I generally don’t like biographies. They carve up the world as if its natural contours followed an individual’s family tree, and all too often I struggle to understand why descent should trump so much else in the world. But I do like Kai Bird’s and Martin J. Sherwin’s remarkable study of J. Robert Oppenheimer because it focuses our attention on Oppenheimer as a dissenting American patriot.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer is not a typical biography. Oppenheimer’s technical direction of Los Alamos and the atomic bomb project is treated in relatively short compass. Though Oppenheimer was a physicist, there is hardly anything in this book on his very interesting research. You would not know that Oppenheimer is the man who rescued the early theory of quantum electrodynamics in the 1930s by rejecting the “revolutionary” proposals being put forward by such luminaries as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Hans Bethe. Oppenheimer was right, and his intervention led directly to the discovery of the first of the new elementary particles. Similarly, the authors barely touch on his remarkable late 1930s work that launched our modern study of stellar collapse.
Bird and Sherwin are biographers on a less scientific-technical mission. They are most interested in Oppenheimer’s political engagement—his prewar orbit around the edges of communism and left-wing politics in the 1930s, his tragically failed commitment to arms control in the aftermath of Hiroshima, and his destruction at the hands of a motley crew of conservatives, paranoid politicians, and opportunistic colleagues. Attacks on Oppenheimer began as early as the fall of 1942, as soon as his name began to be discussed as a possible leader of the not-yet-established fission project. It is something of a miracle that his superiors in the military and government were able to fend off security personnel eager to investigate Oppenheimer’s unusual background; but that lasted only as long as he was useful—that is, as long as he was directing the monumental effort to build a nuclear weapons industry.
Over the course of a little more than two years, Oppenheimer launched, guided, and kept on schedule a project that in essence had not existed before 1942. Under his leadership between 1942 and 1945, two radically different kinds of nuclear weapons were built—the uranium bomb that required gigantic factories to isolate the fissionable (and rare) uranium-235 and the plutonium weapon that demanded the creation of massive nuclear reactors to turn uranium into plutonium. Engineers and physicists collaborated to create both kinds of nuclear weapons the way the United States was making bomber airframes and battleships—on an industrial scale, by the dozens. By war’s end, the nuclear industry was larger than the American automobile industry.
Oppenheimer built these weapons because he was fiercely loyal to the country, because he feared above all that the Nazis would get them first, kill millions, and win the war—a rationale he embraced to the end of his life, despite his horror at the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet he was an American whose patriotic convictions were inseparable from a supreme independent-mindedness. Both before and after the war, Oppenheimer dissented from political orthodoxy. In the 1930s, propelled by the rise of European fascism, he shed the deliberate aloofness from worldly politics he had cultivated as a youth in pursuit of high culture and wide-ranging scientific interests. Certainly when he was recruited to work at Los Alamos, his employers knew they were not getting a typical military-project leader—or even a typical physicist. Oppenheimer supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War in their fight against Nazi-backed fascists, and later, after World War II, proudly announced in print that his only regret was not having done so even sooner. This earned him the idiotic Cold War sobriquet of “premature antifascist,” a moral oxymoron so often tossed around in those years. That is, he had become an anti-fascist before Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war against the United States. (Of course, had the United States been a little quicker off the mark in recognizing the threat of fascism, the country might have been better prepared when the Japanese bombers and German U-boats began killing American soldiers and sailors.) Young Oppenheimer—the prewar Oppenheimer—backed a myriad of causes at Berkeley and spoke freely of his enthusiasm for various liberal movements.
Nor did the postwar Oppenheimer easily conform. He refused to back every new armament, every new strategy. In retrospect it’s clear that sometimes he was right, sometimes he was wrong. He presciently opposed the nuclear airplane, one of the stupidest boondoggles ever visited upon the American treasury. There was zero chance that mid-century reactors could be insulated sufficiently to protect the pilots—without making the planes so heavy they couldn’t possibly fly and fight in any effective way. Billions of dollars later, the nuclear airplane facilities were covered in concrete; not one plane had ever gotten off the ground. At the same time, Oppenheimer was dubious, on technical grounds, that effective air-based monitoring of Russian fallout was possible from outside the USSR’s airspace. He was wrong. Filters on snooper planes found isotopic evidence from the August 1949 detonation of “Joe 1,” the first Soviet test of their atomic bomb. On other issues where Oppenheimer advanced unpopular opinions, the matter was not purely technical. He favored the development of Continental Defense—not just long-range bombing. This was a position guaranteed to rile the nascent Air Force, eager to bolster its post-World War II mission of long-range strikes on enemy cities. Oppenheimer won no friends by favoring the development of tactical nuclear weapons; the Air Force wanted bigger nuclear weapons that could be used to level cities and saw smaller ones as distracting from the separate existence of this new branch of the Armed Service.
