The Atom Bomb’s Tragic Hero

By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2005

Browsing through magazines at the dentist’s office recently, I was startled by a phrase in an article about decorating: “a tragic color choice. I doubt that anyone other than Oscar Wilde (whose last words reportedly were “either that wallpaper goes or I do) has died from an unfortunate shade of mauve. But I realized once again that the word “tragic, which once described the cosmic fate of doomed princes, has suffered from overuse.

So when I picked up a new biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the word “tragedy in its subtitle barely registered with me. But Oppenheimer’s story really is in the classic mode: a man of great achievement brought low by forces both within and beyond his control. All the old Aristotelian words – hubris, catharsis, pity, and terror – came to mind as I read it. And clearly that’s what Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin had in mind by giving their book a title that alludes to the Aeschylean hero punished by the gods for bringing fire to humankind.

It’s the heroic achievement and the aftermath of betrayal that give Oppenheimer’s story the aura of classical tragedy. All the flaws that doomed Shakespeare’s heroes – ambition, pride, arrogance, envy, indecision – are knotted into his story.

His tale also seems to have a strange resonance with our own times, when questions of loyalty and dissent, and of the troubled relationship between science and politics, seem freshly relevant. That may explain the nearly simultaneous appearance of three new books (the third, “The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Priscilla J. McMillan, will be published in July) about the man who led the team that created the atomic bomb but whose reputation was undone by allegations of disloyalty to the United States.

Bird and Sherwin’s book is both comprehensive and compelling, a meticulous survey of Oppenheimer’s life and times. Jennet Conant’s more modest volume is also terrifically engaging reading. It is at least a worthy option for someone who wants to know the essentials about Oppenheimer’s life and work but doesn’t want to commit to a 700-page book.

Conant, whose grandfather, James B. Conant, was one of Oppenheimer’s colleagues in the development of the atomic bomb (and who served as president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953 with a strong interest in the history of science) tells much of the story from the point of view of Dorothy McKibben, who was a kind of gatekeeper to Los Alamos: She ran the small office in Santa Fe through which anyone who wanted to reach the remote secret facility had to pass. The emphasis of the book is on the lives of the people – scientists and their spouses, government officials and soldiers – who were caught up in a world-changing project.

Conant’s special family connection to the creation of the atomic bomb gives her an intensely clear sense of the emotional and moral significance it had for those who worked on it. As she tells us, when she was growing up in Cambridge, Mass., in the 1960s, amid student protests against the war in Vietnam, “My liberal parents were full of anger and recriminations toward my grandfather, his complicity in the secret military effort to develop chemical weapons and the bomb, and the subsequent – and in their view, cruel and unnecessary – destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

The irony is that, 30 years earlier, it was Robert Oppenheimer’s own liberal views that planted the seeds of his undoing. Oppenheimer never joined the Communist Party – he was far too stubbornly individualistic for the party’s rigid discipline – but he would admit in later years that he had been a “fellow traveler,” and that he had belonged to “front” organizations.

Like many on the left, he was willing to overlook the excesses of the communists because they seemed to share his concerns about the state of the world. As a young physicist, teaching at the University of California-Berkeley and Caltech in the ’30s, he was appalled by the rise of fascism in Europe and deeply moved by the suffering caused by the Great Depression. Moreover, he had family connections to the communists. His wife, Kitty, had been married to a party member who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and Oppenheimer’s younger brother, Frank, did join the party.

But Oppenheimer was not an ideologue; he was a practical man whose chief aim was the defeat of the Nazis. He was a theoretical physicist of recognized genius, and his personal charisma and gift for organization made him the perfect choice to head the top-secret project to develop an atomic bomb. He saw the horror of such a weapon, but he also understood that a greater horror would arise if the Germans developed it first.

Bird and Sherwin’s book has an epic quality. It’s a densely detailed portrait of an enormously complex man who was present at the fiery birth of a new and doom-haunted world. The creation of the bomb has been chronicled elsewhere, most notably in Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. But “American Prometheus” is a near-essential book for anyone who wants to explore the moral and intellectual dilemmas of those who worked on the weapon.

At its heart is a brilliant, driven man. When he left Harvard to study at Cambridge University in 1925 and 1926, he apparently had a severe nervous collapse, and witnesses to his behavior when he went for further study at the University of Gottingen in Germany recalled “periods of hibernation….invariably followed by episodes of incessant talking” – behavior we would now label bipolar. Even after recovering from a mild case of tuberculosis, he was a lifelong chain-smoker. As work on the bomb reached its climax in 1945, “his weight was down to 115 pounds, skin-and-bones for a man 5 feet 10 inches tall” – a manifestation of the intensity with which he burned away his life. (He died of throat cancer in 1967 at the age of 62.)

That so physically and emotionally fragile a man should have accomplished so much is remarkable. But he was also vulnerable to those more single-minded, less complex than he was. In the winter of 1942-43 Oppenheimer was approached by a close friend, Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French at UC-Berkeley, who urged him to pass information about his scientific work to a British physicist named George Eltenton, who was acting on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Oppenheimer refused. But he also failed to report Chevalier and Eltenton to the authorities, and later, when the incident became known (Oppenheimer’s home was secretly bugged), he balked at identifying Chevalier as the intermediary. The consequences, in the anti-communist frenzy of the ’50s, would be serious.

Oppenheimer is not the only figure brought to startling life in this exceptional biography. Among the dozens of memorable portraits is his wife, Kitty, who is shown to be as intense and fragile as he was, though in her own way – that of a woman married to a celebrated man. And there’s the ever-devious Edward Teller, who envied Oppenheimer’s glory and devoted himself to developing the H-bomb partly as a way of eclipsing Oppenheimer. Teller testified against Oppenheimer in the 1954 hearing that stripped him of his security clearance, but in 1963, when the tide had turned and President Lyndon Johnson presented Oppenheimer with the Fermi Prize, Teller had the nerve to show up at the ceremony and shake Oppenheimer’s hand.

Perhaps most important, there’s Oppenheimer’s stern nemesis on the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, who took exception to Oppenheimer’s postwar efforts to bring about international cooperation to control atomic weaponry. More than any other person, Strauss was responsible for forcing Oppenheimer out of government service.

This is one of the greatest, saddest American stories. Both books tell it well, in very different ways. Conant sees Oppenheimer through the people who worked with him, the bomb-builders of Los Alamos, and their families. Bird and Sherwin attempt and achieve a sweeping, perhaps definitive portrait of the man and his times. In both cases, the authors have told a story that, especially in times of uncertain security, we should read and heed.