Posts Tagged ‘J. Robert Oppenheimer’

“We Have Passed the Stage of Amateur Evil:” Scientists respond to the Atomic Bomb, August 6, 1945

A mother fled the flames with her child in her arms.

A mother fled the flames with her child in her arms. Yamada Ikue. Age at blast: 12, Image created at: 41(Photo: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, MIT Visualizing Cultures)

On August 6, 1945, Eugene Cotton, a Lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps, wrote to his fiancée from his posting in California.

Dearest Mary,This morning I opened my eyes about 4 a.m. and found myself wide awake for no apparent reason. An odd feeling overcame me that something terrible had happened, and yet it seemed foolish to think so. Finally I went back to sleep and convinced myself that all was well. Then, when the news was broadcast at noon, I knew I had been right. The announcement of the new atomic bomb, and its use without warning, made me realize that we have passed beyond the stage of amateur evil. Man has openly begun to lay plans for his own destruction.

Cotton was one of hundreds of thousands who, having left service in the European theater of the war, were slated to take part in a massive invasion of the Japanese islands in late 1945 and early 1946. He was 23 years old, a recent college graduate with a degree in physics, and had undergone training at both MIT and Berkeley before joining the Army to do meteorological work in the Atlantic. The atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 may have saved his life, but as a scientist, he was horrified by what he saw.

He was not alone. Much has been written about the political decisions made in those fateful days between the successful Trinity nuclear test in July 1945 and its deployment in early August, though it is clear that Truman himself was never particularly in doubt about what he would do. But the scientific community was split by the bomb. Even many of those physicists who had helped conceive and design it eventually came to oppose its use. Physicists like Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Leo Szilard – among many others – found their own beliefs challenged by the awesome responsibility of the bomb and its implications for future generations.

In August of 1939, Albert Einstein – acting on prompting from fellow physicist Leo Szilard – wrote a letter urging US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to consider the creation of a bomb based on the principle of nuclear fission. Einstein was a pacifist by nature, but feared that Hitler’s Germany, with its access to skilled physicists and intent on expanding its natural resources, would develop a fission bomb. Roosevelt largely ignored the letter until just before the country’s entry into the war in 1941, when he created an organization to attempt development of an atomic weapon. Einstein himself was too high profile to take part in the top secret Manhattan Project, however, and grew increasingly wary of it, especially after the bomb’s use in August 1945. In 1952, Einstein spoke out strongly against the arms race that his work helped precipitate, asserting that “[nations] feel moreover compelled to prepare the most abominable means, in order not to be left behind in the general armaments race. Such procedure leads inevitably to war, which, in turn, under today’s conditions, spells universal destruction.” Einstein later called his involvement in the Manhattan Project his life’s biggest regret.

Einstein was not the only major figure to turn away from what he created. Few were more intimately involved with the creation of the first atomic bomb than J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the lab that actually created and tested it. Oppenheimer’s involvement during the program itself was energetic and enthusiastic; his fellow project members were often in awe of his work ethic and mastery of the project’s many details. He was an unabashed champion of the bomb.

And then he saw it go off.

Oppenheimer told different versions of what went through his head when he saw the first nuclear explosion, but in the mid-1950s he often claimed that a line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” summed up his reaction to the sight. Over the five years after the Trinity test in New Mexico, Oppenheimer began to shift his support, pushing for international control over atomic weaponry, especially after fellow Manhattan Project member Edward Teller helped create a working theory for a hydrogen bomb. Indeed, Teller attempted to have Oppenheimer’s security clearance revoked in the 1950s because of his opposition to the hydrogen bomb project and the development of thermonuclear weapons. In later life, Oppenheimer tried to direct scientific inquiry away from the development of ever more advanced weapons and toward a more creative, productive nuclear science.

