation of Teachers. Army Intelligence, aided by the FBI, dogged Oppenheimer’s movements, conversations, friends, and acquaintances during his Manhattan Project days. Although the surveillance ended after the war, the FBI revived it in 1946, putting a tap on his house in Berkeley. By the time it was all over, the FBI had accumulated almost three file drawers of Oppenheimer material, including notes about his activities and verbatim transcripts of his conversations, many of which had been recorded.

Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb draws on these files, similar ones about other FBI targets, and a great many other additional sources, including declassified government documents, the secret cable traffic between Moscow and its wartime spies, private papers, personal interviews, and the steadily accumulating studies on the cold war and national security. Although Herken’s book deals with a familiar story, it has much new detail bearing on the careers of Oppenheimer, Lawrence, and Teller and their relations with one another. But the most arresting feature of Brotherhood of the Bomb is its chilling narrative of the shadowy world of state surveillance—some of it warranted, much of it not—and abuse of power in the name of national security. Oppenheimer, his fate, and his agency in realizing it all loom large in the account. The book also speaks indirectly to contemporary concerns about weapons of mass destruction and the threats to civil liberties that the war against terrorism has raised in science and beyond it.4

According to Herken, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until 1943, when General Groves told him in veiled terms about the highly classified effort. Among those under the bureau’s surveillance, however, was Steve Nelson, a former leader in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and a leading Bay Area Communist trained in espionage by the Soviets. Two conversations monitored in Nelson’s office—one in October 1942, the other in March 1943—revealed that he was encouraging two of the former students whom Oppenheimer had hired to engage in espionage at the Radiation Laboratory, where a new weapon was said to be under development. The FBI also learned from remarks in the bugged conversations that Nelson had met with Oppenheimer several times. Although Nelson complained that Oppenheimer would not divulge any information, FBI officials and, later, some members of army security, held that Oppenheimer might be a Communist or even a Soviet agent.

Herken, drawing on documents in Chevalier’s papers, suggests that Oppenheimer had been a Communist. Here and elsewhere the evidence he cites and its implications need closer analysis than he gives them. Chevalier, describing the discussion group that met at his house, said it was “a ‘closed unit’ of the Communist Party,” part of its so-called professional section, whose members were discouraged from holding open party membership.5 In a letter written in 1964 that Herken has posted on his Web site along with several other documents, Chevalier asked whether Oppenheimer would object to his recounting in a book “your and my membership in the same unit of the CP from 1938 to 1942,” reminding him that your “Reports to Our Colleagues” attested to his “deep and genuine” commitment.6 The Reports, brief newsletters sent in February and April 1940 to college and university faculty members on the West Coast, closely followed the Soviet Party line, which, during the period of the nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, opposed intervention against the Nazi regime.

Herken says that the first report was mostly written by Oppenheimer and implies that he was involved in the second, but he offers only circumstantial contemporary evidence of Oppenheimer’s participation in either one. Both were headed by epigraphs from English poets, the first by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher—“vintage Oppie,” Herken notes—the second by Auden, one of Oppenheimer’s favorites. Perhaps more to the point is that Oppenheimer replied to Chevalier that “in one respect” what he said of him was “not true”: he had never been a member of the Communist Party nor of a Communist Party unit. (He said elsewhere that he understood the discussion group that met at Chevalier’s house to be a political coffee klatsch.) He did not deny that he wrote the reports, which were signed “College Faculties Committee, Communist Party of California,” nor did he say he wrote them. The second newsletter, crudely calling Franklin Roosevelt “a counter-revolutionary war-monger,” does not sound like “vintage Oppie.”7

