The Advisors

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Herbert York’s book, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb was written in the hope of first slowing, then stopping, and eventually reversing the arms race. York believes that the United States bears heavy responsibility for the arms race, not out of any particular malevolence, but because America’s technological capabilities were so great that they permitted a more rapid acceleration of the arms race than was justified by national security requirements. The scientific and technological community of the United States has been so skillful and competent and the generation of ideas so rapid that national policy has been carried along by the sheer dynamism of technical development.

In order to illustrate how the arms race has been accelerated in this way, York wrote The Advisors to describe events surrounding the decision to develop the hydrogen bomb. The book also presents a brief and well-executed description of the Soviet and American nuclear programs to 1955, detailing the development of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb and the significance of nuclear and thermonuclear tests contributing to creation of those weapons. Finally, the author describes the consequences in the United States of the decision to produce the H-bomb and speculates on what might have happened had President Truman decided not to authorize development of the hydrogen bomb.

In exploding its first atomic bomb in the autumn of 1949, the Soviet Union presented the United States with what many Americans regarded as a challenge. What should be the reply of the United States? In the context of the Cold War, one answer that some regarded as appropriate was the rapid development of the hydrogen bomb.

Edward Teller had been in charge of what was regarded as a fairly insignificant project at the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II. While the major work of that laboratory, under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer, was the development of the atomic bombs that would eventually incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Teller was involved with work on a hydrogen bomb. Work proceeded on two separate projects—one to ignite a small amount of thermonuclear fuel with a large atomic bomb; the other to ignite a large quantity of thermonuclear fuel with a fairly small atomic bomb. The United States accomplished the first in 1951 and the second in 1952. The Soviet Union achieved the same results in 1953 and 1955 respectively. When the Soviet Union exploded its atomic bomb, American nuclear scientists had pursued both thermonuclear projects, much theoretical work had been done, and Teller and other scientists were pushing for a program to produce the superbomb.

The issue of whether or not to develop the hydrogen bomb drew many nuclear scientists into a great debate. The Atomic Energy Commission sought help in making its decision and turned to a subcommittee, the General Advisory Committee, chaired by Robert Oppenheimer, to undertake a study of the matter and make recommendations to the Atomic Energy Commission. Those recommendations were submitted in a three-part report on October 30, 1949.

Part I of the General Advisory Committee report recommended expanding production of fissionable material, intensifying efforts to develop tactical nuclear weapons, and initiating a project for producing “freely absorbable neutrons” for the manufacture of tritium. Part II summarized available information regarding the superbomb, concluding that such a weapon could be constructed “within five years.” Part III was addressed to the question of whether the superbomb should be built. The General Advisory Committee contended that the United States should not at that time initiate the development of the weapon. Attached to the report were two addenda—one signed by Oppenheimer and five other members of the Committee. The first addendum gave reasons for not producing the H-bomb—that the H-bomb was too murderous a weapon, that such a weapon would represent an intolerable threat to mankind, that it would place an enormous psychological burden on mankind, and that the United States had enough atomic bombs to protect itself even if the Soviet Union chose to build the H-bomb. The second addendum, authored by Enrico Fermi and I.I. Rabi rejected the H-bomb even more ardently. Fermi and Rabi argued that such a weapon of genocide could be justified on no ethical grounds whatever, that use of the weapon would render large areas of the earth uninhabitable for generations, and that it was a danger to all humanity. In summary, the General Advisory Committee report argued that the H-bomb should not be produced because it was too disastrous and because it was not needed for national security.

At the Atomic Energy Commission, Chairman David Lilienthal agreed with the General Advisory Committee report, as did two other members of the Atomic Energy Commission, while Commissioner L. Strauss strongly opposed the report as did the remaining Commissioner. The Atomic Energy Commission submitted its recommendation to President Truman on November 9, 1949.

In the meantime heavy lobbying for the superbomb was being undertaken by three nuclear scientists, E. Teller, E. O. Lawrence, and L. Alvarez. The arguments for the bomb were that the Russians would eventually develop the bomb, that refusal to build the bomb would be a surrender to Communism, and that this weapon was morally no worse than any other weapon. York takes pains to point out that the argument was clearly not between “hawks” and “doves,” but between advocates of the hydrogen bomb and advocates of upgrading and strengthening the use of tactical nuclear...

(The entire section is 2312 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Choice. XIII, April, 1976, p. 274.

Library Journal. CI, April 15, 1976, p. 1030.

New York Times Book Review. March 28, 1976, p. 4.

Progressive. XL, April, 1976, p. 40.

Science. CXCIII, August 20, 1976, p. 668.