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At a time when the Manhattan Project was synonymous with large-scale science, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–67) represented the new sociocultural power of the American intellectual. Catapulted to fame as director of the Los Alamos atomic weapons laboratory, Oppenheimer occupied a key position in the compact between science and the state that developed out of World War II. By tracing the making—and unmaking—of Oppenheimer’s wartime and postwar scientific identity, Charles Thorpe illustrates the struggles over the role of the scientist in relation to nuclear weapons, the state, and culture.
A stylish intellectual biography, Oppenheimer maps out changes in the roles of scientists and intellectuals in twentieth-century America, ultimately revealing transformations in Oppenheimer’s persona that coincided with changing attitudes toward science in society.
“This is an outstandingly well-researched book, a pleasure to read and distinguished by the high quality of its observations and judgments. It will be of special interest to scholars of modern history, but non-specialist readers will enjoy the clarity that Thorpe brings to common misunderstandings about his subject.”—Graham Farmelo, Times Higher Education Supplement
“A fascinating new perspective. . . . Thorpe’s book provides the best perspective yet for understanding Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos years, which were critical, after all, not only to his life but, for better or worse, the history of mankind.”—Catherine Westfall, Nature
— Sam Kean
— Catherine Westfall
— Richard Polenberg
— Robyn Rodriguez
— Lynn Eden
— Jeff Hughes
— Jon Hunner
— Mary Jo Nye
Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) occupied a nodal position in the emergence of late modern technoscientific culture and in the compact between science and the state that developed from World War II. To trace the constitution of Oppenheimer's wartime and postwar scientific identity is to trace the key struggles over the role of the scientist in relation to nuclear weapons, the state, and culture. This is a study in biography, but it is one that reveals the individual-Oppenheimer-as a point of intersection of social forces and interests and that describes the collaborative, social, and interactional fashioning of his identity, his scientific role, and his intellectual, political, and cultural authority. It examines how he negotiated the opportunities created and the constraints imposed by the institutional positions he occupied and by the relationships and networks in which he was embedded. It traces the social and interactional constitution of a unique individual scientific identity and role. In so doing, it provides a history of the making of broader forms of power and authority entwining science and the late modern state.
Between 1943 and 1945, Oppenheimer was director of the Los Alamos Laboratory-the remote site in northern New Mexico where the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed and built. It was the key installation of the Manhattan Project, a vast military-industrial-scientific endeavor organized under the Army Corps of Engineers. Employing at its peak nearly 129,000 workers and costing $2 billion, the Manhattan Project was the largest technoscientific project to that time. It was a hybrid organizational network incorporating not only scientists and engineers, but also a long list of America's major industrial corporations, including DuPont, Monsanto, Tennessee Eastman, Westinghouse, Chrysler, Union Carbide, Bell Labs, and other large chemical, electrical, and construction firms. At Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, sprawling factories and industrial towns were erected to produce plutonium and to separate out the fissionable uranium-235 isotope. The project linked these industrial sites with university laboratories at Chicago, Columbia, Berkeley, and elsewhere. Los Alamos was the culminating point of the work of these disparate sites. It brought together mathematicians, theoretical and experimental physicists, chemists, metallurgists, high-explosives experts, and engineers, combining this expertise to produce a novel form of technoscientific power and a new method of total war.
The bomb project catapulted scientists into a position within America's political and administrative elites, and Oppenheimer emerged from the war as the chief representative of this new power of the scientist. In 1947, he was appointed to the country's top science advisory position: chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee (GAC). However, Oppenheimer's power was beset by tensions and contradictions. Since his earliest involvement in the bomb project, he had been under investigation by military intelligence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for his Communist associations and political involvements of the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1949, when the GAC advised against the development of the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer was widely suspected of spearheading opposition to the new weapon. During the early 1950s, H-bomb proponents (including physicist Edward Teller, AEC chairman Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, and powerful figures in the military) began a behind-the-scenes campaign to remove Oppenheimer from any governmental role. This struggle culminated in the security hearings of 1954, when an AEC Personnel Security Board declared Oppenheimer a security risk. The withdrawal of Oppenheimer's security clearance suddenly severed his connection with government, consigning him to the political wilderness. He was only partially rehabilitated when, in 1963, he received the AEC's prestigious Fermi Award, given the previous year to Teller. Though his past work for the government was now officially recognized and rewarded, his security clearance was not renewed.
