Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, 'American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer'

IssueNovember 2008
Review by Patrick Nicholson

As a physicist myself (though of an altogether lowlier and grubbier variety), Oppenheimer’s story has always interested me.

How did a left-leaning, New York Jewish intellectual end up leading the Manhattan Project (the Second World War effort to develop the first nuclear weapons at Los Alamos in New Mexico), only to be crushed by the political system that he had served so well, in a much-publicised 1954 hearing which ended up withdrawing his security clearance? This book tells the story in its full complexity for the first time, and sheds new light on important aspects of Oppenheimer’s life.

Oppenheimer was born in 1904 into a wealthy New York City Jewish family, and attended the city’s Ethical Culture School. Developing an interest in physics, he spent time studying in Europe, and in the 1930s he established the leading US school of theoretical physics at Berkeley. At the same time Oppenheimer was heavily involved – both intellectually and socially - with radicals and activists, many of whom were communists.

One thing that really struck me from reading this book was a deep sense of the prominence of progressive and radical ideas amongst US intellectuals in the 1930s, and how important such ideas were to Oppenheimer at the time. For example, Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty was the widow of communist political commissar Joe Dallet, killed in the Spanish Civil War, and Oppenheimer was a prominent supporter of the Spanish Republic and other anti-fascist causes.

But primed and immersed in radical ideas, cultured and deeply intelligent, Oppenheimer still ended up leading the effort to build, and use, the first atomic weapons. The reasons why are obviously complex, and Oppenheimer struggled with himself and his decisions during and after the war when he lobbied for international control of atomic energy and against development of the hydrogen bomb. He was in many ways a bizarre choice to head the Manhattan Project - closely connected to known communists, mentally unstable in his youth, highly-strung and outspoken. But, having been chosen, it’s almost as if Oppenheimer felt he had to prove himself to the establishment, to show he’d left behind those high ideals and could see the job through.

Indeed, when the majority of the atomic scientists were pressing for a demonstration of the weapon rather than dropping it on Japanese cities, they were confident that Oppenheimer would represent their views at the highest levels. He did not.

I can see how people might feel that this hand-wringing and introspection about Oppenheimer’s moral battles might seem as nothing compared to the 200,000 who died in agony at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I feel that too. But we need to know why intelligent people can act to produce monstrous results. Oppenheimer’s story is about the way war can distort an individual’s ethical core, and that’s relevant to everybody.

We now live in an age where the mission to assimilate science into the state-corporate machine has largely succeeded. More than ever we need independent, responsible voices, but Second World War was the engine that effectively imploded the ethical core of science. However, if climate change and other environmental crises that spew from capitalism as it hits the buffers are, as some claim, challenges comparable in magnitude to world war, then perhaps there is an opportunity to reshape science and technology for the benefit of all in the crucible that this provides.

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