A Life In Twilight
The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer
By Mark Wolverton
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Mark Wolverton
All rights reserved.
The Scientist and the Reporter
The G-men had been watching J. Robert Oppenheimer for a long time. Over ten years, in fact, ever since he had been named scientific director of the Manhattan Project by its leader, Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves. At first the surveillance had been conducted by Army intelligence, who followed the scientist around in government-issue sedans, noting his movements and meetings, verifying he did what he said he was going to do and noting whenever he departed from schedule, such as when he spent a night with a former girlfriend in Berkeley in the summer of 1943. Occasionally the Army types were complemented in their watchdogging by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI men, who sometimes got into little turf wars over who was supposed to watch what and when. Both the military and FBI dutifully tapped Oppenheimer's phones and intercepted and read his mail as a matter of course.
During the war at least, Oppenheimer wasn't alone as an object of such scrutiny. Everyone who lived in Los Alamos or worked on the Manhattan Project was watched and monitored and surveilled, and the constant security measures became a source of running jokes among the project personnel, if not also frequent irritation. Some waggish project people liked to tweak the nose of the security stalwarts. Richard Feynman, a bongo-playing physicist, routinely planted secret messages in letters to his wife and opened safes at Los Alamos to leave taunting messages inside for security officers. For most, it was simply an accepted, if unfortunate, necessity of wartime life in a top-secret enterprise.
Oppenheimer's case was different, though. Not only was he the leader of the scientists, he had an extensive leftist background, with a formerly Communist wife, brother, and sister-in-law, just for starters. Although he wasn't alone in such associations among the Manhattan Project scientific elite, he was the most prominent of those who went on to move in lofty government circles after the war, and arguably the most influential of all the atomic scientists. Obviously such a man continued to bear watching, thought some high governmental officials.
And so the surveillance of J. Robert Oppenheimer continued, sometimes only cursorily, other times more intensively, even after he left the Manhattan Project and continued as a scientific and policy adviser to his government, even after he was officially disgraced and expelled from any connection with the government, the military, or political powers that be. Perhaps he wasn't a Soviet agent, some reasoned, but what if he decided to defect? What terrible damage could he do?
Such logic impelled retired admiral Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and the man who had been instrumental in stripping Oppenheimer of his security clearance and destroying his political influence, to demand that Hoover's FBI keep the scientist under its watchful eyes, even as Hoover himself thought the need for such surveillance was long past and had become a drain on Bureau resources that could be better employed elsewhere.
For the agents assigned to the Oppenheimer detail, watching the disgraced physicist must have become a stultifyingly boring assignment by the end of 1954. Instead of chasing Soviet agents or Mafia kingpins, here they were, stuck watching the administrator of the world's biggest refuge for eggheads. So they were no doubt intrigued by the arrival at the Institute of the famous broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, another public figure who had been under FBI scrutiny. Unfortunately, without any bugs in Oppenheimer's office to let the Feds listen in to the meeting, the agents had to report that the "nature of the conversation is unknown."
As it turned out, the agents didn't have to worry. They, along with everyone else in the country, would find out "the nature of the conversation" on a Tuesday evening in early January 1955, and it had been perfectly innocuous. Oppenheimer and Murrow hadn't been planning the overthrow of the government or the establishment of a Communist spy ring at the Institute, or even debating the finer points of Das Kapital. They had merely been discussing the details of an upcoming broadcast of Murrow's famous — or to some, infamous — television program, See It Now. Murrow and his producer/partner, Fred W. Friendly, the "third unidentified individual" noted by the FBI agent, wanted to do an episode featuring the Institute for Advanced Study, and the three men had been going over the necessary arrangements.
For Murrow and Friendly, 1954 had been almost as difficult and fateful a year as for Robert Oppenheimer. A month before the beginning of Oppenheimer's security hearing, in March 1954, Murrow had dared to directly and openly attack Senator Joseph McCarthy on See It Now in a devastating broadside that proved to be one of the signal events that led to McCarthy's downfall. A few days before the hearing convened, McCarthy responded to Murrow on See It Now, and several weeks later began the Army-McCarthy hearings — watched by millions of Americans, including Oppenheimer himself during the brief breaks in his own ordeal — that led to the Senator's censure by the Senate in December 1954. Murrow and Friendly paid dearly for their courage, facing not only the inevitable personal attacks from McCarthy and his supporters, but the more intimate fallout that landed on other members of their See It Now team, leading to resignations, firings, and even a suicide.
