- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005


By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Knopf, $35, 736 pages


In the 600-plus pages of “American Prometheus,” Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman have produced a massively detailed account of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), the absentminded polymathic professor who transformed himself into the charismatic leader of the Manhattan Project, became the ultimate insider in the councils of science and government, and was suddenly cast aside after a highly tendentious hearing declared him a security risk, largely because of events that had occurred years before and long since been forgiven.

Mr. Bird and Mr. Sherwin have cast new light on a host of details of Oppenheimer’s life. The book, Mr. Sherman tells us, represents the fruits of a quarter century of research on his part, plus five years by his invited coauthor. Many of the people they interviewed over that long period, including colleagues and friends of Oppenheimer over the years from the 1920s to the 1960s, are no longer alive, so while this is unlikely to be the last biography of Oppenheimer, its successors will have many fewer new firsthand accounts of the man and his times.

Mr. Bird and Mr. Sherwin sum up some of the contradictions in Oppenheimer’s personality in their introduction: “his ambitions and insecurities, his brilliance and naivet, his determination and fearfulness, his stoicism and his bewilderment.” And, in the words of Oppenheimer’s long-time friend, the late Nobel prize winning physicist I. I. Rabi in a 1982 interview with Mr. Sherwin, he was “very wise and very foolish.”

The authors trace Oppenheimer’s confused personality back to his youth, when the effortless academic superiority he demonstrated at New York’s Ethical Culture school was accompanied by a deep-seated sense of insecurity and immaturity. And this insecurity was in turn exacerbated by his mother’s hyper-protective attitude, following the loss of a younger child in infancy. Robert compensated for the coddling he received at home by becoming a skilled and fearless sailor of the 28-foot sloop his father gave him as a 16th birthday present, venturing out into the stormy seas of the Atlantic ocean off Long Island.

This daring was also demonstrated intellectually. As a chemistry major at Harvard, Oppenheimer realized he was more interested in physics. Yet despite his shaky foundation in some basic areas of physics and mathematics, he petitioned the physics department to take a number of upper level courses. When one professor saw the list of 15 advanced physics books Oppenheimer told them he had read, he remarked, “Obviously, if he says he has read these books, he’s a liar, but he should get a Ph.D. for knowing their titles.”

After graduating from Harvard in three years summa cum laude, Oppenheimer set off to Europe, then still the Mecca of physics. Within months, he had a nervous breakdown, placed a poisoned apple on the desk of his tutor (future Nobel Prize winner P. M. S. Blackett) and attempted to throttle one of his closest friends while on vacation. His father managed to persuade Cambridge University not to press criminal charges and sent him to several psychiatrists.

Then, after putting himself together, he plunged into the heart of the quantum mechanics revolution, and was soon invited by Max Born, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, to come to Gottingen. There, he distinguished himself not only by his brilliance, but by his constant interruption of seminars to demonstrate his superior grasp of whatever the speaker was saying, a habit which led his fellow graduate students to petition Born to keep Oppenheimer quiet.

However his work at Gottingen earned him a reputation among leading physicists that let him write his own ticket when he came back to America, and during the 1930s, working closely with the experimentalist Ernest O. Lawrence, he turned the University of California at Berkeley into the leading physics school in America, turning out a new generation of gifted physicists.

With his academic salary supplemented by family wealth that had emerged unscathed from the crash of 1929, Oppenheimer lived well, and he used his money not only to expose his students to the life style of the rich and famous, but also to support a host of left wing causes, especially after he became romantically entangled with two women with strong communist connections.

The first was Jean Tatlock, the emotionally unstable psychiatrist daughter of a Berkeley English professor. The second, the heavy drinking Kitty Harrison, nee Puening, was of German extraction. To quote one irrelevant but interesting example of the book’s thoroughness, her mother had once been engaged to Wilhelm Keitel, a cousin of hers who later became a field marshal in Hitler’s Wehrmacht and was executed as a war criminal. Kitty’s first husband was a communist party worker who died fighting in the Spanish civil war, and when Oppenheimer met her was unhappily married to an English physician. After their divorce, Oppenheimer married her, but continued his relationship with Tatlock sporadically until her suicide during the war years.

When the Manhattan Project began, General Leslie Groves, the Pentagon-appointed head of the massive undertaking, recognized Oppenheimer’s ability to instantly grasp the essentials of any technical problem and selected him to lead the massive scientific effort. Oppenheimer’s inspirational leadership, persuasive eloquence and hitherto unsuspected organizational talent led the Project to success. After the war ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became an iconic figure, the symbol of science as a national asset.

In the postwar era, Oppenheimer became a leading advisor to the government on nuclear affairs, and was not reluctant to express his belief that the dangers inherent in nuclear weapons could only be brought under control by an international arms control regime. He opposed the development of the so-called “Super,” the hydrogen bomb championed most famously by Edward Teller and supported by many influential figures in Washington. Following the acquisition of the atomic bomb by Stalin, President Truman ordered full speed ahead on developing the H-bomb, and Oppenheimer was a marked man. His foes, fearful that he would use his charismatic powers to turn national strategy in a dovish direction, decided he had to be removed from any vestige of power, and in the fervently anticommunist atmosphere of the times, exposure of his fellow traveling past, long outgrown and, in fact, well-known and discounted at the time of the Manhattan Project, served as a convenient means to that end.

Oppenheimer’s most powerful opponent was Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in the Eisenhower administration and, ironically, the man who gave Oppenheimer his postwar position as director of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton. The hawkish Strauss’s opposition to Oppenheimer’s approach had been transformed into personal hatred when Oppenheimer, in his well-practiced manner, humiliated him in a public hearing. Strauss masterminded the AEC hearing, ensuring that Oppenheimer’s defense was hamstrung by lack of knowledge of the case against him, while Oppenheimer weakened his own position by failing to pick an aggressive trial lawyer as his counsel. He had no rational answer to why he had told security officers several contradictory stories about an abortive approach made during the war to recruit him as a Soviet spy, other than the true answer, “I was an idiot.” Mr. Bird and Mr. Sherwin show how Oppenheimer’s own weaknesses helped his self-destruction, first of all by ignoring the advice of Rabi, Einstein and others that he simply allow his clearance to lapse and not fight to remain an official adviser when his advice was no longer wanted.

After the hearings, Oppenheimer returned to IAS, which was roiled by academic politics after he offended the mathematicians by inviting scholars in less rigorous fields. Mr. Bird and Mr. Sherwin, turning to a less familiar aspect of Oppenheimer’s life, describe the free flowing liquor but sparse food at the social events he and Kitty hosted, and the long interludes they spent at their second home in St. John in the Virgin Islands long, idyllic except for the Hatfield-McCoy type feud between them and their closest neighbors, from whom they had bought their property after much persuasion.

Oppenheimer, a chain smoker, died of throat cancer at 62. The late George Kennan, recruited by Oppenheimer to the IAS after his distinguished diplomatic career, recalled at his own 100th birthday party that he had once asked the physicist after his security hearing ordeal if he had considered relocating to a foreign academic institute that would welcome him. Oppenheimer replied, “Damn it, I happen to love this country.” Perhaps the tragedy of Oppenheimer’s life as an American is less well explained by heavy psychologizing than by the classic song “Cigarets and whisky and wild, wild women. They drive you crazy, they drive you insane.”

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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