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The Men Who Built the Bomb

BROTHERHOOD OF THE BOMB: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller, By Gregg Herken, John Macrae/Henry Holt: 450 pp., $30

October 06, 2002|DAVID HOLLOWAY | David Holloway is the author of "The Soviet Union and the Arms Race" and "Stalin and the Bomb." He is the director of the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

In "Brotherhood of the Bomb," Gregg Herken has written an immensely readable account of the lives of three physicists who led us into the Nuclear Age. Robert Oppenheimer directed the wartime effort to design and make the atomic bomb at Los Alamos; Ernest Lawrence developed the method that produced the uranium-235 for the Hiroshima bomb; and Edward Teller, the only one of the three still alive, was the chief designer of the hydrogen bomb. Much of the story is familiar territory, but Herken provides a new angle by looking at the intersecting lives of his three protagonists.

Herken begins his story in the 1930s in Berkeley, where Lawrence was building machines to accelerate elementary particles; in 1939, Lawrence received the Nobel Prize for this work. Oppenheimer was the leading theoretical physicist in Berkeley, and he and Lawrence became close friends in spite of differences in temperament and political outlook. Teller's role grew after 1942, when he was recognized as one of the main advocates of research on the hydrogen bomb.

Herken shows how Lawrence brought the enthusiasm and the skills of an American entrepreneur to physics, ushering it into the age of Big Science. A brilliant organizer and director of research, he could do unexpected things. It was Lawrence who twice proposed, in meetings in May and June 1945, that the bomb be demonstrated to the Japanese in "some innocuous but striking manner" to persuade them to surrender before the bomb was used to destroy cities. In the mid-1950s, when it became possible to meet Soviet physicists, he was taken with the prospect that such contacts might lead to breaking down the Iron Curtain.

But Oppenheimer and Lawrence fell out over politics and personal matters. And after the war, Oppenheimer resisted Teller's push for the hydrogen bomb and opposed the creation of a second nuclear weapon laboratory. Despite his opposition, however, by the time the book's narrative ends, in the mid-1950s, the United States had tested a hydrogen bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb and set up a second nuclear weapon laboratory named for Lawrence (the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) to work on the hydrogen bomb. After loyalty-security hearings on Oppenheimer, the U.S. government declared him a security risk and deprived him of security clearance.

Herken had access to government documents, personal papers and memoirs, as well as to FBI transcripts of recorded telephone conversations. "Brotherhood of the Bomb" also benefits from new evidence about Soviet espionage from declassified Russian documents and from the Venona documents, consisting of U.S. intercepts of coded messages between Moscow and its agents in the United States. With these sources, Herken provides a collective biography of three men who left a huge mark on history through their political advice and administrative skill as well as through their scientific research.

There is one important new source, however, that Herken was not able to use and assess: Soviet documents listing Oppenheimer as a secret or covert member of the Communist Party, which have recently been declassified. The suspicion that Oppenheimer was a Communist is a major element in Herken's story, as are Oppenheimer's consistent denials that he was ever a member of the party.

All three men worked hard to develop nuclear weapons and became deeply involved in Washington councils on nuclear policy. The great disagreement among them, however, was over what priority to give development of the hydrogen bomb. Teller, supported by Lawrence, pressed for an all-out effort. Oppenheimer, though he changed his mind from time to time, opposed its development in the late 1940s and early 1950s for moral, political and technical reasons.

At Oppenheimer's security hearing, Teller testified in a way that suggested that Oppenheimer should be deprived of his security clearance because he had taken the wrong position on the hydrogen bomb. As a result, Teller experienced hostility and ostracism from the physics community, which apparently caused him considerable pain.

Oppenheimer was undoubtedly the most complex of the three men. He proved to be an unexpectedly brilliant director of Los Alamos. But his close ties to the Communist Party raised questions from the very beginning about his suitability for such a position. He was granted the necessary security clearance only at the insistence of Gen. Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project.

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