A Puzzle of a Man
Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma. Jeremy Bernstein. xii +
223 pp. Ivan R. Dee, 2004. $25.
Jeremy Bernstein is an accomplished physicist and a talented writer.
In the afterword to The Life It Brings, his 1987 account of
his upbringing and career as a physicist, he commented that once he
began to write professionally, his pieces "became a kind of
running autobiography." The scientific and literary components
of his life have complemented each other, resulting in informative
and insightful scientific profiles enriched by autobiographical elements.
We learn from the preface to Oppenheimer: Portrait of an
Enigma that Bernstein had wanted to write a profile of J.
Robert Oppenheimer for The New Yorker in the 1960s but felt
unable to do so, being in a sense too close to his subject.
Bernstein explains that the space of four decades has now given him
the distance he needs. This book, like the profiles he did write for
that magazine, is a succinct, revealing and very readable account of
a scientist's life and accomplishments; it is not meant, he says, to
be a "definitive" biography.
The book has only about 200 pages of text, and more than a third of
them are devoted to the 1954 "trial" that revoked
Oppenheimer's security clearance. His family background and
upbringing, his education at the Ethical Culture School, Harvard,
Cambridge and Göttingen, and his postdoctoral fellowships with
Paul Ehrenfest in Leyden and Wolfgang Pauli in Zurich are all
concisely presented, and this material is enriched by insightful
observations and new information. For example, Bernstein believes
that Oppenheimer's proclivity for making acerbic remarks during
seminars stemmed from his emulation of Pauli, who was famous for his sarcasm.
Bernstein draws on the poet Edith Jenkins's book Against a Field
Sinister for a better understanding of both Oppenheimer and
Jean Tatlock, with whom Oppenheimer was intimate. Oppenheimer almost
married Tatlock in the mid–1930s. She was a member of the
Communist Party (as was Jenkins) and introduced him to leftist
circles. A nighttime visit with her when she was deeply depressed
and he was involved in atomic weaponry was held against Oppenheimer
during his trial.
Bernstein conveys Oppenheimer's importance as a physicist during the
1930s by indicating the significance of the outstanding school of
theoretical physics he created at the University of California,
Berkeley, and by analyzing his research—in particular, his
papers on general relativity dealing with the collapse of heavy
stars, which established the possibility of the creation of black
holes. The chapter on Los Alamos highlights Oppenheimer's remarkable
directorship of the laboratory there, which made possible the design
and production of the uranium and plutonium bombs that devastated
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The chapter on the unjust trial incisively analyzes the events that
brought about the revocation of Oppenheimer's clearance. Bernstein
introduces us to the cast of characters who, obsessed with the
dangers of the Soviet Union and of communism, considered Oppenheimer
a security risk: William Borden (who was executive director of the
Joint Committee on Atomic Energy), FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,
Senator Joseph McCarthy, fellow atomic physicist Edward Teller and
Air Force Major General Roscoe Taylor. Bernstein also presents the
flaws in Oppenheimer's character that led Lewis Strauss, the
chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the
éminence grise in the security hearings, to hate
him. Those flaws also shattered the lives of some of Oppenheimer's
students—David Bohm, Joseph Weinberg and Bernard
Peters—and of his friend Haakon Chevalier. In this chapter
Bernstein indicates what he knows of the mechanism of fusion bombs
(having already explained the workings of fission bombs in the
chapter on Los Alamos). Unfortunately, he does not refer the reader
to Richard Rhodes's Dark Sun, which details both the
Ulam–Teller and the Soviet implementations of hydrogen bombs.
A brief chapter on the Institute for Advanced Study and
Oppenheimer's tenure there as director consists chiefly of
Bernstein's reminiscences about his own experiences as a fellow at
the Institute. In the even briefer epilogue, Bernstein recalls
attending Oppenheimer's memorial service.
Without question, this effective portrait of Oppenheimer benefits
greatly from Bernstein having had dealings with the man and having
seen him in action. In addition, Bernstein has known and written
about people close to Oppenheimer, including Isador Rabi, Hans Bethe
and Philip Morrison. But the judgment of these physicists,
particularly that of Rabi, somewhat polarizes Bernstein's assessment
of Oppenheimer. Certainly Rabi's observations are quite valuable, as
when he recalls an important meeting of the General Advisory
Committee to the AEC that Oppenheimer chaired late in October of
1949, at which all members present decided against a crash program
to build a hydrogen bomb. Other comments might be questioned,
because Rabi—who was always comfortable being a Jew, who lived
in New York and moved in Jewish circles of emancipated
intellectuals—perhaps could not fully appreciate the sense of
community that was afforded to Oppenheimer by Berkeley leftist
groups that actively opposed fascism, supported the Loyalists during
the Spanish Civil War and assisted in the unionization of West Coast workers.
