Sin and the Scientist

Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections

edited by Alice Kimball Smith, edited by Charles Weiner
Harvard University Press, 376 pp., $20.00

Baudelaire made a blasphemous poem out of the Biblical notion that innocence is virtue, knowledge evil. He turned his back on godly virtue and prayed for satanic knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge (l’Arbre de Science) would be a new temple, spreading its boughs over Satan’s brow, and he prayed that his soul would be there, next to Satan. At Harvard in the Twenties J. Robert Oppenheimer belonged to a little group of superior undergraduates who used Baudelaire’s refrain—“O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!”—as their hilarious shibboleth, a mocking response to the miseries of intense intellectual striving.

Twenty years later, when Oppenheimer had to pick a code word for the test explosion of the first nuclear bomb, he drew on John Donne’s holy sonnets—“Batter my heart, three person’d God;…break, blow, burn and make me new”—and christened the explosion Trinity. In neither case were Oppenheimer and his comrades conscious of blasphemy. Whether undergraduate superstrivers or military engineers, they were simply borrowing poetic words to express feelings, of mock heroic angst in the first case, of awful pride in the second. Poetry—art in general—was “not the exemplification of a truth, nor a commentary on the world.”1 Science expressed truth, and provided not merely commentary on the world but mastery of it.

I am not questioning Oppenheimer’s legendary soulfulness; I am trying to define it, and to discover its bearing on his career in science. It is fairly certain that he did not have Baudelaire in mind when he made the famous remark, after Hiroshima, that “the physicists have known sin,”2 or when he told Truman, “We have blood on our hands.”3 Many of his colleagues imagined a connection between such expressions of bad conscience and the longstanding evidence of his intense interest in poetry, reaching even to the Bhagavad-Gita, which he read in Sanskrit. A recent memoir repeats the legend of Oppenheimer’s “mystic” tendency, which was supposedly revealed in his revulsion against the nuclear arms race, and in the analogy he perceived between “the man of science and the man of art [who] live always at the edge of mystery,” struggling “to make partial order in total chaos.”4 Of course it is a confusion to put the label of mysticism on any sensitivity to moral or aesthetic values, which Oppenheimer had in great abundance, or on concern with metaphysical issues, which he shrugged off. But philistine confusions of that sort are fairly common among contemporary scientists, and there was reason to wonder whether, or to what extent, Oppenheimer might have shared the legend of soulful mysticism battling with scientific realism for possession of his mind.

The greatest merit of this fine collection of letters and documents is that it puts an end to such wondering. Oppenheimer’s inmost soul in process of formation is revealed in confessional letters of his youth. If mysticism is belief in an intuitive grasp of a supernatural realm, we can say with finality: he was as far from mysticism as one can be, for better or for worse. In his family—wealthy, German-Jewish, assimilated—and at Ethical Culture School in New York he absorbed the secular devotion to scientific and artistic creation as the supreme self-justification of the best people. Unfortunately, terror threatens hope in that faith. If each person proves his worth by artistic or scientific works, he may prove himself worthless.

As an undergraduate at Harvard and graduate student at Cambridge, Oppenheimer was increasingly tormented by the fear that he was not among the elect. He wrote pathetic, euphuistic letters to Herbert W. Smith, a favorite high-school teacher who became a close friend, in which elaborate efforts to laugh off his fears by self-ridicule collapse periodically into simple laments of worthlessness: “…You must see that it is very hard to remain innocent and satisfied, when science and literature and the people you admire…all proclaim the beauty and wonder and emotional and aesthetic wealth of a host of benisons which you haven’t got.” Conventional reassurance, such as high grades from admiring teachers, was unavailing. Personal worth measured on some uncalibrated scale was the central obsession in young Oppenheimer’s letters, not society’s table of ranks, and certainly not the metaphysical hierarchies of values that obsessed poets like Donne and Baudelaire. He lacked the ultimate arrogance of metaphysical passion—or is it meekness?—which turns the individual’s problem of personal merit into the universal problem of all creatures confronting the limits that god or nature has imposed on their brief lives.

