A bomb that backfired; The Secret That Exploded, by Howard Morland. New York: Random House. $14.95.
Howard Morland is an epistemological terrorist who, with the intention of performing a valuable service toward the prevention of thermonuclear Armageddon, has committed what may instead be a monstrous disservice to that cause. His book is well written, revealing, engaging at times, and morbidly fascinating throughout, yet should probably never have been published. For an understanding of those related paradoxes, it is necessary to consider a bit of background.
Morland is the sometime journalist and itinerant ban- the-bomb activist who in 1979 proposed to broadcast, in an article for The Progressive magazine, the crucial engineering secret of the H-bomb. That secret consisted of a single very technical and ingenious idea -- hit upon by Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam in March of 1951, and now known as the "Teller-Ulam Configuration" -- by which a fission explosion is used to trigger a much more horrific fusion explosion. The Teller-Ulam Configuration remained for 28 years perhaps the most jealously guarded military secret of the United States government -- though it was meanwhile discovered independently or stolen by the military establishments of the Soviet Union, China, Britain, and France.
Howard Morland ferreted out what is probably an accurate version of that secret by diligent research in public sources, cagey interviewing of unsuspecting scientists, and otherwise poking around as, in his own phrase, "an amateur atom spy." He and The Progressive fought a court case for the right to publish this secret, intending to use it as merely the attention-grabbing centerpiece for an article advocating greater public awareness about the dangers of the arms race. They won. Morland's "The H-bomb Secret" appeared in the magazine's November issue that year. It was subtitled "To Know How Is to Ask Why." Diagrams were included.
"The Secret That Exploded" is Morland's own brash account of all this, complete with the original suppressed article as an appendix, and revised diagrams that will tell you everything you are likely to need to know about H-bomb design. It is a very difficult book on which to offer a capsule judgment , being at the same time so good and so awful: good because it reveals unsparingly the tangle of motivations and reasoning that led Morland on his crusade; awful because, in the end, those motivations and that reasoning are so utterly unsatisfactory as validation for what he did.
Perhaps the information Morland has collected ism strategically worthless to any foreign government, as he claims (intermittently and self-contradictorily) here; very possibly it is not worthless at all. But what is certainly worthless is the specious logic by which he justifies his great revelation. "To know how" may in fact be a first step toward asking "why"; yet the original Morland article barely touched on the question of why Truman in 1950 decided the US must have the world's first H-bomb, and Morland does little better in his book.He professes that, by earning himself in this desperate way a soapbox for his views on unilateral disarmament, he can do the world more good than harm. That isn't likely. Morland's political analysis is hopelessly puerile, his treatment of the decisive historical moments is shallow, and his few recommendations are not persuasive.
Which is too bad, for him and perhaps for us. "The Secret That Exploded" does contain appealing doses of humor and candor, and Morland's overall presentation would be seductive, were it not that his ingenuousness is far surpassed by his breathtakingly presumptuous, snow-blind self-righteousness. And much of what Morland says about the arms race, about the corporate contractors that make it go, about the head-in-the-sand attitude that we American ostriches tend to take toward it is very valid and very important. But neither penetrating nor original nor constructive enough, alas, to be anywhere near worth the price that Howard Morland's fame may have cost us.