Of those who worked on the Manhattan Project, the one who most completely reversed his support for the atomic bomb was, ironically, the man who had first conceived of the concept of a nuclear chain reaction, Dr. Leo Szilard. Szilard was a Hungarian Jew and a refugee from the increasingly hostile atmosphere in Europe in the 1930s. Terrified of a bomb in the hands of Hitler’s Germany, Szilard was the one who pushed Einstein to write his fateful letter. Unlike Einstein, though, Szilard took part in the work at Los Alamos. There, he was generally seen as a disruptive influence, often at odds with the Project’s military head, General Leslie Groves. By the end of the war, Szilard was questioning whether the bomb should be used at all. He attempted to convince President Roosevelt that using the bomb would be a moral failing and might unleash an uncontrollable nuclear arms race, but Roosevelt died, leaving the decision to Truman. Following the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Szilard wrote extensively against the bomb. In a 1947 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists entitled “Calling for a Crusade,” Szilard called science in general into question for pursuing “progress” without ethics. In 1949, he wrote a short story in which he imagined himself a war criminal in a future destroyed by atomic weapons.

Eugene Cotton, too, feared this in 1945. He worried that with the bomb, the country had set “a horrible pattern for the next half-century.” He blamed not science itself, but the scientists who took part in the project: “What makes me most fearful and ashamed is that highly regarded physicists have developed this thing, using the highest forms of our science. I can think of no greater disgrace than to have made possible such a weapon.” He called the scientists on the project “unaffected and unmoved” – an opinion formed from immediacy and youth, but not unsupported by evidence. He saw the events of that morning as the worst possible outcome of science: destruction in the place of progress, hubris over morality, technology as God.

Cotton concluded his letter to his wife, promising that he still had “much hope, for us and our generation.” In the end, he and men like him helped to provide that hope. Though the world certainly felt the weight of a looming nuclear war for the next half-century, it never did experience one, thanks in part to the regrets and warnings of Cotton and his fellow scientists.

Andrew Lipsett

Andrew Lipsett teaches United States History at Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, MA. His interests include race, identity, and membership, and he blogs about history, memory, and memorialization at Graves of Note.

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Transcripts Kept Secret for 60 Years Bolster Defense of Oppenheimer’s Loyalty

William J. Broad

The New York Times   October 11, 2014

A detonation over the Marshall Islands in 1952 was the first test of a hydrogen bomb. Credit Underwood Archives, via Getty Images

At the height of the McCarthy era, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the government’s top atomic physicist, came under suspicion as a Soviet spy.

After 19 days of secret hearings in April and May of 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission revoked his security clearance. The action brought his career to a humiliating close, and Oppenheimer, until then a hero of American science, lived out his life a broken man.

But now, hundreds of newly declassified pages from the hearings suggest that Oppenheimer was anything but disloyal.

Historians and nuclear experts who have studied the declassified material — roughly a tenth of the hearing transcripts — say that it offers no damning evidence against him, and that the testimony that has been kept secret all these years tends to exonerate him.

“It’s hard to see why it was classified,” Richard Polenberg, a historian at Cornell University who edited a much earlier, sanitized version of the hearings, said in an interview. “It’s hard to see a principle here — except that some of the testimony was sympathetic to Oppenheimer, some of it very sympathetic.”


J. Robert Oppenheimer Credit Associated Press

A crucial element in the case against Oppenheimer derived from his resistance to early work on the hydrogen bomb. The physicist Edward Teller, who long advocated a crash program to devise such a weapon, told the hearing that he mistrusted Oppenheimer’s judgment, testifying, “I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.”

But the declassified material, released Oct. 3 by the Energy Department, suggests that Oppenheimer opposed the hydrogen bomb project on technical and military grounds, not out of Soviet sympathies.

Richard Rhodes, author of the 1995 book “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb,” said the records showed that making fuel to test one of Teller’s early H-bomb ideas would have forced the nation to forgo up to 80 atomic bombs.

“Oppenheimer was worried about war on the ground in Europe,” Mr. Rhodes said in an interview. He saw the need for “a large stockpile of fission weapons that could be used to turn back a Soviet ground assault.”

The formerly secret testimony “was immensely relevant to Oppenheimer’s opposition,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot here for historians to digest.”

Robert S. Norris, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and the author of “Racing for the Bomb,” a biography of Lt. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the military leader of the World War II project to develop the atomic bomb, said a reading of the formerly secret testimony showed it had little or nothing to do with national security.

