Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986), reviews five recent books, including "the first full biography of [J. Robert Oppenheimer's] life, rich in new revelations." ...
By Richard Rhodes
** Oppenheimer's atom bomb could win the war but not the infighting after it. **
New York Times Book Review
May 15, 2005
[AMERICAN PROMETHEUS: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Illustrated. 721 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35. -- J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY. By David C. Cassidy. Illustrated. 462 pp. Pi Press. $27.95. -- 109 EAST PALACE: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. By Jennet Conant. Illustrated. 424 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.95. -- RACING THE ENEMY: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. By Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. Illustrated. 382 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $29.95. -- EDWARD TELLER: The Real Dr. Strangelove. By Peter Goodchild. Illustrated. 469 pp. Harvard University Press. $29.95.]
The story of the discovery of how to release nuclear energy, and its application to making bombs capable of blasting, irradiating and burning out entire cities, is the great tragic epic of the 20th century. To build the first such weapons, the United States invested more than $2 billion and constructed an industrial plant spread from Tennessee to New Mexico to Washington State that by 1945 rivaled the American automobile industry in scale.
Sixty years later, the Manhattan Project is fading into myth. The massive production reactors and plutonium extraction canyons at Hanford, Wash.; the half-mile-long uranium separation buildings at Oak Ridge, Tenn.; the 200,000 workers who built and operated the vast machinery while managing to keep its purpose secret, all disappear from view, leaving behind a bare nucleus of legend: a secret laboratory on a New Mexican mesa where the actual bombs were designed and built; a charismatic lab director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who rose to international prominence until his enemies brought him low; a lone B-29, incongruently named for the pilot's mother, Enola Gay; a ruined city, Hiroshima; and poor Nagasaki, all but forgotten.
Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at 62 in 1967. Perhaps because he was a complicated man, American Prometheus is the first full biography of his life, rich in new revelations. (J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, by David C. Cassidy, the author of Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg, looks primarily at Oppenheimer's role as a scientist.) Born into a wealthy German-Jewish family in New York City in 1904, he grew up gifted in languages and friendship but lonely and filled with self-loathing. Although he was always rail-thin, a chain smoker, awkward and nervous, women loved his brilliant blue eyes and courtly attention and responded to his vulnerability. His difficult wife, Katherine Puening, "Kitty," abandoned a husband for him. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have uncovered a long-term love affair with Ruth Tolman, a clinical psychologist who was the wife of one of Oppenheimer's close colleagues. In 109 East Palace, Jennet Conant, whose previous book was Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II, reports that at least two of the women associated with the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer's secretary, Priscilla Greene, and the lab's Santa Fe gatekeeper, an older widow named Dorothy McKibben, were (as Greene described herself) "more than a little in love with him." If he was unable to rescue his darkly beautiful first love, Jean Tatlock, from the deepening depressions that led to her suicide in 1944, in their best years together at Berkeley in the 1930s she opened his eyes to human suffering. Tatlock's remedy was membership in the Communist Party. Oppenheimer contributed to the party and attended at least one meeting, but never became a member, a conclusion Bird and Sherwin reached after a thorough examination of Oppenheimer's F.B.I. files: "Any attempt to label Robert Oppenheimer a Party member is a futile exercise -- as the F.B.I. learned to its frustration over many years."
After Harvard, Oppenheimer faltered for a time at Cambridge University in England, then found his footing as a theoretical physicist in Germany and got in on the ground floor of the revolution worked there and in Denmark that led to quantum mechanics, a rich new understanding of the physical world. Bird, author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment, and Sherwin, author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, shed new light on this period. Oppenheimer at Cambridge was wrongly considered to be afflicted with dementia praecox (schizophrenia) by a Harley Street psychiatrist who understood him less well than he understood himself. His trouble was an occupational and identity crisis, which he worked his way through to confident creativity. One of his mentors was the Danish Nobel laureate theoretical physicist Niels Bohr, a profound, subtle, and honorable man who would become a central figure in Oppenheimer's life. With first-class work on quantum theory published in European journals, the 23-year-old Oppenheimer returned to America in 1927 to found the nation's first great schools of theoretical physics at Berkeley and Caltech in Pasadena.
