F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
July 2006 
Vol. 35, No. 3



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Nuclear Shadowboxing, Vol. 1: Cold War Redux

By Alexander DeVolpi, Vladimir E. Minkov, Vadim E. Simonenko and George S. Stanford, Fidlar Doubleday, Kalamazoo, MI, 2004.

Recollections of the Cold War grow more distant with time and we are constantly losing our prospective. When our politicians tell the public that we need to go to war with Iraq because of unbearable danger, which can come in the form of a “mushroom cloud” (C. Rice) or in “45 minutes” (A. Blair), and the public goes along, we forget that this was the plight of most of humanity for more than thirty years, and it was real, not imaginary. As time passes, the attitudes of the participants on the winning side become more and more gung-ho.(1) Of course, history is always written by the victors, but if our recollections of the Cold War were true, then why were US policy-makers occupied for 50 years by confrontation with what turns out to be a piffling military power (2) run by pathetic incompetents? (3) Or was the far left right all along in suggesting that the Cold War was an American ploy to keep its vast military-industrial cabal from expiring?

The book “Nuclear Shadowboxing” written by a collective headed by Alex L. Volpi, goes far to dispel that persistent but self-contradictory mythology. In particular, I would recommend the book to history teachers in order to present a more balanced picture of the Cold War and its consequences to their school students all over United States , including my son. The book contains contemporary information free from the post-Cold War stratagems in service of current political agendas in Washington.

The authors' design to expose the Cold War in all its multi-faceted variety was over-ambitious from the start and could not be free from certain shortcomings. First, it is not clear who are the potential readers of the book; second, the organization principle of the book is obscure . If the readers are physics and engineering professionals, they do not need a discussion of U235 or the critical mass (Chapter I). If the readers are high school students and teachers of history, then the book needs to be structured to help them, for instance by arranging it alphabetically, like an encyclopedia. As presently written, it appears to be a thematically-organized handbook, which should mix popular introductions and lore with more specialized but condensed treatises written by experts in the narrow field of each chapter, but it does not. Yet, I doubt that the authors actually had that in mind.

Because of poor structuring, some of the material is repetitive. For instance, the material on the neutron bomb from Section C, Chapter III (“The Nuclear Priesthood”) is repeated almost in the same terms in Section B, Chapter IV (“Arms-Control Issues”) and this is only one example of dozens. I could learn who Herbert York was from at least three places in a book; one would be sufficient. Maybe, for a few prominent personalities, a short biographical note would be more appropriate than parts and parcels of information scattered here and there around the text.

Some of the book's statements are plainly stupid (or racist?): “The economic well-being of the Russian population is considered secondary. President Putin understands well that [Great Power] status cannot be returned through great economic achievements; there is no widespread entrepreneurial spirit of the Western type in Russian culture” (p. xii). For most of the charts and tables in the main text but, somehow, not in the Appendices, the references are absent or incomplete, making it unclear whether authors display their own estimates or somebody else’s data. Text box inserts have different formats. The book does not have pass-through page numbers. The contents of Volume 1 and the Volume 2 are printed in different fonts. And the list of structural deficiencies can be extended.

However, the authors reassure us that this is not the final version (Version A3, as they call it). Even in its current, imperfect and awkward form—and what else would one expect from a first undertaking of this magnitude completed without public financing—“Nuclear Shadowboxing” deserves to be on the shelves of every public and school library in the United States. I look forward to the second volume with great interest.


1. See, e.g. Chris Adams Inside the Cold War: A Cold Warrior's Reflections, University Press of the Pacific, 2004.

2. David Miller The Cold War: A Military History, St. Martin’s Press, 1999. William E. Odom The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, 1998.

3. See, e.g., R. N. Lebow and J. G. Stein, We All Lost the Cold War, Princeton University Press, 1994, with a liberal standpoint, and a gamut of books written by Timothy Naftali and Konstantin S. Pleshakov from a neocon prospective.