It is not, I think, a confusion to read such philosophical issues into the tormented letters of a young man drifting toward insanity. Philosophical issues are no less genuine when the mind on which they press is cracking. In any case, dementia praecox (schizophrenia in today’s jargon) was the label that Oppenheimer’s psychiatrist put upon him, and the editors of the present collection have dug out friends’ recollections of truly alarming episodes. Oppenheimer tried to strangle Francis Fergusson, a friend he especially admired (and envied?) for superior literary ability. On another occasion Oppenheimer hastily abandoned a vacation party, telling his companions that he had to rush back to Cambridge and remove the poisoned apple he had left on the desk of P.M.S. Blackett, an exceptionally brilliant physicist. There were “unsatisfactory sexual ventures,” as the genteel editors cryptically remark. Periodically Oppenheimer’s parents and friends seem to have worried about suicide, especially during his year of graduate study in physics at Cambridge University, where he felt terribly inept, in part because he was expected to become an experimentalist as well as a theorist, though he could not solder two wires properly.

Whether such episodes justified the diagnosis of schizophrenia is less important than Oppenheimer’s conviction that he overcame his troubles when he broke off with psychiatrists and became his own disciplinarian. A brief, cryptic self-diagnosis, written to Fergusson following the strangling episode, centered on “the awful fact of excellence,” which was lacking in the poems and stories he had been sending to Smith and Fergusson with joking comments about their worthlessness. (Evidently the editors agree with that judgment, for they have included only two samples of young Oppenheimer’s literary efforts and the embarrassed reader does not cry out for more.) In his mid-twenties Oppenheimer gradually abandoned his “masturbatic” writing, as he characterized it. It would be more accurate to call it a literary effort so anxiously self-centered as to be self-defeating. It ended in stoical acceptance of failure and regression to “the sweet luxury of being taught,” as he described his sessions with a teacher of Sanskrit.

In his mid-twenties stoicism mastered anxiety in physics too. To be sure, in that field he was becoming the stoic as emperor rather than slave, but cultivation of inner detachment attended his success in physics no less than his defeat in literature. Intense striving continued while pathological self-doubt was subdued, not by vulgar self-congratulation, but by insistence that one’s deepest feelings must be detached from lust for recognition or fear of scorn. Perhaps stoicism is the wrong term for Oppenheimer’s mature philosophy of life. Epicureanism may be more appropriate, in the original sense of a search for largely intellectual pleasures in seclusion from the disturbing world. He did not attempt a philosophical justification for his continued devotion to intense striving while cultivating inner detachment, but neither did he attempt a philosophical justification of the new physics. A tendency to brush off philosophical inquiry was part of Oppenheimer’s disciplined detachment as it had been of his elemental self-laceration. He did not dismiss philosophy with a sneer, as so many contemporary scientists do, but he dismissed it nevertheless.

Oppenheimer’s great success in physics began with his move from Cambridge to Göttingen, where he was encouraged to become a pure theorist, and to combine “a fantastically impregnable metaphysical disingenuousness with the go-getting habits of a wallpaper manufacturer.” He coauthored an important paper with Max Born, and returned to the US academic market as a “hot property,” snapped up by Berkeley and Cal Tech (he divided his year between the two), and repeatedly bid for by Harvard and Princeton, while he and E.O. Lawrence, theorist teamed with experimentalist, built a West Coast empire of advanced research and graduate training in physics. No doubt he relished such worldly success, but one must infer the relish from indirect evidence. It is notably absent in his personal letters, which continue to be intensely confessional, though no longer self-denigrating.

The most revealing are didactic essays to his younger brother Frank, who was becoming a physicist too, in spite of Robert’s effort to steer him into biology. Robert was among those farsighted physicists who saw that biology was about to replace physics as the most exciting territory for scientific trailblazers and bounty hunters. Nevertheless he heartily approved Frank’s choice of physics, stressing “the excellences of life it brings,” most notably “that delectatio contemplationis which is the reward and reason of our way of life.” In self-perception he was a hard-working recluse, pleasantly secluded in the garden of Epicurus, while in social fact he was a go-getter, an academic empire builder, unwittingly preparing himself to be scientific director of the first nuclear bomb factory.

