Researched in exhaustive depth, Bird and Sherwin trace the life, motivations and mystery of one of the true sphinxes of American life (rivalled perhaps only by Thomas Jefferson), J. Robert Oppenheimer.
To capture the scope and breadth and Protean nature of this man would daunt all but the most sedulous and dedicated researchers. But in this carefully-researched biography, Bird and Sherwin tame the untameable mess of anecdote, hearsay, and testimony to give us a picture of this most perplexing, and most thoroughly American, man.
The book chronicles the breadth of his learning while dispelling many of the popular myths around him. He was a physicist, horseman, lover of New Mexico’s high desert, stoic, traveler of Western Europe, Sanskrit scholar (!), physicist, facilitator of scientific compromises, and an advocate for quantum mechanics contra Einstein. On top of all that, his socio-political stance was decidedly progressive and in advance of his times. Anti-segregationalist, anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist, broad-minded, free-thinking, and challenging of sexual politics’ norms, he was many paces ahead of general opinion his entire life.
And on top of that his organization of research resulted in the Americans producing the first atomic weapon instead of his former study-mates, the Germans who, as of the war’s beginning, had a research and industrial production competency that truly meant the world might have seen Nazi atomic superiority.
Born Amid Momentous Currents
Oppenheimer falls into a fascinating moment in history: wealthy son of German-Jewish emigrés, he lives a privileged life on Riverside Drive. His life featured a large townhome on the Upper West Side to a country home on northern Long Island, he would not know want. Yet his sense of his family’s wealth is tempered by an obligation to look out for one’s fellow many and behave ethically.
He’s raised in the Society for Ethical Culture: a secularist offshoot of Judaism which seeks to make “Judaism for everyone.” Ethical culture proposed to sever the moral behavior aspect of Judaism from the bloodline of Judasim — to take the lesson of Nazerene-Judasim (later rebranded as Christianity) unto Judaism itself. Oppenheimer attends Ethical Culture schools where moral behavior is thoroughly analyzed and debated…like physics.
This strong ethical bearing is what puts Oppenheimer firmly in the Left: anti-racist, tolerant, generous etc.
And yet all this Judaism-inspired action for good is bounded in a time of rising anti-Semitism in the USA and violence abroad. Bird and Sherwin document how deep these attitudes run, even in “liberal” quarters. Ivy League application reviewers ask whether the “character” of their institutions might be undermined by “too many Jews.” Memos circulate where Oppenheimer is praised for not conforming to caricatures worthy of the hogwash tracts like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And, again, these were written by “educated” people.
I felt that the book presented that the price of mankind’s love of return to ignorance seems to be the eternal vigilance of Judaism / Ethical Culture against it.
Yet against this new vogue of intolerance (sad to think I’m living through another such) is a rising new internationalism centered in places of learning like Gőttingen, Leiden, and London. Scientists and physicists use mathematics to overcome their language barriers and share ideas while trying to map the confusing world of quantum mechanics and particle physics.
On top of this, fascist powers in Germany, Italy, and Spain are rising and the only forces for anti-fascism seem to march under the flag of equality and decency for all: the flag of Russian communism.
What a backdrop! So much tumult. So much hope dashed, so much faith, broken, so much idealism undermined. This were Oppenheimer’s times.
Creator of the West
As a (South-)Westerner myself, I also loved the way Oppenheimer, scion of East Coast intellegentsia, embodies the movement of the intellectual from New York to the Bay Area / LA basin.
First, Oppenheimer loved the high desert of New Mexico. The altitude, the passes, the hard horse rides across large expanses of terrain. Much of the lure of Santa Fe and vicinity finds its gospel in the mouth of Oppenheimer. Additionally, Oppenheimer helps seed the nascent research institutes at Berkeley and Cal-Tech when he heads West.
Yet in the West, Oppenheimer brings the Ethical Culture onus with him. We find Oppenheimer and other Berkeley professors finding common cause with the longshoremen of Oakland. We find Oppenheimer and wife railing at Pasadena’s “colored days” (2 days a week) for public pools. While California thinks of itself the progressive heart of America, it wasn’t always so and it was these ethically-guided souls such as Oppenheimer who goaded America to live up to her promise.
We see the ethically righteous and socially challenging seeds that will flower in the 60’s Berkeley be consciously planted in Oppenheimer’s era at the school. Marital flexibility, intoxicant experimentation, artistic bohemianism, study of Eastern religion, it all happens in the quiet, martini-fueled dinner parties in those quiet winding East Bay hillside homes.
A Crisis of Men’s Hearts
While the ethical is a strong character thread in Oppenheimer, his life was also oriented on a more realpolitik level of what, today, might be called “behavioral economics” or “game theory.” While he hopes for rationality and enlightenment, his cultivated realpolitik leads him to hedge his bets. As hedge he joins progressive, far-Left activities and donates to organizations who take the fight to those who would use violence to advance their anti-ethical ethos.
With this as motivation, Oppenheimer:
- Sends money to family members in Europe feeling the first dangers of Nazism
- Donates to the anti-fascist guerillas of Spain
- Joins anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-exploitation clubs / unions / etc.
