The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer,
and the
Birth of the Modern Arms Race
Priscilla J. McMillan

Viking, 2005
ISBN 0-670-03422-3

OppenheimerMost of us are familiar with the story of the development of the atomic bomb during the Second World War and the pivotal role played in that endeavour by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer. Much less well known is what happened to Dr. Oppenheimer after the war. It is a sordid cautionary tale of deceit, intrigue and character assassination, but it is also historically important because it set the stage for the Cold War arms race.

In the late 1940's and early 1950's there was an intense debate in the United States regarding the future of nuclear weapons. Many of the scientists who knew first hand the power of these weapons, among whom Oppenheimer was one of the leaders, were in favour of limiting further development and trying to set up an arms control regime to limit their proliferation. On the other side were politicians and military leaders who advocated continued development and deployment in the interests of maintaining American military strength -- and political power in Congress. In essence the discussion pitted those who knew what was at stake against those who wanted control of the technology for political and military advantage.

All of this debate was conducted in deadly secret because President Truman, and later President Eisenhower, imposed a total blackout on any public discussion of these matters.

This discussion came to a head in early 1954, when proceedings were initiated to have Dr. Oppenheimer stripped of his security clearance. The pretext for these proceedings was Oppenheimer's widely known association with known Communist sympathizers before and during the war. The objective was to remove Oppenheimer -- by any means necessary -- from any further participation in the ongoing debate.

The "heavy" in these proceedings was Lewis Strauss, a prominent New York-based banker and businessman, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission -- and a rabid Republican politician. The sub-heavy was Dr. Edward Teller, a brilliant scientist who had worked on the atomic bomb with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, but who was obsessed with being allowed to develop "The Super", or the hydrogen bomb. If Oppenheimer could be removed from the debate, then a major obstacle to his dream would be eliminated. Therefore, in his testimony before Strauss' inquiry, he gave only a lukewarm endorsement of Oppenheimer's character, and this went far toward sealing Oppenheimer's fate. But it also sealed Teller's fate for, while he continued to be involved in weapons research, he was forever after shunned by the general scientific community for betraying one of America's most respected scientists.

As noted above, all of this debate, with the exception of the bombshell announcement that Oppenheimer's clearance had been revoked, was conducted in secret. It took the author of this book, Priscilla McMillan, literally decades to ferret out the truth. It is an egregious tale of deceit and intrigue and, as the author points out at the end of her introduction, it could happen again.

A truly valuable book, a fitting tribute to a man who did so much during the Second World War. Massively annotated; about one-quarter of the book is notes and references. Highly recommended.

Return to Table of Contents
Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS! Last updated: 23 May 2016