“In many cases, they deleted material that was embarrassing,” he said in an interview. “That’s pretty obvious.”

The Energy Department, a successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, offered no public analysis of the 19 volumes and no explanation for why it was releasing the material now. It did, however, note that the step took 60 years. Sidestepping questions of guilt or innocence, it referred to the 1954 hearing as a federal assessment of Oppenheimer “as a possible security risk.”

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ project on government secrecy, called the release “long overdue” and added, “It lifts the last remaining cloud from the subject.”

Priscilla McMillan, an atomic historian at Harvard and author of “The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” applauded the release but also expressed bafflement at its having taken six decades, saying her own research suggested that the transcripts held “zero classified data.”

An eccentric genius fond of pipes and porkpie hats, Oppenheimer grew up in an elegant building on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, attended the Ethical Culture School and graduated from Harvard in three years. After studies in Europe, he taught physics at the University of California, Berkeley.

As a young professor, he crashed his car while racing a train, leaving his girlfriend unconscious. His father gave the young woman a painting and a Cézanne drawing.

In the 1930s, like many liberals, Oppenheimer belonged to groups led or infiltrated by Communists; his brother, his wife and his former fiancée were party members.

The physicist Edward Teller. In secret hearings in 1954, Teller said he did not trust Oppenheimer’s judgment. Credit Associated Press

The physicist Edward Teller. In secret hearings in 1954, Teller said he did not trust Oppenheimer’s judgment. Credit Associated Press

In the 1940s at Los Alamos in New Mexico, in great secrecy, he led the scientific effort that invented the atomic bomb. Afterward, as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s main advisory body, he helped direct the nation’s postwar nuclear developments.

Oppenheimer’s downfall came amid Cold War fears over Soviet strides in atomic weaponry and Communist subversion at home. In 1953, a former congressional aide charged in a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the celebrated physicist was a Soviet spy.

Troubled by the allegation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered “a blank wall” erected between Oppenheimer and any nuclear secrets.

No evidence came to light that supported the spy charge. But the security board found that Oppenheimer’s early views on the hydrogen bomb “had an adverse effect on recruitment of scientists and the progress of the scientific effort.” He died in 1967, at 62.

Experts who have looked at the declassified transcripts say they cast startling new light on the Oppenheimer case. Dr. Polenberg of Cornell, for example, expressed bewilderment that 12 pages of testimony from Lee A. DuBridge, a friend and colleague of Oppenheimer’s who discussed the atomic trade-offs and the European war situation, had remained secret for 60 years.

“A difference of opinion doesn’t mean disloyalty,” he said. “It’s hard to see why it was redacted.”

Dr. Polenberg also pointed to 45 pages of declassified testimony from Walter G. Whitman, an M.I.T. engineer and member of the Atomic Energy Commission’s advisory body. “In my judgment,” Mr. Whitman said of Oppenheimer, “his advice and his arguments for a gamut of atomic weapons, extending even over to the use of the atomic weapon in air defense of the United States, has been more productive than any other one individual.”

Asked his opinion of Oppenheimer as a security risk, he called him “completely loyal.”

Alex Wellerstein, an atomic expert at the Stevens Institute of Technology, said in a comment on the secrecy blog of the Federation of American Scientists that years ago he had asked the government to declassify the secret Oppenheimer testimony.

The department’s public silence on his request, he said, made the unveiling look like “the result of an internal interest in the files rather than prodding from an outside historian.”

A few of the declassifications cast new light on what were already famous moments in Oppenheimer’s downfall.

Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate and veteran of the Manhattan Project who staunchly defended the beleaguered physicist, told atomic investigators that he found the hearing “most unfortunate” given what “Dr. Oppenheimer has accomplished.”

The restored transcript adds a deleted phrase in which Dr. Rabi mentioned the hydrogen bomb, then also known as the Super. It underscored the depth of his fury.

“We have an A-bomb,” he told the hearing, as well as “a whole series of Super bombs.” He added: “What more do you want, mermaids?”

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