Strauss and Dimona

Here is a dilemma I face. Israel strove hard to obtain a nuclear weapons capability under cover of a nuclear energy story (even though it never built a nuclear electricity plant). Much has been written about the tale of Dimona and much is clear, but (as is true for all such stories) much was hidden and shall forever remain hidden.

Three men drove the first few decades of Israel’s nuke efforts (I appreciate this is a simplification but that’s what historians need to do, simplify): David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first and mythic leader; Shimon Peres, his brilliant, loyal officer, who would one day lead Israel himself; and Ernst David Bergmann, a passionate scientist (a chemist, not a physicist like most of the early nuclear power pioneers). I have plenty of quality historical material (most of it secondary or tertiary, next to none of it primary, i.e. based on archival material) about the shape of Israel’s nuke story from the 60s, but less on the shadowy 50s. So I found the following paragraph from Seymour Hersh’s controversial and groundbreaking book, The Samson Option, to be stunning:

At some point in his AEC career, Strauss, who attended most of the international conferences on the peaceful uses of the atom, met and befriended his Israeli counterpart, Ernst David Bergmann. It was a relationship shared with few; neither Strauss’s biographer nor his son, Lewis, who has had access to all of his father’s personal papers, knew that the two had met. The friendship with Bergmann provides the strongest evi­dence of Strauss’s sympathy for the Israeli nuclear weapons program. In the fall of 1966, Strauss used his influence to get Bergmann a two-month appointment as a visiting fellow at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton.

Hersh, Seymour M. 1991. The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy. Random House, New York, pp. 85-86.

My problem is, there is so little corroborating material, including from other eminent historians, on Strauss’s sympathies with, or assistance to, Israel’s early efforts. Hersh is a journalist, not a historian, so his referencing is broad and very much “take it and leave it.” When writing this blog post, I revisited The Samson Option and it turns out that Hersh dedicates nine pages to his assertions about Strauss’s oh-so-secret sympathies. His words do sound convincing but Strauss’s actions, vis a vis Israel (including Bergmann), during his tenure as AEC Chairman (1953-1958), show no favoritism at all.

This is an issue I am going to have to stew about.

Seymour Hersh The Samson Option