Mark Wolverton’s A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer

(New York: Saint Martins Press)

Over the last decade, at least nine books have appeared with the name ‘J. Robert Oppenheimer’ in the title, and no doubt the trend will continue. Some are biographies, covering Oppenheimer’s life as family man, as physicist, as ‘father of the atomic bomb’, as victim of a witch hunt during the McCarthy era, and as Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. Amongst them a clear winner emerged: Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: the Triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 25 years in the making and with the paperback version weighing in at 1lb 14oz. Marvellously researched and beautifully written, it likely will remain the definitive biography. Abraham Pais, who, with the help of Robert P. Crease, wrote J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life, was a theoretical physicist who was Oppenheimer’s friend and colleague at the Princeton Institute. One of his aims was to write of ‘his major role as teacher of quantum field theory […] as well as his own scientific contributions, many of them brilliant.’ In this Pais succeeded, especially in respect to the many physics publications Oppenheimer produced during his pre-Los Alamos period at Caltech and Berkeley.

As a biography (note the title), however, it falls far short of the mark with Oppenheimer’s early life described in a cursory way. On specific aspects of Oppenheimer’s life: Sylvan S. Schweber at the beginning of the decade published In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist, and, more recently, Einstein and Oppenheimer: the meaning of Genius — both comparative studies of the contrasting personalities of two complex people, and therefore rather limited in the light they shine on Oppenheimer. Now comes Mark Wolverton’s A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which although confined to Oppenheimer’s last years, covers this period in greater detail than other works and throws an interesting light on his slow and painful return to the public stage.

All these books agree on one thing: Oppenheimer was an enigma. His complexity was such that he is variously seen as mystical and pragmatic, brilliant and naïve, transparent and opaque, a great leader and a maker of enemies, a security risk and a patriot. I had intended to write a review essay drawing on all the books mentioned above, but the task proved to be beyond me: the more I read, the more, well, enigmatic Oppenheimer became. It seemed impossible to do justice to his whole life and works. I was, though, attracted to Wolverton’s A Life in Twilight. Wolverton had the advantage of being able to draw on Bird and Sherwin’s excellent biography and so knew which gaps to fill. Taking a fresh look at Oppenheimer’s life after the removal of his security clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, Wolverton takes us beyond the mistaken image of Oppenheimer as a broken, guilt-ridden man and sees ‘an example of grace, courage, and basic human dignity in the face of injustice, contempt, and exile.’ Wolverton writes with an engaging journalistic ease. Many of the chapters are prefaced by a facsimile of a short FBI document, tellingly revealing the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover, the agents who kept Oppenheimer under surveillance until his dying day, and of members of the general public.

In early 1943 Oppenheimer was appointed scientific director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, charged with the development of an atomic bomb. Some thought it a strange choice. Although Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist and a leading light in quantum mechanics, he had scant experience of administration. Now he had to build from scratch a massive organisation of scientists and engineers. The doubts soon faded. Thanks to Oppenheimer’s leadership two types of atomic weapons were developed in a little over two years. A uranium bomb, Little Boy, exploded over Hiroshima on August 6 1945; a plutonium bomb, Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki 3 days later. On August 10 a Japanese conditional surrender reached Washington. Oppenheimer became headline news. On August 8 the New York Times quoted a colleague as saying “Oppie is smart…he is the smartest of the lot in everything”. Oppenheimer received the United States Medal for Merit for “his great scientific experience and ability, his inexhaustible energy, his initiative and resourcefulness, his unswerving devotion to duty.” These words were soon to ring dismayingly hollow.

Oppenheimer returned briefly to academic life in California. When the Atomic Energy Commission was created in late 1946 he accepted a part-time appointment to its General Advisory Committee and soon became its chairman. Almost simultaneously he was approached by Lewis Strauss, acting as a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, to see if he would become the Institute’s director. After some delay, which greatly annoyed Strauss, Oppenheimer moved to Princeton in July 1947. Strauss was a self-made millionaire and ardent opponent of the New Deal. During the war he served as a special assistant to the Navy Secretary. With his far-flung connections he carved out a powerful position in Washington. And he soon came to despise Oppenheimer.

Inconsistencies in Oppenheimer’s security record, predating his arrival at Los Alamos, followed him into new appointments. The AEC, under the McMahon Act, was obliged to carry out strict reviews of all staff. Oppenheimer’s thick files were pored over but it was decided after long deliberation that there was nothing new and he was given top clearance. Oppenheimer emerged from the war a famous man but now problems were accumulating too. The GAC, for example, favored distribution of isotopes to Europe, and Oppenheimer made a presentation on these lines to the AEC. Most AEC commissioners favored the measure too, but Strauss vehemently disagreed. Strauss testified that the export of isotopes might be of military value to recipients. Oppenheimer dismissed this argument ‘with a swift rapier thrust’, but this, and similar displays of arrogance, ensured that he made very powerful enemies, perhaps unnecessarily.