The most puzzling feature of Oppenheimer’s letters is their scientific thinness, their lack of interesting comment on the substance of science. His special research interests—the analysis of cosmic rays, for example—appear in a few uncharacteristically pallid letters. Occasionally he seems on the verge of vivid scientific commentary, as in a report to Frank of a 1934 visit to Princeton: “Princeton is a madhouse: its solipsistic luminaries shining in separate and helpless desolation. Einstein is completely cuckoo….” But he leaves that hanging, a decree rather than a reasoned judgment, presumably referring to Einstein’s criticism of quantum theory. Even such “sibylline declarations,” a hallmark of Oppenheimer’s scientific conversation, are quite rare in his letters. Nor is there exciting stuff in his published essays and lectures. The paper record communicates little of the galvanic effect that he had on fellow scientists in person. Recollections attribute his charisma to the emotional intensity he radiated, combined with great erudition, exceptional speed of articulate thought, and a lack of concern for slower minds that made him a grandmaster of academic oneupmanship.

The editors say that they have omitted technical letters to fellow physicists, and it may be that the omitted letters reveal more of Oppenheimer’s scientific mentality than its great technical facility. I doubt that, both because I trust the editors’ discernment, and because Oppenheimer’s didactic letters to his brother Frank are singularly lacking in scientific content. Whether recommending physics or biology or “hard languages”—an academic field that gets passing endorsement—Robert’s stress is on the “unremitting need of discipline and order,” not the particular qualities of the field in question. At one point Frank asked Robert if he did not value discipline as a good in itself, regardless of its ostensible objectives. Robert confessed that he did, and implied that he had studied many efforts to provide “a metaphysical ground for this evaluation”—from the Bhagavad-Gita to Spinoza—only to conclude that the diversity of the metaphysical arguments subverts them all. “The fact that discipline is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness.”

He embellished that positivist assertion with a highflown celebration of the austere joys that attend discipline: “We come a little to see the world without the gross distortion of personal desire, and in seeing it so, accept more easily our earthly privation and its earthly horror,” and so on. Finally he returned to the problem of diverse objectives served by diverse forms of discipline. He made an implicit distinction between ultimate goals, which metaphysics seeks in vain, and proximate goals, which may be “minor” yet must be “real” to those who labor toward them:

But because I believe that the reward of discipline is greater than its immediate objective, I would not have you think that discipline without objective is possible: in its nature discipline involves the subjection of the soul to some perhaps minor end; and that end must be real, if the discipline is not to be factitious. Therefore I think that all things which evoke discipline: study, and our duties to men and to the commonwealth, war, and personal hardship, and even the need for subsistence, ought to be greeted by us with profound gratitude; for only through them can we attain to the least detachment; and only so can we know peace.

The style is antique, but the thought is starkly modern. The immost refuge of Oppenheimer’s soul was not the garden of Epicurus but the iron cage of Max Weber, the dutifully accepted callings that command rational striving toward goals our reason cannot justify.

Within that frame Oppenheimer’s predicament as a scientist becomes comprehensible. The “beauty and wonder” that drew him to science as a form of creative self-expression were overborne by the need for discipline, both personal and social. He saw the paradoxical danger to scientific creativity rising from the disciplined specialization that makes science possible. “Highly organized and highly integrated projects fail to give men that deep and independent curiosity and vision on which the best of research has in the past been based.” He wrote that from Los Alamos, where he was directing the specialized labors of several hundred scientists. On that magnified scale he perceived the stifling effect of compartmentalization of thought, but his own creativity suffered, I would suggest, from the primal act of compartmentalization, the separation of objective thought from expressive feeling, with thought assigned to science, feeling to art, and metaphysical passion lost in the gulf between. I am assuming that some form of metaphysical passion, even when it verges on mysticism, as in the case of Schrödinger, is essential to the creative scientific “vision” that Oppenheimer reached for but never quite grasped.

In politics as well as science and literature Oppenheimer accepted the compartmentalization of mental function that fits us into the social mechanism, but in politics the compartments repeatedly collapsed, dropping him into notorious inconsistencies and painful ambivalence. The civic faith he confessed to Frank in 1932, his “profound gratitude” for the testing of our souls by “our duties to the commonwealth, war, and personal hardship,” pointed toward the typical scientist’s eagerness to serve the nation at the bidding of its leaders. His prolonged contempt for politics—“Tell me,” he once exclaimed, “what has politics to do with truth, goodness, and beauty?”—may seem inconsistent with that eagerness to serve. In fact contempt for the political process is a very widespread method of masking subordination to those who direct it.

