The Curious Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer

A review of The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a film by David Grubin, airing on PBS January 26 for the American Experience series, in association with the BBC


During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election between John Kerry and George W. Bush, I appeared as a guest on comedian and social commentator Dennis Miller's television talk show on CNBC, during which he made the following comparison: John Kerry is like a wickedly smart chess player, capable of looking ahead many moves, anticipating what his opponent might do and carefully weighing all his options before arriving at a rational decision. By contrast, George W. Bush is more like a checkers player, moving by instinct and glancing around the board for an easy way to king his men. In this world of good and evil, Miller explained, simple black-and-white thinking based on unwavering principles of absolute right and wrong trumps the drawn-out consideration of the nuanced thinker. In other words, with evil empires and malevolent terrorists on the loose, Miller would prefer a checkers player over a chess master.

I was thinking about this comparison of cognitive styles while previewing the documentary film The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, written, directed and produced by David Grubin and airing Monday on PBS. The film includes archival footage and photographs with voice-over commentary, along with a reenactment of the government's hearing concerning Oppenheimer's alleged security breaches, in which actor David Strathairn plays Oppenheimer so effectively that docu and drama blend seamlessly into one another.

Oppenheimer was a chess grand master in a game of checkers. He was looking to checkmate the other guy's king by trapping his queen, maneuvering around his bishops and sidestepping his knights, whereas his opponent was merely planning to jump his pieces and have himself kinged. For most of his political and military (and to a lesser extent scientific) colleagues, building the atomic bomb and dropping it on the enemy was a moral no-brainer. Oppenheimer was tormented by the bomb's moral complexities, particularly its postwar expansion into an arms race. It's not that the other leaders of the Manhattan Project had not carefully thought through their decisions; it is that once they made their decisions they moved forward without compunction. What ultimately brought down Oppenheimer was that the government prosecutors in the 1954 hearings trapped him in what they considered to be blatant lies that were, for Oppenheimer, difficult moral choices that caused him to change his positions on people (whom he associated with before or during the Manhattan Project—namely, an ex-lover and a communist sympathizer) and decisions (to share or not to share atomic secrets after the war).

Grubin's film relies heavily on Tufts University historian Martin Sherwin's on-camera commentary that is based on his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography (co-authored with Kai Bird) American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005), along with his important earlier book, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies (Vintage, 1987). Also appearing on camera with added gravitas is Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986), a remarkably gripping narrative that reads like a novel. Rhodes quotes Oppenheimer's physics colleague Emilio Segrè, who characterized Oppenheimer as "the fastest thinker I've ever met with an iron memory...brilliance and solid merits," but with some "grave defects," including "occasional arrogance...[that] stung scientific colleagues where they were most sensitive." Physicist Hans Bethe, who was no fool, once noted that "Robert could make people feel they were fools." The military director of the Manhattan Project, Leslie R. Groves, said of his scientist charge: "He's a genius, a real genius. While [Ernest] Lawrence is very bright he's not a genius, just a good hard worker. Why, Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up."

One division leader at Los Alamos said this of "Oppie":

"He understood immediately when he heard anything, and fitted it into the general scheme of things and drew the right conclusions. There was just nobody else in that laboratory who came even close to him. There was human warmth, as well. Everybody certainly had the impression that Oppenheimer cared what each particular person was doing."

And yet, after the "gadget" was successfully tested in the New Mexico desert, Oppenheimer's moral qualms kicked in, as he recalled (in the now famous on-camera interview included in the film):

"We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him he takes on his multiarmed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."

Oppenheimer truly was an American Prometheus: "When it went off...we thought of Alfred Nobel, and his hope, his vain hope, that dynamite would put an end to wars. We thought of the legend of Prometheus, of that deep sense of guilt in man's new powers, that reflects his recognition of evil, and his long knowledge of it."

After the bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Groves called Oppenheimer to congratulate him. In this conversation you can hear the difference in their game strategies:

Groves: I think one of the wisest things I ever did was when I selected [you] the director of Los Alamos.
Oppenheimer: Well, I have my doubts, Gen. Groves.
Groves: Well, you know I've never concurred with those doubts at any time.

Indeed, Rhodes quotes one observer's summary of Groves as:

"...the biggest sonovabitch I've ever met in my life, but also one of the most capable individuals. He had an ego second to none, he had tireless energy—he was a big man, a heavy man but he never seemed to tire. He had absolute confidence in his decisions and he was absolutely ruthless in how he approached a problem to get it done. But that was the beauty of working for him—that he never had to worry about the decision being made or what it meant."

In like manner, Groves's scientific counterpart in this checkers diplomacy was Edward Teller, the "father of the H-bomb" (what he called "the super"), whose morality was sharply focused on the long-term consequences of dropping the bomb without compunction:

"I do not feel that there is any chance to outlaw any one weapon. If we have a slim chance of survival, it lies in the possibility to get rid of wars. The more decisive the weapon is the more surely it will be used in any real conflicts and no agreements will help. Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat use might even be the best thing."

Teller's pre-Hiroshima argument eventually transmogrified into the strategy of mutual assured destruction, in which peace is preserved through the threat of thermonuclear extinction.

As the Cold War boundaries solidified around the globe, and the moral distinctions between good and evil crystallized in the 1950s, Oppenheimer's chess diplomacy landed him in trouble with the security agencies in search of communist witches, and his testimony in the hearing cost him his security clearance, and with that his place on the world stage as a player. Chain-smoking his way through the lecture circuit and a stint as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Oppenheimer penned a final statement on his vision of a postnuclear world based on an open society (reprinted in Atom and Void: Essays on Science and Community, published posthumously by Princeton University Press in 1989), clearly at odds with the political climate of his time:

"The open society, the unrestricted access to knowledge, the unplanned and uninhibited association of men for its furtherance—these are what may make a vast, complex, ever-growing, ever-changing, ever more specialized and expert technological world nevertheless a world of human community."

Oppenheimer was an out-of-place visionary who saw in the unity of science a model for all humanity: "The history of science is rich in example of the fruitfulness of bringing two sets of techniques, two sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with one another." Why can't politics be like science, Oppenheimer naively wondered. "Finally, I think we believe that whenever we see an opportunity, we have the duty to work for the growth of the international community of knowledge and understanding...with our colleagues in other lands, with our colleagues in competing, antagonistic, possibly hostile lands, with our colleagues and with others with whom we have any community of interest, any community of professional, of human, or of political concern."

Borrowing the concept of "complementarity" from his friend and colleague Niels Bohr—in which two models may be needed to explain a system (physical or political) such that apparently competing ideas may actually complement one another—Oppenheimer reflected on a future without war:

"We think of this as our contribution to the making of a world which is varied and cherishes variety, which is free and cherishes freedom, and which is freely changing to adapt to the inevitable needs of change in the 20th century and all centuries to come, but a world which, with all its variety, freedom and change, is without nation states armed for war and above all, a world without war."

QED by J.R.O.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Dinosaurs

Get Total Access to our Digital Anthology

1,200 Articles

Order Now - Just $39! >


Email this Article