The Beatification of J. Robert Oppenheimer

A Review Essay by Mel Watkins
Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: A.A. Knopf, 2005, 719 p.)
Priscilla McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (New York: Viking, 2005, 373 p.)
Jennet Conant, 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005, 425 p.)
Lydia Millet, O Pure and Radiant Heart

By Mel Watkins (reviewer)

While hardly a household name, many people, particularly those concerned with nuclear weapons, have heard of Oppenheimer. In his capacity as the scientific head of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, he built the atomic bomb during the Second World War and was lionized for his achievement. In the 1950s, in the witch hunts of the McCarthy period, he was destroyed, stripped of his security clearance, which was essential if one was to know what was going on and have any direct input into decision-making. The bottom line on why that was done was that he questioned the building of the H-bomb, the big leap forward from the A-bomb.

There is a big literature on all this that grows exponentially; 2005 was, by UN designation, the World Year of Physics. The choice of year was because it was the centennial of Einstein's miracle year. In fact, there was quite a bit in the media about Einstein, but so far as books go it was the Year of Oppenheimer, with four new ones coming off the press.

First is the definitive biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, both of whom are established names in the literature on the bomb, which was twenty years in the making. It's called American Prometheus: The Triumph and the Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a most revealing title and sub-title. It's a masterful and judicious book, the best single book on Oppenheimer, seven hundred pages but absolutely worth reading.

Second is The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race by Priscilla McMillan. Another great title: Oppenheimer was ruined the better to ratchet up the arms race. This book, while very pro-Oppenheimer has the virtue of situating his fate clearly in the context of the building of the H-bomb.

Third, a book by Jennet Conant titled 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. It's a gossipy book about the charismatic, charming, eccentric, and intensely handsome polymath and why he was worshipped, particularly by women. A fun read, but hardly the whole truth.

Fourth and fascinating, a novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet. In the early twenty-first century, in the age of George W. Bush, Oppenheimer and two other famous physicists of the same generation, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi, all long dead, return to earth. Oppenheimer is hailed as the Messiah, the Son. Szilard, who persuaded Einstein to petition President Roosevelt to build the bomb, is the Father. Fermi, a quiet genius who had transmuted matter into energy and who tried to be invisible on political matters, is the Holy Ghost. They constitute the Trinity which was the name Oppenheimer gave to the first test of the atomic bomb in July 1945.

After I read this book, I chose my title for this review. The alternative would be The Resurrection of J. Robert Oppenheimer for, like so many Americans these days, he is born again. The novel, which is a very good read, has the virtue of inviting us to pose for present purposes the real-world question: does Oppenheimer deserve, from the perspective of the peace movement, to be beatified? For when we talk about any one nuclear physicist, particularly one as important as Oppenheimer, what we are really talking about is the bomb itself. If Oppenheimer is beatified, we risk beatifying the bomb, which is not recommended.

So where was Oppenheimer when the critical decisions were made about the bomb? On the first big decision, whether to get involved at all in building the bomb, Oppenheimer was keen to do so. In that respect he was among the great majority of scientists in the United States and Britain who were so afraid that Hitler would get the bomb that they put any moral scruples aside. Still, there were a few who refused, including Max Born who fled Germany for Britain and who had been Oppenheimer's thesis supervisor.

Communist Flirtation

But where things get sticky is that Oppenheimer had flirted with the Communist Party in the 1930s in California to such an extent that there was a question as to whether he could get security clearance. Oppenheimer wanted so much to work on the bomb, and to be the scientific head of the Manhattan Project that he betrayed family, friends, and students and abandoned his progressive politics the better to get it. In an ultimately unsuccessful attempt not to betray his best friend, Berkeley literature professor Haakam Chevalier, he dreamt up a cock-and-bull story that worsened his friend's situation and was to prove Oppenheimer's own undoing when the government decided in the 1950s to strip him of his security clearance on the grounds of defects of character.

The security people did not want to give Oppenheimer clearance in the first place and when they did on orders from above, he was told, "In the future, please avoid seeing your questionable friends, and remember, whenever you leave Los Alamos, we will be tailing you." Oppenheimer accepted these gross interventions in his life. What he appeared not to know was that his mail and home telephone were monitored throughout and his office at Los Alamos was actually wiretapped -- which is at least helpful to the historian. After the war, at hearings of the House Un-American Affairs Committee, Oppenheimer answered all questions and named names.

When it became known in 1944 to those on the inside that Hitler had no bomb project, which meant the rationale for building the bomb had just evaporated, only Joseph Rotblat quit. Certainly not Oppenheimer, who drove the scientists under his command harder than ever to get the bomb. Yet if the bomb was to be used, it would be on Japan which never had a bomb program and was clearly losing the war. This prospect upset a number of the scientists working on the project, but Oppenheimer consistently stymied their efforts to have any input into the decision and himself served on the Target Committee that chose which Japanese cities to bomb. Soon after the successful test of the bomb in July 1945, Oppenheimer, walking on the project site, puffing on his pipe, is overhead saying, in reference to the Japanese, "Those poor little people, those poor little people" Bird and Sherwin add, "That very week, however, Oppenheimer was working hard to make sure that the bomb exploded efficiently over 'those poor little people'"

Rotblat, who went on to found and lead the Pugwash Movement, told an interviewer years later that he initially saw Oppenheimer as a hero, "a soul mate in the sense that we had the same humanitarian approach to problems." But "Gradually he became an antihero. For example, the fact that he said the bomb could be used on the cities. He could have said no. And at that time he was powerful enough that his voice might have prevailed."

