Mark C. Carnes: About J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer (22 Apr. 1904--18 Feb. 1967), theoretical physicist and director of the Los Alamos Laboratory (Manhattan Project), was born Julius Robert Oppenheimer in New York City, the son of Julius Oppenheimer, a wealthy textile importer, and Ella Friedman, a painter. Although the family was of Jewish descent, they had no religious affiliations. The boy, known as Robert, grew up in a sumptuous Manhattan apartment whose walls were decorated with paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Paul Gauguin. In the summers he went sailing at the family estate on Long Island. He became interested in mineral collecting and sent letters to the New York Mineralogy Club, which, unaware that their learned correspondent was only twelve years old, invited him to present a paper. It was a success. Frail and bookish, he fared less well among people his own age, who often teased and occasionally tormented him. In 1921 Oppenheimer graduated from the Ethical Culture School of New York at the top of his class.

In the summer of 1921 Oppenheimer contracted dysentery on a prospecting trip to Europe. The illness prevented him from entering Harvard that fall. His father resolved to toughen the boy by sending him with a tutor to the West, where he rode horses and delighted in the outdoors. He grew especially fond of the broad mesas of New Mexico, an attachment that figured prominently later in his life.

In 1922 Oppenheimer enrolled at Harvard, where he took an intense program that ranged from math and sciences to philosophy and Eastern religions and French and English literature. Among the sciences, he preferred chemistry because it "starts right at the heart of things." He was nevertheless granted advanced standing to work with experimental physicist Percy Bridgeman. Oppenheimer graduated summa cum laude in 1925. Despite his evident success as a scholar, he was plagued with doubts. In a letter to a friend, Oppenheimer concluded a listing of his feverish academic pursuits with the abrupt phrase "and wish I were dead." As an adult he recalled that, during his adolescent and college years, nearly everything about him aroused "a very great sense of revulsion and wrong."

More anxieties were to follow. During his final semester at Harvard, Oppenheimer applied to study with Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England. Rutherford thought Oppenheimer's credentials inadequate and turned him down. Oppenheimer then applied to Joseph John Thomson at the Cavendish. Thomson accepted Oppenheimer as a research student and gave him the task of preparing thin films of beryllium. Oppenheimer regarded the work as "a terrible bore" and pronounced himself "so bad at it that it is impossible to feel that I am learning anything."

Oppenheimer's inadequacies as an experimental researcher hardened his resolve to turn to theoretical physics. In 1926 he studied with Max Born at the University of Cöttingen in Germany, from which he received his doctoral degree in March 1927. From 1927 through 1928 he was a National Research Council Fellow. The following year he received offers to teach at Caltech and the University of California at Berkeley. He accepted both and for many years divided his time between Pasadena and Berkeley. He attracted a host of brilliant young students and did much to establish the West Coast as one of the nation's most important centers of advanced physics.

Oppenheimer's theoretical work during the late 1920s and through the 1930s has been unfairly dismissed as second rate. In 1927, working closely with Born, he solved a knotty problem involving calculations pertaining to subatomic particles. Oppenheimer concluded that the vibration and spin of protons could be ignored in theoretical calculations because the mass of the proton was incomparably greater than and essentially unaffected by the electron. The concept became known as the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. The next year Oppenheimer demonstrated that, when electrons were excited by a weak electric field, they could "tunnel" their way through the electrostatic forces that bound them to a nucleus. During the early 1930s Oppenheimer and his students applied the conservation laws of energy to posit the existence of a high-energy particle that complemented the electron; the positron was discovered by others in 1932. Oppenheimer's 1939 paper "On Continued Gravitational Contraction" predicted black holes, dying stars whose gravitational pull exceeded their energy production.

