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David C. Cassidy’s celebrated biography is more than the life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist who served as scientific director for the Manhattan Project. It also tells the hidden story of the political and social forces that shaped the world in the 20th century, when the rise of American science contributed mightily to the country’s emergence as a dominant power in world affairs.
Cassidy explores that strong relationship in the captivating story of the rise and fall of one of America’s greatest scientists. As head of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer led the country's successful effort to build the first atom bomb during World War II. In 1954 the government—with the United States embroiled in the Cold War—stripped him of his security clearance amid allegations that he consorted with communists. In rich detail Cassidy places this personal story of public disgrace within the larger narrative of the rise of science in America.
Johns Hopkins University Press
A superbly researched biography... There is no doubt that Cassidy gives us a valuable perspective on Oppenheimer’s life. The author is shy neither of editorializing nor of making judgments about the personalities who appear in the story... These comments are almost unfailingly fair and justified by the evidence.
Cassidy’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a concise, well-written book about the life of the famous 20th century scientist... A worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the coming of age of American physics and how the weaknesses and strengths of one of its leaders shaped the relationship between science and the government for decades to come.
1 Coming to America 1
2 Ethically Cultured 15
3 Ethically Schooled 33
4 The Damning Lie 47
5 Summa Cum Laude 61
6 Getting Near the Center 79
7 A Taste for Physics 105
8 Coming of Age 117
9 Professor of Physics 133
10 Cosmic Connections 159
11 Depression and War 181
12 The Organic Necessity 211
13 Dropping the Bomb 237
14 Icon of Physics 253
15 State Scientist 267
16 Good Soldiers 285
17 Insecurity Hearings 305
18 Exile 327
Appendix 1 353
Appendix 2 355
Appendix 3 357
Appendix 4 359
The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is the story of twentieth-century America. The trajectory of his life closely followed the trajectory of America's rise from a provincial, immigrant farming nation to the dominant economic, cultural, and military power in world affairs. This occurred during a century of world war, political and scientific revolutions, and the frightening horrors of totalitarianism, genocide, and technological weapons of mass destruction.
Closely entwined with both stories was, of course, the advance of American science, including American theoretical physics, to world preeminence. The startling practical success of their work brought Oppenheimer and a handful of others like him to national prominence as statesmen of science at the highest levels of government and culture. Oppenheimer was suddenly cast in an entirely new role that demanded of him the courage to confront and resolve the difficult moral and ethical issues raised at the dawn of the nuclear age.
As did so many others of his generation, Oppenheimer, who lived from 1904 to 1967, rose to fulfill the American dream that had brought his elders to America during the previous century. But the dream harbored its nightmarish elements. Oppenheimer's story is also the story of the crises in Western liberalism, in American democratic ideals, and in the moral obligations of science so characteristic of the political entanglements and dilemmas of twentieth-century scientists. The United States after World War II found itself suddenly dependent (or thought it was) upon a growing nuclear arsenal as the cornerstone of American power and protection, and upon the formationof an invasive national-security state to maintain it. Because of this, Oppenheimer and other scientist-advisers found themselves facing a personal dilemma about the ultimate nature of their work and at the center of a clash among competing scientific, military, and political forces over the place of science and scientists within American society. The destructive consequences of that clash, owing in part to Oppenheimer's own vulnerabilities, are still felt today, while the enigma of Oppenheimer remains.
How did such an aesthete, erudite intellectual and abstract theorist uninterested in the acquisition of power become the leader of American science, the most powerful research community in the world? Then, having become its leader, how did he, with all of his intellectual and social advantages, lose his power so abruptly and as a scientist come to be regarded by many as unfulfilled if not a failure? How could a man of such high cultural and ethical ideals, a product of the best education that the nation could offer, not only lead the project that built and used the atomic bomb but also continue to serve as the nation's foremost authority on ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction? The answers to such questions, like the questions themselves, are contained within the stories of both the man and his century, a century so dominated by America's rise to world prominence that it is often called the American Century.
