But at the outset of the invention process the power of the new weapon was harder to ignore. Some scientists were appalled by the intention to destroy cities at a single blow, and a few, for varying reasons, felt compelled to break lockstep. At Los Alamos, the Harvard physicist Theodore Alvin Hall, the youngest person (at eighteen) admitted to the Tech Area where the real work was mainly done, and the German Klaus Fuchs, a member of the British contingent, both decided they had an obligation to pass on atomic secrets to the Russians—information which in fact allowed the Russians in 1949 to test a carbon copy of the American plutonium bomb. In both the United States and Britain intelligence authorities received information on several occasions during the war from sources in Germany claiming that a German bomb program existed but was opposed by scientists assigned to carry out the work. Sending these messages east and west was illegal—treason, in fact—but it was also clearly moral in its primal impulse.
Motives similar to those of the Germans drove a few of the American bomb-makers—Robert Wilson at Los Alamos; Leo Szilard, James Franck, and others at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago—to step out of channels to argue that it was immoral to use the bomb on Japan without first staging a demonstration and giving Japan a chance to surrender. Their attempts to reach high officials infuriated General Groves and failed to halt progress toward Hiroshima. Other restive souls included Rabi, who had declined to work on the bomb in the first place; the Polish émigré Joseph Rotblat, trapped in London by the outbreak of the war, who joined the British bomb program for fear of the Germans but quit in late 1944 when he was told that the Germans had no program; and Oppenheimer himself, who did more than anyone else to ensure that the bomb was ready “in time,” briefly exulted, and then gradually internalized the idea that the dead had been murdered by him.
Our evidence for Oppenheimer’s feelings is thin—a handful of remarks mainly recorded by others. But from them we can conclude that something very like a wave of remorse seems to have hit Oppenheimer shortly after Nagasaki was destroyed by the second atomic bomb, a blow criticized by many of the bomb builders as gratuitous and unnecessary. Within weeks his strut was gone. Abruptly, he resigned his position, packed up, and departed Los Alamos. In a somber farewell speech in October he said that pride in building the bomb
must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world …then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.
Nine days later he was brought to see President Truman by Secretary of War Robert Patterson. “Mr. President,” he said, “I feel I have blood on my hands.” Truman was disgusted, described Oppenheimer later as a “cry-baby scientist,” and told Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.” That was the last time Oppenheimer spoke so baldly of guilt, but he did not shed it. Three years later, in February 1948, Time magazine quoted him as saying, “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” Oppenheimer often cloaked his point in a thicket of words, as he did here, but there is no mistaking the meaning of the word “sin,” and there is no hiding which physicist he had in mind.
It was this personal history of guilt and remorse that convinced Teller, Strauss, and the Air Force generals that the GAC’s objections to the H-bomb as a weapon of genocide must have been ultimately Oppenheimer’s doing. McMillan cites the many policy differences that separated Oppenheimer from Air Force generals, who wanted a free hand in building and planning to use atomic weapons. But still worse from the generals’ point of view was any hint that destruction of cities from the air was immoral. That was how they had defeated Japan without an invasion. The GAC report threatened to raise questions that presidents and generals wanted to ignore. It is probable that no other official American document, on a subject of such consequence, was ever argued so lucidly and seriously on moral grounds; it is certain there has been none since. One reason is that the GAC report had no impact; at the end of January 1950, pressed by the Pentagon, his personal advisers, and the knowledge that the Russians had the bomb, President Truman announced that “I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super bomb.” But there is a second explanation for the absence of moral argument in official deliberations of weapons policy over the last half-century—the brutal example of the public destruction of the haunted scientist-statesman who had seemed to embody both the triumph and the guilt for Hiroshima.
The life of Oppenheimer has long awaited its biographer. Writing the history of the invention of nuclear weapons began immediately after Hiroshima and in recent decades has culminated with a series of major books on the leading figures of the early atomic era. Among these works, each the result of years of exhaustive research and writing, are Rhodes’s definitive history, already cited; William Lanouette’s life of Leo Szilard, Genius in the Shadows (1992); James Hershberg’s life of one of Oppenheimer’s civilian bosses during the war, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (1993); Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (2002), a work containing much original research often cited by the books under review here; and Robert S. Norris’s Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (2003).
