Synopses & Reviews
In 1939, physicist Leo Szilard worked desperately to convince the U.S. government to build an atomic bomb. It was Szilard who drafted the famous letter to President Roosevelt, signed by Albert Einstein, on the need to beat Germany in the race for nuclear weapons. But by 1942, with the Manhattan project underway, he already feared that the bomb had taken on a life of its own. Those "who originated the work on this terrible weapon," he argued, had the responsibility to see that it was used "at the proper time and in the proper way." Szilard was ignored--those who built the bomb had little impact on the decision to drop it. But the struggle by scientists to influence weapons policy has continued, down to today's X-ray lasers and SDI.
In Cardinal Choices, Smithsonian historian Gregg Herken provides a fascinating history of the tangled relations between the scientific community and the White House in the nuclear age. Ever since the first nuclear detonation at Trinity Site in New Mexico, 1945, the White House has depended on the technical expertise of scientists as it makes decisions that could affect the survival of the planet. Herken begins with a gripping account of the origins of the Manhattan project, following its growth into a permanent nuclear weapons establishment. He paints precise portraits of the complex personalities at the heart of the ongoing drama, from Robert Oppenheimer's remorse over the bomb he had aggressively pushed forward, to Edward Teller's relentless pursuit of the "Super" (the hydrogen bomb), to President Eisenhower's ambivalence about the mushrooming arms race. And Herken goes behind the scenes in the White House to explore the impact of new and proposed technologies, including the U-2 spy plane, the electronic gadgets poured into Vietnam, and the nuclear explosion-powered X-ray lasers planned for SDI. At the heart of the story is the tension between the experts and the politicians in the making of the "cardinal choices." Herken traces the rise and fall of advisory bodies, from Truman's Science Advisory Committee to Reagan's Office of Science and Technology Policy, as scientists have sought to influence policy, and as presidents have alternated between seeking out their advice and resisting or ignoring it. The record, he writes, "suggests that the question 'Who advises?' is hardly less important than that of 'Who governs?'"
Now, no less than at the height of the Cold War, it is critically important that the president gets sound advice on scientific issues. Cardinal Choices offers a brilliant history of how the White House has been advised over the last fifty years, providing new insight into the role scientists should play in the future.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 301-310) and index.
About the Author
About the Author -
Gregg Herken is Chairman of the Department of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.