Wednesday, 28 August 2019

How nuclear proliferation controls failed from the get-go

Today (28 August 2019) Marco Borghi, with a background at Durham University and the London School of Economics, published a paper for the  Nuclear Proliferation International History Project at the The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars  ( based near the White House in Washington DC) on ‘Political Authority or Atomic Celebrity? The Influence of J. Robert Oppenheimer on American Nuclear Policy after the Second World War’, (NPIHP Working Paper #14;

The Abstract for the Working Paper reads:

The study of nuclear history offers one of the most pristine instances of paradigm-shifting scientific advancements altering the international status quo. This paper focuses on the influence which Oppenheimer, as scientific celebrity and consultant for the US government, had on American nuclear policy at a time when scientists were understood in the social imaginary as the quintessence of wisdom, and discusses his contributions to the emerging of the nuclear age. Three key fields, each representing fundamental stages in the unfolding of the Cold War, are assessed: Oppenheimer’s vision for the international control of atomic energy; his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb; and, lastly, his advocacy for tactical nuclear weapons. Analyzing Oppenheimer’s fluctuating influence, this paper traces the development of his understanding of atomic armaments, separating facts from the mythology which came to surround one of the most iconic and age-defining figures of the 20th century


This is what Borgi writes on Oppenheimer’s- he was often called Oppy- on the importance of internationalizing the control over atomic energy

International Control and the Acheson-Lilienthal Proposal

After his appointment as head of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s main preoccupations lay with the vexing administrative tasks and responsibilities which characterized the position at Los Alamos. According to Bird and Sherwin, during the early stages of the project he became “less and less a theoretical physicist and more and more a science administrator,” causing no small amount of intellectual stifling.[4] This pattern, however, was severely altered by the arrival of Niels Bohr at Los Alamos in 1943. Bohr was greatly influential in shaping Oppenheimer’s understanding of the political implications of the atomic bomb, as well as reinforcing his faith in international control.

Bohr came to Los Alamos to talk about international control of atomic weapons, and to persuade American policymakers that a world based upon the values of the scientific community was the only way to prevent a nuclear security dilemma and subsequent arms race.[5] Bohr’s vision was to spread the openness of science to the field of international relations, building an ‘open world’ based on the communitarian culture governing the international scientific community. Bohr wrote his arguments and hopes in a memorandum in the spring of 1944, which he later shared with Oppenheimer and sent to John Anderson, Chancellor of the Exchequer.[6]

While acknowledging the “importance of the project for the immediate military objectives,” Bohr asserted that nuclear armaments offered a global opportunity, recognizing the weapon’s potential in shaping the post-war international environment. He stated that cooperation during the bomb’s development could offer strong foundations upon which to build a regime of international control. This initiative would be aimed at “forestalling a fateful competition about the formidable weapon” and would “serve to uproot any cause for distrust between the powers on whose harmonious collaboration the fate of coming generations will depend.” Bohr went on to prophetically announce that “unless some agreement about the control of new active materials can be obtained in due time, any temporary advantage, however great, may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human security.”[7]

Both Bohr and subsequently Oppenheimer believed that an agreement between the war-time allies based upon the sharing of information, including the existence of the Manhattan Project, could prevent the surfacing of a nuclear-armed world.[8] In addition, as Margaret Gowing asserted, Bohr’s correspondence with Peter Kapitza, who invited him to the USSR, had convinced the Danish scientist that the Soviets knew about the American atomic project and had commenced their own research on nuclear weapons. He thus argued to no avail that the maintaining the project’s secrecy would only diminish trust between the Soviet Union and her allies, as well as hinder any chance of preventing a nuclear arms race.[9]

Bohr’s visions and arguments had a great impact on Oppenheimer, as he reflected on the possibility of a nuclear arms race and the implications which atomic energy could have on domestic and international politics. After the successful completion of the Trinity test on July 16th, 1945, Oppenheimer advised the Interim Committee headed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson to inform the Soviets about the bomb and its future use against Japanese cities. He later received confirmation from Vannevar Bush of the Committee’s unanimous acceptance of his recommendation.[10] He was outraged to learn, however, that instead of an open discussion concerning the atomic weapon and its nature, on July 24th, 1945, at the Potsdam conference Truman had only “casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make ‘good use of it against the Japanese.’”[11] Alice Kimball Smith, historian and wife of the Los Alamos metallurgist Cyril Smith, became a harsh critic of Truman’s failure to accept recommendations regarding nuclear matters. She asserted that “what actually happened at Potsdam was a sheer travesty”; an evaluation which Oppenheimer undoubtedly shared.[12]

After the disappointment of the Potsdam conference, which he perceived as a missed opportunity for international collaboration, Oppenheimer soon found himself representing the Los Alamos civilian scientists in Washington. On August 30th, 1945, a new organization was created, the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (ALAS), which shortly after its formation produced a statement detailing the dangers of an atomic arms race and stressing the need for international control. Hans Bethe, Robert Christy and Oppenheimer’s brother Frank were amongst the writers of what became known as ‘The Document’.[13] Oppenheimer, in light of his notoriety and prestige both in the media and Washington, was asked to forward the report to the War Department, which he did on September 9th, sending it to Stimson’s assistant George Harrison. Although he had not taken part in the writing of the report, Oppenheimer stressed that his personal views were reflected by the document, adding that only three out of three-hundred scientists had refused to sign it.[14]

