A Tragic Life: Oppenheimer and the Bomb

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

109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos
By Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster, 2005, 425 pp.

Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan
By Tsuyoshi Hasegawa
Harvard University Press, 2005, 382 pp.

The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race
By Priscilla McMillan
Viking Press, July 2005, 384 pp.

Peter J. Kuznick

J. Robert Oppenheimer was a fascinating, complex, and extremely seductive figure, but one defined almost as much by his flaws as by his prodigious talents and achievements. As director of the Los Alamos laboratory, Oppenheimer, or “Oppie,” as his friends called him, bore major responsibility for building the atomic bomb and some responsibility for obstructing scientists desperately seeking to prevent its use.

Understanding clearly what he had wrought and terrified by the future this augured, he later struggled for international control of nuclear weapons and fought to prevent development of the hydrogen bomb. His contemporaries found him compelling. His best students revered him. Many women adored him. His colleagues appreciated his quick mind, erudition, and brilliance as a theoretician, and they admired his leadership of the Manhattan Project. In the final accounting, Oppenheimer’s was a tragic life, the life of a man who succeeded as a weapons maker and failed as a peacemaker.

Because Oppenheimer was such a unique, conflicted, and often embattled individual, historians have always delighted in counterposing him to other dominant figures of his era with whom he collaborated and clashed, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Lawrence, Manhattan Project director General Leslie Groves, hydrogen bomb proponent Edward Teller, and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chair Lewis Strauss. I would add President Harry Truman, who ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to that list.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of those attacks and observe, with justifiable trepidation, the erosion of the nonproliferation regime, Oppenheimer’s life has many lessons to offer us. Valuable new studies by Priscilla McMillan and Jennet Conant and a magisterial biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin take pains to distill these lessons.

In American Prometheus, Bird and Sherwin paint a rich portrait of Oppenheimer’s early years. Born in 1904 to wealthy, cultured, German-Jewish New York parents, he was a precocious, though sickly, child who at age nine challenged an older cousin, “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek.” He delivered his first scientific paper at age 12, graduated from Harvard in three years, and received his doctorate from Gottingen University in Germany at the age of 23. During these years, he could be insufferably arrogant. Future Nobel Prize winner Maria Goppert once presented Oppenheimer’s adviser Max Born with a petition signed by seminar members stating that, unless Born reined in the “child prodigy,” she and the other students would boycott the class. Oppenheimer also suffered from serious bouts of depression and other forms of emotional instability. In 1928 he received job offers from 10 universities, including Harvard University, accepting a joint position at the University of California Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology.

At Berkeley, he developed a close friendship with Lawrence despite fundamental differences in background, outlook, and approach to physics. The gulf between their worlds became more pronounced during the 1930s as Lawrence, a conservative South Dakotan, gravitated toward California high society and Oppenheimer became part of a Communist milieu socially, intellectually, and politically that included many of his closest students, friends, lovers, and family members. Motivated by intense anti-fascism and abhorrence of social injustice, he joined numerous Communist Party-linked organizations. He regularly contributed money to the party to aid the republican effort in Spain and support other progressive causes.

Bird and Sherwin handle the question of Oppenheimer’s communist involvements with particular skill and dexterity, showing how fine the line was between fellow-traveling and membership during this period, especially for professionals such as Oppenheimer. The authors find no evidence that Oppenheimer ever joined the party, accepted party discipline, or tailored his opinions to conform to party views. By 1942, eager to aid the war effort, Oppenheimer began toning down his politics and severing relationships with party members, although he maintained enough ties to keep FBI and army security investigators busy.

That year, Groves chose Oppenheimer to direct the Los Alamos laboratory. How the privileged, leftist, Jewish, harddrinking, stick-thin intellectual and the bullying, right-wing, overweight, straitlaced minister’s son from a hardscrabble background managed to collaborate to produce the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has fascinated scholars for decades. Both 109 East Palace, Conant’s colorful account of the people at Los Alamos and the challenges they faced, and American Prometheus depict Oppenheimer’s skillful mediation between free-spirited scientists and security-conscious military officials who wanted to restrict access to information and limit discussion. Associate Director E. U. Condon still found the security obsessions “morbidly depressing” and resigned after six weeks. Isidor Isaac Rabi decided not to join Los Alamos, expressing serious qualms about atomic bomb research. Others shared these concerns, but their passionate anti-fascism and fear of Adolf Hitler getting a bomb before the United States overcame their doubts. And while Oppenheimer kept the scientists focused and motivated, Groves exploited Oppenheimer’s vulnerable security status to keep him in line. Groves also understood that Oppenheimer, much like himself, was driven by an overweening ambition and desperately sought the fame and adulation that would ensue from successful completion of the bomb.

