Reviews : American Prometheus : The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Gerald Holton review in the Los Angeles Times April 10, 2005


Los Angeles Times review by Gerald Holton, April 10, 2005

The Bomb Maker Who Self-Destructed Reviewed by Gerald Holton in The Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2005 Three days into the Atomic Energy Commission's 1954 hearings on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance, the AEC prosecutor, Roger Robb, read from the transcript of a secretly recorded interrogation of Oppenheimer 11 years earlier and asked whether Oppenheimer had accurately represented a particular incident. "I think I said little more than that [chemical engineer George] Eltenton was somebody to worry about … ," Oppenheimer responded. "Then I invented a cock-and-bull story…." Robb: "You lied to him?" Oppenheimer: "Yes…. " Robb: "Why did you do that, Doctor?" Oppenheimer: "Because I was an idiot." Shortly afterward, Robb told a reporter how Oppenheimer had appeared to him at that moment: "hunched over, wringing his hands, white as a sheet … I've just seen a man destroy himself." Indeed, after that three-week-long Orwellian travesty, resulting in the denial of Oppenheimer's clearance and the ending of his policy influence, his colleague I.I. Rabi summed it up: "They achieved their goal. They killed him." Kai Bird ("The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms") and Martin J. Sherwin ("A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies") have written a masterful account of Oppenheimer's rise and fall, set in the context of the turbulent decades of America's own transformation. It is a tour de force, 25 years in the making. The authors had access to seemingly every archive and private letter, as well as to classified documents and phone taps, and conducted more than 100 interviews. "American Prometheus" offers full accounts of conspiracies, disputes at the atomic installation at Los Alamos, N.M., and President Truman's hasty and uninformed postwar decision to escalate vastly the arms race. It concludes with some 90 pages of meticulous documentation. Most interesting to this reviewer is the authors' skillful revelation of Oppenheimer's fragmented soul. His vulnerability and theatrical brilliance are apparent in his second year at Harvard. In 1923, the 19-year-old writes to a former schoolteacher, "I labor, and write innumerable theses, notes, poems, stories and junk; I go to math lib[rary] and read and to the Phil[osophy] lib…. I make stenches in three different labs … read Greek, commit faux pas, search my desk for letters, and wish I were dead. Voilà." — giving us a glimpse of the turmoil of competing elements in his persona, the bundle of roles, the unresolved conflicts between them. As August Strindberg once said of himself, Oppenheimer was afflicted by "this strange blending of the deepest melancholy and the most astonishing lightheartedness." To those of us who knew Oppie (as most referred to him) in his later years, he would be brilliant, mesmerizing, eloquent and tender, but a few moments later naive, bewildered, self-demeaning or cruel. His frail body was nevertheless strong, his eyes extraordinarily blue, his speech florid, his interests universal.He was intellectually omnivorous (competent, for example, in Latin, Greek, French, German, Dutch, Italian and some Chinese and Sanskrit). But in crucial ways he came up short. From youth on, as when he sailed into worsening weather, he had an irresistible urge, bordering on the suicidal, to flirt with danger. Another bent that proved treacherous was that despite his aptitude as a theoretician, he (like most American physicists in the 1920s) decided early to become an experimentalist, though he proved clumsy in his college physics labs. Continuing experimental research at Cambridge University, he became increasingly susceptible to deep depressions and anxieties. Soon, worse symptoms appeared — episodes of physical collapse and loss of emotional control. In autumn 1925, he left a poisoned apple on the desk of his head tutor, or at least said he had. The college authorities demanded he see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed dementia praecox and dismissed him as a hopeless case. His Cambridge friends, including Francis Fergusson, who had been with him in high school and Harvard, thought he would be able to handle himself, but out of the blue Oppie tried to strangle Fergusson. When I heard of these episodes some years ago, I asked a Harvard colleague, the psychiatrist Erik Erikson, about the dementia praecox diagnosis. The same symptoms might more charitably have been called borderline schizophrenia, he said, noting that young people suffering from "chronic malignant disturbance" were in an identity crisis that could explode in arbitrary destructiveness. Oppenheimer himself later told Fergusson his troubles were caused by a collision between his experimental inabilities and "the awful fact of excellence." Bird and Sherwin report that after these violent events, Oppenheimer embarked on self-therapy to rearrange his fragmented identity. He read and was overwhelmed by Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," particularly the passages describing a character's "indifference to the sufferings one causes," which seemed to reveal to him part of his own character and reconcile him to it. A second transforming factor grew out of an accidental meeting with the great German physicist Max Born, on a visit from the University of Göttingen, one of