Despite the lobbying of the scientists and the support of Stimson, who was close to retirement, the War Department decided to suppress the report, which was classified by the end of September 1945 with Oppenheimer’s consent. The physicist believed that expediency was necessary for international control. He had thus come to support the May-Johnson bill which called for strict punishments for security violations and the establishment of a nine-member commission on which military personal could sit with centralized power over atomic policy.[15] Although the bill was defeated, Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act in August 1946 based on Senator Brien McMahon’s proposal for a fierce security regime and the establishment of an exclusively civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was given control over nuclear energy policy.

Many ALAS members had actively lobbied against the May-Johnson bill, but later came to regard the Atomic Energy Act as an unsatisfactory substitute due to the draconian security regime surrounding the nuclear sector.[16] Despite the concerns of his fellow scientists on issues of secrecy and security, Oppenheimer’s focus was entirely on preventing nuclear rivalries and a spiraling arms race through international control of atomic energy. He stated in October 1945 that “if atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.”[17]

Oppenheimer’s aim, deeply shaped by the visions and concerns of Bohr and, to a lesser extent, Isidor Rabi, was the creation of an international atomic authority which would control both weapons and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.[18] After the establishment of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission in late January 1946, Truman set up a committee headed by Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson tasked with the drafting of an international control proposal. Acheson quickly created a Board of Consultants, chaired by David Lilienthal. Bird and Sherwin argued that as the only physicist on the Board, “Oppenheimer naturally dominated the discussions and impressed these strong-minded men with his clarity and his vision.”[19]

By mid-March 1946, Oppenheimer had persuaded the members of the Board that, as Bohr had argued, the internationalism of science offered a comprehensive solution. He proposed the establishment of an Atomic Development Authority (ADA), with jurisdiction over “all intrinsically dangerous operations in the nuclear field,” including “mining, manufacturing, research, licensing, inspecting, selling, or any other necessary operations.”[20] Oppenheimer wrote that world government was a precondition for permanent peace, and that without peace came atomic warfare.[21] While recognizing the impossibility that a world government could blossom from the ashes of the Second World War, he believed that a “partial renunciation” of sovereignty over nuclear power plants, laboratories and uranium mines would enable the ADA to “protect the world against atomic weapons and provide it with the benefits of atomic energy.”[22] The drafters of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report hoped that this renunciation in favor of the ADA “may contain the seeds which will in time grow into that cooperation between nations which may bring an end to all war.”[23]

The gravity of the post-war nuclear threat coupled with Oppenheimer’s undeniable eloquence and persuasiveness earned him the support of both the Board of Consultants and Acheson’s Committee. This was no small feat. He charmed men as diverse as Lilienthal, a liberal New Dealer, Charles Thomas, vice-president of Monsanto and later NSC consultant under President Eisenhower, and John McCloy, a Republican Wall Street lawyer.[24] Their recollections of Oppenheimer depicted a magnetic personality, a man possessing unique wit and, as McCloy posited, an “almost musically delicate mind.”[25] Lilienthal, the most entranced of the Board members, stated that “he is worth living a lifetime just to know that mankind has been able to produce such a being,” while General Groves, describing the relationship between Oppenheimer and his colleagues, laconically recalled that “everybody genuflected.”[26] Acheson’s memoirs offer a more balanced yet still extremely flattering depiction of Oppenheimer, as he wrote that “all the participants agree that the most stimulating and creative mind among us was Robert Oppenheimer’s. On this task he was also at his most constructive and accommodating.”[27]

However, his influence and persuasiveness failed to extend to the State Department and the White House. Oppenheimer’s relationship with President Truman was strained by unresolved disagreements, and he was not alone in doubting the President’s diplomatic prowess. For instance, both McCloy and Rabi shared his concerns, considering Truman’s instincts to be “neither measured nor sound – and certainly not up to the challenge the country and the world now faced.”[28] These evaluations were reinforced when Secretary of State James Byrnes persuaded Truman to appoint Bernard Baruch as US Representative to the UNAEC. Oppenheimer, Lilienthal and Acheson all understood Baruch’s appointment as a great defeat and a severe setback for international control. Baruch was quick to propose several amendments to the Acheson-Lilienthal Report that would fundamentally alter its internationalist nature by reducing the ADA’s power over nuclear matters and allowing the United States to maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons.[29] As Herken and Allen asserted, both Baruch and Byrnes were board members of Newmont Mining Corporation, which held significant stakes in uranium mines, and could stand to lose valuable assets if the provisions of renunciation of sovereignty detailed in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report were to be implemented.[30]

Baruch insisted upon punitive provisions against any state found violating the agreement, Soviet renunciation of veto power on actions taken by the ADA and regular onsite inspections. These amendments, aimed at the protection of an American nuclear monopoly, would effectively doom negotiations between the superpowers.[31] As recounted by Lilienthal in his journal, Oppenheimer predicted the unfolding of the negotiations and the consequences of their failure. After the American half-hearted proposal,

