If White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove does wind up getting stripped of his security clearances for his role in the Valerie Plame affair, he'll find himself in interesting company. No less a figure than J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic age, had his own clearances yanked, way back in 1954.

This strange footnote to the McCarthy era is related in angry detail by Priscilla J. McMillan in The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (Viking, $25.95). With the nation's nerves still frayed after the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, Oppenheimer had chaired an advisory committee meeting urging the Atomic Energy Commission "against a crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb," citing "both technical and moral arguments." That was enough to win him the bitter enmity of Lewis Strauss, an AEC commissioner, and Edward Teller, who cherished the hydrogen bomb project. Rumors (always firmly denied by Oppenheimer) that he had once been a member of the Communist Party didn't help.

As McMillan notes, "during the heartbreakingly beautiful Washington spring of 1954," Oppenheimer was being quietly grilled in camera by a government panel known as the Gray board. He was never accused -- let alone convicted -- of "having given away a government secret." But with the country's attention focused on the overreaching Sen. Joe McCarthy, Oppenheimer was quietly disposed of -- and the United States found itself quietly "embroiled in an all-out H-bomb race with the Russians." Not everyone will agree with her fervor (McMillan approvingly cites a historian's view of the Gray board hearings as "the single worst blot on Eisenhower's record in domestic affairs"), her choice of villains (Eisenhower, for one), or her choice of heroes (Oppenheimer, for another), but she has cast light on the seldom-discussed last chapter of a major American life.

Jennet Conant describes some of Oppenheimer's happier times in 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos (Simon & Schuster, $26.95). Conant, the granddaughter of Manhattan Project administrator James B. Conant, keeps her focus less on the science than on the personalities, the strange interplay of talent, ambition and horror attendant on building the world's most devastating weapon. (The book's title comes from the address of the Santa Fe office used by the project's "gatekeeper.") Her occasionally sepia portraits of the people who created the bomb will give some readers the shudders, but their typically human desire for connection and esprit de corps feels real enough. What's less convincing is Conant's claim that Oppenheimer and his brilliant band "unwittingly" helped create the planet's nuclear predicament, which lets the bomb's inventors off the hook for its world-changing consequences; anyone that smart must have realized that other scientists overseas could be just as clever.

-- Warren Bass

J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1963