Michael KreponThe Advisors

One of Herb York’s many talents was his ability to write clearly with a strong narrative line, despite his training in physics and immersion in technical detail. See, for example, Herb’s book, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (1976). This slim volume tells a cautionary tale about nuclear technology.

In the preface, Herb writes,

The United States has pursued policies which caused the technological arms race to advance at a substantially faster pace than was really necessary for America’s own national security… The reason is that the United States is richer and more powerful, and its science and technology are more dynamic and generate more ideas and inventions of all kinds, including ever more powerful and exotic means of mass destruction. In short, the root of the problem has not been maliciousness, but rather a sort of technological exuberance that has overwhelmed the other factors that go into the making of overall national policy.

Herb’s book is about the indirect clash between Oppenheimer and Teller to influence President Truman’s decision on whether or not to engage in a crash effort to develop and test H-bombs. Oppenheimer was an insider, the most influential advisor on the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. He saw no need for a crash program and found no design then under discussion to be feasible. Oppenheimer argued that diversifying the U.S. arsenal of atomic weapons would suffice to hedge against the Soviet threat. In his novel, Underworld, Don DeLillo characterized the A-bomb as “The sun’s own heat that swallows cities.” Oppenheimer, the overseer of weapon designs that swallowed cities, sought to avoid building weapons with far more destructive capacity. Teller was at that time an outsider. His passion for the “super” was not appreciated by his colleagues at Los Alamos.

Teller won by a non-technical knock out, even though, in Herb’s telling, “The side with the weaker formal position won the debate.” Oppenheimer and Teller’s standing were reversed as a result of the behind-closed-doors controversy over the H-bomb. The eventual coup de grâce was the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954. During this proceeding, Teller testified that Oppenheimer’s judgment and actions were “exceedingly hard to understand” and that, “I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more.” When pressed, Teller concluded that it “would be wiser not to grant clearance.” Two years earlier, a new lab was launched at Livermore to compete with Los Alamos in designing the H-bomb. Teller served on its Scientific Steering Committee. Livermore’s first director was Herb York.

Despite the General Advisory Committee’s sound technical arguments against a crash program, Truman sided with Teller because he could not be sure that Stalin would exercise similar restraint. Indeed, he had good reason to suspect otherwise. Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey vocalized the clinching argument this way: “I am very unhappy to conclude that the hydrogen bomb should be developed and built. I do not think we should intentionally lose the armaments race; to do this will be to lose our liberties.”

The more distance Herb York gained from this crucible, the more he wanted a complete end to nuclear testing. During the negotiating end-game of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we traveled many miles together trying to counter last-ditch efforts to undermine the treaty. Moscow, Beijing, and Paris had other ideas. They saddled the Treaty with an entry-into-force clause requiring no fewer than 44 specified states, including North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and Egypt, to deposit their instruments of ratification before the Treaty would become legally binding.

By way of comparison, the Limited Test Ban Treaty banning atmospheric tests required only three countries to deposit their instruments of ratification — the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The Nonproliferation Treaty required these three plus any forty states that wished to join them. China and France signed up to the NPT twenty-two years after it entered into force.

The Clinton administration didn’t push back against the CTBT’s worst-ever entry-into-force provision until it was too late. The Government of India took great offense at being named as an essential signatory and refrained from further proceedings in Geneva. After splitting London away from Moscow, Beijing, and Paris, the Clinton White House concluded that a better treaty couldn’t be negotiated in 1996. The CTBT remains in limbo because nine designated countries have yet to ratify: the United States, China, Israel, Egypt, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Indonesian officials have indicated they intend to come on board. Three countries – India, Pakistan, and North Korea – have yet to sign, let alone ratify.

Despite efforts by some to prevent the CTBT from becoming legally binding, it has greatly strengthened an international norm against nuclear testing. (Is North Korea the company you wish to keep?) Another side benefit of the Treaty and the demise of the Soviet Union is that Herb’s fear of Bomb-related technological exuberance has waned greatly. The budgets of Livermore and Los Alamos for stockpile stewardship have been fattened under the CTBT, but as the George W. Bush administration discovered, the Labs have lost the power to promote new weapon designs. The United States now pursues exuberances of a different sort.

Comments

  1. FSB (History)

    You say: “Another side benefit of the Treaty and the demise of the Soviet Union is that Herb’s fear of Bomb-related technological exuberance has waned greatly. The budgets of Livermore and Los Alamos for stockpile stewardship have been fattened under the CTBT, but as the George W. Bush administration discovered, the Labs have lost the power to promote new weapon designs. The United States now pursues exuberances of a different sort. ”

    Yes, unworkable midcourse missile defense is one such example, one which will cause an increase in nuclear arms, and regarding which we can quote York:

    “The United States has pursued policies which caused the technological arms race to advance at a substantially faster pace than was really necessary for America’s own national security… The reason is that the United States is richer and more powerful, and its science and technology are more dynamic and generate more ideas and inventions of all kinds…. In short, the root of the problem has not been maliciousness, but rather a sort of technological exuberance that has overwhelmed the other factors that go into the making of overall national policy.”

    Technological exuberance ought to be checked by technically informed people in DC (not lobbyists), of which there is a sad dearth.

    • Anon (History)

      Unfortunately, even the exuberant technologies involved will not be able to discriminate between real warheads and decoys at midcourse.

      In some ways, the technologies are not exuberant enough.

      Less exuberant technologies possessed by Iran and NK will circumvent midcourse MD.

