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An American Tragedy


One of the many complexities of the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer is apparent in his response to the discovery of nuclear fission in January 1939. “The U business is unbelievable,” he wrote to a colleague once he had satisfied himself that uranium atoms really did split when bombarded with neutrons. “It is I think exciting, not in the rare way of positrons and mesotrons, but in a good honest practical way.” He meant that fission didn’t turn physics upside down and inside out like so many other discoveries of the first decades of the twentieth century. Fission was as practical as a hammer. The clincher for Oppenheimer was watching the dramatic green spikes on the oscilloscope of the Berkeley physicist Luis Alvarez when an atom split. “In less than fifteen minutes,” Alvarez wrote later,

he not only agreed that the reaction was authentic but also speculated that in the process extra neutrons would boil off that could be used to split more uranium atoms and thereby generate power or make bombs. It was amazing to see how rapidly his mind worked….

The speed of Oppenheimer’s mind would not have surprised those who knew him. At thirty-four Oppenheimer was famously brilliant. The surprise was his enthusiasm for the “good honest practical way” fission might be put to work. His whole life had been moving in an entirely different direction since his discovery of physics, and especially theoretical physics, at Harvard in the early 1920s, then at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge, England, and finally in the German university town of Göttingen, where he studied with Max Born, argued with his fellow students, and developed “some taste in physics.”

For a decade theory dominated his life and later his teaching in California until the mid-1930s when Oppenheimer suddenly discovered politics—specifically, the “popular front” politics of the American Communist Party as it tried to rally resistance to fascism. Oppenheimer’s politics were, however—like his physics—mainly theoretical. He always insisted he never joined the Party himself, and the FBI, despite a dozen years of relentless surveillance and phone-tapping, never managed to prove he did.

Oppenheimer early in the war readily agreed with a US Army security officer, charged with weighing his loyalty, and said it seemed he had “belonged to nearly every fellow-traveling organization on the West Coast.” He went to rallies, helped raise funds for refugees of the Spanish civil war, made substantial donations of his own to a representative of the Party, fell in love with one Communist, and was close to many others, including his brother Frank, who joined the Party in 1936 and remained until about 1942. For Oppenheimer in his Red period communism was a noble ideal, a way of conceiving a just world, and very likely—much in the way of his physics, his ambitious reading, his tailoring, his interest in art, food, wine, and martinis made exactly so—another means of distinguishing himself from the ordinary run of mankind.

But Oppenheimer the theorist grasped immediately that fission could be used to build a bomb, and his interest went beyond the subatomic physics that would allow it to happen. Almost immediately some of Oppenheimer’s students—Philip Morrison, Sydney Dancoff, the newly arrived Joseph Weinberg—went to work designing a bomb. The first version was drawn on a napkin in a student union restaurant. Within a week Morrison was startled on entering Oppenheimer’s office to see on the blackboard a drawing of the bomb surrounded by equations. To his friend George Uhlenbeck, Oppenheimer wrote, “So I think it really not too improbable that a ten cm cube of uranium deuteride…might very well blow itself to hell.” This remark can be interpreted as one of the very first attempts to estimate “critical mass”—the all-important quantity of fissionable material required for the runaway chain reaction of splitting atoms that gives the atomic bomb its power.

Oppenheimer not only directed his genius toward understanding how a bomb could be made to work, but then stuck with it for six years through the ordeals of dispelling official doubts that the former Red could be trusted; building and running a laboratory; getting the best people to drop what they were doing to join a secret project in New Mexico; designing, manufacturing, and testing an actual weapon; and finally coaching military officers on delivery of the bomb itself—instructing them on how high to detonate it, what sort of weather to seek or avoid, and what kind of target would make the most powerful impact on the collective mind of the rulers of Japan and hasten the end of the war.

That the bomb happened at all is remarkable. More astonishing still is the pace that was maintained. The starting bell was a conference on bomb physics held at Los Alamos in March 1943, and written up by Oppenheimer’s former student Robert Serber in a tome referred to thereafter as “the primer.” Twenty-eight months later, in July 1945, a test bomb was detonated in the desert at Alamogordo. No other bomb-making nation has matched this speed record, and some aspirants, like Iran, have been picking their slow way forward over a span of decades and haven’t reached the testing stage yet.

