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and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race

by Priscilla J. McMillan

Pub Date: July 26th, 2005
ISBN: 0-670-03422-3
Publisher: Viking

Did a vast right-wing conspiracy bring down the peace wing of the American nuclear establishment?

Working with declassified American and Soviet documents, McMillan (Russian and Eurasian Studies/Harvard; Marina and Lee, 1977) writes that in the late 1940s, atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer stood at the center of a debate about whether the U.S. should build a hydrogen bomb—and on an accelerated schedule at that. Oppenheimer adduced moral and logistical arguments against the bomb; the Atomic Energy Commission “had before it only one design for the weapon, and despite several years of research, it was not clear that it would ever work,” and Oppenheimer, like Einstein, Fermi and other physicists of the time, felt that this was a weapon not of warfare but of genocide. He was not the smartest of politicians, however; Oppenheimer, writes McMillan, was capable of “feline, almost involuntary, cruelty” toward opponents, and he made enemies all too easily. And so he did: Oppenheimer earned the wrath of higher-up Edward Teller, who, McMillan reveals, had “sat out ‘the main event’...the effort to build the A-bomb, and chosen instead to work on the hypothetical hydrogen bomb just when all hands were needed to work on a bomb that would end [WWII].” And not just Teller; a host of Air Force senior officers and anticommunist politicos found in Oppenheimer a poster boy for all that was wrong with a scientific community that would not pitch in to make the world safe from Stalin’s legions. Stalin was newly dead by the time Oppenheimer lost his security clearance, and soon the U.S., followed quickly by the USSR, was testing the H-bomb. Though inarguably aligned with leftist causes, Oppenheimer fell, McMillan writes, thanks to a conspiracy and to a newborn culture of governmental control of science, whereby “the scientist is less and less likely to speak out against government policies”—the condition, she adds, of subsidized science today.

Excellently researched and argued; a useful adjunct to Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s broader-ranging American Prometheus.