Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Obama Administration and Nuclear Weapons Policy

The fledgling Obama Administration has already made two attempts to change things in the nation's troubled nuclear weapons establishment.

The week following the Inauguration, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told the Departments of Energy and Defense to assess the pros and cons of taking the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the weapons complex, out of the Energy Department and placing it in the Department of Defense. The Administration aims to release the Energy Department from the burden of nuclear weapons, which has lately taken up as much as 70% of its budget, and free it to focus on its real mission, producing power for civilian uses in an era of accelerating climate change.

The Administration's proposal appears to be stillborn because the Pentagon does not want to be saddled with the mismanaged weapons bureaucracy and because no one in Congress is promoting it. Indeed, Jeff Bingaman, the powerful senior Senator from New Mexico, where two of the major weapons labs are located, said that he would fight the project "tooth and nail."

The Administration has addressed another problem as well -- but this one may very well come back. The nuclear weapons establishment has been pushing something called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), a $100 billion program to replace the nuclear weapons now in the nation's stockpile with a newly designed warhead supposedly more reliable than the older models we depend on now. The National Academy of Sciences and the Jasons, a group of highly regarded scientific advisers to the government, have said the new warhead is not needed, and President Obama has said that he does not want to produce any new nuclear weapons. Although the RRW had earlier been rejected twice by a Congressional appropriations committee, it still was backed by the Energy Department and Defense Secretary Gates. But in early February OMB informed the Defense Department that the RRW program had been cancelled "both explicitly and implicitly." The President's budget for FY 2010 contains no appropriation for the RRW, and similarly Congress' spending bills for 2009 and 2010 likewise omits any money for the warhead.

But the story may not have ended there. The push to build the RRW comes from the Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia labs, where weapons designers want something new and interesting to work on, and from the entrenched weapons bureaucracy, which has powerful supporters in Congress. This year or next, the Administration will be seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Congress rejected in 1999. If the vote were held today, the treaty would probably receive 60 votes, but ratification requires 67, or two-thirds of the Senate. When the treaty comes up again, conservatives, led by right-wing Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, are likely to require a method of replacing older weapons with newer ones as the price of a yea vote. At that point the RRW, dressed up in another misleading name, may very well make a comeback.
Read More......

Monday, April 28, 2008

In Memoriam: John Archibald Wheeler

John Archibald Wheeler, who died on April 13, 2008 at the age of 96, was one of the great physicists of the 20th century. Not only that, he was one of the great minds of the 20th century.

In 1933, at the age of 22, Wheeler went to Copenhagen to study with the great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr. It was the beginning of a collaboration that was to last until Bohr¹s death in 1962. In 1939, in Princeton, Wheeler and Bohr came up with the liquid drop model, an explanation of the way fission of the atomic nucleus occurs which became the basis for building the atomic bomb.

That same year saw the first of Dr. Wheeler¹s disagreements with Robert Oppenheimer when Oppenheimer, working with Hartland Snyder, produced a theory of the way stars die. While at first he rejected the theory, later on, after it had been mathematically vindicated, Wheeler accepted it and gave the collapsed star its name, the “black hole.”

Wheeler unintentionally played a fateful role in Oppenheimer¹s career. In 1949 and 1950 the two men, who were both based in Princeton, differed over the wisdom of developing the hydrogen bomb and, in early 1953, the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, under the aegis of its staff director, William Borden, produced a paper purporting to show that Oppenheimer had tried to delay development of the weapon.

In violation of secrecy regulations, Borden entrusted a ten-page condensation of the paper to Wheeler for vetting. But Borden reckoned without the scientist¹s well-known absent-mindedness – Wheeler lost the paper on a night train from Trenton to Washington D.C. The document, which contained highly classified secrets of the hydrogen bomb program, was never recovered, and when President Eisenhower learned after his inauguration that secrets of the atomic energy program had been compromised, he subjected his top atomic energy advisers to a withering display of anger.

Months afterward, in what may partly have been an effort to repair the damage to his career, Borden, who had long harbored doubts about Robert Oppenheimer, wrote a letter to the FBI charging that Oppenheimer’s opposition to the hydrogen bomb had been motivated by disloyalty and that he was in all likelihood an agent of the USSR. Borden¹s letter, dated November 7, 1953, led to the 1954 security proceeding in which Oppenheimer was deprived of his security clearance.

The punishment suffered by Oppenheimer for no known breach of security contrasts sharply with the treatment accorded Dr. Wheeler. He continued to be trusted by officialdom in Washington and in 1958, as adviser to the government at arms negotiations in Geneva, he accidentally left his briefcase in the headquarters of the Soviet delegation. The chairman of the delegation immediately called his U.S. counterpart and, with some amusement, sent back the briefcase.

