Private Rationalizations, Public Lies: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Bomb

By Mark Leith

Nuclear weapons were conceived in lies and have lived off them ever since. From the flawed reasoning of their birth, nuclear weapons have thrived on an Orwellian logic that has driven the arms race.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientist who engineered the bomb, the man who was able to take the embryonic field of nuclear physics from theory to product. Within the life of Oppenheimer are illustrated, at the individual and collective level, the paradoxes of the human condition and its inherent capacity to deceive itself.

Ethnic Identity

At the turn of the century, on April 22, 1904, J. Robert Oppenheimer was born into the immigrant dream of America. His father, Julius, was a Jew who, at the age of 17, followed an older brother to New York City from Germany. Before Robert’s birth, Julius had established himself as a successful businessman and a collector of fine art.

Robert’s parents doted on their two sons, Robert and his younger brother Frank, and lavished upon them all the opportunities and enrichment they could buy, from a progressive Jewish private school education to their own sailboat. This family did not deny its Jewish roots but very much wanted acceptance by the American elite.

Young Robert grew into a bookish, socially awkward un-athletic boy who pursued solitary intellectual pursuits such as rock collecting. This left him open to the teasing and ostracism of the other boys, whose acceptance he longed for. As he entered his adolescence, Robert revealed a reckless side, taking great risks as a sailor, counter-phobically driven by his own impulsive nature and a need to prove his athletic ability and manliness.

This side of him further developed when he was taken on a trip at the age of 18, at the urging of his father, to New Mexico by Herbert Smith, a gentile teacher from his private school. On this trip he met Catherine Page, a beautiful gentile woman ten years his senior who ran a dude ranch. For the first time Robert began to recognize himself as a sexual male and embraced America’s iconic imagery of the warrior – the western cowboy.

Cowboy Identity

The cowboy image was created by Jewish immigrants. Most of the major film producers of early Hollywood were Jews who had originally lived within 500 miles of each other in Eastern Europe. Their films held up to Christian America a mirror it fell in love with.

The image would be used to great effect by American politicians, including Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Junior. The cowboy, based on itinerant, illiterate, heavy-drinking farmworker culture, was transformed into a tight-lipped “cool” but righteous loner who killed people, but only when he had to, which turned out to be most of the time.

While riding his horse through the New Mexico desert, Robert came upon a breathtaking valley. It was one he would return to time and time again and would eventually become the birthplace of the atomic bomb—Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer did his postgraduate studies in nuclear physics in Germany with Max Born. He was drawn to Born’s ideas about pacifism and, with double irony, formed friendships with other doctoral students in the nuclear physics program who would later work on the Nazis’ failed atomic bomb project.

After his studies, Oppenheimer was hired by the physics department at Caltech in California, which he chose in large part because of its proximity to the Los Alamos valley.

At the University of California at Berkeley Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts whose philosophies celebrated the here and now of work, duty, and discipline, but urged one not to think too hard about their consequences. It was from these texts that he was to take his famous quote regarding the first successful explosion of a nuclear bomb.

By the mid-1930s, Oppenheimer was able to attract young graduate students to Berkeley. However, if the candidates were Jewish, he found himself bumping into the brick wall of anti-Semitism. As Berkeley university president Bing said, “One Jew in the department was enough.” So Robert learned that although he was now inside the gate, he was by no means secure. Without care he too could end up outside the wall.

Romance, however, was to come his way. He fell in love with Jean Tatlock, a beautiful but brooding gentile intellectual, interested in English literature and left-wing progressive social causes.

It was through Jean’s interest in literature that Oppenheimer took the name Trinity for the first nuclear bomb test. It came from a line written by the classical English Christian poet John Donne, “Batter my heart, three personed God.”

After his relationship with Jean Tatlock ended, Robert met and eventually married Katie Harrison. Katie, like Jean, came from an affluent gentile background but had a more aggressive nature, being socially ambitious and known for a volatile temper.

For their wedding Robert bought his new bride a Cadillac, the incarnation of the American dream, in which the cowboy now becomes a family man behind the wheel of a powerful luxurious machine. With prescient irony, the newlyweds nicknamed their toy “bombsite.”

On July 29, 1939, news arrived that two German scientists had successfully split a uranium nucleus. Oppenheimer immediately grasped the implications of this experiment. “A uranium deuteride might very well blow itself to hell,” he wrote a colleague. Thus began the evil spell that now hangs over us all.