Spurred by troubling questions from Danish Nobel laureate Niels Bohr and Manhattan Project physicist Leo Szilard about slaughtering civilians and precipitating a potentially catastrophic arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, many scientists pondered the ethical implications of what they were doing far more deeply than Oppenheimer, who had earlier dismissed Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi’s suggestion that they poison the German food supply with radioactive fission products on the grounds that “we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men.” Oppenheimer certainly understood the frightening world they were ushering in, having had to resist Teller’s effort to bypass the relatively puny atomic bombs and proceed directly with production of super bombs. At the May 31, 1945 meeting of Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s Interim Committee, Oppenheimer acknowledged that within three years it might be possible to produce bombs with an explosive force equivalent to between 10 million and 100 million tons of TNT—thousands of times more powerful than the bombs that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At that meeting, he advocated sharing information with the Soviets prior to dropping the bomb but also acquiesced in the decision to target civilians. In June, Oppenheimer’s memo on behalf of the Scientists Panel to the Interim Committee disputed colleagues who decried using the bomb against Japan or preferred a demonstration, instead urging “military use” and hoping for consequences sufficiently horrible to put an end to war. His subsequent refusal to expedite Szilard’s petition to Truman, signed by 155 Manhattan Project scientists opposing the bomb’s use, ensured that it would arrive too late to matter.

Oppenheimer’s initial jubilation over the destruction of Hiroshima quickly turned to despair as the significance of what he and the scientists had achieved hit home. The mood at Los Alamos darkened perceptibly following news of Nagasaki and reports of massive destruction. Oppenheimer and others at least comforted themselves with the belief that the bomb had brought a rapid end to the war and avoided a costly invasion of the Japanese homeland. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s definitive study of the end of the Pacific War, Racing the Enemy, should dispel that myth once and for all.

The first to make effective use not only of U.S. and Japanese sources, but also the former Soviet archives, Hasegawa presents a much more thorough and complex picture of the military and diplomatic endgame than that offered by previous studies of Japan’s surrender. Hasegawa convincingly shows that the Soviet entry into the war on August 9 had a much greater impact on Japan’s decision to surrender than did the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While Oppenheimer and the scientists worked feverishly to develop atomic bombs in 1943 and 1944, U.S., Japanese, and Soviet officials were maneuvering to secure national objectives at the war’s end. By the summer of 1944, Japanese leaders had largely abandoned hope for a decisive military victory and focused on preserving the kokutai (emperor-centered national polity). They later concluded that procuring Soviet mediation offered the best chance for achieving an acceptable peace. Furthermore, Japan’s entire Ketsu-go (“Decisive” Operation) strategy was predicated on keeping the Soviets out of the war so that Japan could draw the United States into an attack on the homeland—they correctly anticipated this would occur in Kyushu—and inflict heavy casualties on the invading forces.

The willingness of Japanese leaders to suffer heavy civilian casualties was matched by the eagerness of U.S. leaders to inflict them through an all-out bombing of Japanese cities that prompted Stimson to urge Truman to stop targeting civilians before the United States got “the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities.” That the United States achieved with one bomb in Hiroshima what it had elsewhere achieved with fleets of bombers disturbed Japanese leaders but did not throw them into a frenzy. In fact, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Army Minister Korechika Anami told the other members of Japan’s Supreme War Leadership Council (the Big Six) that the United States had 100 more such bombs and Tokyo might be next. Despite this harrowing bit of misinformation, Anami vowed to fight on, and none of the top leaders favored unconditional surrender. The Nagasaki bombing had little discernible effect on Japanese decision-makers. The Soviet entry, however, proved devastating, confirming the bankruptcy of Japanese diplomacy and eliminating once and for all the hope of securing Soviet assistance in mitigating surrender terms, while heightening the risk of popular uprisings and Soviet seizure of Japanese territory. Although some leaders still preferred to fight on, the emperor’s intervention sealed the victory for the peace party.

Japanese strategy had been doomed from the start. Stalin, wanting to make sure that the Pacific War continued at least until the Soviet invasion of Manchuria had begun, had no interest in brokering a peace agreement between the United States and Japan. Not trusting Truman to live up to the terms of the Yalta Agreement, in which the United States promised the Soviets major territorial and other concessions in Asia in return for entering the war against Japan, and fearing that the use of atomic bombs would bring a hasty Japanese surrender, he pressured Soviet military leaders to speed the invasion. Truman, on the other hand, prodded by Secretary of State James Byrnes, hoped that the atomic bombings would induce Japanese surrender before the Soviets invaded. Also motivated by a desire for revenge against Japan and fearing the political fallout from easing the surrender terms, Truman resisted pressure to inform the Japanese that they could keep the emperor following surrender, a move that, combined with the Soviet invasion, would likely have ended the war without resorting to the bombs. Nevertheless, Truman, despite his own apocalyptic fears that he was unleashing forces that could someday annihilate the human species, preferred using the bomb to seeking other viable alternatives.

Although it would be some time before Oppenheimer discovered how this dramatic competition to achieve geopolitical goals formed a backdrop to the use of the atomic bombs, he, unlike Truman, felt an appropriate revulsion at what he had helped achieve. When Oppenheimer met Truman for the first time on October 25, 1945, Truman asked Oppenheimer to guess when the Soviets would develop a bomb. When Oppenheimer said he did not know, Truman shot back that he did: “Never.” Unnerved, Oppenheimer said at one point, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” The president, furious at Oppenheimer, informed David Lilienthal, “I told him the blood was on my hands—to let me worry about that.” Apparently relishing this story, Truman later offered alternative versions. He told Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again,” and another time called him a “cry-baby scientist.”

