The Shattering of J. Robert Oppenheimer Essay

J. Robert Oppenheimer

The Shattering of J. Robert Oppenheimer

by Clay S. Jenkinson

When the world’s first atomic device exploded over the desert in New Mexico on a stormy dawn in July of 1945, two great men reacted to one of the pivotal moments in human history. One was Enrico Fermi. He had torn up a piece of paper into small shreds. These he loosed into the air at the moment of the detonation. By measuring their displacement he was able to calculate that the Trinity blast had been equivalent to X tons of TNT. This was pure science in the field. His wife Laura Fermi reports: “He was so profoundly and totally absorbed in his bits of paper that he was not aware of the tremendous noise.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, witnessed the same event. He too was a scientist. He was of course delighted that the thing worked — as few as twelve hours before the test he had been assured by members of his team that it would not explode. But he brought the great tradition of the humanities to the moment. His reaction, therefore, was deeper, more interesting, and it was morally informed. From deep in his literary training, lines from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita burst into his consciousness at the moment of detonation. “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.” This might be thought of as the epitaph of the Twentieth Century— a century that opened with the Boer War and ends with the Balkan War (both post-colonial fiascos), the century of the Holocaust, the century of two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Cold War.

That Oppenheimer’s quotation from Hindu literature was not a piece of public relations rhetoric of the “One small step for man, one giant leap . . . ” variety, is proved by the testimony of Vannevar Bush:

He was a profoundly complex character. . . . So my comment will be brief. I simply record a poem, which he translated from the Sanskrit, and which he recited to me two nights before [Trinity]:

“In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains,

On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,

In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,

The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”

This too was a passage from the Bhagavad Gita.

In this century, more than 100 million people have been killed in wars alone. The humanities teach us that the core of human nature is a constant, that humans are no more bloodthirsty in 1999 than they were in 4004 BCE. But the technologies of mayhem have changed a little. Homer’s Achilles, in his megalomaniacal rage for vengeance, kills a couple of hundred Trojans with his spear over the course of a few days. The crew of the Enola Gay — or was it Harry Truman? — or was it J. Robert Oppenheimer? —or was it the “military industrial complex” — kills 100,000 Japanese civilians in an instant without any particular feeling of wrath. The character of Twentieth Century warfare is cold-bloodedness. Dachau was as much a monument to efficiency as it was to the depravity of the human spirit.

The first atomic bombing occurred on August 6, 1945 at Hiroshima in Japan. An area of four square miles (an area in Reno, Nevada, from the airport Hilton to Sundance bookstore, from the University of Nevada campus to the Bank of America building) was utterly destroyed. Ninety percent of the structures of the city, some 70,000 buildings, were instantly destroyed. One hundred thousand people died immediately. Another 100,000 people died within the next five years. The final death toll is impossible to calculate.

The atomic detonation of August 6, 1945 vaporized a city. It also vaporized the Enlightenment. One of the most elusive humanities questions is whether the atomic bomb was different from other destructive devices in degree or in kind. In other words, is the atomic bomb merely a kind of super bomb-more destructive to be sure, but fundamentally not really different from other ordinance — or is it something new under the sun? Is it merely the logical culmination of industrial weapons technology, or does it in fact carry humanity to a deeper circle of hell? J. Robert Oppenheimer was under no illusions:

When it went off, in the New Mexico dawn,” he wrote, “that first atomic bomb, 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. We knew that it was a new world, but even more we knew that novelty itself was a very old thing in human life, that all our ways are rooted in it.

This question is the subject of endless debate. Most Americans choose to believe that the use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually saved lives. The figure that is usually bruited about is that 1,000,000 would have died in the Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland. Those who dwell on the fact that the only two instances of atomic warfare in human history were undertaken by America against an Asiatic enemy population, almost entirely civilian, including the inhabitants of Nagasaki, the center of Christianity in Japan, are usually shouted down. This much is clear. The destructive power of the atomic bomb was so shocking that the device has never been used in war again, in spite of the fact that at least a dozen nations possess the device. It seems (so far) that humanity is capable of restraining its urge to mayhem, at least in this most extreme of forms.

