October 2005

John Detrixhe


American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

J. Robert Oppenheimer was a skinny, frail physicist from New York with a penchant for porkpie hats and horseback riding in New Mexico. Born of German-Jewish parents, he was a blend of emotional fragility and intensity, and he headed the American project to develop the world’s first atomic weapon. He would eventually use his influence, ineffectively, to try to stop the creation and stockpiling of thermonuclear weapons. As I.I. Rabi once remarked, "God knows I'm not the simplest person, but compared to Oppenheimer, I'm very, very simple."

American Prometheus is a thoughtful and immaculately researched biography of Oppenheimer, and Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin have revealed a detailed and unrelenting description of his life. Oppenheimer’s lovers, breakdowns, and children are all in these pages, but the telling remains compassionate, for Oppenheimer was, in addition to his brilliance and inadequacies, an extraordinarily human and sensitive man with a greater role in the 20th Century than most realize.

Prometheus still has its share of controversy to unravel: Was Oppenheimer a spy? Were the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary to end the war in the Pacific? The authors are especially well suited for the latter task, for Bird was co-editor of Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writing on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian, and Sherwin authored A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies.

In the early pages of Prometheus, the authors discuss at length the Ethical Culture Society and Oppenheimer’s grammar and high school, the Workingman’s School. Ethical Culture developed as a secular movement, with humanism (a philosophy that emphasizes reason and individual dignity) at the core of its ideals. Though the Workingman’s School and the Ethical Culture Society are rarely mentioned in later pages, the ideas and influence of this movement are apparent in the decisions made by Oppenheimer, particularly late in his career, concerning his position on atomic and nuclear weapons.

At home and at the Workingman’s School, Oppenheimer’s brilliance was recognized early on, and he was given every opportunity to find his own ambitions. It fostered in Oppenheimer the ability to analyze, comprehend, and utilize many disciplines, and his only difficulty was settling down to a course of study, attracted as he was to architecture, literature, and the sciences.

After graduating from Harvard, Oppenheimer studied at Cambridge. It is reasonable to say that during that time he was still, at least emotionally, an adolescent, and he floundered in a state of depression and anxiety. He was a neurotic student whose turnover of psychiatrists was rapid (his French psychiatrist prescribed “women” as a treatment), and soon Oppenheimer was studying psychoanalysis himself, which might have been the best thing for him. As Herbert Smith, a psychiatrist familiar with the case, said, “You’ve got to have a psychiatrist who is abler than the person being analyzed. They don’t have anybody.”

Perhaps it was self-analysis, perhaps it was maturity. Perhaps it was the change of environment at Germany’s prestigious Göttingen, presided over by Niels Bohr. But gradually Oppenheimer’s mental health improved, and at Göttingen he finally dedicating his studies to theoretical physics. Professor Edwin Kemble explained in a letter, “Oppenheimer is turning out to be even more brilliant than we thought at Harvard. He is turning out new work very rapidly and is able to hold his own with any of the galaxy of young mathematical physicists here.” Oppenheimer’s timing could not have been better.

At Göttingen were concentrated many of the brightest minds in the world, and Oppenheimer published seven papers there, which was “a phenomenal output for a twenty-three-year-old graduate student.” Years later Oppenheimer would recruit from the physicists he met at Göttingen, and with greatly differing degrees of willingness and enthusiasm they would work together on the Manhattan Project -- the secret American project to develop an atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer received his doctorate from Göttingen in 1927, and he accepted an appointment at University of California Berkeley. At Berkley, between drags on his cigarette, he would deliver grammatically perfect lectures without notes, and as adulthood set in, so did his confidence and poise.

At Berkeley, Oppenheimer would also confer and consort regularly with known communists, and he would donate to help the Spanish republicans opposing the fascists. His political convictions were informed and passionate, but he would eventually play down his sympathies to participate in the Manhattan Project. According to Jeremy Bernstein, “He had sympathies to the far left, mostly, I believe, on humanitarian grounds.” Even so, the 1940s were not a time for subtle distinctions and shades of gray, and Oppenheimer’s political views and relationships from his time at Berkeley would eventually be the means for his undoing.

