The authors vividly sketch the personalities at Los Alamos and the story of the successes and vexations right to the crucial first test of the bomb in the New Mexican desert in July 1945. Here, as throughout the book, the reader seems to hover over the scene, all-seeing and all-hearing, learning what we have only partly known from earlier sources. Under the ever-impatient Groves, Oppie, chameleon-like, had transformed himself into the skillful manager of a host of outstanding scientists (all of whom Groves called "children") and the decisive executive of a huge scientific and industrial enterprise within the fences of a scrupulous security.
Los Alamos, once an obscure boys school on a mesa, grew during its short period of wartime existence into a small town of 4,000 civilians and 2,000 people in uniform. It harbored three experimental laboratories working around the clock in constant communication with other parts of the enterprise, including Fermi's lab in Chicago. Oppie, a failed experimenter, learned quickly from many of the legendary scientists he recruited. Ever present at scientific and technological meetings, he might well have said again, "Hard work, thank God." To the utter frustration of Groves, he insisted on allowing free discussion among the scientists, a communitarian norm to which they had been accustomed from the start of their careers. In this way, solutions to problems could come faster. It is universally agreed that nobody else could have managed and led the whole team.
But as the end of the war in Europe seemed closer, and especially after the late arrival at Los Alamos of Niels Bohr, scientists there were openly discussing the moral and political aspects of nuclear weapons and their implications for civilization itself. From the beginning, there were scientists who joined hoping that making a bomb might turn out to be impossible and others who thought it would be so devastating that future wars would be impossible to contemplate. On the other side, there was Edward Teller, ready to shortcut the whole effort in order to focus on realizing his own dream, the design of a "Super" weapon, the hydrogen bomb.
Bohr developed the view, which Oppie and others embraced, that it was time to forestall a postwar arms race with the Soviets, who were regarded as war allies but as dangerous in the long run. Openness in politics, as in science, was discussed, as was bargaining with the Soviets early to prevent an arms race in return for sharing knowledge about the weapons. Bohr even tried, in the spring and summer of 1944, to interest FDR and Churchill in this idea, with so little success that he was in danger of being interned. As the authors note, dedicated anti-Soviet warriors such as Groves and others in the administration now had even more reason to be suspicious of Oppenheimer and alarmed by his wide influence.
IN August 1945, the two bombs dropped on Japan at Truman's command ended the war, although the enormous number of civilian victims horrified even many advocates of its use. Oppie, who later regretted the use of the second bomb, had at least succeeded in the task given him and said simply, "We knew the world would not be the same." One change he perhaps did not foresee was that in his own standing, especially with respect to the enemies he had made in and outside government. The opportunity to breach Oppie's remaining armor came during the discussion by a government advisory panel on whether -- as Teller and others empowered by the beginning of the Cold War urged -- there was now a need to develop the Super, a weapon thousands of times more powerful than an A-bomb.
Oppie, like James Bryant Conant, David Lilienthal and others, was against it. Apart from whether such a device could be built, they reasoned that it would have no upper limit of destructiveness, thus amounting to a genocidal weapon. In any case, the needed deterrent already existed in the nation's growing arsenal of A-bombs. Oppie even advocated field-deployable nuclear weapons for the Army as part of a bargain to stop developing the Super. And he called for candor about the threat of nuclear war, with both the public and the Soviets. All this constituted treason in the eyes of members of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, particularly in the Air Force, which wanted not only H-bombs but also a monopoly on all fission and fusion weapons.