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Book World Live: American Prometheus

The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; 12:00 PM

"Six decades have now passed since the United States first launched the quintessential weapon of mass destruction against civilian targets, twice in one week, killing two cities in a blaze of nuclear fire. No one has done it since. J. Robert Oppenheimer would be surprised that we've gotten this far."

"The atomic bomb would surely have come into existence without Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project, but the label "Father of the Bomb" could be attached to no one else. He felt his responsibility deeply. His self-lacerating conscience let him see with immediate and lasting clarity what his success meant for humanity. If he had done nothing else -- if nothing else had happened to him -- Oppenheimer would still be one of the 20th century's great, complex, defining figures."

--Fallout (Book World, April 10)

Authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin were online Tuesday, April 12, at Noon ET to discuss their book.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday'sBook Worldsection.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Rockville, Md.: First, thank you for writing this book. I have been an admirer of Oppenheimer since I saw the play about his trial back in the 60's, but I've never been able to find a good, comprehensive biography of the man. It seems that with "American Prometheus," I finally have that work. My question is do you believe that Oppenheimer's greatest contribution to this country was as a physics scientist and researcher or was his greater contribution providing the leadership to direct and manage other brilliant physicists and other scientists?

Kai Bird:

Well, Oppie was a brilliant physicist, and if he had not died of throat cancer at the relatively young age of 63, we think there is a good chance he would have won a Nobel Prize for his 1939 work on "black hole theory." But having said this, everyone admits that his true genius lay in his charismatic ability to inspire his students and his colleagues to bring an originality to their work. He was a wonderful synthesizer. Finally, his real contribution to the country was his leadership, and specifically his principled opposition to the nuclear arms race. As you know, he opposed the development of the hydrogen "super" bomb, and for this reason, as we demonstrate in American Prometheus, he was hounded by the FBI and his enemies in the military establishment.


Washington, D.C.: Many biographers seem to have an opinion of their subject that changes while researching and writing for their work.

How did your opinions of Mr. Oppenheimer change by the end of your work?

Kai Bird: Well, Oppie was endlessly complicated. For my part, initially I was intrigued and fascinated by him. But as I dug into the research I also occasionally was frustrated and even angry with Oppenheimer's sometimes inexplicable behavior. For instance, I was astonished that he could have "named names" before an executive session of HUAC. He protected his brother Frank, but named the names of some of his students. Another instance: he once asked if a friend would adopt his baby daughter. How could he do such a thing? Well, by the end of the book, we had at least a partial answer to explain such behavior. He had certain frailties, he had an intellectual distance about him, and under pressure he could sometimes panic. Ultimately, I think we came to sympathize with him, even with all his weaknesses. He was a deeply admirable man.


Martin J. Sherwin: Hello--
Delighted to have the chance to chat about Oppenheimer. However, you may want to check into our web site for further information

Kai Bird: Yes, we are delighted to be here. It has been a long haul--twenty-seven years--and we're quite excited to see that American Prometheus is already garnering front page reviews in places like the Washington Post Book World, the Los Angeles Times book review and the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read all of these on our web site, www.AmericanPrometheus.org


Arlington, Va.: How does your book differ from several other books regarding Oppenheimer scheduled for publication soon? Thanks

Martin J. Sherwin: They are all interesting books and if you have time to read them all, that's great. But American Prometheus is the only "deep biography." Almost one third of his amazing life is devoted to his life before Los Alamos. We probe his inner demons--he was in such bad shape at one point that he contemplated suicide--and try to lead the reader to understand how he overcame those demons. There is a lot more that is unique in the book, but I want to underline part one. BTW, I think your question might be answered by third parties--ie the front page reviews this past weekend in the Washington Post Book World, the LA Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.


washingtonpost.com: American Prometheus


Rockville, Md.: Could you characterize the relationship between Oppenheimer and General Groves, two dominant personalities?

Kai Bird: Both Oppie and General Groves had strong, all-consuming egos. Both men thought they could manipulate and influence the other guy--and they were right. Robert Serber thought that with Groves it was a "matter of policy to be as nasty as possible to his subordinates." But Groves refrained from such behavior around Oppie. We argue that the two men had a symbiotic relationship. Groves used Oppenheimer to get what he wanted--an early production of the bomb. And Oppie got what he wanted as well.