But physics was Oppenheimer’s primary objective at Berkeley, and it was there that he first heard the proposal that fission was possible. He saw nearly at once its potential for civilian and military purposes. According to physicist Luis W. Alvares, a student walked into Oppenheimer’s office to see “a drawing -- a very bad, execrable drawing -- of a bomb.”

Oppenheimer was quickly involved in government weapons efforts because his expertise was invaluable, even though the army hesitated to grant him security clearance due to his connections, murky as they were, with communism. Oppenheimer was aware that his sympathies and relationships were keeping him from helping oppose the Nazis, and, possibly, from securing what might be his place in history. For most of the rest of his life Oppenheimer would distance himself from far-left groups, and he would in some cases turn his back on friends to protect himself.

Recently appointed General Leslie Groves, an engineer, saw that Oppenheimer was among the few scientists who recognized the practical problems associated with the bomb -- the necessary fusion of disciplines, scientific and industrial, required to execute such a project. Groves’s appointment of Oppenheimer to head the Manhattan Project upset many in the scientific community, for Oppenheimer did not necessarily have the credentials to be its administrator. But as I.I. Rabi said, it was a “real stroke of genius on the part of General Groves.” It is untrue to say that atomic weapons would not have been developed without Oppenheimer, but it is quite arguable that it would not have been possible before the end of the War.

During much of his time in Los Alamos while working on the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer considered the technical implications of the project far more than the ethical and political ones. When his old mentor, Bohr, joined him at Los Alamos, he was reminded of such concerns. Bohr already foresaw the potential for an arms race once such powerful weapons existed, and disclosure and transparency with Russia, then an ally, was, to Bohr, the only hope to avoid such a controversy. Oppenheimer would eventually embrace this approach.

After the detonation of atomic weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Bomb,” experienced only a brief relief upon knowing his work had been successful. He never excused himself for helping create a weapon of genocide that would redefine warfare and politics. Perhaps most difficult for Oppenheimer was the knowledge that he had been in charge of the development of a weapon that brought with it the possibility, if not yet the destruction of the human race, the mass extermination of innocents, and he would have little, if any, control over its use.

By the time he left Los Alamos, Oppenheimer was a public celebrity. He abandoned weapons development and went to work for the Institute for the Advanced Study in Princeton. He did not leave governance altogether, however, and he used his considerable prestige and influence to try to steer American policy in the nuclear age, and to try to prohibit the development of more such weapons.

Describing Oppenheimer’s life in post-War America, Prometheus becomes in many respects a primer on the course of 1940s American nuclear policy. It is also a remarkable commentary on contemporary issues as well. As James Gleick wrote (Washington Post, April 2005), “Bird and Sherwin show how well [Oppenheimer] anticipated our 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 surprise and bluster.”

Oppenheimer’s attempts to stop the construction of more atomic weapons and to block the development of a hydrogen bomb would enrage his opponents. In particular, Lewis Strauss, appointed by President Truman to the Atomic Energy Commission, would coordinate charges that would remove Oppenheimer’s security clearance. The motives were at once petty, personal, illegal, and political, (by authorization of J. Edgar Hoover, Strauss had monitored Oppenheimer’s defense strategy through illegal FBI wiretaps), but the effort to revoke Oppenheimer’s clearance and influence was successful, and it would destroy him. As Einstein said, “The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him -- the United States government.”

Bird and Sherwin demonstrate early on that while Oppenheimer certainly had communist sympathies, no evidence has demonstrated that Oppenheimer gave secrets to the Soviet Union or any other government. But the result of Strauss’s victory was that the most powerful voice of dissent against stockpiling and nuclear weapons development was eliminated. The hawks prevailed, and their legacy is with us today. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons with no discernable improvement in security.

Oppenheimer would never win a Nobel Prize, and even though President Kennedy gave him the Enrico Fermi Award as a belated gesture of recognition, Oppenheimer would die with his personal sense of guilt and shame intact. The memory of his life deserves much more, but no less than this respectful and reverent biography.

American Prometheus, the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 0375412026
721 pages