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tea house, nuclear weapons, Manhattan Project

The Tea House Serves The Bomb

Bohr and Oppenheimer were out to save humankind from the abyss, with one building the bomb and the other banning it.

Words: Robert Andersen
Pictures: 五玄土 ORIENTO

Is It Big Enough?Niels Bohr

Not the smallest part of the life we came to lead, Miss Warner, was you. Evenings in your place by the river, by the table so neatly set, before the fireplaces so carefully contrived, gave us a little of your assurance, allowed us to belong, took us from the green temporary houses and the bulldozed roads. We shall not forget…I am glad that at the foot of our canyons there is a house where the spirit of Bohr is so well understood. Philip Morrison

This is not a species to be trusted with nuclear weapons.Daniel Ellsberg


Leave it to Leo Szilard to show up uninvited, lugging his quick escape suitcases even in death, conscience-stricken as ever, a recusant spirit spoiling the preprandial bonhomie with loaded questions about crimes against humanity. The self-styled “war criminal” just can’t leave it alone, can’t let Hiroshima live down its singular hecatomb. What’s done is done ad nauseum. Ancient history. What more to say about The Bomb, about Death In Life? Especially when you’re dead yourself.  No, leave it to a reproving Szilard to stir the pot noch enimal.

So just when Neils Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer were beginning to let down their guards and relish anew the hospitality of Edith Warner, who took great pains in recreating the Tea House “just as it was” — savor the pinon redolent candle-lit interior, salivate over the ragout of lamb on the wood stove and the fabled chocolate cake that defeated Hill fever — Szilard barges in to browbeat the revenant pair into owning up to a lack of moral imagination. He who never stepped foot on The Hill in life — you go “crazy up there,” he famously said in 1943 — now shows up in death to lecture the Great Dane about his responsibility to the historical record. Talk about crazy.

Instead of a well-deserved rest from their posthumous personas, from their histrionic labors in “Copenhagen” and “Doctor Atomic” respectively, Bohr and Oppenheimer find themselves starring in another morality play, like it or not. They do not. Oppenheimer can’t catch a break from being typecast as the “I Am Become Death” heavy, afflicted with blood on his hands and supernova ambition in his soul, his Faustian bargain dooming him to endless performance as the Destroyer Of Worlds. No wonder he shows up at the Tea House in cowboy garb, sporting spurs and wearing a Comanche war bonnet.

Behold the operatic evisceration of the tormented polymath. Spilling his guts as the American Hamlet. Watch him wax poetic as he wrests the primordial powers from the cosmic order. The lurid thunder-and-lightning countdown to Trinity grist for the labored “Doctor Atomic” libretto. A crime against humanity personified by a human gargoyle. The Song of the Rio Grande this is not. The American Prometheus brought low. Eat your heart out JRO.

What if Hiroshima was just another firebombed city? And World War III was fought with conventional weapons? A chain reaction of counterfactuals leads to an explosive revelation.

For Bohr, his birthright Copenhagen, wonderful wonderful Copenhagen, now conjures a cruelty at the hands of an English playwright, an ordeal night after night of reliving the nadir of the Occupation, the night Heisenberg came to call, seeking what exactly. Not expatriation. Not exculpation. Certainly not expiation. Bad enough to be summoned from the peace of the grave to go round and round with his estranged wartime caller, an integral part of the family not so long ago, circumspection a too painful two-body problem, but to involve his beloved wife, Margrethe, to force them to relive the drowning of their eldest son, Christian, all the while a smug Heisenberg is leading him into a verbal trap, “admit it Bohr that you were the one with blood on your hands,” is too much for the eminence grise to live down. Still reeling from the coup d’theater. Move over Galileo, the English Brecht has Bohr’s atomic number.

So every reason to be wary about an invitation to a repast prepared by the redoubtable Warner herself. Who knows what verbal traps will be set, even if the playwright is a Robert from Berkeley physics whose Danish surname is literary gold in Copenhagen. No, having set his play inside the refuge of the Tea House, knowing full well that Mr. Baker and Mr. Opp could not resist the temptation to retreat to their favorite wartime idyll, to the comfort of Miss Warner’s comfort food, when The Bomb was still The Great Hope and the Song Of The Rio Grande could still be heard in dulcet sonority, our playwright, employing two high maintenance/high dudgeon Hungarians as aggrieved foils, a lugubrious Szilard and a lathered Edward Teller, will depose the august trinity — Bohr, Oppenheimer, and Hans Bethe, The Conscience Of The Atomic Scientists — in an effort to triangulate the Journada del Muerto, to establish the moral compass that propelled them to ignore the example of Josef Rotblat and slog on, bearing the cross of humankind across the desert to Trinity and Hiroshima. The Journey Of Death indeed.