Thanks to their own strength of character and the grudging support of their network, Murrow and Friendly had survived the battles of 1954, slightly bloodied but still defiant, still eager to pursue the controversial and dangerous. But not every See It Now was intended to be as incendiary as the McCarthy show, nor did every episode deal with even remotely political or controversial subject matter. Some episodes simply provided fascinating glimpses of noteworthy individuals, gave an insider's tour of some previously unseen place, or reveled in the possibilities of the new technology of coast-to-coast television broadcasting. The January 4, 1955, See It Now broadcast was originally planned to be nothing more than one of these quieter, calm, noncontroversial episodes. It would turn out to be something quite different.
The original inspiration came not from Murrow, but from Friendly. Putting together a weekly live television broadcast has never been an easy matter, and it was even less so in the early 1950s; the See It Now team worked long hours almost continuously from one week to the next, doing interviews, gathering material, writing and rewriting, viewing and editing film footage in marathon sessions that inevitably included nights and weekends. Caught up in the madness, Friendly's wife, Dorothy, forced him to promise to take a break once in a while, perhaps on a Wednesday here and there, after the Tuesday-night broadcast and before the rush began to put together the following Tuesday's show. On one of Friendly's brief Wednesday sabbaticals, he and Dorothy drove down from New York to visit some friends in Princeton, who took Friendly around to see the local sights, including the Institute for Advanced Study. Friendly recalled, "Its director, Dr. Oppenheimer, took us on a tour, and in the course of it gave us a blackboard explanation of the quantum theory in response to a question of Dorothy's. Neither of us understood the equations that danced before our eyes, but we were stimulated by the grace and drive of this man, whose need to teach even embraced a couple of mathematical morons. It seemed to me a waste that more people were not exposed to Oppenheimer's erudition and charm."
But Friendly had the perfect means to bring that erudition and charm to a vast audience. He called Murrow later the same day, and they decided to do a See It Now on the Institute, featuring interviews with Oppenheimer, Einstein, Niels Bohr, and whatever other famous denizens of the place cared to make themselves available. As Murrow later put it, the Institute was unique in that "you find a Nobel Prize winner every time you open a door." It would be a perfect subject for See It Now, a show whose raison d'être was to show its audience people and places they wouldn't see elsewhere.
"For someone who knows as little about the Institute for Advanced Study as I do, I find I am doing a considerable amount of lecturing about this establishment and its purpose," Friendly wrote to Oppenheimer after his visit. "Thus far, of course, my only audience has been my senior colleague, Ed Murrow. We would both like to attempt to do a television report on the Institute and its people, and our only problem is to convince you and your associates that we would not do violence to the purpose and ethics that motivate your work." Oppenheimer gavehis cautious approval, and soon after, Friendly returned to the Institute with Murrow to begin planning the program, as duly noted by the FBI.
With the blessing of Oppenheimer and the Institute board of trustees in their pocket, Murrow and Friendly expected no great difficulties. Over the years, they had dealt with personages as varied as congressmen, housewives, corporate presidents, Air Force generals, and movie stars, and had even slugged it out in the trenches with America's most feared demagogue. What trouble could there be from a group of the world's most brilliant intellects in the tranquil surroundings of Princeton? They soon discovered that in some ways, dealing with McCarthy had actually been simpler than the new task they had set for themselves. McCarthy, at least, never passed up a chance to make himself heard, and then in the clearest, most vociferous manner possible. Not so with the faculty of the Institute.
To begin with, the unquestioned superstar of the Institute himself, Albert Einstein, declined to participate, despite the fact that he respected and admired Murrow and complimented him on the McCarthy show. It wasn't an unusual move by the self-effacing scientist, who tended to shun the spotlight in his later years and chose his opportunities for public appearances and statements carefully. Murrow and Friendly were disappointed, but they still had an entire collection of geniuses from which to choose, including a physicist who was second only to Einstein in the scientific pantheon and who happened to be visiting the Institute for a few months, the Danish Nobelist Niels Bohr, who was more than willing to sit for Murrow's cameras.
On December 16, 1954 — one week shy of a year since Oppenheimer had been told by Strauss of the suspension of his AEC clearance — Murrow and the See It Now crew encamped at the Institute for Advanced Study to shoot the program, one way or another. "The first few days of shooting went badly; we had obviously gotten into something over our heads," Friendly admitted. Just how over their heads they were was made painfully clear by Murrow's interview with Bohr.
Unquestionably one of the greatest minds of the century, one of the founding fathers of the quantum theories that had revolutionized science, Bohr was also famously obscure in manner. In his thick, impenetrable Danish accent, he mumbled, he digressed, he jumped ahead, he explained his thoughts in technical terms so opaque that at times he seemed to be merely talking out loud to himself, or at least to another eminent colleague, rather than to a nonscientific layman struggling to understand him. Brilliant he obviously was; a great communicator of science, he was not.
