The Magazine

Father of the A-bomb

What have we learned about J. Robert Oppenheimer?

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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American Prometheus

The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Knopf, 736 pp., $35

ALL THE NEW EVIDENCE FROM long-closed Russian archives, and declassified American projects like Venona, has settled many of the most vexing espionage cases of the Cold War. The Rosenbergs were guilty of spying; so, too, were Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and the dozens of government employees whom Elizabeth Bentley accused of being Soviet agents. The only major controversy that remains concerns Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant scientist who oversaw the construction of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II.

Oppenheimer's left-wing past from the 1930s brought him to grief in 1953, when the Atomic Energy Commission withdrew his security clearance. His appeal of that decision led to a dramatic secret hearing that concluded he was a security risk. The decision angered many scientists, who saw his disgrace as a warning not to challenge the political or military uses to which scientific research was put. Conservatives believed he had assisted Soviet intelligence to steal atomic bomb secrets; liberals viewed him as one of the most prominent victims of McCarthyism. As the McCarthy era receded, Oppenheimer's reputation rebounded. The longtime head of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he was honored by President Johnson in 1963, just four years before his death from cancer, and lionized by historians and journalists. In the past decade, new evidence about Soviet efforts to infiltrate Los Alamos, and about Oppenheimer's own politics, has emerged; but there has been no smoking gun implicating him in espionage. Despite some efforts to link him to one of the unidentified cover names in the Venona transcripts, there is no consensus about what role, if any, he played in atomic espionage. Jerrold and Leona Schechter, using a variety of unattributed Russian sources, claimed that Oppenheimer was a valuable Soviet source. Gregg Herken concluded that he was never a spy, despite being a secret member of the Communist party. John Haynes and I argued that the strongest evidence he was not a Soviet spy was that, if he had been, the Russians would have gotten even more information about the atomic bomb than they did.

Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus is the most detailed biography of Oppenheimer ever produced. In the making for a quarter-century, it is based on numerous interviews, prodigious digging in archives and sources, and an earnest faith that concerns about security and subversion in the atomic bomb project were misplaced paranoia. Well-written, enjoyable to read, and filled with insights about 20th-century physics, the development of the atomic bomb, and postwar American foreign policy, it too quickly attributes base motives to people genuinely concerned with the Soviet threat, and fails to treat Oppenheimer's travails as largely of his own making.

Robert Oppenheimer came from a financially successful German-Jewish family that had embraced the liberal pieties of the Ethical Culture movement. Always intellectually precocious, he was emotionally immature, often driving friends away with his unnerving intensity. After a series of academic successes at Harvard College, he went to England's Cambridge University in 1925 to study physics, but suffered a breakdown. Its most serious manifestation was poisoning his tutor's apple, an act that almost got him charged with attempted murder. Oppenheimer recovered, transferred to the University of Göttingen in Germany, and quickly became a star in the new and burgeoning field of quantum mechanics. Just two years after getting his bachelor's degree, he had a Ph.D. and a reputation as one of the leading young theoretical physicists in the world. He accepted appointments to split his teaching between the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, quickly becoming a guru to graduate students and, with Ernest Lawrence, establishing Berkeley as a major center for the new physics.