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A Puzzle of a Man

Silvan S. Schweber

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.

Oppenheimer with General GrovesClick to Enlarge Image

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 [1961]), 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 in 1966Click to Enlarge Image

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 my opinion."

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?

JRO: Yes.

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.

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