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 thedevelopment 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 thatI 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 wasreally no clear technical program that could be followed. This became even more evident later on when newcalculations were made at Los Alamos, and when these new calculations showed that the basis for technicaloptimism which had existed in the fall of 1949 was very shaky, indeed. The plan which then existed for themaking 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 havebeen possible by adding more people to make any more progress. The more people would have to do would haveto 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 youcannot plan, one of the discoveries like the discovery of the relativity theory, although I don't want tocompare the two in importance. But something which is a stroke of genius, which does not occur in the normaldevelopment 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 wasessentially only speculation, essentially only just trying to do something without having really a directionin 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 hypotheticalquestion. Would your attitude about work on the thermonuclear program in 1949 have differed if at that timethere had been available this brilliant discovery or brilliant inspiration, whatever you call it, thatdidn'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. Iwould have thought that the greatest security for the United States would have lain in the conclusive proofof the impossibility of a thermonuclear bomb. I must confess that this was the main motive which made mestart 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 werepossible, I felt that we should have that first and as soon as possible. So I think my attitude might havebeen different.

Q. One final question, Dr. Bethe. I should have asked you this. I have referred you to the press statementsand the article that you published in the late winter and spring of 1950, expressing critical views of theH-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 withme. There had been in fact a directive from President Truman to the GAC not to discuss the reasons of theGAC 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 toexpress an opinion about Dr. Oppenheimer's loyalty to the United States, about his character, about hisdiscretion 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 foundthat he had the best interests of the United States at heart. I have always found that if he differed fromother people in his judgment, that it was because of a deeper thinking about the possible consequences ofour 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 makingunpopular suggestions, even in making suggestions which are not the obvious ones to make, are not thosewhich 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 everybodyagrees that his service in Los Alamos was one of the greatest services that were given to this country. Ibelieve he has served equally well in the GAC in reestablishing the strength of our atomic weapons programin 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.