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“i Am Become Death…”
The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
Stated so baldly, the idea sounds ridiculously naive, but the GAC was anything but naive. The hydrogen bomb that in 1949 the members of that committee, all scientists, thought they might, within five years, be able to build—they called it the “Super”—would not have been Edward Teller’s and Stanislaw Ulam’s later true thermonuclear weapon, the weapon Oppenheimer would call “technically sweet,” but a booster device, a very large fission bomb with a small thermonuclear component. It would not generate an explosive force equivalent to the combined force of a number of fission bombs containing the same amount of plutonium. Oppenheimer, among others, feared that an all-out push for the Super would therefore be cheap and dangerous defense, and believed the United States would be better off enlarging and diversifying its fission arsenal with the limited uranium and plutonium then being produced.
Some of the members of the GAC believed that building the Super was morally wrong, because it was entirely a strategic weapon, intended to fry civilians a city at a time; but all the members of the GAC believed that building it was militarily wrong, that diversification of the fission arsenal was the better defense. Military men, and most notably the generals of the Strategic Air Command, who had a monopoly on nuclear weapons at that point within the American military and wanted to keep it, angrily disagreed. But the most conservative scenario that anyone has since been able to devise—a recent reconstruction is Herbert York’s in Scientific American , founded on the GAC’s newly declassified minutes—indicates that Oppenheimer and the GAC were right, that even if the United States had not built the hydrogen bomb first, even if it had waited until after the Soviets tested theirs, the balance of terror would not have been shifted by so much as an inch, because the United States would have had, in fission weapons, more than an equivalency, and could quickly have added thermonuclear weapons to its arsenal.
Despite the GAC’s considered recommendation, President Truman, on January 31,1950, ordered a crash program to build hydrogen bombs. If he underestimated Soviet science—he told Oppenheimer, before the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, that the Russians could never make the bomb—he understood politics, and knew that no administration that unilaterally restrained itself from reaching for military superiority would long survive.
The other GAC members accepted the inevitable. Oppenheimer did not. He continued to battle for nuclear diversification, and for good measure he threw in continental defense, which the Air Force thought impossible. And as, with Bohr, he had anticipated the revolutionary changes in the nature of war that atomic weapons would bring, so also he anticipated the nuclear stalemate. And announcing that paradox, declaring the futility of the arms race, was viewed as more than error: it was nothing less than heresy.
“The answer to fear,” Oppenheimer told Eleanor Roosevelt on her national radio program twelve days after Truman bluntly overruled the GAC, “cannot always lie in the dissipation of the causes of fear; sometimes it lies in courage.” Courageously, in 1953, he took his argument to the makers of government policy and then to the open world, delivering to the Council on Foreign Affairs and then publishing in Foreign Affairs a statement that is distinguished from all his other published statements by its passion, its anger, and its cold contempt for those who behind walls of secrecy would drag the United States into military danger and the world into an arms race that no nation could conceivably win. It was this statement that condemned him. Its essence is distilled in one ironic central paragraph:
“The very least we can say is that, looking ten years ahead, it is likely to be small comfort that the Soviet Union is four years behind us [it was less than nine months], and small comfort that they are only about half as big [industrially] as we are. The very least we can conclude is that our twentythousandth bomb, useful as it may be in filling the vast munitions pipelines of a great war, will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two-thousandth.”
And further to clinch the argument:
“We may anticipate a state of affairs in which two Great Powers will each be in a position to put an end to the civilization and life of the other, though not without risking its own. We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”
And finally, indignantly and properly contemptuous of militarists so glory bound that they could not distinguish between glory and nuclear holocaust:
“We need to be clear that there will not be many great atomic wars for us, nor for our institutions. It is important that there not be one.”
The vivid desert metaphor, the scorpions in a bottle, applied to the reality of nuclear stalemate within Oppenheimer’s lifetime, and the policies he espoused of tactical and strategic flexibility, of early warning and continental defense, of phased disarmament, are official policy now.