In memoranda in 1942 and 1943, NKGB officials, aware of Oppenheimer’s pre-war fellow traveling, urged that he be “cultivated” as a source of atomic information. A report to Vselovod Merkulov, the People’s Commissar for State Security, in February 1944, describes him as “an American Jew, secret member of the compatriot organization [the American Communist Party],” and predicted that the cultivation would produce “a positive result.” It did not. In fact, the year before an official at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco had recruited a pro-Soviet engineer and FACET organizer named George Eltenton to find informants among the staff working on the atomic bomb at Berkeley. But in 1944, the NKVD station chief at the consulate was recalled to Moscow because he had failed to enlist any Manhattan Project scientists.8

A document dated January 7, 1946, and released in 2000 by the Atomic Energy Ministry of the Russian Federation about the West’s atomic energy programs duplicates the description of Oppenheimer in the report to Merkulov. The published document, a copy of an earlier one, contains information strongly suggesting that the original was produced in 1945, probably during the autumn.9 At the time, Oppenheimer was deeply involved in postwar policymaking for atomic energy. If he had then been a secret member of the CP, his duplicity would have been worse than Alger Hiss’s. But an NKGB informant in Washington called him a “liberal” who thought atomic secrets should be disclosed only after political cooperation between the US and the USSR had been achieved10 ; and he helped devise policy for the international control of atomic energy that carefully protected American national security. Moreover, his identification in the document as a secret Party member and an American Jew suggests that the description was merely lifted from the earlier report, and the description there lacks any independent corroboration beyond Chevalier’s disputable claim.

The degree of Oppenheimer’s involvement with communism remains murky, and so does the so-called Chevalier incident during the war, which figured crucially in the security hearing. It was Oppenheimer who, in 1943, volunteered to a security official at the Radiation Laboratory that, as Herken puts it, “if the Army was concerned about security,” George Eltenton was “someone who might also bear watching.” An army security officer named Boris Pash was quickly summoned to interrogate Oppenheimer, who told Pash that an intermediary, whom he did not identify, had approached him to solicit information on the bomb project that would be passed on to the Soviets. The intermediary, he said, was acting on behalf of George Eltenton, who had contacts at the Soviet consulate and could put Oppenheimer in touch with them. He said further, according to an army technician’s surreptitious recording of the conversation, that following the approach to him, he learned of approaches to three other scientists “who were troubled by them, and sometimes came and discussed them with me.” He told Pash that he had flatly rejected the approach, saying that while he sympathized with sharing information with the Soviet allies, he thought it should be done by the President and not by having it “moved out the back door.”

Oppenheimer declined to divulge the names of the three scientists to Pash, saying he felt they had been picked by chance. He also declined to name the intermediary who had approached them, saying, in Herken’s summary, “he was a friend of his as well as a member of the faculty at Berkeley.” In a meeting at Los Alamos in early December 1943, Groves ordered Oppenheimer to reveal the identity of the go-between and the three scientists. He named Chevalier as the intermediary and said, according to Herken, that Chevalier had in fact approached only one scientist: his brother, Frank. He added that Frank had come to him for advice, that he had told him to reject Chevalier’s inquiry, and that he had later given Chevalier his “comeuppance” for having tried to enlist Frank as a spy. In 1946, however, Oppenheimer told the FBI that the story he had told Pash was a fabrication; that Chevalier had approached only one person, himself. He said that the approach was casual and he did not mention Eltenton’s having contacts at the Soviet consulate.

That year, Chevalier, in an interview with the FBI, said he had not approached Frank but, as Herken writes, by that time Robert Oppenheimer and Chevalier had seen each other socially and could have coordinated their stories. Late in 1953, Frank told the FBI that neither Chevalier nor anyone else had ever asked him to spy, but he declined to say so in writing. At his security hearing, Robert declared flatly that Frank “had nothing whatever to do with” the Chevalier incident, but when asked why he had lied to Pash about the three scientists in 1943, he offered no better explanation than to say abjectly, “I was an idiot.”