In 1936 Oppenheimer met Jean Tatlock, a psychiatry student, and they made plans to marry, although they were not to do so. Like many intellectuals during the Great Depression, they were drawn to radical causes. Tatlock joined the Communist party, and the couple increasingly moved in leftist circles. With the death of his father in 1937, Oppenheimer became wealthy, and he contributed to several left-wing organizations. In 1939 he fell in love with Katharine "Kitty" Puening Harrison, a biologist and widow of a Communist killed during the Spanish civil war. She, too, had belonged to the Communist party. They married in November 1940 and had two children.

About this time Oppenheimer began to sever his ties with many leftist friends and organizations. This may have been partly in response to chilling revelations about Joseph Stalin, but Oppenheimer was also strengthening his credentials so as to play a major role in the development of the atom bomb. Even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, American scientists were mobilizing under federal auspices to design such a device. Oppenheimer was initially excluded from the select circle of government scientists who were studying the matter. Ernest O. Lawrence, director of the radiation laboratory at the University of California, confided that they worried about his "leftwandering activities." Oppenheimer reassured Lawrence that there would be "no further difficulties" with radical affiliations and proceeded to prove his worth in tangible ways. At Berkeley he assembled a team of "luminaries," including the brilliant theoreticians Edward Teller and Hans Bethe, both immigrants from nazism, and put them to work on various problems pertaining to atom bomb development.

In August 1942 the U.S. Army was given charge of the entire atomic bomb mission, which became known as the Manhattan Project. Its director, General Leslie A. Groves, wanted Lawrence to direct the bomb design unit, but Lawrence was indispensable to the staggeringly difficult work of separating fissionable uranium from its chemically indistinguishable isotope. Groves settled on Oppenheimer, who, though lacking a Nobel Prize, possessed charisma and indisputable "genius," as Groves put it. In September Oppenheimer signaled his interest in the position by calling for a central laboratory wholly devoted to bomb design. The following month Groves offered him the job, and he accepted it.

Oppenheimer and Groves were an unlikely team, but the crass, mulish general and the suave, cerebral physicist worked together effectively. Groves insisted that the scientists be sequestered in a remote facility and that their access to scientific information be limited to what was necessary for their narrow individual tasks. Oppenheimer agreed with the first point and even proposed that the laboratory be located in one of the desolate haunts he had explored twenty years earlier in New Mexico. But he reasoned that, if the entire unit were virtually imprisoned within the compound's fences, no need would exist to fetter inquiry among the scientists within. Groves accepted this compromise and began construction of the facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Oppenheimer went about the work of recruiting scientists, appealing variously to their love of physics, their patriotism, and their fear of the Nazis. He succeeded admirably, and in April 1943 brought to Los Alamos a collection of energetic and talented scientists whose average age was twenty-five. As director, Oppenheimer eventually supervised over 1,500 people, mediating the demands of the military bureaucracy and the free spirits of the scientists, solving innumerable theoretical and practical problems, and for the most part extinguishing the emotional sparks caused by the collision of powerful egos under tremendous pressure. Bethe recalled that Oppenheimer was intellectually "superior" to everyone else at Los Alamos: "He knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry or theoretical physics or machine shop." Teller disagreed and was angered that Oppenheimer had chosen Bethe instead of him to head the Theoretical Division. Increasingly, Teller withdrew from the laboratory's work. Oppenheimer removed him from the bomb design team, softening the blow by encouraging him to pursue theoretical issues pertaining to a possible fusion, or hydrogen, bomb.

Oppenheimer's indefatigable efforts in the laboratory were shadowed by troubling personal and security issues. In June 1943 Tatlock asked to meet her former fiancé, and Oppenheimer spent an evening at her home in San Francisco. He had been followed by army counterintelligence officials, whose superiors recommended that Oppenheimer be dismissed as a security risk. Groves invoked his broad powers to overrule them, and Oppenheimer stayed. In August, in an episode that has never been fully explained, Oppenheimer went to security officials and told them that a friend had approached project scientists, including himself, to discuss a plan to gather information about the project and transmit it to the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer reassured the officials that he had squelched the initiative but refused to divulge the friend's name until ordered to do so by Groves. The friend, Haakon Chevalier, a romance language instructor, was quietly dismissed from the University of California. In January 1944 Tatlock committed suicide. The army intelligence report on the Chevalier episode concluded that Oppenheimer posed no real security threat because he was "deeply concerned with gaining a worldwide reputation" and wanted desperately to keep his job. He did, but the matter was not forgotten.