And is it through pursuit of action on behalf of quality and ethical bravery that he comes to associate with an institution similarly radially committed (on paper anyway): The Communist Party.
As presented in the book, he is less motivated by idealism for Communism rather than the desire to help in the fight against fascism abroad and injustice at home. In Oppenheimer we see the great question of ethical behavior under capitalism: where are the consistent, ethical, capitalist institutions committed to effecting real change? And won’t they, in a choice, be compelled to choose profit over ethical behavior?
These are the ties that will haunt him and mar his prospects.
While no evidence ever proves Oppenheimer was a part of the American CP, and he explicitly disavows communism as life under Stalin emerges, his ethical orientation puts him in a confrontational bearing to the military-industrial complex whose fortunes he was destined to create.
Ultimately Oppenheimer, a deep introvert, a chain-smoker, a biting wit with sharp elbows who suffered no fools, manages to wheedle and kowtow sufficiently that he is ganted a security clearance and is permitted to work on the nascent effort to build an American atomic weapon. Eventually he becomes the project’s director.
Here he brings the quest for atomic fire to his beloved quiet stillness of Eastern New Mexico. Director Oppenheimer creates an early-model research park, something thoroughly familiar to anyone who’s worked along the NorCal 101.
The bomb’s development gives further display of Oppenheimer’s idealist + game theoretician bearing.
- Having realized the theoretical possibility of the bomb, he pursues it to ensure that the Nazi’s don’t get it first.
- Yet in pursuing the bomb, he seeks maximal destructive power so that no one uses it. If the public knows it to be a tool for genocide, then no one will use it and will prefer conventional weapons or gasp diplomacy
- Yet if the bomb is held as a monopoly, any power that holds it will induce any non-holders to engage in an arms race. Therefore the UN in a return to internationalism should control production of these weapons
Again and again his game-theory mind correctly plays the poker game of international diplomacy and calculates the first-order and second-order catastrophes nuclear proliferation within states will lead to. He even clearly saw that if states proliferated under secret, the logical consequence would be separatists or rogue actors taking the simple technology and physics from atomic programs to non-state (i.e. terrorist) actors. When asked what tool might be used to detect a bomb being smuggled into New York, Oppenheimer quipped: “A screwdriver (to check every box, suitcase, truck, etc.).
Oppenheimer clearly that man’s ethics are no match for the powers of Los Alamos. And he was utterly right.
This profound ethical sense finds no friends in Right-Wing politics or in the military-industrial complex’s ties to the academy. Speaking against non-proliferation and the H-Bomb and for the UN and helping the US public understand the political realities of the atomic age, Oppenheimer makes many enemies.
Some despise this ethical impulse as naive, others as rooted in pro-Russia treason. They undertake to stifle his influence and succeed. Under Strauss’ leadership an extra-judicial, unfair, unreasonable persecution and character assassination begins for which Oppenheimer was ill-prepared. Coming out particularly poorly are Lewis Strauss and J. Edgar Hoover. As documented in the book, these two never let nefarious means hinder their pursuit of “righteous” ends. When Hoover could direct illegally-gotten data to Strauss, he did; when Strauss could bias a process against Oppenheimer, he did.
With a sufficient blot on his reputation made, Oppenheimer’s message was stifled. The mongers of war and their cronies of munitions factories found Washington and Madison Avenue theirs to manipulate and cow into fostering the permanent fear that drove proliferation until the early 80’s — when the SALT treaties do what Oppenheimer had suggested 40 years befoe.
Dignity and Death
For many years Oppenheimer found the character assassination to hinder his prospects and welcome as he strove to return to “mere” science. Ultimately Senator John F. Kennedy and the Senate block the appointment of Strauss to higher office (ending his career).
Years later, Oppenheimer wins the Fermi award in 1963 and thereby is returned to the Establishment. While he’ll never work in high-security physics again, he is hereby deemed safe to interview and engage with.
A rapacious smoker, throat cancer killed him in 1967. His wife, died a few years later (1972) as did his daughter (by suicide in 1977). Peter Oppenheimer lives in seclusion in the West that his father loved so much.
The research is phenomenal and the volumes of research are well translated into a moving story. The audio narration is solid, but lacks some of the variation that might have made a long book feel more vivid. On the whole audiobook was a good format for this long journey, but the experience of the content and the delivery was a top-tier experience.
As a late Gen-Xer, I grew up with the spectre of the man with the portwine stain on his head having the option to end life as we knew it. The subtlety that it takes two to tango had not yet dawned on me.
The first research paper I ever wrote was in elementary school (4th grade). My chosen topic was the atomic bomb. Everywhere in those books the name “Oppenheimer” came up. Years, passed and the name didn’t surface again until the film adaptation of “The Hunt for Red October” where the character Marko Ramius, of the USSR, notes that the father of the atomic bomb was investigated for being a communist. The particular utterance that stuck, attributed to Oppenheimer in the film (and purportedly a slight mistranslation), was remarkable in its ominous tone and its source: The Baghavad-Gita.
Behold! I am become Death, destroyer of worlds