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.

book cover

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

By Garry Wills

The Penguin Press HC, 288 pages

Buy the book

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.After the war Groves wanted to maintain the American military hegemony over the Bomb. In this President Truman concurred and attempted to rush though a bill—the May-Johnson bill—which would have accomplished just that. But the atomic scientists and others objected strongly, and in the end the McMahon Act was passed in 1946 creating the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. The ultimate use of the Bomb was still a unilateral decision of the president, as was Truman’s January 1950 decision to institute a crash program to build the hydrogen bomb. A panel of distinguished scientists had been convened to advise. Nearly all of them said not to go ahead, that this was not a weapon of war but an instrument of genocide. Truman, mistakenly in my view, ignored them, and this set off an unnecessary arms race which we are still trying to unwind. On the matter of the presidential power over the Bomb, I confess I am of two minds. It can lead to foolish presidential decisions such as announcing a crash program for making the hydrogen bomb when no one had any idea how to do it. What it accomplished was setting the Russians off on their own program—this one without the aid of espionage. They succeeded. We succeeded. The French, the British and the Chinese succeeded and probably the Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis as well, and none of this has increased anyone’s security an iota. On the other hand, it can lead to excellent presidential decisions such as Truman’s to fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War when the latter wanted to use nuclear weapons on the Chinese. Truman had the power to do this despite the uproar he knew it would generate. My democratic instincts tell me that concentrating so much power in an individual is wrong, but on the other hand I am not sure that I can think of a better system. Wills is sure that it is wrong, but what is his better system?

Wills’ book is a catalog of the abuses of the “imperial presidency.” This part is fine, but tying all of this into the Bomb I find procrustean. Take the case of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Wills points out how Eisenhower was complicit in the attempt to overthrow several foreign governments, including that of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran. But he ignores what Eisenhower actually tried to do about nuclear weapons. In 1953, Eisenhower gave an address to the United Nations on the subject that is still worth reading. Here is a little sample:

book cover

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

By Garry Wills

The Penguin Press HC, 288 pages

Buy the book

“The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes.

“It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.

“The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.

“The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here — now — today. Who can doubt, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, that this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage.

“To hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of people, and the governments of the East and West, there are certain steps that can be taken now.

“I therefore make the following proposals:

“The Governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, to begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international Atomic Energy Agency. We would expect that such an agency would be set up under the aegis of the United Nations.

“The ratios of contributions, the procedures and other details would properly be within the scope of the ‘private conversations’ I have referred to earlier.

“The United States is prepared to undertake these explorations in good faith. Any partner of the United States acting in the same good faith will find the United States a not unreasonable or ungenerous associate.

“Undoubtedly initial and early contributions to this plan would be small in quantity. However, the proposal has the great virtue that it can be undertaken without the irritations and mutual suspicions incident to any attempt to set up a completely acceptable system of world-wide inspection and control.

“The Atomic Energy Agency could be made responsible for the impounding, storage, and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials. The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.

“The more important responsibility of this Atomic Energy Agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.

“The United States would be more than willing—it would be proud to take up with others ‘principally involved’ the development of plans whereby such peaceful use of atomic energy would be expedited.

“Of those ‘principally involved’ the Soviet Union must, of course, be one.”

Eisenhower followed this up in 1955 at a large “Atoms for Peace” conference in Geneva. A reactor was manufactured for the occasion by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and there are photographs of Ike turning it on. Twenty-six countries, including Iran and Pakistan, were given grants to buy American reactors. There was one catch. Because we had excess amounts of highly enriched uranium—weapons grade—this became the fuel element of choice. There is still about a hundred metric tons of the stuff, much of it still floating around—enough to make a huge arsenal of bombs. There is an ongoing attempt to buy this back from countries we gave it to. This is a real concern and not some intellectual exercise which tries to connect all the ills of the abuse of presidential power to the Bomb. I found much of this argument irrelevant and distracting. I kept thinking of a lunch I attended years ago in the French mountain town of Chamonix. The guest of honor was a French climber noted for both his Alpine skills and his sardonic sense of humor. The ladies specially prepared a canard a l’Orange. The honored guest was asked for his opinion. “Without these lousy oranges,” he said, “it would have been delicious.”

Jeremy Bernstein is a physicist who has worked at Los Alamos. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, “Quantum Leaps” and “Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element.”

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