The men behind the bomb
Some of the most influential physicists of the 20th century were deeply involved in the creation of the atomic bomb and the much more destructive thermonuclear hydrogen bomb that followed. Patriotism led them to put their expertise at the service of their country. Now, in an authoritative new book, Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller, Gregg Herken re-creates that turbulent period, focusing on three major figures of the era. Drawing on thousands of pages of declassified government documents from the United States and the former U.S.S.R., as well as many personal interviews and private papers, the author gives us fresh portraits of his subjects. Herken is a curator and historian of science at the Smithsonian Institution. His previous books include The Winning Weapon and Counsels of War, both concerned with various aspects of subjects discussed in his new book.
Lawrence and Teller had shown little interest in politics until 1940-1941. Oppenheimer, in contrast, was involved with numerous leftist causes and groups and some suspected him of being a Communist. As Herken demonstrates, Oppenheimer was under intense scrutiny, but a careful reading of official reports shows that no proof of disloyalty was ever found. Despite continuing concern, General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project, ordered a security clearance for Oppenheimer in 1943, noting that, He is absolutely essential to the project." Oppenheimer's views remained controversial throughout the early postwar years when he was regarded by many as the scientist of conscience in this country. Those who disagreed with him or suspected him of disloyalty were eventually able to get his security clearance taken away in 1954, one day before it was due to expire.
Herken deftly guides us through the scientific-governmental and political-military thicket, explaining how key decisions were made. He follows his three major figures bright, innovative, even brilliant scientists as they debate and maneuver to gain acceptance for their points of view. But it is not their story alone. Along the way we are made aware of the significant contributions of many others, including Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi and Alfred Loomis.
Herken writes that the plot" of this riveting book is taken from The Sorcerer's Apprentice: [I]t is a cautionary tale of arrogance, betrayal, and unforeseen consequences; of what comes from invoking forces both political and physical that one neither fully understands nor controls."
Nashville bookseller Roger Bishop is a longtime contributor to BookPage.