Herken is not the first to suggest that Frank Oppenheimer was one of the scientists who, as Robert told Pash, was troubled by some sort of solicitation to pass information to the Soviets and came to discuss the matter with him, but he presses the case fur-

ther than others.11 In simultaneous interviews with the FBI in 1946 Chevalier and Eltenton both told the FBI that Chevalier had approached Robert Oppenheimer on Eltenton’s behalf and had been rebuffed. Thus, in 1943, Oppenheimer seems to have known of approaches to at least two scientists—himself and Frank. What he told Pash about approaches to several scientists seems to have been closer to the truth than what he told the FBI in 1946 or the security board in 1954.

Herken might have been clearer about how much remains in doubt. Oppenheimer was evidently evasive about the Chevalier incident. In a letter to Strauss in 1949, Groves recalled of their conversation in December 1943

that Robert was very reluctant to disclose the details of the Frank-Haakon situation and I am not sure whether we ever did learn the whole truth about it all…. It was very difficult to tell just how much Frank was involved and how much Robert was involved.

In interviews with the FBI early in 1954, Groves himself was evidently evasive, too, about what Oppenheimer had told him, never explicitly saying he had learned from Robert that Frank was involved. “Even now Groves is behaving with a certain amount of coyness in his dealings and admissions to the Bureau,” an agent wrote.

Whether Oppenheimer had once been a Communist, if not by having a card then by sympathy, or whether he lied to protect his brother, the facts remain that he served his country with efficacy and devotion and that he had himself first named Eltenton—the opposite of what one would expect of a subversive. At his security hearing, the physicist I.I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate and Oppenheimer’s good friend, pointedly declared, “We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it…and what more do you want, mermaids?” He added, “You have to take the whole story…. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man’s life.”12 But at a fear-ridden time, Oppenheimer’s alleged transgressions made him politically vulnerable to his enemies and to a security system that could be used as a weapon against dissenters.

Oppenheimer’s prosecutors were determined to show his lack of veracity, an issue central to their case. Strauss especially wanted to destroy his influence among policymakers and the public. He suspected Oppenheimer of subversion and counted his role in the H-bomb program a likely expression of it. He seemed to hate the man, having once been humiliated by a remark Oppenheimer made in a congressional hearing. (When Strauss became exercised about the dangers of exporting radioactive isotopes, Oppenheimer, deadpan, compared their military significance to that of a bottle of beer or a shovel.) Herken writes that Strauss showed “an almost paranoid obsession with Oppenheimer,” even claiming that he cheated on his AEC expense accounts. When Ernest Lawrence said he could not attend the hearing to testify against Oppenheimer because he was suffering intestinal bleeding as a result of ulcerative colitis, Strauss angrily told him he was a coward.

The hearing was supposed to be an inquiry, but Strauss turned it into a trial, hiring a tough and experienced prosecutor, Roger Robb, as the AEC’s attorney. Shaping the proceedings into a kangaroo court, Strauss and Robb refused Oppenheimer’s lawyer’s last-minute request for a security clearance, with the result that he could not see classified evidence and had to leave the room when classified subjects came up. Robb was allowed to examine Oppenheimer’s FBI file; his attorney’s request to do the same was denied. During the hearings, Strauss ordered the FBI to wiretap Oppenheimer’s phones and those of at least one of his attorneys, overriding objections from the agent in charge that the taps violated the attorney-client privilege.13

A likely witness for the defense would have been Groves, who in an unsolicited letter to Oppenheimer in 1950 said he had found no reason since clearing him during the war to regret his decision. Herken argues plausibly that Robb and Strauss virtually blackmailed Groves to prevent him from testifying on Oppenheimer’s behalf. In 1943, Groves agreed to a request by Oppenheimer that he not reveal to the FBI what he was about to say about those who allegedly told him they had been approached by an intermediary. Groves had kept his promise, but his good faith had made him party both to a lie and a felony, a point not lost on Strauss. In a meeting with Groves in February 1954, Strauss asked whether he would now clear Oppenheimer. Groves said no. Asked whether Oppenheimer was a security risk, Groves said yes—responses that in so many words he repeated at the hearing.

