The Oppenheimer question is back—not that it ever went away. Famous initially as the “father of the atomic bomb,” the scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) is more commonly remembered today as, at once, a far-sighted critic of U.S. nuclear policies and a victim of anti-Communist hysteria, a man unjustly tarred as a security risk in a case said to be full of significance for our own security-conscious times.
To summarize Oppenheimer's story in this way is, however, radically to oversimplify it. In understanding both him and what happened to him, it is best to begin with the man himself. We are helped in this endeavor by a huge new biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.1 Much of the information that follows is drawn from their impressively comprehensive research, which is regrettably in the service of a highly tendentious interpretation.
A complex and enigmatic individual, J. Robert Oppenheimer was, at the same time, one whose lifelong habits of mind ran within consistent and finally quite narrow bounds. He was a brilliant scientist, a person of learning, culture, and tremendous accomplishment. But both the “triumph and [the] tragedy” that Bird and Sherwin refer to in their subtitle trace to circumstances of his birth and upbringing that he never transcended.
The immediate world that shaped the young Oppenheimer was the world of the Ethical Culture Society, an offshoot of Reform Judaism that allowed its adherents to escape what its founder, Felix Adler, had dismissed as Judaism's “narrow spirit of exclusion.” Oppenheimer's parents, upper-middle-class immigrants from Germany, had been married by Adler, and they immersed their son in the Society's nonreligious religion of “deed, not creed,” a universal humanism committed to the ideals of social justice, rationalism, and free-thinking critical inquiry. He received his primary and secondary education at the Ethical Culture school on Manhattan's West Side, and the socially engaged scientist he became was a precise fit with the values of his childhood and adolescence. He never forsook those values, and despite intermittent dabblings in philosophy and theology, he never got beyond them.
Oppenheimer combined his personal commitments with intense ambition and extraordinary ability. Educated at Harvard, Cambridge, and Göttingen, he was already, by his mid-twenties, at the forefront of American physics. Göttingen, where he received his doctorate in 1927, was then the world leader in theoretical physics, and Oppenheimer was introduced there to the developments in quantum mechanics that were transforming the discipline.
During the following years, he did cutting-edge work in a number of areas, but it was only after the entry of the U.S. into World War II that his personal and public preoccupations came together in an intensive concern with the prospects of nuclear weaponry. Worries that German scientists might be working on an atomic bomb spurred the creation in the U.S. of the Manhattan Project. In late 1942, its chief, General Leslie Groves, named Oppenheimer as the program's scientific director.
Oppenheimer was fascinated by the scientific challenges of the project; his strong anti-fascism committed him to its purposes. But his politics threatened to short-circuit his career. The FBI had opened a file on Oppenheimer in 1941, and suspicion about his Communist-party (CP) connections endangered acquisition of a security clearance.
Was he a Communist? He always denied membership in the party, and the government, despite thorough investigation, never proved otherwise. But if he was not a Communist, he was, by his own testimony, about as fervent a fellow-traveler as could be imagined. At one time or another, many of those nearest him held CP membership; they included his wife, his brother and sister-in-law, a pre- and post-marriage lover, a number of graduate students to whom he was a charismatic model, close friends, and assorted colleagues. He contributed financially to party causes, wrote and edited party pamphlets, involved himself in party-dominated unions, attended party functions, and belonged to a discussion group whose other participants consisted of party members.
Bird and Sherwin accept Oppenheimer's disclaimers of party membership; with some equivocation, so does Priscilla J. McMillan in The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, another recent study of his career.2 Oppenheimer may indeed never have actually obtained a party card, but he did everything short of it.
General Groves, who was thoroughly familiar with Oppenheimer's political background—and who was himself a political conservative—nonetheless considered him indispensable to the Manhattan Project. In late 1943, several months after Oppenheimer had begun work at the Los Alamos laboratory, Groves finally ordered that the disputed security clearance be granted. He knew that Oppenheimer knew how tight the watch on him would be, especially in the narrowly bounded world of Los Alamos. More than that, Groves concluded that Oppenheimer's ambitions as a scientist would trump his politics.
