How the Father of the A-Bomb Fell from Grace ; A Provocative Tale of a Time When Politicians, Scientists, and Technology Went Awry

Article excerpt

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. …