A number of distinguished scientists joined Rabi in testifying on Oppenheimer’s behalf, stressing that he was unquestionably a loyal American, a public servant of high character and accomplishment, and in no way a security risk. They also insisted that it was outrageous to try him for his opinions about the hydrogen bomb. In the end, the board dismissed the charges arising from Oppenheimer’s opposition to the H-bomb, declaring that nobody should be tried for expressing opinions, but it recommended against reinstating his security clearance, primarily on grounds of his lack of veracity in 1943. The AEC upheld the recommendation by a vote of four to one on June 29, 1954, the day before his formal relationship with it was to expire.

3.

Oppenheimer lost his position in Washington but remained revered by physicists and among Americans sympathetic to arms control and angry at McCarthyism. Teller gained influence in Washington but found himself a pariah among physicists, many of whom had been his friends. “The affair crippled both men: Oppenheimer because he lost, Teller because he won,” Brian VanDeMark writes in Pandora’s Keepers.

VanDeMark recognizes that the tangled tale of nuclear weapons—both their creation and attempts to control them—in the mid-twentieth century reached beyond Oppenheimer and Teller to encompass the entire Los Alamos generation. His preoccupation in Pandora’s Keepers is not with the security system surrounding the weapons but with the scientists themselves—what motivated them to devise such horrendous instruments of war and how they dealt with the political and moral issues they raised. His book is a biography of nine formidable scientists: Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Arthur Holly Compton, Enrico Fermi, I.I. Rabi, and Leo Szilard as well as Lawrence, Oppenheimer, and Teller.

VanDeMark is a historian at the US Naval Academy whose earlier works include a respected study of the Vietnam War and, as a coauthor, In Retrospect, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s examination of how the US venture in Southeast Asia proved to be a disaster. In Pandora’s Keepers, he pursues a similar theme, holding that the atomic scientists initiated the nuclear era with “good intentions,” making “imperfect choices that seem[ed] reasonable—even responsible—in the context of the times,” but that they accomplished feats of “doubtful morality,” and then came “to regret them.”

VanDeMark’s own moral authority as a historian has been undercut by charges of plagiarism raised against his book when it was published in June. Several scholars have found a total of some sixty passages lifted from other works. VanDeMark has said that “detached readers would find a majority” of the disputed passages to be “reasonable paraphrases.”14 In fact, something like half are, but in the rest, as though the prose were entirely his own, he reproduces verbatim or close to verbatim other authors’ phrases and sentences (including one from a work of mine). They are not simply statements of fact, which can be expressed only in so many ways; they include characterizations and accounts of thought or action.15 VanDeMark has said that he will correct the faulty passages. In the meantime, his publisher has withdrawn the book but announced a reissue of it in paperback once the repairs are made.

VanDeMark has drawn on many primary sources, including oral histories, correspondence, government documents, and newspaper stories. A number of his citations are incomplete or sloppy, and the book is marred by both technical and historical errors of fact. Still, they are not important to its arguments. Neither are the plagiarisms. But they have cast a shadow on Pandora’s Keepers, a book whose ideas and judgments otherwise merit attention.

VanDeMark traces the lives of his subjects from the 1930s through the aftermath of the Oppenheimer case. During the war, his nine atomic scientists all agreed to making nuclear weapons. They knew from almost three years of research after the discovery of fission, at the end of 1938, that it was technically feasible and they feared that Hitler might develop a nuclear weapon first. Conscience struck them when the government faced the decision about whether to use the weapons; some asked whether using them would provoke a postwar arms race with the Soviet Union. Disheartened by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Szilard left physics for biology, Compton devoted himself to ruminations on science and morality, and Bohr made himself an eloquent advocate of international arms control. The rest remained engaged in nuclear policymaking. By the time the issue of the hydrogen bomb arose in 1949, they had, VanDeMark writes, awakened enough politically and morally to want to halt the escalation of the arms race, except for Teller. Teller had written to Fermi in 1945 that moral opposition to the hydrogen bomb was a “fallacy.” “If the development is possible,” he said, “it is out of our powers to prevent it.”