But Oppenheimer, the truly central figure, seemed to resist the attempt to write his life on the grand scale. An early effort, Peter Goodchild’s J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (1980), included many valuable personal details, and now David Cassidy brings us the best account of Oppenheimer’s life in science with J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. Cassidy is the author of a substantial biography of Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who was at the heart of German nuclear research efforts during World War II. Having written the life of a scientist who did not build a bomb for his government, Cassidy has now written the life of a scientist who did.
The book’s chief strength is the way it tracks Oppenheimer through the later years of the quantum revolution, explaining, among other things, how Oppenheimer managed to miss the big idea or discovery so many people believed was in him, by concentrating instead during his years in California on the loose ends left by other theorists. Cassidy also argues that Oppenheimer’s destruction should be seen as a deliberate official effort to reassert a wartime degree of control over nuclear issues. But Cassidy’s grasp of Oppenheimer’s character seems once removed, probably because few who knew him remain to be interviewed.
Martin Sherwin, author of one of the important early histories of the bomb, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies (1975), got an earlier start, when most of the major figures were still around with memory intact. He began researching an Oppenheimer biography in 1979 and seemed an ideal candidate for the job. In an author’s note Sherwin says he expected to deliver a manuscript to his publisher in four or five years. But twenty years after he began, no manuscript was in sight. Not everyone was surprised; historians of the subject, a small gossiping group, suggested that Sherwin was the latest victim of the curse of Oppenheimer, whose genius was tainted by a mean-spirited streak. Aspiring biographers, it was said, came to loathe the company of the man and dropped their projects. A history of Sherwin’s progress can be found in the list of interviews, more than a hundred in all, included in the bibliography of American Prometheus —he maintained a vigorous pace for the first couple of years, but then fell off in the early 1980s. In 1985 Sherwin stopped completely.
What agonies filled the intervening years go unmentioned in Sherwin’s author’s note, but about five years ago he was joined in the project by Kai Bird, distinguished author of lives of important cold war figures—John McCloy, intimately involved in the early history of atomic bombs as an assistant to Secretary of War Henry Stimson; and the Bundy brothers, William and McGeorge. The latter had helped Stimson write his own explanation of why a bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. So Bird arrived with a feel for the war years and well steeped in the early history of the bomb.
But even so the challenge was great—too long a time with a difficult subject can sap a writer of interest and enthusiasm; writing from another man’s notes can be dry and perfunctory; collaboration can be an awkward literary arrangement, bridging disagreements with bland language. But somehow in this case all difficulties have been overcome; American Prometheus is clear in its purpose, deeply felt, persuasively argued, disciplined in form, and written with a sustained literary power. It is still recognizably Sherwin’s book, giving new emphasis to arguments first made in A World Destroyed, but at the same time Bird has brought freshness and clarity along with some interpretive ideas of his own.
But it is Oppenheimer the man, not general ideas about the nuclear age, that dominates these pages. Oppenheimer emerges in all his complexity—a brainy theorist but also an “underdogger,” quick in his sympathy for those at the bottom of the social ladder; a sometime revolutionary who irritated former students like Philip Morrison with his talk after the war about “Dean” and “George”—Dean Acheson and George Marshall; devoted defender of his alcoholic wife Kitty but blind to her ego-crushing treatment of their son, Peter; lifelong friend of students like Serber, and betrayer of students like Rossi Lomanitz, Joseph Weinberg, and Bernard Peters, whom he simply threw to the Red-hunting wolves.
In this list, which might be long extended, no contradictions are more important than those involving the bomb itself, not just the first bombs built at Los Alamos but all the bombs that followed in the next eight years. No bomb builder expressed remorse in stronger words—”sin,” “blood on my hands”—but at the same time Oppenheimer stopped short of regretting what he had done. “It isn’t that I don’t feel bad,” he told reporters in Tokyo in 1960. “It is that I don’t feel worse tonight than I did last night.” This is like barbed wire stretched to the snapping point.