May 22, 2013
Jeremy Bernstein on Garry Wills’ ‘Bomb Power’
Posted on Jan 29, 2010
When I read books by nonexperts about nuclear weapons I imagine I am in a position somewhat similar to that of a professional musician who goes to a concert. The intention may be purely aesthetic but the facts intrude. One simply cannot ignore the “clinkers,” whatever one makes of the overall performance. This is what struck me when I read Garry Wills new book, “Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.” Here are some of the clinkers I found in the first 26 pages. They range from the relatively trivial to the significant.
On Page 16, Wills tells us how Robert Oppenheimer was able to recruit some famous scientists to go to Los Alamos. He includes I.I. Rabi and Leo Szilard. Rabi declined to go to Los Alamos because he thought that radar was more important, and Szilard was never asked. The last thing Oppenheimer wanted to deal with was the temperament of Leo Szilard. On the next page Wills tells us that seven of the young people at Los Alamos went on to win Nobel prizes. The number was actually nine. It is easy to leave out Val Fitch, who went there as a soldier and began helping with some of the experiments and later was a professor at Princeton. On Page 13, Wills speaks of the work done at Hanford, Wash., as “to collect, extract and purify” plutonium. He seems not to understand that plutonium was manufactured at Hanford. Still less does he understand the difference between the plutonium weapons and the uranium one. He refers on Page 26 to the “plutonium-implosion one” and the “uranium-explosion one.” Does he think that the plutonium bomb did not explode? The difference is how the critical mass was assembled in the two weapons. In the uranium bomb two subcritical masses were fired at each other, while in the plutonium bomb a single mass was compressed.
Perhaps most seriously Wills does not seem to know about the genesis of Russian attempts to make the bomb. The Russians knew through their espionage just how far the Americans had gotten, and in December of 1944 Josef Stalin appointed Lavrenty Beria, the head of the secret police, to head the project. The Russians knew about our test at Alamogordo in July 1945 and the details of what was tested. When at Potsdam President Harry S. Truman told Stalin about a new weapon we had, Stalin showed little surprise. He already knew.
Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State
By Garry Wills
The Penguin Press HC, 288 pages
As a rule when I find that someone has made such a collection of mistakes I stop reading. But Wills is an interesting writer of considerable stature and deserves to be read to the end. Besides, these howlers, while annoying, do not really affect the thesis of the book. It is Wills’ contention that the Bomb—he capitalizes the B when he refers to the nuclear device and so shall I—whatever the justification for its manufacture and use was built unconstitutionally and that the precedent that this set much amplified endures to the present day. As I will explain, I agree with the first part but think the second is largely in the se non è vero, è ben trovato category.
The American Bomb project began—but very slowly—with a 1939 letter mostly written by the aforementioned Szilard but signed by Albert Einstein and sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thus, from its inception the Bomb was in a different category from any other kind of military development such as radar. When Col. Leslie Groves reluctantly accepted the post of directing the Manhattan Project in 1942 he extracted several concessions. First there was an immediate promotion to brigadier general. Then he demanded an AAA priority for everything connected to the Bomb. Not only that, but Congress was to know nothing about it, something that extended even to Vice President Truman. The approximately 2 billion early-1940s dollars spent to build it were spent without any explicit congressional authorization. Groves had cities like Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford constructed and filled with tens of thousands of inhabitants that were subject to no laws except for the ones he gave them. Los Alamos was a military base, and Groves could and did have anyone drafted into the Army at any time. As Wills points out, Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution says: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in the consequences of appropriation made by law, and a regular statement and account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money, shall be published from time to time.” As far as Groves was concerned, “from time to time” meant when he was good and ready. It must also be recalled that the ultimate use of the Bomb, then and now is a decision of the president alone. No congressional vote here.
One wonders how and why this happened. I cannot think of any other military development of this character. Radar, which was developed at this time, was certainly done on the books. Was it the secrecy of the Bomb program? Then and now, working on nuclear weapons requires a special kind of clearance called a “Q clearance.” As I can testify, one’s past life is pretty carefully scrutinized. I tried to get my security report using the Freedom of Information Act. I was going to write an article called “Friends and Neighbors.” Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan finally got it for me. It was largely redacted. No article. But wartime radar was also highly classified. Rabi told me that getting a clearance to work on it was harder than getting one to work at Los Alamos. Perhaps it was what was at stake. If the Germans had gotten the Bomb, the great fear at the time, the world would look very different. In retrospect it probably would not have made that much difference to the outcome if they had known as much about it as the Russians. Neither country had the resources in wartime for a project of this dimension. Groves’ concern—obsession—was with the Russians. This is why in the end he pushed the project through even after the Germans had surrendered. He knew from our own intelligence work months before that the Germans had gotten nowhere, something he did not share.
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