In the years following the end of World War II, the United States gradually found itself confronting a new enemy: the Soviet Union. At the outset of the Cold War, as the new period of international tension was called, the United States had a single, gigantic advantage, since it maintained a nuclear monopoly. As long as the United States had the bomb and the Soviets did not, there could be no question as to which country was the world's number one superpower.
Oppenheimer had originally argued that the United States should tell its Soviet allies about the bomb project during the war, partly in the hopes of avoiding a future arms race. But the government rejected this idea, choosing instead to keep the bomb program a secret and eventually relishing their nuclear superiority.
But as the physicists knew, there was no big secret to nuclear power, only some fundamental physical principles and a large number of technical problems to figure out. This meant that it was only a matter of time before the Soviets were able to construct their own atomic bomb. Estimates of how long this would take varied; some argued it would take the Soviets ten years, others suggested it might only be four or five. It seems, however, that no one was listening to their warnings, for when the Soviet Union set off a nuclear explosion in September of 1949, the United States was taken by complete surprise.
The country was shocked, and the always-cautious government assumed that this must mean there had been Soviet spies within Los Alamos. Oppenheimer, once again, became a prime target of suspicion. But as investigators tried to determine exactly how the Soviet bomb program had gotten its information, government officials were scrambling to decide on an appropriate American response to the new Soviet nuclear threat.
One suggestion set off a year's worth of top-secret debate and controversy among the highest levels of the government, military, and scientific community. It was the suggestion that the only way to appropriate way to react to the Soviets getting the bomb was to one-up them by developing what scientists liked to call "the Super," or, more technically, a hydrogen bomb.
After the war, physicist Edward Teller had stayed at Los Alamos, working with a team on a new type of bomb, the hydrogen bomb, which would generate energy by fusing together hydrogen atoms. Such a bomb would be hundreds of times more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan. While a hydrogen bomb was theoretically possible, there was still some question as to whether the physicists could actually build one.
The question was passed to the Atomic Energy Commission to ponder–should the United States begin a crash program to build a hydrogen bomb. The debate was fierce. Supporters of the Super argued that if the United States didn't build one, the Soviets inevitably would and put us in an unacceptable position of nuclear inferiority. But Oppenheimer's GAC eventually rejected this assertion, deciding that even if the Soviets did construct a hydrogen bomb, the United States' stock of atomic bombs would provide enough retaliatory power to ensure the country's safety. Deciding that the Super was not necessary to national security, the GAC then rejected the bomb on the grounds that its development would simply be morally unacceptable. As Oppenheimer and his fellow commissioners wrote in an addendum to the committee's final report, "If super bombs will work at all, there is no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained with them. Therefore a super bomb might become a weapon of genocide. We believe a super bomb should never be produced."
But the AEC spoke in vain. On January 31, 1950, President Truman announced that he had decided to sponsor a program to develop the Super. It was a decision in tune with the political climate, and, in fact, the New York Times pointed out that at the time it was the most popular decision in Truman's. The program was a success: in 1952, the United States exploded the first hydrogen bomb, "Mike," in the South Pacific. The explosion released ten megatons of energy, which made "Mike" one thousand times as powerful as the bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima.
Oppenheimer had been on the winning side of so many arguments that it must have come as somewhat of a surprise to find himself in the minority, but it would be a position to which he would soon have to be accustomed. After fighting the losing battle of the Super, Oppenheimer would find himself continually marginalized in future government discussions. Suddenly, at least in the government's eyes, he no longer represented the scientific community, but instead he represented a dangerous liberal who was to be ignored, if not silenced. When Washington did turn its attention to Oppenheimer, they were in no mood to listen. Even after years of service to his country, Oppenheimer's position on the Super was enough to knock him from his public pedestal, and the government was about to kick him while he was down.