In September 1949, the Soviet exploded their atomic bomb. Strauss instantly called for a crash programme to develop a hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer and all other members of the GAC — the most informed and experienced atomic scientists in America — agreed that weapons of mass destruction could not be discussed in a military vacuum; moral considerations were as relevant as technical ones. They also argued that that accelerating production of fissionable material for small tactical atomic weapons, combined with a build up of conventional forces, would be a better deterrent against the Soviets. Early in 1951 Strauss told the AEC chairman that Oppenheimer was sabotaging the hydrogen bomb project and ‘something must be done.’ Strauss had been told by J. Edgar Hoover that Klaus Fuchs, a scientist in the British Scientific Mission who had joined Los Alamos in 1944, had confessed to espionage. Although Oppenheimer had had no hand in his appointment both Strauss and Hoover believed this nasty revelation demanded renewed scrutiny of Oppenheimer’s left-wing past. Oppenheimer believed that matters of nuclear strategy should be publicly debated, Strauss strongly disagreed. In January 1953, Strauss was appointed atomic adviser to the incoming president Eisenhower and in July he was elevated to chairman of the AEC.

Strauss obtained White House approval to conduct an administrative review of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Oppenheimer would be offered a choice. He could quietly leave or he could appeal the suspension of his clearance before a panel to be appointed by Strauss. When Strauss put this to Oppenheimer he refused to resign. The AEC’s inquiry “in the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (the Gray Board) began on April 12, 1954 and sittings continued for three weeks, and it is here that the ‘Twilight Years’ of Wolverton’s book kicks in. The proceedings, which were later published, are long and complicated and it is not possible to go into detail here. Wolverton summarises the manner of the inquisition:

For three weeks…every detail of Oppenheimer’s life, both public and personal would be subjected to the most painful scrutiny. Oppenheimer himself would spend hours in a witness chair grilled as ruthlessly as a murder suspect, despite the insistence of the hearing’s chairman that process was “an inquiry, and not in the nature of a trial”. The chairman was right. In a trial Oppenheimer would have been allowed to examine and question the evidence and witnesses against him. Instead, during the hearings, “Oppenheimer and his attorneys were deprived of vital documents freely available to the other side, denied the names of hostile witnesses, and forced to refute anonymous and hearsay evidence. In the name of national security, the internationally renowned and respected Oppenheimer was deprived of the basic rights enjoyed by the lowliest criminal in open court. According to one witness, former AEC director David Lilienthal, “There hadn’t been a proceeding like this since the Spanish Inquisition.”

Two members of the Board voted against clearing Oppenheimer, one voted in favour. When the report went to the AEC commissioners the majority decided against Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer would never again serve the United States in any official capacity. One solace for Oppenheimer was that the Institute for Advanced Studies kept him as director. It provided a refuge where he could feel secure, and was still free to do science. Still, his life after the hearing was one of ups and downs. He had been invited by the physics department of the University of Washington to deliver physics lectures. Those plans were cancelled by the university president on the grounds that the visit ‘would not be in the best interest of the university.’ An uproar followed both within the university and the wider scientific community. But the protests petered out largely because Oppenheimer refused to be drawn into it. The Oregon State Board of Higher Education sponsored lectures by Oppenheimer. They were enthusiastically received throughout the state; at Oregon State University the talks had to be moved from the home economics auditorium to the university’s coliseum. The audiences were captivated. There was strong, orchestrated opposition however when he was invited to serve as guest lecturer at Harvard — a prestigious appointment — but the Board of Overseers held firm and the series of lectures went ahead and were well received.

And then, Wolverton writes, ‘a 187-pound metal sphere came hurtling out of the steppes of Kazakhstan to change everything.’ Everyone knew that the United States would launch the first satellite, and believed it until the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space on October 4 1957. It was a nasty shock to American self-confidence. “It is time to ask ourselves whether preoccupation with our ‘scientific secrets’ instead of science itself has not resulted in impairing the real sources of our strength and loss of supremacy we once could claim,” declared The Washington Post. “We have driven out of our laboratories a great many pre-eminent men of science; J Robert Oppenheimer and Edward U. Condon among them.” The point was driven home when at the beginning of November the Soviets launched a much bigger craft with a dog on board.

Calls for action from newspapers was one thing, criticism from a former Air Force assistant secretary of that same administration was another. He told reporters that the White House should consider bringing Oppenheimer back into the fold. Imperturbable as ever Oppenheimer played it cool. Strauss continued to oppose him but in mid-1958 Strauss retired from the AEC and his successor had the files re-examined. He realised that what supporters of Oppenheimer had claimed was true. But the AEC could not act on its own initiative; Oppenheimer would have to request a new hearing. Oppenheimer, however, had no wish to go through that wringer again. Strauss himself was in trouble; he had made many enemies and in a manner of the downfall he had engineered for Oppenheimer, he was about to face a public and humiliating reckoning.

John F. Kennedy became the thirty-fifth president of the United States on January 20, 1961. Although there were now many Oppenheimer supporters in high places. A small gesture was made by inviting Oppenheimer to one of the distinguished guests at a White House gala state dinner and reception for American Nobel Prize winners. It was sure sign that in Washington he was no longer persona non grata. Oppenheimer was nominated for the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award presented annually to an individual who had made noteworthy contributions to nuclear physics or otherwise benefited humankind through the development and promotion of atomic science and technology. Recipients had to be formally nominated by the GAC and the White House quietly told the CAC that the award would meet with no resistance. The GAC unanimously nominated Oppenheimer. The award was to be presented by Kennedy on December 2. On November 22 Kennedy was assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would be giving Oppenheimer the award on December 2 as planned. Standing next to the tall LBJ Oppenheimer appeared to look frail, small and humble. Oppenheimer concluded his short speech by saying “I think it is just possible, Mr President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today. That would seem to be a good augury for all our futures.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer died on February 18, 1967.


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