The term American Century elicits for many the myriad benefits of America's entry onto the world stage—the nation's generosity in the Marshall Plan to rebuild a war-torn Europe; its fundamental breakthroughs in all areas of science and medicine; its perpetually innovative spirit that has transformed the world through such inventions as the transistor, the laser, the microchip, and medical imaging; its ever vibrant and creative culture displayed in popular music, films, and consumer goods; and its lofty ideals of democracy, liberty, and human rights that have served as beacons of hope abroad and as an encouragement at home. Yet for many during the century, and still today, the term American Century has also evoked another meaning, a meaning most fully articulated by the influential publisher, Henry R. Luce, in a widely read editorial essay titled "The American Century." The essay appeared in Luce's Life magazine in February 1941, ten months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, as Americans debated whether or not to enter the war then raging in Europe.1
The son of American missionaries to China, Luce argued for America's entry into the war with a mission to the world. In so doing, he gave "the American Century" both descriptive and prescriptive connotations—an ideology of American destiny to be fulfilled during and after the war in the nation's missionary zeal to project its power, economy, and culture throughout the world in an effort to make the world and the century a reflection of itself. The nation, he said, was already at war, but it was not a war for the destruction of foreign dictators but for American global influence. "We are not in a war to defend American territory," Luce declared. "We are in a war to defend and even to promote, encourage and incite so-called democratic principles throughout the world." The twentieth century, he explained, "is America's first century as a dominant power in the world," but the nation had failed "to assume leadership of the world" at the end of the First World War. During the interwar years, it continued to prepare itself for its mission by bringing American democracy "up-to-date" through the social reforms of the New Deal and by building up American culture to become "the intellectual, scientific, and artistic capital of the world." Now, said Luce, the nation must "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." America's duty and mission were to assume its rightful place as the world's leader, spreading the benefits of American life around the globe—whether or not the globe wanted them. "The world of the 20th Century, if it is to come to life in any nobility and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American Century... through a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills...It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world...to create the first great American Century."
Luce's paternalistic and wholly imperial vision of global Americanism was widely shared by many other "progressive" American leaders of the period. They longed to use the American model to bring about the progress of other nations "as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." This mission greatly contributed to the nation's understanding of itself and its role in the postwar era as the world entered the Cold War—a struggle driven by the desire of both the American and Soviet blocs for world supremacy. The United States eventually emerged the victor, as the century it called its own neared its conclusion. Now, as we enter the twenty-first century, the attacks of September 11, 2001, make clear that foreign opposition continues to the imperial vision of the American Century. At the same time, the nation's self-righteous response to the attacks and its continued insistence upon pursuing its own interests and military ventures "as we see fit" indicate that while the American Century is doomed, it will not easily fade, even as the new century progresses.
Luce's model of the American Century—the prewar preparation for world dominance and its postwar implementation—provides a valuable context in which to comprehend the course of Oppenheimer's life: his rise to professional prominence before and during the Second World War, followed by his sudden descent from the summit of power amid the Cold War drive for American supremacy supported by a militarized scientific community.
Olivier Zunz, Patrick McGrath, and others have recently shown how elite science administrators and managerial corporate leaders played a central role in making America the "intellectual, scientific, and artistic capital of the world" during the first half century by forging what Zunz calls a "matrix" of close-knit alliances among science, business, government, and the military.2 The success of this matrix in fostering prewar science and industry enabled America's wartime military success. Then, after the Second World War, the ideology and the social alliances provided the means for the exploitation of scientific research during the second half of the century in service to American consumer prosperity and to the nation's continual quest for "security." Security, it was argued, could be achieved only through overwhelming military superiority against the nation's main opponent on the world stage, the Soviet Union (whose intentions were equally aggressive). As the nation implemented the American Century across a variety of political, economic, cultural, and military fronts, it brought about the demise of the traditional humanistic conception of science and the ascent of what McGrath calls militarized state science, the rise of what he terms scientific militarism.
Educated in the traditional humanistic and cultural ideals of science, J. Robert Oppenheimer and other influential science administrators courageously attempted to maintain those ideals within the postwar military context. Yet, reflecting the new environment, a more militant faction of Cold War scientists achieved the triumph of scientific militarism by engineering the downfall of their most prominent public and governmental opponent, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Their triumph set the stage for an increased emphasis in scientific research ever since upon utilitarian aims, consumer goods, and military hardware.3 Such aims have become particularly prominent once again, in the nation's response to September 11.
The social historian, Charles Thorpe, has recently arrived at similar conclusions from a different perspective, what he calls an interpretive historical sociology of Oppenheimer and American physics.4 He focuses on Oppenheimer as a representative of the crisis in modern science over the relationship between virtue and knowledge—that is, between the traditional moral authority of science and the rise of the purely technical expert no longer restrained by moral concerns or larger social obligations. The crisis became acute, says Thorpe, as the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb "subsumed science into a state sponsored military-industrial system." Cold War fear and anxiety led in the years following the war to a deepening clash between representatives of the competing views of science—those who brought the humanistic, moral tradition of science to the problem of nuclear weapons, and those who perceived their role as scientists strictly in the "instrumental" terms of the government "weaponer." Oppenheimer, always a complex figure, personally embodied for Thorpe the competing positions of the scientific community during and after the war—the broadly humanistic critic foremost, but also the narrow technocrat and the single-minded weaponer. The resolution of the conflict for the community and for Oppenheimer came during the security hearings of 1954. The destruction of Oppenheimer through the loss of his security clearance signaled the triumph of the instrumentalist position and the decision to develop ever more powerful nuclear weapons (as well as biological and chemical weapons), limited only by the technical possibilities. Today, says Thorpe, "this is the official position of Western society."