Peter B. Lerner
Quantum Transistor LLC

Reappraising Oppenheimer, Centennial Studies and Reflections

Edited by Cathryn Carson and David Hollinger, University of California, 2005, $14, 413 pages, ISBN 0-9672617-3-2

Recently there have been at least nine books devoted to the life and career of J.Robert Oppenheimer as 2005, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, arrived. The present volume is a collection of 18 essays, mainly by historians, covering different periods and interpretations of the Oppenheimer story. It originated from a conference held at the University of California in 2004.

The first two essays deal with Oppenheimer as a physicist before World War II. At Berkeley and CalTech he started the first US school of modern theoretical physics; before that all the best students, including Oppie (or Opje) as he was called, went to Europe to study. It is often said that he made no major contributions to theoretical physics; however, as described in some detail by Karl Hufbauer, his papers with Volkoff and Snyder showed that collapsing stars could lead to black holes, the great importance of which was only realized some 50 years later. In fact there was some other important work, which has been reviewed in an article by John Rigden (1).

The next three essays are devoted to the issue of whether Oppie was ever a member of the Communist Party (CP), a claim made by Greg Herken in a recent book (2) and in an essay here. In a long essay Barton Bernstein goes over all the evidence and discusses the general question of how to evaluate evidence. What has always been clear is that Oppie was a leader of a small group of intellectuals who met regularly between 1938 and 1942 and who followed the CP line. There is no evidence that he had a CP membership card or that he paid dues. The question as to whether he was a "closet Communist" ends up seeming almost semantic. A later essay by J. L. Heilbron suggests that in this same period Oppie's philosophy and even his physics style was greatly infuenced by his immersion in Hindu writings.

A most intriguing aspect of Oppie's career is his transformation from a prototypical outsider, a left-wing theoretical physics professor, to an insider leading a wartime laboratory under the overall direction of Gen. Leslie Groves. A fascinating essay by David Holloway compares Oppie's career to that of Julii Khariton who led the development of the Soviet bomb under the direction of Lavrenti Beria.

Five essays deal with the period between the end of the war and the infamous 1954 "trial" that stripped Oppie of his security clearance. Overall one gets the impression of an uneasy insider in a government in which the military had the real power. The Acheson-Lilienthal plan for international control, much of which was written by Oppie, was sabotaged by the appointment of Bernard Baruch as negotiator (3). However after that, according to an essay by J. G. Hershberg, Oppie appeared as a hard-liner, in contrast to James Conant, and considered any agreement with the Soviets was impossible. As head of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) he opposed the H-bomb, not because it was "evil" as GAC members Fermi and Rabi wrote, but because the funds would be better spent building more useful fission bombs. Once the H-bomb proved "technically sweet" he never opposed it again.

As a participant in Project Vista in 1951, discussed in an essay entitled "Killing the Messenger" by W. Patrick McCoy, Oppie strongly recommended the development of tactical nuclear weapons, which led to the suppression of the project's report by the Air Force. It was the military's desire to eliminate unwanted scientific advice that led to the 1954 Oppenheimer "trial." In spite of Oppie's self-deprecation and naming of names at the hearing, he was denied his clearance. Richard Polenburg suggests that had he been cleared he would have been condemned by many for his apparent cooperation with his persecutors rather than having been heralded as a victim.

The last six essays relate Oppie to the historical and cultural context of his times and compare the images of him in films and books. He appears as a symbol in various ways: of the Faustian bargain of the scientist; of the modern Galileo, victim of the McCarthy era; of the tragedy of the physicist who finds himself "a stranger and afraid in this new world of his own making" (4). Yet, as Hollinger writes in the Afterword, "there is in the literature a persistent 'almostness'": Each symbol almost works but not quite. There is no simple J. Robert Oppenheimer.


1. John Rigden, Scientific American, July 1995, pp 76-81.

2. Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb, (Henry Holt, 2002).

3. See, for example, Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon, (Vintage, 1982)

4. Lincoln Wolfenstein, "The Tragedy of J.Robert Oppenheimer," Dissent Jan-Feb 1968, pp 81-85

Lincoln Wolfenstein
Physics Department
Carnegie Mellon University



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