Anonymous: Is there any chance that the federal government (Congress or the president) will make an effort to rehabilitate Oppenheimer's reputation given the trumped-up charges that were made against him back in the 1950s? Was there prejudice against him because he was Jewish (or perhaps because Jews were more easily suspected of being pro-Communist during the McCarthy era)? Did Oppenheimer actually get the Fermi prize? Thank you.

Martin J. Sherwin: Kai and I have been discussing what actions would be appropriate to initiate with a major law firm in DC. We believe there should be an official and public recognition that the personnel security board hearing that Oppenheimer endured was so fraught with illegal actions that it should be nullified.

Kai Bird: For instance, it is outrageous that Lewis Strauss and J. Edgar Hoover illegally wiretapped Oppenheimer and his lawyers. They also violated the Atomic Energy Commission's own regulations on how a security board should be run. They refused to give a security clearance to Oppenheimer's lawyers. For all these reasons and more the 1954 verdict should be nullified, if only to send a message to current government officials that such behavior will be censured, even if only in the eyes of history.

Kai Bird: Oh, and yes, Oppie did get the Fermi Prize in Dec. 1963. It was one of the last decisions made by President Kennedy--but Kennedy also considered restoring Oppenheimer's security clearance but was told that this would be too costly politically.


Lyme, Conn..: There were some physicists who, before the first atomic bomb was ever exploded, theorized that the nuclear chain reaction would continue indefinitely until the entire world and perhaps the entire universe was destroyed. Obviously, this theory was wrong and obviously Mr. Oppenheimer discounted this theory. Yet, how confident and on what basis was Mr. Oppenheimer able to ascertain that a nuclear reaction indeed would fade out over a certain space and, indeed, did he think afterwards it was a mistake to place so many people close to the initial tests after radiation illnesses resulted?

Martin J. Sherwin: There are two stories that we tell in American Prometheus that are relevant. In 1942 Teller did some calculations indicating that an atomic bomb might lead to a chain reaction in the atmosphere. Oppenheimer immediately took this news to Arthur Compton at Chicago and they discussed it. Hans Bethe redid Teller's calculations and proved that he had made errors (which was not unusual as it turns out.) Then before the Los Alamos tests (allegedly) Fermi took side bets that New Mexico would be incinerated. (Frankly, I don't believe that story despite the fact that it has been told and retold. I don't believe that anyone was so close to the test of July 16 that they were effected by radiation.


Munich, Germany: I've read that the final moment of Oppenheimer's downfall was like an act of self-destruction. What kind of psychological harassment was Oppenheimer subjected to before his security clearance was revoked?

Kai Bird: Yes, during the 1954 security hearing Oppie was strangely passive. Neither he nor his lawyer aggressively challenged the kangaroo court proceedings. Einstein told him just before the hearing that he should walk away from the hearings and just refuse to participate. But Oppenheimer discounted this advice. He really wanted to be a player in Washington. He wanted to use his influence. So he endured the proceeding, even though he suspected that his phone was being tapped. He also had to suffer the embarrassment of hearing how FBI agents had followed him one night in the summer of 1943 while he spent the night with Jean Tatlock, his former fiance and lover.

Martin J. Sherwin: The hearing was also a culmination of a life that was complicated and conflicted. In a deep sense Oppenheimer subjected himself to psychological harassment. He was a conflicted person. He was conflicted about his work at Los Alamos, he was conflicted about the trimming and tacking he had to do to stay "in the game" as a political advisor, etc. He had a clear vision of what the government should be doing to prevent a nuclear arms race, but the government wasn't taking his advice. It is an incredible story which Gerald Holton, who review AP in the LA Times this weekend wrote: "The authors trace in gripping detail the tragedy awaiting Oppenheimer. . ."


Washington, D.C.: Is your book scientific or easy to understand in layman's terms?

