- Historic Sites
“i Am Become Death…”
The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
“It turned out to be impossible…for me to live with anybody else, without understanding that what I saw was only one part of the truth…and in an attempt to break out and be a reasonable man, I had to realize that my own worries about what I did were valid and were important, but that they were not the whole story, that there must be a complementary way of looking at them, because other people did not see them as I did. And I needed what they saw, needed them.”
He proffered his thanks subtly, but in scale with his gratitude. In the final days of the Manhattan Project, with Jean Tatlock recently dead by her own hand, he restored himself rereading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets . When an assistant requested a code name for the first bomb test, to be conducted on a ghastly stretch of southern New Mexico desert the conquistadors had named the Jornada del Muerto , the Journey of Death, he thought of the rapt sonnet that begins, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” and coded the test “Trinity.” He had more than one trinity in mind, but one, an important one, may have been Corsica, Jean Tatlock, and Kitty Oppenheimer. His trinity of women had given him a bearable life on earth; he gave them, in return, the first crude man-made star, a weapon so terrifying that it might, in time, force peace upon the world.
The hope of peace in terror was one of the reasons he agreed to direct the building of the bomb. Its potential for monumental effect had caught his attention from the beginning. When Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist who may have been the man he most deeply admired, brought the news of nuclear fission to America on January 26,1939, Oppenheimer’s response must have seemed incongruous to those who could not fathom his contrarieties: “On the very day he received the news of fission,” writes biographer Denise Royal, “Oppenheimer started making rough calculations on the critical mass necessary to bring about an explosion.” He refined his calculations with Edward Teller, Robert Serber, and Hans Bethe, among others, at Berkeley, through 1941. A critical mass of U-235, they decided, would form an eight-inch sphere; they also decided that the odds of that mass starting a fusion reaction in the air’s nitrogen or the ocean’s deuterium and burning up the earth were no more than three in a million, long odds but heady eschatology for physicists then obscure.
Appointed Coordinator of Rapid Rupture, a title that delighted him, by the bomb committee that Franklin Roosevelt had established to shepherd nuclear weapons research, Oppenheimer surveyed the work of bomb design being conducted at small laboratories scattered across the United States, none of them allowed to talk to each other, and proposed that the separate projects be assembled in one place under one director. Whoever would be that director would have to deal with Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, the overweight Corps of Engineers talent who had built the Pentagon in record time and who was now the head of the Manhattan Project—a blustering, difficult man. Oppenheimer was not the obvious choice. Groves and others believed the director should be a Nobel laureate; Army Counter-intelligence was adamant that he should be politically safe; Oppenheimer was neither. In 1942, despite his lack of administrative qualification, Oppenheimer won Groves’s nod—“by default,” he said later, but also by coaching Groves on physics, by serving, as biographer Nuel Pharr Davis puts it, as an “idiot savant,” and by sparing the general’s ego when he asked stupid questions as Oppenheimer never spared his students’. To appoint Oppenheimer, Groves had to override his security staff’s objections; he did, and he said later he never doubted that Oppenheimer was loyal, however pink his past. Groves’s staff had no such confidence, and shadowed, buggedjind interrogated the bomb director throughout the war. It was during those wartime interrogations that Oppenheimer reported—painfully or gratuitously: the fading transcripts do not indicate which—on the political activities of some of his friends.
Oppenheimer located the bomb lab in his beloved New Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Perro Caliente, on a 7,200-foot mesa, commandeering a rugged boys’ school for the base of established buildings it supplied. He led the lab, Los Alamos, with a skill so dazzling—inspiring and coordinating the work of a thousand men and women from a dozen different countries, many of whom were prima donnas, lone wolves, iconoclasts—that its story is worn to legend now. “Here at Los Alamos,” one hardheaded British physicist said afterward, “I found a spirit of Athens, of Plato, of an ideal Republic.” Others called those years of backbreaking labor on a remote mesa—years spent locked behind high barbed-wire fences living in flimsy barracks modified to apartments with pasteboard partitions and filthy coal-burning stoves, years deflected to technology while creative physics stalled—“the best years of our lives.” All but a few of those who lived them agreed that Oppenheimer—”0ppie,” they called him, resurrecting the affectionate diminutive Leiden had bestowedmade them so. Oppie’s whistle blew at seven in the morning and they came out cheering to work eighteen-hour days building weapons of mass destruction. “I believe,” said Enrico Fermi incredulously, come down one day from atomic pile-building in Chicago, “your people actually want to make a bomb.” They did, because Oppie did.