the volcanoes of the newborn quantum mechanics. During their conversation, it became clear to Born that Oppenheimer was a brilliant theoretical physicist in the making. Born, a fatherly and caring man, invited Oppenheimer on the spot to join him in Göttingen to do theoretical research on the new physics. It was exactly what Oppenheimer needed. He spent only nine months there, but in that brief time his demons loosened their grip and he became a far more confident and focused person, emotionally and as a scientist. To Fergusson he wrote, "I find the work hard, thank God." He published some excellent research papers and received his doctorate. When Oppenheimer returned to the United States in 1927, he was already known in the profession, through his publications, as the rising American star in the hottest part of physics. With positions both at UC Berkeley and Caltech, he quickly became the charismatic and dominant leader of a school of bright theorists, even while continuing to publish his own research at a rapid rate, thus helping to push American physics into the top league. ("American Prometheus" does not dwell on his many seminal contributions to science, perhaps because two other good biographies published recently handle that aspect very well: David Cassidy's "J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century" and Jeremy Bernstein's "Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma.") Bird and Sherwin note a sign of danger ahead: Wolfgang Pauli shrewdly detected what he called "a very bad trait … a rather unconditional belief in authority." That vulnerability would be put to good use by the government. War, as the ancient Greeks knew, changes all things; it was also to transform Oppenheimer. The U.S. government was remarkably slow to begin planning for a nuclear weapon and preempt its development by the Germans. Albert Einstein sent his famous letter to President Franklin Roosevelt in August 1939, just as Germany was preparing for war in Europe, when there was evidence of Nazi interest in and potential ability to build an A-bomb; indeed, it turned out that they had a head start over the Allies. But Einstein had asked FDR only to have experts determine whether any such bomb could be made to work, and the result was that a mere $6,000 was awarded to Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard for research. In essence, Washington slept on the matter until scientists in England, in the spring of 1941, produced calculations showing a possible way to construct such weapons. Preliminary work, some done under Oppie's direction at Berkeley, indicated that a bomb was feasible and that such an effort would thus be irresistible to the German leaders in their quest for world domination. The race was on. Oppenheimer was an obvious candidate to lead America's secret effort at Los Alamos, an installation created in the wilds of New Mexico, to design, test and make the weapon. But, as Bird and Sherwin point out, there were good reasons for not choosing him. He had no record as a manager, except of groups of admiring students. The Army was refusing to issue him a security clearance because of his long, confused history of humanitarian concerns and left-leaning (perhaps even communist) flirtations, his choice of friends, his wife's and brother's membership in the Communist Party. Although much of what turned up was hearsay, some was made worse by Oppie's foolish invention of stories during interrogations conducted by people he thought inferior. He was again heading his boat into the storm. The Army asked Gen. Leslie Groves to select the head of the project. Groves, a seasoned and ambitious bully, despised almost everything Oppie stood for. Yet he had the uncanny ability to see in the contradictory bundle making up Oppie's persona just what was needed: a superb physicist who could assemble and guide a distinguished team of scientists, most of whom would love to work with him; a perfectionist who would drive himself and others nearly to exhaustion to be the first to develop the bomb; a person deeply loyal to America despite his security problems; and most important, a man vulnerable to Groves' domination — not least because Oppenheimer knew that Groves, privy to his clearance investigation, could ruin his career. And so in September 1942, without yet having been given the security clearance, Oppie was made scientific director of the bomb project. The authors vividly sketch the personalities at Los Alamos and the story of the successes and vexations right to the crucial first test of the bomb in the New Mexican desert in July 1945. Here, as throughout the book, the reader seems to hover over the scene, all-seeing and all-hearing, learning what we have only partly known from earlier sources. Under the ever-impatient Groves, Oppie, chameleon-like, had transformed himself into the skillful manager of a host of outstanding scientists (all of whom Groves called "children") and the decisive executive of a huge scientific and industrial enterprise within the fences of a scrupulous security. Los Alamos, once an obscure boys school on a mesa, grew during its short period of wartime existence into a small town of 4,000 civilians and 2,000 people in uniform. It harbored three experimental laboratories working around the clock in constant communication with other parts of the enterprise, including Fermi's lab in Chicago. Oppie, a failed experimenter, learned quickly from many of the legendary scientists he recruited. Ever present at scientific and technological meetings, he might