'Now I Am Become Death'

Eli Shaltiel
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Eli Shaltiel

"American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer," by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Knopf, 721 pages

The life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer have been the source of tremendous curiosity and controversy. Already dubbed the "father of the atom bomb" during his lifetime, mythmakers - journalists, dramatists and others - turned him into the symbol of man's tragic struggle to defuse the destructive power of the monster he created himself. But as one can imagine, Oppenheimer was a more complex being than this persona tailored by others, and that is what Martin J. Sherwin wanted to show when he signed the contract to write a biography of Oppenheimer over twenty years ago. The job was finally completed in 2006, after a six-year collaboration with Kai Bird. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and one would be hard put to find two writers more worthy of the prize.

The legend goes like this: Once upon a time there was a brilliant physicist - from a Jewish family, of course - with leftist tendencies, like many of his colleagues in those days. This physicist was recruited to invent a bomb that would put an end to the cruel war and wipe out evil in the world. After hesitating briefly, he surrounded himself with a team of dynamic geniuses, many of them like-minded liberals and leftists, who succeeded, through strenuous and heroic efforts, to manufacture a terrible bomb. At the very last minute, a president lacking all sensitivity to human life dropped the bomb on his enemies. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were reduced to rubble, Japan was defeated and the war was over. The brilliant scientist was, of course, horrified at the sight of all the destruction and bloodshed. Upon discovering that his country had used the bomb to hasten the surrender of a country that had already been defeated, he decided to make amends by leading the fight against nuclear proliferation.

Each of the claims in this simplistic portrait becomes a complicated story in the biography. We read about Oppenheimer's Jewish home and education, but as an adult he did not conduct himself as a Jew in any way and never employed religious arguments to justify his moral choices. He used to adorn his lectures and public speeches with sayings and proverbs from Buddhist literature, but reading this biography one gets the impression that it was more a way of flaunting his eccentricity, akin to his penchant for demonstrating his knowledge and love of poetry.

The tendency to classify Oppenherimer as a member of the radical left is not so simple either. In the days when he was harassed for his politics and his radical past was under scrutiny, his persecutors portrayed him as a dangerous communist. But he was never a dues-paying, card-carrying member of Communist Party. In the late 1930s, after Hitler's rise to power and the spread of fascism in Europe, Oppenheimer openly supported radical left-wing organizations like the American Communist Front operating in the San Francisco Bay area, where he was a student. The height of his activity was during the Spanish Civil War in 1936-38, when he joined efforts to assist the war refugees and demonstrated in support of the persecuted Republicans. In addition, he willingly donated money to these organizations. At the same time, he enthusiastically backed the Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and stood up fiercely for his New Deal. In late-1930s California, an intellectual from Berkeley did not have to conceal his radical liberalism.

This love affair with the left and the Soviet Union, to which Oppenheimer and many of his colleagues were party, ended with the news of the pact signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov in August, 1939. Hatred of Nazi fascism drowned out their love of the Soviet Union and belief that Stalin could do no wrong. Before that, no one really bothered to distinguish between real communists and fellow travelers, but when World War II erupted this distinction became highly significant. Oppenheimer's political views and affinities were not unknown to the military and intelligence officials who entrusted him with this secret mission. After questioning him and his friends, they concluded that he was a patriot, and even more importantly, a born leader who could gather around him the kind of scientists and technicians needed for manufacturing an atom bomb. On top of that, vague intelligence reports about efforts to promote nuclear research and produce a bomb in Germany dictated the pace and left no time for dallying.

The scientific data was solid and proven, and the foundations were in place. All the scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico had to do was solve a number of mind-boggling technical problems. The biographers do not go deeply into the scientific aspects of nuclear physics and exploiting nuclear energy. What they dwell on is Oppenheimer's leadership in the remote and isolated camp that was slowly becoming a bustling nerve center.

Oppenheimer and his team completed their mission: They manufactured an atom bomb and proved that it was efficient and lethal. By the time the work was done, Germany had been defeated. As the biographers point out, none of the builders of the bomb had any idea that it would eventually be dropped on Japan. Japan was a brutal enemy, but not one that deserved being hit with as drastic a weapon as that. Many people, and especially Oppenheimer, failed to understand why it was necessary to drop the bomb on a country that was perceived as defeated, for all intents and purposes.

But Oppenheimer put his doubts on hold, and never uttered a word of protest. Like the other scientists and technicians, he waited impatiently to hear the results of the bombing operation. Like everyone else, he expressed great satisfaction. When another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days after Hiroshima, by which time he and his colleagues knew what it could do, no mutiny erupted at Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer was now a national hero. He was lauded by the major papers and seemed to enjoy the publicity and fanfare. His mission over, he asked to be released from further obligation to the army and allowed to return to his former job as a university physicist. But he did not cut himself off entirely from the bomb and nuclear research. The U.S. government recruited him to sit on all the committees established to address the subject of nuclear development.

