The Moral Landscape of Bomb Physics
In the Shadow of the Bomb: Bethe, Oppenheimer, and the Moral
Responsibility of the Scientist. Silvan S. Schweber. xviii
+ 256 pp. Princeton University Press, 2000. $24.95.
Those who compare the making of the atomic bomb to a Faustian
bargain, physicist I. I. Rabi used to say, have never read
Faust. What Rabi likely meant was that those who worked to
stop an evil, world-threatening dictatorship by building the first
weapon of mass destruction were not scientists who sold their souls
to the Devil. But there can be no question that the prestige of
physicists, and that of scientists generally, was elevated by
invention of the Bomb; in its aftermath, some of those who worked on
the weapon would be invited to sit at power's high table in Washington.
Sam Schweber's long-awaited book on physicist Hans Bethe attempts to
answer just what kind of a bargain these scientists struck, and with
whom. Rather than writing a standard biography, Schweber has chosen
to compare Bethe with the best known and most controversial of the
atomic scientists—J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific
director of the bomb-making project at Los Alamos. After Oppenheimer
was stripped of his security clearance in 1954, Bethe would assume
the mantle of the scientist of conscience in this country.
Although contrasting Bethe with Oppenheimer has a certain logic,
there is ultimately more that unites the two than divides them, and
surprisingly, the man who has been Bethe's nemesis for the past 50
years, physicist Edward Teller, receives little mention in the book.
Like the ghost lurking just offstage, Teller is the invisible
presence who haunts In the Shadow of the Bomb.
Schweber begins his tale by contrasting the backgrounds of Bethe and
Oppenheimer. Born into privilege,
Oppenheimer—"Oppie" to friends—was educated at
New York City's prestigious Ethical Culture School, where the
curriculum gave less weight to enduring moral precepts than to doing
"the noble thing." The result, Schweber believes, was a
kind of ethical relativism that left Oppenheimer with what was at
best a variable moral compass. Its variability swung all the way
from high-minded opposition to the hydrogen bomb in 1950 to the
seemingly opportunistic—and possibly craven—sacrifice of
a former graduate student, Bernard Peters, a few years later, as the
hounds of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were
nipping at Oppenheimer's heels.
By contrast, in Schweber's analysis Bethe seems as constant as the
polestar. Born in German-occupied Alsace just a few years before the
First World War, Bethe's life became "a search for integration
and integrity—for stability and unity under the conditions of
growth and evolution." Schweber describes Bethe as a
Bildungstraeger, one who through constant self-improvement
and seeking becomes the embodiment of human reason. The German
Gymnasium and a lifelong career of teaching at Cornell,
where Bethe settled after fleeing Nazi Germany, gave him the ethical
grounding and emotional self-confidence that Oppenheimer, for all
his fiery brilliance, always lacked.
Like Oppenheimer, Bethe's test of character occurred when a
colleague and friend, physicist Philip Morrison, came under attack
for his political views. Unlike Oppenheimer in the Peters case,
Bethe stood by Morrison and continued to speak out on his behalf
even as the witch-hunters began to turn their attention to
There is merit to Schweber's contrasting portraits of Oppenheimer
and Bethe. (Even Rabi, Oppenheimer's friend, once observed that
Oppie's tragedy was that he could never decide whether he wanted to
lead the Knights of Columbus parade or head the B'nai B'rith.) But
the contrast provided by the Peters and Morrison cases, while
"striking," is also—as Schweber himself
concedes—"somewhat unfair." There is evidence that
when Oppenheimer described Peters to HUAC investigators as
"dangerous" and "quite a red," he was trying to
deflect attention from his own brother, Frank, a former Communist
who had earlier been a target of Washington's anti-Red crusade. If
so, Oppenheimer was, by his own lights, striving to do "the
Trained as a physicist, Schweber is the first biographer to explain
the significance of the scientific work that Oppenheimer and Bethe
did—a fascinating topic in itself, and one that most previous
biographers have tended to dismiss with so much hand-waving.
Because of his emphasis on the moral and the scientific, however,
Schweber sometimes gives short shrift to or oversimplifies political
events. By depicting Oppenheimer as the "insider" and
Bethe as the "outsider," for example, the author glosses
over the key role that Bethe played as a member of the President's
Science Advisory Committee in the Eisenhower administration.
Likewise, the impression is that Bethe consistently opposed the
hydrogen bomb, whereas in reality his position was more complicated
and nuanced: Initially opposed to development of the super-bomb for
moral reasons, Bethe later returned to Los Alamos during vacations
from Cornell, and following the Communist invasion of South Korea,
he agreed to resume weapons work. Bethe later described himself as
the H-bomb's "midwife."
Indeed, Bethe's resolution of his own moral dilemma concerning
military research is emblematic of the slippery slope that a
generation of atomic scientists have tried to navigate since
Hiroshima, with varying degrees of success. According to Schweber,
Bethe believes that while each scientist is responsible for his or
her own individual actions, scientists collectively have no
right to refuse to work on weapons of mass destruction. This credo
would cause Bethe to first oppose and then support development of
the H-bomb, to support a nuclear test ban, to oppose Ronald Reagan's
"Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative and, most
recently (and perhaps inconsistently), to call for Los Alamos
scientists to "cease and desist" their work on improving
While the author's attitude toward his subject might be described as
doting—Bethe gave Schweber unrestricted access to his papers
for this authorized biography—In the Shadow of the
Bomb escapes being hagiographical, if only because Bethe
himself is so disarmingly self-critical. Ironically, the answer that
Bethe would give to an interviewer seeking an explanation for the
physicist's turn-about on the H-bomb could serve as an epigraph for
the story of the atomic scientists: "It seemed quite logical.
But sometimes I wish I were more consistent an idealist."
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