Wolverton: A Life in Twilight

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Mark Wolverton, A Life in Twilight : The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York : St. Martin's Press, 2008. 339 pages; illustrated with photographs and facsimiles of letters; includes notes, bibliography, and index.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was certainly a central figure in the history of the United States, and the World, in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to his many achievements, activity, discovery, intrigue, and controversy swirled about him for decades.

Usually mentioned near his popular title "The Father of the Bomb" (meaning the atomic bomb, of course), his greatest accomplishment is usually taken to be his successful leadership of the wartime effort at Los Alamos, NM, to develop and build an atomic weapon. His team was successful in their goal. The products of their efforts were delivered to Hiroshima (the bomb known as "Little Boy") and Nagasaki (the bomb known as "Fat Man"), Japan, on 6 and 9 August 1945.

Those mushroom clouds ended what seems sometimes like Act I of the life of Oppenheimer. Act II was certainly different, definitely eventful, but less rarely covered in biographical treatments, perhaps because the story seems less cohesive, and because it was not the triumphant story of Act I. The life of JRO (as he always seems to be abbreviated) in Act II is the subject of Mark Wolverton's book, and it's an excellent treatment.

This is a story of political machinations to rival any political thriller a novelist could dream up, and JRO strikes one as a classically tragic figure. The seeds of trouble were sown at least as far back as the Los Alamos days and the problems JRO had with Edward Teller, who had an obsession with developing a hydrogen, or thermo-nuclear, bomb, which he always called the "super". Oppenheimer didn't stroke Teller's ego enough, so Teller became a bitter enemy. JRO seemed to think that a "super" was not so important, because atomic bombs were already enough to destroy civilization, so he didn't obsess about a "super" along with Teller.

When the Soviets exploded their first atomic bombin 1953, years sooner than America expected, some people in the Eisenhower Administration were looking for someone to blame. McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee had been in operation for some time, and Edward Teller was in a strong position as an advisor to President Eisenhower. Teller was able to convince presidential advisor and head of the Atomic Energy Commission (Eisenhower's appointee), Lewis Strauss, that what the US needed was a crash program to build a super. Soon the notion developed that the US had fallen behind the Soviets because of Oppenheimer's "opposition" to the super.

Eisenhower was convinced to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance. Strauss, who was said to be personally motivated by an embarrassment at JRO's hands some years earlier during congressional hearings, arranged a "hearing" by the AEC on the question of JRO's security clearance. It was a scandalous kangaroo court that concluded that, while Oppenheimer was definitely "loyal" to the United States, he nevertheless was a "security risk".

Oppenheimer at this time was one of the nation's most recognized celebrities. The case was a sensation and Americans ever after lined up either on the side that held that the hearing was a sham and Oppenheimer was a martyr to McCarthyism, or that it was a suitable come-uppance for an untrustworthy egg-head with communist sympathies.

That's more or less where Wolverton picks up the threads of Oppenheimer's life. JRO is by that time Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, the organization largely created to provide a place for Einstein to work. Oppenheimer held this position until his death in 1966. Ironically, Lewis Strauss was on the Board of Directors for most of that time, just to make things tense. (Strauss, in 1959, was humiliatingly rejected by the Senate as nominee to head the Department of Commerce; perjury was involved. This is thought to have been retribution for his treatment of Oppenheimer.)

JRO did not lose any of his celebrity during this period, even though he felt keenly the rejection and estrangement from government work. He worked at the Institute, he started traveling, giving lectures in physics around the world that were attended literally by thousands of people at each venue, people who wouldn't understand what he was saying about nuclear physics but who were enchanted just to listen to him.

All sorts of interesting incidents linger in my mind, but I won't recount them. One that seemed notable to me: in 1954 JRO was visited at Princeton by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, who were planning to film interviews for a broadcast of Murrow's See It Now on television. In the end they used only interview material with Oppenheimer, disconcerting him somewhat. Still, they produced a show that they broadcast on 4 January 1955, one of its most-watched episodes ever.

Again, it was a sensation. The original program lasted only 28 minutes; Murrow and Friendly re-edited their material into a one-hour film that was then distributed around the country by an organization called the "Fund for the Republic".

More controversy!

In fact, his infamy as an official object of distrust only served to increase public interest and involvement all across the country, particularly in those communities where outraged patriots protested and tried to ban showings of the film. the stalwarts who considered Oppenheimer a traitor, a subject unfit for public display and acclaim, damaging to the health of the Republic, might not have been able to stop Murrow's broadcast, but they could certainly keep the film of this Commie sympathizer from poisoning the minds and hearts of their hometowns and their children.

