Richard T. Sylves, The Nuclear Oracles: A Political History of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1947-1977. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987. US$27.50(hb).

(A review published in Metascience, volume 7, number 2, 1989, pp. 119-120.)


The 1946 legislation which established the United States Atomic Energy Commission also set up a General Advisory Committee to advise the Commission on scientific and technical matters. Over its 30-year history, many highly prominent US scientists and engineers served on the Committee, including Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. This book is a record of the composition and activities of the Committee, based primarily on records of Committee meetings which have been declassified. Sylves meticulously presents detailed information about the Committee, including appointments, career histories of members and career path associations between them. He also recounts major issues dealt with by the Committee, including the nuclear energy laboratories, the hydrogen bomb and civilian uses of nuclear explosives. Unfortunately, this careful study falls to provide more than a mention of the wider political context. Topics such as the atomic scientists' movement, the cold war and the anti-communist purge (McCarthyism), US government nuclear weapons diplomacy and the peace movement are given little or no discussion.

The result is a relatively internalist account. This is not quite a house history. Anthony A. Tomei, secretary to the Committee for almost its entire life, closely viewed all versions of the manuscript. Sylves notes that he and Tomei "essentially agree in matters of interpretation" but that any critical references to the Committee or its members "should be attributed exclusively to the author" (pp. xv, xvi). The trouble is that there aren't many.

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