At the Los Alamos Laboratory, Oppenheimer's charge was made yet more demanding: he would be obliged to design two different bombs. The first, a "gun assembly" prototype, fired two subcritical pieces of enriched uranium at each other. At the moment of impact, they attained critical mass and initiated a chain reaction. But the huge Manhattan Project plants at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and elsewhere would not produce enough fissionable uranium for a single bomb until the summer of 1945. Although plutonium offered an alternative and more plentiful source of fissionable material, that artificial element was so unstable that it would predetonate and fizzle if used in the gun-assembly design. Oppenheimer's objective was to design a bomb that would bring subcritical masses of plutonium together within the tiniest fraction of a second. Seth Neddermeyer proposed coating a hollow sphere of plutonium with high explosives, which would implode instantaneously upon detonation. George Kistiakowsky devised a high-explosive lens that would focus the shock wave and squeeze the plutonium into a critical mass the size of an eyeball. The success of this device was demonstrated on 16 July 1945, when a plutonium bomb, the world's first nuclear device, was exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Oppenheimer, watching from the distance, intoned a phrase from Hindu scripture in the Bhagavadgita, "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds." On 6 August the "gun-assembly" uranium bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy," destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima; three days later a plutonium bomb, "Fat Man, obliterated Nagasaki. Japan surrendered.

Oppenheimer celebrated the end of the war and the success of the Manhattan Project, but the death toll and chilling descriptions of radiation sickness had a sobering effect. He informed government officials that most scientists in the project would not continue to pursue such work. "I feel we have blood on our hands," he told President Harry S. Truman. "Never mind. It'll all come out in the wash," Truman replied. In October Oppenheimer resigned from Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer nevertheless remained an important figure in atomic policy. He served as the guiding light of the Acheson-Lilienthal committee, which proposed that the United States relinquish its nuclear monopoly to avoid a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Issued in early 1946, the committee report recommended creation of a United Nations atomic energy commission to supervise the use of fissionable material throughout the world. Groves denounced the plan, and Truman rejected it as unworkable. The nuclear arms race was now on.

From 1947 through 1952 Oppenheimer directed the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which became a leading center of theoretical physics and attracted notable scholars in the social sciences and humanities. He also chaired the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the U.S. agency responsible for the control and development of fissionable materials. When the Soviet Union detonated an atom bomb in 1949, Teller and Lawrence lobbied feverishly to develop the hydrogen bomb. In October the GAC, with Oppenheimer as chair, repudiated the hydrogen bomb as a weapon of "genocide" and argued that it was so indiscriminately destructive as to be militarily worthless; the GAC recommended against its development. The joint Chiefs of Staff disagreed, as did Truman, who in early 1950 authorized a crash program to build the hydrogen bomb.

In May 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Lewis Strauss to chair the Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss accepted on the condition that Oppenheimer, whom he regarded as a security risk, be dismissed. Strauss was given the job and immediately moved to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance, thereby severing him from the commission's work. Strauss even dissuaded Senator Joseph McCarthy from barging in on so delicate a matter. Unaware of the impending battle or fatalistically resigned to it, Oppenheimer and his wife dined with the Chevaliers in Paris. This remarkable indiscretion infuriated Eisenhower and further emboldened Strauss.

