First Brotherhood of the bomb,

The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller
By Gregg Herken
Henry Holt, 2002,

The scientists who made the atomic bomb still shape our future. Three stand out: Robert J. Oppenheimer, Dr Edward Teller and Ernest Lawrence.

Only Oppenheimer is regularly quoted for his response to the July 1945 explosion in the New Mexico desert: “I am become death – the destroyer of worlds”, a line from the Sanscrit. He applied that epithet somewhat later, another reason why Lawrence’s wife thought him a poseur. Oppenheimer is also remembered for claiming that “Physicists have known sin”. In a very belated response, Teller said that their failing was not in knowing sin, but in knowing power. Another associate told Oppenheimer to his face that he talked about ethics so much because he had no character. Without meaning to, Gregg Herken has drawn a portrait of vanity and arrogance keeping pace with genius and generosity.

The Hungarian refugee, Edward Teller, outlived the other two and retains his place in the our memory because he sold Star Wars to Ronald Ray-Gun. Teller could have been the inspiration for Dr Strangelove, who tried to teach us how to stop worrying and love the bomb. Enrico Fermi thought Teller unique among megalomaniacs for suffering from multiple manias. If suicidal tendencies sometimes saw Teller confuse his own death with the annihilation of the species, his mordant wit broke through the gloom. Asked at a congressional hearing what he expected to find on the moon, he replied “Russians”

Of the three scientists, the one who held most power for longest is the least remembered: Ernest Lawrence, who directed the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory from 1930 till his death in 1958. If Lawrence ever made a memorable remark, Gregg Herken hasn’t found it, and his book on the Brotherhood of the Bomb is enlivened with telling phrases from the most unlikely people. Ernest Lawrence came closer to banality, than Oppenheimer’s ambiguities and Teller’s malignness. His motive was to get more money to build bigger machines. Yet, he used some of the private funds granted to develop his cyclotron to buy himself a new car each year. He did whatever he could to frustrate those who wanted to limit research, ban testing or block new weapons.Yet, he would never allow himself to be X-rayed for fear of the ill-effects of radiation. For decades, he suffered from an inflamed lining to his bowel-– a condition exacerbated by one’s psychological state. In Lawrence’s case, it seems more likely that the irritant was frustrated ambition than a troubled conscience. 

Herken has had access to archives in the USA and the Soviet Union. A senior scholar at the National Air and Space Museum, he’s the author of three other books about science, politics and war. His narrative is disturbed by a few jumps and gaps. For example, the war in Europe ends off-page. One merit in Herken’s way with of his story is that he can bring the principals and bit-players to life without pretending that the remaking of our world was confined to their quirks and quarrels.

The Brotherhood of the Bomb is complex, even without the drama of its personalities.

Four principal issues emerge:

  1. The use of the atomic bomb against Japan;
  2. The building of the Hydrogen bomb;
  3. Soviet spies in the Manhattan project;
  4. Disarmament, which narrowed down to a ban on atmospheric testing.

Herken’s three protagonists were never as consistent on these points as their reputations suggest.

Before taking up these substantial matters, mention should be made of a stylistic tick which other readers may also find irritating. Determined to avoid repeating a word in the same paragraph, Herken see-saws between given and family names. For instance, Teller enters a sentence as Teller but exits as Edward. The effect is confusion rather than elegance.Herken would have been better employed chasing synonyms for “puckishly” whenever he wants to signal the onset of a witticism

Our first big question is how did Hiroshima become a metaphor for mass destruction? Work on the bomb started out of fear that the Nazis were developing one. That justification had disappeared ell before their surrender in May 1945. A new argument had to be found in order to use it against the Japanese. Many in the Truman administration were already disturbed at the fire-bombing of Tokyo. Teller and Lawrence considered a demonstration, perhaps on an unoccupied Japanese city. Oppenhemier thought that unworkable. What if the Japanese transferred POWs there?

A few argued that the US should use its bomb against Japan as a demonstration to third parties. The others being the US ally, the Soviet Union. Before Japan surrendered, the US Air Force had a list of atomic targets including fifteen Soviet cities. Once the Nazis and the Allies demobilized, the A-bomb became the prime counter to the Red Army in Europe, and remained so until at least 1991. Hence, perpetual peace was lost before the Pacific war ended.

