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Life in a Force Field

David Hollinger

The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race. Priscilla J. McMillan. x + 373 pp. Viking, 2005. $25.95.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. xiv + 721 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. $35.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. David C. Cassidy. xviii + 462 pp. Pi Press, 2004. $27.95.

J. Robert Oppenheimer lived through one of the most severe and widely witnessed whipsaws of all time. While enjoying the prestige and political influence that followed from having supervised the building of the atomic bomb, he was suddenly turned into a walking ruin by enemies whose malevolence and mendacity he had not fully measured even in his most prescient and suspicious moments. This whipsaw is what the late journalist Murray Kempton had in mind when, in his 1994 book Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events, he attributed to Oppenheimer the distinction of having experienced with extraordinary intensity "both the illusion of being history's conqueror and the fact of being its victim."

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Many people have their ups and downs, but few individuals other than long-serving heads of powerful nation-states are as central to the great public events of their time as Oppenheimer was to his. Oppenheimer's significance, however—unlike that of Franklin Roosevelt or Napoleon or Bismarck—is measured as much by what happened to him as by what he accomplished. He was a cause of many things, yes, but he was also a collection of results. His life instructs us not only about the power of science and the capacity of highly motivated, well-organized intellectuals to achieve great things, but also about the power of the American state and about how its authority can be mobilized by handfuls of determined and willful individuals.

Oppenheimer was an expanse on which was worked out a multitude of the scientific, governmental, ideological, military and social dynamics of the middle decades of the 20th century in the United States. As David Cassidy puts it in the first sentence of his biography, "The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is the story of twentieth-century America." Oppenheimer himself and his contemporaries had a preliminary sense of this, but now, 38 years after his death in 1967, Cassidy and other historians are more confident than ever before of the long-term significance of the events in which Oppenheimer was involved. These historians are properly awed by the sheer size of Oppenheimer as a historic "site." Simply put, there is so much history to be found there.

This prodigious domain has now attracted a number of highly talented and energetic scholars who are presenting this history to us in several splendid books appearing about a century after Oppenheimer's birth in 1904. I'll discuss three of the most important of these. Cassidy's J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century is distinguished by its close attention to the science Oppenheimer did and to the intellectual relationships he had with other physicists. Priscilla J. McMillan's The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race is an enthralling and frightening account of the process by which Oppenheimer's enemies within the government he served began plotting against him in 1949 and brought him down five years later. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a comprehensive biography, the best single book ever written about Oppenheimer.

The three books complement one another nicely in content and style. Although Cassidy's account of Oppenheimer's relationship with Robert A. Millikan and other Caltech scientists is a fresh and distinctive contribution, Cassidy devotes only half as many pages to the post-1954 period of Oppenheimer's life as Bird and Sherwin do. Hence American Prometheus gives us by far the most complete and informative narrative of Oppenheimer's efforts to find his way after 1954. Bird and Sherwin provide a detailed, if painful, account of Oppenheimer's family life during that period and analyze in depth the internal politics of the Institute for Advanced Study, which Oppenheimer continued to direct despite efforts by Lewis Strauss (who was a trustee there) to replace him. Although Bird and Sherwin's and Cassidy's biographies both offer carefully documented accounts of the security hearing and the machinations that led to it, McMillan's book is entirely devoted to that episode in the Oppenheimer story. Readers can turn to it for a study of Oppenheimer's purge that illuminates most chillingly the ease with which Strauss (as head of the Atomic Energy Commission), the physicist Edward Teller and leaders of the Air Force were able to mobilize and manipulate the power of the U.S. government to eliminate any critical, scientific voice from the councils of government for several crucial, Cold War years.

Regarding the style of these books, McMillan is the most arresting prose writer and is the most concerned to leave her reader in a state of healthy anger and "never again" determination. Cassidy is straightforward and seems the most concerned that his own voice be a vehicle for simply conveying to the reader the information that his research has uncovered. Bird and Sherwin are more ambitious than Cassidy as writers but are less concerned than McMillan to get the reader to any particular destination.

All three books leave the reader almost numbed by the extent and ferocity of the novel pressures with which Oppenheimer had to deal from the time he entered government service in 1942 through his adjustment to life as an exile in the mid-1950s. By virtue of the responsibilities he accepted, he became, in effect, one of his society's chief "point persons"  for dealing with a cascade of novelties generated by advances in theoretical physics, by the weapons imperatives of World War II, by the new American military colossus that emerged from that war and by the domestic politics of the McCarthy Era. Oppenheimer's life before 1942—as a theoretical physicist, professor at Berkeley and Caltech, Jewish intellectual, small-time political activist and lover of Sanskrit poetry—is not without historical interest. But after 1942 things were really different. For the next dozen years he lived in a force field.