In August 1939, Leo Szilard, who feared that the Nazis were trying to build an atomic weapon, organized a group of fellow physicists in the United States, including Albert Einstein, to sign a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to look into developing an American one. There was no clear proof from intelligence sources that the Nazis were making significant progress on this project. In fact, when they surrendered in 1945, it was revealed that they were far from building an atomic bomb.

Roosevelt, however, followed through and set up the S-1 Committee, to which Oppenheimer was appointed director. He was named “Co-ordinator of Rapid Rapture,” the title suggesting both Christianity and eroticism.

Oppenheimer quickly went about recruiting scientists for this group, including his later nemesis, Edward Teller.

Teller would develop a rivalry with Oppenheimer over Teller’s ambition to build the H-bomb, the next generation of larger atomic weapons, and would later suggest to the already dementing Ronald Reagan the idea of nuclear missile defence, known as Star Wars.

Oppenheimer quickly transformed himself from theoretical scientist to engineer, procuring the large industrial plants required to produce weapons-grade uranium. He severed his remaining left-wing connections, claiming he wanted nothing to interfere with his “usefulness to the nation” because “only an atomic bomb will dislodge Hitler from Europe.”

The Chevalier Affair

An incident occurred at Oppenheimer’s home that became known as the Chevalier Affair and would later come back to haunt him. Haakon Chevalier, a friend known to Oppenheimer through his leftist sympathies, approached him one evening, asking on behalf of a mutual friend if Oppenheimer could pass on information to one of America’s allies, the Soviets. Russia was under attack from Germany. Although there were no witnesses, Oppenheimer apparently refused to participate but the moment would give his enemies an opportunity to wound him gravely.

The project outgrew the radiation lab at Berkeley and a new home had to be found—a remote, isolated one. A search began in the southwest deserts. Oppenheimer suggested his beloved valley, Los Alamos. The site was selected for the first nuclear bomb lab in the world and continues as such to this day.

Oppenheimer proved to be a successful, charismatic director, motivating his scientific charges through his enthusiasm. His military counterpart was General Lesley Groves. Unlike the frail aesthete Oppenheimer, Groves was a military man in every sense of the word.

He and Groves made an odd pair. Oppie, as he was nicknamed, wore an eccentric porkpie hat and smoked a pipe, while blustering, overbearing Groves wore military fatigues.

Despite army intelligence, who were looking for Communists, there were two spies at Los Alamos—Fuchs and Hall—neither of whom was aware the other was a spy. Both were motivated by altruism as opposed to money, attempting to share their knowledge with the West’s ostensible allies—the Soviets.

Hall, who was 19 years old at the time, passed on his information by taking a train from Los Alamos to New York City and walking into the Soviet trade office in broad daylight, proving yet again the reality that security is an expensive and futile charade.

With the Nazis nearing defeat at the end of 1944, the scientists in the project began to question the continued necessity and implications of the bomb. Oppenheimer reacted defensively. With the collapse of his original rationale for building the bomb to defeat the Nazis, Oppenheimer began to advocate a list of convoluted rationalizations for continuing. These ranged from the position that scientists shouldn’t have a greater say than anyone else to the fantastic idea that the bomb was really for peace.

A Deceitful president

In April 1945, President Roosevelt died and was succeeded by his Vice President, Harry S. Truman, a deceitful, opportunistic politician of limited education and worldview. Yet a myth has been spun about Truman, who has been sold as a “plain-spoken,” honest everyman. This myth is part of the myth justifying the atomic bombings of Japan.

Truman was thrust onto centre stage during a world war. Nazi Germany had collapsed and the Japanese were begging to surrender because of the firebombings of their civilian population.

But the new president was dominated by his secretary of state, James Byrne, who remains a shadowy historical figure. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With the defeat of Germany, Leo Szilard, the man most responsible for initiating the Manhattan Project, desperately tried to get the horses back in the barn. He tried to arrange a meeting with the new president but was referred to James Byrne. Byrne informed Szilard that it was necessary to drop the bombs on Japan to persuade the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Eastern Europe after the war.

Szilard countered that “we might start an arms race between America and Russia which might end with the destruction of both countries.” Byrne remained unmoved by this argument. After this frustrating meeting, Szilard turned to Oppenheimer, only to be rebuffed by him as well.