On 21 December Strauss accused Oppenheimer of disloyalty and presented a list of the charges against him. Oppenheimer refused to resign, demanded a hearing, and hired a lawyer. Strauss arranged for, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to tap Oppenheimer's phones, and detailed transcripts of Oppenheimer's discussions with his lawyer were provided to Strauss, a gross and illegal violation of Oppenheimer's rights. The AEC lawyers were predictably well prepared when the hearing began on 12 April 1954. After Oppenheimer had described Chevalier's initial approach to him as relatively innocuous, Strauss's lawyers cited Oppenheimer's far more incriminating description of events eleven years earlier, which, unbeknownst to Oppenheimer, had been tape-recorded by intelligence officers. Oppenheimer admitted that his original story was a "lie" concocted in a moment of "idiocy." Many scientists and public officials attested to Oppenheimer's loyalty and indisputable service to the nation, but Teller provided the final blow. After acknowledging Oppenheimer's loyalty, Teller said that he had serious doubts about Oppenheimer's judgment, leftist leanings on political matters, and opposition to the hydrogen bomb: "I would feet personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands." On 27 May the security board affirmed Oppenheimer's loyalty but denied him security clearance. The AEC canceled his contract.

Though shaken, Oppenheimer continued to direct the Institute for Advanced Study and to write on the relation of Western culture to science. He bought a house in the Virgin Islands and spent time sailing. In 1963 the AEC conferred on him the Enrico Fermi Award. In 1966 he resigned from the institute. He died in Princeton.

In 1994 Pavel A. Sudoplatov, a retired KGB (Soviet intelligence agency) general, published an autobiography that claimed that Oppenheimer had passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Some American conservatives found in these charges confirmation of earlier accusations. Liberals and the scientific community generally dismissed the aging spymaster's reminiscences as self-serving and riddled with obvious errors. Virtually no documentary evidence exists that Oppenheimer knowingly betrayed his country. Yet the pieces of his life have never been assembled in a way that provides a clear picture of the man and his motivations. Oppenheimer was driven by titanic ambition yet tormented by self-doubt; he cultivated deep and profound moral sensibilities, yet he became entangled in deceitful personal and professional relations; he repeatedly spoke of our "common bond with other men everywhere" (1945 speech to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists) yet worked tirelessly on a weapon that resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. He was, ultimately, a brilliant scientist and a leader of scientists who thrust himself into the very center of human affairs, where he fashioned a complex and elusive role. His performance usually inspired and stimulated most scientists, but it often baffled and occasionally infuriated politicians, military leaders, and the public. No one doubted, however, that it forever changed their lives.

Oppenheimer's papers are at the Library of Congress. Material is also available at the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley; the California Institute of Technology Archives; the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, New York City; the Harvard University Archives; the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Records Division; and the National Archives. Many of Oppenheimer's letters are published in Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, ed. Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner (1980). Oral interviews are in the Archives for History of Quantum Physics, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics. Oppenheimer's books include Science and Common Understanding (1954), The Open Mind (1955), and The Flying Trapeze: Three Crises for Physicists (1961). The transcript of the 1954 security hearing appears verbatim in In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearings before Personnel Security Board, Washington, D.C., April 12, 1954 through May 6, 1954 (1954). See also Philip M. Stern, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (1971). Biographical accounts from his associates are in Hans A. Bethe, Three Tributes to J. Robert Oppenheimer (1967); I.I. Rabi et al., Oppenheimer (1969); and John S. Rigden, "J. Robert Oppenheimer: Before the War," Scientific America 273, no. 1 (July 1995). The conservative position on Sudoplatov's charges is in Eric Breindel, "The Oppenheimer File," National Review, 30 May 1994. Rebuttals are in Priscilla Johnson McMillan, "The Sudoplatov File: Flimsy Memories," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July-Aug. 1994. The full context of the atom bomb project and its aftermath is presented in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atom Bomb (1986) and Dark Sun (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times, 19 Feb. 1967.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


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Title Mark C. Carnes: About J. Robert Oppenheimer Type of Content Contextual Criticism
Criticism Author Mark C. Carnes Criticism Target _ Ai
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 24 Mar 2015
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