And so they did. After signing on with the atomic project, Oppenheimer withdrew from radical associations and involvements, abandoning his open advocacy of the USSR and never thereafter straying far from the conventional positions of the establishment Left.
By all accounts, Oppenheimer's work at Los Alamos was as invaluable as Groves had foreseen. He combined his known theoretical abilities with engineering practicality and a talent for management that had not previously been evident. As the project moved forward, a number of the scientists began to nurture second thoughts about the morality of their efforts, especially after the German capitulation in May 1945. Not so Oppenheimer, who took professional satisfaction in the bomb's successful test on July 16. His rueful quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” was likely a later emendation.
Nor did he support the physicist Leo Szilard and others who urged that the bomb be demonstrated to the Japanese before its use in battle. That, he argued, was a decision for political and military officials to make, not scientists. In fact, he participated in formulating instructions for the bomb's successful explosion over Hiroshima. And in the immediate, euphoric aftermath of the Japanese surrender, he was, as Bird and Sherwin note, “comfortable in the adulation” that came to him as the man most responsible for the weapon that ended the war.
Afterward, however, there came reconsiderations. Oppenheimer began to wonder whether the A-bomb had been used unnecessarily against an already defeated enemy. More broadly, he worried about international relations in a post-atomic world. From his earliest days at Los Alamos, he had urged in particular that the Russians be informed about America's nuclear intentions. Now, along with Niels Bohr and others in the scientific community, he concluded that the only alternative to a suicidal arms race was international control of nuclear power. He dreamed of world government; short of that, he argued that the U.S. must at least accept “partial renunciation” of sovereignty with respect to atomic energy. Rationality must reign over irrationality in the competition of nations; the model on which postwar politics had to be built was the model of science, in which secrecy was anathema, truth knew no national boundaries, and individuals were citizens of the world.
Oppenheimer was hardly alone in the immediate postwar era in such utopian imaginings. But the cold war that developed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union from 1946 onward induced sober rethinking among most people about the possibilities of universal cooperation. Oppenheimer, however, continued in effect to wish the Soviet-American conflict away. In the process, his public role became ambivalent to the point of contradiction.
Soon after the war, Oppenheimer resigned his position at Los Alamos and spent the rest of his career as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. But, after Albert Einstein, he was America's most famous scientist, and his participation on a number of government boards, especially as chairman of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), made him a highly influential insider. Cherishing his influence and his access to power, he wanted at the same time to function as a prophetic critic.
In brief, starting with the end of the war and thereafter, Oppenheimer became a persistent opponent of American policy on issues of national security. If he had discarded his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, he would never be so intense an anti-Communist as he had been an anti-fascist. Russia, he believed, could be dealt with. And so, having led the effort to develop the atomic bomb, he now did everything he could to block development of its proposed successor, the hydrogen bomb. His opposition was both technical—he doubted that the weapon could work—and moral—if it could be made to work, it would be so powerful as to be an agent of genocide.
Edward Teller, Oppenheimer's fellow physicist and an outspoken champion of the H-bomb, thought him a victim of misplaced guilt over the use of the A-bomb and of poor judgment about the likelihood of reaching an agreement with the USSR. Others, like FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, or Lewis Strauss, a member and later the chairman of the AEC, had more ominous misgivings, based in part on their awareness of Oppenheimer's radical past. By the early 1950's, suspicions about him had become, if not commonplace, then reasonably widespread in government circles. Even a number of his fellow scientists began to register doubts with the Truman administration about his judgment and loyalty.
