How the father of the A-bomb fell from grace
A provocative tale of a time when politicians, scientists, and technology went awry
It's both fitting and disturbing that a book chronicling the ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer should be released in a year marking the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and at a time when the threat of nuclear weapons remains high.
In "The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race," historian Priscilla McMillan gives us a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the downfall of the leader of the Manhattan Project and the effects of communism and the cold war.
Using personal interviews and declassified US and Russian documents, McMillan focuses her compelling narrative on the period from 1945 to 1954. It was a time during which the comfort that had returned to Americans' lives after World War II would be set on its head.
McMillan starts her tale on April 12, 1954, when Americans awoke to an unthinkable story in The New York Times: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American hero and nuclear scientist who had helped bring World War II to a smoldering end, was accused of being a security risk and had had his security clearance suspended. But the seeds of what would eventually bring down "Oppie" and help to spawn the cold war had already been planted in the minds of what was by then a nervous American public.
In 1946 Americans were stunned to learn that Soviet agents had penetrated key parts of the US government. Another shock came in 1949, when the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, two years before the CIA expected it. In 1950 Alger Hiss, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was convicted of perjury and a former Manhattan Project scientist named Klaus Fuchs confessed that he had passed atomic secrets to Russia. Shortly thereafter, Joseph McCarthy sparked the hunt for communists.
With America's monopoly on the atomic bomb gone and paranoia over communists and spies running rampant, President Harry Truman ordered the nation's scientists to create a new and far deadlier weapon: the hydrogen bomb.
Oppenheimer, sobered by the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb, opposed the hydrogen bomb. At the same time, a former colleague turned bitter rival, Edward Teller, set out to discredit Oppenheimer.
It wasn't that hard to do. Oppenheimer's opposition to deadly weapons and suspicions that he was a Communist Party member had already earned him powerful enemies who worked to diminish his power with scientists and politicians alike.
Through McMillan, the reader is a fly on the wall, watching power shift from the scientists who created the atomic bomb to politicians who hoped to use nuclear weapons for their own gain.
Detailed chapter notes at the end of the book are worth reading, and the ample photographs give us a penetrating glimpse of the players involved.
McMillan, an associate of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, is a superb storyteller. Her 1977 book, "Marina and Lee," a portrait of the Oswalds' life together, is one of the more intriguing books about the Kennedy assassination.
Similarly, the Oppenheimer book, which was 20 years in the making, seems destined to become a must-read for students of his tumultuous era. The book gives readers a front-row seat from which to watch Truman and Eisenhower struggle to deal with the unimaginable power of the hydrogen bomb, the new enemy in Joseph Stalin, suspected enemies operating in America, and McCarthyism.
No details are spared in exploring whether the hydrogen bomb's development could have been averted and history possibly changed, nor in examining the jealousy and deception that ultimately destroyed Oppenheimer.
This makes for a reading feast for historians, but it may at times be a bit much for casual readers, who may not want, for instance, details about what it was like to develop the hydrogen bomb at a moment when computers and calculators were just emerging as tools for scientists.
Despite his tragic end, Oppenheimer remained the most farsighted of all the scientists who created the bomb, understood what they had done, and then tried to control the outcome. McMillan concludes, "If anyone could have moderated man's rush to extermination, or at least articulated the danger with such eloquence that we would all have been forced to consider, it was Robert Oppenheimer."
• Lori Valigra is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass.