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“I Am Become Death…”

July 2024
30min read

The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer

In the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer — the American physicist and scientist-statesman who directed the building of the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II, whose government, discerning “fundamental defects” in his character, denied him security clearance in 1954, who died of throat cancer in 1967— some have professed to see embodied the moral ambiguities of twentieth-century science, science charging breakneck over human institutions, scientists waking compromised from Faustian dreams. These are tabloid notions, but Oppenheimer did live at the center of the century’s most disturbing contradictions, and struggled with them, and suffered for them, and if he is often taken as their protagonist, it is partly because he was a man of disturbing contradictions himself.

He was an authentic genius, the brightest of his generation, who never earned a Nobel Prize and to whose name no seminal scientific contributions today attach; a man of fierce, lively energy who brooded endlessly on death; a man of great personal warmth and devotion whose colleagues say they never knew him well; a man of gentleness who frequently lashed out with contemptuous sarcasm to cause others pain; a man of integrity who voluntarily sacrificed many of his students and friends to the Torquemadan mercies of Army Counter-intelligence and the FBI; a loyal patriot who was subjected to public humiliation at McCarthyesque hearings and whose security clearance, once denied, was never, to the end of his life, restored; a man dedicated more profoundly than most men to peace who helped inflict on the world its most terrifying instruments of war. Some of these contradictions have been, or can be, resolved. Others may never be, because he reserved his privacy as rigorously as did Thomas Jefferson, whose reach of mind his own resembled. But like all men — like Jefferson, too — J. Robert Oppenheimer left behind his tantalizing clues.

He was born to prosperity working up to wealth, in New York City, on April 22,1904. Three Van Goghs, a Picasso, a Renoir would decorate the living room of his family’s spacious apartment by the time he left for Harvard. According to his birth certificate, he was christened Julius Robert; he carried through life only the initial, insisting it stood for nothing at all, but Julius was his father’s name. Julius Oppenheimer, a vigorous and idealistic man, had emigrated from Germany in 1887 to join his uncle’s textile-importing firm and at age thirty, in 1900, became a partner. He married Ella Friedman in 1903.

Robert Oppenheimer’s mother was beautiful and a painter. She had studied impressionist technique in Paris and taught from her own studio in New York. She wore long sleeves always, and a chamois glove; her right hand was congenitally unformed. She was loving but severely disciplined, a descendant of a dignified Baltimore family; she engendered in her son, by the time he grew to be a man, a courtliness that even Europeans sometimes found extravagant; in her presence no one presumed to raise his voice. “I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy,” Oppenheimer said later. “My childhood did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things. It gave me no normal, healthy way to be a bastard.”

The Oppenheimers’ second child, Lewis, born in Robert’s infancy, died soon after birth, and horrified of germs and perhaps in retreat from that bereavement, they guarded Robert from companions and the street. He was a frail child, frequently ill, frequently lonely, precociously sensitive, precociously bright. When Robert was five, Julius took him to Germany to visit his Grandfather Ben; Ben praised Julius’ success and gave his blue-eyed grandson a rock collection. It was Robert’s first recorded glimpse of science: science at its most modest, classifying, and science at its most inanimate, rocks. He carried his collection home and enlarged it, his father indulgently supplying funds, until specimens lined the apartment halls. And that early in the involution of his aesthetics, or in his extreme isolation, he barricaded himself behind essences. He chose to specialize in crystals, atomic signatures cleaved to immutable geometries, certainties of rock that without genealogy, uncreatured, are born and perfect themselves and reproduce. He specialized so fervently that the curator of crystals at the New York Museum of Natural History took him as a pupil. A professional microscope that he tuned to the enormities of minutiae was his other childhood toy.

Once he learned to read, he lived in books, encountering there his peers. When he was old enough for classrooms he attended New York’s Ethical Culture School, the fine pedagogic extension of Felix Adler’s Society for Ethical Culture to which Julius Oppenheimer belonged, which declared that “man must assume responsibility for the direction of his life and destiny”: man, as opposed to God. Robert did: did laboratory experiments in the third grade, began keeping scientific notebooks in the fourth, began studying physics in the fifth, lectured to the surprised and then delighted members of the New York Mineralogical Club when he was twelve.

At fourteen, to get him out of doors and perhaps to help him find friends, his parents sent him to camp. He walked the trails of Camp Koenig looking for rocks and, with the only friend he found, discoursing on George Eliot, emboldened by her conviction that cause and effect ruled human affairs. The other boys labeled him “Cutie,” and when casual bullying elicited no response hauled him off one night to the icehouse, stripped him bare, beat him up—“tortured him,” his friend said—and painted his genitals and buttocks green. Responsibly he stuck it out until camp ended, never went back, never mentioned the place or the humiliation again. But, not yet fifteen, he told a teacher at Ethical that fall, “I’m the loneliest man in the world.”

The loneliest man in the world graduated as Ethical’s valedictorian in February, 1921. In late April, waiting for his younger brother, Frank, born in 1912, to finish school so that the Oppenheimer family could summer in Europe, he underwent surgery for appendicitis. Recovered from that, while rock hunting in the Harz Mountains he contracted severe colitis. It laid him up for months, too ill to enter Harvard with his class; determined to toughen him, his father sent him off shortly after Christmas with a sturdy Ethical English teacher for a tour of the West. At the Los Pinos dude ranch, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains northeast of Santa Fe, he learned to ride horses and live in rain and weather.

Like Eastern semi-invalids in the frontier days, Oppenheimer’s encounter with wilderness, freeing him from civilized restraints, was decisive, a healing of faith. In the years to come he would lease a ranch in the Sangre de Cristos up near ten thousand feet, and he and Frank would ride a thousand miles on horseback in a summer, sometimes ranging as far away as Colorado, living on raisin chocolate and whiskey and Vienna sausages and cheese. “My two great loves,” he wrote a friend in 1929, “are physics and the desert. It’s a pity they can’t be combined.” Eventually he contrived to combine them, siting the bomb laboratory, the ethical Erewhon, across the Rio Grande from the mountains, on Los Alamos, a desert mesa extended from below the rim of an ancient and exemplary caldera, a narrow, canyon-cut plateau eroded from the throe of the most violent extinct volcano in the world.

He came back tanned to Harvard, he said, like a Goth coming into Rome, and ravished it. He carried six courses at a time—the requirement was five—and audited four more. He read The Waste Land , just published, and saw himself reflected, and began to seek the stern consolation of Hindu mysticism; in his later years he would list Eliot’s poem along with the Bhagavad-Gita among the ten books that had shaped his philosophy of life. He realized during his sophomore year, 1923—looking to essences again—that in chemistry he had chosen the wrong major; he submitted himself to the distinguished physicist Percy Bridgman and switched to physics. Alfred North Whitehead arrived at Harvard the same year, and Oppenheimer submitted also to him. Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, who reported to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos and admired him warmly, exhumed the connection. Oppenheimer “worked at physics,” Bethe told a biographer, “mainly because he found physics the best way to do philosophy.” He graduated in three years, summa cum laude and first in his class, with the highest grade average Harvard ever recorded, but not yet, in his own severe judgment, a human being. Harvard, he would say, was “the most exciting time I’ve ever had in my life. I really had a chance to learn. I loved it. I almost came alive.” Noting the prodigious intake, Bridgman warned him not to consider himself a physicist until he’d done original work. He faced that sentence next.


At the Cavendish, Cambridge University’s celebrated laboratory, he struggled for the first time to do physics originally and alone. Before he succeeded, the self-doubt the effort exposed almost destroyed him. “My feeling about myself,” he said of this period, “was always one of extreme discontent.” A Cambridge friend remembered finding him groaning, rolling on the floor. He went into treatment with a London psychiatrist. “I was on the point of bumping myself off. This was chronic.” The psychiatrist diagnosed dementia praecox—schizophrenia—and refused to continue treatment. Oppenheimer went off to Corsica on spring holiday with friends, to whom he announced that his ideal man would be widely talented but would look at the world with a “tear-stained countenance.”


Something happened on Corsica to change his mind, something he would later reveal only in hints: he met a woman, probably a married woman, and learned the certification of love. He returned to Corsica for the summer. “A great thing in my life,” he told biographer Nuel Pharr Davis, “a great and lasting part of it.…You can’t dig it out. What you need to know is that it was not a mere love affair, not a love affair at all, but love.” Love affair or love, it persisted only in correspondence or memory. During the Corsica summer, Oppenheimer read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in its entirety, and mingling the two Corsica experiences in recollection a decade later, he told his Berkeley friend Haakon Chevalier that reading Proust had been “one of the great experiences in his life.” To Chevalier he quoted from Proust a telling passage: “Perhaps she would not have considered evil to be so rare…had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone, that indifference to the sufferings one causes, an indifference which, whatever other names one may give it, is the terrible and permanent form of cruelty.”

The woman may have been unknowingly indifferent to his sufferings, but something in the relationship set Oppenheimer’s “dementia praecox” healing. Entrained for doctoral study at the University of Göttingen in the autumn of 1926, with two of his papers accepted for publication in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society , he had at last begun to come alive as a physicist and a man.

Göttingen, the German university where the most advanced physics of the day, quantum mechanics, took form—a cathedral of sorts, the work of many hands—was triumph again, not apprenticeship this time but solid achievement. Oppenheimer’s special contribution, appropriate to the sweep of his mind, was to extend quantum theory beyond its narrow initial ground.

Oppenheimer’s Ph.D. thesis, “On the Quantum Theory of Continuous Spectra,” composed in German, appeared in the Zeitschrift für Physik in 1927. Max Born, his teacher, marked it “with distinction”; and, added to the sixteen papers he published between 1926 and 1929, it established for him an international reputation. He came home to lecture at Harvard and Caltech—shouting “Quantize it! Quantize it!” to startled students-then returned to Europe to study with Paul Ehrenfest and Wolfgang Pauli at Leiden and Zurich. At Göttingen he had mastered Italian well enough in one month’s study to read Dante; at Leiden he lectured in Dutch six weeks after he arrived. Pauli found his thinking slack—“Tauli once remarked to me,” writes physicist I.I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate and Oppenheimer’s staunch defender at the 1954 security hearings, “that Oppenheimer seemed to treat physics as an avocation and psychoanalysis as a vocation”—and fiercely tightened him up. The price of the mental thumbscrewing was tuberculosis, which Oppenheimer dried out that summer, 1929, at Perro Caliente, his New Mexican ranch. Returning to Berkeley in the fall, he was prepared to found there and at Caltech a school of theoretical physics, whose international reputation would eventually rival Göttingen’s.

After 1929 and through the decade of the 1930’s, a decade marked by his mother’s and father’s deaths—another lading of grief, another accounting of manhood—Oppenheimer dug harder for originality. He formulated the Dirac theory, an extension of quantum mechanics to include the theory of relativity, as a field theory, and was the first to predict the antiproton (his paper on this, like most of his later papers, was coauthored). He formulated the Tunnel Effect, the principle upon which the tunnel diode of electronics is based. He enlarged theoretical understanding of cosmic rays. Modeling the imploding collapse of dying suns, he predicted the neutron star—the pulsar, discovered in the 1960’s, is one such structure—and the black hole. He was primarily interested in particle physics—“I never found nuclear physics so beautiful,” he said—but working with Ernest O. Lawrence and his cyclotrons at Berkeley, he became an expert on nuclear matters as well. By 1945 he had published a total of sixty-six papers; after the war, particle physics would dominate American physical studies, a lasting tribute to his influence on the American school.

Without question, Oppenheimer’s intelligence exceeded that of any of his peers—“I was never in the same class with him,” I.I. Rabi remarked—but despite the breadth of his contribution, he reined back from work historically unique. Writing for the 1967 Oppenheimer Memorial Session of the American Physical Society, Rabi attempted to explain the hesitation:

“Oppenheimer understood the whole structure of physics with extraordinary clarity, and not only the structure, but the interactions between the different elements. Hardly any branch of physics was foreign to him. As well as theoretical physics, he also had a vast knowledge of experimental results and methods at his fingertips and would continually amaze experimenters by his great knowledge of their own subject—in some respects exceeding their own, especially in fields of great current interest.…

“One often wonders why men of Oppenheimer’s gifts do not discover everything worth discovering.…[I]t seems to me that in some respects Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields which lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog. He saw physics clearly, looking toward what had already been done, but at the border he tended to feel that there was much more of the mysterious and novel than there actually was.…Some may call it a lack of faith, but in my opinion it was more a turning away from the hard, crude methods of theoretical physics into a mystical realm of broad intuition.”

And closing his tribute, Rabi netted the essential man in a qualified benediction. “In Oppenheimer,” he wrote, “the element of earthiness was feeble.”

Haakon Chevalier, Oppenheimer’s Berkeley pal in the later years of the Depression, a professor of French and dallier with Communism whose relations with Oppenheimer would be ground to Paris green at securityhearing time, inhaled the fog of sanctification and supplied the most concise physical description the record contains:

“[Oppenheimer] was tall, nervous and intent, and he moved with an odd gait, a kind of jog, with a great deal of swinging of his limbs, his head always a little to one side, one shoulder higher than the other. But it was the head that was most striking: the halo of whispy black curly hair, the fine, sharp nose, and especially the eyes, surprisingly blue, having a strange depth and intensity, and yet expressive of a candor that was altogether disarming. He looked like a young Einstein, and at the same time like an overgrown choir boy.”

Oppenheimer’s students, in those infatuate prewar days, idolized him even to aping his mannerisms, moving with odd gaits all over Berkeley. Chevalier idolized him too, and so fails to mention the self-inflicted stigmata: the forced insomnia, the ravaged teeth, the extreme emaciation (Oppenheimer, six feet tall, never in his life weighed more than 130 pounds, and in times of exceptional stress would tighten to a cadaverous 113), the caustic martinis thrown on a tender stomach, the chains of smoke wheezed through tubercular lungs.

These were the years of the left-wing movement in America, when Communism was openly discussed and openly avowed on college campuses everywhere. Walking with Oppenheimer in San Francisco one day in 1930, Ernest Lawrence discovered he had not yet heard of the Wall Street Crash. The benevolent mentor, who shared with his students the coauthorship of signal papers and supplemented their diets at the best restaurants in town, learned to his indignation that all his influence could not lever them into nonexistent teaching jobs; and apprehending that, quick study that he was, he apprehended the revolutionary forces the Depression set loose.

The plight of his students exposed Oppenheimer to social injustice, peeled back the insulation of his wealth; the desperation of his German aunt and cousins to escape to America from the eugenic hallucinations of the Nazis, an escape that in 1937 he underwrote, alerted him to fascism. Both intercessions moved him leftward, but the private reason he joined the fringes of the Communist movement in Berkeley was probably emotional adaptation to the rebellious standards of a woman he loved and hoped to salvage, Jean Tatlock, the lithe, chiaroscuro daughter of an anti-Semite Berkeley medievalist. Though he never, like her, joined the party, finding its dialectics less rigorous than his taste, he espoused her cause, read Engels and Feuerbach and all of Marx, attended meetings, tithed. What he earned in return from Jean Tatlock—as, more obscurely, from the woman in Corsica before—was passionate acceptance, and with that acceptance a bolder emotional commitment to humanity, including his own. The woman he married for life in 1940, Katherine Puening, Kitty, who had lost a heroic Communist husband, a Dartmouth man, on the practice battlefields of revolutionary Spain, who dedicated herself now to nurturing and supporting him, sealed that commitment.


Oppenheimer pilgrimaged to the women in his life afflicted with more than diffidence, afflicted with something worse than the stylish Harvard Weltschmerz his detractors thought they saw (his enemies caught its hot scent, though they inverted it and imagined him Machiavellian at least, if not actually diabolic): afflicted with a pathological disgust with himself and a nearly pathological horror of the world. Only once, on the record, did he emerge from stoic privacy to reveal the depth of that disgust—after years of marital devotion had sweetened it, and for an important cause. “Up to now, and even more in the days of my almost infinitely prolonged adolescence,” he told a group of culturally distinguished peers he’d assembled to discuss the possibility of peace, “I hardly took an action, hardly did anything, or failed to do anything, whether it was a paper on physics, or a lecture, or how I read a book, how I talked to a friend, how I loved, that did not arouse in me a very great sense of revulsion and of wrong.” Which is to say more than that his standards were impossibly high: which is to say that he perceived himself worse than a failure, perceived himself a thing loathsome before the world. He realized to his survival, if not his salvation, that the women in his life saw him otherwise:

“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.

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:

Today behold the whole world All things that move or do not move And whatever else you wish to see. They stand as one within my body.

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.


But first he wanted the bombs used, to force the changes Bohr anticipated. The record leaves no doubt that he acquiesced to the bombing of Japanese cities. He attended the meetings where the recommendation to use the bombs against Japanese civilians was formulated; he was the most qualified technical adviser there; and in that vital capacity he argued against a bloodless demonstration on the specious technical grounds that the bomb used in such a demonstration might be a dud, though he knew to virtual certainty that it would not. He would soon send the uranium bomb, Little Boy, ahead untested to Tinian for the Hiroshima drop, and he tested Fat Man at Trinity and knew its lethal twin would work. He was forthright enough after the war. “I am very glad that the bomb was not kept secret,” he said in one of his lectures. The understatement is typical, is even mocking: Oppenheimer meant he was glad the bomb was used, its destructive force horribly and indelibly demonstrated. “I am glad,” he went on, “that all of us knew, as a few of us already did, what was up and what readjustments in human life and in political institutions would be called for.”

And so, in that first man-made dawn, when the nest of the Chinese boxes that was not Thor or Jesu or The Liberator but Fat Man, the plutonium bomb—spheres within spheres contained within a black duralumin shell studded with detonators—collapsed upon itself like a dying sun and blew Oppenheimer’s serenely elegant physics out to plague the world, he understood through the visionary extremity of his exhaustion that Krishna had once again made his point. He thought, he said later, of a stanza and a line from the Gita that described the twin and complementary qualities of the godhead that was the bomb, of the bomb that was less than, but part of, the godhead:

If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One—

And as the thunder rolled east and west across the Jornada del Muerto , echoing from the fastness of mountains:

I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.

Krishna; the fiery universe of stars and neutron stars and black holes and cosmic rays; the particles that were also waves and the waves that were also particles, but never, to the possibility of human measurement, both at once; the mc 2 that is also E : these were death, and worlds were shattered; these were splendor, and worlds radiated light; and these were men and women contending below; these were the truth that must inevitably be found because it was possible to find it; and these were as well the hope of no more wars. Between death and splendor, one suspects, he thought the contest no better than an even match.

He did his best, in the years after the war, to transmute the threat of shattering nuclear annihilation into a radiant cause for peace. It was, paradoxically, that effort—there are reversals in Robert Oppenheimer’s life as drastic as any in Oedipus —that led to his public humiliation, that led President Eisenhower to throw up a “blank wall” between him and the official secrets that he carried in his head, that led the Eisenhower government, pushed by men like Joseph McCarthy and the imperious Lewis Strauss, men like Richard Nixon (he was there too, giving “assurances” to the McCarthy crowd that “the Oppenheimer case” “would be gone into in detail”), to convene a prosecutorial hearing and deprive him of his security clearance on the grounds, in his case the absurd grounds, that his character was dangerously marred by “fundamental defects.” That story is legend too, but documents declassified within the past year have chiseled some of its ambiguities away.

With Niels Bohr’s proposals much in mind, Oppenheimer worked with a government committee that included David Lilienthal and Dean Acheson to formulate the Baruch Plan of 1946 that proposed to internationalize atomic energy. Whether or not it was offered in good faith—Oppenheimer and others vehemently insisted it was—the Soviet Union rejected it, refusing to give up secrecy for mutual protection from nuclear war, and Oppenheimer consigned the Soviet Union to the same midden he reserved in his mind for the Third Reich. But in 1949 he and the other members of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee—tough men like Enrico Fermi, I.I. Rabi, James B. Conant—saw another opportunity, one they rated at no better than even odds: that if the United States held off building fusion weapons, thermonuclear weapons, hydrogen bombs, then so might the Soviets.

Stated so baldly, the idea sounds ridiculously naive, but the GAC was anything but naive. The hydrogen bomb that in 1949 the members of that committee, all scientists, thought they might, within five years, be able to build—they called it the “Super”—would not have been Edward Teller’s and Stanislaw Ulam’s later true thermonuclear weapon, the weapon Oppenheimer would call “technically sweet,” but a booster device, a very large fission bomb with a small thermonuclear component. It would not generate an explosive force equivalent to the combined force of a number of fission bombs containing the same amount of plutonium. Oppenheimer, among others, feared that an all-out push for the Super would therefore be cheap and dangerous defense, and believed the United States would be better off enlarging and diversifying its fission arsenal with the limited uranium and plutonium then being produced.

Some of the members of the GAC believed that building the Super was morally wrong, because it was entirely a strategic weapon, intended to fry civilians a city at a time; but all the members of the GAC believed that building it was militarily wrong, that diversification of the fission arsenal was the better defense. Military men, and most notably the generals of the Strategic Air Command, who had a monopoly on nuclear weapons at that point within the American military and wanted to keep it, angrily disagreed. But the most conservative scenario that anyone has since been able to devise—a recent reconstruction is Herbert York’s in Scientific American , founded on the GAC’s newly declassified minutes—indicates that Oppenheimer and the GAC were right, that even if the United States had not built the hydrogen bomb first, even if it had waited until after the Soviets tested theirs, the balance of terror would not have been shifted by so much as an inch, because the United States would have had, in fission weapons, more than an equivalency, and could quickly have added thermonuclear weapons to its arsenal.


Despite the GAC’s considered recommendation, President Truman, on January 31,1950, ordered a crash program to build hydrogen bombs. If he underestimated Soviet science—he told Oppenheimer, before the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, that the Russians could never make the bomb—he understood politics, and knew that no administration that unilaterally restrained itself from reaching for military superiority would long survive.

The other GAC members accepted the inevitable. Oppenheimer did not. He continued to battle for nuclear diversification, and for good measure he threw in continental defense, which the Air Force thought impossible. And as, with Bohr, he had anticipated the revolutionary changes in the nature of war that atomic weapons would bring, so also he anticipated the nuclear stalemate. And announcing that paradox, declaring the futility of the arms race, was viewed as more than error: it was nothing less than heresy.

“The answer to fear,” Oppenheimer told Eleanor Roosevelt on her national radio program twelve days after Truman bluntly overruled the GAC, “cannot always lie in the dissipation of the causes of fear; sometimes it lies in courage.” Courageously, in 1953, he took his argument to the makers of government policy and then to the open world, delivering to the Council on Foreign Affairs and then publishing in Foreign Affairs a statement that is distinguished from all his other published statements by its passion, its anger, and its cold contempt for those who behind walls of secrecy would drag the United States into military danger and the world into an arms race that no nation could conceivably win. It was this statement that condemned him. Its essence is distilled in one ironic central paragraph:

“The very least we can say is that, looking ten years ahead, it is likely to be small comfort that the Soviet Union is four years behind us [it was less than nine months], and small comfort that they are only about half as big [industrially] as we are. The very least we can conclude is that our twentythousandth bomb, useful as it may be in filling the vast munitions pipelines of a great war, will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two-thousandth.”

And further to clinch the argument:

“We may anticipate a state of affairs in which two Great Powers will each be in a position to put an end to the civilization and life of the other, though not without risking its own. We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”

And finally, indignantly and properly contemptuous of militarists so glory bound that they could not distinguish between glory and nuclear holocaust:

“We need to be clear that there will not be many great atomic wars for us, nor for our institutions. It is important that there not be one.”

The vivid desert metaphor, the scorpions in a bottle, applied to the reality of nuclear stalemate within Oppenheimer’s lifetime, and the policies he espoused of tactical and strategic flexibility, of early warning and continental defense, of phased disarmament, are official policy now.

But “massive retaliation” was official policy under John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower, a bigger bang for the buck, and in 1954 Oppenheimer was summoned, and scourged, and thrown down from government and the gates locked behind. Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, a man whom Oppenheimer had publicly ridiculed at congressional hearings on atomic secrecy a few years before, was immediately responsible for the security review “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” convened in a jerrybuilt World War II building in Washington in March and April of 1954. But behind him were more shadowy figures, the enraged and vengeful generals of the Strategic Air Command first of all.

The security hearing was not a hearing at all but a purge, a trial conducted without the protection of courtroom procedures and in violation of all the usual 81 rules of evidence. The AEC had cleared Oppenheimer of his left-wing escapades and his single wartime indiscretion—temporarily refusing to give Army Counter-intelligence the name of a man who reported to him a Soviet spying probe (the man was his friend Haakon Chevalier)—in 1947. All the old charges were raked up again, and countered by a parade of distinguished witnesses who testified to Oppenheimer’s loyalty, men such as I.I. Rabi, Hans Bethe, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, and even, though more ambiguously, General Leslie R. Groves. But most of the interminable spring days were devoted to Oppenheimer’s opposition to the H-bomb, an opposition the entire GAC had shared, and the witnesses who condemned that opposition, Edward Teller the star among them, were unsparing in voicing their suspicions of him. Oppenheimer defended himself numbly and inadequately, shaken by the viciousness of the attack. When the hearings were finished, not even Lewis Strauss could find solid evidence of security violations. He lifted Oppenheimer’s top-secret “Q” clearance just the same.

No one who objectively studies the record today, two decades later, can come away with any doubt of Oppenheimer’s innocence from wrongdoing except the political wrongdoing of disagreeing on government policy. For that disagreement, in a nation constitutionally pledged to freedom of speech, he was officially destroyed. “Oppenheimer’s life,” writes Nuel Pharr Davis angrily, “can stand inspection down to the last senseless detail. One must, finally, put all this damned nonsense, to use Oppenheimer’s term for the hearings, into its proper, dismally small perspective in order to gain any comprehension of Oppenheimer as a scientist, American, or human being.”

The “damned nonsense” was dismally small, but its effects were not. Oppenheimer went home to Princeton visibly aged. He had turned fifty during the hearings; a former student who saw him afterward in Princeton remarked that he had always looked younger than his years, but now looked older. “Much of his previous spirit and liveliness had left him,” Hans Bethe sadly confirmed. He never complained of it, no more than he had complained of the bullying incident at Camp Koenig thirty-six years before. “I think of this as a major accident,” he told an interviewer,“—much like a train wreck or the collapse of a building. It has no relation or connection with my life. I just happened to be there.” It may have been a major accident for the United States as well, because it deprived the nation of the experience, the intelligence, and the prescience of one of its most able sons.

He lived the last decade of his life in a lonely isolation that he also never complained of and that the honors that came to him did not alleviate. He had been appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Study in 1946; he kept the position until a year before his death, and also assumed Einstein’s old post as senior professor of physics. He was called to speak to the world from Paris, from South America, from England and Japan, and finally from within the United States. John Kennedy invited him to dine at the White House with forty-nine Nobel laureates in 1961, and planned to award him the Enrico Fermi Award, the AEC’s highest honor, on December 2,1963; Lyndon Johnson, in a time of mourning, made the presentation to Oppenheimer in the White House Cabinet Room—a medal, and $50,000 to take home, from an agency that still denied him clearance as a security risk.

He retired from the institute in 1966, when illness weakened him. On his last visit to the institute, writes the physicist Abraham Pais, “He came to participate in a discussion on the selection of the young physicists who would be members of the Institute during the coming academic year. He knew he would not be there to greet them.”

Every thoughtful human being projects, somewhere within himself, a vision of utopia, a vision usually reconstructed from an imagined golden age. That golden age is frequently childhood, but Oppenheimer’s spare childhood would not serve; instead he found his golden age at G’f6ttingen, and constructed his Utopia from the materials there at hand. Because G’f6ttingen was a community of scientists, Oppenheimer’s utopia is more convoluted, and more tragic, than most. It considers not only the possibility of peace and communion among men but also the certainty that the larger universe is fatally inanimate, in basic ways opaque, and ultimately destructive of all human pretension, even the necessary pretension of hope.

Despite the baleful finalities, his vision was guardedly optimistic and far from Faustian. He thought that the community of scientists throughout the world, a community protected from too grievous error by the necessary and inherent openness of its work, might serve as a modest model for a peaceful, open world. Proposing such a model, he cautioned humility:

“This is a world in which each of us, knowing his limitations, knowing the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue, will have to cling to what is close to him, to what he knows, to what he can do, to his friends and his tradition and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing. It is at the same time a world in which none of us can find hieratic prescription or general sanction for any ignorance, any insensitivity, any indifference. When a friend tells us of a new discovery we may not understand, we may not be able to listen without jeopardizing the work that is ours and closer to us; but we cannot find in a book or canon—and we should not seek—grounds for hallowing our ignorance. If a man tells us that he sees differently than we, or that he finds beautiful what we find ugly, we may have to leave the room, from fatigue or trouble; but that is our weakness and our default. If we must live with a perpetual sense that the world and the men in it are greater than we and too much for us, let it be the measure of our virtue that we know this and seek no comfort. Above all, let us not proclaim that the limits of our powers correspond to some special wisdom in our choice of life, of learning, or of beauty.”

Yet he knew the futility of words to change the world. He believed in Bohr’s principle of complementarity; he believed there are manifold ways of observation and manifold forms of action; he did not content himself with words. Out of physics, in concert with others from that community of scientists that was his model for utopia, he drew a simple and fundamental fact, that matter is only another form of energy and may be converted back to energy at will: that E=mc 2 . With that incontrovertible certainty, he made his argument secure, and assembled the bomb for us as a puzzle, a puzzle as Gordian and tangled as he was himself, knowing, this mystical man, that we would either learn in time to unravel it or explosively abrogate our claim to mastery of the earth.

J. Robert Oppenheimer died on February 18,1967, at the age of sixty-two. His ashes were scattered on the ocean off the Virgin Islands—the ocean with its vast reserves of nuclear fuel, the ocean with its depths. Among his last published words were these: “Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful.” And, the child and the man within the scientist: “No one should say there is no hope.”

Since he was buried in the sea, no epitaph marks his grave. A stanza from the Bhagavad-Gita might serve, though he would be the first to say it is not the whole story, is only one of several complementary and mutually exclusive points of view. He deserves it, if anyone among those who devised the machinery of nuclear holocaust does, in mitigation of the guilt he carried to his death for serving as loyally and as intelligently as he knew:

But he who is without thought of “I,” Whose understanding is pure Even though he should slay whole worlds He does not slay, nor is he bound.


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