In 1942, a tough, efficient Army Corps of Engineers general, Leslie R. Groves, picked Oppenheimer to direct the secret laboratory at Los Alamos. To his colleagues, Oppenheimer's appointment seemed unlikely, but Groves knew his man; the physicist, always something of an actor, found his best role in the work of directing several hundred of the most accomplished scientists in the world, many of them from Europe, as well as several thousand technicians and other staff members. Even Edward Teller, Oppenheimer's worst enemy, told me once that the man was the best lab director he had ever seen. In 28 months -- from April 1943, when Los Alamos opened its doors, to August 1945 -- two bombs of completely different design were ready for use.
Using them was intended to shock the intransigent Japanese government into surrender. The long debate among historians about American motives and Japanese efforts at ending World War II is finally resolved in Racing the Enemy, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's brilliant and definitive study of American, Soviet and Japanese records of the last weeks of the war. Hasegawa, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reveals that Japanese efforts to enlist the neutral Soviet Union as a mediator could not have succeeded, before or after the atomic bombings, because Stalin had no intention of allowing the war to end until his armies had moved across Manchuria and seized the prizes promised him at Potsdam -- Sakhalin and the Kurils, and Hokkaido too if they could snatch it. The bombs gave the Japanese emperor, Hirohito, the excuse he needed to force his military to surrender, on Aug. 15, to save the imperial house; but the war newly joined between the Soviet Union and Japan continued fiercely until Sept. 1, when Soviet forces occupied Shikotan, an island just off the northeastern coast of Hokkaido. The next day the surrender was signed.
Even with the emperor's backing, the surrender of Japanese forces was not guaranteed; the Japanese military was no more impressed by the death toll of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki than it had been by the death toll of the first firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, when as many as 140,000 people burned to death and another million were seriously injured. The relentless firebombing of Japanese cities between March and August was far more destructive of lives and property than the atomic bombings.
After the war, Oppenheimer emerged to public acclaim; as an adviser to the newly created Atomic Energy Commission, he worked to shape the strange new political landscape of the atomic age. "The atomic bomb was the turn of the screw," he said during this period. "It has made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country." Meanwhile, Niels Bohr had escaped Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943 and traveled to Los Alamos with a message of hope: the common danger posed by nuclear weapons would force nations to sit down and agree to control them, just as the common danger of a disease epidemic forces nations to work together for its control. Oppenheimer included Bohr's ideas in the document known as the Acheson-Lilienthal report he and a small group of industrialists and engineers hammered out for Truman in 1946. Truman appointed the financier Bernard Baruch to present the report to the United Nations, but Baruch added provisions "designed," as Bird and Sherwin put it, "to prolong the U.S. monopoly," and instead of negotiation to remove a common danger, if such were possible when the Soviets did not yet have the bomb, the world got a nuclear arms race.
During this period, Oppenheimer made the enemies who would plot to destroy him, especially once he opposed the accelerated development of the hydrogen "super" bomb as a response to the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb test in 1949. Oppenheimer doubted that the hydrogen bomb design Edward Teller had been promoting since Manhattan Project days would work (it didn't). Fueling it, moreover, would claim reactor time sufficient to produce dozens more atomic bombs. Truman endorsed the hydrogen crash program anyway. No matter. Teller was gunning for Oppenheimer now, as was Lewis L. Strauss, a member and later the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who seethed with private grudges. (Teller's full biography will be a long time coming; in Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove, Peter Goodchild, the former head of Science and of Features and Drama at the BBC, has competently assembled what is publicly available of Teller's life.) Bird and Sherwin show that Strauss made Oppenheimer's security file available to William Borden, a soon-to-be former Congressional staff member, from which Borden extracted information that he believed proved Oppenheimer to be a Soviet spy. Borden's accusatory 1953 letter to J. Edgar Hoover set in motion the challenge that resulted in a prosecutorial hearing orchestrated by Strauss, where Teller's adverse testimony carried the day. In 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission revoked Oppenheimer's security clearance and cast him out of government.
Oppenheimer and Bohr understood at the beginning of the nuclear age what the nations of the world, the United States pointedly included, have not yet been willing to act on: that nuclear weapons are not weapons of war but embodiments of a new knowledge of nature, one that in the long run -- before or, horribly, after they are used again -- must inevitably force nations to find some other way to settle their disputes. "Two scorpions in a bottle," Oppenheimer characterized the superpowers sardonically in 1953, "each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life." Today nine scorpions crowd the bottle. [This enumeration is questionable. See the discussion in Wikipedia. --M.N.] However tragic his life, Robert Oppenheimer is the single figure who will be remembered when the history of the Manhattan Project has blurred away.
--Richard Rhodes is the author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He is writing a history of the international politics of nuclear weapons across the past 20 years.