At that meeting, Truman and Oppenheimer also differed over the urgency of achieving international control of atomic weapons. Recognizing that Byrnes and others planned to use the bomb to bully the Soviet Union, Oppenheimer feared the worst. After meeting with Oppenheimer, Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, the former vice president, wrote in his diary, “I never saw a man in such an extremely nervous state as Oppenheimer. He seemed to feel that the destruction of the entire human race was imminent.” As McMillan notes in her penetrating, in-depth study of the 1949-1954 period, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race, Oppenheimer possessed “the gift of seeing further into the future of nuclear weapons than anyone else, either then or later.”

Oppenheimer threw himself into the effort to create an international authority to control nuclear weapons. In early 1946, he dominated the drafting of the Acheson-Lilienthal report, an ambitious blueprint for international control through creation of an Atomic Development Authority that would own all uranium mines, atomic power plants, and laboratories. Even the hard-headed Acheson called this “a brilliant and profound document.” Oppenheimer deliberately framed the proposal so as to assuage Soviet fears, but Truman dashed all hopes by choosing virulently anti-Soviet financier Bernard Baruch to present his own revised version of the plan to the United Nations, sabotaging the last real chance for forestalling an arms race.

At the war’s end, the “success” of the Manhattan Project brought Oppenheimer not only newfound celebrity, but entrée into the inner circle of Washington power brokers. He hoped to use his chairmanship of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) to the new AEC to counter the influence of Cold War zealots in the increasingly paranoid and security-obsessed world of postwar Washington. He hoped that his wartime contributions, continued indispensability, and disavowal of his once-radical views would insulate him against his enemies within the bureaucracy. He had already cooperated with government inquisitors and, in 1949, testified about his own leftist Berkeley students at Un- American Activities Committee hearings. When word leaked about his incriminating testimony, Condon upbraided him: “One is tempted to feel that you are so foolish as to think you can buy immunity for yourself by turning informer…. You know very well that once these people decide to go into your own dossier and make it public that it will make the ‘revelations’ that have been made so far look pretty tame.”

Fortunately, for the sake of history and for Oppenheimer’s own reputation, he was ultimately brought down not by such betrayals but by his much more principled opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer hoped that announcement of the Soviet Union’s August 29, 1949, atomic bomb test would jump-start the long-stalled international control effort and campaigned for a less-secretive and “more rational security policy.” Strauss, Lawrence, and Teller pushed instead for a crash program to develop super bombs. Lilienthal described them as “drooling with the prospect and bloodthirsty.” Goaded by Harvard President James Conant (grandfather of Jennet Conant), the GAC unanimously opposed development of the hydrogen bomb, describing it as a potential weapon of “genocide.” The AEC commissioners voted 3-2 to endorse the GAC recommendations, with the arch-conservative Strauss dissenting. Truman, siding with the hard-liners, opted to push development and placed a gag order on all scientists involved in the deliberations, further enshrining secrecy and limiting public debate about this quantum leap in the calculus of destruction.

Any illusion that the election of Eisenhower— still today the only president to condemn the 1945 atomic bombings— would reverse U.S. policy was dispelled when he appointed Strauss his atomic energy adviser and, in July 1953, chairman of the AEC. Ever vindictive and still smoldering over Oppenheimer’s humiliation of him during a 1949 congressional hearing, Strauss enlisted the support of Teller, congressional staffer William Borden, FBI officials, and top Air Force brass in his carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy Oppenheimer’s reputation and block renewal of his security clearance. The ensuing hearing, which Bird and Sherwin describe as “patently unfair and outrageously extrajudicial” and Oppenheimer labeled a “dry crucifixion,” found Oppenheimer, despite his support for expanding the atomic arsenal, to be a security risk and condemned him for obstructing hydrogen bomb development. The commission voted 4-1 to strip him of his security clearance, disregarding his overwhelming support from the scientific community and key establishment figures.

Following this profound humiliation, Oppenheimer shied away from public controversy, effectively silencing perhaps the most knowledgeable and articulate critic of America’s nuclear policies. He remained deeply troubled, though. He had come to understand that the United States and the United Kingdom, in what may have been “a tragic mistake,” had “used atomic weapons against an enemy which was essentially defeated.” Perhaps recognizing his own fallibility and certainly recognizing the recklessness of the world’s political leaders, he trembled at the thought of what the next “tragic mistake” would produce. As these outstanding new books show, his desperate attempts to corral the forces that he helped unleash were undone by a hornet’s nest of mostly execrable characters who, in the name of national security, not only destroyed him but laid the foundation for many of the problems plaguing us today.

Peter J. Kuznick teaches history and directs the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He is the author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America and co-editor of Rethinking Cold War Culture. In 2004, he co-founded the Nuclear Education Project.

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