The fateful spectrum of specters, coming and going. Adolf Hitler and World War III. To think a fata morgana — the dreaded German Bomb — had fissioned after all, produced not one but two bombs, the fait accompli of the American Bomb, aka The Winning Weapon, and the Deus Ex, aka The Great Hope, the Science Bomb.

And not only The Bomb but The Super. And not only The Super but the Doomsday Machine, the whole vast panoply of bombs big and small, under the command-and-control of the Nuclear Triad. Each and everyone a crime against humanity. Each and every one an extinction-level event. A 24/7 test of the Bohr-Oppenheimer Certainty Principle, that nuclear arms races end in catastrophe. As I. I. Rabi aptly put it after Trinity, “Suddenly the day of judgment was the next day and has been ever since.”

On the eve of the 75th anniversary of The Bomb our quartet of revenants, backs up thanks to Szilard, sit down to a repast, a ragout of reflection and recrimination and rue. Over chocolate cake Andrei Sakharov, Szilard’s “war criminal” protégé, will make an appearance. Richard Feynman, resolute in the wings, will refuse to participate. “You’re all nuts.” Warner, who glides silently through the dinner service, as was her wont, will await the “magic word” from Mr. Baker, who she reveres above all others. A deeply felt bond between the two. The Spirit Of Bohr pervades this Tea House recreation as well. But, playwright’s prerogative, the magic words will come from her mouth in a long soliloquy at the end, when the spirits of Mr. Baker and Mr. Opp are released into the ether, hopefully never to return to the stage. The Final Curtain Call.


This play has been long in the making. All my life, in fact. Born in the Year Zero, in May 1945, atop Buena Vista Hill overlooking Civic Center and the War Memorial Opera House, where the San Francisco Conference was in the throes of birthing the United Nations, perforce a blue diaper baby, I too have been making my peace with total war ever since, in ways martial and irenic, the residue of every nuclear test since Trinity found in my bones, the x-ray of every nuclear scenario found in my psyche. Ban The Bomb and Brandish The Bomb and Ignore The Bomb. Think The Unthinkable. Imagine The Unthinkable. Counterforce and Countervalue. Mutally Assured Destruction (MAD) ensures our mental health.

Little Boy leaves San Francisco bound for Tinian and the bomb-bay of the Enola Gay, while this little boy, eight years later, watches in fascination as A-bomb laden B-36s practice Doomsday Runs high overhead. San Francisco will have the distinction of being the most atom-bombed city on the planet, several hundred sorties a month in the 1950s. The scary footage from the Nevada Test site, of houses blown away by the shock wave, creates two bodies, one flesh and blood, free to enjoy an ordinary boyhood, the other a Test Site mannequin never to grow up, awaiting the shock wave over and over again.

Radioactive I am, in ways that recount the saga of The Bomb in half-lives, of dread and fatalism and activism and intellectualism, enervation and resignation and exultation and renewed alarm. Round and round I go, year in and year out, my two body problem in Cold War practice. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, down on your knees, a Catholic High School prayer for Marian intercession; a subsequent enlistment in the Navy to serve aboard a Polaris submarine; service aboard a destroyer carrying three nukes, subkiloton sub-killers; at UC Berkeley as a physics undergrad, umpteen trips to Lawrence Livermore to debate and protest; at the Institute Of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, where I begin writing about the makers of The Bomb in purple prose, cue the thunder and lightning of Trinity.; the famous editor who wants me to write the big book of the atomic scientists; a debut in Physics Today with a book review instead of the 60-page essay in Harper’s; the Nuclear Freeze Movement, including the great march in New York in 1983, the year of maximum danger take two, when the world came within a split-second decision of triggering the Russian doomsday machine.