Murrow and Friendly despaired: was everyone at the Institute so incomprehensible? Interviews with several other Institute faculty proved little better. It looked as though the great idea of doing a show about the world's sanctuary for geniuses was turning into a monumental dud. Maybe people such as Einstein, Bohr, and the others simply operated on too lofty a level for the average citizen to understand. Maybe there was a good reason they were removed, or had removed themselves, from society to settle at the Institute: they truly couldn't function or live among the rest of us. They existed on an Olympian plane from which meaningful communication with mere mortals was essentially impossible. Murrow remembered, "I was becoming very discouraged when I went in and sat down with Professor Oppenheimer."
Although perhaps neither man realized it, that moment had been coming for some time, with various threads of circumstance conspiring to bring them together. The lives of Oppenheimer and Murrow shared some striking parallels. They were almost the same age, their birth dates separated by only three days and four years, although Murrow had been born into poverty in rural North Carolina and Oppenheimer into the privileged and comfortable world of New York City's Upper West Side. Each found his own personal defining moment in the midst of World War II, each one carving out a unique place for himself in a role that he literally invented as he went along: Oppenheimer the leader of history's largest concentrated scientific effort, Murrow the radio correspondent who brought the terrors of war directly into the homes of millions. Each man had, in his own way, wrestled with the darkest questions of the twentieth century, and each had dealt with the troubling aftermath of the war in the cold war that followed. Both Oppenheimer and Murrow had faced the specter of McCarthyist paranoia head-on, and both had paid a price for it. They even shared a lifelong addiction to smoking, even if Oppenheimer mostly preferred pipes and Murrow cigarettes. And that particular habit would ultimately kill both men.
Apart from these affinities, their eventual encounter had been foreshadowed over a year earlier, when Murrow fired his first serious opening shot at Joseph McCarthy by devoting an episode of See It Now to the story of Milo Radulovich, a perfectly average Air Force Reserve officer from Detroit who was facing summary expulsion from the service because of his close association with supposed "Communist sympathizers" — namely, his sister and father. Like Oppenheimer, Radulovich had been condemned on the basis of secret "evidence" that he wasn't allowed to see, and like Oppenheimer, he had been judged loyal yet also a security risk. The parallels with Oppenheimer's later trial by fire could hardly escape a man with as finely tuned a sense of justice as Murrow, particularly after he devoted his June 1, 1954, CBS radio broadcast to the final AEC decision on Oppenheimer.
Another thread of fate drawing the two men together came only days before the beginning of Oppenheimer's security hearing. As part of his rambling rebuttal to Murrow's attack on him the previous month, McCarthy charged that America's hydrogen bomb program had suffered a delay of eighteen months. Because of "traitors in our government," he proclaimed darkly, "our nation may well die." Like the rest of the nation, Murrow wouldn't know it until the story of the Oppenheimer hearing broke a week later, but McCarthy was making a veiled reference to Oppenheimer and the charges that he had obstructed the H-bomb program. Although veiled in innuendo and anonymity, Oppenheimer's ordeal had in effect been revealed to the public before The New York Times officially published the story — convincing Oppenheimer and his lawyers to give New York Times reporter James Reston permission to release the details before McCarthy or Lewis Strauss beat them to it.
Oppenheimer's and Murrow's mutual concerns, interests, and experiences would all be in evidence in their lengthy and wide-ranging conversation. The Oppenheimer "erudition and charm" that had so mesmerized Friendly were in full flower as Murrow interviewed Oppenheimer, in almost comical contrast to Bohr's rambling, obtuse performance. For almost three hours, with two cameras filming the entire encounter, Oppenheimer and Murrow chatted about matters small and large, from the work of the Institute faculty and Oppenheimer's basic duties as their leader; to politics, including the immigration laws that hindered foreign scientists visiting and working in the United States; to some elementary quantum mechanics, with Oppenheimer explaining some equations on a blackboard as Murrow watched; to Oppenheimer's childhood; to the threat of atomic fallout and the possibility of human extinction.
The easy rapport and respect each man had for the other was clear, even if the air in Oppenheimer's office wasn't. The one topic they didn't address directly was Oppenheimer's security hearing and loss of government clearance. As much as the ubiquitous smoke from Oppenheimer's pipe and Murrow's never-ending chain of Camel cigarettes, the subject was a permeative, evanescent presence in the room in which the two men conversed, even if, like the smoke, it was never openly acknowledged. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Life In Twilight by Mark Wolverton. Copyright © 2008 Mark Wolverton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.