AMERICAN PROMETHEUS: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

James Gleick – The Washington Post

Reviewed by James Gleick
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Copyright The Washington Post
By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Knopf. 721 pp. $35
Six decades have now passed since the United States first launched the quintessential weapon of mass destruction against civilian targets, twice in one week, killing two cities in a blaze of nuclear fire. No one has done it since. J. Robert Oppenheimer would be surprised that we’ve gotten this far.
The atomic bomb would surely have come into existence without Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project, but the label “Father of the Bomb” could be attached to no one else. He felt his responsibility deeply. His self-lacerating conscience let him see with immediate and lasting clarity what his success meant for humanity. If he had done nothing else — if nothing else had happened to him — Oppenheimer would still be one of the 20th century’s great, complex, defining figures.
But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the end for him; he did not walk away from American science or the atomic era he had helped inaugurate. His achievement and his anguish, before the bomb and after, make him a man to whom historians and artists are continually drawn. Heinar Kipphardt’s drama “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” transfixed international theater audiences in the 1960s, and a new opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars, “Doctor Atomic,” will debut this fall in San Francisco.
Martin J. Sherwin, a historian at Tufts University, began his Oppenheimer biography 25 years ago, exploring on horseback the high desert mesas of New Mexico that his subject first fell in love with as a boy visiting a dude ranch. Since Sherwin’s project lasted two decades longer than he intended — he was eventually joined by a second biographer and historian, Kai Bird — we can well believe him when he says it gave him “a new understanding of the complexities of biography.” It was worth the trouble. American Prometheus is comprehensive, finely judged where it most matters and sometimes revelatory. “Triumph and Tragedy” is a catchphrase much abused in biography subtitles; this subject earns it.
Oppenheimer was born in 1903, the first son of wealthy and cultured German Jews living in New York City, and was almost immediately understood to be bright and sensitive. Or as he said, “I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy.” He was also lonely, prone to melancholy, fascinated by and confused about sex, and at once romantic and arrogant. He studied science at Harvard, read Dostoyevsky, Proust and T.S. Eliot’s new “The Waste Land,” wrote love poetry and painted landscapes in oil. These were the first, heady days of a new physics, quantum mechanics. He pursued this field to Europe, where it was gestating, sought out the pioneers of the new guard and strongly impressed all of them.
When he returned to become a professor at Berkeley, he was already known as America’s most brilliant young physicist. He became the first to predict the existence of antimatter, which he realized by dint of imagination and calculation should exist; and he did groundbreaking work on neutron stars decades before astronomers were actually able to observe any. Somehow, though, he always managed to fall short of solving the greatest problems. Bird and Sherwin aptly describe him as “a productive dilettante.” His near-contemporary, the physicist I.I. Rabi (whose strong, moral voice runs throughout this book), once said, “God knows I’m not the simplest person, but compared to Oppenheimer, I’m very, very simple.” Oppenheimer was the sort of person who studied the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit and gave clever names to his automobiles (Gamaliel, Garuda and later Bombsight). He had strong social and political convictions, identified himself with communists and communism, supported labor organizers and contributed money to Spanish republicans fighting the fascists.
He never did win a Nobel Prize. The authors suggest that his role as bomb-maker may have been weighed against him, but perhaps Rabi’s judgment — that the very greatest achievement in physics eluded him — is more to the point: “His interest in religion . . . resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog. He saw physics clearly . . . but at the border he tended to feel that there was much more of the mysterious and the novel than there actually was. He was insufficiently confident of the power of the intellectual tools he already possessed and did not drive his thought to the very end.” He finished other physicists’ papers when they were stuck. He possessed exquisite taste in selecting problems. With hindsight, we can see that he was meant to be an inspirer, organizer and perfecter of scientists — and a leader.
He was shortly to leave dilettantism behind.
News came in January 1939 from two German scientists that the nucleus of a uranium atom could be split when bombarded with neutrons. Oppenheimer was not the only physicist to see what that implied. “I think it really not too improbable,” he wrote a friend, “that a ten cm [centimeter] cube of uranium deuteride (one should have something to slow the neutrons without capturing them) might very well blow itself to hell.”
When the time came for the United States to try building an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer both was and was not a natural choice to be director of the most ambitious scientific and industrial project in human history. He was at the pinnacle of American physics. In 1942, he was put in charge of fast-neutron research at Berkeley with an imaginative government title, “coordinator of rapid rupture.” On the other hand, the government’s security apparatus was nursing an antipathy to people with communist associations, and Oppenheimer’s were well-known. The FBI had opened an investigation bordering on harassment (he was seldom unwatched or unwiretapped) that continued for most of his life, generating 10,000 pages of dossier. The War Department denied him a security clearance at a moment when most of the world’s knowledge pertaining to atomic fission resided in his brain.
And he was no engineer. At the age of 38, he seemed ethereal. He was frail and underweight and failed his Army physical.
Yet some people would follow him anywhere. We can gauge his charisma from its reflection in others’ extravagant romanticizing: “His porkpie hat, his pipe, and something about his eyes gave him a certain aura.” His eyes were not just blue, but “the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, very clear blue.” One physicist said simply, “When I was with him, I was a larger person.” Students imitated the way he spoke and the way he walked. “When he was impressed with something, he’d say ‘Gee,’ ” one recalled, “and it was lovely just to hear him say ‘Gee.’ ”