The physicist and science historian, Silvan S. Schweber, has recently examined the moral crisis of physics more closely in a joint study of Oppenheimer and the physicist, Hans Bethe.5 He is more optimistic than the other recent authors regarding science as being capable once again of providing moral authority through enlightened reason. Because of this he provides important histories of Oppenheimer's education in the enlightened Ethical Culture tradition and of Oppenheimer's famed school of theoretical physics. But Schweber is not sympathetic toward Oppenheimer as a postwar statesman of physics, preferring Bethe's low-key approach to government and military work. As in Thorpe's account, Oppenheimer's personal complexity precluded his simple response to the moral issue of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer, writes Schweber, was "too fractured an individual to be able to carry the burden of that new persona."
Because of the profound questions and the far-reaching issues that the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer raises and the recent availability of the above-mentioned and other fundamental studies on the history of American science and Oppenheimer's place within it, the perspective presented here is a broad one. It entails an attempt to take the next step in the evolution of scientific biography, to shift the focus from the individual to his times. It is an attempt to understand an individual's attitudes and activities and his treatment by his contemporaries as, at least in part, the products of their times, as well as the results of individual personality and choice.6 Such a perspective was not possible for Oppenheimer until recently, nor was it possible in my own earlier biography of another individual very much like him, the German physicist, Werner Heisenberg. So much was still to be learned about Heisenberg's life and work and motivations when I began research on his biography that my task centered on an attempt to comprehend the man from within the details of his life. This required a great deal of intensive and sustained detective work about his life and times in a wide array of sources, as may be seen from the endnotes to that book.7
In contrast, most of the biographical details that can be discovered about Oppenheimer have already been found, and, on some of the most important issues, significant—in some cases definitive—studies are now in hand. But no one has yet assembled the valuable insights and perspectives offered in many of these works into an integrated, coherent account of the man within the context of the nation and the century in which he lived. In particular, no one has yet placed Oppenheimer fully into the transformation of physics and its changing place within twentieth-century America, of which he was so much a part. "More than any other man," wrote his friend and colleague, Hans Bethe, "he was responsible for raising American theoretical physics from a provincial adjunct of Europe to world leadership."8 The impact upon American science and culture and upon the relationship between scientific research and its corporate and governmental benefactors in the context of two world wars, the Depression era, and the Cold War nuclear arms race was profound and far-reaching.
Still, there is much to be done beyond the integration of earlier work. Because Oppenheimer and the events in which he was involved are big subjects, most of the best historical studies are necessarily limited to specific aspects of the story, such as the security hearings, the Manhattan Project, or postwar science policy. Although a host of popularly written biographies of Oppenheimer have appeared over the past decades, they are too much the work of writers eager to exploit a passing public interest, rather than fundamental attempts to comprehend the man and the issues within the context of his times.
Even the primary sources have yet to be exhausted. Increasing numbers of revealing archival letters, memoranda, and official reports, as well as memoirs, interviews, and obituaries of the man—all of which form the raw data of history—have gradually become accessible during the nearly four decades since Oppenheimer's death. Although the family decided early to make his papers available to the public through the Library of Congress, other essential archival materials in federal, presidential, university, and private collections have only recently become accessible for study. Even some of the materials long available to the public still await the detailed analyses they deserve. In 1980, Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner published a revealing and excellently annotated edition of Oppenheimer's personal and professional letters. Although it is an indispensable resource for any account of the early Oppenheimer, the volume contains in full only the letters written by Oppenheimer, providing selected extracts of the letters written to him; and the volume ends in 1945.9
As the span of the Smith-Weiner edition suggests, Oppenheimer's life generally fell into two halves, corresponding roughly to the two phases of Luce's American Century: the rather private period leading up to his entry into full-time directorship of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb in 1943; and the period of his much more public life and activities after the war, as the nation made the century its own. The early era of Oppenheimer's personal and professional rise to prominence, along with that of his profession, ended when he took on a permanent new role as project administrator, high-level consultant, and public icon of contemporary physics. The sources, the themes, even the personal aspects of the story undergo a profound transformation with the coming of the Second World War and the ensuing descent into Cold War.
While many personal letters and documents are available for the early years, most such materials for the period after 1945 are still inaccessible and may no longer be extant. A man in his high public position, who was under constant surveillance by security agents from 1943 until the end of his life, could not afford to record his innermost thoughts and feelings in letters and diaries that might fall into the wrong hands.10 In their stead, we have a huge cache of official documents, notes, and memoranda illuminating the nature and context of his many, wide-ranging activities after 1943.
Despite the continued outpouring of Oppenheimer literature, considerable primary research was required on all aspects of the story. It has yielded important new information regarding practically every phase of Oppenheimer's personal and professional life and times. Nevertheless, the object here is not to extract new and tantalizing details about his life, his sexual affairs, or his complicated psychology, but to embed those significant aspects of his life that make him important to us today within the wider events occurring in American culture, science, and science policy. The aim is to achieve a broadly conceived yet deeply rooted biographical study of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the professional product and pivotal figure in America's rise to power; the scientific leader and statesman who—however flawed as a human being—was among the first to confront the difficult dilemmas wrought by the onset of the American Century.