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“i Am Become Death…”
The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
Why he did he never directly explained. It is perhaps his deepest mystery. Certainly he despised the Nazis for what they had done to physics and physicists and to political and intellectual freedom; from his aunt and cousins he knew the Nazi pogroms at close second hand. George F. Kennan, his neighbor in Princeton during the postwar years, when Oppenheimer directed the Institute for Advanced Study, perceived another level of it. He discerned in Oppenheimer, he told journalist Philip M. Stern, “a deep yearning for…friendship, for companionship, for the warmth and richness of human communication. The arrogance which to many appeared to be a part of his personality masked in reality an overpowering desire to bestow and to receive affection. Neither circumstances nor at times the asperities of his own temperament permitted the gratification of this need in a measure remotely approaching its intensity; and in this too lay a portion of that strong element of tragedy which all who knew him sensed…in his situation.”
Humanly enough, Oppenheimer wanted desperately to be liked, admired, adulated, even loved, and building the ultimate weapon, serving his country at the extreme limit of his special talent for physics and for the charismatic direction of difficult, talented men, was a way to achieve that acclaim, particularly since he already understood that at thirty-eight his best years as a theoretical physicist were behind him and had left him first-rate but not firstrank in the scientific annals of the age.
Niels Bohr helped him see at Los Alamos what the highest officials of the United States government failed at first to comprehend: that nuclear weapons would make world war suicidal and therefore obsolete. “First of all,” Oppenheimer wrote in 1964, “[Bohr] was clear that if it worked, this development would bring an enormous change in the situation of the world, and of war.…When he came to Los Alamos, his first serious question was, ‘Is it really big enough?’ I do not know whether it was; it did finally get to be.” And, further: “Bohr at Los Alamos was marvelous. He took a very lively technical interest. But his real function, I think for almost all of us, was not the technical one. He made the enterprise seem hopeful, when many were not free of misgiving. Bohr spoke with contempt of Hitler, who with a few hundred tanks and planes had tried to enslave Europe for a millennium. His own high hope that the outcome would be good, that the objectivity, the cooperation of the sciences would plav a helpful part, we all wanted to believe.”
Oppenheimer carried these considerations into his interior depths, measuring them against the only moral technical manual he seriously credited, the Bhagavad-Gita . “It is the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue,” he said once of that 700-stanzaed devotional poem interpolated into the great Aryan epic Mahabharata at about the same time that Greece was declining from its golden age. He had discovered it at Harvard; at Berkeley he had learned Sanskrit from the scholar Arthur Ryder to set himself closer to the original text; a worn pink copy of the Gita thereafter occupied an honored place on the bookshelf closest to his desk, for the same reason that divers keep a decompression table near at hand.
There are meanings enough for a lifetime in the Gita , dramatized as a dialogue between a warrior prince named Arjuna and Krishna, the principal avatar of Vishnu (and Vishnu the third member of the Hindu godhead with Brahma and Shiva—a trinity again). In the moments before a major battle, seeing his teachers and kinsmen and friends opposed to him on the battlefield, Arjuna refuses to fight. Through dialogue, Krishna justifies the battle to the prince. He has a duty to his class, Krishna argues; discipline will free him from guilt in the spirit of sacrifice; and anyway, the Supreme Lord is everywhere, in the slayer and the slain:
Perverted, that argument would justify a Charles Manson in casual, random murder, but though Oppenheimer personally bore his share of guilt—“Mr. President,” he told an impatient Harry Truman in 1947, “I feel I have blood on my hands”—he had something else, something far less insanely subjective, in mind: the inevitability of discovery, the certainty that having found fission, and after it fusion, some nation somewhere would put it to terrible use. “It is a profound and necessary truth,” he told a Canadian audience in 1962, “that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.” He wanted the United States to find them first, because he believed—who can say erroneously?—that it was the one country capable of building nuclear weapons that might in the fullness of time arrange to forestall their use.