Brotherhood of the Bomb The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller

Gregg Herken

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480 Pages



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A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee

Ten years in the research and writing, Gregg Herken's account of the three scientists most responsible for the nuclear age—Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller—is based on private papers, interviews with Manhattan Project survivors, and recently released documents and coded intercepts obtained from FBI and KGB archives and other sources around the world. One of Brotherhood of the Bomb's surprises is the complex game of spy versus counterspy that surrounded the bomb's building and later dominated the Cold War. Yet, armies of U.S. security agents were unable to prevent the bomb's secrets from being passed to the Russians (sometimes by their American helpers). At the book's center is the question of loyalty—to science, to country, to family—and the choices that had to be made when such allegiances came into conflict.

Revealed here for the first time are Robert Oppenheimer's efforts while scientific director of the Manhattan Project to hide his radical past, and the complicity of General Leslie Groves, head of the bomb project, in keeping that long-held secret. Oppenheimer was ultimately compromised by lies he told to protect his brother, Frank, which led to his own loyalty hearing during the high-water mark of McCarthyism in the 1950s.

More than a cautionary tale, Brotherhood of the Bomb is a vital slice of American history. Gregg Herken's book reveals what can happen to individual and group integrity when big-time science—and its practitioners—are enlisted in the service of the state.


Praise for Brotherhood of the Bomb

"The most commanding history yet written of the internal politics of the United States during the early years of the nuclear age . . . An enthralling narrative."—David A Hollinger, The New York Times Book Reivew

"A complete and compelling narrative if the advent of weapons of mass destruction."—Science News

"Meticulous . . . illuminates the impact of politics on science, showing how strategic considerations and bureaucratic infighting shaped the course of atomic research. There was no ivory tower when it came to the bomb."—The New Yorker

"Herken writes with an assurance that enables him to cover a lot of ground swiftly, and to paint the political and scientific landscape in bold strokes . . . The story is well-crafted and meticulously researched, drawing on recently declassified FBI files and documents, and it moves at a helter-skelter pace . . . A gripping account of three tangled lives."—Jennet Conant, The Washington Post Book World

"Brotherhood of the Bomb is fast-paced, deeply researched, and resolves many longtime mysteries. More authoritatively than any previous history, it reveals the unseemly ambitions and personal conflicts among American scientists and government leaders that accelerated the nuclear arms race."—Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb

"Exceptionally detailed and thoroughly researched . . . an extraordinary and revealing examination of the people and atomic issues during and after World War II told with vivid, fast-paced flair . . . an absorbing history of a perilous time, a political thriller and a moral lesson for the future."—David Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle

"Gregg Herken has written a fine human history of how Lawrence, Teller, and Oppenheimer worked and argued together, and he brings to life the dozen years when they led the world into the nuclear age."—Tom Powers, author of Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bombf0 and The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA

"Immensely readable . . . a well-written, well-documented, exciting and yet unhappy tale of a crucial encounter between science and politics."—David Holloway, Los Angeles Times

"The power of science and technology is the pivotal story of our time. A bright light is cast on the practical and moral issues by this joint biography of the three physicists most prominent in the rise of nuclear weapons. After half a century, much information once secret has emerged, and Herken has done a thorough job of scouring the archives and contacting witnesses. With his combination of deep research and lively writing, he has given us the definitive telling of the story of these extraordinary men in all their conflicts and sad triumphs."—Spencer Weart, director, AIP Center for History of Physics

"Herken brings to life a whole world of intrigue, ambition and political passions of every variety . . . [It is] smoothly written and notable for its lucid scientific expositions and nice use of human touches . . . a fresh and original work with much to tell us about the fearsome weapon whose creation, funding and deployment had major social and economic consequences that we live with today."—Wendy Smith, Newsweek

"In this engaging and wonderfully researched book, Gregg Herken unveils a new dimension in the American saga of the nuclear scientists who created the world's first atomic and hydrogen bombs. Here is a suspenseful history of how three brilliant minds overcame daunting obstacles in a time of world crisis. Yet it is not always a pretty story. It is full of troubling insights on Oppenheimer's flirtation with the Communist Party, Lawrence's scientific empire-building, and Teller's compulsion to build bigger and bigger bombs. A timely and thoughtful book."—Joseph Albright, coauthor of Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy

"Authoritative . . . Herken deftly guides us through the scientific-governmental and political-military thicket, explaining how key decisions were made."—Roger Bishop, Bookpage

"Herken is curator of the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian and a leading authority on the development of America's nuclear arsenal. Here he examines the network of scientists who created the most devastating weapons known to humankind. He is particularly interested in examining the enmeshed lives of physicists Ernest Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller. Herken stresses that this triumvirate of scientific geniuses provided the expertise and leadership needed to sustain the incredibly complex activities that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unique feature of this study is the author's exploration of the personal ambitions and political convictions that split apart three of the most influential physicists of the twentieth century. The Lawrence-Teller-Oppenheimer rift is a story often told, but Herken's prodigious use of recently declassified documents (many available for perusal at offers a fresh perspective on the entire subculture of scientists doomed by circumstance to become engineers of 'megadeath.' Brotherhood is one of the most important books to come out of America's nuclear era since Richard Rhodes's massive The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries."—Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Library, Rome, Georgia, Library Journal

"The personalities of the scientists who made the nuclear bomb are the focus of this detailed, engrossing history of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Relying on author interviews and primary and secondary sources, Herken explains the backgrounds of the three physicists who were essential to the creation of the atomic bombs dropped over Japan during WWII. But even though the author focuses on Oppenheimer, Lawrence and Teller, offering both brief bios of each and depicting the sometimes-tempestuous relationships among them, it's the former who garners the lion's share of his attention. 'Oppie,' as he was known, has long been a controversial figure for his later opposition to weapons programs and his alleged Communist links (he was stripped of his U.S. government security clearance during the McCarthy years). As Herken notes, the trial might have had a backlash, turning many scientists against U.S. defense projects for years to come. But there's no smoking gun here: Herken argues that it is unlikely that Oppenheimer, despite his strong leftist sympathies, was ever a member of the Communist Party, let alone a spy. But he nicely details the intersection between the scientific and leftist communities (particularly during the 1920s and 1930s) and the government's attempt to infiltrate these communities after the war. The book is unlikely to end the debate over Oppenheimer's past or change any minds about the balances between security needs and civil liberties but if there was ever a question that politics plays a part in science, this book washes away any doubts."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Gregg Herken

  • Gregg Herken is a curator and historian at the Smithsonian Institution and has taught at Oberlin, Yale, and Caltech. He is the author of The Winning Weapon, Counsels of War, and Cardinal Choices, and received a MacArthur grant for this book. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.