There are rumors of still a third “Wheeler incident” involving a breach of security: if such rumors are true, the facts still are classified by the U.S. government.

The government continued to seek Wheeler¹s advice despite these unheard of violations, and not only because it felt safe with his staunch right-wing views. Atomic energy officials argued that his attributes as a physicist were so unique that he was indispensable to the H-bomb program. Outside government, in the scientific community, he was a beloved figure despite his politics and was viewed as a reconciler who tried to revive the comity that had existed worldwide among physicists prior to World War Two.

He had nothing against Oppenheimer: indeed, he was probably abashed at any part he may inadvertently have played in Oppenheimer¹s fall from grace. While the author was doing research for this book, he pointed her to documents at Princeton which he believed would show that Oppenheimer had tried to obtain university funds for Project Matterhorn, Wheeler¹s special contribution to the H-bomb program, and thereby disprove the old charge that Oppenheimer had tried to obstruct the program.

The first time the author interviewed Wheeler, he allotted time after a hectic conference to talk with her in a taxicab to the airport. The conversation went so swimmingly that he escorted her aboard his plane and, had the stewardess not swept her out moments before takeoff, she would have found herself conversing with Dr. Wheeler all the way to Houston. As she left the plane, he handed her a token to help her return home on the subway.

Personally as well as politically, Wheeler was extremely close to Edward Teller and, when Teller was ostracized among physicists for his role in the Oppenheimer case, Wheeler did his utmost to bring Teller back into the good graces of the scientific community. And when Teller died in 2003 Wheeler, aged 92 and more absent-minded than ever, flew across the country and delivered a memorial address that brought tears to the eyes of those who heard it.

Remarkable as he was as a human being, Dr. Wheeler was also without equal as physicist and philosopher. During the 1950¹s he fell in love with general relativity and spent the rest of his life trying with Einstein and others to reconcile relativity with quantum physics. In the effort, as he put it, to “push gravitation physics to its limits,” he wrote three major books, including, with his students Charles Misner and Kip Thorne, the 1,300-page classic, “Gravitation.” Trying to divine what he called the “deep, happy mysteries” of nature, Wheeler claimed that he owed most of his inspiration to his students, and they responded in kind. Kip Thorne, for one, called him the “most influential mentor of young scientists” he had ever known.

In his autobiography, Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam, Wheeler wrote, “I have to admit that I never stop thinking about physics. I have never been able to let go of questions like how come existence? How come the quantum? What is my relation to the universe and its laws? Can spacetime be all that there is? Is there an end to time? I have not been able to stop puzzling over the riddle of existence. There is no definable point where the truly curious physicist can say, I can go only this far and no farther.”

There will be a memorial service for Dr. Wheeler at the Princeton University Chapel on Monday, May 12, at 10 a.m. Read More......

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Use of Nuclear Weapons – What have we learned?

One of the most important functions of the study of history is to guide us in the present to avoid the mistakes of the past. The 1949 Advisory Group which Oppenheimer chaired, and which made recommendations to Truman on whether to pursue development of the hydrogen bomb, concluded that the h-bomb met no useful military purpose, and should not be pursued. Truman disagreed, and the arms race was born.

Here is what the current Presidential candidates are saying about the use of nuclear weapons:

Hillary Clinton (D), on 1/5/2008, at Manchester, NH, in the Democratic Candidates Debate, on the use of nuclear weapons:
"You know, deterrence worked during the Cold War in large measure because the United States made it clear to the Soviet Union that there would be massive retaliation. We have to make it clear to those states that would give safe haven to stateless terrorists, that would launch a nuclear attack against America that they would also face a very heavy retaliation."*

John McCain (R), on 8/5/2007, at the GOP Iowa Straw Poll Debate, on the use of nuclear weapons:
"It's naive to say that we will never use nuclear weapons."*

Barack Obama (D), on 8/2/2007, from the Associate Press, on the use of nuclear weapons, while responding to a question by the Associated Press about whether there was any circumstance where he would be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden:
“I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance involving civilians. Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table.”*

If you are interested in a historical viewpoint, take a look at these documents on my Web site at under For Professors and Researchers/Document Archive/Oppenheimer: Oppenheimer’s Farewell Speech to Los Alamos, November 2, 1945; Atomic Weapons and American Policy, July 1953; and the No First Use Appeal of February 14, 1950.

What are your thoughts? What lessons should we have learned from Oppenheimer and history?

