MAKING WEAPONS, TALKING PEACE A Physicist's Odyssey From Hiroshima to Geneva By Herbert F. York Basic Books. 359 pp. $22.95

HERB YORK . . . has deserted our cause," Edward Teller wrote bitterly to former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss in 1961, calling York "one of the chief architects of the test ban." Two decades later, when Harold Brown was secretary of defense, Harvard chemist and peace activist George Kistiakowsky heard York make a case for the Midgetman missile. "You have sold out to your friend Harold," the former presidential science adviser angrily charged. Hewing to the middle ground and angering champions at both extremes seems to have been Herbert F. York's chosen lot during his career as a physicist, Pentagon research director and arms negotiator, a burden he carries even into the title of this new memoir in the distinguished Sloan Foundation series. In that ambivalence his career mirrors the frustrating but unavoidable ambivalence of the post-Hiroshima world as well.

York sheds less light on the U.S. decision to accelerate work toward a hydrogen bomb and to build a second weapons laboratory at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory than he might have -- he was part of the pro-H-bomb Berkeley crowd at the time and Livermore's first director. (Edward Teller, who lobbied so vigorously for a second lab to challenge Los Alamos, will not be amused to read here that Ernest Lawrence thought the new institution would be better off without him.) He offers tantalizing glimpses of the still-secret deliberations of the early 1950s that committed the U.S. to build ICBMs and mate them to thermonuclear warheads, deliberations presided over by Hungarians Theodore von Ka'rma`n and John von Neumann (sometimes the arms race looks like a Hungarian scheme for fighting Russia by proxy).

Whether or not he was one of the architects of the test ban, York was certainly one of the architects of the arms race. "In 1953," he writes, "our stockpile of nuclear weapons totaled about 1,200. By 1961 this figure had grown to more than 30,000. Today it is about 25,000." The triad defense of missiles, bombers and submarines was developed on York's watch, as were the abandonment of active and civil defense, the beginnings of efforts towards arms control. Nothing changed radically after that revolution, York notes, until Ronald Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 -- nothing on the American side, that is. The Soviets played catch-up and overshot the mark: "The Soviet strategic force in 1980 was essentially the mirror image of what any reasonable Soviet analyst working in 1964 would have predicted the U.S. force to be in the 1980s. The total number of Soviet strategic nuclear delivery vehicles in 1980 was approximately twenty-five hundred, a number equal to those we had had in 1964 plus the number we were then building, and the total size and power of their 1980 nuclear stockpile was also comparable to what we had had at that earlier date."

In the meantime, as York explains, we had cut back our stockpile, whence came the hawks' impression that the Soviets had pulled "ahead." In fact both sides arrived at parity and at standoff, where we abide today and into the foreseeable future.

A bastard species of world peace, however precarious, is at hand. York's narrative demonstrates the dilemma this paradox presents to those who would serve the modern nation-state with traditional devotion. When he was on the inside he tended to be hawkish; when on the outside, dovish. He's defensive about the inconsistency and more than once challenges what he calls "self-righteous persons at either extreme." He lists three "major means for averting nuclear war" -- maintaining the strategic balance, promoting detente and creating a world political order -- but is mystified about how to move from A and B to the presumably more stable C. From optimism about the future at the end of the Second World War to pessimism at the height of the Cold War and back, these days, to a qualified optimism again, he has wavered in his faith that the new knowledge science gave the world in 1945 bodes more good than ill.

What York illuminates in his memoir but doesn't quite grasp is the universality of the dilemma he repeatedly confronted as a scientist-administrator (i.e., nuclear weapons are good to build because they keep the peace, but we risk the world in doing so). In truth, not the nation-state writ large, horrible thought, but the dilemma itself is the resolution to which the world has inexorably been brought by the new knowledge, forcing nations repeatedly to confront the plain brute fact that the release of nuclear energy into the world has drained away a crucial and deadly portion of their sovereignty. As Niels Bohr predicted and tried to explain to the Allied leadership in 1944, the common danger forces the nation-states to cooperate, however reluctantly and grudgingly, in order to survive. Leaders don't talk about that cooperation much, but they do it. York was a part of that doing. Some of what he did is here. I wish he'd given us fewer program notes and more inside stories.

Richard Rhodes won the 1987 National Book Award for Nonfiction for "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."