The man who forced the issue to public attention was William Borden, little known at the time and little known to history. Borden, who served as staff director of the highly influential Joint Committee on Atomic Energy of the House and Senate (JCAE), was a liberal Democrat, an internationalist, an opponent of McCarthy, and a supporter of Oppenheimer's view that the shroud of secrecy needed to be lifted from discussion of nuclear policy. His work on the JCAE, however, had familiarized him with Oppenheimer's persistent opposition to H-bomb development and testing, and he found it difficult to account for this on rational grounds. By the close of 1953, having pored over Oppenheimer's AEC security dossier, Borden submitted a single-spaced, three-and-a-half page letter to the FBI summarizing the record and concluding dramatically that “more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”
Borden's letter, which Hoover forwarded to the Eisenhower White House, had to be dealt with. The Republicans had made a point of criticizing Truman for suppressing evidence of subversion, and Eisenhower now ordered that a “blank wall” be erected between Oppenheimer and any security information. After extensive discussion, it was decided that Strauss would present Oppenheimer with a list of charges based on Borden's letter, giving him the choice of either acquiescing in the suspension of his security clearance or insisting on an AEC hearing. After some initial indecision, Oppenheimer opted for the hearing.
The three-man board that heard the case in April and May 1954—and that finally ruled against Oppenheimer by a vote of two to one—was chaired by Gordon Gray, a Democrat, a former Secretary of the Army, and at the time the president of the University of North Carolina. The other members were the business executive Thomas Morgan and the University of Chicago scientist Ward Evans, who was the lone dissenter.
Nothing the board heard, and nothing in its conclusions, sustained Borden's suspicions; indeed, the board concluded unequivocally that “Dr. Oppenheimer is a loyal citizen.” Why, nevertheless, did it decide against reinstating his clearance?
The case against Oppenheimer rested on his extensive Communist connections prior to Los Alamos and on his postwar opposition to the H-bomb project. On the latter issue, the board argued, first, that Oppenheimer had been less than candid in his testimony—for instance, by asserting that he had opposed only a “crash program” for the weapon when in fact he had opposed its development altogether. Secondly, the board held that his opposition, to which as a citizen he had every right, raised questions about his judgment on essential issues of national security.
On the former issue—Oppenheimer's Communist past—the board mostly recapitulated information already known when he first signed up with the Manhattan Project. The major additional item, and the one that weighed most heavily against Oppenheimer, was the Chevalier affair. Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, Haakon Chevalier, a professor of Romance languages at Berkeley and a CP member, approached Oppenheimer, who was a close friend, with a suggestion from a third party that he pass on to the Russians information concerning nuclear secrets. By all accounts, Oppenheimer refused the suggestion—but, contrary to security regulations, failed to report the incident for several months. When he finally did so, moreover, he initially lied about the details in an apparent effort to protect both Chevalier and himself. The full truth came out only over time and under duress. It did not help that Oppenheimer maintained contact with Chevalier as late as December 1953, shortly before Strauss informed him of the charges against him.
The Gray board's conclusion concerning Oppenheimer's overall lack of candor, his “susceptibility to influence” from questionable sources, and his “serious disregard for the requirements of the security system” obviously relied heavily on the Chevalier incident. So too did the conclusion of the AEC commissioners in the next step of the process. Upholding the Gray board by a vote of four to one, they ignored the H-bomb issue altogether and ruled that he had forfeited the government's trust because of “fundamental defects in his character.”
In his dissent to the Gray board's decision, Ward Evans emphasized that the information on Oppenheimer's past Communist associations, including the Chevalier affair, had been known to the AEC in 1947 when it reaffirmed the security clearance ordered by General Groves four years earlier. Why should a record disquieting but acceptable in 1943 and 1947 be seen as disqualifying in 1954? A similar then-and-now argument was made by Lloyd Garrison, Oppenheimer's chief lawyer. It was necessary, Garrison said in his summation, to see events from the early 40's in the context of that time, when, unlike in 1954, the Soviet Union was perceived not as an enemy of the U.S. but, on the contrary, as America's “gallant ally.”
Times had indeed changed. Between Oppenheimer's earlier clearances and the year 1954 there lay not just the general shadow of the cold war but a whole series of specific events—revelations of espionage in the Hiss, Rosenberg, and Fuchs cases and, above all, Communist aggression in Korea. These had transformed the political landscape. Behavior once seen as innocent or at least understandable now took on a more incriminating color. Oppenheimer himself conceded as much in his testimony. During the war years, he said, a person's status as a fellow-traveler—which he admitted he had been—need not automatically have excluded him from work on a secret war project; in 1954, it necessarily would.
