Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller , GreggHerken Henry Holt, New York, 2002. $30.00 (448 pp.). ISBN 0-8050-6588-1

Stories about the making of nuclear weapons and about the lives of their creators have been told by a host of able authors. In particular, Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1986) comes to mind. In Brotherhood of the Bomb, Smithsonian historian Gregg Herken tells the story through the lives of three men who were central in creating the nuclear age: Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. His book is the result of 10 years of intensive research, during which he scanned untold numbers of documents from the FBI, CIA, KGB, and other governmental agencies.

Herken interviewed scores of people, many of whom were never approached before, and ferreted out previously unknown but important manuscript collections. His account is rich in detail, full of new information and insights, and valuable in adding to our understanding. His book is much more than a narrative of the entangled lives of three men and of their projects before the end of World War II. It is also the best overview yet of American nuclear-weapon developments and their political context after the war: Lawrence and Teller’s machinations to establish the Livermore Laboratory, the successes and failures of the Pacific nuclear tests, Lewis Strauss and J. Edgar Hoover’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering at the Oppenheimer trial of 1954, Lawrence’s role in the nuclear test ban treaty of 1958, and more. Notes to the various chapters fill 81 pages, and the bibliography, another 11. More extensive notes appear at http://www.brotherhoodofthebomb.com.

I have reservations, none of which diminishes the importance of the book. One stems from Herken’s apparently being more prone than I am to accept as fact evaluations such as those found in the FBI and KGB files or in the private papers held by Haakon Chevalier (a close friend of Oppenheimer’s before World War II who once inquired whether Oppenheimer would be willing to share secret information with the USSR). What becomes evident from reading the FBI reports is how the views from the top—that is, the views of Hoover and his associates—constrained and polarized the field agents’ assessments.

It also seems to me that, at times, in his evaluations of statements in such private papers as Chevalier’s, Herken has not taken into account his sources’ possible motivations. Thus, in his narration of Oppenheimer’s life at Berkeley during the 1930s, Herken strongly suggests that after meeting Jean Tatlock and Chevalier, Oppenheimer became a member of the Communist Party (CP). The circumstantial evidence Herken adduces seems compelling. But one must question the reliability of the most damning evidence—Chevalier’s 1964 note attesting that Oppenheimer had been part of a secret communist cell. Chevalier surely held Oppenheimer responsible for ruining his life by reporting to security officers that Chevalier had solicited secrets. Herken dwells on Chevalier’s note and some others, but devotes only a footnote to the fact that Oppenheimer wrote to Chevalier and denied that he ever had been a CP member. I believe Oppenheimer. Reports of Oppenheimer’s political activities during the 1930s must take into account that, given its stand against Nazism and Fascism, and particularly given its support of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, Communism had appeal within left-inclined intellectual circles. Only in the late 1930s, after the Stalinist excesses had become known and after the Molotov-von Ribbentrop nonaggression pact had been signed, did CP membership become questionable. Within certain circles during World War II, but much more generally and extensively thereafter, the question of CP membership became a critical and central issue equated with political disloyalty and untrustworthiness.

Those remarks should not be taken as minimizing the reality of extensive Soviet spying—often with the help of local party members—in the US, the UK, and Canada. Joe 1, the first atomic bomb exploded in the USSR, was a replica of the plutonium bomb that had been designed at Los Alamos, the details of that design having been supplied to the USSR by Klaus Fuchs. A valuable aspect of Herken’s book is his extensive coverage of Soviet spying activities in the US and his detailed report of the counterespionage activities of Leslie Groves and of the security officers in the San Francisco Bay area and at Los Alamos.

It is impossible in a review to indicate all the new information that Herken has brought together. Here are a few salient examples. Herken gives a detailed account of the interaction between Groves and Oppenheimer in the aftermath of the Chevalier–Oppenheimer encounter. Oppenheimer eventually told Groves that it was Chevalier who had solicited the secrets from him. But Oppenheimer did not want Chevalier to be hurt, so Groves promised to respect the confidentiality of that information. Groves was true to his promise. But when the “prosecutors” at Oppenheimer’s “trial” hinted that Groves’s silence might be considered seditious, in that he had withheld vital information about an espionage contact during wartime, Groves gave much weaker testimony than he had initially intended in support of Oppenheimer.

Herken’s account of the deliberations of the scientific advisory panel to the interim committee (comprising Oppenheimer, Lawrence, Arthur Compton, and Enrico Fermi) on how the bombs were to be used—whether in noncombat demonstration or against a Japanese target—is particularly thorough. Noting that it took place in July 1945, Herken corrects the date usually attributed to one of the meetings. That was before the Trinity test, when it was not clear whether the implosion mechanism would work. The new date casts a different light on Oppenheimer’s recommendation that the atomic bomb be used against Japan.

Of the three men whose lives he recounts, Herken seems to understand Lawrence best and to admire him the most. With his strong advocacy and support of the nuclear test ban treaty, Lawrence broke with Teller and Strauss. Herken movingly narrates Lawrence’s change of heart to test-ban advocacy before his death in August 1958. Herken finds it much more difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of Oppenheimer. And wisely, he lets Teller speak for himself. If only partially successful in making these men understandable, Herken has eminently succeeded in illuminating some defining events of the 20th century.

Silvan Schweberteaches at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. For the past two years he has been a member of the Sloan/Dibner project on the history of recent science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Dibner Institute. He is also at work on a biography of Hans Bethe.