Like everyone else, I exulted when the Cold War, no little thanks to Nancy Reagan, by the way, enjoyed a Hollywood Ending. Indeed, the miracle of miracles (MOM) got us out of the 20th Century alive, notwithstanding tens of thousands of megatons in the superpower arsenals. Providence had humankind’s back, after all. The safety locks held. Well one did anyway.

But just when it looked like nuclear war was dead and buried, consign those megatons to a hecatomb of their own, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and (New) START, a hydra-headed Nemesis (NON) appears, and the obsolete two-state problem, the US and the USSR, now becomes a nine state proliferation nightmare,  too many fingers on the nuclear trigger. The events of 9/11 reassure that the Jihadi Bomb remains a spectre, but the War On Terror weaponizes the weapons-of-mass-destruction mantra into a crazy-quilt Balance Of Terror, tilting ever so inexorably to the abyss, to a nuclear winter that will arrest global warming with room to spare. The return of the Ice Age. The Indus Valley, where civilization began, is the likely place for it to end. The globe is now wired for simultaneous detonation. No shortage of flashpoints, as President Vladimir Putin’s brinksmanship makes clear. The Doomsday Clock now reads 90 seconds to The End.


The muscle memory of nuclear showdown returns, and so, fearful for the immediate future noch einmal, I land a visiting scholar semester at Notre Dame, where I begin thinking anew about the moral imagination of the atomic scientists. A subject that defeated me as a young writer turning futile hermeneutic circles. A reconnaissance in the library assures me there is room on the groaning shelf for two slim volumes, one a study of that imagination, the other a drama, an exercise of that imagination. Bohr would approve, complementarity at work.

The Spirit Of Bohr is the alpha and omega of this tandem project. Remove Bohr from the nuclear equation, and you have an Oppenheimer inflated to Doctor Atomic stature. (Or, forthcoming, in black and white Imax, the American Prometheus.) Bohr’s arrival at Los Alamos in late December 1943 was galvanic, and a game changer. There really is no saga of the atomic scientists without his outsized moral intervention. As his friend Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter put it, he was “a man weighted down with a conscience and an almost overwhelming solicitude for the dangers of our people.”

The Spirit Of Bohr is the alpha and omega of this tandem project. Remove Bohr from the nuclear equation, and you have an Oppenheimer inflated to Doctor Atomic stature.

Just as he had been rescued from Denmark, bringing Danish Jewry with him, so too would he rescue humankind from total war. Briefed in England on the stupendous size of the Manhattan Project, Bohr went to Los Alamos as seer and sage, bearer of the good news. Ecstatic he was, for he had made the most profound discovery of all, embodying, as it were, the Archimedean Point itself. Hence the first words out of his mouth upon arrival on the Hill: Is It Big Enough?

Behold the Deus Ex, the Great Hope, the Weapon to end all Wars. Bohr’s Sermon On The Mesa turned one wartime emergency into quite another. What the historian John Dower calls “idealistic annihilation” was the World War II endgame set in motion by the Bohr-Oppenheimer rescue of humankind from the abyss of World War III. A crime against humanity in order to save humanity. Hiroshima was in the cross-hairs of the fait-accompli, the Winning Weapon, a Groves-Oppenheimer production. “Saved” from fire-bombing. But it was also in the cross-hairs of the Deus Ex. A Bohr-Oppenheimer production. Groves gave The Bomb primitive life by brute force, emergency priority, mighty engineering; Bohr gave it casuistic finesse, diplomatic leverage, moral legitimacy.

If Oppenheimer was the demiurge at Los Alamos, Bohr was the thaumaturge-in-residence, the magus of the “magic word.” Without his high hopes, no Trinity; without his tacit approval, no Hiroshima. Indeed this dynamic duo cannot be separated by conventional means. One good reason why Oppenheimer looms so large his abundant U238 to Bohr’s rare U235. But thanks to the herculean archival work of  Gregg Herken, Martin Sherwin, Richard Rhodes — in particular, the gravity-bending tomes of Richard Rhodes — we find their rescue mission laid out in plain sight, Bohr accorded the importance he deserves. With Bohr supplying the missing initiative, the Manhattan Project goes critical. Acquires eschatological purpose and resolve. Indeed we could say Bohr and not Oppenheimer was the commanding presence at Los Alamos.