The story of Oppenheimer’s success on that isolated New Mexico mesa, from the spring of 1943 to the summer of 1945, has been told many times. Bird and Sherwin capture all the drama and exhilaration and ironic glory. First there were 30 scientists in plywood barracks, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing; soon, 6,000 men and women were living and working in hundreds of buildings and trailers, creating an unruly, polyglot city. Oppenheimer got the job done. But for the people who spent those two years in his thrall, he also made it a golden time. “Here at Los Alamos,” an English physicist said, “I found a spirit of Athens, of Plato, of an ideal republic.” All in the service of mass death.
So were the scientists responsible for the consequences of the weapon they had made? Did moral duties follow from their technical ones? Edward Teller, who went on to lead the development of the hydrogen bomb, said no: “The accident that we worked out this dreadful thing should not give us the responsibility of having a voice in how it is to be used.” But Oppenheimer would not let himself off the hook that way. How the bomb was “to be used” was partly a scientific question, and Oppenheimer did that part of his job with ruthless efficiency. “Don’t let them bomb through clouds or through an overcast,” he told the officers preparing the attack on Hiroshima. “Don’t let them detonate it too high . . . or the target won’t get as much damage.” But at the same time, he was already trying to address moral and political issues. Looking ahead to the specter of a postwar arms race, he urged that the Soviet Union be fully informed about the bomb and its impending use; President Truman disregarded this advice.
Oppenheimer did not linger at Los Alamos. He left within months of the 1945 bombings and became director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He did not leave public life, however. As the government began to form committees and commissions and agencies to manage the new nuclear age, Oppenheimer seemed to be everywhere.
Even as he was being lionized in the national press, he was sharing his darkest visions with small audiences of scientists and others. “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world . . . a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing,” he said. He confessed to Truman in a private meeting that he felt he had blood on his hands — a statement the president found offensive and presumptuous. Truman angrily told Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson that Oppenheimer was “a cry-baby scientist” who had “spent most of his time wringing his hands and telling me they had blood on them.”
Indeed, Oppenheimer sometimes spoke to politicians as if he were addressing children. He tried to warn of the possibility of nuclear terrorism — a bomb smuggled into a city in a container or crate. There was no high-tech defense, he noted. “What instrument would you use to detect an atomic bomb hidden somewhere in a city?” a senator asked in one closed hearing. Oppenheimer responded dryly, “A screwdriver” — to open cartons and suitcases. Bird and Sherwin show how well he anticipated our own world, where nuclear materials and technologies percolate through shadowy networks and where, as each new country joins the nuclear club, we have no answer, only perpetual surprise and bluster.
“Our atomic monopoly,” Oppenheimer warned in 1948, “is like a cake of ice melting in the sun.” In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon, surprising Truman, who at first didn’t want to believe it. For his part, Oppenheimer believed that nuclear proliferation was inevitable but that it need not lead to an arms race. He opposed the crucial turning point: the development of the hydrogen “Super,” using nuclear fusion to release an explosive force many thousands of times greater than the first fission bombs. He feared that such weapons, if made, would surely be used.
Truman sided instead with the hawkish elements of his administration, who argued that the Soviets would develop these weapons on their own and that unilateral restraint would be suicide. He moved forward with a vast industrial program to ramp up the nation’s nuclear capability. The decisions were made mostly in secret, with virtually no public debate, and the legacy is ours: a global stockpile of more than 100,000 nuclear weapons, a running cost to the American economy that has passed $5.5 trillion, and, in return, no realistic sense of nuclear security — even in a post-Soviet era in which we fear smaller and smaller nations and all the terrorist groups that might buy or steal their bombs.
When Oppenheimer fell, he fell hard. His chief antagonist was Lewis Strauss, a former financier whom Truman appointed to the AEC, where he found Oppenheimer an obstacle and an irritant. Strauss resented Oppenheimer’s opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb, and when President Eisenhower named Strauss chairman of the AEC, he immediately began trying to push Oppenheimer aside. In 1954, he drew up formal charges: accusations of disloyalty, ranging from having been “listed as a sponsor of the Friends of the Chinese People” to having “strongly opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb.”
“Red Ties Alleged,” the headlines blared. The rise of anticommunist hysteria served as a backdrop, but Oppenheimer was not a victim of McCarthyism. Strauss deliberately kept the Oppenheimer affair away from the volatile senator because Strauss wanted it handled carefully. It was personal. The proceedings were secret, outside any court or normal legal process. Strauss selected the prosecutor and the judges. He coached them with secret allegations from Oppenheimer’s FBI files that Oppenheimer and his lawyers were not allowed to see, much less rebut. All the while, Strauss and the FBI eavesdropped (with phone taps and hidden microphones) on Oppenheimer’s discussions with his lawyers. “Strauss and his allies were determined to silence the one man who they feared could credibly challenge their policies,” Bird and Sherwin write. This was no trial; it was, as the authors show in their harrowing chronicle, a “star chamber” and a “kangaroo court,” and the result was preordained. Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked and his government work severed.
Oppenheimer’s excommunication was not the end, of course. He lived another 13 years. One of President Kennedy’s last acts before he was assassinated was to prepare a rite of rehabilitation: giving Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi Award, a presidential prize then consisting of $50,000 and a medal of honor. But Oppenheimer’s public life was over; his wounds never healed. The best epitaph may still be George F. Kennan’s. The great diplomat eulogized Oppenheimer in 1967: “On no one did there ever rest with greater cruelty the dilemmas evoked by the recent conquest by human beings of a power over nature out of all proportion to their moral strength.” •
James Gleick is the author of several books, including “Isaac Newton,” “Chaos: Making a New Science” and “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.”

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