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When pink was far from rosy

Judith Flanders on the new book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

23 January 2008

12:00 AM

23 January 2008

12:00 AM

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Atlantic, pp.736, 25

J. Robert Oppenheimer, ‘the father of the atomic bomb’, remembered that when he saw the first mushroom cloud rise in its terrifying beauty above the test site in New Mexico, a line from the Bhagavad-Gita came into his head: ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ According to a colleague, however, what he actually said was, ‘Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.’ Oppenheimer the legend vs. Oppenheimer the man. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, in this magisterial reconstruction of the rise and fall of America’s first great theoretical physicist, are careful to give both sides, the Sanskrit-reading mystic and the down-to-earth pragmatist.

There have been many books on Oppenheimer — shelves-full, perhaps libraries-full — but American Prometheus is the first to attempt to explore more than a single facet: not just Oppenheimer the physicist, or Oppenheimer the creator of Los Alamos, or Oppenheimer the victim of a government witch-hunt, but all of these, and more. It is a portrait of the man, the times, the science, and the politics. Not unsurprisingly, some of these elements are better represented than others, but it is a vaulting ambition, and it is amply rewarded.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in 1904 to a cultivated, assimilated German-Jewish family. He was an isolated, strange child — bullied when, aged 14, he produced his copy of Middlemarch at summer camp. After a patchy stint at Harvard, a traumatic time at Cambridge (where he attempted, or claimed he attempted, to poison his tutor), he was taken under the wing of Max Born at Göttingen, joining the cutting-edge of the new world of quantum mechanics (the term was coined by Born).

Doctorate in hand, aged 23 he returned to America to find 10 job offers waiting; he chose Caltech and the University of California at Berkeley. Berkeley, he said, was a physics ‘desert’, and ‘it would be nice to try to start something.’ He did indeed ‘start something’: odd and difficult as he remained, he produced 16 papers of revolutionary physics in three years, and drew to the university the country’s most brilliant students. Yet this did nothing to make him an easier colleague — arrogant and uncertain, supremely indifferent to others’ opinions and yet obsequiously eager to please.

It was only after Pearl Harbor that these traits had resonance outside academia. Oppenheimer was at once a natural and a quixotic choice to run the new secret weapons lab: he had never supervised anything bigger than a graduate seminar and, unlike many of his colleagues, he had no Nobel prize. And yet General Leslie Groves, the army officer in charge of the Manhattan Project, saw his weaknesses as strengths: he thought Oppenheimer’s ‘overweening ambition’ would drive him on, and that his reputation as a facilitator, as a mind quick to grasp others’ ideas and understand their implications, would enable him to take a lab set up in a ramshackle boys’ school, and turn it into one of the great science- factories of all time.

He was right, and Oppenheimer and his team produced to requirement in just over two years. What Groves had brushed aside, however, was Oppenheimer’s pink past. To a European, the American obsession with reds under beds, would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying, bathetic if it weren’t so soul-destroying. The FBI under the thuggish J. Edgar Hoover had long been mumbling over every detail of Oppenheimer’s life, trying desperately (mostly through illegal surveillance) to ‘prove’ that he had been a Communist Party member. It was not, of course, illegal, even in America, even in the 1950s, to be a Communist. But while it was not illegal, it could destroy you just the same. Much of American Prometheus, as with much of Oppenheimer’s life, is concerned with claims and counter-claims. For those not immediately set a-tremble by the very word ‘communist’, the fourth detailed analysis of a brief conversation held two decades earlier can pall.

What does not pall, what Bird and Sherwin brilliantly show, is how the destruction of Oppenheimer was the result not of genuine concern for security — as the physicist I. I. Rabi shrewdly remarked, most of what the Atomic Energy Commission claimed should be off-limits to Oppenheimer had been conceived by him in the first place. Instead it was a collection of petty grudges and personal vendettas, cultivated by power-hungry place-seekers and professional territory-stakers that brought Oppenheimer down.

Oppenheimer was destroyed, not in a court of law, where due process would have had to be observed, but by a kangaroo court where the rules were established by his inveterate enemy, Lewis Strauss, the thin-skinned, vain and vicious head of the AEC. A weak president looked on quietly, content that a man he thought was a ‘cry-baby’ for his concern about the morality of atomic warfare should be publicly traduced.

Oppenheimer was destroyed, ultimately, not because he was a security risk, but simply because he wanted an open, democratic debate on the morals and practice of atomic warfare. He thought that asking questions was not in, and of itself, treasonable. His government said he was wrong.

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