This, in outline, is a well-known story. Even during his lifetime, Oppenheimer was a focal point for reflection on the place of science and scientists in the modern world. That remains the case today: in academia and in popular culture, the narrative of Oppenheimer as tragic hero has become a parable neatly encapsulating the moral and political dilemmas of the nuclear age. It is a tale that has been the subject of many biographies, historical studies, novels, plays, and movies. Commonly, the Oppenheimer story relies on tropes of purity and danger: Oppenheimer represents the corruption of the pure scientist overwhelmed both by encroaching militarism and by his own desire for power. Oppenheimer's role in building the atomic bomb represents a fall from grace, the scientist's original sin. The security hearings are often portrayed as a kind of martyrdom or crucifixion, and Oppenheimer's subsequent exile from power as a retreat from a corrupt world, a chance for purity and salvation. Oppenheimer appears sometimes as a saint, sometimes as Faust, with the atomic bomb as a diabolic device.
This narrative has found a central place in our understanding of the scientifically modern. Sociologists, philosophers, historians, and other social commentators examining the role of the scientific intellectual have all attempted to come to terms with the figure of Oppenheimer. In Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, the journalist Robert Jungk's celebrated study of the atomic scientists, Oppenheimer appears in a field of struggle between pure science and the will to power. He is presented as embodying a unity between science and humanistic culture, a unity that is shattered by the one-sided technical-instrumental orientation that led to the atomic bomb. For Jungk, Oppenheimer was the tragic representative of the scientists' Faustian bargain with military technology. Jungk wrote in 1958, nine years before Oppenheimer's death: "Oppenheimer ... reveals ... why the twentieth century Faust allows himself, in his obsession with success and despite occasional twinges of conscience, to be persuaded into signing the pact with the Devil that confronts him: What is 'technically sweet' he finds nothing less than irresistible." Oppenheimer's former friend, Haakon Chevalier (their connection was to be the key subject of interrogation in the 1954 hearings), concluded that Oppenheimer was "a Faust of the twentieth century, he had sold his soul to the bomb."
For sociologist Lewis Feuer, Oppenheimer represented the rise of managerialism, technocratic power, and militarism in science. "During our generation," he wrote, "science has become the bearer of a death wish," and he quoted Oppenheimer's famous reaction to the first atomic bomb test: "I am become death-the shatterer of worlds." Lewis Coser was also interested in Oppenheimer as a leading representative of the scientists' new public role in confronting the problems of atomic weapons. Like Feuer, Coser was worried that scientists were becoming "the domesticated retainers of their bureaucratic masters." But in contrast to Feuer, he saw Oppenheimer as exemplary of scientists who "have cultivated uncommon sensitivity to the values of our culture and the fate of our society." In Coser's view, Oppenheimer was a "true scientific intellectual."
Philip Rieff similarly dwelled on Oppenheimer's "charismatic" and symbolic role: "His thin handsome face and figure replaced Einstein's as the public image of genius ... He had actually become the priest-scientist of Comtean vision, transforming history as well as nature." But Rieff argued that the scope for such a charismatic role for scientists in modern America was limited. Without a vibrant humanistic public culture to support them, the scientists' engagement with politics was doomed to failure. For Rieff, Oppenheimer's denunciation by the AEC signified the reduction of the scientific elite to the merely technical function of a "service class."
The security hearings have frequently been taken to instantiate a deep-rooted, or even inevitable, conflict between the intellectual and the powers. Historian Giorgio de Santillana was directly inspired by the Oppenheimer case in writing The Crime of Galileo, published in 1958. In both cases, he argued, the free "scientific mind" was at odds with "Reasons of State." Political scientist Sanford Lakoff compared the Oppenheimer hearings with the Athenians' persecution of Socrates and argued that "the trial of Dr. Oppenheimer was also the trial of liberal democracy in America." But above all, Lakoff argued, the "tragedy in Dr. Oppenheimer's predicament ... stemmed ... from his internal struggle with the scientific vocation." For Oppenheimer, unlike Socrates, "the center of his life is not the city but his vocation." Oppenheimer symbolized for Lakoff the "alienation" of the modern intellectual and the severance of specialized knowledge from a moral and political engagement with the world.
NUCLEAR PHYSICS, RESPONSIBILITY, AND VOCATION
Oppenheimer has been a focus for reflection on the relationship between truth and worldly power: between the intellectual and the polis, "pure science" and technology, charisma and bureaucracy. Oppenheimer's personal trajectory represents a key moment in a larger story of social changes impacting the organization of science and intellectual life: bureaucratization, professionalization, the rise of science as a career, the routinization of career patterns, and, above all, the ever closer integration of science into the affairs of state.
