Testimony in the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer

- Hans Bethe

Q. Do you have any opinion, Dr. Bethe, on the question of whether there has been in fact any delay in the development and the perfection of thermonuclear weapons by the United States?

A. I do not think that there has been any delay. I will try to keep this unclassified. I can't promise that I can make myself fully clear on this.

Q. Try to, will you?

A. I will try. When President Truman decided to go ahead with the hydrogen bomb in January 1950, there was really no clear technical program that could be followed. This became even more evident later on when new calculations were made at Los Alamos, and when these new calculations showed that the basis for technical optimism which had existed in the fall of 1949 was very shaky, indeed. The plan which then existed for the making of a hydrogen bomb turned out to be less and less promising as time went on.

Q. What interval are you now speaking of?

A. I am speaking of the interval of from January 1950 to early 1951. It was a time when it would not have been possible by adding more people to make any more progress. The more people would have to do would have to be work on the things which turned out to be fruitful.

Finally there was a very brilliant discovery made by Dr. Teller. It was one of the discoveries for which you cannot plan, one of the discoveries like the discovery of the relativity theory, although I don't want to compare the two in importance. But something which is a stroke of genius, which does not occur in the normal development of ideas. But somebody has to suddenly have an inspiration. It was such an inspiration which Dr. Teller had which put the program on a sound basis.

Only after there was such a sound basis could one really talk of a technical program. Before that, it was essentially only speculation, essentially only just trying to do something without having really a direction in which to go. Now things changed very much. After this brilliant discovery there was a program.

Q. Dr. Bethe, if the board and Mr. Robb would permit me, I would like to ask you somewhat a hypothetical question. Would your attitude about work on the thermonuclear program in 1949 have differed if at that time there had been available this brilliant discovery or brilliant inspiration, whatever you call it, that didn't come to Teller until the spring of 1951?

A. It is very difficult to answer this.

Q. Don't answer it if you can't.

A. I believe it might have been different.

Q. Why?

A. I was hoping that it might be possible to prove that thermonuclear reactions were not feasible at all. I would have thought that the greatest security for the United States would have lain in the conclusive proof of the impossibility of a thermonuclear bomb. I must confess that this was the main motive which made me start work on thermonuclear reactions in the summer of 1950.

With the new [Teller-Ulam idea?] I think the situation changed because it was then clear, or almost clear - at least very likely - that thermonuclear weapons were indeed possible. If thermonuclear weapons were possible, I felt that we should have that first and as soon as possible. So I think my attitude might have been different.

Q. One final question, Dr. Bethe. I should have asked you this. I have referred you to the press statements and the article that you published in the late winter and spring of 1950, expressing critical views of the H-bomb program. Did you ever discuss those moves, that is to make such statements and write such articles, with Dr. Oppenheimer?

A. I never did. In fact, after the President's decision, he would never discuss any matters of policy with me. There had been in fact a directive from President Truman to the GAC not to discuss the reasons of the GAC or any of the procedures, and Dr. Oppenheimer held to this di-rective very strictly.

Q. Did you consult him about the article?

A. I don't think I consulted him at all about the article. I consulted him about the statement that we made. As far as I remember, he gave no opinion.

Q. On the basis of your association with him, your knowledge of him over these many years, would you care to express an opinion about Dr. Oppenheimer's loyalty to the United States, about his character, about his discretion in regard to matters of security?

A. I am certainly happy to do this. I have absolute faith in Dr. Oppenheimer's loyalty. I have always found that he had the best interests of the United States at heart. I have always found that if he differed from other people in his judgment, that it was because of a deeper thinking about the possible consequences of our action than the other people had. I believe that it is an expression of loyalty - of particular loyalty - if a person tries to go beyond the obvious and tries to make available his deeper insight, even in making unpopular suggestions, even in making suggestions which are not the obvious ones to make, are not those which a normal intellect might be led to make.

I have absolutely no question that he has served this country very long and very well. I think everybody agrees that his service in Los Alamos was one of the greatest services that were given to this country. I believe he has served equally well in the GAC in reestablishing the strength of our atomic weapons program in 1947. 1 have faith in him quite generally.

Q. You and he are good friends?

A. Yes.

Q. Would you expect him to place his loyalty to his country even above his loyalty to a friend?

A. I suppose so. Mr. Marks. That is all.

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