The magnitude of Oppenheimer’s role in this vast endeavor is fully recorded in Richard Rhodes’s history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, published twenty years ago. American wealth partly explains the success of the project but more important was American resolution—the driving determination to make it happen. The Manhattan Project, as it soon came to be called, was created in June 1942 and taken over in mid-September by Colonel Leslie Groves, who was given a general’s star for shouldering the task. Groves was a true monster of resolution. The scientists resented and often made fun of him, and Richard Rhodes was no fan of the general, either, yet he looms over The Making of the Atomic Bomb like a force of nature.

Money, industrial infrastructure, technical knowhow, and General Groves were all important parts of the mix, but none of these contributed more to the pace of the success than Oppenheimer. He was always on stage—guiding, pushing, placating, reassuring, asking questions, making suggestions, stretching Army security regs to ensure that the scientists could all talk to each other. He even found an hour a week to listen to the torrent of complaint and bright ideas from the brilliant but touchy Edward Teller, who was already obsessed with the fusion weapon he called the “super.”

The sheer effort of will of keeping the bomb on track through all hours and emotional weathers wasted Oppenheimer, always thin, down to a stalk at 115 pounds. Once or twice he was ready to snap and give up. His friend I.I. Rabi, the only physicist who answered with a principled “no” to Oppenheimer’s call to work on the project, came out to New Mexico from time to time to buck him up. Rabi did not want to help build a bomb as “the culmination of three centuries of physics,” but when the time approached to see if the gadget worked, and Oppenheimer was under greater strain than ever, Rabi was on hand to listen to the countdown and watch the dawn in an instant turn brighter than the full glare of day while many, staring awestruck through thick filters, wondered if the spreading ball of fire would stop before swallowing the world. As striking to Rabi was the sight of Oppenheimer himself after people were up and about again: “I’ll never forget his walk; I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car…. This kind of strut. He had done it.”

But it is not what Oppenheimer did in the high desert of New Mexico between April 1943 and August 1945 that explains our enduring interest in Oppenheimer as a man, and the appearance now, sixty years later, of four new books in which he is the central figure. In Oppenheimer’s extraordinary life the building of the atomic bomb is the middle chapter. The test that made Oppenheimer strut comes just past the midpoint in the nearly six-hundred-page biography jointly written by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. What followed the building of the bomb is what makes Oppenheimer one of the handful of genuinely tragic figures in American history.

When the dust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had settled, the American military concluded that it had acquired the solution to practically everything—a club to cow the Russians and a cheap substitute for a big peacetime army. Oppenheimer’s thinking took a different turn. Over the next decade his deepening sense of the dangers posed by the hothouse growth in the number of nuclear weapons so angered Air Force generals and some civilian officials that they conspired to destroy him. More than once Rabi warned Oppenheimer that powerful enemies were sharpening their knives. Oppenheimer’s vulnerable spot would be his Red period. Rabi urged him to write something for a popular magazine like The Saturday Evening Post, confess all, and put it behind him. Perhaps Oppenheimer was overconfident; perhaps he feared exposing old friends to trouble from Red hunters like Senator Joseph McCarthy. In any event he ignored Rabi’s warnings and in 1954 Oppenheimer’s enemies, with the consent and assistance of the White House, brought him down.

How this was done, by whom, and why is the subject of Priscilla McMillan’s account of the Atomic Energy Commission hearing in the spring of 1954 which probed, and eventually publicized, the recesses of Oppenheimer’s political and emotional life and then stripped him of his security clearance for “substantial defects of character.” McMillan’s short, lucid, and intense book, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, is a stunning complement to American Prometheus, placing the scarifying final episode in Oppenheimer’s life on a dissecting table in order to separate and identify, as if it were the nervous system of a rat, the filaments of ambition, rancor, and collusion of the three brooding men who cut Oppenheimer down. The man with the power to break him was Lewis Strauss, a vain and thin-skinned industrialist who became Oppenheimer’s boss when President Eisenhower named him chairman of the AEC in 1953. The man who provided the argument and the occasion was William Liscum Borden, a single-minded young zealot who thought he knew why Oppenheimer resisted Air Force demands for hydrogen bombs—“more probably than not,” Borden wrote the head of the FBI in November 1953, “J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”

But neither could have managed Oppenheimer’s destruction without the help of the obsessed H-bomb promoter Edward Teller, who had never forgiven Oppenheimer for choosing another man to run the theoretical division at Los Alamos, who dreamed of replacing Oppenheimer as the protean man of the hour, and who nursed matters forward as he methodically planted seeds of suspicion in the minds of Borden, Strauss, and Air Force generals that Oppenheimer’s “faulty judgment” could be traced to hidden loyalties from his Red period.

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