*Source: Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( Read More......

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New Web site fights secrecy and lies

Tom commented that “secrecy is the great theme of Oppenheimer’s life and of American history in our time.” (See comments under “Our Nuclear Past and Present.”)

Indeed, secrecy fueled the revocation hearings which destroyed Oppenheimer’s credibility and fanned the fears which gave birth to the early arms race. Those facts have been hidden from the American public for decades, by denying the public access to classified documents which would have revealed embarrassing truths.

Now, declassified documents and private papers of key players in the Oppenheimer hearings have been made available to the public for the first time on my newly launched Web site,

This Web site is based on my book, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (Penguin: 2006). The Web site includes the private papers of participants and newly declassified U.S. government documents which show how critics of military policy and military secrecy were silenced at the height of the Cold War, allowing the arms race to proceed unchecked, creating dangers that still haunt us today.

Look at some of the study questions in the Study Guide section of the Web site. Look especially at the last question, “Describe the relationship between scientists and the Bush Administration today? What are some of the principal areas of disagreement?” How would you answer that question? Which of those disagreements date back to the birth of the arms race? Are there new areas of disagreement that didn’t exist in 1945? Explore the Web site before you answer.

Click on “comment” (on this blog site) under this post to join in the discussion. Read More......

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Our Nuclear Past and Present

As we leave Super Tuesday behind and the presidential race narrows, candidates' positions on US nuclear policy are bound to receive closer scrutiny.

Prior candidates positions on nuclear policy have affected every presidential since the first atomic bomb burst in 1945. For that reason, it is important to remember the days when nuclear policy was first brought to national attention, by the very scientists who created nuclear weapons.

My book and my new Web site, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, tell the inside story of events that led to Oppenheimer’s security revocation hearing. The hearing in April and May of 1954 was the culmination of a lengthy campaign by a cabal of hard-line air force officials, anti-Communist politicians, and rival scientists such as Edward Teller to discredit Oppenheimer and steer US weapons policy toward reliance on larger and more deadly nuclear weapons.

The hearing was a tragedy for everyone involved. But its key outcomes were the destruction of Oppenheimer and the marginalizing of scientists who had urged restraint in the expansion of nuclear armaments.

I’ve created a new Web site, to be released Friday, that will explore the case of Oppenheimer’s security revocation, how it relates to the arms race, and how research into this historic incident is being conducted today. The Web site will include newly released original documents to help scholars, teachers and students study this important historic incident, and connect it to what is happening with nuclear policy, government secrecy, and civil liberties today. As Santayana reminds us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Stay tuned for more Web site information! Read More......

Monday, February 4, 2008

Government Secrecy

Hello all!

Priscilla here. Today’s topic is government secrecy.

In a secrets-driven nation that spent $43.5 billion on intelligence in 2007, and spent $9.5 billion creating and maintaining classified documents and determining who had the clearances to see them, the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a timely reminder of how secrecy can be easily wielded to violate the rights of individuals.

How many of you are familiar with the fact that during Robert Oppenheimer’s security revocation hearing in 1954, his lawyer was frequently barred from the hearing room because he didn’t have the proper “security clearance” to hear the testimony being given against Oppenheimer?

A real defense of Oppenheimer was impossible to mount under those conditions, just as a real defense is impossible to mount for the inmates of Guantanamo today. Robert Oppenheimer’s security revocation hearing was a prime example of how the constitutional rights of the individual are trampled by the “requirements” of government secrecy.

Or take the example of Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and a world leader on the growing dangers of global warming. He was directed to submit his lectures, papers, and postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists to the agency’s public affairs staff for prior review. The reason given was the “need for coordination.” Fortunately, Dr. Hansen, like Dr. Oppenheimer, refuses to be censored.

Read about Oppenheimer’s hearing in The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and let me know how you think it relates to today’s governmental secrecy issues. Read More......

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Let's talk...

Hello all!

My name is Priscilla McMillan. I am the author of a book published in 2005, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race. I am also the author of Khrushchev and the Arts and Marina and Lee, the story of Lee Harvey Oswald.

If you care about nuclear arms control, a more open government, civil liberties, and how America got embroiled in the cold war conflict that ultimately culminated in the great Star Wars deception, then the Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a must read for you. If you haven’t read my book yet, read the section following this, About My Book, for an overview.

Some of you may already have read my book. If so, I’d love to hear from you what you thought of the book, and how you have used it, or are using it, in your studies or work. You can use the comment feature of the blog, or email me at I’ll summarize comments about the book, and how people are using the book, in a future posting. Read More......