With the war over, Oppenheimer, like the other scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, had to decide what to do: to stay or to return to the university; having left, whether to keep quiet and consult or be the insider who speaks truth to power or be the outsider who speaks truth to the public. Oppenheimer chose to become the head of the prestigious Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, always willing to serve his government, in short, to become the consummate insider who believed that he could influence the powerful, prepared to be a public presence but never in a way that threatened power. He used his new-found fame, as America's most famous scientist, to call for reason, for international solutions to contain the terror he had helped to create. As America's nuclear arsenal continued to grow and the Cold War to worsen, there is slight evidence that Oppenheimer's strategy worked. He refused, however, to engage in any collective actions, such as joining any of the organizations of scientists advocating disarmament nor to sign any of their petitions. In the spring of 1947 Oppenheimer even turned down an invitation from Einstein to speak at the newly found Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists.

Central to the odious maltreatment of Oppenheimer was the decision whether to try or not to try to build the H-bomb, or the so-called Super. It was to begin as the finest moment for scientists in general and Oppenheimer in particular. As soon as the Soviet Union got the A-bomb in 1949 and broke the American monopoly, pressure built within the American military, particularly the Air Force, to move from the known fission atomic bomb to the possible fusion hydrogen bomb with its promise of a quantum leap in explosive power. Oppenheimer chaired a blue-ribbon advisory committee of scientists that unanimously recommended against a Manhattan Project for the H-bomb, warning that "the extreme dangers to mankind inherent in this proposal outweigh any military advantage that could come from this development." Though there was no certainty that such a bomb could be built, President Truman, the George W. Bush of his time, chose to proceed, and directed all scientists involved to refrain from discussion and public debate. Oppenheimer was appalled but did nothing. He thought it inappropriate to resign and "promote a debate on a matter which was settled." Bird and Sherwin observe: "How different and better Oppenheimer's life would have been had he [resigned]. Instead, he again 'fell into line.'"

The mathematics that had to be solved to make the bomb possible got done. Oppenheimer saw that new math as "technically sweet" -- think science as seducer -- and dropped his opposition to the H-bomb. Hardly to his credit, but this time he did not fall silent. In 1953, he made a speech at a closed meeting of the powerful, the Council of Foreign Relations, which he then published, where he famously said that the United States and the Soviet Union "may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life." He also called for openness so that there could be informed public debate. But he had gone too far. This was too much for some of the powerful who had come, in spite of his demonstrable loyalty, to see him as an enemy: the Air Force with its love of big bombs; the FBI with its hoard of thousands of pages on his transgressions, real and imagined; the hawkish and vengeful Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss, who Oppenheimer, in his arrogance, had once humiliated publicly; the scientist Edward "Dr. Strangelove" Teller, the leading scientific advocate of the H-bomb who was always prepared to believe the worst about Oppenheimer.

Deprived of his insider status, Oppenheimer returns to Princeton where he continues, uncomplainingly, to play whatever statesman role remained for him. Bird and Sherwin note that he was "oddly disconnected from the turmoil of the 1960s." "[A]s the Vietnam War escalated in 1965-66, he had nothing to say in public." As American intellectuals became split down the middle, to remain silent was a conscious act that risked being interpreted as support for the War. Oppenheimer had moved a very long way indeed from his 1930s radicalism.

Oppenheimer, a long-time chain smoker, died in 1967 from throat cancer at the age of 63, a victim presumably of that earlier weapon of mass destruction called tobacco.

His life is the story of how an eminent scientist and intellectual dealt with power and how power dealt with him. It is, to say the least, a cautionary tale.

Compare and contrast Oppenheimer as the father of the American A-bomb and Andrei Sakharov as the father of the Soviet H-bomb. Oppenheimer serves the state, then is humiliated by the state, and accepts his fate. Sakharov serves the state, breaks with the state, is fired and sent into internal exile, and becomes when freed, a leading advocate of nuclear disarmament and of human rights - a genuine hero of the peace movement.

Would that Oppenheimer had done the same. He would have been born again in fact, not just in fiction, and be a proper candidate for beatification.

Let the great and wise Einstein have the last word on why this didn't happen. Shortly before the security hearings began, Einstein, who was also at the Institute, encountered Oppenheimer in the parking lot. Einstein advised Oppenheimer to resign, to "not subject himself to this witchhunt." He feared that by participating in the process, Oppenheimer was legitimizing it. Oppenheimer resisted that advice. He thought Einstein was confusing McCarthy's America in the '50s with Hitler's Germany in the '30s and he was too much an American patriot to tolerate such a comparison. As they parted and Einstein walked to his office with his assistant, Einstein nodded toward Oppenheimer, now too distant to hear him, and said to his assistant, "There goes a fool." Bird and Sherwin conclude: "Einstein's instincts were right - and time would demonstrate that Oppenheimer's were wrong." A short time later, when the New York Times breaks the story that Oppenheimer is in trouble over his security clearance, Einstein says, "The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn't love him: the U.S. government." Not the stuff of sainthood.

Melville Watkins is an emeritus professor, University of Toronto, and former president, Science for Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006, page 27. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Mel Watkins here

Peace Magazine homepage