Max Weber linked the rise of modern rational bureaucracy to a particular character structure, that of the "personally detached and strictly 'objective' expert." This figure of the expert stood in conflict with, and in Western societies has gradually replaced, the older type of humanistic cultivated man. The education of the cultivated man aimed at producing a particular kind of "bearing in life" rather than expert knowledge per se. Weber wrote, "Behind all the present discussions of the foundations of the educational system, the struggle of the 'specialist type of man' against the older type of 'cultivated man' is hidden at some decisive point ... This fight intrudes into all intimate cultural questions." The decline of the cultivated man and the rise of the specialist reflected the increasing cultural dominance of science, expertise, and rationality and their separation from other frameworks of value. In the disenchanted world of modernity, science has had to stand independently from religion, art, or humanistic moral values. All "former illusions" such as science as the "way to true God" or the "way to true happiness" have been dispelled. Weber agreed with Tolstoy that science could give "no answer to ... the only question important for us: 'What shall we do and how shall we live?'" Instead, the value of the scientific enterprise in a rationalized and disenchanted world was limited to the service of factual knowledge: "Science today is a 'vocation' organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations." Weber's conception of the ethos of science was set in tension between the twin connotations of both the German Beruf and the English vocation: on the one hand, the more archaic and spiritual value of the calling; on the other, the modern secular occupation. Weber's concern was whether it was possible to sustain a sense of the meaning and value of science while it was becoming a secular, routinized profession.
Michel Foucault has also centrally grappled with the implications of the specialization and disenchantment of the intellectual role during the twentieth century, and he has pointed to Oppenheimer as a pivotal figure in these transformations. Like Weber, he emphasized the modern divorce of knowledge from sacred religious and moral values: "Truth is a thing of this world." Instead of speaking for transcendent values or universal truths, the modern intellectual-as-expert provides techniques of power: the intellectual "is no longer the rhapsodist of the eternal, but the strategist of life and death." And Foucault wrote, "It seems tome that this figure of the 'specific' intellectual has emerged since the Second World War. Perhaps it was the atomic scientist (in a word, or rather a name: Oppenheimer) who acted as the point of transition between the universal and the specific intellectual." Foucault suggested that Oppenheimer and the atomic scientists were able to combine the narrowly focused expertise of the specific intellectual with the claim to speak for all people that had been the mark of the universal intellectual. The global scope of the atomic threat enabled the scientists to be understood as speaking for humanity when they addressed the problems of the nuclear age. This universality, however, was rooted not in claims to universal truth or transcendent moral law, but rather in a new kind of global technological power.
Foucault's account points to the way in which the Manhattan Project drew together and intensified those processes identified by Weber, which in more dispersed ways were already changing the nature of the scientific vocation. Foucault, however, did not adequately address the ethical tensions and ambiguities in the new scientific role that emerged. The claim to "universality" of specialized expertise remains contested, and the Tolstoyan problem of meaning, emphasized by Weber, has not disappeared. The threat of atomic warfare gave rise to moral problems that could not be addressed by specialized expertise alone. The atomic bomb was the culmination of the rise of technical expertise, but it also called into question the nature of expert authority and its adequacy to deal with the crises of the modern world. The bomb project put scientists in a new situation, in which they had to either claim some sort of moral authority or publicly divest themselves of it entirely. Weber's problem of vocation was at the heart of struggles over the nature and scope of scientific authority in the wake of World War II.
This book tells a particular story, about how these tensions played out in Oppenheimer's life and career. It aims to capture the particularity of his situation and of his interventions, while at the same time drawing attention to the broader institutional and cultural context that he was negotiating. It was a particular social and institutional trajectory that shaped Oppenheimer's personal identity and his historical significance. Of course, there are other individuals whose trajectories offer similarities and who responded in interestingly similar and different ways to the challenge of atomic weapons. But more than any other figure, Oppenheimer had the potential to combine the emerging technocratic power of the scientist within the state with a humanistic and critical perspective on the development of nuclear weapons. He therefore stood in notable contrast with such scientists as Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, and others who criticized the national-security state from positions outside it. He equally stood in contrast with institutional insiders, such as Edward Teller, who defined their role as scientists strictly in instrumental terms, exclusive of any obligation to consider questions of ultimate ends.
Einstein was the most important representative of the view that scientists have a moral obligation to address the ends to which research is applied. His only direct involvement with the atomic bomb project was in signing a letter to Roosevelt urging that the U.S. government take seriously the possibility of developing an atomic weapon. This step was motivated by his fear of the Nazis. But after World War II, Einstein became a vigorous advocate of arms control and world government. For example, the (Bertrand) Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955 highlighted the threat of nuclear holocaust and called on scientists to work toward the goal of ending war. It led to the institution of the Pugwash conferences, aiming to promote scientific internationalism as a vehicle for peaceful international cooperation. Einstein was never included in, nor did he seek inclusion in, formal government advisory bodies. His political engagement was always as an outsider, drawing on moral authority rather than political power.
Excerpted from Oppenheimer by Charles Thorpe Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Introduction: Charisma, Self, and Sociological Biography
2. Struggling for Self
3. Confronting the World
4. King of the Hill
5. Against Time
6. Power and Vocation
7. "I Was an Idiot"
8. The Last Intellectual?
Appendix: Interviews by the Author