Important as they were, these issues of national security were skirmishes—all too often conducted, on Oppenheimer’s side, with acidity and arrogance, frequently humiliating his opponents. It was with his dissent on the development of the hydrogen bomb, beginning in October 1949, that Oppenheimer crossed the line from skirmish to war. In increasingly strong language, Oppenheimer protested the development of a weapon so large—the first delivered the equivalent of 10 megatons of TNT, two years later one of 15 megatons (750 Hiroshimas)—that its only imaginable target was the annihilation of a major metropolis, cities not the size of Hiroshima, but of Moscow, London, or New York City. Because destroying civilian centers appeared to be its only use, such a weapon, Oppenheimer and his allies reasoned, could not be imagined as other than genocidal. In the first round of protest (in the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission), Oppenheimer’s idea was, crudely put, that the United States should abstain, hoping that the Soviets would follow by example. President Truman and Secretary of State Acheson were unmoved.
Later, in 1952, with the Korean War already under way and the first H-bomb under construction in the Pacific Islands, Oppenheimer floated a different, in my view more plausible, argument: The Cold War adversaries could work on the H-bomb, but they would have to come to an accord on banning tests. Since the H-bomb was so much more difficult to design than an A-bomb, no one could field such weapons without testing, and the test of such a hugely powerful weapon could be monitored. Should one side violate the accord, the other, presumably, would itself promptly test. Of course by the time Oppenheimer put this second idea forward, it was far too late. Arguably, the attempt to block the H-bomb had always been a doomed enterprise—given the tensions of the time and the virulence of an enemy like Stalin. Still, Oppenheimer’s plea for reflection as the arms race advanced and his specific idea of a test ban were important to hear—just how important is clearer in retrospect, when the Cold War residue of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and the vast stockpiles behind them, may well represent the greatest existential threat this country faces now and for the foreseeable future.
But Oppenheimer’s role as a fervent, if futile, voice of reflective dissent was precisely what the political climate evidently could not tolerate. It was his unsuccessful attempt to stall the next cycle of the arms race that instigated the security hearings of April 1954. From that moment on, the probe into his life began with new intensity: Was trouble in his personal life a dangerous defect? Had he ever been a member of the Communist Party? But even the highly rigged Oppenheimer “trial” did not conclude Oppie wore the trench coat of a Russian spy. (How rigged? Lewis Strauss, then the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, illegally tapped Oppenheimer’s conversations with his lawyer, using the FBI to ferret out every move they made and to prepare counterstrikes by the prosecution; Strauss and his allies also made sure that neither Oppenheimer nor his defense team could even see the classified documents that were fundamental to the proceedings.) All that said, Oppenheimer’s own, often self-destructive actions put red meat in front of the predators: Not least, Oppenheimer had given false and misleading testimony to security personnel.
At bottom, Oppenheimer’s story is more than a biography. Personally fascinating as it may be, it is not about his love affairs, or for that matter about his scientific successes and failures. It is not just another episode in the history of Red-baiting, either. Oppenheimer’s career is a cautionary tale and more. It is an exemplary instance of how, in political extremis, dissent can be treated as treason and driven to ground. Oppenheimer’s destruction was meant to dissuade criticism. Like a head on a spike, it was a fierce warning: If this could happen to J. Robert Oppenheimer, it could happen to anyone. Scientists heard the lesson loud and clear; they were not going to stand in the way of power. Researchers may have helped create the atomic bomb; that construction was not going to give them free rein to shape the weapon’s future.
As a chapter in the continuing history of opposition to dissent, Oppenheimer’s fate is especially worth re-exploring now. Whether in the closed halls of the intelligence services or in the open sessions of Congress, we need the hard impact of contestation; we need recalcitrant voices ready to challenge the established terms of discussion. Is the evidence for nuclear proliferation in this or that country reliable? Are our social and military policies working? Will this or that technology, medicine, or weapon function as its boosters proclaim? Are there better ways to accomplish our national missions in peace and in war? Oppenheimer always thought that argued dissent was an inseparable part of patriotism. He was right.