Over the same time span, moreover, a number of people who had worked closely with Oppenheimer during the war had turned against him—not out of doubts concerning his loyalty but because, observing his response to postwar developments, they had lost faith in his judgment. Of these the most noted, and the most discounted, was Teller, whose opinion was suspect because of his various disagreements with Oppenheimer, both public and private. But not subject to the same suspicion of personal bias was the distinguished physicist Ernest Lawrence, Oppenheimer's Nobel prize-winning colleague at Berkeley. The two had been so close that Lawrence named one of his sons after Oppenheimer. But over the years he had become distrustful of his friend's political judgment, finally concluding that “he should never again have anything to do with the forming of policy.” Lawrence was prepared to testify to that effect at the hearing, but at the last moment suffered a disabling attack of ulcerative colitis (or of cowardice, in the view of Lewis Strauss.)
Of all the testimony against Oppenheimer, probably the most telling was that of General Groves. Not only had Groves, against considerable opposition, insisted on Oppenheimer's initial clearance, he had continued to defend him over the years. While disapproving of the scientist's politics, he never for a moment considered him a spy. Now his testimony, too, emphasized the change in political circumstances. Still defending his 1943 decision, Groves noted that under the much stricter security rules at the postwar AEC, and given the subject's past associations, the Chevalier case in particular, “I would not clear Dr. Oppenheimer today.”
Defenders of Oppenheimer, then and since, have insisted that the changed circumstances referred to by Groves and others had unfairly stacked the deck against him. Thanks to the cold war, America had fallen prey to the politics of hysteria. Only now, with the hearings involving Joseph McCarthy and the U.S. Army, hearings that overlapped the Gray board proceedings, could one glimpse the beginning of the end of the Wisconsin Senator's long reign of terror. Oppenheimer, in this view, was McCarthy's final victim.
This was literally untrue—both Hoover and Strauss maneuvered successfully to keep McCarthy out of the Oppenheimer affair—but it did not deter friends of the scientist from viewing the case as an episode in McCarthyism. To begin with, in their view, the Gray board operated under prejudicial and unfair procedures. Prior to the hearing, the board had had access to classified FBI documents that Oppenheimer's lawyers were not permitted to review because they lacked security clearances. More generally, the hearings did not adhere to the strict rules of evidence and due process that would have been observed in a full-fledged trial. Like other liberal and left-wing critics before them, Bird and Sherwin conclude that the hearings were therefore “patently unfair and outrageously extrajudicial.”
Neither Oppenheimer nor his lawyer, however, had made this argument at the time. On the final day of the hearing, Oppenheimer himself declared that he was “grateful to, and I hope properly appreciative of, the patience and consideration that the board has shown me.” Garrison, while asserting that the hearing had been more adversarial than he or his client had expected, added “I recognize and appreciate very much the fairness which the members of the board have displayed.”
Procedural probity aside, a parade of character witnesses for Oppenheimer—including such pillars of the scientific and political establishments as Hans Bethe, George Kennan, John J. McCloy, Vannevar Bush, and James Conant—strongly questioned why, in the absence of evidence of espionage, a man who had contributed so much to his country should be branded a security risk. Was it not simply that he had put forward unpopular political opinions? Some scientists also saw the attack on Oppenheimer as an attack on their community, a warning that independent thought would not be tolerated. With or without the explicit participation of Joseph McCarthy, militant anti-Communism had produced a pressure for conformity in which, they asserted, minority ideas tended to be treated as political heresy.
This was not a frivolous argument. Undoubtedly, the intensely ideological atmosphere of the cold war blurred intellectual and political distinctions that should have been more zealously maintained. When it came to labeling, the anti-Communism of the 1950's could be as sloppy as the anti-fascism of the 1930's and 1940's, and had the impetus of greater political force behind it.