Thanks to the Atomic Scientists Movement, The Bomb was banned, and Hiroshima turned into a Peace City. Never to forget the five-day preview of World War III. But now the effects of The Bomb have “run out.” Humankind has been pushing its luck to the limit and beyond. MAD has become madness.  Now that the “smell of burning” that unnerved Sergei Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis is back, as apocalyptic as ever, issuing this time tout l’azimuth, from the globe as a whole, the prospects of avoiding World War III are prohibitive. Instead of the race to zero, there is now a race to first strike, as the We Will Bury You “modernization” of the nuclear arsenals proceed apace. The Chinese have discovered first-strike, hence the threefold increase in intercontinental ballistic missiles. Hair-trigger syndrome is now state-of-the-art in command-and-control. The Jihadi Bomb is only a matter of time. Duck and cover, indeed.


Back to square one. Back to Year Zero. Back to the atomic scientists. Back to the rescue of humankind from the abyss. Back to the Tea House, and Warner and Tilano, Mr. Baker and Mr. Opp. Eighty years ago, the Los Alamos Laboratory — Site Y — sprung up overnight mining town style, and the newly named Director, Robert Oppenheimer, recruited Warner to provide a semblance of civilized life to the scientists landing in the middle of nowhere and laboring on a black hole.

Instead of going under, following the Chili Line and the Los Alamos Ranch School into oblivion, the Tea House flourished as a retreat and idyll for the Site Y elite. Reservations were booked months in advance, and the regulars, including Mr. Baker and Mr. Opp, commanded the long table in the middle. Two seatings at two dollars a person, no tips, no alcohol, the Tea House was too good to be true to its pseudonymous patrons, who craved the ambiance and cooking of Ms. Warner, who, together with her Native American helpmate, Tilano Montoya, put in grueling 16-hour days. Water had to be hauled from the well and without electricity, the kiva-like space was lighted by oil lamps and the pinon-fed fireplace in the corner.

Instead of going under, following the Chili Line and the Los Alamos Ranch School into oblivion, the Tea House flourished as a retreat and idyll for the Site Y elite.

By all accounts, the resulting ambiance was ensorcelling. Hill fever got ameliorated for the tonic hours spent harkening to the Song of the Rio Grande in the company of luminaries who frequented the potlatch, foremost of whom was Mr. Baker, aka Niels Bohr. Edith, who had known Oppenheimer since 1937, when he appeared at the doorstep in full western regalia, down to spurs, off a trail ride eager for a slice of her famous chocolate cake, had a pronounced affinity for Mr. Baker (she always called him by his nom de guerre). Indeed it is safe to call them soulmates. As Bohr wrote to her sister after her untimely death, Warner had “an intuitive understanding which was a bond between us.”

Warner had gone native, emerged from a bout of “New Mexico-itis” to achieve a profound identification with the land, with the indigenous, with human being at its aesthetic and ascetic best. The Rachel Carson of mesa and pueblo. A life lived in extreme penury, she became a self-healed vessel of firm practicality and resolute spirituality. A questing spirit, she came to live a life of down-to-earth wisdom and soaring communion with the chthonic and the ineffable. She, too, lived a numinous life around the bend, on the edge of eschatology. She knew what they were doing up on the Hill, which is why she refused to go up there during the War. But she also knew that if anyone could turn The Bomb into the Great Hope, it was Mr. Baker, who always got that second slice of chocolate cake. She made sure of that.


During the War, her Tea House was a retreat. A place where the spirit of Bohr could find sustenance. A place that recreates itself on the eve of the 75th anniversary of Year Zero, of the original ground zero. Atomic scientists, too, have to eat, especially those long dead. The table talk promises to be spirited, combative. Above all, instructive. After all, there is a lot to discuss. A whole raft of topics about what they had done and not done and what had to be done if humankind was to escape the abyss they had created in supreme emergency. The ten years that shook the planet to its core, the black hole of the Doomsday Machine, has their names on it. They made it possible. They own it. They can never escape that patented fate, even if, no small irony, mortality walk was to prove their individual fates. Bethe, the level-headed “battleship,” lasted until 98. What do they have to say about it now that the Machine is back in full operation, more minatory than ever? Humankind is in need of another rescue from the abyss. Perhaps they have a few ideas. Or at least some histrionic bravado to impart before fading away for good.