Once he realized what he had wrought, J. Robert Oppenheimer determined to use his enormous gifts to limit the spread and further development of atomic weaponry. On October 16, 1945, Oppenheimer accepted an award of appreciation for his work on the bomb with the following words:

If atomic bombs are to be added to the arsenals of the world, or the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the name of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.

The peoples of the world must unite or perish. This war, that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand. He did what he could to dissuade the United States from developing the hydrogen bomb, a fusion device vastly more destructive than the uranium fission “gadget” (as he liked to call it) he had helped to birth. He argued that the vastly greater destructiveness of the hydrogen bomb had no rational military application, that it was, therefore, necessarily a weapon of mass terror, of genocide, and that it must therefore be resisted by a morally conscious people. He argued that the civilized nations of the world must cooperate to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons capability. And he insisted that the world now had no choice but to invent procedures to make war among the great powers obsolete. He met directly with President Truman to argue for sharing atomic technology with the other great powers. During the course of his audience with the president, Oppenheimer confessed that he “had blood on his hands.” Truman was offended by Oppenheimer’s moralism and his arrogance.” Don’t bring that fellow around here again,” he said. “After all, all he did was make the bomb. I’m the guy who fired it off.”

For these acts of courage and humanity, J.Robert Oppenheimer was swallowed up by the Cold War. He was stripped of his security clearance in a hearing that resembled a Soviet show trial more than American due process. He was publicly humiliated. He had given his enemies a handle with which to club him: he had, as a young Berkeley professor, associated with American communists in a half-hearted sort of way, and he was not perfectly candid in reporting certain attempts to recruit him as a Soviet spy. But the military commander of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, knowing all of this, had cleared him to make the atomic bomb. If Oppenheimer had been a “team player” in the Cold War’s obsession with developing the hydrogen bomb ahead of the Russians, he almost certainly would never have been persecuted.

What does it say about a civilization, that it could employ a great man’s genius to further its interests, and reward him for creating the most destructive thing in the history of the world, and then destroy that same man for employing that same genius in a socially responsible way, in the gravest of all arenas, the ethical sphere? J. Robert Oppenheimer was happy enough to build the atomic bomb. But when he saw its undiscriminating destructiveness, he turned back in horror. He knew whereof he spoke. But his enemies — led by the jealous, ambitious, Cold Warrior, father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller — chose to destroy him rather than listen to his counsel.

J.Robert Oppenheimer is a Faustian figure. He is the epitome of Twentieth Century man. He was immensely learned, curious, humane, cultured, organized — and, it turned out, deadly beyond all previous manifestations of the species. He methodically went about the development of the most destructive device that the world has ever known. President Truman called it the greatest scientific gamble in human history. But when Oppenheimer saw what he had done, he shrank back in horror. He looked upon the atomic bomb with a mix of fascination and revulsion. Such is humankind.

He was a brilliant theoretical physicist who was recruited to undertake the greatest technological challenge in human history. He accomplished his task with breathtaking adroitness. In the moments before the first atomic bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico, Oppenheimer fidgeted uncontrollably in the desert. At 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945 the ignition switches were closed. The bomb worked beyond the dreams of its makers. Oppenheimer’s first reaction was a combination of relief and triumph. Later, his brother Frank Oppenheimer tried to recall the moment: “I wish I would remember what my brother said, but I can’t — but I think we just said, ‘It worked.’ I think that’s what we said, both of us. ‘It worked.’”

Oppenheimer was not merely a great scientist and an organization genius. He was also a man deeply immersed in the humanities. The test site for the atomic bomb was named Trinity. Oppenheimer chose the name, from John Donne’s great Holy Sonnet, “Batter My Heart Three Person’d God.” Oppenheimer had a fully developed human consciousness. He read the world’s classics in their original languages. He wrote some and read whole traditions of poetry. He constantly tested his own experiences in the world in the matrix of the Great Tradition. When the critical moments came in his life he turned to the great texts for wisdom and clarification. This is what makes him more than a great scientist and man of organization. It is also what makes him a tragic figure. Had he been less fully humanized, he might have coasted out his life-after the war — as the American hero who perfected the atomic bomb. He choose a more difficult path — the path of unblinking honesty and moral integrity. At the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer was heard to say, “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904. He died on February 18, 1967 at Princeton, New Jersey. He was 62 years old. He was fascinated by science from a very early age. By the time he was 11 he had been elected a member of the New York Mineralogical Club. He presented his first scientific paper at the age of 12. He was brilliantly educated at Felix Adler’s New York School for Ethical Culture. He read voraciously and wrote dreamy philosophical poems. At the age of 11, he bragged to one of his cousins, “Ask me a question and I will answer you in Greek.”