Russia will exercise her veto and decline to go along. This will be construed by us as a demonstration of Russia’s warlike intentions. And this will fit perfectly into the plans of that growing number who want to put the country on a war footing, first psychologically, then actually. The Army directing the country’s research; Red-baiting; treating all labor organizations as Communist and therefore traitorous…[32]

His notoriety as father of the atomic bomb offered Oppenheimer opportunities to assert his influence on American nuclear policies. After developing his understanding of nuclear weapons through discussions with colleagues such as his brother Frank, Isidor Rabi and, most influential of all, Niels Bohr, he attempted to steer American policy towards openness and international cooperation. During the drafting of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, he contributed to its internationalist nature and suggested individual provisions concerning the power and scope of the ADA as the only physicist on the Board of Consultants. Ultimately, his influence on American efforts for international control was limited. He could not persuade policymakers such as Byrnes and Baruch, and experienced an increasingly tense relationship with President Truman, who came to describe him as a “cry-baby scientist.”[33]

Oppy’s formal relationship with the US government was effectively ended in 1954, when his Q clearance was revoked due to harsh political rivalries.


[4] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 272.

[5] Bohr’s contributions to the Manhattan Project were not only moral or psychological and did not solely inspire “the physicists to think about the consequences of their work.” For instance, he helped develop the neutron initiator codenamed ‘Urchin’ which was later used in the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs. See Alex Wellerstein, “What did Bohr do at Los Alamos?” The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, Online, May 11th, 2015, <, accessed July 8th, 2018.

[6] See Graham Farmelo, Churchill's Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), chapter 22.

[7] Niels Bohr, “Confidential comments on the project of exploiting the latest discoveries in atomic physics for industry and warfare,” April 2nd, 1944, box 34, Frankfurter-Bohr folder, J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers.

[8] Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2003), 93-96, and Peter Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1985), 92.

[9] Oppenheimer too eventually became a fervent critic of the secrecy surrounding nuclear policy decisions, especially regarding the development of the hydrogen bomb. Margaret Gowing, “Niels Bohr and Nuclear Weapons,” in A. P. French and P. J. Kennedy (eds.), Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985), 266–277. See also Kapitza to Bohr, October 28th, 1943, in Niels Bohr Political Papers, 1939-1962, Journal no.9.4-5: Correspondence with Kapitza, and for Bohr’s non-committal response see Bohr to Kapitza, April 29th, 1944, in Niels Bohr Political Papers, 1939-1962, Journal no.9.4-5: Correspondence with Kapitza.

[10] Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 314.

[11] Harry S. Truman, Year of Decisions (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1955), 416.

[12] Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists' Movement in America, 1945-47 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 53.

[13] Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 324.

[14] J. Robert Oppenheimer to George Harrison, September 9th, 1945, in Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner (eds.), Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980), 304.

[15] Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 326.

[16] See for instance William Lanouette, Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 286, and Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson Jr., The New World: 1939-1946, Vol. I: A History of the Atomic Energy Commission (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962), 532.

[17] J. Robert Oppenheimer, speech given at an award ceremony on October 16th, 1945, reprinted in Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner (eds.), Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1995), 310-311.

[18] On Rabi’s influence, see John S. Rigden, Rabi: Scientist & Citizen (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 195-197.

[19] Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 340.

[20] “A Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy-Prepared for the Secretary of State’s Committee on Atomic Energy by a Board of Consultants: Chester I. Barnard, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Charles A. Thomas, Harry A. Winne, David E. Lilienthal, Chairman,” Washington, D.C., March 16th, 1946, 34-35.

[21] J. Robert Oppenheimer, Memorandum on “Atomic Explosives,” April 6th, 1946, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, Vol.1, 749-754.

[22] J. Robert Oppenheimer, speech given on May 16th, 1946, at the George Westinghose Centennial Forum, Pittsburgh, reprinted in Oppenheimer, The Open Mind (New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1955), 3. See also Abraham Pais and Robert P. Crease, J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 152-154.

[23] “A Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy,” 34.

[24] Joseph I. Lieberman, The Scorpion and the Tarantula: The Struggle to Control Atomic Weapons, 1945-1949 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 246.

[25] Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy & the Making of the American Establishment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 277.

[26] David E. Lilienthal to Herbert Marks, January 14th, 1948, box 46, J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers, and Leslie Groves, in Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 178. For good measure, Groves added that Lilienthal “would consult Oppie on what tie to wear.”

[27] Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1969), 153.

[28] Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 333.

[29] Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 364-366.

[30] Ibid., and James S. Allen, Atomic Imperialism: The State, Monopoly, and the Bomb (New York: International Publishers, 1952), 108.

[31] Bird, The Chairman, 281-282.

[32] David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. 2: The Atomic Energy Years 1945-1950 (New York: Harper & Row, 1964,) 69-70.

[33] See Nuel Pharr Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1968), 257-262, and Peter Michelmore, The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1969), 121-122.

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