The horses of the Apocalypse were galloping. The high government officials charged with overseeing the atomic bomb project now discussed how to build up a nuclear weapons stockpile, for the decision to drop the bomb on Japan was now a forgone conclusion. This group was headed by Secretary of State James Byrne and included Secretary of War Stimson, who would later deliberately write the lie in an essay in Harper’s Magazine that the bombs were dropped to defeat Japan. As the group selected large civilian targets—cities—Oppenheimer argued for the massive slaughter of Japanese civilians. Yet, as we saw earlier, Oppenheimer’s initial rationale had been to beat the Nazi atomic bomb project.

Testing the Bomb

The first test was deliberately timed to occur a few days before the Potsdam Conference in mid-July, where Truman and Churchill were to meet with Stalin.

On July 12th 1945, the first nuclear bomb was exploded. Years later, recalling the event for a television documentary, Oppenheimer said that in witnessing the explosion created by his efforts, he thought of a line from Hindu scripture. “Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds.” This sentimentalized quote suggests an unintended awe and abject admiration for his creation.

The Americans and the British discussed before the Potsdam Conference how Truman would inform Stalin that the West now possessed a successfully tested atomic bomb. Truman wrote in his diary after the meeting, “I casually strolled over and mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive power. The Russian premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make good use of it against the Japanese.” Stalin, of course, knew full well what Truman was talking about. The Soviets were underway with their own secret atomic bomb project, receiving technical information from the two spies at Los Alamos.

And so, astonishingly, the gauntlet to start the nuclear arms race of the Cold War was dropped by innuendo, in an absurd schoolboy game of footsie between Truman and Stalin, two reckless men quite capable of destroying the world.

Two weeks after the Potsdam Conference, on August 6th 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on another civilian target, Nagasaki. After the first bombing Oppenheimer was initially elated. However, after the second, of which the scientists had not been informed by the military, Oppenheimer was filled with guilt and remorse.

After the bombings, Oppenheimer began to make his reservations known. In public speeches, he openly admitted that the bomb had been used “against an essentially defeated enemy.”

However, he privately endorsed draconian legislation for surveillance and severe penalties against scientists suspected of being security risks.

Oppenheimer met only once with Truman. It was a few months after the bombings. Oppenheimer wanted to express his concerns about a developing nuclear arms race and a resultant nuclear world war. Truman, on the other hand, wanted to bully Oppenheimer into giving him full control over the weapons by putting them solely in the hands of the military, far from the reach of the scientists. The meeting went badly for Oppenheimer, who became tongue-tied and emotional. At one point in the meeting he said to Truman, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” This display of guilt embarrassed and repulsed Truman, who said after the meeting, “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch cry baby scientist in my office again.”

The scientists did indeed lose control of the weapons they created. And although the Soviets offered to negotiate a ban on the production and use of nuclear weapons in June of 1946, they were rebuffed by the Truman administration, leading us directly to today’s stockpiles and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Oppenheimer vacillated between public protest and private acquiescence for the rest of his life. In the early 1950s, he became a very public man, making speeches and appearing on television and the covers of Time and Life. He was appointed director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, where the elderly Einstein resided.

Through this period Oppenheimer also enjoyed being a “Washington insider,” receiving calls from high government officials and frequently flying to Washington to offer opinions. Unfortunately for him, through this period, his rivals became his enemies. Through the concerted efforts of Lewis Strauss of Princeton, a hearing was convened to determine if Oppenheimer represented a security risk to his country. The case against J. Robert Oppenheimer was based on his past leftist sympathies and affiliations. The star witness was Edward Teller from Los Alamos. On May 23rd 1954 Oppenheimer was relieved of his security clearance. The hearing was perceived by many at the time to be a travesty of justice. Nonetheless the result was that Oppenheimer was also effectively stripped of his role as a “Washington insider,” banishing him from the world he prized most.

In a sense Oppenheimer was martyred. Why? Perhaps it was for the sin in us all. His ambivalence represented the ugly truth; that we should have known better. But America and the world still resides within the comfortable bubble of those first early myths and lies—the lie that the bombs were dropped to end the war with Japan, to save millions of lives, and that Truman was a plainspoken, honest man who had no choice.

We have yet to free ourselves from the enduring lie of the bomb.

Mark Leith is a Toronto psychiatrist.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2011

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2011, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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