At critical moments in his public service Oppenheimer openly accepted the confinement of the specialist to purely technical jobs, the surrender of moral responsibility to the powers that be. The most significant was that moment before Hiroshima when he chaired a panel of scientific advisers that could have endorsed James Franck’s plea for restraint, but chose instead to favor “direct military use” of the A-bomb, while disclaiming “special competence in solving the political, social, and military problems which are presented by the advent of atomic power.”5 The most notorious disclaimers occurred at his security hearing in 1954, where he repeatedly denied the accusation that he had allowed moral qualms and strategic or political thinking to interfere with his role as a technical adviser. “I was not in a policymaking position at Los Alamos,” he said. “I would have done anything I was asked to do….”6 The present collection adds another sharp stroke to the self-portrait of Oppenheimer as humble technician: he ordered similar humility on his subordinates at Los Alamos. He stopped them from organizing discussion groups to consider what should be done with the weapon they were making.

But Oppenheimer’s accusers had a point; he was not the wholly circumscribed technician that he pretended to be at his security hearing. He indulged in wide-ranging strategic and political analysis, for example, in his farewell address to the subordinates at Los Alamos, published here for the first time. He had stopped their discussions, but he wanted them to know what he and Niels Bohr had been saying to each other about the reasons why and the way ahead. He ran through a list of political justifications for inventing the bomb, which made the usual illogical link between the hope that such a fearful weapon would make war impossible and the conviction that the United States was the chosen nation to use the bomb for that irenic purpose. Elsewhere in this long, rambling speech he inconsistently wondered whether the US had a proper claim on that messianic role, and whether the effort to pursue it might not start a nuclear arms race rather than a millennium of peace.

At one point in this speech Oppenheimer set aside all such efforts at political analysis, and inconsistently confessed the technician’s confinement within an ethic that abdicates responsibility to “mankind at large”:

But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.

This was the viewpoint that Oppenheimer expressed most succinctly nine years later at his security hearing, when the inquisitors asked why he had helped develop the H-bomb in spite of his strategic and moral objections. “When you see something that is technically sweet,” he replied, “you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.”7

That humble self-portrait is a demeaning caricature; it leaves out the author’s saving inconsistencies. Oppenheimer brought the inquisition on himself by two periods of revolt against the narrow service ethic of the specialist. In the late Thirties he was openly involved with communists, and just after the war he made persistent efforts, within the closed politics of the higher bureaucracy, to slow down the nuclear arms race. A great deal has been published about both episodes, but the inner man is obscured rather than revealed in the profuse record, if only because it began with police interrogations of the politically suspect director at Los Alamos—indeed, it began with surreptitiously recorded interrogations—and never completely lost that cat-and-mouse quality.

In the late Thirties Oppenheimer was brought out of political indifference by the Great Depression, the German persecution of the Jews, the Spanish Civil War, and by love of people who became communists in those years (the woman he almost married, the woman he did, his brother, his brother’s wife). Those were the reasons why he became a fellow traveler, as he publicly confessed at his security hearing in 1954, summing up his previous confessions at private interrogations. They are still the only important source for an understanding of Oppenheimer’s leftist period, and they share the usual enigma of such confessions. The redeemed heretic may not be convincing on the attractive qualities of the heresy, lest he spoil his claim of redemption.

The greatest disappointment of the present collection is its failure to provide any direct evidence from the heretical period. There are no confessional letters which might show what forbidden mixture of thought and feeling and commitment to action Oppenheimer permitted himself in the late Thirties. We can only hope that he wrote such letters, that they were not destroyed during his years of harassment, and that present or future owners will allow them to be published. Even if he was thinking crudely about history and politics and individual responsibility, he must have been trying to think about them as a whole person, a rare and admirable phenomenon among specialized workers.

The present collection does shed important new light on Oppenheimer’s postwar transgressions, which is surprising, for the collection ends with his departure from Los Alamos at the end of 1945. The editors have dug out some crucial documents which show that Oppenheimer’s thinking in 1945 was already pointing toward a losing battle with the leaders who exulted in the omnipotence they thought the US had acquired with the A-bomb. He was far from exulting. He felt “profound grief” and “profound perplexity,” for he saw that the US delusion of “hegemony in the field of atomic weapons” was actually a challenge to other states to join the nuclear arms race, with no conceivable protection “from the most terrible destruction.” Yet he could see no way out of the danger except vague suggestions of “international arrangements” that would “make future wars impossible.”