well have said again, "Hard work, thank God." To the utter frustration of Groves, he insisted on allowing free discussion among the scientists, a communitarian norm to which they had been accustomed from the start of their careers. In this way, solutions to problems could come faster. It is universally agreed that nobody else could have managed and led the whole team. But as the end of the war in Europe seemed closer, and especially after the late arrival at Los Alamos of Niels Bohr, scientists there were openly discussing the moral and political aspects of nuclear weapons and their implications for civilization itself. From the beginning, there were scientists who joined hoping that making a bomb might turn out to be impossible and others who thought it would be so devastating that future wars would be impossible to contemplate. On the other side, there was Edward Teller, ready to shortcut the whole effort in order to focus on realizing his own dream, the design of a "Super" weapon, the hydrogen bomb. Bohr developed the view, which Oppie and others embraced, that it was time to forestall a postwar arms race with the Soviets, who were regarded as war allies but as dangerous in the long run. Openness in politics, as in science, was discussed, as was bargaining with the Soviets early to prevent an arms race in return for sharing knowledge about the weapons. Bohr even tried, in the spring and summer of 1944, to interest FDR and Churchill in this idea, with so little success that he was in danger of being interned. As the authors note, dedicated anti-Soviet warriors such as Groves and others in the administration now had even more reason to be suspicious of Oppenheimer and alarmed by his wide influence. IN August 1945, the two bombs dropped on Japan at Truman's command ended the war, although the enormous number of civilian victims horrified even many advocates of its use. Oppie, who later regretted the use of the second bomb, had at least succeeded in the task given him and said simply, "We knew the world would not be the same." One change he perhaps did not foresee was that in his own standing, especially with respect to the enemies he had made in and outside government. The opportunity to breach Oppie's remaining armor came during the discussion by a government advisory panel on whether — as Teller and others empowered by the beginning of the Cold War urged — there was now a need to develop the Super, a weapon thousands of times more powerful than an A-bomb. Oppie, like James Bryant Conant, David Lilienthal and others, was against it. Apart from whether such a device could be built, they reasoned that it would have no upper limit of destructiveness, thus amounting to a genocidal weapon. In any case, the needed deterrent already existed in the nation's growing arsenal of A-bombs. Oppie even advocated field-deployable nuclear weapons for the Army as part of a bargain to stop developing the Super. And he called for candor about the threat of nuclear war, with both the public and the Soviets. All this constituted treason in the eyes of members of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, particularly in the Air Force, which wanted not only H-bombs but also a monopoly on all fission and fusion weapons. The authors trace in gripping detail the tragedy awaiting Oppenheimer. President Eisenhower appointed as the new AEC chairman Lewis Strauss, who regarded Oppie as untrustworthy, too influential, prone to consult with "commies," and (as Strauss' colleague William L. Borden put it) more probably than not "an agent of the Soviet Union." The campaign to destroy Oppenheimer's character and influence began in earnest, with an enthusiastic assist from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and rumormongers such as Walter Winchell, and with quiet acceptance by Eisenhower, who did not want to be preempted in this case by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The weapon was at hand: Oppie, still occasionally a consultant on nuclear matters, had a top-security clearance, valid for one more year. Eisenhower issued an executive order to investigate individuals whose files contained "derogatory information," and Strauss turned it into the famous panel to review Oppie's clearance. The book's 70-page-long account of the events in the hearing room and behind the scenes, and of the measures taken against the accused contrary to legal formalities and constitutional rights, is chilling. Oppie's friend Lilienthal, the first AEC chief, was infuriated by his passivity, exclaiming, "When I saw what they were doing to Oppenheimer, I was ready to throw chairs." When the record of the trial was published (contrary to the initial agreement), Oppenheimer was seen to have participated in his own destruction. What damaged him most was not his occasionally reckless behavior or his cavalier responses to the earlier interrogations (which had after all resulted in clearances). In the end, what ruined him was that the never-healed fragility of his persona gave a bullying Robb the upper hand. After enduring 27 hours of cross-examination and the condemnation of hostile witnesses like Teller, he had to admit that Robb had successfully exploited the old cracks in his personality. "I had very little sense of self," he confessed. Robert Oppenheimer never wrote his own story, but in "American Prometheus" his biographers have superbly chronicled the triumphs and tragedies of a man who helped to put the world on a new and perilous path.

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