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Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller
By Gregg Herken
Henry Holt & Company, Inc.
HC, 462 pages, $30
ISBN: 0-8050-6588-1

The stories behind the bomb

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 7, 2002

Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward TellerThe atom bomb not only destroyed two Japanese cities, it also indirectly damaged or destroyed the lives of several men who helped bring about its creation, as Gregg Herken's Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller aptly illustrates. Eschewing a formal history of America's atomic weapons program, Herken instead delves into the equally fascinating and interlocking stories of three of the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

Traditional histories have tended to paint the invention of the bomb in the broad strokes of a nation united in the single purpose of defeating totalitarianism, but as Herken's account clearly shows, unity was sometimes tenuous at best. The currency of the scientist is personal reputation, something built by being the first. Although Oppenheimer, Lawrence and Teller began the war either as friends and acquaintances, it didn't take long before personal agendas and outside forces began to push the men apart. Where Oppenheimer was the patient theoretical physicist, Lawrence was the impatient experimenter using the empirical method to power his way through a problem. While Lawrence was interested in turning Berkeley into the center of atomic research, Teller was enraptured with his theoretical "Super," the weapon that later became better known as the hydrogen bomb.

If the race to develop the atomic bomb had been merely an academic pursuit then the differences between the three men probably would have been limited to personality clashes. Complicating matters was that the atomic bomb itself was a wartime reaction to a similar program that the Allies believed, mistakenly as it turned out, the Germans had in place. Although allied with the Russians during the Second World War, the American government remained concerned about Communist infiltration in government and industry, which meant that one of the three - Oppenheimer - would eventually pay a heavy price.

As Herken documents, much of Oppenheimer's pre-war activity was concentrated as much on far-left politics as it was physics. Although he was mostly apolitical in his later years, Herken hints that Oppenheimer was an active member of the American Communist Party in his youth. That eventually drew the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, scrutiny that would follow him for years to come. Herken dismisses allegations that Oppenheimer passed along secrets of the atom and hydrogen bombs to the Soviet Union - ironically, that information came from spy Klaus Fuchs during his time at Los Alamos where he learned much during Teller's frequent lectures on the subjects - and argues that his political leanings never compromised his loyalty to the United States.

Regardless, Oppenheimer committed several errors that eventually led to the stripping of his security clearance in 1954, notably lying about who contacted him as part of a plan to recruit American scientists to spy for the Soviet Union and perhaps too strenuously opposing the plans of a military intent on utilizing the power of the atom. Despite that, Oppenheimer's mistake, if one can call it that, was placing his personal loyalties above political concerns.

Although Oppenheimer paid the heaviest public price, neither Lawrence nor Teller escaped unharmed. Lawrence's dream of Berkeley monopolizing atomic research died after the Second World War and his friendship with Oppenheimer all but ended thanks to the latter's campaigning against Lawrence's post-war nuclear agenda. Teller, who Herken seems to want to paint as a Dr. Strangelove figure, was essentially ostracized by the scientific community for questioning Oppenheimer's loyalty during interviews with the FBI though he later became the nation's preeminent scientific advisor, notably stumping for the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative.

A book that concentrates on only three figures in the early days of the atom bomb must necessarily only lightly touch upon other notables such as Enrico Fermi and Glenn Seaborg, and Herken's decision to de-emphasize the postwar uncertainty caused by the Soviet Union's atomic weapons program could be things that some might find fails to illustrate the full context the men operated in. While they are weaknesses in his narrative, Herken's account also boasts several strengths, including a willingness to leave some of the more intricate science at the door in favor of telling a good story and expansive research in an attempt to clear up the mystery behind Oppenheimer's Communist connections. Some stories and answers doubtless remain locked up in dusty government files somewhere and until the day - if ever - they are revealed, Herken's marvelous and engaging history will certainly suffice.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller at Amazon.com for only $21 (30% off)

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • A remarkable life of science by Steven Martinovich (October 8, 2001)
    Glenn T. Seaborg's Adventures in the Atomic Age has elements which may irk some people but overall Steve Martinovich has nothing but praise for the story of one of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century

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