Bird: American Prometheus

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Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus : The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York : Vintage Books, 2005. xiii + 721 pages with notes, bibliography, and index.

Without doubt, J. Robert Oppenheimer is a pivotal character in the drama of the twentieth century, in science, in America, and in the world. He is at the center of a vortex in history with world-altering events swirling around him. To learn about Oppenheimer's life is to learn about the development of the atomic bomb, modern physics, the Manhattan Project, World War II, American politics and political intrigue, McCarthyism, the opening of the Cold War, and the beginnings of national nuclear neuroses.

As an historic agent, there are really two Oppenheimers: the heroic scientist who energized and led the effort to build the atomic bomb to save his country and the world, and the humiliated hero scorned and rebuked by his ungrateful government. Integrating those two characters into one comprehensible whole is a challenge that the authors met admirably, uncovering enough of Oppenheimer's depth of character that we can understand how, as they put it, his triumph and tragedy could have come from this one person. This is a big book, but its breadth gives the authors a chance to pull together character flaws and personal machinations and a cast of hundreds into a sequence of events that make sense.

One thread that is persistently interesting, and on which the authors shed much light, is Oppenheimer's attitudes towards developing and then using the bomb, and his change in moods as his assessments changed from a race against Nazi scientists to guilt over a thing unleashed that might have been better never done, except that it was probably inevitable. That change in Oppenheimer's attitude paralleled the government's change in its treatment of Oppenheimer, from untrusting but willing to exploit, to untrusting and needing a scapegoat.

Not surprisingly for a figure of such complication, Oppenheimer was filled with contradictions. In particular there was the friction between his leftist politics and his willingness to develop the atomic weapon as a secret, government program run by the military. Here are a few sample excerpts from the book that touch on that point.

The FBI first opened a file on Oppenheimer in March 1941. His name had come to the Bureau's attention quite by accident the previous December. For almost a year the FBI had been wiretapping the conversations of William Schmeiderman, the California Communist Party's state secretary, and Isaac "Pops" Folkoff, the state treasurer. The wiretaps were not authorized by any court or by the Attorney General, and were therefore illegal. But in December 1940, when one of the Bureau's agents in San Francisco overheard Folkoff referring to a 3:00 p.m. appointment at Chevalier's house as a meeting of "the big boys," an agent was sent to jot down license plate numbers. One of the cards found to be parked outside Chevalier's home was Oppenheimer's. Chrysler roadster. By the spring of 1941, the FBI was identifying Oppenheimer as a professor "reported from other sources as having Communistic sympathies." The FBI noted that he served on the Executive Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union—which the Bureau labeled "a Communist Party front group." Inevitably, an investigative-file was opened on Oppenheimer, which would eventually grow to some 7,000 pages. That same month, Oppenheimer's name was put on a list of "persons to be considered for custodial detention pending investigation in the event of a national emergency." [pp. 137—138]

* * *

A week after their first meeting, [General] Groves [, who headed the Manhattan Project,] had Oppenheimer flown to Chicago, where he could join him on the Twentieth Century Limited, a luxury passenger train bound for New York. They continued their discussions aboard the train. By then, Groves already had Oppenheimer in mind as a candidate for the directorship of the proposed central laboratory. He perceived three drawbacks to Oppenheimer's selection. First, the physicist lacked a Nobel prize, and Groves thought that fact might make it difficult for him to direct the activities of so many of his colleagues who had won that prestigious award. Second, he had no administrative experience. And third, "[his political] background included much that was not to our liking by any means."

"It was not obvious that Oppenheimer would be director," Hans Bethe noted. "He had, after all, no experience in directing a large group of people." No one to whom Groves broached the idea showed any enthusiasm for Oppenheimer's appointment. "I had no support, only opposition," Groves later wrote, "from those who were the scientific leaders of that era." For one thing, Oppenheimer was a theorist, and building an atomic bomb at this point required the talents of an experimentalist and engineer. As much as he admired Oppie, Ernest Lawrence, among others, was astonished that Groves had selected him. Another great friend and admirer, I.I. Rabi, simply thought him a most unlikely choice: "He was a very impractical fellow. He walked about with scuffed shoes and a funny hat, and more important, he didn't know anything about equipment." One Berkeley scientist remarked, "He couldn't run a hamburger stand."

When Groves proposed Oppenheimer's name to the Military Policy Committee, there was, again, considerable opposition. "After much discussion I asked each member to give me the name of a man who would be a better choice. In a few weeks it became clear that we were not going to find a better man." By the end of October, the job was Oppenheimer's,. Rabi who didn't like Groves, grudgingly observed, after the war, that the appointment "was a real stroke of genius on the part of General Groves, who was not generally considered to be a genius....I was astonished." [pp. 186—187]

* * *

Rabi also gave a less practical but more profound reason for not joining [the work at Los Alamos]: He did not, he told Oppenheimer, wish to make "the culmination of three centuries of physics" a weapon of mass destruction. This was an extraordinary statement, one that Rabi knew might well resonate with a man of Oppenheimer's philosophical bent. But if Rabi was already thinking about the moral consequences of an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, in the midst of this war, for once had no patience for the metaphysical. He now brushed aside his friend's objection. "I think if I believed with you that this project was 'the culmination of three centuries of physics,' " he wrote Rabi, "I should take a different stand. To me it is primarily the development in time of war of a military weapon of some consequence. I do not think that the Nazis allow us the option of [not] carrying out that development." Only one thing mattered now to Oppenheimer: building the weapon before the Nazis did. [p. 212]

* * *

Oppenheimer knew that in some fundamental sense the Manhattan Project had achieved exactly what Rabi had feared it would achieve—it had made a weapon of mass destruction "the culmination of three centuries of physics." And in doing so, he thought, the project had impoverished physics, and not just in a metaphysical sense; and soon he began to disparage it as a scientific achievement. "We took this tree with a lot of ripe fruit on it," Oppenheimer told a Senate committee in late 1945, "and shook it hard and out came radar and atomic bombs. [The] whole [wartime] spirit was one of frantic and rather ruthless exploitation of the known." The war had "a notable effect on physics," he said. "It practically stopped it." He soon came to believe that during the war we "perhaps witnessed a more total cessation of true professional activity in the field of physics, even in its training, than [in] any other country." But the war also had focused attention on science. As Victor Weisskopf later wrote: "The war had made it obvious by the most cruel of all arguments, that science is of the most immediate and direct importance to everybody. This had changed the character of physics." [p. 322]

The subtitle of the book. "American Prometheus", is remarkably apt. Oppenheimer is a classical tragic figure, filled with energy and genius and hubris, all of which are the seeds of his destruction and become weapons others use against him. Perhaps it is inevitable that one who was so vital and accomplished as Oppenheimer was going to attract the attention of some whose envy would only be satisfied by his destruction, most notably Lewis Strauss, an otherwise historically minor figure who seemed to have an entire arsenal of axes to grind with Oppenheimer and, unfortunately, was in a position to do so. The result was the well-known security investigation that led to Oppenheimer's security clearance being rescinded – an action more symbolic than practical, but it's symbolism was so powerful that it left Oppenheimer crushed.

This is a significant book, comprehensive but compelling and eminently readable. It captures the blend of excitement and misgiving that surrounded the bomb project, and the paranoia and political malfeasance at the start of the Cold War; Oppenheimer was at the center of it all.

It is evident that the authors intend it to be a definitive biography, and it accomplishes that goal magnificently.

-- Notes by JNS

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