When in October 1949 the General Advisory Committee recommended against proceeding with the H-bomb, most of the members called it a “weapon of genocide” and Rabi and Fermi, in a separate opinion, declared it “an evil thing considered in any light.” They hoped that a display of restraint by the United States would be matched by the Soviets.16 The opposition to an H-bomb crash program, however, was grounded not only in morality but also in the knowledge that no one knew how to make one. All of Teller’s ideas had failed and in the fall of 1949 there were no promising new ones.17

Early in 1951, Stanislaw Ulam, a mathematical physicist at Los Alamos, thought of a new method for igniting a hydrogen bomb. Teller quickly improved upon it, and suddenly the technical road to an H-bomb was open. Leading physicists quickly signed on to the project. Among them was Oppenheimer, who later reflected, “When you see something technically sweet you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.” He could not “very well imagine that if we had known in late 1949 what we got to know by early 1951 that the tone of our report would have been the same.”

The willingness of scientists to work on the weapon hardly reflected the moral anguish expressed in the GAC report. VanDeMark asks why the moral objections disappeared. Because, he writes, the technical solution for a fusion bomb had been found, limitless federal resources were available to build it, and if American scientists could figure out how to make one, so could the Russians. VanDeMark might have added that the Korean War, recently intensified by the entry of the mainland Chinese forces, had heightened fears of Soviet intentions.

VanDeMark writes of the consequences of Oppenheimer’s security trial that “his personal tragedy was also his profession’s,” and that “Oppenheimer and the other atomic scientists whom he symbolized had fallen victim to the very weapon they had created.” He also writes that science, because of the trial and the bomb itself, was “looked upon as something terrible.” This seems much too broad a judgment. In fact, science had been identified with weapons of terror at least since World War I. If Americans were ambivalent about science, they continued to devote sizable resources to subsidizing it, especially for defense. Efforts at arms control, which led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, were accompanied by a continuing buildup of the nuclear arsenal and major efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons to fight small-scale wars. By the end of the century, according to VanDeMark himself, the money spent on nuclear weapons amounted to almost $6 trillion, about 10 percent of all federal expenditures from 1940 to 1996.

Hans Bethe, a deeply honest man, had been morally opposed to the H-bomb. He joined in the effort to produce it after the breakthrough by Ulam and Teller, but told a gathering of scientists at Los Alamos in 1953, “I still have the feeling that I have done the wrong thing.” In 1995, once again at Los Alamos, he pleaded, “Enough is enough,” declaring in a formal statement: “I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons—and for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.” But weapons of mass destruction continue to attract ambitious scientific talent and a number of governments still want to make them, including our own.18

  1. 1

    Groves’s biographer convincingly argues that without his “organizational and managerial skills, and construction know-how, the project would have taken longer to accomplish, or perhaps even failed.” See Robert S. Norris, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (Steerforth, 2002), p. 187.

  2. 2

    He received letters criticizing his conduct from several scientists, including the physicist Edward U. Condon, himself a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who wrote that perhaps Oppenheimer thought he could “buy immunity for [himself] by turning informer.” Condon added, “You know very well that once these people decide to go into your own dossier and make it public that it will make the ‘revelations’ that have been made so far look pretty tame.” See Barton J. Bernstein, “The Oppenheimer Loyalty-Security Case Reconsidered,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 42, No. 6 (July 1990), p. 1405.

  3. 3

    Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 395.

  4. 4

    The current war has imposed restrictions on the free movement of scientists, including graduate students, from suspect countries and also on access to certain infectious organisms; it has threatened to restrict publication of certain types of basic biological research. See Daniel J. Kevles, “Biotech’s Big Chill,” Technology Review, July/August 2003, pp. 40–49.