The numbered paragraphs of his report to the Secretary of War just after Hiroshima rock back and forth between recommendation of continued nuclear arms development and vivid insistence on the enormous danger of such development, with the lame suggestion of “international arrangements” tacked on at the end. In the farewell address at Los Alamos he gingerly circled the underlying choice between the risk of serious negotiations for restraint on the nuclear arms race, which would involve some sort of renunciation of such arms, and the far greater risk of pursuing the delusion of nuclear hegemony.

In the next few years Oppenheimer edged into bureaucratic conflict over that choice, helping all the while to develop the nuclear arsenal. The climax came in 1949, when the Soviet Union exploded its first A-bomb, and Oppenheimer was chairman of a scientific advisory committee that recommended unanimously against the crash program for the H-bomb that was the US government’s reflexive response. of course the scientists’ recommendation was brushed aside, and the reexamination of Oppenheimer’s security clearance began. In the summer of 1952, as the materials for the first H-bomb were being assembled, Oppenheimer and three other scientific advisers made a daring concrete suggestion to their political masters: Why not notify the Soviet government that we will not explode ours if you never explode yours? This suggestion too was brushed aside without serious consideration, and bureaucratic politicking and backbiting turned into open denuciation of Oppenheimer as an unreliable man, if not a traitor.8

The pattern had been set back in 1944, when Niels Bohr warned Churchill and Roosevelt that the safety of their countries depended on negotiations with the Soviet Union for nuclear restraint, before the A-bomb would be a reality and certainly before it might be used to kill. He was suggesting that the US and Britain renounce the ultimate weapon in advance, and Churchill, astounded, declared Bohr either a madman or a traitor.^9 Political leaders are still extremely reluctant to see that the search for ultimate weapons endangers their countries far more than serious efforts to negotiate restraints on that search. After all, such negotiations are confessions of dependence on foreign adversaries, over whom one has little or no control. The search for ultimate weapons is an assertion of independence, if only in dreams, and a sure bet on the patriotism of one’s own subjects. Even the scientists who wring their hands and make occasional protests can be counted on to invent the ultimate weapons. In the scientists’ case the stimulus of patriotism is reinforced by technical “sweetness.”

In 1949 Fermi and Rabi wrote their own especially categorical recommendation against development of the H-bomb: “It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light…. It is wrong on fundamental ethical principles to initiate the development of such a weapon.”10 Yet they, like Oppenheimer, helped to develop that weapon after the president gave the order. Their moment of irresistible “sweetness” came at a Princeton meeting in 1951, as Teller described the invention that removed all doubts about the feasibility of the H-bomb. Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Rabi shared in the “excitement,” the “enthusiasm” that swept the whole group into harmonious planning to create a “necessarily evil thing.”11

Baudelaire would also have relished that moment, with a mocking pride in fresh confirmation of his discovery: that evil is an objective social force, more powerful than the good intentions of individuals. Perhaps Oppenheimer did recall Baudelaire when he wrote that “the physicists have known sin.” Perhaps he had come to reconsider his youthful assertion that poetry cannot be “a commentary on the world,” “the exemplification of a truth.”


Was the Hiroshima Bomb Necessary? An Exchange October 23, 1980

  1. 1

    Robert Oppenheimer, p. 120.

  2. 2

    J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1955) pp. 87-88.

  3. 3

    Nuel Pharr Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer (Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 258. For a different version—”I have blood on my hands”—see Philip M. Stern, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (Harper & Row, 1969), p. 90.

  4. 4

    Leona Marshall Libby, The Uranium People (Crane, Russack, 1979), p.100.

  5. 5

    Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists’ Movement in America (MIT Press, 1971), pp. 49-50.

  6. 6

    In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing before Personnel Security Board (MIT Press, 1970), p. 236.

  7. 7

    Ibid., p. 81. Cf. p. 251 for a repetition of this theme.

  8. 8

    See Philip M. Stern, The Oppenheimer Case, pp. 194 et passim.

  9. 10

    Stern, The Oppenheimer Case, p. 145.

  10. 11

    Ibid., pp. 174-5.