Roosevelt's successor, President Harry Truman, who made the decision to use the bomb, did not delve deeply into the implications of America's new weapon. He is portrayed in the biography as someone to whom the moral aspect of using the atom bomb for military purposes was totally foreign. His intelligence advisers assured him that the Soviet Union was very far from being able to build a bomb of its own. As the Iron Curtain descended and the implications and rivalries of the Cold War became clear, Truman made up his mind to exploit to the hilt the advantages that Oppenheimer and his team had brought America's way. He and his closest advisers rejected the idea of openness regarding nuclear capability, and did not understand the call to turn the bomb into a tool for reducing the competition and tension between the blocs.

At this stage of his government-affiliated work, Oppenheimer did not rule out the possibility that atom bombs might also be employed to solve military conflicts in the future. Nevertheless, following in the footsteps of his mentor, the Danish scientist Niels Bohr, he called for more openness and transparency about nuclear energy and its uses. When it turned out, soon after, that the Soviet Union was a nuclear power and had plans to develop an even bigger and more destructive weapon - the hydrogen bomb - the U.S. administration's whole way of thinking was thrown off kilter.

This is where Oppenheimer began his transformation into a leftist saint: He took a clear and unequivocal stand against building a hydrogen bomb. But morality was not his top consideration, the authors say. Oppenheimer opposed the hydrogen bomb because he perceived it as costly, superfluous and devoid of any military value. It was superfluous because no one could come up with any "deserving" target to drop it on.

But in the eyes of Truman and his Republican successor, Dwight Eisenhower, the hydrogen bomb was a supreme goal and the sole means of bringing the battle of giants between the West and barbaric Bolshevism to a conclusion. In a war of such biblical proportions, there was no room for compromise. Anyone who opposed the hydrogen bomb was an outright enemy of the U.S. and a secret ally of the axis of evil whose center was Moscow. So when Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy trained his fellow Americans to see communists and collaborators lurking everywhere, Oppenheimer was an easy target for accusations of the worst kind. Here was someone who was already a communist in the 1930s and had never denied his "red ties." His wife was a communist whose first husband had been killed in Spain, as was his younger brother, Frank. In short, if America wanted to defeat the Soviet Union, it had to get rid of its homegrown terrorists. And that is where the real story - the shocking one - begins.

As befitting a book that has taken so long to write and covers so much ground, the two biographers enlisted a long line of people and institutions to help them research the many complex issues involved. Pride of place on their list of acknowledgements goes to "the citizens and historians" of America, who supported the Freedom of Information Act and helped to enforce it. Indeed, this biography of Oppenheimer is very much the product of the right to access and share information in an open, democratic society. The book exposes a dark and murky chapter in the history of the U.S. and has no qualms about shining an accusing light on an assortment of public figures who were responsible, by their deeds or misdeeds, for plunging their country into one of its most mortifying and troubled eras.

The list includes civil servants, scientists, government officials and even presidents, who turned Oppenheimer into the hapless victim of a terrible witch-hunt. All the suspicions and fears that lurked beneath the surface in his glory days rose up from the depths, and under the guidance of disturbed and dangerous individuals in high places, became poisoned darts.

By the end of the book, it is difficult to understand how the U.S. could function with a man as neurotic and out of control as J. Edgar Hoover heading the FBI. And as the book shows, he was not alone. As the accusations and suspicions against Oppenheimer mounted and his detractors were anxious to be rid of him, they simply refused to renew the security clearance that allowed him to sit on classified government committees. His colleague, Albert Einstein, advised him to give up the security clearance, go back to work and forget about the whole thing. But Oppenheimer stuck to his guns. He demanded that his clearance be reinstated, and agreed to a long, drawn out and demeaning "hearing" to establish whether he could be trusted.

The biographers reach new heights with their painstaking description of the web of lying, forgery and deception that accompanied this so-called legal process. Behind the scenes, Hoover and his men wove a net to ensnare the scientist who had once been America's great hero. Nothing was beneath them. They dredged up the FBI's secret dossier on Oppenheimer, which ran into thousands of pages over the years, and distorted every shred of information in it with an eye to portraying him as a dangerous man who had never severed his ties with communism and the Soviet Union, in short posing a clear and present danger to the security of the United States.

They were helped along by the fact that Oppenheimer, with his arrogance and condescending attitude, had made a great many enemies in the course of his lifetime. With small strokes, they painted a picture of a scientist who could not guard his tongue and had a habit of telling little white lies, sometimes to protect a friend, sometimes to come out looking better. Hoover and his men turned these minor indiscretions into unforgivable character flaws and proof of a warped personality that could not be trusted. Oppenheimer lost the case and his security clearance was taken away for good. For the last 13 years of his life he was a walking shadow, a hunted and fearful man who avoided politics like the devil.

Like any good biography, "American Prometheus" is the story not just of an extraordinary man, but also of an important chapter in the history of his country. It is the tale of a society seized by hysteria, a chronicle of the ease with which it changed from a liberal democracy into a dark regime of terror.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian and a non-fiction editor for Am Oved Publishing.