The Berkeley faculty discussion group in which Oppenheimer actively
participated in the late 1930s—in which everyone except
Oppenheimer was a Communist Party member—did operate pretty
much like a party cell. It is thus not surprising that Chevalier
would write to him in 1964 that an important part of the memoirs
Chevalier was about to publish concerned "your and my
membership in the same unit of the CP from 1938 to 1942." But,
in fact, Oppenheimer never became a party member. He made it a point
not to pay party dues, the international criterion for membership,
even though he contributed abundantly to various party causes.
As sociologist Nathan Glazer has insightfully pointed out (in
The Social Basis of American Communism ),
Oppenheimer, by wholeheartedly committing himself to the activities
of the left, became a member of "a community based on a faith
in which all were equal." It allowed him to "shed the
limitations" of his social world and to
join in a fraternity that transcended the divisions of the
world. This was the attraction of Communism to many Jews who no
longer thought of themselves in any way as Jewish. And for many,
faith remained stronger than interest.
Perhaps Chevalier was right when he observed in Oppenheimer: The
Story of a Friendship (1965) that
The fervor that Opje displayed in all his political
activity, the importance that he attached to it, were, I think we
all felt—those of us who were "on the
inside"—a projection of an exceptional, almost anguished
concern with the fate of man, both individually and in the large. .
. . This was the "Hebrew prophet" side of his nature
(which co–existed with, and never quite obliterated the . . .
sophisticated, worldly side).
But the fact that Oppenheimer, unlike Rabi, was not comfortable
being a Jew is not the only point of contrast between their
situations, something that becomes clear on reading the fine
portrait that Bernstein painted of Rabi in The New Yorker.
Rabi's experience at the Radiation Lab at MIT was that he was the
equal of the officers in the Army, Air Force and Navy who were
asking for novel radar devices. The Rad Lab and the Armed Forces
were partners in the development of this new weaponry. In fact, the
civilians were the motive force in this not only by virtue of
expertise, but also because that development was funded by the
National Research Development Committee, a civilian agency.
But this was never the case after October 1941 for atomic
weapons. It had by then become clear through the work of Otto Frisch
and Rudolf Peierls in England that practical atomic weapons could be
assembled. When Roosevelt gave the go–ahead to Vannevar Bush
and James Conant to develop the bomb, they signed an agreement that
delegated all authority on atomic policy to the president or his
delegated officers. Roosevelt named Secretary of Agriculture Henry
Wallace, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, General George Marshall,
and Bush and Conant as his delegates, and they constituted the
General Policy Group that was to make decisions. This transformed
the A–bomb effort from a civilian to a military project, under
the command of the Military Policy Committee (composed of Bush,
Conant, a representative from the Army and one from the Navy), which
was empowered to issue orders to military commanders.
Oppenheimer was aware of this agreement and accepted its scope. The
Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and the
facilities at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford were de facto
military establishments. The scientists working in those places were
technicians. It was General Leslie Groves and General Kenneth
Nichols who were responsible for the scientific decisions. As Groves
was to assert at Oppenheimer's trial, "Dr. Oppenheimer was used
by me as my adviser . . ., not to tell me what to do, but to confirm
Oppenheimer indeed recognized that the role he played as director of
Los Alamos during the war was carried out serving under orders from
the president, as commander in chief. And Oppenheimer never
regretted his role in the development of atomic bombs, as is clear
from an exchange that took place following a lecture he gave in
Geneva in 1964:
van Camp: If you had foreseen the present situation in
the world, would you have dared start the researches that led to
the atomic bomb?
JRO: My role was very much more modest. . . . My role
was to preside over an effort, to make, as soon as possible,
something practical. But I would do it again.
. . .
Victor Weisskopf: I would like to address Mr.
Oppenheimer in a different fashion. Given what has happened
these past twenty years, would you in the position you were in
1942, would you again accept to develop the bomb?
JRO: To this I have answered yes. . . .
An assistant: Even after Hiroshima?
Unquestionably, Oppenheimer was an enigmatic figure—but in
some respects he is less of an enigma than one might infer from all
that has been written about him. The aura of mystery has been lifted
somewhat with Bernstein's new book, although he does not try to
piece together this puzzle of a man.