The division of labor between the two, predicated on the bomb being big enough,  meant Bohr was the embassy from the Future, speaking truth to power, informing the Big Three that the jig was up, power politics and another arms race, this one with nuclear weapons, could only lead to World War III and the extinction of humankind. The Bohr-Oppenheimer Certainty Principle.

Oppenheimer had the cold-blooded task of taskmaster, ensuring The Bomb would be ready before the War ended. And not only ready, but demonstrated on a city as a preview of what was to come. No Hiroshima no International Control Of Nuclear Energy. No International Control Of Nuclear Energy no escape from the marching orders of total war. The ultimate hermeneutic circle.

The workload at Los Alamos increased dramatically once it became clear that the German Bomb had been a chimera all along. Only one scientist, Josef Rotblat, quit the Project. The Bohr-Oppenheimer force field was strong enough to deflect or turn back the moral qualms of going forward. Szilard’s last-ditch petition to prevent a Hiroshima was tabled as a result of strong pressure by Oppenheimer himself. Teller allowed himself to be talked out of signing, and the petition was not circulated.

Ergo, a beset Szilard crashes the dinner party, and a grudge-filled Teller assails Oppenheimer, and so The Bomb becomes the main course, of course.


This repast puts words in the mouths of revenants, ala Copenhagen, but it puts the interlocutors in a serene, somnolent setting. Wartime is kept out of sight, in the wings. Absent the Hungarians, the evening would be spent in reverie and reflection, hardly the stuff of drama. Acrimony would be absent. The Song Of The Rio Grande would engulf the voices, especially that of Niels Bohr, notorious for speaking barely above a whisper. You had to lean in to hear what he had to say. Which was quite a lot. Bohr was as voluble as he was volume-challenged. Later Oppenheimer would adopt the lower register as well, delphic style, in his media-savvy role as panegyrist of pure science. Pure baloney.

Winston Churchill had no patience for Bohr. He did not lean in but rather recoiled at his “hair all over his face” presence. Indeed, he gave him the bum’s rush. The embassy from the Future did not have standing in the prime minister’s inner sanctum. Churchill went off on a rant that left Bohr reeling, flummoxed, speechless. He did much better with FDR, an hour and a half on the same wavelength. Bohr emerged from that meeting elated. But his mission to Moscow was aborted, and Bohr eventually found himself rerouted to Oak Ridge instead. Bohr was getting the run-around, which was just fine with General Groves, who also had his eye on the future. Quite a different future, no need for international control, it was already under his control. Groves had cornered the world’s supply of despair in the form of yellow-cake. The Winning Weapon was American in perpetuity. Talk about leverage.

Hope springs eternal, and great hope is now centered on The Bomb to make its One World Or None statement. FDR sided with Churchill, who found Bohr on the “edge of mortal crimes.” Bohr was unacquainted with Kafka’s dictum steeped in bitter irony: “He found the Archimedean Point , but he used it against himself; it seems that he was permitted to find it only under this condition.”

Here the what-ifs acquire critical mass. Acquire a history of their own. What if Bohr had quit the project, contributed to the Franck Report, signed the Szilard Petition, convinced Oppenheimer over dinner at the Tea House that The Bomb was — pace The Super four years later — “evil in any light.” What if he had come to realize the Great Hope was a great snare and delusion? That the Complementarity of The Bomb was not a gravid contradiction — Build The Bomb in order to Ban The Bomb — but a mental trap. Kafka, not Kant. The bitterest of ironies. What if he had convinced Oppenheimer to quit the project as well? What if he had seen them standing on the edge of mortal crimes and called them back from the precipice? What if he had exercised his moral imagination to swear an oath never to work on nuclear weapons. What if Los Alamos was returned to the Indians, as Oppenheimer once quipped?

What if Hiroshima was just another firebombed city? And World War III was fought with conventional weapons? A chain reaction of counterfactuals leads to an explosive revelation. There’s a lot to chew over at dinner. A gustatory rite-of-passage. On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Trinity and Hiroshima the revenants heed the Tea House summons one last time, for what promises to be a long evening by the Otowi Bridge.

But first harken to The Song Of The Rio Grande, an aria for an operetta.

Lights Up. The pas de deux of Edith and Tilano.

The Tea House is back for one night only.

Robert Andersen

Robert Andersen is a Visiting Fellow at the Naval War College, where he is writing a novel about the US Navy in Vietnam.

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