He was a frail, awkward, bookish creature. He was, all his life, accused of arrogance and aloofness. He himself decried his “beastliness.” After he graduated from high school, his family sent him to Germany, where he sought mineral specimens in the Hertz Mountains and contracted a case of dysentery so severe that he could not matriculate at Harvard that fall. He spent the winter alone in his room, deeply depressed, brooding and reading. The following spring he journeyed into the American West with his former English teacher Herbert Smith. This trip changed his life. It also left its mark on history, for in the mountains of New Mexico he discovered an enchanting place called Los Alamos. When he was recruited to build the atomic bomb, he argued for a laboratory in an isolated place with spectacular natural beauty. He wanted his team of scientists to form an intellectual community in a place that inspired reflection. Los Alamos combined what Oppenheimer called his “two great loves — physics and desert country.” Not everyone agreed. Leo Szilard refused to relocate into the desert. “Nobody could think straight in a place like that,” he argued. “Everybody who goes there will go crazy.”

Oppenheimer graduated with high honors from Harvard in 1925. Then he studied at the celebrated Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University at the University of Gottingen in Germany, where he took his Ph.D. in physics in 1927. By 1929 he held a joint appointment at Berkeley and at Cal Tech in Pasadena.

He was a brilliant scientist and eventually a good teacher, but he was not considered a physicist of the highest rank and he never won the Nobel Prize. Indeed, some eyebrows were raised when he was named to head the Manhattan Project. But Leslie Groves believed that Oppenheimer had the right stuff to succeed in developing an atomic weapon, and he was right. It is virtually impossible for us to appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking. The technological challenge of assembling the fissionable materials (refining them from less potent uranium ore), devising a firing mechanism, timing the concentration of the uranium or plutonium so that the device did not go critical too soon (and thus irradiate its assemblers) or explode too quickly (and thus not reach its full explosive potential), was mind-boggling. Meanwhile, the pure science of nuclear fission physics was developing just in time to be employed in the bomb’s development. And, if these were not enough, the organizational challenge of pressing teams of scientists and technologists to solve these problems on a timeline that was at once both urgent and responsible, in labs scattered across the entire continent, all in the profoundest secrecy, in the midst of a global war that was straining the financial, personnel, and bureaucratic resources even of the United States, made this the most stupendous technological undertaking in human history.

Miraculously, J. Robert Oppenheimer delivered the device on time. And it worked. And World War II ended just eight days after the atomic vaporization of Hiroshima. Oppenheimer favored the use of atomic weapons against Japan. He was at first a hero. He even thought of himself — for a time — in such terms.

Then what James Joyce calls the “agenbite of inwit,” the conscience, began to gnaw away at him. When a reporter asked him if the atomic bomb had any limitations, Oppenheimer quipped, “The limitations lie in the fact that you don’t want to be on the receiving end of one.” And he said, “If you ask, ’Can we make them more terrible?’ the answer is yes. If you ask: ‘Can we make a lot of them?’ the answer is yes. If you ask: ‘Can we make them terribly more terrible?’ the answer is ‘probably’.”

Oppenheimer spent the last dozen years of his life as a kind of international spokesman for peace, cooperation, and a new world order. He never recovered from the humiliation of being persecuted for not gleefully jumping on the bandwagon of the hydrogen bomb, or from the outrage of having his patriotism called into question because he was a man of profound moral maturity. When Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Enrico Fermi award in December of 1963, Oppenheimer was gracious enough to say, “I think it is just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today. That would seem to me a good augury for all our futures.” In these few words are contained the streak of arrogance, the humility, and the deep earnestness of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Copyright Clay S. Jenkinson 2004