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Oppenheimer: The Shape of Genius

The young Robert Oppenheimer, right, playing with blocks, circa 1910

After learning this, I went to see Oppenheimer and asked him directly why he had thought that tactical nuclear weapons were a good idea. This time, he answered my question. He said, “To understand why I advocated tactical weapons, you would have to see the Air Force war plan that we had then. That was the God-damnedest thing I ever saw. It was a mindless obliteration of cities and populations. Anything, even a major ground war fought with nuclear weapons, was better than that.”

I understood then how it happened that Oppenheimer came to grief. He was caught in a battle between the Army and the Air Force. The Army wanted small bombs to destroy invading armies. The Air Force wanted big bombs to destroy whole countries. The Army wanted fission bombs and the Air Force wanted hydrogen bombs. Oppenheimer was on the side of the Army. That was why he promoted tactical weapons. That was why he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb.

The Air Force took its revenge on the Army by helping to drive Oppenheimer out of the government. Air Force General Roscoe Charles Wilson was one of the witnesses against Oppenheimer at the security hearing. General Wilson said, “I felt compelled to go to the Director of Intelligence to express my concern over what I felt was a pattern of action [on Oppenheimer’s part] that was simply not helpful to national defense.” In the eyes of the Air Force, anyone who opposed the hydrogen bomb was opposing national defense. The Air Force won the battle, and Oppenheimer’s friends in the Army could not help him. The hydrogen bomb development rushed ahead with the highest priority. But in the end, both the Air Force and the Army got all the bombs that they wanted.

Two facts about Oppenheimer stand out clearly from the public record. He was astonishingly effective as leader of the Los Alamos project. And he never regretted his role as the chief architect of the bomb. In the memoirs of people who worked at Los Alamos, we find many descriptions of his ability to oversee a huge variety of technical jobs, to find the appropriate tools for each pair of hands, and to keep an army of prima donnas working harmoniously together. General Groves talked with many of the leading scientists before choosing one of them to be the director of the project. He chose Oppenheimer because he was the only one with a burning ambition to get the job done. Oppenheimer understood that the project was not scientific but military. Late in 1944, when some of the Los Alamos scientists seemed to be more interested in scientific experiments than in weaponry, Oppenheimer wrote in a memorandum to Groves: “The laboratory is operating under a directive to produce weapons. This directive has been and will be rigorously adhered to.”

Oppenheimer continued for the rest of his life to be proud of his achievement at Los Alamos. We know this because he protested vigorously in 1964 when the German playwright Heinar Kipphardt wrote a play portraying him as a tragic hero regretting his actions. Oppenheimer threatened to sue Kipphardt and the producers of the play if they continued to misrepresent him. The producers cut out the offending passages from the play, and the case never went to court. Oppenheimer continued to block later attempts to produce the play in London and New York. The play was mostly based on the security hearings of 1954. Oppenheimer said in a public statement about the hearings to a Washington Post reporter, “The whole damn thing was a farce, and these people are trying to make a tragedy out of it.”

Oppenheimer particularly objected to some passages in the play that made him appear anti-American. Monk expresses his opinion, with which I agree, that Oppenheimer’s anger arose from his deep loyalty to America. For him, expressing regret for what he had done for his country would have meant joining his country’s enemies.

Oppenheimer was above all a good soldier. That is why he worked so well with General Groves, and that is why Groves trusted him. I have a vivid memory of the ice-cold February day in 1967 when we held a memorial service for Oppenheimer at Princeton. Because of the extreme cold, attendance at the service was sparse. But General Groves, old and frail, came all the way from his home to pay his respects to his friend.

I often wondered how it happened that Oppenheimer changed his character so suddenly, from the left-wing bohemian intellectual at Berkeley to the good soldier at Los Alamos. I believe that an important clue to this change is the story of Joe Dallet. In his autobiographical statement at the security hearings, Oppenheimer said:

It was in the summer of 1939 in Pasadena that I first met my wife…. I learned of her earlier marriage to Joe Dallet, and of his death fighting in Spain…. When I met her I found in her a deep loyalty to her former husband.