    • krepon (History)

      FSB & Anon:
      The same old posts about BMD. This wasn’t the exuberance I had in mind.
      MK

    • Jack Pirate (History)

      Krepon: That’s what I thought you were talking about. If not, what were you?

    • krepon (History)

      Jack:
      Shall we begin with nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan?
      MK

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      The same old posts, the same old points, indeed, but you go on pretending that they haven’t been made, or that they don’t matter, or something. Yet this is the most profound and urgent problem of arms control today.

      The Obama administration has adopted a policy which undermines the possibility of further progress in nuclear arms control, and makes a mockery of its campaign promises to seek a ban on ASAT weapons, virtually guaranteeing the development and deployment of destructive KE-ASATs in significant numbers by the US, China, India, Russia… While we know with certainty that these systems can be easily defeated as missile defense, no matter how much polite Washington tries to pretend it doesn’t know.

      Yes, the same old same old, indeed. Terribly inconvenient, isn’t it?

  2. Alex W. (History)

    I had a chance to interview York in August 2008, and I asked him if he felt that knowledge of the October 1949 GAC report on the hydrogen bomb (in which Oppenheimer et al. conclude they shouldn’t have a crash program for the “Super”), and he gave me what I thought was a thoughtful answer:

    “I don’t think I would have done anything very different, ’cause I looked at Livermore as a way of continuing working closely with Lawrence, and associating with a lot of other very interesting people, including Teller, but Fermi, lots of others, Garwin, lots of others. And I looked at it in Cold War terms. If I had read that report, well, the main body of the report said ‘we don’t know how to do it’ — that was already obsolete by the time we started Livermore, the only thing that’s in the report that I wasn’t fully aware of, is their moralistic statements, and I don’t know, I would have taken them seriously, but they probably wouldn’t have caused me to do anything different.”

    My transcript of the recording (with a lot of his quotes) is online, if anyone is interested. Like any private research interview, it is a hodge-podge of different topics I was interested in: http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/30665.html

    • krepon (History)

      Alex:
      Many thanks for your posts–
      MK

    • Alex W. (History)

      (Just a small correction to my post — the first line should read “…I asked him if he felt that knowledge of the October 1949 GAC report on the hydrogen bomb […] would have changed his own position on the H-bomb when he was at Livermore.”)

  3. Alex W. (History)

    Separately, I would just like to note that there’s another reason that Truman went with the “Super” bomb — one particularly relevant to our current times.

    In October 1949, when the GAC was debating the H-bomb against the lobbying Strauss, Teller, and Alvarez, the concept of the “Super” was still “Top Secret.” (Oppenheimer had himself recommended it be kept amongst the indefinite secrets when he helped draw up the first postwar classification guide in 1946.)

    It became public in November 1949 when Senator Edwin C. Johnson of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy accidentally (?) leaked it on a television show. The leaking situation was quite odd. Johnson was on a talk show debating whether there was too much secrecy in the atomic program — Johnson took the position there was not too much. Why? Because there were scientists out there who wanted to blab about national secrets. What kind of secrets? Well, the fact that there was a bomb being debated that was a thousand times more powerful than the one used on Hiroshima. So in the process of trying to justify why scientists were not careful enough with classified information, Johnson leaks the very classified information he was accusing the scientists of trying to leak.

    Anyway, the Washington Post picked up the leak, and by December 1949 everyone in the public sphere knew there was a debate taking place behind closed doors. More leaks occurred (from camps unknown) through January 1950. Truman was furious, and told the Joint Committee and the AEC the “plug” the leaks ASAP.

    When Lilienthal tried to convince Truman not to pursue the “Super” at the end of January 1950, Truman essentially told Lilienthal (according to Lilienthal’s diary) that the leaking had “forced his hand” — it was now a public issue, a political one, and one that the Russians were surely aware of. Had the leaking not occurred, Truman said, perhaps they’d have more time to debate the matter, but such was not the case.

    So he approved the National Security Council recommendation that essentially said that the US should continue its regular atomic research, including the Super bomb. (He also approved a secret regulation that forbid anyone on the AEC from releasing any more information about the H-bomb program — the infamous “gag order.”) Not quite a “crash” program, but it was interpreted to be a victory for the pro-H-bomb contingent.

    What I like about this version of the story (which is part of my dissertation, and I’m writing up as an article) is it seems more plausible than the “what did Truman think about Stalin” approach to things. The latter played some role in it, but the nitty gritty of Cold War decision-making was of course a more complicated and contingent process. I also find it a useful meditation on the way in which leaking can, somewhat counterintuitively, force policy decisions that may have been more negotiable when they stayed behind closed doors.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “I also find it a useful meditation on the way in which leaking can, somewhat counterintuitively, force policy decisions that may have been more negotiable when they stayed behind closed doors.”

      I’m not sure I’d call it counterintuitive. This is precisely why many people leak.

    • Alex W. (History)

      True enough, Scott. Though in the context of the H-bomb debate, most of the commentary at the time (and later, as in York) was critical of the way in which it had been kept a private issue (and was thus an undemocratic or even “authoritarian” decision, to use Louis Ridenour’s terminology), so it is a little counterintuitive (or at least a bit ironic) that it was the public exposure of the debate that seems to have decided it on the “make the bomb” side of the equation.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    “My transcript of the recording (with a lot of his quotes) is online, if anyone is interested. Like any private research interview, it is a hodge-podge of different topics I was interested in: http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/30665.html

    Very interesting indeed — thanks much. I bet that not a few people in DOE think it’s S/RD.

    But, grand issues of nuclear weapons and security aside, have you written up what York said about The Fermi Paradox Lunch? A lot of people, me definitely included, would love to read about that.

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