The Strange Case of Robert Oppenheimer

Pandora’s Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb

by Brian VanDeMark
Little, Brown, 339 pp. (withdrawn)

April next year will mark the centenary of the birth of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the generation that built the atomic bomb. He had been a Wunderkind, the son of well-to-do German Jews in New York City, a brilliant student of physics at Harvard and Göttingen. In the 1930s, teaching at both the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, he trained the United States’ first vital school of theoretical physicists. Together with his students, he provided the theoretical analysis of the nuclear data that came pouring out of the cyclotrons at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. They were the product of the driving inventiveness and entrepreneurship of Ernest O. Lawrence, a midwesterner of uncomplicated ambitiousness whose work on big accelerator physics earned him a Nobel Prize in 1939.

The two men admired and liked each other, although Lawrence strongly disapproved of Oppenheimer’s politics. Awakening politically in the mid-Thirties, Oppenheimer became an energetic fellow traveler—joining with Communists in supporting the Loyalists in Spain and promoting labor activism, including attempts by the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT) to organize the employees at the Radiation Laboratory. Lawrence, perhaps fearful of alienating his rich California patrons, prohibited anyone, including Oppenheimer, from raising political questions at the Radiation Laboratory. Even though Oppenheimer broke the rule occasionally, Lawrence nevertheless brought him into the atomic bomb work at Berkeley in 1941, declaring, “I have a great deal of confidence in Oppenheimer.”

Since the bomb project not only posed a formidable scientific challenge but also entailed a huge task of procurement and production, authority over it was given in 1942 to the Army’s new Manhattan Engineering District under the command of General Leslie R. Groves. Groves selected Oppenheimer to direct the laboratory where the atomic bombs would be designed, even though Oppenheimer seemed unqualified for such a job either by experience or temperament. In July 1943, despite counter-recommendations from Army security officials, Groves ordered Oppenheimer cleared “without delay,” declaring, “He is absolutely essential to the project.”

Oppenheimer succeeded brilliantly, assembling a team of world-class physicists in a new base at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and managing their egos as well as their dissatisfactions with the muddy streets as they worked on the design of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He emerged from the war as one of the most famous physicists in America, the leading sage of the nuclear era, an influential adviser to statesmen, chair of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the new director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Einstein was a professor. He enjoyed power and took care not to jeopardize his access to it, declining to contest attacks against the political reliability of other scientists and telling security officials who among physicists might have been a Communist or might now be a danger to security.

Yet Oppenheimer was conscience-stricken, regretting the devastation the Manhattan Project …

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