Martin J. Sherwin: Very easy to understand -- it is about Oppenheimer the man; it is not a "scientific biography." I think that is made clear in each of the feature reviews the book received this weekend:
Washington Post Book World
L A Times Book Review
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review


Armonk, N.Y.: While the Oppenheimer story was politically tragic ultimately, his regret at development of the bomb seems like healthy self-reflection to me.

Do you agree with this, or is there more to the story?

I'll add here a story that illustrates how another Manhattan Project scientist, Robert Wilson, balanced his interest in physics and defense of the US:

"But in 1969, when Wilson was in the hot seat testifying before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Sen. John Pastore demanded to know how a multimillion-dollar particle accelerator improved the security of the country. Wilson said the experimental physics machine had "nothing at all" to do with security, and the senator persisted.

"It has only to do," Wilson told the lawmakers, "with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."

Robert R. Wilson Obit

Kai Bird: Well, that is a great story. Wilson had a moral sensibility that sometimes failed Oppenheimer. On the other hand, I recall what Oppenheimer wrote to his old physics professor, Max Born: "Over the years, I have felt a certain disapproval on your part for much that I have done. This has always seemed to me quite natural, for it is a sentiment that I share." He certainly had regrets about what happened in Hiroshima.

Martin J. Sherwin: Wilson was a wonderful person. After the war he gave up his clearance and would have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. He had none of Oppenheimer's complex ambitions, ambitions that drove him (Oppenheimer) to do things that he later regretted. Self reflection is only healthy if it is turned into positive actions. Some of the actions that followed from O's self reflection were positive--but his ambitions complicated his reflections.


Princeton, N.J.: What did you conclude were Oppenheimer's main contributions to the Institute for Advance Study?

Kai Bird: Oppenheimer thought of the Institute as "an intellectual hotel." His ambition was to turn the Institute into a stimulating international venue for interdisciplinary scholarship. He brought such noted physics as Freeman Dyson, Paul Dirac, and Wolfgang Pauli to Princeton. But he also recruited T.S. Eliot and George Kennan. We think Oppenheimer succeeded fabulously in transforming the Institute.

Martin J. Sherwin: The IAS as it exists today is a reflection of Oppenheimer's broad vision. It would be a very different (and more narrowly focused place) if someone other than Oppenheimer had been the director from 1947-1966.


washingtonpost.com: This discussion will be continued at 3 p.m. today since that is the regular time for Book World discussions. Please come back. Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: What about the new book "Sacred Secrets" that alleges that Oppenheimer was a soviet espionage asset and asserts there is a KGB document stating this? Is that true? What is your view?

Kai Bird: We think the Schechters allegations are flat out wrong.

The few documents available from Soviet archives suggest that NKVD officials knew that Oppenheimer was working on "Enormoz"—their code-name for the Manhattan Project. They thought of him as a possibly sympathetic fellow-traveler or even a secret member of the American Communist Party—and so they were particularly frustrated that he seemed to be so unapproachable.
The notion, however, that Oppenheimer could have been recruited as a spy is simply farfetched. There is no credible evidence linking him to espionage. Two Soviet era intelligence documents mention Oppenheimer's name. A October 2, 1944, memorandum written in Moscow by NKVD deputy chief Vselovod Merkulov and addressed to his boss, Lavrenty Beria, seems to implicate Oppenheimer as a source of information about "the state of work on the problem of uranium and its development abroad." Merkulov claims, "In 1942 one of the leaders of scientific work on uranium in the USA, professor Oppenheimer unlisted [nglastny] (sic) member of the apparat of Comrade Browder informed us about the beginning of work. At the request of Comrade Kheifets…he provided cooperation in access to the research for several tested sources including a relative of Comrade Browder." But there is no evidence to support any of these claims and no evidence that Kheifets ever met Oppenheimer. On close examination, however, it quickly becomes clear that Merkulov was making this claim only to inflate the credentials of his San Francisco agent and save Kheifets' life. In the summer of 1944 Kheifets had been suddenly "recalled for inactivity" back to Moscow. Facing allegations that he was a double agent, Kheifets understood that his life was in danger. By floating the claim that he had developed Oppenheimer as a source of information on the American bomb project, Kheifets saved his position and his life.
Furthermore, another Soviet-era document directly contradicts the October 1944 Merkulov memo. Notes taken in the Soviet archives by a former KGB agent, Alexander Vassiliev, report that in February 1944 Merkulov received a message describing Oppenheimer. "According to data we have, [Oppenheimer] has been cultivated by the ‘neighbors' (GRU-Soviet military intelligence) since June 1942. In case Oppenheimer is recruited by them, it is necessary to have him passed to us. If the recruitment is not realized, we must get from the ‘neighbors' all the materials on [Oppenheimer] and begin his active cultivation through channels we have…brother, ‘Ray' [Frank Oppenheimer], also a professor at the University of California and a member of the compatriot organization but politically closer to us than [Robert Oppenheimer]."
This document demonstrates that by early 1944 Robert Oppenheimer had not been recruited by the NKVD to serve as a source, an agent or a spy of any sort. And, of course, by 1944 Oppenheimer was living behind barb-wire in Los Alamos and it was well-nigh impossible for him to be recruited while Groves and his Counter-Intelligence boys had him under twenty-four hour surveillance.