After Oppenheimer married Kitty in 1940, they continued to live with the ghost of Joe Dallet. Later I learned from the historian Richard Polenberg some facts about Joe Dallet’s life and death.

Dallet was unlike the majority of the left-wing intellectuals who flocked to Spain to fight for the republic. Dallet took soldiering seriously. He believed in discipline. He quickly became an expert on the repair, maintenance, and use of machine guns. He drilled his troops with old-fashioned thoroughness, making sure that they knew how to take care of their weapons and how to use them effectively. In an anarchic situation, his unit was conspicuously well organized. His men caught from him the habit of competence, the pride of a steelworker who knew how to handle machinery. At moments of relaxation, he talked mostly about his beloved machine guns. This was the image of Joe that Joe’s friends brought to Kitty in Paris when they came to see her after his death. This was the image that Kitty brought to Oppenheimer when she married him.

From Spain to Los Alamos was a short step. Oppenheimer was as proud of his bombs as Joe Dallet had been proud of his guns. Oppenheimer became the good soldier that Kitty loved and admired. Through the Los Alamos years and for twenty years afterward, the spirit of Joe Dallet lived on in Robert Oppenheimer.

The real tragedy of Oppenheimer’s life was not the loss of his security clearance but his failure to be a great scientist. For forty years he put his heart and soul into thinking about deep scientific problems. With the single exception of the collapse of massive stars at the end of their lives, he did not solve any of these problems. Why did he not succeed in scientific research as brilliantly as he succeeded in soldiering and administration? I believe the main reason why he failed was a lack of Sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a German word with no equivalent in English. The literal translation is “Sitflesh.” It means the ability to sit still and work quietly. He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation. His calculations were always done hastily and often full of mistakes. In a letter to my parents quoted by Monk, I described Oppenheimer as I saw him in seminars:

He is moving around nervously all the time, never stops smoking, and I believe that his impatience is largely beyond his control.

In addition to his restlessness, Oppenheimer had another quality, emphasized by Monk in the subtitle of his book. He always wanted to be at the center. This quality is good for soldiers and politicians but bad for original thinkers. He paid too much attention to famous people working on fashionable topics, while ignoring less famous people working away from the mainstream of science. He had abundant opportunities to learn from two unfashionable geniuses, Fritz Zwicky and John Wheeler. Zwicky was working at the California Institute of Technology throughout the thirteen years when Oppenheimer was a regular visitor. Wheeler was working at Princeton University throughout the twenty years when Oppenheimer was living in Princeton. Zwicky was the discoverer of dark matter, the mysterious invisible stuff that outweighs the visible universe, and he was also a pioneer in the study of supernova explosions and neutron stars. Wheeler was the leading expert on black holes, and the founder of the field of science now known as relativistic astrophysics.

Although Oppenheimer lived close to each of them for many years and knew what they were doing, he did not take their work seriously. He seems to have considered them unworthy of his attention because they were out of the mainstream. Karl Hufbauer reports that Oppenheimer disliked Zwicky and for that reason never used Zwicky’s name “neutron star” for the collapsed remnant of a supernova explosion. Wheeler was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the hydrogen bomb, and Oppenheimer never used Wheeler’s name “black hole” for the remnant of a nonexplosive gravitational collapse. In his attitude to Zwicky and Wheeler, personal antipathy was combined with professional misjudgment. As a result, he failed to grasp the opportunities that a closer contact with Zwicky or Wheeler would have provided to make revolutionary discoveries in areas of science ignored by the fashionable mandarins.

Late in Oppenheimer’s life, when he was sick and depressed, his wife Kitty came to me with a cry for help. She implored me to collaborate with Robert in a piece of technical scientific work. She said Robert was desperate because he was no longer doing science, and he needed a collaborator to get him started. I agreed with Kitty’s diagnosis, but I had to tell her that it was too late. I told her that I would like to sit quietly with Robert and hold his hand. His days as a scientist were over. It was too late to cure his anguish with equations.

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