Such large analytical categories tempt us beyond the particularities of the Oppenheimer case. These particularities, however, are what the Gray board had to deal with, and one cannot reasonably read its decision as an expression of McCarthyite ideology. Its conclusions were considered, balanced, and thoughtful. The board recognized how decent people had been led to Communist sympathies in the 1930's, and it displayed both sensitivity to the tension between individual freedom and national security and sympathy with a scientific community that felt itself under attack.
Was the majority decision then right? That is not so easy to resolve. In a time of heightened concern over national security, the board had to weigh Oppenheimer's suspicious ideological past, with its possible influence on his scientific or political judgment, against his impressive record of accomplishment in the national interest. Those who think the latter should have overridden the former have a serious case, and it is strengthened by the possibility that some who worked to bring Oppenheimer down—Lewis Strauss in particular—harbored personal animosities so deep as to cause them to confuse private grievances with national priorities.3
However one sorts out these complexities, it remains a failure of historical imagination to reduce the Oppenheimer story to a political and moral melodrama. That, unfortunately, is what Bird and Sherwin do in their recent addition to the already substantial literature on the affair. This is especially regrettable since it is unlikely that any future scholars will match the prodigious research that went into their book, which has been 25 years in the making. In some cases they will be unable to do so: most of the more than 100 people interviewed for American Prometheus are now dead.
Priscilla McMillan's The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a more modest enterprise, but it, too, is bound by the conventions of the received liberal wisdom concerning the early cold-war era. Within those conventions, Oppenheimer must be a victim of anti-Communist hysteria and his opposition to American policies on nuclear weapons must be self-evidently correct. But the assumption of victimhood, which both of these books lavishly indulge, cuts against the stated views and actual behavior of such reluctant critics of Oppenheimer as Groves, Lawrence, and Gray, who, while themselves undoubted anti-Communists, understood that McCarthyism was a distortion, not an expression, of the anti-Communist impulse.
So also with Eisenhower, who at the conclusion of the Oppenheimer case congratulated Strauss on the way it had been handled. In the President's view, this offered “such a contrast to McCarthy's tactics that the American people would immediately see the difference.” The contrast might not have been so unambiguous as Eisenhower imagined, but, despite what these books suggest, neither was it nonexistent. The decision on Oppenheimer's security clearance was one about which reasonable people could legitimately disagree.
Even more dubious is the assumption that Oppenheimer was a prophetic and wise critic of American policy. That assumption rests on a soft revisionist view of the cold war that supposes the conflict could have been avoided, or at least greatly ameliorated, if alternative policies had prevailed. In this view, the nuclear arms race—in which America always led the way—was central to the hardening of cold-war attitudes, and the failure of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to heed Oppenheimer's urgings of greater openness and flexibility toward the Soviet Union represented a “missed opportunity” to dispel mutual suspicions.
This surely gets things backward. The arms race was not the cause but the symptom of cold-war antagonisms. The United States arrived at loggerheads with the Soviet Union, as it had earlier with Nazi Germany, not primarily over misunderstandings, let alone over issues of weaponry, but over fundamental differences in ideology, values, and behavior. It then armed itself accordingly. Oppenheimer knew his science, but that knowledge gave neither him nor his fellow scientists any special wisdom as to the uses to which scientific developments should be put.
All of which brings us back, the long way around, to his grounding in Ethical Culture, itself an early variant of what would later come to be called secular humanism. The ideals of disinterested rationalism and the objectively self-evident social values on which Oppenheimer had been raised prepared him admirably for a life in science, but not at all for a life in politics. They also gave him, as they still give those who think like him, a quite undeserved presumption of moral superiority.
1 Knopf, 736 pp., $35.00.
2 Viking, 373 pp., $25.95.
3 Oppenheimer, a man of great charm, also had an arrogant and cruel streak, and he had inflicted personal and public humiliations on Strauss that left enduring resentments. These may have led the AEC chairman to insist on the public repudiation of a man who could have been quietly retired from a position of influence over government policy.