Kai Bird: Q: Who were the women in his life?

A: He had many relationships and several great love affairs, all with smart, strong-willed women. His first love, Jean Tatlock, turns out have been struggling with her bisexuality—and later committed suicide. Our book has the first detailed account of her suicide and the mystery that surrounds it.

He married Kitty Harrison in 1940 after a whirlwind love affair. She was married at the time, but divorced her husband and married "Oppie" all within the space of little more than 6 months. They did not have an easy marriage, but they stuck with each other through some very tough sledding that we discuss in detail in the book.

Oppenheimer was not a philanderer but he did have a very caring and sweet affair with Ruth Tolman the wife of one of his friends, the physicist Richard Tolman. To his enemies this was scandalous. But "Oppie's friends (all his students and closest friends called him Oppie) and Ruth's friends supported and protected them.


Kai Bird: Tell us more about his wife.

A: Katherine "Kitty" Pruening Oppenheimer. A pretty, vivacious, mercurial woman. Truly worthy of a biography of her own. Oppie was Kitty's fourth husband—her second husband was a Communist, Joe Dallet, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War. For a time in the 1930s she was an active Communist. But after marrying Oppie, she made him her life. Tough-minded, she was an anchor for him during the 1954 trial. Sharp-tongued and high-spirited, Kitty intimidated everyone. Sadly, she became one of those high-functioning alcoholics. And a terrible parent to her two children.


Martin J. Sherwin:
You asked what is the triumph in Robert Oppenheimer's life?

A: Oppenheimer's greatest triumph was mixed with tragedy. He was both the father of the atomic bomb and its midwife. He directed the lab that built it and without him, without his charismatic leadership, his intelligence, and the breadth of his scientific interests it would not have been ready for use during the war. He made Hiroshima and Nagasaki possible. That was at first a triumph, a matter of great pride that was soon transformed into a heavy psychological burden when he realized that he had been misled about the need to use the bomb.


Martin J. Sherwin: Followup: What do you mean when you say that he was misled about the need to use the bomb? Wasn't it necessary to end the war?

Whether atomic bombs needed to be used to end the war without an invasion is one of the great debates surrounding U.S. policy and strategy during WWII. There are very good reasons to believe that the war would have ended in August 1945 even if we had not used atomic bombs. But that is a long discussion. To stay focused on Oppenheimer: HE came to believe that he had been misled by the Truman administration. For example, he was not told during the war that the Japanese government had been trying to surrender since June on the condition that the emperor's life and the institution of the emperorship be protected. (That's how it turned out after all, and Oppenheimer was troubled that 300,000 Japanese (mostly civilians, mostly women and children) had been killed by the invention he guided and whose use he had supported.


Kai Bird: So when how did Oppenheimer die?