  5. 5

    In a novel loosely based on Oppenheimer’s life, Chevalier has local Party leaders reject the desire of the Oppenheimer character, Sebastian Bloch, to become a member, explaining that it might be useful in the future “to know that you never were in fact a member.” Bloch reluctantly agrees, declaring, “But no one is going to prevent me from regarding myself in my own mind and conscience as a communist.” Haakon Chevalier, The Man Who Would Be God (Putnam, 1959), pp. 14–15.

  6. 6

    Chevalier to Oppenheimer, July 23, 1964, posted on the Brotherhood of the Bomb Web site: www.brotherhoodofthebomb.com/bhbsource/documents .html.

  7. 7

    Oppenheimer to Chevalier, August 7, 1964, posted on the Brotherhood of the Bomb Web site.

  8. 8

    Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era (Random House, 1999), pp. 183–185.

  9. 9

    The document copied in 1946 mentions Oppenheimer’s participation in a scientific advisory group on atomic energy that included Arthur Holly Compton, Lawrence, and Enrico Fermi. This would have been a scientific panel that advised on atomic energy policy in 1945. See Atomnyi proekt SSSR: Dokumenty i materialy, edited by L.D. Riabev, Vol. 2: Atomnaia Bomba, 1945–1954, Book 2 (Moscow-Sarov: Nauka-Fizmatlif, Vniief, 2000), pp. 364, 371, 374. I am indebted to David Holloway for calling attention to and providing me with this source and to Laura Engelstein for translating it.

  10. 10

    Weinstein and Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood, pp. 184–185.

  11. 11

    The possible involvement of Frank Oppenheimer was first revealed in a volume in the official history of the AEC, Richard G. Hewlett and Jack M. Holl, Atoms for Peace and War, 1953–1961 (University of California Press, 1989). See also Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1995), pp. 548–549.

  12. 12

    Rhodes, Dark Sun, pp. 550, 559.

  13. 13

    The FBI’s violation of Oppenheimer’s attorney-client confidentiality was first brought to light by Barton J. Bernstein in “The Oppenheimer Loyalty-Security Case Reconsidered.”

  14. 14

    Jacques Steinberg, “Publisher Withdraws Atom Book from Stores,” The New York Times, June 4, 2003.

  15. 15

    I am grateful to Robert S. Norris and Mary Palevsky for providing me with compilations of the pertinent passages. On October 28, 2003, the US Naval Academy announced that a thorough inquiry into the allegations against VanDeMark’s scholarship had concluded that his book contained “a number of instances” of plagiarism arising from “gross carelessness” but not from “a deliberate effort to pass off the works of other authors as his own.” The penalties imposed by the Academy include a reduction in rank from associate professor to beginning assistant professor, loss of academic tenure, and a reduction in annual pay of more than $10,000. History News Network Web site, November 1, 2003 (http://hnn.us/articles/1767.html).

  16. 16

    The hope was unfounded; Stalin was determined to build an H-bomb no matter what the United States did, just as he had been determined to acquire an atomic bomb in 1945 and was willing to dismiss all efforts at international control of nuclear energy. See David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956 (Yale University Press, 1994), p. 166. Richard Rhodes, in Dark Sun, pp. 433–434, writes that Stalin felt insecure even after the Soviets acquired their atomic bomb.

  17. 17

    The inadequacy of Teller’s ideas for an H-bomb and his insistence on the government’s investing huge resources in them is spelled out in Rhodes, Dark Sun, the definitive history of its subject.

  18. 18

    The Bush administration wishes to develop a new class of relatively small nuclear arms to penetrate underground bunkers that may harbor weapons of mass destruction. See William J. Broad, “Facing a Second Nuclear Age,” The New York Times, August 3, 2003.

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