Political and intellectual objects of varying shapes, textures and weights were thrown at him with different velocities by a remarkable cast of characters. These included General Leslie Groves, the officer in charge of the Manhattan Project; Hans Bethe, the great theoretical physicist who at Los Alamos repeatedly pressed crucial and challenging ideas upon Oppenheimer; and Strauss, the self-important financier who, in his positions at the Atomic Energy Commission and the Institute for Advanced Study, showed the father of the atomic bomb what established authority could do to a challenger, no matter how brilliant and charismatic. Oppenheimer also dealt with projectiles sent his way by the vain and jealous Teller, by the benevolent senior administrator James Conant, by his communist friend Haakon Chevalier, by the great organizer Ernest Lawrence, by the shallow-minded President Harry Truman, by the monumentally dishonest J. Edgar Hoover, by countless scientists and officials dependent on him in one way or another for leadership and advice, and by a host of other contemporaries whose actions are carefully detailed in these books.

The point is not that all of these novel stimuli were negative; on the contrary, some were bracing, exciting and even satisfying challenges of leadership. Rather, the point is that there were so many of them and that they were so different from one another and that they came at him so rapidly and from so many directions all at once. Hence the numbing effect.

But if we as readers of these books are overwhelmed by the variety and complexity of the novelties that Oppenheimer faced, what toll might they have taken on the man who experienced them? Perhaps by the spring of 1954 Oppenheimer was sufficiently battered, even though still triumphant rather than humiliated, to be without the commanding personal confidence that enabled him, in 1940 and 1941, to hang out with members of the Communist Party no matter what anyone thought about it. The circumstances were different, to be sure, but Oppenheimer's passive behavior at his security hearing might follow less from enduring character traits than from his having lived in a tornado for a dozen years. Einstein and others advised him to refuse to cooperate with his tormentors, but all three of these books remind us how passive Oppenheimer was in dealing with a government he was sophisticated enough not to trust.

One of the few failings of Bird and Sherwin is their linking of Oppenheimer's passivity in 1954 with his willingness, as an adolescent at summer camp, to tolerate hazing. But this tendency to treat Oppenheimer's personality as an enduring structure runs counter to Bird and Sherwin's own implicit interpretation of Oppenheimer's life. What they show us, better than any of his other interpreters, is that his mature personality during his years as a great historical figure was articulated in a constant dialectic between the personal traits he brought to government service in 1942 and the sequence of novel experiences that crashed into him in Berkeley, Los Alamos, Washington and Princeton during the next dozen years. To be sure, there are elements of continuity, but when Bird and Sherwin are tempted by reductionist psychological explanations, they violate their best instincts as historians, as specialists in the development of personalities and institutions over time.

Bird and Sherwin are at their best in dealing with the question of Oppenheimer's relation to the Communist Party in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They strongly support the general conclusion that Gregg Herken came to in Brotherhood of the Bomb (an excellent study of Oppenheimer, Lawrence and Teller, which was published in 2002): that Oppenheimer was much closer to the Communist Party than he ever admitted. The authors of American Prometheus are wonderfully liberated from the need, felt by so many of Oppenheimer's admirers, to defend Oppenheimer's own self-representations of this part of his life.

But Bird and Sherwin dissent from Herken's specific claim that Oppenheimer was an actual member of the Party through a secret group in which he, Chevalier and several other Berkeley friends were involved. Bird and Sherwin convincingly discredit the testimony of an informer, Paul Crouch, on whom Herken relied too heavily, and they join with Cassidy, who is also cautious and persuasive in dealing with Oppenheimer's communist connections, in presenting us with an Oppenheimer who stayed well clear of the type of involvement that mattered: the acceptance of party discipline and the willingness to use one's position to violate the security interests of the United States. Herken, too, agrees that Oppenheimer's involvement stopped far short of treason, so the controversy about Oppenheimer's communist connections, always played up by the press, is actually not so much of a controversy after all.

Among the most important consequences of the entire outpouring of books on Oppenheimer is a shifting of focus from what he did or did not do (what did he say to Chevalier in that famous kitchen conversation, and why did he tell different stories about it later?) to what others did or did not do to him. The documentation we now have about the illegal wiretapping authorized by Hoover and about the extraordinary treachery of Strauss and his McCarthy Era allies, for example, has shifted attention to what the Oppenheimer saga tells us about the postwar state of national security in the United States and about the American matrix for the arms race.

Yet it would not do to disaggregate J. Robert Oppenheimer, in strict poststructuralist fashion, viewing him as a mere concentrate of results of the operation of powers outside himself. This man was an agent of history as well as a creature of it. Kempton was right that Oppenheimer experienced an "illusion" of being history's conqueror, but it is no illusion for us to believe that without him the American Century, such as it was, would have been different. And this applies to his humiliation as well as his triumph. Cassidy, McMillan, and Bird and Sherwin show us in detail how a sequence of Oppenheimer's own decisions, foolish and wise, cut off or created one possible outcome after another. He chose to reject Einstein's advice to walk out of his hearings in 1954. He chose to appoint Bethe, and not Teller, to head the theoretical division at Los Alamos. He chose to keep the most communist-committed of his students out of Los Alamos. He chose again and again to do one thing and not another. If we have too long been too narrowly focused on Oppenheimer's own decisions and not on the decisions of others, the books before us redress that balance. Oppenheimer studies have never been in better shape than they are today, thanks largely to these three books.

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