Oppie was a chain-smoker. That's one reason why we put an Alfred Eisenstadt photograph of him on the cover of our book. He's dangling a cigarette from his lips, wearing his trademark pork-pie hat and looking very much like Humphrey Bogart. It is a stunning photo. But it was his smoking and throat cancer that killed him in 1967. He was only sixty-three years old. Kitty herself died in 1972.

His early death was followed ten years later by another tragedy. His beautiful and talented daughter, Toni, tried to pursue a career as a multilingual translator at the United Nations. Ironically, the FBI opened a security investigation and she never got her clearance. So her career was stymied by her late father's political legacy…she later died at the age of 33 in St John. Oppie's son Peter lives today in Santa Fe and still owns the mountain cabin his father bought in the 1940s.


Kai Bird: What happened to Oppenheimer after the 1954 hearing?

Well, to begin with, that summer he took his family to St. John in the Virgin Islands. Hilariously, the FBI feared a Soviet submarine might surface off the coastline and spirit Oppenheimer off behind the Iron Curtain. Actually, Oppenheimer fell in love with the island and eventually built a rustic cottage on the beach. He spent a few months every year for the rest of his life on St. John. Our chapter about his life on St. John is totally new to the literature and very interesting. (The research there was also VERY interesting.) Otherwise, he continued his work as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.


Warrenton, Va.: I look forward to reading your book. My father was a lawyer whose office was bugged when Oppenheimer visited him after the security clearance hearing was announced. Have you been able to determine who was responsible for the bugging? I have read various accounts over the years that have placed responsibility for it alternatively on the AEC and on the FBI.

Martin J. Sherwin: Yes, Oppenheimer's lawyer's phone was bugged and Lewis Strauss had asked the FBI to do it. The FBI kept feeding Roger Robb, the AEC "prosecutor" in the Oppenheimer hearing information. Strauss encouraged this. So it was both the FBI and the AEC.

Martin J. Sherwin: Would you please contact us thru our Web site, www.americanprometheus.org and tell us your father's name. Thank you.


Silver Spring, Md.: What kind of family life did Oppenheimer have? Did he ever marry? Have children? Find happiness? (I assume all of that is covered in your book, which I do intend to read, given the superb reviews.) I'm interested in your personal thoughts on the possibility that his life brought him any joy.

Kai Bird: He married Kitty Puening in 1940 and remained married to her until his death in 1967. He had two children, Peter, born in 1941 -- and Toni, born in 1944. Tragically, Toni hanged herself in the beach cottage Oppenheimer built in 1958 in St John in the Virgin Islands. This happened ten years after Oppenheimer's death. His family life was complicated by several affairs and Kitty's drinking. Did he find happiness? Well, yes, and no. He clearly was devoted to his wife and children despite everything.


Washington, D.C.: Whatever became of Wm. Liscum Borden, his accuser?

Martin J. Sherwin: He never came back into government and lived with his 15 minutes of infamy for the rest of his life. Seems to have thought that he did a great thing. Well, he did a big rotten thing that was a disservice to his country. It should be recalled that Borden sent his letter to the FBI after he left government service, but as we explain in the book, he had permission from Strauss to take Oppenheimer's FBI from the AEC's security vault to his home to study for three months. When his letter got to the FBI the first analysis reported that there was nothing new in the letter and that he, Borden had distorted the information to make jro look bad. But the political pressure to move against oppenheimer built up and the FBI and AEC moved against him


Martin J. Sherwin: For readers, general information:
We have a Q and A transcript on our Web site under "authors" (under our photographs).

American Prometheus


Washington, D.C.: Was the later denial of Senate confirmation to Strauss in part because of his role in the Oppenheimer case?

Martin J. Sherwin: Absolutely. It was so obvious to all that Strauss had manipulated the hearings inappropriately and even illegally that enough Senators came to believe he was dangerous and could not be trusted.

Kai Bird: Actually, one of Oppie's friends, McGeorge Bundy, persuaded Sen. Jack Kennedy to change his vote on the Strauss confirmation. Bundy argued that Strauss's conduct during the Oppenheimer hearing had been so outrageous that no one in good conscience could vote for Strauss's confirmation. Kennedy voted against Strauss and the nomination was narrowly defeated.


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