The second issue is how the world came to be menaced by a second generation of weapons. In the middle of 1942, the prospect of a Super, or Hydrogen-bomb, excited Teller and alarmed Oppenheimer. Even before the atomic bomb had been tested, Teller was scheming to push on to the Super. By contrast, Oppenheimer feared that the H-bomb could trigger a chain reaction that would destroy the planet. Once that alarm was allayed, he refused to work on the Super because even its limited power would erase any line between military and civilian targets.

Opposition to hydrogen weapons spread further than the usual suspects. Truman hesitated to authorize weapons that could kill ten million people in one hit, but he gave in for domestic political reasons. Eisenhower was shaken when told that a test island in the Pacific no longer existed. Perhaps the most implacable opposition to developing the hydrogen bomb came from Enrico Fermi: “ … the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity even if he happens to be resident of an enemy country”.

Once the Soviets had their own Super, the prospect of slaughter extended to one’s own population. “Better dead than Red” was never confined to a lunatic fringe. When President Eisenhower sought a treaty with the Soviets, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Tugboat Admiral Strauss, accused him of “surrendering”. The US Far Right saw their president as part of the Communist conspiracy.

The third question centers on whether the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 was right to deny Robert Oppenheimer a security clearance. The only hard evidence against him remains his admission that he had misled his boss at the Manhattan Project, General Groves, about a soft approach to pass on information. At first, Oppenheimer had claimed that the suggestion involved three people. Later, he said that it had referred only to his brother, Frank, which was why he had tried to conceal what had happened. His enemies alleged that if he had lied once, then nothing he said could be believed. That test is impossibly high.

More relevant is the possibility is that he had told the truth the first time, but later mentioned his brother in order to turn a matter of national security into a question of fraternal affection. Anyway, illegal FBI bugs on almost every room and phone that Oppenheimer used brought to light no trace of treason or subversion. Circumstantial evidence was plentiful however. His brother, Frank, had been a member of the Communist Party, and Robert had been active in communist front organisations before 1942. The Air Force never forgave him for ridiculing its demand for atomic-powered aircraft. He also became suspect because of his reluctance to blow up as many people as possible.

Suspicion flourished because he opposed the Super, which meant that his professional admirers also declined invitations to work on the project. Here, it should be said that his example had far less impact than the Loyalty Oaths that led to the dismissal of ex-communists and turned off the apolitical. Even Teller claimed to be repelled by the emergence in the USA of the police-state conditions that he had fled Nazi Germany to avoid. If anti-Semitism had deprived Hitler of the bomb, McCarthyism slowed US rearmament after 1945.

On one aspect of the atomic spy saga, Herken fails to integrate his evidence. In weighing up who among the scientists had been a security threat, it’s essential to recall how rudimentary security had been. Scrap paper from the RAD Lab was put out into public trash cans. An inspector from Washington strolled in unannounced to chat with researchers about their work. Told to beef up security, the University stationed one of its policemen at the front entrance. Late in 1947, a G-man climbed through a security fence around the cyclotron without challenge. The Red-hunter who brought down Oppenheimer became suspect himself over the loss of a document which should never have been outside a vault.

Controls became tighter, but would not pass the most elementary standards required today. Hence, idle talk and the sharing of research data need not bear a sinister cast.

Finally, could the US have short-circuited the nuclear arms race by sharing its bomb with the Russians in 1945? Once that option was rejected, the leap-frogging acquired an inner logic. The Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile became the capstone. Until then, advocates of the H-bomb were inhibited from killing millions of the enemy because the handful of aircrew delivering so much devastation would also be blown up.

By the late 1950s, substantial disarmament had been abandoned in favour of public relations. Warmongers created their own version of political correctness. Bombs would be “clean” and “pure”. Fallout was known as a “bonus effect” from mass destruction in the days before Bush senior had been taught to say “collateral damage”.

Teller proposed getting around any ban on atmospheric tests by exploding devices in outer space where he believed they could not be detected. This trickery led to his star-wars project which, like many of his big ideas, was unworkable. Defeat and failure drove him to ever wilder schemes. After the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the arms race accelerated. By 1960, the US had built 20,000 bombs. The Soviets had 2000. By 1991, they had built six times that number between them.

Nuclear weapons spread with the failure of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The deal was that the non-nuclear powers would stay that way in exchange for disarmament by the five that already had them. Countries that have since gone nuclear – such as North Korea and Israel – have taken their cue from the major powers who have not given up their weapons of mass destruction as agreed.

Neither Oppenheimer, nor Teller nor Lawrence would be surprised.