The first notable skirmish came in March, in Pleasantville, just north of New York City. The local Americans for Democratic Action chapter organized a showing of the Oppenheimer film in the local high school, a plan that mightily offended Pleasantville's American Legion chapter, which filed indignant protest with the board of education requesting it to block the screening. But the school board allowed the screening to proceed as scheduled to an audience of about two hundred people, without incident and without the fall of the nation, or at least Westchester county, to Communist forces. [p. 56]

America was caught off guard when the Soviets produced their atomic weapon. America was really caught off guard when the Soviets launched Sputnik on 4 October 1957. As one might expect by now, Oppenheimer appeared in a starring role as hero and martyr.

Some blamed an American culture drunk on fancy automobiles, television, and rock and roll, but others had a more serious diagnosis. "It is time to ask ourselves whether preoccupation with our 'scientific secrets' instead of with science itself has not resulted in impairing the real source of our strength and in loss of the supremacy we once could claim," declared The Washington Post a week after Sputnik's launch. "In sober truth, we have driven out of our laboratories a great many preeminent men of science; J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward U. Condon are among them.... We have let scientists become targets of suspicion and abuse....in the name of security, we have sacrificed security."

For an aroused nation suddenly made keenly aware of science and its importance to national security and prestige, scientists had become the frontline soldiers in the cold war struggle against the Soviets. Where were all the great scientists when we needed them, while Russia was busy getting ahead of us? Why, they were all being investigated by security boards, getting denied clearances, being kicked out of government laboratories, and being banished to the ivory towers of academia.

Overnight, J. Robert Oppenheimer became the poster boy for America's neglected scientific elite, the face of our collective folly that had caused us to sabotage ourselves by keeping our most brilliant minds out of public service. Having become arguably the nation's foremost spokesman for science and scientists, and the first name anyone thought of in American science, Oppenheimer was now held up as the chief victim of America's own shortsightedness. [pp. 104—105]

Of course, Oppenheimer had his supporters, particularly among the brotherhood of physicists, among whom Teller was ostracized for his betrayal of Oppenheimer.

Perhaps most heartening to Oppenheimer personally, if not unexpected, were the words of his friends and former colleagues then serving on Eisenhower's new Science Advisory Committee. Asked by British reporters whether McCarthyism was to blame for America's fall behind the Soviets, committee chairman Isidor I. Rabi said, "It is still too early to judge the long-range effects of McCarthyism, but the exclusion of Professor Oppenheimer, a man who accomplished so much for his country, is indication of the failure of the country and the authorities to value correctly such contributions, both intellectual and substantial, to the welfare of the United States. Only when he is returned to more active Government service will it indicate that a change of heart has occurred. It will be a source of encouragement to the whole scientific community."

The Washington Post's survey of "the President's 17-man Committee" showed that "eight other members endorsed Rabi's statement. none voiced opposition to Oppenheimer's reinstatement." One of them, Bell Telephone Labs vice-president James B. Fisk, called Oppenheimer's loss "a wrong which should be righted now." Hans Bethe said reinstatement would be "a symbol of what this country and our Government stand for." Said The Post: "The scientists—all intimately concerned with America's space race against the Russians—believe that (1) we can't afford to waste an Oppenheimer" and (2) his return to Government work would stimulate the over-all scientific effort by demonstrating conclusively that the McCarthy era has ended." [pp. 114—115]

Time passed and JRO continued to stir controversy without really trying, and supporters spoke in his defense and tried unsuccessfully to get his security clearance returned. The clearance had become supremely important as a symbol, to naysayers, to supporters, and to Oppenheimer himself, but it was never to happen no matter how well it might have been deserved.

Almost as soon as [Lewis] Strauss's successor, John McCone, was named AEC chairman in June 1958, [congressman Clinton] Anderson asked him to reevaluate the Oppenheimer case. McCone assigned Loren K. Olson, AEC general counsel, to scrutinize all the records of the charges, the hearing, and all the other voluminous AEC files on Oppenheimer, and analyze the entire saga in exhaustive detail.

What Olson found surprised him. He discovered that the Oppenheimer case was "a messy record from a legal standpoint, that the charges kept shifting at each level of the proceedings, that the evidence was stale and consisted of information that was 12 years old and was known when a security clearance was granted during World War II." In short, the proceedings against Oppenheimer had been nothing less than "a punitive, personal abuse of the judicial system" [p. 150]

Oppenheimer was quoted as saying, of the AEC hearing and then of German playwright Heinar Kipphardt's production ("these people") In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1964:

The whole damn thing was a farce and these people are trying to make a tragedy out of it.

The hearing was undoubtedly farce, but Oppenheimer seems all too clearly tragic, made for heroic achievements but fatally flawed. Kai Bird and Martin Sherman's masterful biography of Oppenheimer is called American Prometheus, and Prometheus seems a particularly apt character to compare with Oppenheimer, who gave humanity the fire it longed for and then was punished eternally for doing it.

Wolverton's book fills a very useful place in a not over large collection of studies of Oppenheimer, but not just for filling in facts. The author's discussion and analysis, and the incidents he chose to describe, fill out the obviously complex, but still enigmatic character of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He does it with fascinating writing, attention to detail, and great understanding.

-- Notes by JNS

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